When Methodist clergy get together, one of things we do is sing! And the Wesley hymn, 'Captain of Israel's host', is often on our lips. A two-verse hymn, its final lines still have the power to make my heart swell:
As far as from danger as from fear,
While love, Almighty love, is near.
We are told that we live in an Age of Fear, but is that anything new? The current stand-off between Trump and Kim Jung-Un reminds us of the terror of nuclear oblivion faced by our parents and grandparents. And there must be a reason why 'Fear not' is uttered over a hundred times in the Bible.
Fear is such a powerful emotion: for those who live with anxiety disorders, fear can feel like iron chains preventing any physical or emotional movement. When exploited by unscrupulous leaders, it can drive otherwise reasonable people to engage in mindless acts of violence and terror. Fear is often what lies behind so much prejudice and hatred, creating a reality that is hard to counter.
The new Methodist and Wesleyan movement, Dignity and Worth, draws inspiration from Scripture, especially 1 John 4:18:
There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.
The struggle for full inclusion of LGBTQIA+ people is so often a fight against fear.
There is the fear in others, those in our Church who have yet to encounter an openly-gay Christian and whose theology and church life has been shaped by a long tradition of anti-gay doctrine which owes more to patriarchal culture than Biblical reflection. They have been painted a picture of creatures who are insatiable, immoral, barely people, and certainly not the sort of folk good Methodists associate themselves with. Inclusion begins with conversation, examining the language we use and always remembering it is people and relationships that we are talking about.
Others fear the changes that would be required to make the Church a more inclusive place. They are not wrong that changes would need to happen, but I doubt the changes are as drastic or catastrophic as they fear. For a start, there are many, many LGBTQIA+ folk already hiding in plain sight in the pews, pulpits and on the organ stools. Being inclusive is not about strangers we have never met but friends we have never fully known.
And then there are those who genuinely fear the wrath of God for going against what they perceive to be the plain meaning of Scripture. They readily sight the growth of Churches and fellowships that stick to the so-called traditional line with regard to relationships, as if there is a direct causal link anti-gay theology and church growth. They fail to account for the serious decline of other conservative churches such as the Salvation Army, or for the fact that Church decline in Britain began long before there was a question of being nice to the gays. They remind us that if we do not take Scripture and the mission of the Church seriously, we have failed to be the Church
Whilst all of these fears are present and real, the greatest obstacles to prophetic witness and action are the fears we carry within. The fear that prevents us being honest with ourselves about our deepest needs for connection and intimacy and means that we are content to live half a life. How many Methodists I have known who have become deaf to their own God-given desires, drowned out by the judgmental rhetoric of others, calling forth a public conformity that saps all their emotional energy to the point of collapse!
The fear of the reaction of others in Church which prevents us from coming out remains a powerful one. It is the same fear that stops others from acting for justice, content instead to speak of same-sex love in hushed tones. What does that say about our Methodist sisters and brothers? Do we really believe that those who have known and loved us will suddenly become the witch-hunters that drive us from the premises? The best way to deal with fear is to confront it and consider the scenario we are most fearful of. This is not to say that many of us have not faced prejudice, rejection and hurt at the hands of others in our Church. But let us keep those experiences in balance with the other times we have been loved and affirmed, for it is those experiences that allow us to keep believing that change is possible.
So I say to those who have asked my advice about performing services for same-sex couples: confront your fears, act with integrity and openness, focus on doing what is right rather than what is expedient, and look for support from others.
To those who believe that change comes without effort, I say: where injustice exists, neutrality is impossible, and silence from those who carry authority will be seen as collusion or cowardice by those in the future.
Finally, to my LGBTQIA+ family, I say: you are fearfully and wonderfully made, loved by a God who liberates the oppressed through truth. Fear not!