My phone, tablet and computer flashes the messages ‘install updates’ and I am aware that the reason things have been running a bit slower is my failure to respond to this. I key in the appropriate codes and watch as the process of updating happens. This is part of modern life; part of the changing way information is processed and shared. Over these last years I have repeatedly reflected on a lecture given at Oxford by the journalist Will Self in 2014. In it he spoke about those of us over 40 being the last of the Gutenberg generations. That is we are people shaped by the sharing of information made possible by the printing press. I am of a generation of books and newsprint; definitive tomes and learned experts. I am not used to constant updates and regular qualifications.
The students I work with are of a different mind-set and the ones coming behind them even more so. Information comes through the different screens they check constantly. They read on screen and write that way cutting and pasting, editing and spell checking in ways that were impossible when I did my degree. I look back with pity on the poor tutors who had to decipher my handwritten essay full of crossings out and late editions starred at the end of the pages. Now students need different skills, learning how to discern the sensible from the sensational; the carefully researched information from the anecdotal opinion pieces. In all this updates are constantly available.
So why am I writing this? I am concerned that the Church of England is very wedded to a Gutenberg mind-set. We are people of books, of definitive reports. We discuss and debate over long periods regardless of the cost for those who wait for our deliberations. The efforts to update are slow and take little account of the speed of change all around us. Sadly, many give up waiting for our insights long before we have answered yesterday’s question. This may have worked in the past but I do not think it is working now and will certainly need to change for the future.
This is evident in the deliberations over gender and sexuality. Recent correspondence references documents that are dated and we are told we need to wait until 2020 for the new definitive tome on Marriage. Some of us are fearful that when that comes the questions will have moved on and those longing for wisdom from the church will yet again be left wanting. How do we answer the needs of people now? How do we hold on to this generation and prepare ourselves for the kind of thinking and processing of knowledge in the one to come?
The Bishop of Maidstone tells us that in terms of sex we need to stick to the motion passed by General Synod in 1987, as if nothing has changed in the world or the church for the last 30 years. Rarely do people come to be married in church without having lived together and a substantial number come after their children have been born. Now we also see marriages legally entered into between people of the same sex. Many of us have been moved by what these relationships can teach us about loving commitment, faithfulness, equality and generosity. Much has changed yet the centrality of loving committed relationships has a timelessness, despite the different approaches. People still want to commit to love and cherish each other, for better or worse, richer or poorer in sickness or in health
The 2013 document on Men and Women in marriage referred to by William Nye in his recent letter focused on procreation as a central aspect of marriage. We know and love families that fit the image of two parents and their biological offspring but we also rejoice in the loving reality of families where children are adopted, sometimes requiring immensely costly love to heal hurts. And we note that Jesus was lovingly brought up by an adopting father. Some of these families have two parents, some are different genders, some the same. All seek to offer love and stability. We know various forms of step-relationships which blend together different stories making new kinds of family patterns. My children have particularly valued the aunts and uncles, godparents who have no children of their own, whose loving commitment to them has enriched and enhanced their life in ways their parents could not. We can no longer make assumptions about gender roles in marriage or in the world beyond the home. We recognise that family patterns have often been complex.
It is good that the church is reflecting on the changing nature of marriage for its new teaching document but one wonders why it is taking so long. In the meantime we are left with old discussions which have not taken notice of the different world we live in. All those exploring ordination need to assent to Issues in Human Sexuality written in 1994. So much has changed in the way wider society thinks, speaks and understands these issues that make it hard for younger people to comprehend the language of the report let alone its conclusions. Updates are needed.
Updates are needed because the way we talk and think about gender is changing. Women and girls, men and boys do not conform to the stereotypes and it is freeing for people to accept that. Knowing that your doctor, teacher, priest is a man or a woman does not tell you how they are going to function; whether they will be caring, confident, visionary or humble. We are more open and honest about the percentage of babies born intersex and the need to find a language beyond simple binaries to acknowledge and learn to rejoice in this diversity. We have begun to see that some people do not equate their bodily sex with their gender and we need to learn how to respond to their needs and how their experiences unsettle and challenge ours. Beyond the church we have recognised that people’s sexuality is not binary. It is as the LGBTQ Rainbow flag reminds us about a colourful variety. There is, despite all the negative things the church has said about these loving relationships, a deep desire for blessing and validation by the church.
People of different sexualities, different genders, and different life experiences are helping us to see things from different perspectives. We learn to hear different voices within the stories of our history and tradition. We learn to notice different stories in the bible and question our assumptions about how to read certain narratives. Some of us have been regularly installing the updates in our faith and understanding, welcoming the movement of the spirit with her wonderful mix of affirmation and challenge.
Updates are needed because we live in a society which has passed the 2010 Equality Act. We seek to tell the good news of Jesus Christ in a culture where children are educated to respect difference and abhor discrimination. By failing to install the updates we find that everything moves slower, that our attempts to speak of the love of God is not heard the way we want it to be heard. Our language offends even when we do not intend it to. Efforts to speak of inclusion too easily miss the mark. Our genuine attempts to witness to the reconciling, grace filled love of God revealed in Jesus Christ become obscured by the bugs of hypocrisy and narrow mindedness.
Install updates. My prayer is that the Church of England will learn to think quicker and respond more readily to the changing issues. My prayer is that the Church of England will stop sounding like an institution that struggles to accept equality between people of different genders and different sexualities. My prayer is that the message of the Holy spirit to install updates will be heard and we will find that by the grace of God our message of redemptive love will be heard in the world, so deeply loved by our God.