At times, I think the Christian Church has lost the plot.
Being on the evangelical wing of the Church, beyond denominational boundaries, and also having a lot of friends who are not, the fuss over the Ashers bakery case and the Irish equal marriage referendum has ensured that my Facebook feed has plenty to read.
A number of things disturb me. Perhaps it’s the influence of a sermon I heard by a Presbyterian minister about a year ago which pointed out that you can’t expect people who aren’t Christians to behave like Christians. Perhaps it’s Jesus reminding us of planks in our own eyes and that we are hypocrites when we judge others despite being less than perfect ourselves. Perhaps it’s the realisation I had a number of years ago that there isn’t a hierarchy of sin and we can’t look down on each other. The humility to realise what it means for me to be no better than anybody else (more on that another time.)
Sin. There’s a word that is not very popular, and it’s probably because the world has no concept of what sin is, except when it’s Christians banging on about how we need to be saved from them.
And perhaps that is my point. I remember my friend who tells of her time in the Christian Union at DCU, where someone quietly saying the word “jargon” was enough to get whoever was talking to take a step back and reframe in words other people could actually make sense of.
So in a world where people don’t know what sin is, a different language is needed, that meets people where they are. I’ve suggested in the past that we should explore what God means as creator, sustainer and life-giver, and if he is all of those things, then we owe him everything, and, actually, ignoring him and generally failing to thank him is a big deal – essentially, why God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit is relevant to life in a country that I’m not particularly certain was ever Christian to begin with.
It’s all about meeting people where they are. Explaining why we believe even that God exists. Having an answer about the Bible (it’s more certain with the New Testament than with any text of a similar age that the standard Greek text as received today is pretty much as it was written in the 1st Century, due to the number of early manuscripts, which predate and far exceed the number of early manuscripts of Pliny, Caesar’s Gallic Wars etc), and things like that if we’re asked.
It’s also about reading the book of James and realising the reality that preaching the Gospel is going to be all words and no action if the person you’re witnessing to is hungry, poor, or in any other way disadvantaged – that we are hypocrites if we do not act as we believe.
And, as I overheard this morning, having an answer about equal marriage, given that the terminology I’m using is loaded.
There are certain things to note.
Firstly, throughout Ireland, marriage is a civil matter. It is lawful for a heterosexual couple to be married within the context of a religious service: the minister is licensed to conduct the ceremony, witness the vows and pronounce the couple married, and I think most ministers will recite Jesus’ words “Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate” as a prayer over the newly married couple, because many Christians, myself included, believe they have indeed been drawn together by God, but in the end it is the local authority Registrar of Births, Deaths and Marriages who will certify that the marriage is valid.
Secondly, and I suspect this is a large reason why the referendum passed, equal marriage doesn’t affect straight people other than when it’s their friends who are affected. I’ve seen the pain in my friends’ eyes because all they could get in 2012 in Scotland was a civil partnership, something that felt to them, and I know to many others, as incomplete (they got married a few weeks ago.)
Nor is it intended that it will affect the Christian Church, not least because probably the majority of Christian ministers, Jewish Rabbis, and certainly of Muslim Imams could not offer a religious same-sex marriage ceremony – I cannot speak for other religions.
Thirdly, I don’t think that equal marriage is much of a threat to traditional marriage, if any. Others may disagree with me about that, but I think that a far greater threat is from men and women who break their vows to love and cherish each other and to be faithful. I’ve seen the effect of emotional abuse in particular, and many readers will know the impact of physical abuse. That is the real threat to marriage.
More than that, my dear lesbian friends who are committed to each other for life are a challenge to me and to all other couples to live up to their dedication and love. To love my wife as I ought. To treat her right.
That is the serious business.
And so to Ashers.
It’s a judgement that worries me. Not because of the discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, which I’m not convinced of in all honesty, but because of the discrimination on the basis of political opinion.
Does that mean that if I were a printer, I would be obliged to print posters for DUP and Sinn Fein even though I would thoroughly disagree with some of the content, simply because I might do so for another political party?
The answer is “probably.” I can’t say I would be at all happy, but then again I’d’ve made the cake in question if I had been Ashers. I probably can’t have it both ways.
One good thing arising from the decision concerning political discrimination, however, is that the judgement did put to bed the notion that a conscience clause would have been a let out for Ashers.