Sermon given at the Sung Eucharist on the Fifth Sunday after Trinity 2021
St Paul himself wrote that in Christ there is no longer Jew or Gentile, male or female, bond or free. The old binaries are superseded.
The Reverend Mark Birch Minor Canon and Precentor
Sunday, 4th July 2021 at 11.15 AM
It was pointed out to me, very gently and kindly, a week or so ago that I might need to rethink the way I introduce services. My default is to welcome everyone as ‘brothers and sisters’, or, indeed, ‘sisters and brothers’, to try and reflect the kinship we have in Christ, by the Spirit, as God’s children. ‘Yes,’ said my interrogator, ‘but what about non-binaries?’
I suspect many of us struggle a bit with what feels like a proliferation of categories by which people now identify themselves. I wonder how many of us could reel-off what the initials LGBTQ represent, and indeed what a + might then signify. How many among us properly understand the difference between sex and gender, cis and trans? Do we know that ‘they’ can now be a singular rather than a plural pronoun? And if you thought rainbow flags were a bit gaudy, prepare for the geometric and psychedelic headache that is the Progress flag.
Identity, and identity politics, is a hot-button issue, and for those of us who hate to cause offence, it has created a whole new series of linguistic bear-traps into which we might fall, and be shown up for the prejudiced and un-enlightened people we try so hard not to be. If we struggled with political-correctness, then this is a whole new lexicon to get our heads around. It is challenging; a bit bewildering; and it can be hard to control the temptation to just roll our eyes.
But behind every marker of identity, every category of diversity, there is a story, a tradition even, of prejudice, shame, disadvantage, and much personal pain. Churches, as places that rightly value tradition, are too often the places where that prejudice and shame is played-out, either by what amounts to psychological abuse (conversion therapies and the like), or simple exclusion. Even places like this that would not dream of using either strategy, we struggle not to be seen as part of the problem. How important might it then be to educate ourselves, and to listen carefully to the experiences of those who do not identify within the simple categories of male and female, when men are men and women are women, and only opposites attract.
Have mercy upon us, O Lord, (wrote the psalmist) have mercy upon us, for we have had more than enough of contempt.
Our soul has had more than enough of the scorn of the arrogant, and of the contempt of the proud.
This proliferation of identities may not be something new; it is perhaps unearthing, revealing to us just how many different people, in how many different ways, have felt the contempt and scorn of a culture that in its arrogance assumed to define what was ‘normal.’ Many people have had more than enough of this.
Much speculation exists regarding the nature of the ‘thorn in the flesh’ that St Paul wished, more than anything, to be delivered of. Was it a physical ailment or was it some deeper element of his identity? The answer from God was ‘my grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’ Paul discovered God’s power in the very part of himself that he wanted to reject, or, perhaps, felt that he should reject.
‘Prophets are not without honour, except in their home town, and among their own kin, and in their own house’, said Jesus when his own people could not accept him.
By owning who they are, many have found themselves at best mis-understood, and at worst dis-honoured or excluded. For the church, there just might be prophetic voices here that we are in danger of not hearing.
This is a real challenge for the Church. We see this in the intractable and dismal debates about human sexuality, which have been going on for decades. There seems little sign of resolution beyond a sullen acknowledgement that we might just have to learn to live with deep disagreement for the foreseeable future, much as we do with the deep divisions over the priestly and episcopal ministries of women.
But if we are just going to keep dividing and dividing over every successive category of human identity and diversity, then the future is truly dismal.
This is neither desirable, nor necessary, but it is going to require us to re-examine our theology, and ask the question whether our traditional reading of scripture, and of Genesis in particular, is adequate. We might ask whether it has ever been truly adequate to say that men are men and women are women and only opposites attract, and to class anything else as rebellion against God. That may feel tidy and safe for many, but for others it simply institutionalises repression and gives licence for abuse.
The great book of creation, as we read it with more and more scientific sophistication, suggests that male and female is just the beginning of human diversity, not its end. There are indeed, those who simply do not fall within those categories, and within male and female there are huge and overlapping breadths of genetic expression and environmental influence, resulting in what we call ‘gender’, to the extent that any strictly binary definition of male and female becomes untenable.
This isn’t just about the Church playing catch-up and accepting uncritically the social mores of our times. We can, and should, offer a constructive critique of what is emerging. There is great concern that women’s space is being colonised by those who have been through male puberty, who bring much of their erstwhile male privilege and advantage with them, especially in the field of competitive sport. If we could see male and female as the beginnings of God-given diversity, rather than its end, then maybe we could broaden the categories of male and female gender, and allow them to overlap, rather than having no choice but to colonise one another.
Ironically, both conservatives and progressives in this debate are deeply embedded in a binary mindset—this or that—hermetic, self-contained categories defining themselves against one another. Even non-binaries find themselves in a binary relation!
For those schooled in Christian theology we might recognise an old problem here.
Arguably the greatest challenge posed by the Christian gospel was that binary or dualistic notions were no longer tenable. St Augustine, at his conversion, famously rejected the dualistic cult of Mani, and argued strongly that even the binary of good and evil had to be rejected if God and God’s creation are to be considered good.
The Incarnation, the Word made flesh, God in human form, means that we can no longer talk about heaven and earth, God and humanity as separate things, as distinct categories. Neither can we talk about them as the same thing, as if one has merged or been absorbed or lost into the other, but as something beyond duality, beyond binary; a new synthesis; a new creation. St Paul himself wrote that in Christ there is no longer Jew or Gentile, male or female, bond or free. The old binaries are superseded. Our God, it turns out is not in the business of segregation, nor uniformity, but of communion.
The Christian gospel forces upon us a new theology, a new way of conceiving of God as the communion of Father, Son and Holy Spirit—1 God in 3 persons, equal in divinity, but irreducibly different in their relation one to another.
In all the categories of identity politics, what can get lost (again ironically) is the person; that unique instance of humanity, born to reflect the glory of the Trinity; whatever their sex, gender, and however they are attracted; called to live out the deep and glorious mystery of persons-in-relation, without any loss of distinctiveness and without inequality.
Christian theology should be able not just to cope with the challenges of identity politics, but to offer models of how we can enjoy one another’s uniqueness, weakness, even weirdness, without fear, and without demanding that we conform to categories that will ultimately divide and diminish everyone. Male and female are surely just the beginnings, the genesis, of human diversity, not its end.
So, whether brothers or sisters, or neither or both, may we discover our true dignity as persons-in-relation, fellow children, called into communion with the One who is revealed as Trinity, in whose image we are made, and to whom be glory, praise, dominion and might, now and to all eternity.