Making the pastoral plea

 

by Eva Tejon

Whilst I was visiting my family home recently, I attended church with my parents. It was a big party weekend, so lots of other family members were about too. There was talk of all going to the service together, but – in retrospect thankfully – the service coincided with a gripping sports final, and my family have never been foolish enough to neglect an exciting match for expressing their religious convictions, so many did not.

The church in question are going through a period of interregnum, and face a long line of retired and roaming priests to plug the gap.

That week, it was a bumbling and elderly chap – let’s call him Daniel – who looked like every Rural Dean that Agatha Christie ever caricatured.

I was enjoying the sermon. Lots of good stuff about the way Jesus fulfilled Old Testament prophecy, setting the captive free and bringing good news to the poor. And that as inheritors of this tradition, it was the job of the church to take on these roles. He then said that, Jesus faced persecution, just as it was prophesisedhe would – and that the church, if it was doing its’ job, could also expect to face this persecution.

For example, Daniel continued, just recently, British Christians had been scandalously told by the European Court of Human Rights that they could not “conscientiously object” to allowing same-sex couples to stay in their guest houses, or to officiating at civil partnerships.

Oh dear, thought I.

This annoyed me on a number of levels. It wasn’t the view itself – we’ve probably all heard that from a number of voices in various churches, and sadly I’d learn to expect it. It was the casual, flippant way it was expressed. I’d have almost preferred it if he’d devoted the whole half hour to expressing his views on human sexuality – at least that way we could have had a decent argument about it afterwards. But the ‘after-thought’ way this was included made me realise that he thought there wasn’t an argument to have: he assumed we’d all agree.

More importantly, it pissed me off that he had absolutely no idea who he was talking to. The congregation – for all he knew – may have all, just the day before, been celebrating one of their members’ civil partnerships. Or someone could have had a gay child who had recently taken their own life because of homophobic bullying. Actually, I don’t think there was anyone in that situation present. But there was someone there who identifies as gay, and who was deeply depressed, and who had already been concerned that he might not be valued in the church family. This was hardly going to help.

Moreover, since I follow the site Forum 18 regularly, I was surprised that the perceived persecution followers face in Britain was the example that was used, rather than say, Sharofat Allamova, a Protestant from Urgench in north-western Uzbekistan, who has recently been sentenced to one and half years of corrective labour, after being convicted under criminal charges brought for the “illegal production, storage, import or distribution of religious literature”. I felt it was insensitive to people facing situations such as these.

Finally, it’s my belief that Daniel was confusing experiencing persecution with a gradual loss of privilege – those privileges that have been allotted to Christians in the UK over many centuries, in the age of Christendom.

So, yes, a lot of aspects of this irked me!

I inwardly boiled throughout the service, foregoing communion because of not-very-holy thoughts that were plaguing me, and plucked up my courage to go and button-hole the preacher after the service.

Mainly because I thought I didn’t have the time, and because I thought it might have a better chance of ‘going in’, I decided to focus the pastoral issues I thought this words raised, rather than political or theological disagreements.

After all, I thought, you are entitled to your opinion. What you’re not entitled to is making anyone in this church family feel unwanted.

The conversation went a bit like this:

My cousin was going to come to church today with her civil partner. They didn’t, and I’m really glad they didn’t – because they wouldn’t have felt welcome.”

They would have been most welcome.”

What in the service would have made them feel welcome?”

Silence.

OK, I don’t feel welcome”, I said (thinking that making it even more personal might be more potent).

Well, you are.”

I doesn’t feel like it. I’m sad that you’ve made me feel that I’m glad someone didn’t come to church today – don’t you think that’s rubbish?

Look, I have to preach the truth. If someone came in here and punched you in the face, I’d have to tell them that was wrong.”

I’d like to tell you that at this point I said “Are you equating a life-long, committed relationship to an act of unprovoked violence?!” – but I didn’t. I sort of spluttered.

When I found my voice again, I said “You realise that not all Christians think it is wrong, don’t you?”

He said he did.

I left it there. He squeezed my hand to say thank you, and I went to have a coffee and cool down. In conversations later, it transpired that I was not the only person in the room to feel angry and concerned. I don’t know whether or not I was the only person to question him about it.

A few weeks on, I’m still not sure I tried the right tack by taking the pastoral approach. But I’m glad that I did challenge such behaviour.

Telling this story to my cousin later, she made it clear that she would have walked out of the service had she been there. In a way, perhaps it would have been better if this had happened. It would have been disrupting, upsetting, and dramatic – but maybe thats exactly what the situation demanded.

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