St John 15: 9-17
“Thus says the Lord,” according to Isaiah, “…. will you question me about my children, or command me concerning the work of my hands? I made the earth, and created humankind upon it…”
Then there is the Gospel of today. “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” And again, “I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.”
Love one another? This is a very hard Gospel to hear at times, and harder to carry out.
Note that ab initio, from the very beginning of creation, there is family life. And family life, as if we did not know, is complex. There is indeed the “normative” – as we were all reminded in the General Synod just ended up the road in Christ Church Cathedral. It is the way most of us are made.
We are commanded to love one another, so it is worrying to say the least that in the Church of Ireland, as in the worldwide Anglican Communion, we are presently seeing the emergence of opinions and attitudes to sexuality that are either startlingly liberal to say the least, or, in the other extreme, which are quite homophobic.
We do know – or think we know! – what the “normative” is. But the Christian Church is called upon to be the lifeboat of society. There is room for all to be saved. We are all God’s children – and we are all very different, yet despite our Lord’s command to love one another, too often the Church has shown a tendency to force inconvenient people out of God’s Ark and overboard to sink or swim.
Many years ago, writing my doctorate on the Anglican theology of marriage, I became fascinated by the ways in which the Church has sought to control marriage in society. The study of British, Irish and European society will yield rich examples of that influence, not necessarily all of them positive. Mixed marriage and inter-church marriage too often became a reason for division, not of healing. In Ireland the mixed marriage issue in the last century was used almost as an underpinning of communal genocide.
While researching the matter I heard through a colleague of one incident notorious in his area. Unfortunately, as I discovered in due course, it was not unusual at the time. Not long after the promulgation of Ne Temere in 1908 a young Roman Catholic girl and a youth Church of Ireland boy were observed in that parish to be obviously keen on one another. The priest and the rector met and agreed a plan of action. The priest went to the girl’s house and proceeded to smack her face in front of her terrified siblings and anguished parents and shouted at her until she agreed never to see her boyfriend again. Meanwhile, in the “protestant” farmhouse, a similar scene erupted, the rector berating and bullying and hitting the young man in front of his distraught family until he too crumpled before the authority of the Church and the necessity to protect the purity of the tribe.
Soon the whole countryside knew about the “principled” stand taken by the men of God. The couple studiously avoided each other. He busied himself on the family farm. Soon she moved away to Belfast to an office job, coming home to her family barely once a month. People were sorry for them. Not one spoke out.
About two years later, they suddenly disappeared. She failed to come into her work one Monday, without explanation, and he had supposedly gone to Dublin with friends for the weekend. But he did not return and then it transpired he had not been with his friends at all.
Some weeks later letters arrived. Their families now knew what everyone had suspected. The two young people had run away, they were in England, married, and happy, and about to set sail for the New World. They never came home to Ireland. They never made contact again. They were lost to their families.
Nearly a century later, I was able to watch from a distance, so to speak, as the great-grandchildren met their Irish relatives for the very first time. It took a few generations and the best part of a hundred years, but in the end love overwhelmed the bitterness of division.
This Gospel about loving one another is sometimes a hard one to live by. Yes?
In the weeks and months after Bloody Sunday in Derry it will have been a hard Gospel to hear, to read, to preach upon. It has a taken a generation for the truth about Bloody Sunday to be told, and for an apology to made in Parliament. (Why does it always seem to take so long to right a wrong?)
What was it like to read that Gospel and listen to it and preach upon it in the aftermath of many of the worst atrocities in Northern Ireland during the Troubles? I know how hard it was. And still is. In my parish I have the La Mon House Hotel, where one of the most vicious and evil attacks on civilians took place. To this day for many people in my part of Ireland it is difficult to hear the words “La Mon” and then talk about love.
Incidentally, there are some among the northern politicians, especially nationalist, who recently have been condemning Cardinal Brady and the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland for lack of integrity concerning the abuse of children by clergy. Without in any sense excusing for one moment those whose sexual crimes against children appall, and those who did little or nothing to protect the victims, nevertheless it should be pointed out that in the last century the IRA and their loyalist counter-parts have visited upon many thousands of young children a cruelty and a grief almost unimaginable and utterly beyond comprehension. It is right to condemn those comparatively few clergy who have betrayed their calling, but let him who is without sin…
Our Lord’s command that we should love one another does have considerable bearing on our personality and behaviour. Certainty in one generation can be overturned in the next. Change is always possible. Once upon a time slavery was not even questioned.
The most recent dramatic change, one of seismic proportion, is the decision to ordain women, a revolutionary transformation in thought and tradition. Incidentally, the remarriage in church of divorced people is not at all a breach with our tradition, it is simply in keeping with the reformation’s reaffirmation of the ancient doctrine and tradition of the Early Church. The Fathers taught marriage ought not to break down, not that it cannot.
So where are we going in the great debate in contemporary Anglicanism? Could there be change? Who knows where the Spirit will lead us? But a Church that is a lifeboat is a Church that will be inclusive; is a Church that will learn to love those who are different, and loving, will seek to save. Not loving we shrivel and die, but loving we shall live.
He who rose to new life from the dead commands us to love…
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