I love the phrase, penned by Marty Hagen, in His Hymn ‘Let us Build a House:’ ‘words within the Word.’ I long and pray for a time when all who come to church, for whatever reason, will be truly regarded as ‘words within the Word.’ If this hope, vision, and aspiration is to be realized the starting point must surely be a recognition that all are made in the image of God (Genesis 1, 26), and that in God’s kingdom nobody is a second class citizen.
I suspect that such a depth of understanding is a stretch for most of us, most of the time. It is a very (fallen) human propensity to believe that there are first, second, third, perhaps even fourth, class citizens. Perhaps the worst consequence of the fall has been the human instinct to demarcate, categorize, rank, and exclude?
When we categorize and rank, when we refuse to regard others, ‘words within the Word,’ the tendency is to build a house where the highest ethics we can aim for are pity, benign tolerance, and cold charity. The building of a house where ‘love is found,’ where ‘all are named’ and, where the church becomes ‘a banquet hall on holy ground, where peace and justice meet,’ becomes nothing more than a pipe dream and shallow utterance. When we categorize and rank, privileging one group over and above others, maybe all we are left with is a religious assembly, or cult?
Recently we have heard several stories about people being afforded or denied their God-given status as ‘words within the Word.’ Those who have to live with the appalling consequences of the Grenfell Tower disaster have finally been given the opportunity to tell their stories. Victims of sexual abuse in the Church of England have said that they have never been given the opportunity to tell their stories or to assist in the creation of liturgies of post abuse reconciliation. LGBTIQ+ Christians repeatedly say that they are more frequently talked about than talked to. There have been occasions, in recent history, where people have been offered the opportunity to speak to great effect. I am thinking, for instance, of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation commission. I have come to believe that such is our innate, and fallen, propensity to rank, categorize, and talk about, rather than to, that allowing others to be fully ‘words within the Word,’ is something that needs to be, at least initially, until it becomes natural, something we will into being.
I am fairly used to being in environments where two of my loved ones are talked about, as though they were problems to be solved, or worse still second class citizens. Let me give two fairly recent examples: My elder daughter is an occasional wheelchair user (she has C.P. and occasionally her legs cease to function, she also has seizures on a fairly frequent basis). When out and about in her wheelchair my daughter, if caught short, needs to use a disabled lavatory. Unfortunately disabled lavatories are not always looked after as well as they might be, and so my daughter decided to complain at the (appalling) state of a facility she has just been forced to endure. The manager (eventually) came to discuss the situation, and as often occurs talked straight past my daughter, to me. Now Katherine (for that is her name) is extremely bright, highly articulate, and knows her own mind. Trust me I am her dad!
The manager through the way he behaved made it clear that he couldn’t regard my daughter as an equal in any way, shape or form. I suspect that the manager’s bias was innate rather than thought through and that he very possibly thought that he was talking to Katherine, rather than over and past her. Is there a danger that the church might fall into the same trap? Its a fairly easy trap to fall into; thinking we are talking to, when in fact we are talking through.
At a churchy do the other week someone asked me whether my daughters have boyfriends. I gave an honest reply: one does, the other has a girl friend. My reply brought and abrupt, and to my mind rude, end to the conversation. My questioner made it perfectly clear that my younger daughter was to be placed in a category of which they disapproved. In both of these examples my daughters were denied the opportunity of being ‘words within the Word,’ which for me is the definition of what it means to be‘in Christ’.
The Church must, as already suggested, will and learn the art of listening to ‘others,’ so that they can truly be regarded as being ‘ words within the Word,’ and ‘in Christ.’ After all, we don’t suggest that ‘us’ heteronormative types pretend our other identities somehow don’t matter, or are somehow not ‘in Christ.’
However listening to the words ‘others’ speak isn’t enough. If we are to relate to and converse with others, we can only do so by responding in kind: ‘words within the Word.’ Sometimes the words we use will be pastoral, occasionally they may be words of rebuke, frequently they will (in the Church of England) be liturgical words.
Liturgy is Anglicanisms genius and epistemology. Liturgy is also both conversational and consequential: confession is followed by absolution, proclamation is followed by thanksgiving (‘this is the word of the Lord’………’thanks be to God,’) petition is followed by affirmation (‘will you the families and friends of x and y support and uphold them in their marriage now and in the years to come?’…….’we will.’) Discernment is also followed by affirmation (‘is it your will that I ordain a,b,and c?’……..’it is.’) The point is that words always beget words of some form or other. The words we use in Anglicanism to express both our ethos and our beliefs are shared, formal, and liturgical.
In relation to LGBTIQ+ (and other) issues the Church of England has to make a straightforward theological decision: are LGBTIQ+ Christians made equally in the image of God as ‘words within the Word,’ or are they some other category of human being?
Having discerned the answer to this most basic theological question, the issue then becomes what words to use in response: words of rebuke, or words of affirmation? If the answer is words of affirmation the only way that this can be done is for those words to be formal liturgical words. Individual LGBTIQ+ members of the body, should always be given the words of sacramental recognition (‘the body of Christ’……’the blood of Christ.’) LGBTIQ+ couples should be offered liturgical rites.
After all we are all either ‘words within the Word,’ or none of us are.