It’s all about Love! Sermon to welcome Chichester Pride

25th Jun 2024
News category

On Tuesday 18th June we welcomed participants of Chichester Pride to a service of Choral Evensong to take part in joyous worship and to pray for greater respect, tolerance and understanding in this City and across the World.

The Rev'd Andrew Woodward, Bishop's Liaison Officer for the LGBTQI communities, delivered a heartfelt sermon below.

A few weeks ago, Jack, a young gay lad, came into my church, St Mary’s Kemp Town and exclaimed ”It’s all about love isn’t it, Father”. Of course, I agreed with him that the Gospel is indeed about the unconditional love of God made known to us in Jesus Christ. 

God is love and those who live in love, live in God, and God Lives in them.....There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.

Today, in Pride month, we welcome representatives from Chichester Pride - you are very welcome here. I’ve taken a look at your website, and seen your ethos “to promote diversity, inclusivity, individuality, respect and unity of ALL communities within the city of Chichester”. How wonderful is that! 

We might stand this alongside the strap line on the Church of England website which reads - “We are a Church for ALL, online and in every community in England and across Europe”

Pride events have become mainstream in many UK cities, and whilst they may no longer have elements of protest and political rally, they do demonstrate the huge shift in social acceptance that has taken place over the last decades. Seeing Chichester having a parade of its own is something to be thankful for and perhaps, dare I say, even to marvel at!

Whatever their faults, these events bring people together, and we should contrast the positive effect they have, with the hatred and divisive rhetoric that we currently see and hear exhibited across our nation.

Over the past seven years or so, the Church of England has been engaged in a challenging process known as Living in Love and Faith or LLF for short, involving Christian Teaching and learning about identity, sexuality, relationships and marriage. In my role as the Bishop’s Liaison Officer for the LGBTQI communities within the Diocese, I have held meetings with others across the theological spectrum, many of whom share different views to me. Some people feel the church has gone too far, while others feel it has not gone far enough. My aim has always been to build trust and relationship despite our differences. 

A suite of prayers of love and faith for some sex couples has been commended for use within existing church services, but not yet on a standalone basis. The next meeting of General Synod in July will attempt to continue to hold differing viewpoints together, without the need for structural division. Division would in my opinion be a great sadness, although possibly a short separation with the aim of a future reconciliation, without a full blown divorce, might be a good thing. The alternative might be to allow clergy the option to make their own decisions according to conscience, as is currently the case with marriage in church after divorce.

As someone who is part of the LGBTQI community, in a civil partnership and as a Christian – I know that these positions are far from mutually exclusive. My lived experience shows me that knowing oneself and being free to be who we are enables us to encounter God, and life in all its fullness. 

We may never agree - particularly on same-sex marriage, which is a thorny issue, but I do believe we can still work together and agree on the primacy of the Gospel.

Relationships with Christians and others with whom we disagree are worth investing in; we can build trust and relationship in a spirit of generous hospitality. It’s about finding ways to disagree well. 

Love takes many forms. We cannot predict how and when we might fall in love, but when we do, we know. And nothing thereafter ever remains the same. 

Whether we are gay or straight, the love which we have for one another often finds its expression in a wholehearted commitment to a relationship that is permanent, faithful and stable, giving life to the couple concerned and to those with whom they come into contact.

We are talking about celebrating the reality of the love found in so many committed same sex relationships, and certainly not about abusive relationships or promiscuity. We do not choose our sexual orientation, any more than we choose the colour of our skin. Christine Painter in the theologian Richard Rohr’s blog last week has written that - Sexuality is what draws us beyond our own boundaries into the service, intimacy, and vulnerability of human relationships. Our deepest desires thrust us into these places of tenderness that come with meaningful human connection. 

Some of you may have heard the interview a few years back with Frank Field, Baron Field of Birkenhead, and former MP, who has recently died. He said - I remember having an argument on this with Mrs T [who conflated homosexuality with sin]. “Surely, I told her, it is faithfulness one is after. And integrity”. 

Our lovely passage from Song of Songs, points to love – love of another in all its transforming qualities – Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm; for love is strong as death, passion fierce as the grave. Its flashes are flashes of fire, a raging flame. Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it. And in our psalm today, the psalmist speaks of God knowing us intimately in our mother’s womb and us being fearfully and wonderfully made. –

13 For it was you who formed my inward parts;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.

14 I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works;
that I know very well.

15My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
intricately woven in the depths of the earth.

We are continually being called to become the people God intended us to be from the beginning, without pretence or living up to another’s expectations.

On Maundy Thursday, it is the tradition at St Mary’s that the priest washes the feet of some of the members of the congregation and I used this lovely poem this year by the Jesuit priest, James Quinn-

Here in Christ we gather, love of Christ our calling.
Christ, our love, is with us, gladness be His greeting.
Let us fear Him, yes, and love Him, God eternal.
Loving Him, let each love Christ in all his brothers – and sisters.
Ubi caritas
God is love, and where true love is
God Himself is there.

Our love of Jesus enfolds us into the Body of Christ, the Christ who comes in flesh to dwell among us as one who serves, not one to be served. To serve others with God’s steadfast love for ALL humanity without exclusion. 

Love is costly; it involves listening, taking risks and becoming vulnerable in another’s presence, and putting away past prejudices. 

Within the last few weeks, I was at the bedside of a dear friend aged 90. He was pretty conservative on LGBTQI issues, yet as our friendship grew, so did our understanding of each other, and he asked me the week before he died with warmth and tears in his eyes, and mine, about my wellbeing and the wellbeing of my partner. It was a moment of realisation that what matters most are not labels, but our love and our shared humanity, having integrity and respect for the other without judgement.

Our second reading from the First letter of John is perhaps one of the most powerful passages on love in the New Testament, ranking alongside 1 Corinthians 13, although very different.

John describes its basis and origin in the love of God, shown in Christ, through his death for us, and moves on to describe its implementation into us through the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Through Baptism, God comes to live in us, turning that external expression of his love on the cross into something internal that wells up within us to know that love, and thus to truly love ourselves. Knowing that love and loving ourselves opens the way for us to love others. 

Another young man aged 30, confided in me recently about his struggle to love himself and the accompanying fear and mental health issues he faced. Hiding in the closet, and unable to accept himself because he is gay, he lacked the ability to form any meaningful relationships. Thankfully, through compassionate mental health support and the support of friends, he has come out, and has discovered for himself the freedom to be who he truly is, and loved by God. 

Richard Rohr writes "How does this secret of intimacy become unhidden? Only when we stop hiding—from God, from ourselves, and from at least one other person"

In society and in the Church of England, we are facing a whole load of fear, fear of difference, fear of change, fear of loss and fear of what we do not understand. It bubbles away under the surface and can find expression in verbal abuse that can so easily spill over into hate crime. Hate crime against LGBTQI people, often unreported, is rising significantly despite all the protections in a more inclusive society. There is a long way to go.

Going back to our second reading, John outlines the greatest consequence of this gift of love – the banishing of all fear, fear of revealing our true selves, fear of God, and fear of others, and he finally underlines the new commandment given to us by Jesus – to love one another. It can be painful - the love of God is a crucified love – but the failure to love our brothers and sisters in Christ, in all our differences, undermines the Gospel and betrays our mission. That great mystic, Julian of Norwich wrote – “If I look at myself alone, I am nothing, but when I look at my fellow Christians joined together in love, I have hope”.

One of my favourite poems is Love 3 by the priest and poet George Herbert who died in 1633, aged 39. Instead of God or Christ, Herbert uses the word Love so that we may recall that love is the only metaphor for God, which should be pursued relentlessly.

Love (III)
George Herbert

Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back,
 Guilty of dust and sin.

But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
 From my first entrance in,

Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
 If I lacked anything.

"A guest," I answered, "worthy to be here":
 Love said, "You shall be he."

"I, the unkind, ungrateful? Ah, my dear,
 I cannot look on thee."

Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
 "Who made the eyes but I?"

"Truth, Lord; but I have marred them; let my shame
 Go where it doth deserve."

"And know you not," says Love, "who bore the blame?"
 "My dear, then I will serve."

"You must sit down," says Love, "and taste my meat."
 So I did sit and eat.

My young friend Jack was right – It’s all about love.

Find out more about Chichester Pride

25th Jun 2024
News category