The views in this blog post are entirely my own, obviously my story is my story to tell.
Yesterday I attended Methodist Conference in Birmingham, I had gone specifically to hear the conversation on the Marriage and Relationships Report and to hopefully see it received and commended by Conference and to hear that the journey of this wide ranging document, which included topics such as principles for all good relating, liturgies for divorce, co-habitation and more, would be continued as it was sent to be discussed at District, Circuit and Local Church Levels over the next year. Unsurprisingly the thing that has caught the headlines all over the place was the section pertaining to the celebration of Same Sex Marriages on Methodist premises and by Methodist Ministers. The report was commended and gained overwhelming support with the vote being 247 for and 48 against.
Yesterday was also the anniversary of my ordination 8 years ago, and of my moving into Circuit as a Minster 10 years ago and marks 17 years of working for the Methodist Church, ( I trained on a part-time course). My journey into and through Methodism has also brought with it many challenges and changes, both personally, theologically and in practice.
As I am currently on Sabbatical I have time to sit back and ponder all of that, and to reflect, of course such reflections lead me deeper into my past that I might have been comfortable with, given the choice to dance with our shadows I think that many of us prefer not to, or are happy giving them a cursory glance every now and then! Hopefully I am not navel gazing to the point of being unhelpful, but I think that there are many defining points on our journeys and that sometimes it helps us to stop and take stock.
As the news of yesterday’s vote in Methodist Conference broke, there have of course been a variety of responses, those include both criticisms and congratulations. One of the more veiled criticisms came in the Church Times who have warned that:
The Methodist Conference’s vote has been seen as a potential obstacle to closer unity from an Anglican Evangelical standpoint.
“Proposals for interchangeability of ministries between the C of E and the Methodist Church will be debated and voted on at a meeting of the General Synod in York on Sunday. Anglican Catholics have already raised concerns about the proposals.”
As I ponder the responses I wonder how much of the underlying fear has to do with our image of God, and whether or not we hold to the Augustinian doctrine of original sin ( look it up if you need to). This doctrine then gives rise to the picture of God that we hold to, the purpose of the cross and even our view of ourselves. I am not going to unpack all of that here, as many readers will either know what I am talking about or are well able to look into it.
As an adult convert to Christianity through an evangelical, though loving and welcoming church, the doctrine of original sin played a part in my conversion as I saw that I needed to turn away from the stuff that was keeping me from living well, but also fed into my natural disposition to be down on myself, and by that token to put huge pressure upon myself. I was doomed to fail before I began. That said it never sat easily with me, and I struggled and strained against it for many years, often battling with depression, self doubt, feelings of failure and resorting to extreme coping mechanisms which included drinking! I know that I damaged myself and my family in the process and for that I am deeply sorry.
A move to work for the Methodist Church gave me something new, a new way of seeing things, the prevenient grace, the thought that God was always at work before me making a way for me, that none of the love and goodness of God was dependent on my actions but that s/he was simply waiting for me to notice and respond. My favourite words in out Methodist liturgies are from the Baptism Service:
All this for you before you could know anything of it…
My journey has subsequently led me to a belief and trust in the doctrine of original goodness Origen described all humanity as being made in the image of God with a seed sown deep within us, the divine spark, the finger print of God. Meister Eckhart took it further saying that such a seed could be nurtured, thrive, and grow. Growth however is often painful, and seeds have to be broken open to reveal, and free the potential within.
So my picture of God is of the God who loves us to life, who walks with us through and with our brokenness and who leads us into healing sometimes over and over again. Even at my messiest I am deeply and profoundly loved and the perfect love of God casts out any fear of turning to Her and asking for help. There is too much unhealthy fear of God, of getting it wrong, of making mistakes preventing us from living and loving to our fullest potentials. Fear in my case ingrained in me from a young age, although I have no idea how given that my parents were not religious. Getting it ( life) right might have something to do with it!
I have lived a fear-filled life, fear of failure meant that I didn’t try, fear of rejection led to unhealthy attachments and relationships, unhealthy fear of God meant that I saw myself in the bleakest of terms and lived into the impossibility of that.
I was married for 32 years, and I am going to say out loud that it was an unhealthy relationship, I tried, and I know that my ex-husband tried to get it right, we hid many of our struggles from the world outside, shame is also a powerful thing. We did love one another in our own way, but ultimately that became destructive, and again I am deeply sorry for the wounding I caused to him and to myself.
Part of my struggle, though so well hidden that I also hid from it was that I was not living as my true-self. My first awakening to sexuality was experienced with a group of girlfriends and was powerful enough to be terrifying to me. I was also a hopeless romantic and bought into the whole boy meets girl story, and looked for a happily ever-after solution. Five wonderful children and as I have said 32 years of marriage followed.
Being gay ( a lesbian), or as I would identify, being queer was not really an option in my sheltered middle class existence, and was pushed away and denied, I even went through a period where I thought it just plain wrong despite having several brave and wonderful gay friends whose stories I knew and whose friendship I will always value.
The deep sadness of all of this is that it has taken me 57 years to become comfortable with who I am and how I am, many years to allow myself to say that I am loved by God as I am and not as some ideal that I will never be. Part of that journey has been the choice to love myself, to accept my body, to loose weight, and to recognise that I was allowing the covering of fat to hide me from myself. If I was unattractive to myself then I could be unattractive to everyone, this of course was disingenuous and led to an unhealthy duality. My body was my mask.
Food and drink, and various other bad habits, numbed the pain, until I let them go, and dared to dance with my shadows, those shadows have since led me into the wonderful rainbow of light that is my true self. As a friend remarked recently, that is a whole load of grief to work through, it is, but it is worth working through it.
So yesterday, on the anniversary of my ordination I was delighted to hear the Methodist Church commend the report “God in love unites us” a report that recommends:
• principles or qualities of good relating
• an understanding of cohabitation
• to allow same-sex couples to marry in Methodist churches
• providing resources and liturgies to celebrate civil partnerships
• prayers for when marriages end in divorce
For many in the room it was an affirmation of who they are, an acknowledgement that there has been deep hurt and pain in the journey, a journey we are still on, but there is an open door. The grace and respect in the room was tangible, as Reverend Dr Barbara Glasson (President of Conference) stated:
“The debate was full of grace and prayerful thought. There were many personal, often painful, stories shared and representatives listened with great care and attention.
“My prayer is that this spirit of generosity and love shown today will be reflected as the proposals are discussed across the Church.”
Other reports received by Conference reflected that we have a long way to go, racism, poverty, gender inequality, climate change, consumerism and more are still things we need to deal with before God and by grace with one another, but yesterday I felt proud and privileged to be a Methodist. Our journey continues, my journey continues….
I am not currently in a relationship, but that does not make that improbable or impossible…
I am in good fellowship with those who hold very different views to me, and I hope that, that will continue, and that somehow by grace our friendships and relationships will deepen not divide as we seek God together with integrity. The church has often disagreed on matters of living and lifestyle, but centered on the ever-flowing self giving love of God it has found a way forward, when we become overly precious about our views, then we stumble, fall and fail, and even then Christ meets us, greets us and draws us on…