A certain African American cleric preaches at a certain family wedding in the UK, albeit one watched by billions, and proceeds to turn the world quite literally upside down.
Indeed, just last week, the Archbishop of York started his Presidential address to the General Synod of the Church of England by asking what was so remarkable about the Presiding Bishop’s wedding sermon on love? As the Archbishop told us, “the topic of his address was hardly controversial” and then went on to say that “from the reaction, it seems that the general public’s expectations of life, excitement and witness from the Church of England are still very low.” The following day, The Times newspaper reported that the Archbishop had “called on (British) Anglicans to abandon their English reserve and spread the gospel with some of the energy shown by Bishop Curry.”
I can’t help reflecting that your Presiding Bishop has made a far more lasting impact than another US visitor to Britain this week – but we shouldn’t stray into politics!
So coming back to the Archbishop of York’s question, what was it about Bishop Michael’s sermon that made it so utterly remarkable and unforgettable?
If you haven’t seen it, I really urge you to watch it on YouTube. You see, it wasn’t so much what he said, but the way that he said it. Preaching from an iPad in full view of the Royal family, he broke free from traditional British protocol. He waved his hands, spoke from his heart, smiled and – bravely – chose to make eye contact with people. Indeed, he seemed to create the very fire that he advocated needed harnessing – a fire created by capturing the “energy of love”. God’s unconditional sacrificial love. It seemed to me as if a touch paper had been lit, and the whole world was set on fire.
And just look what happened…
Within minutes people were tweeting and posting about God’s love; media outlets around the world wrote editorials and features on the power of love; newscasters and talk show hosts couldn’t stop talking about the need for love. They had heard what they saw to be Good News - it was contagious, infectious and life-giving.
And the reaction of the Church?
Well, to be honest, our reaction in the UK was pretty mixed – in some quarters, even negative. A well-known Christian Radio station ran a poll to see if people thought it was too long. Traditionalists said it was inappropriate given the occasion. A number of senior evangelicals said he had “failed to preach the Gospel” as there was not enough mention of sin and repentance, others that he had failed to define what he meant by love. One went as far as saying “it wasn’t Christianity at all – it was Christianity-lite.” I was appalled and ashamed by these criticisms.
So, I can’t help but ask again, what was really going on? Why such polarised responses? Was it really just because Bishop Michael is an advocate of same-sex marriage, making him an apostate in the eyes of some and theologically unsound to others? Well, there might have been a little bit of that, but I believe there was something far deeper going on – which was beautifully demonstrated in our Old Testament reading in Michal’s response to King David’s show of pure abandonment before the Ark of the Lord. Indeed I believe the Archbishop of Canterbury hit the nail on the head when he described Bishop Curry’s sermon as “raw God”. You see, “raw God” can make people feel quite uncomfortable. If there’s one thing that Bishop Michael was that day, it was that he was authentic. He didn’t pretend to be anything other than what he truly was and is. It was a perfect example of what was explained in our psalm – those who can stand in God’s presence are those who have “not pledged themselves to falsehood nor sworn by what is fraud”. He was just Michael. He spoke with joy about a God of Love, who he himself seemed to embody. It was real, it was raw, and it was passionate.
Many can have quite a problem with displays of passion, especially in public. We Brits for instance would much rather keep a stiff upper lip, where we ensure that everyone plays by the rules – particularly at Royal events, where the establishment is out in force and protocol is the order of the day. It takes great courage to stand up in public and be passionate, to stand up against social conventions, to be true to ourselves despite the expectations of all those around us – and to just be our natural God-given selves. Passion versus protocol.
For me, that’s what lies at the heart of the Pride movement. A movement that has enabled millions to stand up and be themselves despite the expectations of those around them. It has helped break through the norms and protocols that have imprisoned so many, empowering people to choose a courageous path of being open about who they are rather than hiding away their true selves for fear of being despised. Whilst for many in “the West” Pride has become a march that seeks to joyfully celebrate inclusivity, often with the same exuberance that King David displayed, we should remember that there are still many countries where it is incredibly dangerous to march. Where participants are accompanied by armed police, where the level of hate and abuse is such that people fear for their very lives, and where to stand up against the norms that seek to force people to conform is to risk losing everything.
This was the case just a few weeks ago in Istanbul, where for the third year running the city governor banned people from holding a Pride march. Traditionally, Istanbul has been a relatively safe haven for the LGBTI community, with tens of thousands of people previously marching. Sadly, though, things have been getting progressively worse and yet despite this people still bravely gathered for a rally, at which the organisers made the following statement: “Like every year, we are here, on these streets. Our laughter, our exclamations, our slogans still echo in these streets…we miss the marches attended by thousands where we celebrate our visibility. We make fun of those who try to place boundaries on us by the pride of our existence and the strength of our pride.”
Why do people choose to do this? Why do they choose to stand against the odds?
We are assured in today’s psalm that “they shall receive a blessing from the Lord”, and I pray that that will be so, but I fear that few have yet to see it. They do what they do because they can do no else – because something within them compels them to stand up and not be silenced. Because their role is to be prophetic, to speak out with actions as well as words against tyranny and oppression. Here in the West, we owe so much to those who went ahead of us, people like Harvey Milk and Gene Robinson, along with my heroines Audre Lorde and Martina Navratilova. They did so and many continue to do so – often unknown and unacknowledged - no matter what the cost.
The truth, however, is that it can be highly costly to be a prophet, to be at the vanguard of speaking truth to a nation – or a Church - by standing up for what we believe is godly and right. Just look at what happened to John the Baptist – killed for speaking truth to a woman who held a grudge against him for daring to say what no one else would say.
I must admit that I have known a fair bit of the cost myself, particularly recently when challenging the Church over its attitude to homosexuality. Luckily, I still have my head!
As you may know, I am heavily involved in the debate on sexuality within the Church of England and the wider Anglican Communion. Indeed, my Foundation, the Ozanne Foundation, exists to tackle prejudice and discrimination within religious organisations around the world based on sexuality and gender. As such, I am only too aware of how critically important it is to stand up and speak out for my fellow lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer siblings in countries where they have so little voice. This was brought into sharp focus in a report – In the Name of Love - published last year, which contained some shocking statistics with regards to the LGBTI community in Britain – a country that is thought to be leading the way in LGBTI acceptance: 42% of young LGBT people have sought medical help for anxiety or depression
52% of young LGBT people report self-harm either now or in the past
44% of young LGBT people have considered suicide
I understand the figures are unfortunately very similar here in the USA.
The report concluded that “the Church” and local churches are one of the biggest sources of direct discrimination against LGB people and the biggest contributor of negative views to debates about same-sex relationships in society and the media. Sadly, in many parts of the world, the Church has so much to repent of, particularly the harm it has inflicted and continues to inflict on so many vulnerable people.
That’s why I am so incredibly grateful to the Episcopal Church of the USA for taking its own prophetic stance on this critical issue – again at quite a cost - and its willingness to stand up to so many churches both at home and abroad who have refused to be in communion with it. Indeed, I was thrilled that I was able to give my heart felt thanks just a few days ago at the Episcopal General Convention in Austin to Presiding Bishop Michael Curry himself for taking the stand that he has on behalf of the global LGBTI community. He was so lovely. On seeing my tears, which embarrassingly seemed to appear from nowhere, he literally climbed across the table that separated us to give me a huge hug and a kiss. He looked me squarely in the eyes and said: “Encourage people to tell their stories, Jayne, for it’s that encounter that has the power to change people.”
I couldn’t have agreed more – incarnational truth, raw passionate truth, real truth about who we are, what we are, how we love and how we know that we are loved.
“Tell your stories – for it’s that encounter that has the power to change people.”
Be brave, be honest, be real.
You see (and this is the crux of it all) when people see raw faith embodied in raw love - they encounter raw God and it’s irresistible – as the world saw with Bishop Michael.
In my recently published memoir, Just Love, I tell my own story about my 40-year journey of reconciling my faith with my sexuality. I, like many others, have spent years struggling to accept who God has created me to be, believing that I was an abomination in need of healing rather than a wonderfully unique human being made in the image of God, with a God-given desire to love and be loved. Central to my journey was my acceptance of a God of Love over a God of Law, a God that wanted to “save my life rather than kill it” – although it took me being hospitalised twice to understand this.
I start the book with a story that explains the turning point of this – and indeed the reason why I felt compelled to call the book “Just Love”. It centres on an incident that happened at one of the darkest points of my life, just after my first breakdown. It’s an important part of my story, and if you don’t mind, I’d like to share it with you now: I’ve just woken, and I’m lamenting the fact that I’m still alive, having begged God to take me the previous night because I couldn’t take the pain and stress any more:
“I feel like an animal!”Jayne Ozanne
I felt a surge of anger course through me and shouted out aloud into the empty room. “What makes me any different to an animal, heh God?”
Tears of sheer frustration rolled down onto my pillow as I encountered deafening silence.
And then, a voice – so recognisable and so familiar, so quiet and yet so reassuring, which said: “Your ability to love, Jayne.” I thought about this briefly then, emboldened by my anger and the painful memory this had touched, I snapped back: “No, I’m not having that. Harry (my kitten) loved me! Animals can love you know!”
“Ah Jayne, but you can respond in love to any situation I put you in, because I AM love, and I AM in you, and you are in Me!” Was it an audible voice? I still don’t know. It was as loud and clear as someone standing right next to me. But whether real or imagined, this articulated truth turned my life upside down.
“I AM love.”
I finally understood. It was so simple but so profound.
I could respond in love to any situation that I was in, because God IS love. It really is just that simple.
We are called to JUST LOVE – no matter who, no matter where, no matter how, no matter why.
JUST LOVE! That’s all.
The rest is up to God.
San Diego Pride Sunday