Stopping: and starting?

After several years in which it has played a major part in my life, as of 29 April the ‘Living in Love and Faith process’ (LLF) has now officially been put on hold. Those of us on the various working groups were sent the press release when it went live, although the official website has yet to be updated and as of today is still saying ‘The goal is to complete the Living in Love and Faith resources by early 2020.’ We had been told just before Easter that the plan was to pause the project; until then, we had understood that the book would be finished in April with just a little more work to be done on the online resources, such as podcasts and videos of people describing their own faith and experience, some of which we watched at our last meeting in February.

Why the delay? Originally the publication date was focused on the Lambeth Conference – it was to be ‘a gift to Lambeth’, an odd image which to me evoked wrapping paper, bows, and disappointment – but when Lambeth was postponed until Summer 2021, doubts immediately arose about whether it was worth getting the present ready.  Yet despite it being made abundantly clear to us that the whole timetable was being driven by this desire to ‘gift’ LLF to the Anglican Communion, the press release utterly fails to mention the Lambeth Conference, but instead observes that

the Church’s focus is now on ministering to people who are experiencing so many challenges – of bereavement, sickness, isolation, uncertainty about livelihood and fear for what the future holds. That is why we have decided to delay the publication of the resources.

That feels rather odd to me. Yes, that is the focus of the Church of England as well as of other faith communities and of many, many people who would not associate themselves with a faith.

But … while some aspects of Church of England life have been put on hold because of COVID-19, others have not. We imminently expect an announcement about whether the July 2020 General Synod will go ahead (surely not), and about the elections to the next GS which are supposedly in our minds even now as we elect reps for deanery synod at our Annual Parochial Church Meetings. Except we aren’t holding those meetings, and in my diocese the Bishop has extended the deadline for them to the end of October 2020. On hold, but with what for the moment is a firm end date.

Other aspects are not on hold. One of the first comments I saw on the delay to LLF asked whether the bishops had heard of working from home. Indeed, and if all that is needing to be completed are the podcasts then there shouldn’t be any problem in producing these without a physical meeting. The Church of England is clearly managing to maintain other activities by using online methods. Jobs are being advertised and posts filled. Webinars are replacing face-to-face training. BAPs – selection conferences for potential priests – are going ahead by Zoom. PCCs are meeting online. Books are being published, podcasts released, and book discussion groups are happening in parishes. Yes, there’s the problem of inequality of access to internet resources, but also an online discussion can bring in those who have the internet but are housebound or don’t like to go out in the evenings.

So when should we expect the LLF resources? What surprises me in the press release is the absence of any provisional revised timetable. Instead we have

we will monitor the situation to discern when might be the earliest appropriate time to publish the long-awaited LLF resources and thereby launch the process of whole-church engagement

and a comment about the resources coming out

when the time is right.

Am I the only one who feels uneasy about that phrase? Having lived through the debate about ordaining women to the priesthood, in the 1980-90s, it feels worryingly familiar. Who will discern the kairos, the moment of opportunity and rightness, for the rest of us?

The absence of any hoped-for timings contrasts with another delay announced in the last few days, for the review into the serial abuser John Smyth which has been delayed ‘into 2021’. But for this, COVID-19 is not being held responsible; instead, it’s because of the ‘wider than anticipated’ amount of evidence received by the reviewers and the complexity of having several different reviews by different organisations happening at around the same time. Yes, the press release mentions ‘any impact the COVID-19 restrictions may have’, but that is not given as the main reason.

The absence of any movement on LLF is painful, because those of us who will be most affected by the resources’ discussion of the ‘way forward for the Church in relation to questions of human identity, sexuality, relationships and marriage’ are also being affected by the ‘so many challenges’ of yesterday’s press release, and in a very specific way. On 17 April the UN Human Rights Office published guidance on their concerns about the impact of the current crisis on LGBTI people. In the UK, the LGBT Foundation has also looked at the impact COVID-19 has on the community and has observed a 30% increase in calls about domestic abuse or violence to its helpline. And then there are the specifically ‘Church of England’ aspects. I know at the moment nobody can get married, in church or elsewhere, but for straight people that’s temporary: what if you are someone who longs to marry your partner in church but can’t because of their sex? What if you are in a marriage which the state supports but your church does not? What if you would simply like your church to bless your civil marriage? What if you are exploring a call to ordination but can’t take it any further without lying about your sexuality? No Zoom selection conference for you…

I really, really want to believe that this is just going to be a short delay and we’ll all get the opportunity in a few months’ time to read and engage with the LLF resources, and to start moving towards testing the mind of the Church of England and then of General Synod for possible change. But I’m not sure I can believe it, not without some intended release date. The ‘challenges’ which some people live with are being seen as more important than those facing others. Something here doesn’t add up: or, it adds up to institutional abuse.


UPDATE: in June it was announced that the resources will be released in November 2020

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Bishops to show us the way

Today, the story trending on Twitter is that Phillip Schofield has come out as gay, at the age of 57. He has spoken movingly and passionately about the damage that concealment was doing to him and said that ‘all you can be in your life is honest with yourself’. He insisted that the timing was his decision; in other words, that he wasn’t doing this to preempt some sort of outing. This made me think once more about the current House of Bishops.

The previous day, I’d happened to hear again Flanders’ and Swann’s A Song of Patriotic Prejudice (1963). If you haven’t heard it, or just haven’t heard it for a long time, it’s worth a listen in the aftermath of the first stage of Brexit, not least for the the ‘Scotsman’ who ‘hasn’t got bishops to show him the way’. In his introduction, Michael Flanders presented it as an attempt to write a national song for England. He said

in the old days, you know the good old days when I was a boy, people didn’t, we didn’t bother in England about nationalism. I mean, nationalism was on its way out. We’d got pretty well everything we wanted. And we didn’t go around saying how marvelous we were – everybody knew that – any more than we bothered to put our names on our stamps. I mean, there’s only two kinds of stamps: English stamps, in sets at the beginning of the album, and foreign stamps all mixed at the other end.

When listening to the song now, its original humour and satire don’t really work. Is it funny, or do the national stereotypes feel so uncomfortable that a laugh isn’t the right response?

That line about bishops feels particularly odd in the fallout after the House of Bishops (un)Pastoral Statement and the minimalist apology from the archbishops, about which I’ve co-written a blog post for Via Media. Is this ‘showing us the way’? It does seem very odd to me that a statement like that could come out of a group who’ve been having sessions on the process of LLF for years now. That word ‘pastoral’ in particular: there have been attempts to suggest that we silly people didn’t understand that ‘pastoral’ has a special technical meaning here and that this somehow exempts the statement from its absence of any sense of understanding the flock to which it is apparently addressed. Well, in that case, how come LLF includes a Pastoral Advisory Group (PAG)? I’ve met them as part of LLF. One of them was a complete star when I had a tearful meltdown during a residential meeting; I say ‘star’ because they made the point that I could just withdraw from the whole process and everyone would fully understand and would thank me for what I had been able to contribute. Hearing that ‘permission’ helped me to stay on.

So, were they involved in issuing something that claimed to be ‘Pastoral’? PAG issued their ‘pastoral principles‘ last year. They are

  • acknowledge prejudice
  • speak into silence
  • address ignorance
  • cast out fear
  • admit hypocrisy
  • pay attention to power

Excellent stuff. These principles have been commended to parishes. ‘Admit hypocrisy’ includes ‘We do not commend intrusive questioning’ – yet the (un)Pastoral Statement states

Members of the clergy and candidates for ordination who decide to enter into civil partnerships must expect to be asked for assurances that their relationship will be consistent with the teaching set out in Issues in Human Sexuality.

Issues in Human Sexuality, 1991: the document which states that the laity can, but the clergy can’t, ‘claim the liberty to enter into sexually active homophile relationships’ (p.45). The report rejected the proposal ‘that bishops should be more rigorous in searching out and exposing clergy who may be in sexually active homophile relationships’ (pp.45-6), mentioned clergy ‘who feel it is their duty to come out, that is, to make known publicly either their orientation or their practice’ (p.46), but had a problem with those ‘who are themselves in active homophile partnerships, and who come out as a matter of personal integrity’ (p.46). So how ‘rigorous’ is that ‘searching out and exposing’ to be? Diocesan Directors of Ordinands currently have to check that those recommended for training will ‘live within the guidelines’ of Issues, shorthand for ‘it’s OK to be gay but only if you’re not “sexually active”‘. With its expectation of ‘asking for assurances’, this new (un)Pastoral Statement is continuing that tradition of asking questions about what goes on in the bedroom. Yet the pastoral principles include ‘We do not commend intrusive questioning’…

And as for bishops showing us the way, the only ‘out’ bishop remains Nicholas Chamberlain, Bishop of Grantham, who is on PAG. When he came out and announced that he was in a relationship, he received hundreds of letters, overwhelmingly supportive. Many people in the Church of England know that he is not the only gay in our village. Outing bishops, as practised just this week in Private Eye, is wrong: the timing must be their decision. But hypocrisy is also wrong. That PAG pastoral principles list, again under ‘Admit hypocrisy’, asked parishes the question

Can it be right that there are situations where people who might wish to be open about their sexual orientation feel forced to dissemble, or when parishes find themselves evading issues of sexuality?

A House and a College of Bishops containing people who conceal their sexuality and yet endorse statements which condemn their own relationships: how does that help us to trust them? Is this the only ‘way’ they will show us?

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How not to be pastoral: the bishops’ new statement on civil partnerships

Once again, it’s all about sex. Whatever we mean by that. A recent article in The Independent headlined ‘The sex-obsessed Church of England is digging its own grave‘ included the comment that the Church is ‘intent not just on digging its own grave but also pausing on the way there to smack itself in the face with the spade’. This was one response to the statement the House of Bishops issued this week giving the official view on civil partnerships and their extension to heterosexual couples. As Ann Reddecliffe has noticed in a thread on Thinking Anglicans, and a fuller blog post discusses, this new document just copies sections of the 2005 guidance on civil partnerships. That too was called a ‘pastoral statement’. Doing a ‘compare and contrast’ between the 2005 and 2020 documents is instructive, and they feel less and less ‘pastoral’ the more one looks at them.

Procreation or the possibility of procreation is very important in the 2020 document. With apparently no recognition that things ever change in the Church of England, as in 2005 the bishops use the 1662 Prayer Book for its summary of what it teaches on marriage; this list puts ‘the procreation of children’ in top place, with ‘a remedy against sin’ and ‘mutual society, help and comfort’ in third place. I am assuming bishops go to weddings, where they would have seen from the 1970s ‘mutual society’ being mentioned first. 

Before saying anything more about the new document, let’s just explore one section where a change has been made from the previous one. I don’t think this change has previously been discussed. In the 2005 version, it occurs in section 2: marriage ‘continues to provide the best context for the raising of children’. In 2020 (section 7) this has become: ‘We believe that [marriage] continues to provide the best context for the raising of children, although it is not the only context that can be of benefit to children, especially where the alternative may be long periods in institutional care.’ Spot the difference?

To me, this change reads like a desperate attempt to insert the ‘pastoral’. But it fails miserably. It reads like somebody has said, at a late stage of drafting, ‘Oh dear, we don’t want this to sound like we think children of an unmarried couple should be taken into care’ and then this was added on. This comes across not as inclusive (a ‘radical new inclusion’ as promised?) but as an insult to those assumed to be ‘second-best’ parents. Unmarried parents; a divorced person raising a child alone; relatives raising a niece, a nephew, a grandchild; a lesbian couple raising the children from a previous marriage which one partner brought to their relationship; a gay couple with a much-wanted, much-loved child conceived by surrogate… and so it goes on. This mealy-mouthed ‘pastoral’ statement tells them that their selfless love ‘can be of benefit’. Well, thanks very much, Church of England. While we’re at it, I think the phrasing here is also pretty insulting to those who work in providing institutional care.

There is much else that is wrong with this Unpastoral Statement. The timing: issued just after we’ve been able to watch the TV summaries of the Church of England hierarchy’s failure to respond appropriately to terrible examples of sexual abuse, and just before the long process of Living in Love and Faith (LLF) publishes its resources for discussion of equal marriage, the nature of sexuality and gender identity. The prurience: the continued assumption that clergy need to pry, so that faced with a couple asking for ‘prayer in relation to entering into a civil partnership’ they need to consider this in ‘the light of the circumstances of each case’; is this CP a sexually abstinent ‘friendship’ or something else?

Part of LLF is a Pastoral Advisory Group. Last year it established its ‘pastoral principles‘, stating that these ‘are about encouraging churches to offer a welcome that is Christ-centred, that sees difference as a gift rather than a problem, and that builds trust and models generosity’. Trust? Generosity? Where are these in the Unpastoral Statement?



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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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