Tolerance is a good word. It’s not love, but it’s a start. There’s a classic problem with tolerance, of course. We are usually urged to be ‘tolerant’ of anything except intolerance. And it seems to me that is a very basic fault line which has rarely been more apparent than in Britain today.
When is a person being “intolerant”? Who is to judge? Undoubtedly we can all be intolerant at times, but who can say when our deeply held views could fairly be labelled intolerant? And is it simply about our view, or how we express that view?
We are deeply influenced by the culture we live in. Yet cultures are constantly changing. And very fast, in this part of the world – not least around sexuality and gender identity.
People demanding tolerance, acceptance of their lifestyle, can be very intolerant of any reluctance or doubt in others. People promoting ‘inclusiveness’ can be very exclusive of those who don’t buy into their ideas of inclusiveness. And so, of course, can people who remain embedded in conservative and traditional views which reject certain lifestyles.
One huge problem facing us, and our politics nationally, is the lack of listening. Much of the present anger and resentment against politicians is from ‘the people’ who have not been listened to by the political elite of all the main parties. Honest engagement with complex issues is rare and sound bites and simplistic claims dominate. There is little acknowledgement that different views can be held with integrity.
For me, these massive cultural and political issues help us see what the Church can be. What the Church, for the sake of the nation, desperately needs to be. What Otley Parish Church can be.
One of the most important insights, for me, from biblical and theological study and reflection is that truth is rarely simple and static. More often truth is a dynamic reality, found as we listen to, and learn from, each other. Found when we give the Bible its primacy of place, doing our best to understand the context in which it was written and interpreting it honestly in the light of our experience and our tradition. And all of this is done while listening intently for the leading of the Holy Spirit.
At the heart of our faith is, of course, the very nature of God. Dynamic and beyond explanation. One and yet three. We must hold together the absolute unity, the oneness of God, with the Christian understanding that God is a divine community – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We hold his inscrutable majesty, his unimaginable power and glory in tension with his humility and tenderness, his self-giving love and willingness to be intimately known.
The truth about Jesus is not found in some halfway mark where Jesus is half man and half God, but in the incomprehensible mystery that he is fully human and fully divine.
The content of the Bible we (and Protestant Churches in general) use was agreed after long discussion and argument at Synods more than 300 years after Jesus died. The Bible brings together a vast array of different kinds of writing from many centuries and contexts. It is the work of human beings and the work of God.
Wrong interpretations have been used to justify slavery, ethnic cleansing, subjugation of women, the pernicious prosperity gospel, and countless injustices which have brought shame on the Church.
As you know, at Otley Parish Church we are an inclusive Church where there is a place for everyone, with Christ at the centre. You will also be well aware that there continues to be much debate in the wider Church, nationally and internationally, about how inclusive we can be to people who are gay or transgender.
I know there will be deeply held views within our Church about this, on many aspects of the various issues. Hopefully, all of us are listening and learning and trying to understand. I want to make it clear that I believe that differing, and even incompatible, views can be held with integrity. And I think our priority is twofold.
First and most important, to make sure that everybody is welcome in our Church, which means that we welcome every person without discriminating on sexuality, gender, gender identification, disability, mental health, ethnicity, or economic power.
Second, we commit ourselves to listen to God and each other, to examine our prejudices, to choose our words carefully and to remind ourselves again and again that we are called to love one another.
I hope that everyone can be free to be themselves and participate fully in our Church life, without having to hide part of who they are. In our mission we need each other with our different insights, faith, gifts and experiences.
We share in God’s mission to make Christ known and reveal his loving (and demanding) purposes for every person. If there is any ‘sitting on the fence’ about who is welcome, the iron will go into our soul!
As I write this I am very mindful of a 14 year-old girl, Lizzie Lowe, who was growing up in a Church in Didsbury, and took her own life because she did not think her gay sexuality and her Christian faith were compatible, and nobody at home or at Church said anything to help her. Her death transformed her Church, and we’ll have an opportunity to hear more about that in the next few weeks.
I want to do all I can to ensure that such a thing will not happen in Otley Parish Church through our silence and lack of care.
Thank you for all you already do to make our Church community such a loving and welcoming one. May God lead us forward into the future He has for us, and may we together grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ (Ephesians 3:18).
With much faith, hope and, above all, love.