Friday, 21 February 2014

To my friends (part 2)

In Elgar's dramatic oratorio The Dream of Gerontius there's a magnificent setting of what we know as the hymn "Praise to the Holiest"In the middle there's a section where the phrase, "O generous love", is echoed by the different voices in counterpoint.

I've been haunted by that phrase since writing the blog post To my friends , because it seems to me that in the two words, generous love, there lies the key to understanding what makes for good love. Although I am writing from within the Christian tradition, I hope that, whether you are of one faith or of none, you'll read through to my conclusion, which if it's right applies universally!
"O generous love! that He who smote
 In man for man the foe,
 The double agony in man
 For man should undergo;

 And in the garden secretly,
 And on the cross on high,
 Should teach His brethren and inspire
 To suffer and to die."
John Henry Newman’s poem in which generous love appears is clearly speaking about the self-sacrificial love (agapé) of the cross. "God is crucified - my Friend died - in some way, for me" (Justin Welby in his preface to Graham Tomlin's Looking through the Cross). However it could as well be a test for all other kinds of love, including sexual love (eros). In the often misinterpreted discussion of marital relations, husbands are told, "Love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her" (Ephesians 5.25).                              

Self-giving is the essence of every love. "Love one another as I have loved you." "Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his love for his friends." "Love does not insist on its own way."

The Song of Solomon is the Bible's great love poem. It is a passionate dialogue in which the two lovers are totally absorbed in the other. "My beloved is mine, and I am his". "Let my beloved come to his garden, and eat its choicest fruits." "Turn away your eyes from me, for they overwhelm me". "My dove, my perfect one, is the only one for me". The lovers seek only each other's good and pleasure. They are utterly uninterested in themselves, only their beloved. It's a high ideal of love. It's a world away from the contemporary cultivation of self-gratification, which is an inversion of love. That is, of course, self-love. 

No one is entirely free of self-love, especially in the realm of sexual relationship. It makes no difference; whether heterosexual or homosexual, there is a tendency to seek satisfaction for oneself. I'm reminded of James' vivid analysis of the causes of conflict and violence ("You desire and do not have, so you murder"). Rape is a perverted form of self-gratification which has no regard for the other. It is the extreme negation of love in what was intended as the ultimate expression of love.  Instead of being good, it is evil. Instead of being a creative act, it is a destructive one.

Creation in a sexual act is not confined to procreation. It is also the affirmation of the other as a person, imago Dei, in the image of God. It acknowledges their otherness. It asserts their beauty. As it used to say in the Marriage Service, it is an act of worship ("With my body I thee worship").

The test for everyone in a sexual relationship is, "Is your love generous?" In other words, at heart is it self-giving, not self-seeking? Is your desire not your own satisfaction, but the pleasure and satisfaction of the other? Do you surrender to your partner's wish, or do you insist on your own way?

And the ultimate test is, are you committed enough to give your life for the one you love? Will you stick with them whatever happens and whatever it costs until death separates you?

No one is entirely free of self-love. No one is perfect. However it seems to me that the nature of the love at the heart of our relationships, its generosity, is more important than the nature of our sexual orientation. Generous love is not a temporary madness; it is the greatest of divine gifts.

Monday, 17 February 2014

To my friends (part 1)

When I survey the wondrous cross
on which the Prince of Glory died;   
my richest gain I count but loss,
and pour contempt on all my pride.

Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast,
save in the death of Christ, my God;
all the vain things that charm me most,
I sacrifice them to his blood.

See, from his head, his hands, his feet,
sorrow and love flow mingled down.
Did e'er such love and sorrow meet,
or thorns compose so rich a crown?

Were the whole realm of nature mine,
that were an offering far too small;
love so amazing, so divine,
demands my soul, my life, my all.                                                         
              Isaac Watts

This blog is very much my own reactions to things going on in my life, or in the news, or sometimes both. This post is particularly so. It’s written in the light of good friends who have been severely wounded, both themselves and their children. It’s written after news reportage of the Church of England’s House of Bishops’ Pastoral Guidance on Same Sex Marriage, published somewhat ironically on St Valentine’s Day, and after discussion of it on the Sunday Programme on Radio 4.

What follows is not a criticism of the archbishops whose names are appended to the guidance and both of whom I greatly admire. I understand they have an impossible course to follow, and I understand that the guidance is a holding position while the two years’ consultation of November’s “Pilling Report” on Human Sexuality takes place. And I understand the dilemma the bishops found themselves in between the Church’s “official” teaching on the subject and the more “progressive” approach of the Pilling group.

Neither is this a theological essay. I’m not the theologian of my family! I suppose it’s no profounder than a personal cry of the heart. What follows is, I hope, self-explanatory.

Dear Emma and Angela

It was really good to meet you on Friday. Of course Father Dom had told me a bit about you and what you were wanting. What he told me was clearly true. You are a remarkable pair. And in the few years of your relationship your love has withstood what many don’t experience in a lifetime. I think it was you, Ange, who said you’d tried to find something bad in your love, like something that leaves a bad taste in your mouth, or like tasting salt when you’ve asked for sugar in your coffee, in what you have. And you couldn’t find it.

You asked what Jesus would have thought of you two. That’s a very good question, but probably an impossible one, because time-travelling that perfect, utterly loving Lord into the present is beyond us. I don’t think he would have refused to welcome you, that’s for sure. However let me approach it differently. I was listening to Kathryn Scott’s beautiful version of Isaac Watts’ When I survey the wondrous cross, the greatest of all hymns, this morning – beautiful! I was struck by how wonderfully and impossibly aspirational it was, like so much of the best worship. (Charles Wesley reportedly said he would give up all his other hymns to have written this one.) Watts intended it be sung during communion. It is a highly devotional response to the sacrificial love of Christ.

I noticed phrases such as “my richest gain I count but loss”, “all the vain things that charm me most/I sacrifice them to His blood” and “demands my soul, my life, my all”. They were, I reflected, in the same vein and as radical as the demands that Jesus made to his contemporaries, about leaving, or selling, everything, about living like the birds, not worrying about the future, about observing every scintilla of the law, about absolute faithfulness to one’s spouse, about hating the members of one’s family, about taking up one’s cross daily and following him. We comfort ourselves with the assurance that they are poetic or Hebrew expressions, and that they must be taken in their context. That may well be true, but the fact is that most of us muddle through as best we may.

Sometimes, it seems to me, the Holy Spirit and the Word (i.e. Jesus’ words) come together and speak to a person in a specific way. For example, St Francis hears the call to abandon his life of luxury and takes to the road with nothing. Many others have heard a similar call. However it is a personal call. It’s not a demand made by an institution. In fact on the whole such personal calls are an embarrassment to hierarchies, whether of church or state. When the institutional Church starts to make the demands which only Christ who knows our hearts can make, it oversteps its competence. Forgive me if my history is ill-founded, but when the Church used its power to instigate the Crusades as a Christian duty it got it wrong.

There have been times in history when, for example, the Church allowed marriage for its presbyters, others when it demanded celibacy, and now in this country we have two patterns of priestly ministry. I’m married; Father Dom may not marry. In the Church of England divorcés were once barred from ministry, but now are accepted without a qualm. Once, women were excluded from the priesthood; now the C of E is on the way to what was the original (in my view!) pattern of women in leadership. In the C of E there was a time not long ago when vicars were not allowed to conduct a wedding for people who had been divorced, only a blessing after a civil ceremony. Remember Charles and Camilla? There was even a time when living together before getting married was “living in sin”. Now the Church tolerates it and is just grateful when cohabiters decide to tie the knot.

It’s tough then that those who are naturally attracted to others of their own gender should be faced with such a hard line, as your Church and mine follow. Two days ago, the Bishops and Archbishops in my Church issued “pastoral guidelines” for clergy about same sex marriage. Clergy are reminded that under canon (Church) law they may not themselves marry someone of the same sex, although they may be in a civil partnership provided they remain celibate within it. When the Equal Marriage Act comes into effect in March, of course, under Statute Law they will not be allowed to conduct a marriage ceremony for a gay couple. They are reminded that they may not formally bless a couple after a civil partnership ceremony nor after a same-sex wedding, although a “more informal kind of prayer” is permissible.(Not that you need to know all that! It's just on my mind at the moment and it's partially relevant.) 

Understandable though this all is in light of the current unresolved controversy within the Church (based mainly around a handful of hotly debated proof texts in the Old and New Testament, which I know you have looked at carefully), to my gay friends it perpetuates a rigidly negative message – which unsurprisingly strikes them as homophobic, despite the repeated assurances of love with which the Pastoral Guidance is replete. I understand them feeling less loved, less accepted and positively excluded by the Church which claims to represent Jesus Christ on earth. I wonder if the mistake we are making as the institutional Church is to demand that members of the LGBT community make sacrifices, about which the rest of us devoutly sing but fail to demand of ourselves. It strikes me that Jesus alone has the prerogative of making demands on anyone. When he walked the earth, he called for different sacrifices from individual followers.

As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” And Jesus said to him, “Leave the dead to bury their own dead. But as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Yet another said, “I will follow you, Lord, but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” Jesus said to him, “No one who puts his hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” (Luke 9.57ff) 

I can’t find it in myself to say that you must give each other up or sacrifice the comfort and love that you find in each other. I think that only the Lord Jesus could make such a demand, which he would do through His Spirit and through your consciences. Not me; not any church. However having talked to you, I have no doubt that that your love is genuine, as real as mine and my wife’s, and that your commitment to each other is “for better for worse” – you’ve proved that! – and that it’s lifelong. I can see that you nurture each other’s faith. You’re good for each other. I know you don't want to get married yet, but you want to make a formal commitment to each other and to God and you’d like to have the commitment publicly blessed. You didn’t choose your orientation. In fact I know it has been an agonizing struggle, especially for you, Angela. I believe your love is a good thing, a gift. It's generous; it's unselfish. I can’t refuse to ask God to bless it. Somehow we shall find a way.

God bless you and keep you.


PS Have you seen this moving video of the star Ellen Page speaking on Valentine’s Day? The tension and emotion as she speaks is visibly tangible, isn’t it? And she expresses her (and so many others’) pain and hope so well. I think everyone should watch it. Brave girl.

PS A very good explanation of why the guidance hurts so badly is here: