By the time you read this, the European Parliament will have approved the terms of the UK’s departure from the European Union and the 23:00 GMT on 31 January deadline will have passed. There will be an eleven month transition period in which the two sides will hope to negotiate their future economic relationship - and who knows what that will bring? - but that will be that. We’ll be out of the European Union.
Some will be delighted by this news, others will be more than a little disappointed. You will know by now, of course, that I put myself very firmly in the latter category believing that, in an increasingly fragmented world, we should do all that we can to build bridges rather than put up walls. But we are where we are. And, if, as a nation, we can deal with our disagreements in a fruitful way and move on, I certainly won’t miss the animosity and vitriol that the past few years have brought us. It is quite a big ‘if’ though. The current air of post-General Election resignation is unlikely to last forever.
As a church we are currently in the middle of a year-long conversation about marriage and relationships, following the God in Love Unites Us report presented to and debated at the Methodist Conference last summer. As the accompanying study guide reminds us, ‘The title of the report has been carefully chosen. God in love unites us because we are all beings who are created to love in many and various ways. But God in love unites us in redemption because we abuse the gift of love and use it to our own selfish ends. And we pray that God in love unites us when, as so often, we find aspects of human love to be divisive and some of the issues that this report explores – divorce, cohabitation, and same-sex relationships – have been issues on which Christians have passionately disagreed.’ Such passionate disagreements continue to divide the Church the world over. Our sisters and brothers in the United Methodist Church in the United States are currently tearing themselves apart over such issues. Indeed, early in January, a separation plan was proposed. It will be debated in May but, if passed, the church will split into two separate 2denominations, with one that will allow same sex marriages and “practicing” LGBTQ clergy and the other that will not.
My hope is very much that the Methodist Church in this country will be able to do rather better. Early signs are promising. The film produced by the Task Group responsible for God in Love Unites Us, is, I think, deeply moving.* If this can offer us a picture of our church in microcosm then all will be well. The spirit in which the debate at the Conference was conducted was also a joy to behold. And, at our recent Circuit meal and conversation on the report, whilst differences of opinion were expressed there was an overriding feeling of hope in the room.
As each and every one of us is a key part in the body of Christ, much will depend upon our ability as individuals to be able to find a way of moving forward together, living with differing and often contradictory convictions. If this sounds impossible, consider this - the two most prominent and influential figures in the life of the early Church, Peter and Paul, didn’t agree on much at all. Indeed, as Dean of St Albans, Jeffrey John, has highlighted, ‘...as far as we know Peter and Paul only met three times, they never got on with one another, and the third and last time they met they had a blazing stand-up row.’ And yet, each saw Christ at work in the other and, as a result, they were able to find a fruitful way forward in spite of their very different beliefs and outlooks. Back to Canon John and a sermon he preached on these two:
“If not a compromise, there must have been at least a reconciliation of tensions between them, and with miraculously fruitful results, because after their deaths the Church exploded into growth. But that could only happen because they stayed in the same Church. It would have been so easy for Paul, after he had created the Gentile Church almost single- handed, to have said “push off” to Peter: “I’m setting up on my own”. But he didn’t. And Peter for his part too, didn’t presume to declare that Paul wasn’t a real apostle and have him kicked out. By the grace of God the Church that was founded on these two antagonistic giants somehow stuck together – traditional and radical, hierarchical and charismatic, disciplined and free.”**
Those within the Church have always lived with contradictory 3convictions. Quite why issues of human sexuality have proved to be as divisive as they have in recent decades is beyond me and, I suspect, beyond many people beyond the Church who look on in disbelief. But, as with differing opinions about Brexit, we have a choice - to allow ourselves to be torn apart or to learn to live with and respect our differences, engaging with one another openly, honestly, prayerfully and graciously’ and treating each other with respect and dignity.***
I finish by sharing two prayers with you. Each has been offered by the Methodist Church: the first addresses our departure from the European Union, the second our ongoing Marriage and Relationships Conversations:
A prayer for Brexit day by the Revd Barbara Glasson, President of the Methodist Conference
However we feel about today
We mark this Brexit day
As people who grieve or celebrate together
Loved equally, freely and unconditionally
By the one wise all-seeing God
Either way let us hold this day gently
Giving ourselves permission to leave
Without elation or despair
Determined to love our neighbour
Support the weak and welcome the stranger
Lord of all life
Let your servants depart in peace
And live according to your Holy Law.
God in Love Unites Us: A prayer
to speak in love what is in our minds,
and to hear in love what is said by others;
to feel in love what is in our hearts,
4and to sense in love what is in the hearts of others;
to confer in love to discern your truth,
and to be open in love to your guiding Spirit.
Through our disagreements guide us;
in our agreements direct us.
Together may we share the mind of Christ,
in whose name we pray.
Whatever our differences and differing convictions, may God help us to continue to learn from one another as we travel together as fellow pilgrims.
With every blessing,
* To watch the film referred to, click - The work of the Marriage and Relationships Task Group
** For Jeffrey John’s full sermon click - A Sermon by Canon Jeffrey John
*** To see the model statement click - Living with Contradictory Convictions