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The nature of welcome

Sermon by Revd Richard Lloyd-Morgan, Sunday 30th September 2018

Today’s Gospel reading from Mark presents us with some of the most troubling and disturbing material that we’ll find anywhere in the Scriptures, and as much of it is Jesus talking, it comes, as it were, directly from the horse’s mouth. To start with, I’m going to offer you a couple of verses that occur just before the passage we heard. ‘Then he took a little child and put it among them: and taking it in his arms, he said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.’

That seems to me to be absolutely, unequivocally clear. The value, the needs of the child in our society are of the greatest importance. We can none of us, unless we have been spending our recent days on some remote desert island, be unaware of the vast and distressing amount of evidence that has come to light relating to the abuse of children and vulnerable adults. And it cannot be denied that a considerable amount of the abuse has come from members of the church, male clergy among the greatest contributors. It stretches back decades.  A good many years ago a friend of mine, who was serving as a priest not far from here, was walking down Putney High Street and said ‘Hallo’ to a mother and child on the pavement. The mother grabbed the child and said, ‘Don’t talk to him; he’s a pervert.’ The priest was profoundly shocked and distressed. He didn’t know them, but the mother’s reaction was so immediate and so violent that it rocked him back on his heels. Of course, one has no idea what the history of the mother and child was that led to that reaction. What had they previously encountered? 

The abuse that has recently been surfacing has not been confined to the church, but there has been a seam of damaging and abusive behaviour coming from members of church communities that has effectively wrecked the lives of countless young people and it is difficult to know quite where to start to remedy the situation. Apologies only go so far. We hear of the treatment meted out to young unmarried mothers in the Republic of Ireland by members of religious communities, of abuse dealt out by hundreds of priests (male) in the USA to over a thousand adolescents dating back decades; we hear of beatings administered at a Christian evangelical holiday camp to young men in the name of purifying and disciplining the body by a charismatic man who thought, I imagine, that he was in some psychotic and deranged way doing God’s work. Behaviour that the current bishop of Buckingham who has absolutely no time for any such activity, describes as ‘sado-evangelism.’ And you will have had your heart-strings wrung to extremities if you ever managed to listen to Charles Wheeler, the BBC correspondent’s, broadcast, recorded shortly before he died, on the treatment meted out to children, boys and girls, aged about eight to twelve, who were taken from English orphanages, told that their parents had either died or no longer loved them or wanted them, and sent out to start new lives in Australia and Canada, where the level of physical and sexual abuse was staggering. How in Christ’s name do you do that to a child?

You will know that our responsibility to children is to offer them, not only love and protection, but education both intellectual and emotional, security, and whatever we can produce in terms of role models. And I’m speaking as one who has never borne the incredibly heavy burden of parenthood. The stories coming out of several schools throughout the country of how they are forced to implement cuts within an already strictly limited budget are profoundly depressing. And similar cuts within the realms of social services, especially those linked to children with special needs, are equally gloomy, and, I would suggest, very short-sighted. It is not surprising that head teachers from around the country felt obliged to march to Parliament Square the day before yesterday to register their protests.

The consequences are frightening, but clearly spelt out. Jesus says, ‘if any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.’ And having said that, Jesus goes on. He is, as it were, on a roll, and by implication says that it’s not just the immediate mistreatment of children and the vulnerable young that we must at all costs avoid, which is, if you like fairly obvious, but the murkier, less clearly defined areas of influence that are just as important. And here I find that I’m wrestling with demons. I was brought up at school and at university in a fairly evangelical Christian environment with people whose views on LGBTI issues were pretty clearly laid out. Simply put, it was wrong to indulge in any such practices as it was the path to moral ruin and the eternal flames. End of argument. Since then things have moved on, but many still retain an uncompromising attitude to all such issues, and genuinely believe that anyone who gives into such temptations is imperiling their immortal soul, and this whole issue is currently tearing the Church apart.  To many advocates of what is claimed to be scriptural teaching it is a mill-stone, and any approach to what they might term ‘healing’ is to be seized and imposed on anyone who might be tempted to sin. As a result we have had approaches to what is loosely termed ‘conversion therapy’, and if you have read the autobiographies of either Vicky Beeching in her book ‘Undivided’ or Jayne Ozanne in her book ‘Just Love’, you’ll get some idea of the hideous damage that such so-called therapies can inflict. And the overarching tragedy of all this is that it has become the issue about which so many people in the Church are now completely obsessed.

But to those who are struggling to identify what the true will of God is, it is an issue of their own personal integrity, honesty, Godliness weighed against what they see as bigotry, anxiety, fear and a general misunderstanding of the gifts of love that God has poured on so much of his creation. And conversely those who believe that any such behaviour is sinful will uphold Jesus’ teaching that it is better to cut off an arm, a foot, to pluck out an eye and thus enter the kingdom of heaven maimed but pure; but they will be vehemently challenged by those who consider that their sexuality is indeed a gift from God and something for over which to rejoice.

There is a great deal more work to be achieved. We are only just starting out. Hearts have been and will continue to be broken and lives have been and will continue to be lost. 

We have just remembered Lizzie Lowe, a fourteen-year-old girl who took her own life rather than tell her profoundly Christian parents that she might be gay. Their devastation and grief is appalling to witness. And the Church has a long way to go in accepting such people as Lizzie as vibrant, glorious life-affirming children of a God of infinite love. We pray for your support.