Fight the good fight(s): the ordination of women and the human sexuality debate

I was struck recently by how all the celebratory pieces I was reading about the 25th anniversary of women priests were written from the point of view of those women whose vocations to priesthood were doubted (for many centuries) but then eventually recognised. While I could obviously understand why they were celebrating, the ordination of women was not just for women who felt called to ordination! So I offered WATCH (Women and the Church, the group that monitors what has happened since) a piece on how it felt from the point of view of a lay woman and this is the result. It turned out they’d tried to get a lay perspective but hadn’t managed it, so that worked out very well.

I think much of what I wrote is equally applicable to the current debates on human sexuality. For example, in my WATCH piece I wrote: “Yet the assumption of many people, in the church and beyond, was always that I was fighting this fight for myself. And, much as I deplore the language of victory and defeat, of us and them, it was a fight. I remember a televised debate from All Souls, Langham Place in which one speaker argued that women could not be ordained because of menstruation; this sort of approach made it very clear to me that there was far more at stake here than the role of priest.”

Menstruation: now there’s an area where I can contribute personal experience but also a different kind of ‘expertise’, as I wrote my PhD on ancient Greek menstruation. And why was I interested in the topic historically? Because of my particularly bad experiences of my own body… Yes, it’s circular, even if at the time I submitted the PhD thesis (1985) the ‘personal voice’ wasn’t a thing in classical scholarship so at that point I wasn’t going to say just how personal this subject was to me. Looking back, it was never any stirrings of a vocation to priesthood which made me campaign for the ordination of women; it was the theological moment of realising that it was Jesus’ humanity not his maleness that mattered, meshed with the awareness of how women’s embodiment has been systematically trashed throughout western history.

Personal experience comes in many different forms. As a lay woman who didn’t feel any call to priesthood I had a role in the discussion of the ordination of women, and as a cis-het woman I believe I have a role in the discussion of equality for lgbtiq+ people in our churches. In both situations, there has been a long history of exclusion, and even of doubting the full humanity of some people. In both situations, some of us are invested because of who we are: others are allies. But both are needed. Whether we fight for ourselves or for our sisters and our brothers, we fight on. Ah, that language again: I wonder why we are so scared of it? ‘Living in Love and Faith’: let’s lay hold on the ‘life’ part of that title.

Fight the good fight with all thy might;
Christ is thy strength, and Christ thy right;
Lay hold on life, and it shall be
Thy joy and crown eternally.

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Intersex in history

Anyone who writes will know that feeling when something you worked on ends up not being used. I was asked to write 500 words on this topic and of course that was nowhere near enough – but I did what I was asked, listened to and welcomed feedback, and then was cut. So here it is, in a slightly expanded form (the advantage of blogging on one’s own!).

Genesis 1:27, in the NRSV translation:

So God created humankind in his image,

in the image of God he created them;

male and female he created them.

It’s a verse which turns up in many discussions of gender and sexuality. But ‘male and female he created them’ may work fine for the powerful, indeed foundational, myth of Adam and Eve, but in the real world it comes up against the realities of the body: not every body fits neatly into the ‘male’ or ‘female’ category. Some would argue that clear sexual distinctions were intended in Creation and that anything else results from ‘the Fall’, while others would point to the Biblical category of the ‘eunuch’ as being neither male nor female. I hadn’t met anyone in the former group until I took part in the Shared Conversations – a bit of an eye-opener for me, not least because there were clearly people there who talked about ‘the Fall’ like it was an actual historical event. At the other end of the spectrum, it was interesting some years after that experience to write a sermon on Philip’s encounter with the Ethiopian eunuch and to reflect that, whatever we understand by being a eunuch, what matters here is that Philip accepts the invitation to join the eunuch in his ‘personal space’, the chariot, and does not reject him in any way.

Just looking around us today, we can see that as well as some women being taller and stronger than some men, there are less obvious parts of the body which can vary considerably between individuals. At birth, the most obvious sign is the genitalia, but how large does a penis have to be to lead to the announcement ‘It’s a boy’? Because binaries rule, the tape measure has been brought in here; so, under 1.9 cm currently brings the diagnosis of ‘micropenis’, leading to some children being given hormones and others, surgery. Nor is this only about the visible body. The tissue of the gonads is also relevant, and it is possible to have both an ovary and a testis. A person may appear female but not have a womb. As well as hormone levels varying, so do chromosomes. We may be XX-female or XY-male, but it’s possible for a body which appears female to have XY chromosomes or even for one individual to have some XX and some XY cells.

Historically, people who had some characteristics of each sex were called ‘hermaphrodites’, and before the ‘Age of Gonads’ began in the nineteenth century the focus was on the external organs, alongside some interest in body hair and in preferred activities. The person to read on the shift to gonads – testicles and ovaries – is Alice Domurat Dreger, whose work is briefly summarised here. Before this, however, in the eighteenth century some claimed that all such individuals were ‘really’ male but with a small penis, while others thought they were ‘really’ female but with an enlarged clitoris; I’ve written about this elsewhere. I see this as reflecting the strength of people’s desire to fit everyone into one of just two categories. Today, the most likely label is that a person has ‘variations in sex characteristics’ (VSC). This is a biological category and it’s important to realise that it has nothing to do with whether the person identifies as male or female, or with their sexuality. ‘Disorders of sexual development’ (DSD) was also used but this has shifted in favour of the more neutral ‘Differences of sexual development’.

The risk of saying anything about people with VSC is that, not being one of them, I may have no right to comment. But I’m a historian, and there’s a history here, and perhaps my role is to inform people of that. I think it’s important to acknowledge that even in relatively modern times there’s a disturbing history of how ‘hermaphrodites’ – the term that was then used – were put on public display as curiosities for close inspection, as well as being the object of scientific discussion; in 1714 the poet Alexander Pope wrote of his pleasure in seeing a hermaphrodite displayed for a charge of one shilling. This person was the child of ‘a Kentish Parson and his Spouse’, the advertising handbills announcing the display of ‘her personal curiosities’. Pope visited with a priest and a physician who, like him, both inspected and touched the person’s genitals; he writes of ‘the surest method of believing, seeing and feeling’. The priest decided this was a man, while the physician concluded that this was a woman. Does the use of ‘her’ in the advertisements suggest that this was the person’s own gender identity?

The fascination shown in this story is only one part of the history of VSC: the other part is revulsion or fear. The divine being Hermaphroditus combined external features of both sexes, but at the same time real people with anomalous bodies of various kinds were seen by the ancient Romans as signs of the gods’ displeasure. As with other attempts to use the past, you could focus on the divine aspect of uniting two things in one body, or on the appalling treatment of those who don’t fit the categories. Moving to modern times, until very recently, as a result of the now-controversial protocols of the psychologist John Money, medicine responded by removing or reshaping tissue. What was lacking here was any sense that an individual may want their body to remain indeterminate in its sexual features. While much of the medical and legal literature concerns attempts to force individuals into categories, those individuals could also actively resist categorisation, but historically their sense of their own identity has rarely been taken into account.

Binaries rule, OK? But do they have to?

 

 

 

 

 

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The indecent Virgin

I’m continuing to broaden my theological reading around the issues which Living in Love and Faith was originally set up to explore. I’m very aware that the approach of those on the various groups is basically ‘systematic theology’, which feels like it’s written from a great height looking down at the Bible, to produce a unified, orderly, coherent whole that incorporates all the different books of the Bible and the texts of the tradition. That feels alienating to me, not least because I think we read – and always have read – the Bible in different ways according to our own perspectives, but also because disruptive challenges from the excluded need to be taken seriously, and ‘reading against the grain’ can be productive. As one critic comments,

The problem with systematic theologies, is that they are systematic. God’s revelation to us in the Bible is not systematic. It’s messy, it’s complicated, it tells the story of people who mess up, of God who gets involved in the life of his creation and redeems it. The Bible narrative is compelling; sometimes exciting, sometimes complicated but it is not systematic. God did not give us a system, he gave us a story.

Following a chat on Twitter around one of the topics on which I’ve written for the project – the clitoris, the church’s dubious 19th-century history with regard to this part of the body, and whether we have a theology that can cope with an organ the sole purpose of which is pleasure – I was directed to Marcella Althaus-Reid’s book, Indecent Theology (2000). This is most definitely not an easy read; it is positioned as both developing and disrupting Liberation Theology and its examples come from the author’s experience of poor urban women in Latin America in contexts where ‘Exchanging money for sex was not that unusual; many women just married in order to eat regularly’ (p.66). Latin American history is not part of the average UK school curriculum, and I first came across Latin-American feminism only when I was working at Gustavus Adolphus College last year because the reading group I joined was studying the work of Cherríe Moraga prior to her visit to the campus. Moraga is another challenging writer and I was pleased to have this introduction to her work, not least because one of my professional areas is classical reception and Moraga wrote her own Mexican take on Medea. However, add theology into the Chicana mix and it becomes even more difficult (if, like me a year ago, you need to know what is meant by Chicana, here is a useful undergraduate-level website).

But back to Indecent Theology (great title, btw). It’s highly relevant to a writing project on which I am currently working, for publication rather than for Living in Love and Faith, looking at religion and medicine as ways of regulating people’s views of the female body across Western history and beyond. From this perspective, I’m thinking a lot about Althaus-Reid’s comment on patriarchy that ‘The womb has been appropriated but not the vulva’ (p.63). Something that resonated with me was when she contrasts the different ways in which characters from the Bible are held up as examples to boys and men, or girls and women: while a boy could ‘be expected to grow faithful as Abraham or repentant as King David … No young girl thinks “perhaps if I am humble enough God will have sex with me”‘ (p.54). She examines the particular ways in which Mary is used as role model in Latin America, where being advised to ‘go and pray to the Virgin Mary’ – something the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo were told to do when standing up for human rights in the Argentinian dictatorship – is a way of trying to domesticate women, to ‘make them decent mothers who would educate daughters into decency and not political subversion’ (p.51). She also offers a cutting analysis of the appearances of the Virgin in Latin America, where she always asks for a chapel to be built or for medals with her image to be made and sold, but never asks for a free school or a hospital to be set up in her name (pp.60-1).

One of many things which has struck me in my engagement with the book so far is when Althaus-Reid mentions those images of the Virgin Mary where she is essentially an elaborate dress with head and hands attached (‘the Virgin is just her skirts’, p.61). In my teens I was very familiar with an image of this kind from Brompton Oratory. The hands are convenient for holding the infant Jesus, but not much else.

Image result for brompton oratory mary

Althaus-Reid characterises Mary in these representations as ‘a rich, white, woman who does not walk’ (p.53). The passivity, the immobility, the lack of legs, is striking. I wonder how these images play out with people who physically share the immobility? And I’m not at my most mobile myself this week, due to my first ever attack of vertigo. Perhaps my mind is spinning from Brexit, or from Living in Love and Faith, but my current experience is definitely making me think about the static and the moving in a different way. With Mary, Althaus-Reid picks up the reference to historical models of generation in which the womb is static (and the woman’s contribution to the process is to offer a place in which the seed can take root and grow) while only the male semen is active (p.55). I could add there the ancient belief in the ‘wandering womb’, in which any movement in the female reproductive system – other than the mouth of the womb closing to retain the seed – is emphatically a Bad Thing. Living in Love and Faith includes a group working on what science now has to say on human sexuality, so in that spirit I’d add the point that these older models miss out what we now know about the movement of the Fallopian tubes to pick up an egg, and the journey of those eggs themselves, as described here:

Following ovulation, the fimbriated, or finger-like, end of the fallopian tube sweeps over the ovary. Adhesive sites on the cilia, which are located on the surface of the fimbriae, are responsible for egg pickup and movement into the tube. The cilia within the tube, and muscular contractions resulting from the movement of the egg, create a forward motion. Transport through the tube takes about 30 hours.

While discussing this traditional image of Mary as static, Althaus-Reid draws attention to some paintings I’d met back in that reading group at Gustavus: Yolanda López’s Virgin of Guadalupe sequence, discussed here by Joanna Garcia in a blog post from 2016. López, a Chicana artist, represents herself in her self-portrait as the Virgin of Guadalupe with legs unencumbered by layers of fabric, and running shoes.

Related image

Althaus-Reid’s focus here is on the ‘gigantic vulva’ which surrounds the Virgin of Guadalupe and from which López shows herself emerging. This shape is the mandorla (literally, ‘almond’), something which has been used as a frame for Mary or for Christ himself in Western art from an early period; it represents glory. How far should we read it as a vulva? Well, Althaus-Reid is far from being the only person to notice the resemblance and, as a reminder that the Word only becomes flesh by being born of a woman, the vulval imagery really can’t be ignored.

Indecent Theology introduces the reader to a range of other images of Mary which work at the intersection of the Virgin and Christ (pp.80-1); for example, Santa Librada, who in what Althaus-Reid calls ‘the transvestite theology of the poor’ is a version of the saint I know as Wilgefortis (or ‘Uncumber’). In Western representations she’s often shown with the beard she grew in answer to a prayer that she should be saved from marriage. In this 18th-century representation from Bogotá, however, she is shown as a young woman, with no facial hair. Why? To me, this is so much less shocking than the bearded images, but the position of the saint as the crucified one – prefiguring Edwina Sandys’ Christa (1975)? – may alarm other viewers.

Image result for santa librada

 

But back to the static womb. Reading Althaus-Reid reminded me of another Madonna in Western art: Salisbury Cathedral’s 1981 Walking Madonna by Elisabeth Frink. Interviewing Frink in 1981, Norman St John-Stevas commented on her female figures, ‘I wonder whether they actually would carry a child; they don’t look to me like childbearing ladies’. I suspect that tells us more about him than about Frink. At Salisbury, Mary is older; tired; post-Resurrection; and at the level of the viewer. When I first saw this bronze statue, what struck me was the obvious point that she has her back to the Cathedral, moving out into the world with her purposeful stride. I know that staying in the church is often painful, and walking away is often appealing; is thinking about turning my back on the church a fair response to a piece of art created by a woman brought up in the Roman Catholic church who, in that interview with Norman St John-Stevas, remarked that she had been left with ‘very strong views on Catholicism and what it does and doesn’t do with relation to human beings’?

Reading Althaus-Reid, however, perhaps the most radical aspect of all is simply that Frink’s Madonna is not static, but on the move!

Image result for walking madonna frink wikimedia commons

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Challenging experience

With a title like this, you may be expecting some comment on the new ‘interdisciplinary’ phase of the Living in Love and Faith project, which began properly yesterday. Well, I suspect I’m not allowed to say anything at all under the Memorandum of Understanding etc, so you won’t get that. However, something that happened to me during the day made me reflect on how we cling to our views even in the face of evidence, so I’ll offer this to you without further comment.

At lunchtime I had to leave the building (reasons not relevant to this story). I grabbed my bag and my coat and walked off to a cafe. It was remarkably warm for January so I didn’t bother doing up my coat. I bought some food, ate it and started to head back to the meeting venue.

The wind had increased and it was colder. So I decided to do up my coat. I have several coats of varying ages and styles, and this one is a loose-fitting camel coat with a simple button fastening and no belt. But I was very surprised to find there were only two buttons – I could have sworn this coat had three! That was really odd… I felt a sense of unreality, as I kept reaching above and below the two buttons and their matching button-holes to find that third one. Surely it had three? Or did it? Maybe not?

No success. No sign of a button having fallen off (no third button-hole!). So, whatever, I did up the two buttons. The coat felt remarkably tight. I wondered whether the fabric had somehow got caught up so I moved one hand behind me and encountered – a belt. Now reality reached me. My coat may or may not have three buttons – I was still willing to accept that actually it had only two, even though at another level I knew this was impossible – but most definitely it has no belt.

Breakthrough moment: this is not my coat. It is one of identical colour and length but it has one fewer button and it has a belt and it is a smaller size. It is not my coat. I tried to persuade myself that it was, but the evidence has now become so overwhelming that I have to face reality.

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Men as the Brides of Christ?

modified 28 December 2018

I’ve been expanding my ‘To Be Read’ pile as a result of being on the History working group for the Living in Love and Faith (LLF) exercise in the Church of England. Recently, I’ve been wondering where to find a theology of joy and of pleasure (rather lacking so far in the LLF project, but maybe I just haven’t found it in the Dropbox – although as of Dec 2018 a member of one of the groups has written a great piece on desire), but until this week I had no idea that Yale Divinity has for the last few years been running a project on the theology of joy. I’ve signed up for the newsletter, but only to discover that the project has just ended! One of its threads is on ‘Sex and pleasure’, asking ‘How should a sense of authentic (rather than counterfeit) joy inform the meaning of sex and pleasure, our sexual practices, and our experience of pleasure?’ One of the scholars mentioned on the website is Stephen D. Moore, professor of New Testament at Drew University in New Jersey. I already knew about him through one of his many publications, God’s Beauty Parlor: and other queer spaces in and around the Bible (Stanford University Press, 2001), a book that came to my attention when I did a little bit of teaching for the ‘Gender and the Bible’ course at Gustavus Adolphus College last year.

Here I want to describe just one section of Moore’s very rich book, the longest chapter, which is on the history of reading Song of Songs. He calls it ‘the book of professional celibates’ in which they ‘strive manfully to play the feminine role thrust upon [them] by the spiritual reading of the Song’ (p.49). I haven’t read much Queer Theology before and I found this a very approachable way in. I’ve never really understood what the whole ‘Church as the Bride of Christ’ thing is really saying and how gender and sexuality are supposed to play out in this; I wouldn’t say I now ‘get’ this image, and in many ways I understand even less why it helps people today, but I can at least see how many different ways of using it there have been. Moore focuses on the very long tradition of men presenting themselves as the Bride to Christ the Bridegroom – and by ‘men’ I mean Origen, Bernard of Clairvaux (‘let him kiss me with the kiss of his mouth’), Denis the Carthusian and St John of the Cross (‘there I promised to be his Bride’).

Moore compares Jewish and Christian readings of the Song, for example in their exegesis of Song 4:5 on the breasts of the Bride. Sometimes in Christian readings not the Bride’s, but the Bridegroom’s, breasts are ‘better than wine’ (Song 1:2); treasures of wisdom and knowledge are concealed in them, Origen writes. For Jewish commentators these breasts were Moses and Aaron and they left it at that: but ‘The Fathers and Doctors of the Church, in contrast, simply could not get enough of the breasts, elbowing each other aside to examine them and outdoing each other in concocting fanciful descriptions of them’ (p.51). Are they love of God and love of neighbour? The Old and New Testaments? The blood and water from Jesus’ side? The contemplative and active lives? The Doctors of the Church? Revealingly, Moore notes that these writers looked at the female body – or at least an imagined version of it – and saw only themselves.

I would recommend in particular Moore’s discussion of interpretations of Song 1:5 where the Bride is either ‘dark but beautiful’ or ‘dark and beautiful’, the ambiguity present in the Hebrew being read according to successive cultural judgements about race. By 8:5, through contact with the Bridegroom, she has been ‘made white’, white enough for the ‘hard-to-impress daughters of Jerusalem’ to comment on it (p.61). What I had not read before was that some commentators argued that the Bride was also in some sense Mary, thus making Christ’s mother into his lover, further blurring the categories.

Moore notes that different readings of the Song such as this one are, whatever the serious intentions of their creators, carnivalesque, overturning some of ‘the nonnegotiable moral strictures that structure everyday life’ (p.72). These carnivalesque, queer readings ended in modern times: ‘commentary on the Song of Songs began to recoil sharply from allegory in the course of the nineteenth century. Slipping stealthily out of bed and hastily adjusting its clerical collar, it tiptoed out of the room’ (p.78). The Song became heteronormative and not queer any more.

As you’ve probably guessed by now, I loved the style of this book, although it’s sure to offend some readers. ‘ “I am the beautiful Bride in sooth,” purrs Origen, sashaying across the stage, “and I show not my naked face to any but Thee only, whom I kissed tenderly but now”’ (p.28). But even more I loved the demonstration of the different ways in which Christians read the Bible in the past; in particular, the displacement of the allegorical in favour of the literal. Some of this reminded me of the medieval imagery of the church discussed by Karl Whittington in a 2008 article; ‘parallels between the redemptive possibility of Christ’s blood and women’s blood’ and the birth of the Church through the wound in Christ’s side. Again, it’s something of a shock for a modern reader to find that these images existed. But why do we read the Bible so differently?

Moore suggests that heterosexuality was ‘invented’ at roughly the same time as ‘the indispensable appurtenances of modernity’: listed by him as electricity, photography and automotive engineering. That would be very ‘roughly’ indeed: 1934 is often given as the date when heterosexuality came to mean what it does now, rather than being used for some ‘morbid passion’. But the modernity point may still be valid. Moore asks, ‘Is it entirely a matter of chance that the emergence of heterosexuality, with its sharply delineated and strictly policed sexual borders, should happen to coincide with the decline of the allegorical interpretation of the Song of Songs, with its blurry and poorly policed sexual borders?’ (pp.80-1). The readings of the Song which he discusses presuppose ‘a lack of homosexual panic’: so, can the rejection of those readings be explained by a rise in the ‘pervasiveness of homosexual panic’? His analysis ends with the ‘new allegorists’, Marvin Pope and Michael Goulder, who have found even more sexual references in the text, including a vulva rather than a navel in 7:2a, but keep their readings heterosexual, indeed ‘hyperheterosexual’ (p.89).

In the rest of the book, Moore examines portraits of Jesus (particularly in popular culture), St Paul’s approach to sex and salvation in Romans, and the imagery of war in Revelation. I expect to be further challenged.

 

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Out in Africa?

As part of my involvement in the Living in Love and Faith project, I’ve been writing some short papers on my own areas of research for the History group; these are then shared in a Dropbox folder with everyone in this and the other groups, as well as with all the bishops. That’s how it works, so far, although in January we move into ‘interdisciplinary groups’ in which we discuss themes across the various subject groups. In addition – and this is one of the most interesting aspects for me – I’ve also been doing some reading outside my own areas, trying to understand more about topics which have been raised in my group, or in the other thematic groups.

One of these is the claim that homosexuality was not part of African culture until the colonial period. Many years back, my first degree was a joint honours in Ancient History and Social Anthropology, and as part of that I took a compulsory module on West Africa and then went on to choose to take another one at SOAS on ‘Religious change in sub-Saharan Africa, 1850 to the present day’. Yet I’d never encountered this claim, which felt all wrong to me. So what did I do? I went on Twitter and asked an academic in the field – Adriaan van Klinken of Leeds – to recommend some reading matter. He responded immediately: the generosity of academics!

His main suggestion was Marc Epprecht, Heterosexual Africa? The history of an idea from the age of exploration to the age of AIDS (Ohio University Press, 2008) and I’ve found it a very interesting read. As well as taking me back to my social anthropology roots, it even fits with my more recent professional work in medical history. Epprecht begins by examining the detrimental effects that claims of ‘no homosexuality in Africa’ had on the spread of HIV-AIDS – because of these claims, it was thought that in Africa the virus was mainly transmitted by heterosexual sex and that there was no point doing public health and education work with men having sex with men (msm), because there just weren’t any. The other side of this denial of African homosexuality was that ‘African sexuality’ was considered both heterosexual and promiscuous.

In 2017, when I was demonstrating at General Synod before the debate which led to the Living in Love and Faith process (and before I was put on to the History group), a group of LGBTI African people were demonstrating too. So the ‘no homosexuality in Africa’ slogan clearly didn’t apply there. But what were its origins? This is where Epprecht’s historical study is invaluable.

Protesters outside Church House

Epprecht notes that, historically, there may not have been many ‘homosexuals’ in Africa:

… the word homosexuality, notably, suggests a clarity arising from a specific history of scientific enquiry, social relations, and political struggle that did not historically exist in Africa and still does not very accurately describe the majority of men who have sex with men or women who have sex with women in Africa (8).

However, there most certainly was plenty of same-sex practice. This included men with ‘mine wives’ – younger men who act as servant and sexual partner while those men are away from their wives back home – as well as those who regard sex with other men as ‘wealth medicine’, bringing potential luck precisely because they see it as transgressive. In addition, many groups have some individuals whose dress and behaviour indicates that they do not identify with the sex into which they were born, and that’s taken as fine.

In Africa there was and is a strong focus on heterosexual marriage and fertility but,

... while most African societies historically did and still do tend to place a very high priority on heterosexual marriage and reproduction, many allowed or even celebrated “pseudohomosexualities” and “sex games”, providing they occurred within the bounds of specific rituals, sacred or secret places, and designated sexual roles. (9)

Sexual ‘play’, including ‘thigh sex’, whether between people of the same or different sexes, does not count as ‘sex’ and so preserves the highly-valued chastity of young girls. That category of ‘play’ could include mutual masturbation and anal sex. Does that sound familiar? It reminded me of a question I’ve already addressed on this blog: what behaviours count as ‘sex’?

Epprecht notes that, so far, female sexuality remains under-investigated, something which I would also say about discussions within the Church of England, but he mentions many contexts in which women had, and have, sex with other women without defining themselves as lesbians; for example, women spirit mediums. In the literature on Africa, girls showing each other how to masturbate or massaging each other’s labia majora were almost invariably presented as helping to prepare each other for heterosexual activity, because of course there’s ‘no homosexuality in Africa’!

There are many points at which Epprecht’s work also reminds me of the perils of studying sexuality in ancient Greek and Roman culture. For example, translation: what does a term really mean, and are we going to use a euphemism instead? What about when the original term is itself a euphemism? And words change their meanings over time (think of ‘gay’, for one…). In general, Epprecht prefers to use local terms for sexualities, because western categories like ‘bisexuality’ don’t match them precisely. He also uses lower case lgbti “as a gesture to [the] mutability and contested meanings” of these local terms. I wondered why he uses ‘African’ rather than bringing out the differences between the various groups in the continent, but he made the decision because of the many parallels between these groups, because of critical pan-Africanist theory, and because “the struggle for lgbti rights and gender transformation has moved to the continental scale” (25).

There is also much on ‘othering’ here. Just as we project our visions or our fears on to the ancient world, either by making the ancient Greeks look just like us or alternatively seeing them as the opposite of ‘Christian values’, so Epprecht shows how the constructions of ‘Africa’ have supported the interests of the West with the result that

What appears or is asserted as timeless African tradition today, in other words, is often historically quite recent and contested. (10)

For me, one of the most interesting points was Epprecht’s demonstration that earlier scholarship – whether historical or anthropological – that appeared to be rigorously scientific was in fact responding to various constraints. The long period in which African homosexualities were invisible (strongest perhaps in the 1940s-1960s) was the result of Western trends, most such work at that point still being done by outsiders rather than Africans. There were anthropologists not wanting to give the impression that they only wrote about sex, and others whose strong identification with ‘their’ tribe meant that they were determined to protect them against any allegations of anything remotely non-heteronormative! Things changed with decolonialisation, and when homosexuality was decriminalised in the West; it’s interesting that Evans-Pritchard’s 1930s research on what he called ‘sexual inversion’ among the Azande was not published until the start of the 1970s.

Even now, those in some African countries claim that homosexuality is the result of colonial contacts rather than a traditional practice. So African scholars and politicians describing African sexuality can “emphasize what they regard as its positive or moral elements in comparison to corrupting Western influences” (161) and thus support that ‘no homosexuality in Africa’ myth, claiming that same-sex practices were introduced by ‘the West’ or by other incomers such as the Chinese or the Arabs. Bizarrely, this has currently resulted in “a striking harmony of opinion between secular, traditionalist, Christian, and Islamic leaders” (161).

To quote from Epprecht’s conclusion:

… heteronormativity and ‘African family values’ are not the whole story. Subtle or unacknowledged spaces and vocabularies did exist for individual variation from the ideals, including for msm and wsw. These changed over time in response to many factors, including debates and fashions coming from the West but also, indisputably, from African men and women who for their own diverse reasons constantly pushed the limits of the meanings of tradition and normal. (162)

Even more pertinent to our current discussions in the Church of England,

How could men who could not even agree among themselves what sodomy, bisexuality, or even sex meant have expected consistent responses from their African informants and translators on questions pertaining to those activities, particularly as those activities were for the most part illegal or held in severe disdain under the colonial dispensation? (163-4).

 

 

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Can women be laity?

Here’s one of those great questions with a history that we have somehow forgotten about…

This week, I’ve had the interesting experience of being an oral history source: interviewed by a student writing her dissertation on the history of the Movement for the Ordination of Women. In the course of getting my head around the events of the 1980s, I came across the notes I wrote for going out to other deaneries in my diocese to put forward the various arguments for and against women as priests. Here’s an extract from my notes – unreferenced, but the proceedings of these various meetings still exist – in which I was reflecting on how the post-1969 synodical government of the Church of England, with a General Synod made up of Houses of Bishops, Clergy and Laity was innovative in its time, and introduced my listeners to a lesser-known gender dimension of the inclusion of lay people.

For the Convocation of Canterbury (i.e. meeting of clergy) of 1885, there were still many doubts about the competence of the House of Laymen [sic] then being proposed. An ‘eighth resolution’ was added to the list of those concerning the proposed House, and this stated that the laity would not be expected to comment on ‘matters of faith and doctrine’. A speaker said that ‘trust the laity’ was ‘a generous sentiment, in things the laity understood‘ (my italics). Another speaker said that the laity could not pronounce on theology, because a lay House would not have ‘the guidance of God’s Holy Spirit’. In 1885, ‘laymen’ meant just that – lay men. By 1919, the House of Laymen, far from creating the ‘considerable embarrassment’ feared by one of the speakers in 1885, had behaved so well the the next step was considered, and Convocation was discussing whether women could be laymen. 

One of the attributes of being a layman was that, with due preparation and discernment, you could apply to be admitted to the diaconate; from the diaconate, to the priesthood; and for some, that would eventually mean becoming a bishop. The then Bishop of Ely was alarmed at the idea of women laymen, saying, ‘If the abstract proposition is once laid down that women are as laymen, the House will presently be asked to take the logical step and open the priesthood to women as to men’. And in due course, that did happen!

If you want to read more about this, Trevor Beeson’s The Church’s Other Half (2011) traces the very slow process of including women in the decision-making bodies of the church.

And one other bit of history, from the Archbishops’ Commission on Women and the Ministry, in 1936. Here, the glorification of ‘Christian womanhood’ is all about how women can rise above the carnal in a way that men, poor things, can’t. And that, somehow, becomes an argument against women ever becoming priests, because it wouldn’t be fair to those poor, vulnerable men to put them at the front of the church where everyone could see them:

We maintain that the ministration of women will tend to produce a lowering of the spiritual tone of Christian worship, such as is not produced by the ministrations of men before congregations largely or exclusively female. It is a tribute to the quality of Christian womanhood that it is possible to make this statement; but it would appear to be a simple matter of fact that in the thoughts and desires of that sex the natural is more easily made subordinate to the supernatural, the carnal to the spiritual, than is the case with men; and that the ministrations of a male priesthood do not normally arouse that side of female nature which should be quiescent during the times of the adoration of almighty God. We believe, on the other hand, that it would be impossible for the male members of the average Anglican congregation to be present at a service at which a woman ministered without becoming unduly conscious of her sex.

Is it any wonder that the Church of England still hasn’t got its act together on homosexuality when such views on heterosexuality were held in the lifetime of some church members? (the average age of a Church of England member in my diocese is 62)

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Love that dares to speak: a study course

There has been some discussion on social media about a new 5-session courseLove that dares to speak, written by Hilary Brand ‘exploring Christian reactions to homosexuality’. I’ve co-led many small group courses – various Emmaus ones and a Pilgrim one – in our church and I remain committed to this way of helping people think about their faith, so I thought the best thing was to buy a copy for myself. The following reflections come from my general experience with the sort of group the book is aimed at, together with reading the material: I’ve not yet used it myself (it has only just been published).

As with everything else, let’s look at the author first. She’s written Lent courses, as well as a guide to what on earth church is about. She’s a realist: ‘All churches of all types are really bad about making assumptions of what they’re doing and not explaining it very well.’ Amen, sister. And, as she explains in Love that dares to speak, she’s from an evangelical background but is aware that her views have changed and that she’s ‘still dealing with uncertainty’ (p.20). So far, so good.

Bearing in mind Brand’s background, it’s not surprising that throughout the course there’s a focus on the need to ‘find out what the Bible actually says and what factual evidence is actually available’ (p.11). In terms of the factual evidence, she uses some survey material (but without interrogating it for reliability) but there’s only passing reference to what the sciences are currently saying about homosexuality. Each of the five sessions includes engaging with specific Bible verses or short passages, which seems to count for the purposes of the course as ‘serious Bible searching’ (p.37). Often this is done in a quick-fire way, with timings: after reading 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 and 1 Timothy 2:11-14, there are three minutes in which to list the practical ways in which life for women has changed since Paul’s day (p.24). Leaders’ notes at the end give the correct, or expected, answer. So far, perhaps, so predictable. Alongside this approach, there’s also acknowledgement that, while Brand has ‘picked out specific verses for convenience’ (p.47), people should be encouraged to read for ‘the broad sweep’.

However, what makes this book much more interesting are the broader questions addressed to participants. These are refreshingly direct and don’t avoid the real issues. ‘Why do you think it matters what the Old Testament says?’ (p.41). ‘Is the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy a sensible compromise or inherently two-faced? What might be the benefit of using it? And what is the down side?’ (p.94) – a mere two minutes allocated for that! Is it possible to keep the Anglican communion together, or should we see division as God’s will (p.94)?

There are few modern works quoted or included in the bibliography – this is a short course and that seems the right approach – but they are an interesting mix. Francis Spufford’s definition of sin as ‘the human propensity to fuck things up’ is used with approval, although it’s ‘f*ck’ here, which may indicate something about the audience (p.82). Openly gay writers like Jeffrey John and Jayne Ozanne are quoted with approval, as is Wesley Hill who, like John, has taken one of the celibacy options. Broken is listed as a good discussion starter.

On the whole, I think this is a brave book, which genuinely tries to keep things open so that everyone can express their views. But I do have problems with some of the assumptions. While there’s a brief reference to key dates in the history of marriage in church and as a sacrament (p.69), the timeline ‘Setting the scene of the sexual revolution’ (pp.127-8) bizarrely begins with the commercial availability of tampons in the 1950s. While this goes a whole decade further back than the Shared Conversations’ version of history in which everything was uniform and static until the 1960s, it still gives a very odd impression of before/after, of a recent watershed in our history, which is not borne out by historical studies. Claims of a sexual revolution have been made before.

And then there’s the Bible. ‘How many Bible verses refer directly to homosexuality?’ (p.37). The answer in the Notes is ‘six or seven (one repeats itself)’, estimated as 0.002% of the Bible, and contrasted by Brand with the 10% on economic justice. This may well be news for some in the groups, but there are two problems with the original question: first, it assumes ‘homosexuality’ is a category which we can use for the different societies whose lives form the background to the Bible (something which Brand does criticise elsewhere) and second, the lack of agreement today on what the verses in question were originally about. The issues of translation are touched upon, but to my mind there isn’t enough here about these: the only Greek terms which come up are malakoi and arsenokoitai, and the discussion of them is cursory, the result of a deliberate decision not ‘to add to the verbiage here’ (p.52). But when so much can be hung on the words, a little more discussion seems desirable.

My main problem, though, comes from thinking about what it would be like to use this with the groups with whom I’ve worked. The anticipated audience comes across in questions like ‘Think of couples you know who are “living together” or did so before marriage?’ (pp.73-4). No acknowledgement here that such couples could actually be in the group: shock! horror! If (and it’s a big ‘if’) we accept her answer to the ‘What percentage of the UK population is gay?’, based on the 2013 Office for National Statistics, as 1% gay and 0.5% bisexual (p.112), then even my very standard country town parish seems remarkably gay, and my circle of friends and colleagues even more so.

And, as ever, the sparkly elephants in the room, LGBTQI+ people themselves; there’s not a lot in the course on those who are in the BTQI+ part, although ‘transgender’ turns up in the anticipated ‘answers’ to the Week 4 question, ‘What are other areas of sexuality and human relationships that have gone awry?’ (p.117). Oh dear. And how about Week 1: ‘Ponder and share (10 mins): What images or experiences do the words “gay”, “lesbian” or “homosexual” conjure up for you personally?’ (p.23). I’m straight, but I feel rather ill at the thought of what some people in a congregation are likely to say if they are encouraged to be honest here. Brand is brutally honest about her own reactions, such as finding her first exposure to a Pride parade ‘menacing and disturbing’, although looking back on it she now acknowledges the feelings of anger of some of those taking part (p.19). But my main question is this: would you really want to be the one gay person in the discussion group? When you are the object of study, can you also be the subject doing the studying? This is a course on ‘Christian reactions to’ … YOU.

I’m very interested to see how others find this material, especially in its use. I’ve said as part of the work towards the Living in Love and Faith report (formerly known as the Bishops’ Teaching Document) that we definitely need something to help everyone in the church think through human sexuality, and at the moment this is the only published course I know.

 

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Seeing the tree in the woods

So, in the last month, that Episcopal Teaching Document, a.k.a. the ‘Teaching Document on human identity, sexuality and marriage’, has developed a name of its own. It’s now Living in Love and Faith: Christian teaching and learning about human sexuality and marriage. The announcement was made on Thinking Anglicans and in the Church Times.

Of course, that doesn’t mean everyone has read about this. I don’t take the Church Times. As an aside, my great-grandfather, after he lost his sight, insisted on my grandmother reading each issue to him. One of my mother’s earliest memories is of him shouting at my grandmother ‘No Lenette, it doesn’t say that, you’re making it up!!’ I must say, I sometimes feel like that with some of the things the Church of England comes up with.

Now, I’m in a tricky position here, what with being on one of the thematic working groups for this LLF document, and thus bound by a Memorandum of Understanding which prevents me from discussing the workings of that group or from lobbying. So I’m going to stick to that MoU. But I do want to open a discussion about the name of the group. What do you think? Is it a triumph of ambiguity/openness/whatever? Do we feel better that ‘learning’ is in there too, rather than it sounding like one person teaches and another just writes it all down? Do we think ‘identity’ is the right term and what does it mean to us? What does it mean that Love comes before Faith?

tree.png

And then there’s the logo. Yes, that’s the one. Dr Eeva John, who is coordinating all we are doing, gave her reflections on this tree when she introduced the sessions at General Synod at which members could hear something of the work of the various groups contributing to LLF. So I’ve heard her take, which involved the Holy Spirit as the sap in the tree. Here’s my initial stream of consciousness reaction to the logo. How about you?

Tree. Tree of Life? Tree of the garden of Eden? Knowledge of good and evil? But no fruit. Leaves: lots of them. Different sizes, but all the same shape. Different colours; well, different shades of green, anyway (what does that phrase remind me of?). All the leaves are very firmly attached. This reminds me of a Godly Play exercise I once did, in which we were invited to unwrap a fabric tree (grown from the mustard seed) and pick up a paper bird and place it where we felt we were on the tree of the church. Some people quickly put their bird confidently on a big branch. Others took ages to decide, and then hid their birds in little nooks and crannies. One put her bird on the ground because she felt she wasn’t really welcome in the tree. But here, no falling leaves seem to be allowed. If we are the leaves, we are all attached. Some days, I feel more attached than others.

This tree looks healthy; quite a sturdy sort of tree, able to withstand strong winds. But what about those roots? Should the roots be as wide as the tree? Is it risky if they are not? Hang on, though, this tree has been uprooted! We don’t normally see the roots. Why are we seeing them here? And are they deep enough? There’s also a sort of top/bottom contrast here. The top part of the tree is healthy but the lower part really looks rather dead. Without the lower part, there wouldn’t be a top part.

Is this tree going to survive? And, with regard to how LGBTI+ people are welcomed into the Church of England, are we out of the woods yet?

Addition, October 2018: the tree has now been changed; see here, https://www.churchofengland.org/LLF Some of the leaves are falling off. Is this significant? I have no idea!

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Pandora: the Greek Eve?

(John William Waterhouse, Pandora, 1896)

I think this is the first time I’ve posted the same piece on two of my blogs, but the topic seems relevant to both, so here we go; this, like many of the pieces on my Mistaking Histories blog, was originally written for the collective site, Wonders&Marvels, which is no longer being maintained.

So … In the beginning, there was – a man. Later, there was also a woman. That’s the basic plot of both the Judaeo-Christian and the ancient Greek creation stories, with woman as a late arrival on the scene. In the first of these Mediterranean traditions, woman is made from man – specifically, from Adam’s rib (and by the way, men don’t have fewer ribs than women, even though I’ve been told by some Christians that they do). In the second, woman is made from mud.

Making Eve

Of course, it’s not quite that simple. Taking the Genesis creation story first, there are in fact two different accounts of creation in the first couple of chapters: the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible makes that very clear indeed by inserting a sub-heading, ‘Another account of the creation‘. While the first version goes through all six days of creation one by one, culminating in humankind, the second version has the whole of creation made in a single day – ‘In the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens…’ In the first version, plants are on Day 3, but in the second version there are no plants yet because ‘there was no one to till the ground’ until after Adam had been made. Version 1, plants before people: version 2, people before plants.

In the first of these versions, God created:

humankind in his image,

in the image of God he created them,

male and female he created them (Genesis 1:27)

It’s only in the second account that we come to the more familiar story that God made a man out of the dust of the ground and then, later on in the creation process, made from this man’s rib the first woman, because ‘it is not good that the man should be alone’ (Genesis 2:18). In the first account, both sexes are equally in ‘the image of God’, while the second emphasizes the unity of their flesh as both origin and goal, ending with a man ‘clinging to his wife, and they become one flesh’.

Stories are told for a purpose. To me, the first version feels like it is answering the question ‘How did God make the world?’ or perhaps ‘In what order did creation come into being?’ The second version gives the impression that it was designed to answer either ‘Why are there women?’ or ‘So why does a man leave his father and mother and live with his wife?’

Making Pandora

What about Pandora? Her story as well comes in two versions, both by the poet Hesiod who probably lived in around 750 BCE. In one of his poems, the Theogony, Hesiod’s purpose is to explain the origin of all the gods. Pandora is the combined effort of many gods, and she is labeled a kalon kakon, a ‘beautiful evil’. There’s no mention of opening a jar; Pandora is trouble enough on her own. While the feminine principle already existed in creation, now it is incarnated as a woman.

In the other version, in Works and Days, the focus is again on her creation, by all the gods: here, Hephaistos mixes earth with water, and gives her a voice and the shape of a young girl; Athene teaches her to weave; Aphrodite gives her desire but Hermes provides for her ‘the mind of a bitch’. Thanks, Hermes! She is given necklaces and a garland of flowers by the Graces, Persuasion and the Hours. Decked out like a bride – or, as some scholars have suggested, like an animal about to be sacrificed – she is sent to mortal men. Then, lifting the lid of a large storage jar she had been told not to open, Pandora lets out all the evils which are now a familiar part of human life.

Pandora and Eve

Pandora’s status is very different from that of Eve in the Biblical stories. In the first Genesis version, women were just part of the original creation: in the second Genesis version, the Lord God produced woman to solve the problem of man being alone. But Pandora is a punishment. She is a pawn in a male competition. She was manufactured by Zeus as his chosen move in a complex game he was playing with the culture-hero Prometheus. Prometheus stole fire from the gods and gave it to men. He thought he had deceived Zeus here, as he did earlier when he played a trick on Zeus in which he mixed up the meat and the fat in a sacrificed animal so that humans got the best parts. But Zeus is all-knowing, so he really can’t be fooled. Pandora is his master-stroke, his trump card. Beautiful, irresistible, she hides both the ‘mind of a bitch’ and a ravenous appetite which keeps men at work in the fields to produce the food she needs.

In Genesis 3, a continuation of the version in which she is made from Adam’s rib, Eve has her Pandora-moment when she makes everything go wrong; she listens to the serpent who encourages her to pick the fruit of the forbidden tree. When we contrast her with Pandora, designed as a trap from day 1, Eve looks a far more sympathetic character because she hasn’t been created with a deceptive nature. Pandora was programmed to cause chaos: Eve had a choice. Does that make Eve worse, or better? What do you think these stories show about those who created them?

Comparing these two sets of two myths enriches our understanding of the ancient world. We can see that Pandora isn’t exactly the ‘Greek Eve’ but, like her, she tells us something about how a group of people saw the role of women in their culture.

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