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How To Do Church Better?

How Can We Do Church Better?

Thank you for having me here today, it is a real privilege and an honour.

When asked how to do Church better my brain goes immediately to Sunday worship - the sermon, the sides people, the music, morning tea for afters - especially with our culture's ever growing love of coffee. I think of roster systems, parish councils, pew bulletins and newsletters, small groups and bible studies. But for us here today, it means something entirely different - how do we do Church better so that we can change who we are, admit our failures, repent and do better.

In this context, we have set a low bar for how we can do Church better, because in this context we probably couldn’t do it any worse. We have made a significant part of the population feel like they are ‘wrong’, ontologically wrong, that their very substance of who they are puts them outside of God’s love. This is a shame, a shame of that Church has put onto people. It is a shame that we the Church will have to own if we are going to repent and change our ways, lest we get stuck in a loop. No one is outside of God’s love, and we need to speak and act in accordance with that great love we have been shown.

One of the first things that came to my mind was how many Churches go out of their way by saying ‘All Welcome’ - and we say this every Sunday but there are often additional words that accompany this...a ‘non judgmental environment’. Now usually this is said with good intentions...but there is an implication that ‘someone is doing something wrong’, that there is judging to be had. It can be a patronising and unhelpful. It can turn people away. One way of doing Church better is move away from being ‘non judgmental’ to celebrating people’s lives. To move from from saying we are open and welcoming to actually being open and welcoming. This means that every person who walks through our doors is celebrated in a way that is all encompassing, we celebrate who they are and who they are in God, and we celebrate like we are family. It means being open to people who have different life experiences than you, to see life from many different angles and to understand what is important to people. Who knows - we all just might learn something from each other! I have only really experienced being Tiffany for the last 35 years, it is important for us to realise that everyone has their own unique combination of life experiences that we can share and learn from.  Being truly open, welcoming and celebrating means that we are open to seeing God move in people’s lives in where they are called and who they are called to be with. The revelation of God’s spirit working through people's lives did not stop when Biblical Canon was chosen. We have to continue to be open to what God is saying to us - at every stage of our lives.

The next thing that struck me as how we can be church better was to be resolute in upholding and supporting relationships. Saturday, I did a wedding right here at the Cathedral, I was struck by some of the repercussions of marriage inequality. In the wedding vows we ask the congregation of family and friends to vow that they will do their best to uphold and support the couple in their marriage. Now, I know this hits on a point of contention. A sore point because the government is putting marriage equality to a popular vote. This is the wrong thing to do. It means that we the Church don’t ever make that promise out loud to a significant portion of our population. But that doesn’t mean that our hands are tied when it comes down to supporting, happy, faithful, loving and respectful relationships. In our moving from ‘non judgement’ to ‘celebration’ we must ask ourselves what does that mean? What does that look like? I believe that it is to treat every person with love and dignity, to support each other through community. For so many years people who identify as LGBTIQ have had to keep their relationships a secret from their church, workplace, their family and friends. Some people are still forced to do this due to prejudice. We have forced people into leading double lives and shut off half their world. I couldn’t imagine not being able to freely talk about and socially acknowledge my husband, but this is what we have done. Forcing people into secret relationships means that we have not given our sisters and brothers support and honour in finding healthy, happy and meaningful relationships. People have not been able to talk about relationship issues with each other, openly seeking advice and support - without fear of judgement or even ‘non judgement’. These attitudes stop us from being a community of love, support and healing in crucial moments of people's lives.  Especially in times of illness, when their partner has gotten sick or had an accident, mental illness, betrayals and infidelity, domestic violence, financial hardships….all the normal things and trials and celebrations that every couple faces. As the Church, a community of love we should be better at encouraging people to live openly. We should be a community that supports all families and relationships in celebrations and crisis.

The last point that I want to share and to commend to all of us it to have courage to speak up and out.  There are two actions at play in speaking ‘up’ and ‘out’. To speak up rather than keep our faces staring at the ground...hoping that no one will ask us a difficult question about our faith or that we might say something controversial. Speaking up means that you have the courage to say something in your Church, your workplace or with your family or friends - to point out offensive language and oppressive concepts. To speak out - having the courage to speak our beliefs to the people outside these doors….especially to fellow Christians who might not share our conviction for equality and egalitarianism. The hindrance in speaking ‘up’ and ‘out’ and why we are not very good at it is because deep down we are all frightened of any backlash that might occur. That we might been seen as troublemakers or that people will question our Christianity - that in some way we might have the violence pointed at us. Well…, at the end of the day, it might happen. People might leave the Church, the more conservative might condemn us as heretics….but honestly, bring it on. Because if we don’t have the courage to spread God’s great love for all people then what on earth are we doing here? Turn the lights off, lock the doors, go home. Too long has ‘God’s love’ been dressed up as a paternalistic concept that allows us to dictate to our neighbours, to police our brothers and sisters, to have a monopoly on God and what is right.

Today, we are charged with changing how ‘love’ is shown. To show what real love looks like and it involves risk - love always involves risk. I am moved by Thanksgiving prayer five in A Prayer Book for Australia where we say that God’s love destroys hate and fear…, which is defined as all of those things that get in the way of love and trust. God’s love should compel us to celebrate each other and all of the people who walk through our doors, to strangers on the street. God’s love compels us to nurture and give honour to each other in relationships, providing support in trials and sharing in joys and celebrations. God’s love compels us to speak up and speak out when we see human rights being denied and hate speech. And most of all God’s love compels us to love each other enough for self reflection, to admit our wrongs and repent and move on to doing what is right. Our challenge here today is to leave this place determined to make a difference to how we do Church, to radically spread God’s great love that has been shown to us - spreading it to everyone we meet.

Thank you, I hope that this event might be one of many to change our Church and Church culture to better resemble God’s amazing love for all.

Sermon delivered by The Rev’d Tiffany Sparks on the occasion of The Brisbane Pride Festival, at Evensong, St John’s Cathedral, Brisbane, 18/Sept/2016.