Many of you have been kind enough to enquire of me how I enjoyed my recent visit to Palestine and Israel: Where did I go? What did I see? How was it? How is it? Some of you will have experienced a response that has been hesitant and restrained. This is because it is impossible, for me at least, to have a holiday in a place where there is so much to comprehend in terms of Holy Sites, religious and political dialogue, and an atmosphere and reality of a country that is full of contradiction and challenge. Palestine is not unique in this manner of description – but its contradictions and challenges are unique.
One of the reasons my response to enquiries has been hesitant and restrained is because this last visit was hard work. I found myself one morning, about four days in, sitting in my room weeping – but I couldn’t explain why. In fact, a friend was able to articulate what I was not. It was being in the midst of contradiction and challenge – located for me at the point on this visit when I had spent a morning walking through Silwan, and the following afternoon at Yad Vashem. In addition, I was awaiting the publication of a Report which I knew was going to impact on the lives of people for whom I care: colleagues, church members and friends alike. In this moment, I was wondering just how it is that humanity has – that we all have – reached a point when the truth that each human is created in the image of God can be so easily cast aside.
Silwan is a ‘village’ on the side of Mount Zion. It is higgledy-piggeldy in its construction and houses vie for space with small alleyways, barely two feet across in some places, leading up the hillside from way down in the Kidron Valley to almost the top of this important Mountain. The village is inhabited by Arabs and is in the Palestinian Territories. Some years ago, forty Jewish families moved into the area and you can tell their homes because they are well built, have proper entrances, and look, well, ‘posh’ in comparison to the homes of the Arab families. The choice of these Jewish to move to this area was entirely political and the plan is for more to move into the village. This has caused friction and tension as there is no dialogue, there is no recognition that this is a community to whom and for whom the Israeli Government has shown little time and commitment even though they pay their taxes, and there is a strong sense of fear and disquiet amongst the Arab families as they know that there is little they can do as the Israeli Government continue to make life very difficult for them. I walked through this village to see what this neighbourhood was like. It was quiet, people were keen to discover if I was lost or needed help. On reflection, when I was told by an Arab friend that this is a dangerous place to visit because it can be very volatile, these people were quite possibly anxious as to who I was and what I was doing there – and rightly so.
Yad Vashem is the Memorial to those who died in the Holocaust. It is a place of darkness – literal darkness due to the design of the building, and emotional darkness as the terrible and inhumane atrocities wreaked by the Nazi Regime are recorded there. Information boards, photographs, drawings, actual belongings of those who died are all to be found there, as well as the Book of Names that records, as far as possible, the name of each Jewish person killed in the Shoah. The information boards record the truth that Churches across Europe remained silent as news leaked out about all of the atrocities taking place in Concentration Camps and Ghettoes. They record too that it was not just Jews who were exterminated, it was Homosexuals, those with Learning Needs, Physical Needs, or Mental Health issues. Sympathisers were killed too, anyone who assisted others risked their lives and often lost them. As I left Silwan, I walked past a gate post that bore the Star of David to indicate ‘you are now in the Land of Israel’; if you are Arab – Muslim or Christian Arab – you are not welcome here. As I left Yad Vashem, I travelled up the escalator into a brilliant blue sky and thought of those who had entered the Gas Chambers, cut off from friends and family who never saw the sky again, to whom the Nazis had said, you are not welcome here.
Then there was the Report due to be published soon after my return, a Report which goes by the natty name of: Marriage and Same Sex Relationships after the Shared Conversations: A Report from the House of Bishops. Following a period of time during which Shared Conversations have taken place, and discussion with various Groups and interested parties, the Bishops have produced this Report on where their thinking has reached regarding Marriage and same sex relationships within the Church of England. This Report has caused consternation, sadness and anxiety amongst those who are members of the Lesbian, Gay, Bi-sexual, Transgendered and Intersex community, as well as those who stand with them. The Report calls for a change of tone and welcome but actually perpetuates the sense that to be Lesbian or Gay is a sin. If you are a Lay member of the church, you may marry a partner of the same sex, if you are Ordained, you may not. In effect this is saying that what is ‘acceptable’ in terms of partnered relationship for those who are lesbian and gay remains sinful and unacceptable overall. If the intention of the Report is not to say this, then the Report would ‘allow’ those who are Ordained to enter into these relationships too. I wish to be very clear with you, perhaps more clear than I have been before, I do not believe being lesbian or gay or bi-sexual to be a sin. The Bible is not ‘clear’ on this matter as some suggest it is and, even if it were as clear on this matter as some suggest, why do such people persist in quoting chapter and verse on this matter and ignore the verses that are on either side… no tattoos and no removal of beards, for example. And, for those who do not wish the church to ‘give way and change to societal mores’, what might we say of the church’s change of policy on Divorce? Witness today’s Gospel.
I know personally those who are lesbian and gay who have initially been welcomed to worship but then later refused a position on the PCC. I have received complete strangers at my doorstep and into the Vicarage who are transgendered or trans-sexual who have wept because they believe ‘the church’ will not welcome them. I welcome them, but I am not ‘the church’ and, by the overall thrust of this Report being presented to the Synod, ‘the church’ retains the message of ‘you are not welcome here’. This the same message as that experienced by the Arabs of Silwan and the Jews of Germany and Europe and I do not believe it to be right or acceptable.
As a woman who serves as a Priest in the Church of England I have been called an abomination for my gender. Shouted at me in hatred and anger in a church just down the road were the words, ‘You are not welcome here’. Through the years of debate regarding women becoming priests and then Bishops, women (ironically) had to have the voices of many men speaking alongside us and, indeed, sometimes for us in order to ‘champion’ our cause. It is with this as my background, my hermeneutic that, as a straight woman, I feel such concern and disappointment in the Rpoert by the Bishops that I have been moved to write to those elected to serve on General Synod asking them not to ‘take note’ of the proposals in the Report. I cannot stand by as the Church of England says to those who wish to be members of our church, who wish to serve our church, who are members of the LGBTI community, you are not welcome here.
I have written as a lifelong member of the Church of England who wishes to stand both in solidarity with and willing service of those members of the Church of England and wider community who identify themselves as LGBTI. I have made this request as a member of the Church of England who believes our church should be saying, ‘You are welcome here’ whoever, however you are – straight, single, married, celibate, gay, divorced, lesbian - whoever, however you are.
The time away in Palestine and Israel was hard work and has left me with a renewed desire to ensure that God’s people are served whoever and however they are. We shall not always do it perfectly because none of us is perfect, but the place I know we have to begin is by ensuring that the message that our community hears from us all is, You are welcome. Nothing more and nothing less, You are welcome. Amen.