The Third Sunday of Epiphany
A Sermon preached by the Precentor, Canon Anna Macham
Sunday 22 January 2023, The Third Sunday of Epiphany.
Isaiah 9: 1-4 and Matthew 4: 12-23
This week was a significant one in the Church of England. On Wednesday, the Bishops announced, after a 6 year listening process to which congregations were invited to contribute, that clergy will for the first time be able to bless same sex couples. Later in the week, draft texts for this were released and an indication was given that the ban on clergy having same-sex civil marriages and the requirement for clergy in same-sex relationships to be celibate will be reviewed. Even though the proposed reforms fall short of allowing same-sex couples to marry in church, this is still a significant milestone in the Church’s fraught discussions and debates on this subject.
The Church has a long history of excluding gay and lesbian people, many of whom, in their experience of churches, have been put under extreme pressure either to end their relationships, or not to enter into them in the first place, with others barred from leading home groups or taking on other lay leadership roles due to being in a same-sex relationship. For decades, the unofficial “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy of the Church meant that gay clergy felt forced to keep their relationships a secret, at huge emotional cost to them and to their ministry, a theme brilliantly explored by one of my favourite authors, Adam Foulds, in his short story “The rules are the rules,” about a gay parish priest whose whole ministry sadly feels compromised by the fact that he cannot be honest about his relationship and who he really is.
Over the years, many faithful LGBT Christians have either left the Church altogether, or chosen to worship in other, more sympathetic Christian denominations. Along with this week’s proposals, the Bishops issued an apology to the LGBT+ community for the “rejection, exclusion and hostility” people have faced in churches and the effect this has had on their lives.
It’s not at all difficult to see why LGBT Christians would choose to leave the Church. No one could blame them. Yet, in this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, the theme of today’s liturgy is unity- Christ’s call to be one. The church, unlike wider society, is still deeply divided on lesbian and gay relationships. For some in the Church, this week’s proposals will have gone too far, while for others, they do not go nearly far enough. This issue sorely tests our unity as Christians. Yet for me, it’s important that LGBT people remain in the Church, however difficult, not only so that our voices can continue to be heard, but because this is what we are called to do as Christians.
In Epiphany, we learn that the Church in its very being is founded upon unity in diversity. Our Epiphany Devotion this evening will focus on the Magi or wise men who emerge from the east to give their strange gifts to the infant King, the first sign that the Christian Gospel is not just for the Jewish people, but for Gentile foreigners. And in our Gospel reading today, Jesus reinforces this development, already anticipated by Isaiah, of Jews and Gentiles together. For the first time, he begins to preach, declaring as John had, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Yet unlike John, Jesus proclaims the nearness of the kingdom in “Galilee of the Gentiles.” This Gentile land, the land of Zebulun and Naphtali, is the place where the people who sat in darkness will see a great light. It’s also the place where Jesus calls his first disciples- not from the powerful or the elites, but fishermen, promising to make them fish for people.
The Church is a family and when it started, aided by those few disciples, it was small. The Christian writer G K Chesterton, in his book Heretics, writes, “In a large community, we can choose our companions. In a small community, our companions are chosen for us.” Unlike our friends, we do not choose our family. In families, at Christmas time sometimes more than any other time of year, we come face to face with our differences. Sometimes, if we’re honest, there are people in our churches as in our families we would rather avoid. Yet in the family of the Church, we are called to be one.
Our unity is based not simply on our agreement on issues such as our sexuality. Our unity is in Christ. “In the one Spirit we were all baptised into one body,” Paul writes in Corinthians, “Jews or Greeks, slaves or free- and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.” Our unity, before any synods or meetings or pastoral letters, is given in Christ.
That means our unity can’t easily be taken away. But it also commits us to the hard work of sticking with those whose difference makes us fearful or judgemental, with all the vulnerability that can entail, and to the hard work of seeing Christ’s face in those with whom we disagree- and not succumbing to the temptation to write them off as not a proper Christian. “They” are Christ’s too- we are all one body.
In the Church, we have a unique- and rare- opportunity in a society that is often atomized- to build communities that genuinely nurture and encourage difference, and where people from different backgrounds and life experiences can come together.
Before coming to the Cathedral, I worked in a Church in a highly diverse part of South East London, where- even in our small congregation- there were many different languages spoken and people from three different continents. We didn’t always agree on everything, not least in our views on a subject like homosexuality- but one of the things I valued most about it- as with every Church I’ve worked in- was that I met and got to know people there who I would never have met anywhere else or in any other job. Salisbury does not have the same diversity as South London, but even less obviously diverse churches show some level of difference in age and experience, if we look hard enough. In a larger congregation like this one, everyone, over coffee, can choose to speak to someone they don’t know. Each of us can try more deliberately to spend time with a person who is “not like me”.
For me, the Church’s new proposals around recognising same-sex relationships do not go far enough. The Church has not changed its position on the doctrine of marriage being only between a man and a woman, and even the new prayers of blessing, whilst lovely prayers, are not the same as those authorised for heterosexual couples seeking a blessing of their civil marriage. The Bishops have apologised for the homophobia of the Church, but for the Church to offer one authorised blessing for one group of people and create another for another group is in itself homophobic- not uniting people in our differences or treating everyone as equal, but segregating one group from another in the worship that we are meant to hold in common, and by implication treating lesbian and gay people and their relationships as secondary or inferior.
The Church has a high theology of marriage. Paul, in his letters, likens the relationship between husband and wife to that of the love between Christ and his Church. The marriage feast at Cana, as we will hear next week, is where the first of Jesus’ signs or miracles took place- the changing of water into wine a moment of deep significance and profound transformation. For people to feel excluded from such things is painful. There is a still a long, long way to go before LGBT people are fully respected and valued in the Church. But in berating the Church for remaining so far behind the rest of society that has moved on its attitudes, we shouldn’t underestimate the huge gains that have been made. We no longer, on the whole, live in a “don’t ask, don’t tell” culture in the Church. There is more honesty, and more love shown, and at last LGBT people have been properly acknowledged, if not yet fully heard, with a church service to celebrate their unions.
The Church would be a much poorer place if everyone was the same. Our unity is given in Christ. For that reason, we- like all Christians down the ages- still have to work at being united with one another, in all our God-given diversity and differences, re-committing ourselves to that task, even when it’s hard and we would rather walk away. We are called to keep pursuing the unity we long for, by the grace of God.