Monday, July 14, 2008

Anger, Love and Emily in Putney

By now, you will have probably read about the service last night at St. Mary's, Putney. The church was filled to capacity, the music was glorious, the crowd was warm, welcoming and supportive. It was clear that everyone wanted to be there. Except that one person wanted to be there for different reasons.

As I began to preach, this youngish man with long hair and long sideburns, carrying a motorcycle helmet, stood and began to point his finger at me and scream, "Heretic! Repent!"

It was a surreal moment. Of course we knew that something like this might happen. But you can't really adequately prepare for the reality of it.

My first, fleeting thought was, "What's going to happen next? Is he carrying something in that helmet? Is this going to be more than angry words?" But almost immediately, I found myself profoundly sorry for this young man. After he had been removed, and the hymn ended (the congregation had sung a hymn to drown out his shouting), when I asked the congregation to "pray for that man," I was nearly overwhelmed with sadness. All I could think about was that place in his heart which must be filled with such darkness, a place that was meant to be filled with loved, but because of whatever had happened in his life, whoever he has been associating with, it was filled with hate. Someone had to TEACH him to hate like that. He didn't learn it on his own. For a moment or two, I was nearly overwhelmed by my sense of sadness for him. The tears in my eyes and the crack in my voice were for this child of God who, I suspect, has experienced so much pain and unhappiness in his life.

And then, on with the sermon. Though everyone seemed to appreciate it, it was not my best, and my timing felt off. I meant what I was saying, and it was all true, but I was distracted -- wondering if there were plans for further interruptions by possible collaborators in the heckling, still feeling the sadness, and absorbing the trauma of what had just happened. The communion proceeded, and I sat and watched the faces as they came forward to receive. (I was not distributing the bread, to make it absolutely clear that I was not presiding at the service, having not been given permission to do so.)

I noticed Nick in the congregation. He was the young waiter from the cafe that is built right into the entrance to the church. He had served me lunch the day before, and then later told me that he was gay and Christian. He said his mother was Catholic and had told him that although it made her sad, he was going to hell. Nick was there to receive the Body and Blood of Christ with a large congregation who did NOT think he was hellbound.

And then, after the service, there was Emily. I had been told about her by her vicar. She's about twenty years old and has muscular dystrophy. Her mobility is impaired, and her speech is labored. And she has recently announced to her family and friends that she is lesbian. She told her mother and her vicar that she wanted to be there to meet Bishop Robinson. I made sure she was brought up to the private space where we all gathered after the service.

She walked onto the terrace tentatively. I greeted her, noticing that her hands were very weak. With great difficulty, and needing time to shape each word as carefully as she could, she told me what my words and my ministry have meant to her. I asked her if I could hug her, and she melted into my arms for a long embrace. In that moment, I remembered why I was here in London, why I was talking about God's love for all of God's children. I remembered how MANY of God's lgbt children have never heard those words about themselves, or believed them. I was here for Emily, and Nick, and countless others I will never know. God loves them so much, and it must break God's heart that they doubt it. My job is to help rid them of that doubt.

I told Emily that if she could get her mother to bring her to Queen Elizabeth Hall the next night, I'd see she had a good seat for "For the Bible Tells Me So." She looked at her Mom in a way that both begged and demanded, and told me she'd be there. Something tells me that when Emily puts her mind to something, there'll be no stopping her.

What a day! With lots of people and potential danger outside, we decided to order Chinese food into the "upper room" of the Church. There we feasted on the most disgustingly unhealthy array of sweet-and-sour who-knows-what, and had a wonderful celebration of God's goodness to us all. What an honor, what a holy honor, to be on this pilgrimage to Canterbury.