by the Ven Nikki Groarke, Archdeacon of Dudley, Member of General Synod and Co-Founder of the Evangelical Forum on General Synod
At the beginning of this year I took for granted that I would be able to worship in church freely, socialise with friends, spend time with my family, run my first marathon and be able to tie up my own shoe laces. To take something for granted, according to the dictionary, is “to assume that something is true without questioning it”, or “to never think about something because you believe it will always be available or stay exactly the same”.
A global pandemic impacting us in the UK from March, and a broken shoulder impacting me personally from the end of September have changed pretty much everything about life – nothing is the same as it was this time last year. Things I never thought about have become unavailable to me overnight, assumptions about my life, abilities and entitlements have been deeply challenged. I have been forced to think about how day-to-day living is experienced by those with physical impairment or chronic pain in enlightening ways, and hopefully have grown in wisdom as a result … though I have mainly been frustrated and impatient rather than graciously stoic about the fact that I can’t run 5k let alone a marathon, and although I can now dress myself, those boot laces remain in the ‘impossible with one hand’ category.
Over a longer period a similarly diverse and unexpected combination of factors have caused me to reflect on how much of my church tradition’s teaching on sexuality I had hitherto taken for granted. Assumptions I had never questioned have been challenged, concepts I had never really thought about because some things always stay the same and are unchangeable began to trouble me, to gnaw away at my previously rock-solid stance.
My journey through the ‘silent middle’ in the debate on same sex relationships, articulated in a speech to General Synod in February 2017 has continued. I would now describe myself as a gradually more confident ally. I think differently since I have ventured to question and explore with an open and undefended mind, and hope I have grown in wisdom and understanding through discovering the rich contribution LGBTI sisters and brothers bring to God’s church. Sticking my head above the parapet when invited to speak in ‘that debate’ had a much more significant impact than I could have ever imagined, leading to fascinating conversations, opportunities for engagement and some enriching new friendships, and significantly, a deeper love for God, and for the Bible.
My evolving perspective resulted sadly in a parting of ways with EGGS (the Evangelical Group of the General Synod), as along with others I felt I could not, with integrity, remain part of a group which defined evangelicals in terms of their views on sexuality. A new “Evangelical Forum”, of which I became a founding member, is attempting to offer a different way of meeting together as evangelicals on Synod. We will aim to provide a hospitable space for conversation, reflection and fellowship, where conscious of our oneness in Christ and his command to love each other, we undertake to listen in love, speak with kindness and understand with open hearts.
This is going to be so important as we begin this month to engage in Synod and then across the whole church with the Living in Love and Faith (LLF) materials which aim to help the whole Church to learn how relationships, marriage and sexuality fit within the bigger picture of a humanity created in the image of God. Commenting on the House of Bishops’ decision to proceed in the autumn of 2020, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, said on 25/6/2020:
“The LLF resources are about vital matters which affect the wellbeing of individuals and communities. That is why it is important for the Church to move ahead with publishing the resources as soon as possible. …. They will help the Church to live out its calling to be a people who embody the reconciliation of Christ as together we explore matters of identity, sexuality and marriage.”
It’s envisaged that learning and engagement with the materials will over the next couple of years move to discernment and decision-making. I really hope and pray that right across our structures and people, from synod to parish, from bishop to youth group member, from Mothers’ Union stalwart to fresh faced ordinand, we will take nothing for granted as we commit to learning together. I long for a church in which it is good to explore and question openly, from a place of acknowledging our common calling as children of a God who loves us, whether we be gay or straight, evangelical or liberal, catholic, charismatic or any other tradition, reflective practitioner or learned academic.
At some point, when discernment leads to decision making, we will clearly not all be in agreement, which is why we have careful synodical processes to navigate. But that is still a way ahead. For now, at the end of this year in which so much of what we thought to be unchangeable has been stripped away, I dare to hope we can approach this opportunity differently. Of course, we hold on to truth with integrity, but perhaps that truth might be as simple as, “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so”.
My journey towards a more inclusive interpretation of scripture has speeded up as I have realised that Jesus loves my gay and lesbian friends and colleagues too, and that the Bible surprisingly “tells me so” – I don’t have to ditch it to embrace a theology which welcomes rather than condemns a loving, intimate relationship between two people of the same sex. This has been liberating for me as an evangelical, and I am indebted to Marcus Green and David Runcorn, whose books The Possibility of Difference and Love Means Love have helped me grapple with some of my preconceived notions.
I am resolved to take nothing for granted, other than that it is possible to live in love and faith, as we journey together through the next stage of this long process. But I am committed to speaking out in support of those whose very existence has been challenged for far too long, and committed to doing this as an evangelical, loved by God, and tentatively trying to love those who find my changing views a challenge, embodying reconciliation with them.
I’m happy to walk and talk with any who want to prepare for LLF hitting Synod through creative conversation. However, at least for the next few weeks, I will need to ask you to tie my boot laces before we venture out!