Sermon preached on the Third Sunday before Lent (12 February 2017) by the Reverend Canon Michael Hampel, Precentor

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Sermon preached on the Third Sunday before Lent (12 February 2017) by the Reverend Canon Michael Hampel, Precentor

The Precentor emphasises the importance of being inspired by the love of God in Christ.

St Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians is written to a multicultural assembly of new Christians from diverse backgrounds: Hellenistic heathens who have embraced the new faith and Jewish converts to Christ.

Paul identifies that these – and many other – various groupings of new Christians are doing what most cultural groupings of people do: they’re sticking together in their groupings and not integrating.

Hence this letter being one which emphasises over and over again the importance of unity: of all the various sorts and conditions of people modelling themselves on Christ. In the letter, Paul addresses issues such as division, hostility and self-interest so that one feels that the letter is more one which seeks to address behaviour rather than teaching.

As such, it’s a letter which contains instructions which are difficult for us today, living as we do in a context so far removed from that of first century Greece and Turkey. It commands wives to be submissive to their husbands and that slaves should obey their masters – both strictures which have been used as rods for centuries to beat women into submission and justify the slave trade.

And, while Ephesians does not contain one of the three or four verses which are often cited as forbidding same gender relations, its call to avoid fornication and impurity is tantamount – in some people’s eyes – to the same thing. Because I’m fairly certain that many people in the Church today believe that, when a man and woman form a relationship, it’s all about love but that, when two men or two women form a relationship, it’s all about sex – or, as Paul puts it in this letter to the Ephesians, fornication and impurity.

The House of Bishops of the Church of England has issued a report on the Church’s position on same gender relationships and it has called for no change to the current interpretation of marriage as being between one man and one woman. Nevertheless, it encourages a new tone of love and inclusion for Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people – as long as they abstain from sexual relationships.

And that takes me back to my parody of some church people’s view of same gender attraction – i.e., that it is all about sex and not love. It is a parody, I know, but I reckon it’s a useful one in getting to the nub of what the fuss is all about.

And I would have some sympathy with those people and therefore also for the Bishops if they maintained the Church’s original teaching that sex was only permissible between a man and a woman if it was intended to lead to conception and thence childbirth.

Once the Church relaxed this teaching and began to speak – as it does in the marriage service – of the joy of bodily union strengthening the union of a couple’s hearts and lives, sexual relations immediately became something more than the route to procreation and as such – in my personal opinion – something which two faithfully committed people of either gender should be able to enjoy as a means of strengthening their hearts and lives (to quote once more from an official Church of England liturgical text).

This week, the General Synod – the Church of England’s governing body – will be asked to ‘take note’ of the Bishop’s report – i.e., to accept it as an authority on the issue.

I hope that General Synod will vote not to take note of it but, instead, to move forward – albeit slowly and carefully – in a direction which is consistent with several other key changes of doctrine in recent years: to permit the sanctioning of same gender relationships with liturgical provision in church and with all the fullness that any loving relationship should enjoy but with alternative provision for those Church members whose conscience does not permit them to sanction such relationships.

This is my opinion and my wish. It is not necessarily that any of my colleagues here at St Paul’s.

I simply yearn to be able to demonstrate to the world that my own Church membership is inspired by the love of God in Christ and not by ancient laws of purity and to be able to concentrate prayerfully and practically on why a third of the world’s population don’t have access to adequate sanitation and why 665 million people have no access to clean water and why 315,000 children die every year from diarrhoeal diseases caused by unsafe water and poor sanitation.

That is real sin and it shows just how sinful sinfulness really is.

Dorothy L Sayers once responded to the question ‘What does the Church think of sex?’ in a form of critical parody by saying, ‘God made it necessary to the machinery of the world, and tolerates it, provided the parties (a) are married and (b) get no pleasure out of it.’

That was 68 years ago. It would be good to use the current debate to move on.

Yes, ‘the days are evil’ – 900 children a day dying from infected water. And I may be wrong but I think that the will of the Lord is to react and respond to this. And, when we’re done, if there’s any time left, we can allow ourselves the luxury (if such it is) to worry about what people do in the privacy of their own bedrooms.

For, as Paul says in his letter to the Ephesians, ‘the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true.’ Let us work for the day when everyone is able to live as children of light and no longer in darkness.