'When someone starts talking about principles, watch your back!' This was one of many 'bon mots' I learned from Geoff Garner, my delightful supervising vicar when I was a curate in the East End of London. Partly what he was saying was that when human beings become agitated, for or against a controversial proposal, humanity and genuine love go out the window. So called 'principles' and 'values' become used as weapons: at best providing insulation from genuine engagement, or, often, simply being used to harm others. Geoff himself knew well to his cost how this worked. As a founding member of LGCM (originally the Gay Christian Movement), as an inter-faith adviser to the Bishop of London, and in the open and humane way he ministered with others, he was frequently a target of others' internal difficulties and defensiveness. For Geoff, and for me, this is far from how Jesus lived, taught and acted.
Last weekend I spoke at the Toowoomba Marriage Equality event, sharing my own, positive, perspectives on what is too often an area of Christian 'principled' resistance and denial (click here for my address on that occasion). At the meeting, I was once more struck by the qualities of love, joy, and kindness so many LGBTI+ people have for one another and others. Since then, I have once more been overwhelmed by the generosity and warmth of fellow marriage equality supporters with whom I have corresponded. This, I believe, reflects the immense wellspring of love within the LGBTI+ community which still longs for full release. It is a powerful contrast with the spirit of some Christian circles which persist in turning their backs on this wonderful source of renewal for us all.
Most certainly, there is also Christian discomfort about marriage equality which is neither bigoted nor defensively armed with principles. One of my close Anglican colleagues for example is wary of marriage equality legislation because they feel some advocates are themselves equipped with principles (such as exaggerated 'rights' discourses) which they can wield like aggressive weapons. Perhaps, but I saw none of this last weekend in the keynote addresses of Marriage Equality leaders such as Shelley Argent and Rodney Croome. Instead they spoke with humour and humility about those things which touch all our lives: love and family, pain and joy, being valued, recognition and relationships. These are not abstract principles but the realities of life which bind us together.
One Christian leader who has upbraided me since last weekend accuses me, among other things, of being infected by humanism. It is one accusation - unlike many others - which, with qualifications, I am happy to own. For a healthy Christian humanism is surely an antidote to picking up the weapons of principle. Like my mentor Geoff Garner, I see in Jesus the embodiment of the humane as well as the the holy, someone who stood not on principle but in the power of love: in that sense being both fully human as well as fully revealing of the mystery of divine love which transcends all our human differences (male and female, Jew and Gentile, and all the rest - including queer and straight).
Julia Baird, in a recent article, reflects, in a typically incisive and balanced manner, on the challenges of discerning what is 'free' speech and what is 'hate' speech in the marriage equality debate. My sense is that part of the answer is in returning with prayerful discernment to the Christian injunction about 'speaking the truth in love' (Ephesians 4.15). Too often this can mean Christian justification for simply being mean, aggressive, demeaning, or worse. When I hear or read the words 'I just want to say this to you in Christian love', I am also instinctively tempted to duck for cover, just like Geoff Garner. It is hardly that I do not care about truth and truth-speaking. Part of my problem is that parts of the Church do not really want to explore truth and sometimes actively seek to silence the truths of others. No, the heart of the matter is what we mean by love. Is it truly an openness to genuine truth-seeking and the fresh insights of the Holy Spirit, or is it only a cover for ego and group fear and defensiveness? Whatever our views on marriage equality - and, sadly, the debate is likely to go on in the Church as a whole for ages after it is settled in Australia in law - when we come to 'speaking the truth in love', perhaps we need to spend more time on that last word love. It is too easy to leap to principle without love. For those of us who share in pastoral care, the ability to share a prophetic word is also important. Yet we need to be kind and compassionate in how, as well as what we say. For me, much maligned 'political correctness' often seems really to amount to no more than being polite and respectful to others - precisely the opposite of the Pharisaism, wielding principles like weapons, which Jesus so abhorred and transcended. We are not all agreed, not will we be, with or without a plebiscite. Most Christians however, for and against, genuinely seek to honour God and our conscience. So let us seek the truth indeed, but let us be gentle with it.
When I worked in the national and NSW ecumenical council offices in Sydney, I once had a close colleague who had previously been employed in HR departments for big business. He was a lively contributor to our shared endeavours but it took him a while to become used to office email and conversational exchange. ‘I just can’t get my head round all of this’, he said one day, ‘people keep signing off with ‘best wishes’ and ‘blessings’ and say ‘thankyou’ for all kinds of simple things. I am being disoriented by kindness.’ Now my friend may have had a particular bleak earlier work experience. Many secular workplaces have very positive atmospheres as well as respectful staff protocols. Christian workplaces can also be full of unstated, and sometimes open, hostilities and negative undercurrents. The ecumenical office we worked in certainly had its mix of all of that! Yet it is true to say that, where human beings are intentional about giving thanks and sharing praise, a positive spirit surely develops. Even when we do not feel particularly thankful or gracious, such practice can transform us and others.
Our parish stewardship and thanksgiving developments this year have certainly helped us on the way to being a more thankful community. They have also made us more capable of responding to our diocesan call to grow in faith and generosity. It has been wonderful to see how so many people have responded positively to the challenge to consider how to become more open to God’s love and share our particular blessings with others. Even those who have been a bit nervous about considering the financial and other implications seem to be have been at least touched by this life-renewing spirit of consideration. May this long continue to grow and flourish among us!
What highlights will we take forward from our stewardship and thanksgiving initiative this year? For many the Thanksgiving Festival in August was certainly a huge delight. On the Saturday we shared a wonderful community day at St Luke’s, with food, music, children’s activities, chalk drawings and a welcome for all, including to several visitors. It was indeed a lovely example of what we can do to use the St Luke’s site as a ‘Minster’, sharing blessings for all. Then, in the evening, we had a terrific parish meal together, with great food prepared by our generous cooks and a feast of music from Robin and his band. ‘We must do this again’, was the feeling of many. Thanksgiving is infectious!
Jo Inkpin is an Anglican priest serving as Minister of Pitt St Uniting Church in Sydney, a trans woman, theologian & justice activist. These are some of my reflections on life, spirit, and the search for peace, justice & sustainable creation.