Bishop Trevor Williams Address at IDAHOT Service, St George’s Belfast. 20th May 2018

John 20:21 “Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’”

Thank you to Pam Tilson and Changing Attitude Ireland for the invitation to this service, I would have been coming anyway, you didn’t have to ask me to preach, but as you have asked, preach I must. But this is difficult for me. I don’t inclined to preach. I need to listen a whole lot more, before I dare to speak – never mind preach. But respecting the invitation all I can do is to speak from my experience and trust you will have the generosity to listen.

This is Pentecost, the Birthday of the Church, when something mysterious, profound and radical happened to Jesus disciples and Mary, Jesus mother, as they met together. Whatever the fiery tongues descending on each represents, these fearful disciples, who ran away and hid at Jesus crucifixion, were transformed into heroic advocates for Jesus and his message.
The Jewish feast of Pentecost or Shavuot, celebrates how they became a ‘people’ by the giving of the law on Mount Sinai. So during the feast of Pentecost, when the disciples of Jesus were together, the Spirit was given, and the disciples became a new ‘people, the Church. The fulfilment of what our reading when Ezekiel spoke for God saying
“A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you;……. I will put my spirit within you, and make you follow my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances”

The disciples burst out into the crowded streets and were confronted with Jews from a multiplicity of nations with a multiplicity of languages. Yet each nationality understood the disciples as they declared the Good News of Jesus.

Pentecost undid what happened after the flood at the tower of Babel. Where uniformity fuelled the ambition of the likeminded to dominate. So we read, God created diversity of language to teach humanity a lesson that Unity and Diversity must always belong together – Unity must always be accompanied by Diversity.

Right through the Acts of the Apostles you have these amazing stories of ‘enemies becoming friends’, of Gentiles and Jews being reconciled. This was radical stuff. Jews knew well the notice that was displayed in the outer court of the Jewish temple, threatening death to any Gentile who went beyond that point lest they dare make way towards the sacred space of God’s presence.
Peter after experiencing a dramatic dream telling him to eat animals forbidden in the Holiness Code in Leviticus, heard that the Gentile Cornelius wanted to see him. Peter says to Cornelius “I want to let you know that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with a Gentile or visit him. But God has shown me that I should not call any impure or unclean.”

The miracle of the early church was that Jew and Gentile, male and female, slave and free, discovered they were all one in Christ Jesus. Absolutely remarkable. The gift of the Spirit, the profound experience of knowing God’s unconditional love for us individually and for all people, releases us from anxiety about identity, it releases us from the trap of frame everything in terms of ‘Us’ and ‘Them’, Us against Them – and empowers us to meet God given diversity, not as a threat but as a blessing. The Holy Spirit brings Peace, The Holy Spirit brings Unity. The Holy Spirit crosses the barriers that divide us.

How do we hold together the truth that at its birth the Church was the model of radical reconciliation, yet today a Gay person is described as ‘intrinsically disordered’ by a major Christian denomination. Others Churches may not use the same words but their attitude and actions have similar meaning refusing to acknowledge the reality of gay people’s lives. That ‘non-acceptance’ is a profound injustice but is profoundly damaging. As human beings we know who we are, and we grow as persons, in and through our relationships with others. To have our essential personhood denied, condemned, and excluded by those who matter most to us, is hugely destructive. And it is intolerable. And that’s how many of my gay friends feel today.

Many feel that the conflict over the full inclusion of gays could destroy the church. So it is a topic that is too hot to handle. The bishops at General Synod said there isn’t an appetite to discuss the topic any more. Are they listening to LGBT voices when they say that? Sadly I feel the Church is in danger of selling its soul. Because first and foremost, the Church exists to be the agents of God’s love in a needy world. Jesus in his life and death showed that no-one is excluded from God’s love. The early Church caught that message and broke all the social taboos of exclusion as we have seen, this was Good News for broken and divided world, …….. but the Church today is not Good News for Gays.
The founder of Corrymeela Ray Davey said, “If the church has nothing to say about Reconciliation, it has nothing to say”
God’s project for this conflicted world is reconciliation, and God has given the ministry of reconciliation to the Church. Groups such as yours, are challenging the Church to live out what it believes.

Last week at a fringe event at the General Synod of the Church of Ireland, John Bell of the Iona Community told us how listening to a Broadcast service from an evangelical church the Rector the Nick Bundock spoke of Lizzie Loe. Lizzie was 14, she grew up in the congregation, she was convinced Christian, a member of the sea scouts, all looked well for her and for her future. It was a shock to all when she committed suicide in a park near to her home. Three months after her death, at the inquest, it was discovered that shortly before she committed suicide she sent a tweet to a friend in which she said “I don’t believe that God can love me the way I am.”
Somehow the way the Church is, and the attitudes it holds communicated to Lizzy that being a Lesbian meant she was alienated from God’s love. She was NOT OK. And for Lizzie it was unbearable to accept that God didn’t love her!
How did it happen?
All too easily I’m afraid. It was a normal Church. They believe normal things in tune with fairly normal attitudes in society. Look at the number of hate crimes against the LGBT+ community, the number is growing. Look at the discrimination, that’s something that’s experienced regularly if you are gay. The research is there to prove it. And however we describe it for many in the Church it is not OK to be Gay.

Scapegoating is a device used to restore cohesion and stability when conflict threatens to divide and destroy society. The technique of scapegoating focusses attention on a person or group who in some way are different from the majority. Fingers are pointed at the different ones, they are blamed and demonised until, at last, everyone agrees they must be driven out, and so it happens. The Holocaust is not the only example, in every conflict the device of scapegoating justifies the unjustifiable. The scapegoat is driven out – everybody agrees, Unity against the scapegoat has restored societies stability. . The actual guilt or innocence of the scapegoating victim is incidental. All that matters is that all agree that they are to blame. You can see scapegoating at every level of human society, from the school playground to international relations. Rene Girard whose work described this phenomenon pointed out that Jesus Christs death, unmasked the tyranny of scapegoating, offering himself as the innocent victim, the scapegoat, but returned vindicated by God in his resurrection from the dead. The freedom won by the cross is the freedom not to live by the injustice of scapegoating.

What to do? We need to stand with the scapegoat in solidarity.
And hence the theme for this IDAHOTB day. ALLIANCES for SOLIDARITY.
I am glad to say that Nick Bundock’s Church is Team Rector for St James & Emmanuel which is now an inclusive Church and Visible Congregation with OneBodyOneFaith a movement that advocates for the LBGT+ and states that human sexuality, sexual orientation and gender identity in all their richness are gifts of God gladly to be accepted, enjoyed and honoured as a way of both expressing and growing in love, in accordance with the life and teaching of Jesus Christ.
Through Lizzie’s death, they learnt that they needed to change if they were to cease scapegoating Gays
So I commend OneBodyOneFaith, Changing Attitude Ireland, Accepting Sexuality, this parish and all other inclusive parishes and congregations, and all who within the Church support Gay people, and their witness to the inclusive, unconditional love of God for all people regardless of race, religion or sexuality. May God continue to bless your witness to God’s unconditional love. Your witness to the Church could be a source of rich blessing, for the Church and for all people.

John 20:21 “Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’”