by the Revd Canon Rosie Harper, Chaplain to the Bishop of Buckingham, Member of General Synod and Trustee of the Ozanne Foundation
I’m experiencing an interesting collision of three family stories as I sit down to write this piece. The gospel reading for Sunday morning sees a dying man hand his mother into the care of his close friend. Meanwhile the daffodils are out and we celebrate Mother’s Day -or, for those of you who enjoy being counter-cultural, Mothering Sunday. This is dwarfed by the drama of the world’s most famous dysfunctional family having their melt-down on the international stage.
When all goes smoothly being part of a loving family is wonderful. We can feel assured of love even when we mess up. We know where we belong and we can trust that our family has our best interests at heart. This may be a genetic family, or a constructed family. It may be a social and faith-based family, such as a church. If your family is a really safe place it is also where you can have a good row. You can be free to say what is on your heart without the fear that you will be expelled.
Within a healthy family system being loved and belonging are not up for negotiation. There is, or should be, no ‘deal’ – in other words, nothing transactional about your place within your family.
Sadly, we know that it doesn’t always work out that way.
For many people it is a defining aspect of their emotional life that they are always striving to please their judgemental parents. Long into adulthood they crave parental approval more than anything else. It’s fairly common for successful people on Desert Island Disks to say something along the lines of ‘I really wish my Dad had lived long enough to see me win an Oscar, he never thought I’d amount to much.’
It is very hard to have a settled and confident sense of belonging if you are constantly feeling judged. Whatever you may think about ‘Megxit’ it does look as if she never developed a confident sense of belonging to her new family and always felt judged – maybe by them, maybe by the British press. Whatever the real story it has caused sadness and distress all round.
When my mother moved to the UK following her marriage one of the first things that struck her was how people controlled their children though their inheritance. In Switzerland you simply cannot cut off a child you’ve fallen out with. The inheritance laws give an equal share to every child.
So if ordinary human families so often mess this up maybe there is a second chance within God’s family?
Justin Welby expressed this very clearly when the news broke that the man he had always supposed to be his father was not. In 2016 he said: “My own experience is typical of many people. To find that one’s father is other than imagined is not unusual. To be the child of families with great difficulties in relationships, with substance abuse or other matters, is far too normal.” And he said that he found who he was in his religious faith, “not in genetics”.
This is a very big deal. A whole new chance to find who you are in the context of the love of God and to become part of a healthy Christian family. I would even go so far as to suggest that this makes the church specially attractive to those who have challenging parental experiences. The offer is that you are adopted into the family of Christ and receive God’s unconditional love. It’s full of potential for healing and growth, stability and maturity.
The incident where Jesus, in extremis, thinks more of his mother’s pain than his own and entrusts her in the care of John, is a highly charged example of the quality of love we all long for. In the gospels we hear of Jesus’ acts and his teachings but there are very few moments of personal intimacy. This is one of them.
As Christians we invest very deeply in the ‘belonging’ part of faith. What could be better than becoming a child of God? How sad, how bitter then is the fact that huge energy goes into defining who ‘belongs’ and who doesn’t? This surely is an evil thing which betrays the love we proclaim.
This week, Jayne Ozanne quit the government’s LGBT+ Advisory Panel. She was holding them to account for their commitment to ban “conversion therapy” – which they were failing to implement. Thankfully this bold action has drawn a fresh promise that a ban will happen.
This is a way of putting action into the General Synod motion which also called for a ban.
It matters so very much because so-called “conversion therapy” is the most cruel expression of the many ways in which LGBT+ people have been treated by their Christian family. Sadly church has never been a place where any minority has felt safe. We unknowingly transfer our dysfunctional family systems into the church. We pre-load God with a love which demands total conformity – a love which will cut you off if you are different or rebellious or challenging.
We will never get this right until we repent of our idolatrous image of God and rediscover the God who is the very essence of love. Yes, as human beings, even within the church, we will probably go on being cruel and judgemental and capricious, but let’s stop calling that ‘God’ and own it and take responsibility. Goodness – just imagine if people were able to say ‘I don’t want you in my church’ instead of ‘God doesn’t want you in his church’!
It is a massive challenge. Taking responsibility for our own prejudices and working to understand what’s going on and bring about change. The Christian family could be pretty wonderful if we could just grow up enough to treat one another as equal siblings.