Licensed to serve

In 2004 the Rector of my former Parish and I decided to ask our Bishop to licence me as a Lay Minister in Public Worship. The parish leadership happily supported the idea. My purpose was to serve the priest and the Parish by applying my experience and theological training. I love the ‘house of God’ and wanted to serve more in liturgy, worship, prayer and the like. I had been more engaged in public ministry in our parish than any one except the priest. I was delighted and humbled by the enthusiasm of many of the parish folks in welcoming the announcement of the proposed application for a licence.

However, a couple of parish members contacted our Bishop, because of concerns about my relationship with my partner. A few others spoke with the minister. The proposal remained in suspense for weeks as the leadership tried prayerfully to decide how to respond. There were some difficult conversations. Those who had contacted the Bishop said they would maintain their objection and possibly leave the parish if I were licensed as a lay minister.

The parish minister and churchwardens met with the Bishop to seek his views. Previously, the Bishop and had said that there are matters of greater importance to the Gospel than sexuality and that his stance was one of prayerful listening. He now also said that while the New Testament condemns relationships that are abusive (e.g. of young people), unfaithful or the like, he does not believe the Bible opposes committed, consensual, genuinely loving relationships. So he was willing to licence me as a lay minister. As well, the parish leadership has repeatedly affirmed my partner and I in our roles in the parish.

The parish minister went out of his way to give us love and pastoral care and to pray with us and for us. But he did not feel able to bring the whole parish with him to an understanding of people in same sex relationships grounded in the reality of the people concerned. So the Bishop agreed that I be asked to withdraw the application for a licence. It was proposed that the Parish undertake some study and discussion concerning sexuality and the faith and I was asked to continue participation in public ministry as I had done up till then. I was saddened that my proposal for growth in service had at first taken up with alacrity, but then had to be set aside. I was disappointed that to licence me as a lay minister was seen as potentially divisive. I agreed not to withdraw the application but to defer it the time being, but there has been no action since.
There is no ‘right’ to minister. Whether and how gifts and abilities are taken up and used is for church leadership and, hopefully, the Holy Spirit to direct. An applicant must be a person of ‘good repute’ (though not all of Jesus’ disciples were such!). But one’s sexual orientation is utterly irrelevant to fitness for Christian service. My partner and I would never do anything to bring into question the reputation of the gospel or church. But I am troubled at what all this says about the attitude of the church to the development of lay ministry generally, and what it says to gay and lesbian people about their place in the church. Licensed lay ministry is among the more humble of the formally endorsed ministries in the Church. What if I had aspired to serve in an ordained ministry or other leadership or teaching role?

I had said that if the licensing did not go ahead for reasons to do with my acceptability, that it would be difficult to continue with activities related to the proposed licence. The joy I had experienced in leading liturgy and prayer has gone for the present. I can’t see myself leading peacefully and well while my participation remains unacceptable to some and potentially divisive. So I was no longer available for leadership roles in public worship.

I have taken my theological studies to be a vocation. But I have also long believed it also to be part of my small role to be a ‘servant of the servants of God’ in worship, liturgy, prayer, the building up of God’s house, and the support of its leadership—a deacon-like role. This I had been doing for thirty years, hopefully with increasing wisdom and certainly with increasing skill. This was now in abeyance.

I have no confidence that more discussion will lead to settled conclusions about sexuality and church life. And after half a lifetime of prayer and study concerning sexuality and the church, I had become rather weary of having to constantly explain and justify my very nature as a person. It is far better prayerfully to seek a conviction in the Spirit as to where Christlikeness and justice lie, together with the empowerment of the Spirit to act accordingly. The old description of theology as ‘faith seeking understanding’ applies here. If we can discern in faith what we believe is life giving and true and state it boldly, by the grace of God the debate and arguments will fall into place. That, of course, is a leadership challenge.

Though we deeply appreciate the care shown to us by parish friends, we have felt bruised and are trying to work out what happens next. Of course we need to pray and to listen. Maybe its time to move to a different parish nearby. We are fortunate that we live in city where there are many parishes near our home. Not an easy thing after (in my case) 15 years in the same place. But we are finding it hard to identify any more with the entirely excellent vision of our present parish. We are not part of it any more, for every time we get involved, our acceptability is always a question in the background. We need to find somewhere where we can wholeheartedly contribute, at first by simply being the people that we are—two men who love God with all their being and wish to worship and work together “in spirit and in truth.”

In April 2005 James and I settled at St Philip’s O’Connor, where I soon was asked to be a lay minister.