This week I have been humbled and encouraged by the vast number of #BeautifulStories people have shared on Twitter. These are not just stories though; rather, they are testimonies to the ways in which God has created them, and how they have flourished once they realised that.
“Be who God meant you to be and you will set the world on fire!”St Catherine of Siena
As a new doctoral student, I am interested in these stories of flourishing; our love stories with God, and God’s love stories with humanity. I am really struck by the idea of torii seen in Japan, pictured above, and how these gates mark the space in a journey where one travels from this world to the sacred. The particularly iconic torii at Fushimi Inari above stretch for a few miles, repeating over and over. With each step there is a sense of coming closer to the sacred – it is a truly mesmerising experience.
It struck me that the many #BeautifulStories I have read this week are similar to these gates; each one is unique, there is no one story. Neither are they all necessarily happy: we mustn’t forget the stories which are excluded because they don’t feel very ‘beautiful’, or are too painful or costly to tell, as well as those that have been prematurely cut short. However, each individual story brings us slightly closer to understanding God.
The more we see of the great diversity of God’s creation, the better our view of the glimmer or shimmer of God’s image in and through each of us.
My sadness is that these stories were shared as a response to the Church of England (CofE) Evangelical Council’s (CEEC) video, titled The Beautiful Story, and released following the launch of the CofE’s Living in Love and Faith book and resources earlier this month. The video takes viewers through a series of conversations about sexuality from an evangelical Christian standpoint. Whilst regret is expressed in relation to how evangelicals have been posited as homophobic, there remains a clear stance on sexuality, and sex, only being appropriately expressed in marriage between a woman and a man. As a side point, it also suggests that a shift away from this evangelical sexual ethic is responsible for the #MeToo movement. It is also communicated that any change to the CofE understanding of, and teachings on, marriage would lead to people within the CEEC being out of communion with the CofE.
What is deeply concerning about CEEC’s The Beautiful Story is that it expresses minds already made up. It seems to be a battle cry, or a warning, of the red line which cannot be crossed in the eyes of CEEC, regardless of where Living in Love and Faith takes us as a Church. These resources have been offered to help all of us to pray, study and learn together and play our part in discovering what God’s call is to the CofE today. It is the beginning of (yet) another opportunity to listen and to share and to seek to understand those who are different from us – yet this video undermines that spirit and process of discernment.
I was deeply moved by one account of a fellow and much valued priest who, despite being slightly weary from so much listening and so little change over the years, wanted to engage with #LLF. Equally moving was a blog post from another colleague in response to The Beautiful Story – it expresses wonderfully the challenges of growing up, and living, within the margins. I commend both pieces to you.
I too have spent much of my life on the margins. This has been most enduring through my experience of being a lesbian in the church, where the theology espoused in The Beautiful Story at times jeopardised my own love story with God and held me back from seeing myself as “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139: 14). Secondly, I think back to living as a foreigner in Japan for four years in my twenties ; and in more recent years, spending five weeks on placement at St Alban’s Anglican-Episcopal Church in Tokyo. I learned so much from this community who were on the margins of the society they lived within because of their status as foreigners in Japan, or their Christian faith which was incongruent with the beliefs of the wider Japanese society.
Whilst being on the margins can feel painful and uncomfortable, there is huge treasure in the realisation that Jesus never fully fitted either. Jesus modelled living from the margins. Jesus, therefore, offers us much as LGBTQ+ Christians who are so often outside, looking in. Yes, it is exhausting, but Jesus, who saw the woman at the well, who healed the lepers, who gave sight to the blind, who did not condemn the woman caught in adultery, Jesus sees you and me. Jesus knows you and me. Jesus loves you and me. Jesus calls you and me to be who we were meant to be and set the world on fire – this is our beautiful story!