Reading: Psalm 91
Listen to the service and sermon here:
Today is Mothering Sunday, and such an emphasis on mothers can bring about a complex range of emotions for people. But I don’t want to talk too much about motherhood as much I want to talk about Safe Spaces and the Church as a Safe Space.
Mothering Sunday in the 16th century had the tradition of people returning to their ‘mother church’ – the church where they were baptised, their local parish church or cathedral. So it is good to be in the mother church of the Diocese of Oxford for this sermon. I had the fortune to return to my own mother church in the shadow of Pendle Hill in Lancashire where I was baptised at four months old just a week and half ago when I took my Grandma’s funeral. That church is named for St Mary, and so it was a day full of motherhood. Grandmother. Mother church. Mother Mary. And a very real sense of being comforted by God as mother. I love how Jesus longs to be a mother hen to the people of Jerusalem, as Matthew 23 tells us, that Jesus wants to gather them under his wings.
An image he borrows, perhaps, from Psalm 91 – that Jayne has read to us. Verse 4 reads: “God will cover you with his pinions, and under his wings you will find refuge”. I love birds – especially garden birds – something that was nurtured by my dearly departed grandmother. And so I latch on to these verses and find great warmth and comfort from them.
But the whole of Psalm 91 offers these wonderful images of God as… well, safe.
Verse 1 = the shelter of the Most High, and the shadow of the Almighty. To be sheltered and close to God.
Verse 2 = God is our refuge and fortress, whom we can trust.
Verse 3 = God as deliverer from traps and pestilence.
As well as the bird imagery, verse 4 also offers us God as shield and buckler.
Later on, angels are promised to have concern for us, and the Psalm ends with a benediction from God.
It makes me feel safe. I feel safe with God. God is and God provides a Safe Space for us.
I didn’t really come into my sexuality until I had flown the nest. So it was University I began to realise what it meant not to feel safe and secure around other Christians. I had grown up in an evangelically-slanted middle of the road tradition in villages and towns, with some of my teenage years abroad as a missionary kid in East Africa. But it became very clear very quickly that I did not feel safe in the Christian Union.
This remains the case for many people who discover themselves to be a part of the LGBT+ community. The narrative of homophobic treatment of LGBT+ people from a primarily fundamentalist Christians has tainted much of the church, turning it into a place that is dangerous.
My faith was fine without the Christian Union in my life, thank you very much. I prayed over Monday breakfasts with other Christians on my course, attended my home church during holidays, and explored my faith through writing and drama – I am a storyteller and a creative at heart.
Eventually I found a church and it combined familiar worship songs and good discussion with something new to me – Compline.
I began to find a safe space in more liturgical worship – something familiar to me because of my more middle of the road heritage. And from that church I began to discern a call to the priesthood.
To test the call, I moved to London as a pastoral assistant at a liberal Anglo-Catholic church. There I could finally reconcile for myself my faith and my sexuality. Catholic theology gave me a safe space to be a gay Christian, in a way that I had never known or seen as possible.
I discovered that my whole self is loved by God. My whole self is a gift of God. To be gay as a gift! And to resent my gay identity as a form of blasphemy.
Such knowledge is a safe space, and I carry that theology with me still.
But here is the thing about safe spaces.
They’re wonderful. They make us feel at home, secure. All those things that Psalm 91 talks about.
But we cannot stay there, or else they become Comfort Zones. And God always calls us out of our Comfort Zones and into the Wilderness.
One of my Wildernesses was theological college – which was wonderful by the way – but going from liberal Anglo-Catholic London to an open evangelical college in the north surrounded by straight men fulfilling the family dream I’d expected for myself growing up and by evangelicals who might hate me if they knew I was gay made things unwell with my soul for a while. That’s when I started to use the word ‘Safe’ as descriptors for those around me.
In time college did become my Safe Space as I became more open about who I am, and then I was called by God to somewhere new for curacy. The Diocese of Oxford – an unknown diocese to me where I did not know if I was ‘safe’ as a gay clergyman. I am delighted to say that I have been very impressed by this diocese and excited to be one of its LGBT+ Chaplains – where we talk a lot about Safe Spaces. And concurrently to bear witness to ‘Sacred’ – this new service of worship – billed as being Safe.
We talk a lot about Safe Spaces. And as we live through this pandemic of Coronavirus, there are not many safe spaces around except from in our homes and in isolation. Christians and churches are finding that gathering online in the digital space is the safe thing to do.
And it’s good to talk about Safe Spaces when we think and talk about Church.
But I also want to challenge you by using something else that I learned from Catholic theology.
Another word for Holy Communion is “Mass”, which comes from the Latin “missio-“. It is from that same root that we get our Christian word ‘mission’. It means: To be sent.
And in the service for Holy Communion from the Book of Common Prayer – there are the Comfortable Words. Verses from Scripture that remind us of who we are in Christ and in Christ’s great act of redemption.
They include my Grandma’s favourite verse: “So God loved the world, that he gave his only-begotten Son, to the end that all that believe in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” John 3.16.
We hear these words before receiving communion – before receiving Jesus. Jesus as God is all that Psalm 91 declares of God. We consume Jesus, our ultimate Safe Space.
And then having received, we are sent out into the world to be Christ’s light to that world.
Each of you will have a different theology of what is a sacrament and what it means to be church. And it is good that we have Safe Spaces to come and encounter God in, to remind ourselves of God’s grace and abundant love for us. For the LGBT+ community, that knowledge is not always so easy to hold onto.
But it is also good to remember that from these Safe Spaces, God equips us by the Holy Spirit to go out and to love. To make safe spaces for others where they can encounter God and God’s love.
We need Safe Spaces, but we need them to called out of. We are called from Safe Spaces, not called to them. As a mother bird shelters her children under her wings, one day the chicks must venture out to fly – knowing, though, that their mother remains in the nest for when they need the love that only a Mother can give.