St Valentine’s Day Sermon – Gareth Miller

St Valentine 2021
Living in Love and Faith (C of E report)
Morning Worship

One day when I was about 12 my mother told me she was sending me along the road to UncleDavid’s house as she had arranged for me to have some lessons with him. Uncle David was a family friend. She wouldn’t tell me what the lessons were about. When I got there his son Martin was in the front room reading a book about tennis, and I assumed my mother had thought I ought to improve my sporting prowess (a vain hope!). But then we went into the back room and Uncle David sat me down and started to talk about sex.

It had been arranged that I would go every Wednesday evening for a few weeks. But I never went back. I was far too embarrassed. But I did keep the little book he gave me. No, it wasn’t The Joy of Sex (though it was the same era). It was a little book called For Boys. It had, as you might expect, drawings of various bodily parts, and explained the mechanics, as it were. There was a whole chapter on petting! I kept it under the mattress. I grew up in an all-female household, and I can well understand why my mother thought it best to delegate the responsibility to a trusted male friend. Nothing was talked about at home, and when something remotely sexual or smutty came on the telly my grandmother would say “Turn this rubbish off.”

It was probably like that for many of you. Things weren’t talked about. When I went to my all-male secondary school, I was unbelievably naïve and innocent. I didn’t get any of the jokes, and I had certainly never heard of homosexuality, and wouldn’t have recognised it if it had been staring me in the face.

Mercifully, things have moved on. My children’s generation are much more aware and much more comfortable. But we still find it awkward, and that’s why it’s good that the Church has, perhaps rather belatedly, produced a book and study resources called Living in Love and Faith. Of course, the Church has a very poor record. Although the Prayer Book marriage service accords an important place to ‘the natural instincts and affections implanted by God’, many of its ministers and apologists have inflicted a perverse and often perverted concept of sex over many centuries. To give but one example, the cruel deprivations imposed in Ireland and other places on pregnant teenage girls up until quite recently bring total shame on the Church, as do the antics of many priests who, under cover of celibacy, have used their position and their power to abuse minors and others.

Repentance is right and fitting, but we also need to move on. St Valentine’s Day (despite the commercialism and the unattractive and unrealistic aspects of it) gives us an occasion to pause and think about our own attitudes to relationships and matters of identity and sexuality. I began on a personal note, and (if you will allow me) I’ll continue on one. Although I like to think of myself as a bit of a rebel in some ways, in truth I am by nature quite conservative (with a small c!). I am also the product of a particular home and a particular era. My autonomic system tends to produce a lot of prejudices in me, even though my brain argues more rationally. I imbibed, unconsciously no doubt, many of the prejudices articulated by my family, especially my grandmother, whom I loved very much and I sometimes get taken aback when they rear their heads unexpectedly. I also find myself feeling quite squeamish about some of the matters one has to think about these days. I don’t feel particularly comfortable thinking about gay matters, or trans matters, or many of the other matters. But sooner or later we have to come to terms with unconscious bias. The other day the head of the Tokyo Olympics had to resign because he had said that women talk too much. The head of KPMG also resigned because he made offensive remarks about people who believe themselves to be victims, and he called unconscious bias ‘a load of crap’.

Some months ago I had to attend an unconscious bias training. I must admit I was pretty grumpy about having to go. Me, biased?? It was a real eye-opener.

My eyes have been opened in other ways of course. Having a gay daughter has helped. Having a lovely transgender churchwarden in this deanery has helped. But I still have a long way to go. Almost all relationships are hard work. They’re not the fluffy stuff of Valentines’ cards. Of course, they can be richly rewarding, and we thank God for all those that are. But relationships come in all shapes and sizes, and we are learning, I believe, that there is not a ‘one size fits all’ in God’s economy. Other societies have known this for centuries, as ethnographers have discovered when exploring not only ancient civilisations but other contemporary ones – in Polynesia for example.

The other thing that is worth saying is that not everyone is in a relationship. There are many, some here, who are widowed, or have never met someone, or are divorced or separated, who have been jilted or dumped, or who have made a conscious decision to live alone. Some of these are choices, some are not. We need to respect all these people and be careful not to suggest or suppose that marriage or some kind of partnership are the only acceptable norms. The thing about Jesus is that he met people where they were and as they were. He saw that of God in everyone. He didn’t wake up every morning and think, “I know, let’s go out and do a bit of condemning!” Paul was a bit different, of course. He started out with quite a lot of condemning.

It’s usually the religious zealots who are the worst, and have you noticed that it’s often those who have the best biblical knowledge who have the least self-knowledge? You know that tendency of some married people or partners, who have a habit of quoting against them something their other half said back in in 1982? Well, it can be a bit like that with quoting the Bible, or the Koran, or the Torah. We can always find something to prove a point. Paul was up to here (point to brow) with biblical knowledge, but it was not until he met with Christ that he began to know himself and to change his attitudes, so much so that he wrote that great Hymn to Love that Charlie read for us earlier. All the other stuff, he said, ‘I count as so much garbage, for the sake of knowing Christ’. Christ embodied the love of God in his very person. It is our calling to do the same.

So I’m glad that the Church of England has woken up and smelled the coffee. I have not yet read the book, but I have ordered it. It is the result of very careful reflection over several years. It does not seek to impose a new theology of love and marriage, but it invites us to be open to exploration. In the months and years to come I hope you will join in that exploration with me.

Back to news and information