Reading the comments

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In a couple of contexts in the last week, people I follow on Facebook or Twitter have linked to a story about sexuality and the church but warned their friends or followers that it’s a bad idea to read the comments. Indeed! And this is hardly unique to the equal marriage debate; a few months ago I was taken aback by some comments about my appearance which appeared following a work video I’d made, comments which seemed to be suggesting that only the young and beautiful should ever be visible, and which I very much doubt the authors would have made to my face. As far too many people have discovered to their cost, there is something about the internet which encourages people to repeat their views without necessarily even trying to engage with the specifics of the story above the comments line, to be very shouty, and not to be concerned with causing offence (or to cause as much offence as they can).

One of the reasons why I found the Shared Conversations process so powerful was precisely because being present in the same space as people with whom one disagrees – and not even being able to go home in the evening, but to be resident with them for a couple of nights – makes it so much harder to do the shouty thing. While there are always people who manage to shout even in these circumstances, the presence of the excellent trained facilitators meant that anyone inclined to shout was deterred.

Over Christmas I watched the new episodes of Marigold Hotel on Tour. If you’ve not seen this, it’s a spin-off from an unexpectedly popular series in which a diverse group of older celebrities went to India to find out if this would be a good place to which to retire. Two of them are openly gay – Miriam Margolyes and Wayne Sleep. In the new episodes, set in Florida and Osaka, they asked local gay people specifically about how they felt other members of the senior-citizen developments or communities in which they lived reacted to their presence. This reminded me of a story earlier this year about whether retirement homes in the USA were good places for gay people to live; it made disturbing reading.

In the Florida episode, the two women in the group were concerned about the then-imminent US presidential elections and were looking for Democrats, which turned out to be a difficult quest in a particularly upmarket retirement community. One Republican was highly offensive and shouty and Miriam responded by telling him so. There was no attempt by either of them to understand why the other held the views they did. The way this was presented on the programme, the man had simply come up and, uninvited, injected his views into the conversation that was already happening. This reminded of me of some Comments threads I’ve read where people whose position is nowhere near that of the CofE on anything are busy telling those of us who are members what we should be doing…

Some of the criticism levelled at the past year’s CofE Shared Conversations process has been on the grounds that the daily schedule didn’t include any attempt to go through the various passages in the Bible which are drawn upon to support the different sides of the equal marriage debate. And there’s truth in that. Looking at the comments on various stories on Christian news sites, though, I wonder how it could ever have happened: saying ‘it says in this verse…’ and getting the response ‘yes but you’re ignoring the context/mistranslating the Greek/not seeing the bigger picture’ is not a dialogue: it goes nowhere, and we’ve been having it for decades. By meeting those with whom we disagree, eating with them, talking to them, hearing them, truly recognising them as fellow Christians – that’s where being shouty starts to calm down. However, the feelings in this debate are so strong that even the central Christian place of meeting together – sharing the Eucharist – has not always been possible at SC meetings.

in a well-publicised case of someone meeting the person who had used highly offensive language about her online – Mary Beard and a young man who tweeted about her – there seems to have been some genuine reconciliation. Mary commented to the journalist, “Please don’t overplay this. I am just a sensible middle-aged woman who does what sensible middle-aged women do: move on.”

What is the worst thing that could happen if the CofE allows those whose conscience permits it to solemnise equal marriages in church buildings and treats LGBTI people offering for, or in, ministry in the same way as other people? Can a sensible middle-aged church move on in 2017?

 

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Into Advent

 

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I’m trying to take Advent seriously this year by immersing myself as far as I can in the rich symbolism of watching and waiting, of light and darkness, of hope and fulfillment. So naturally it had to begin with this evening’s Advent Carol Service.

As part of this service we were all invited to come to the front to have our tea-light lit and put on to a circular tray of sand (flames in church can be risky – twice in my life I’ve been at services where there were individual candles in sort of cardboard shields, which caught fire!). When you are taught to meditate, a burning candle is often suggested as the focus, the point to which you return when your mind goes off track.
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Pouring the lay?

I know. Not the most accessible of titles for a blog post. But that’s very much my point…

Back when I was doing the diocesan training for being an authorised lay preacher (a role which exists in my diocese and which involves taking quite a lot of the licensed lay minister training, but for this more restricted role), I had to do a module called ‘Learning to learn and think theologically’. That’s quite a mouthful. It merged basic study skills, which I didn’t need but some did, with an introduction to theological learning, which I needed and some didn’t. This second aspect was very well taught and I found it fascinating.

I was particularly struck by the way it was brought home to me just how much of our theology is picked up from hymns. If you’ve been going to church, give or take a few years, since you were a child, a lot will have seeped in, just from repetition of the words and, if you’re lucky, from a strong tune as well. However, hymns – like anything else in and around a church – can also exhibit some fairly dodgy theology. They are a product of the theological and social preferences of their time, as the more gory, often-Victorian examples make particularly clear; singing ‘stricken rock with streaming side’ (from Lord enthroned in heavenly splendour, 1874) feels quite uncomfortable today, while There is a fountain filled with blood (1772) or O now I see the cleansing wave/The fountain deep and wide (1871) with its ‘speaking blood’ come across as plain weird. Continue reading

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One sex, two sexes, and Christians

The wonderful Twitter just drew my attention to this article I’d missed on the OUP blog when it was published in July: ‘The influence of premodern theories about sex and gender’ by Adrian Thatcher.

Thatcher asks great questions about why the world and the church still haven’t given women equality, why we don’t just accept intersex and transgender people ‘as they are’, and why ‘millions of straight people’ have ‘visceral reactions’ to same-gender attraction. To answer these questions, he outlines a historical shift away from ‘the ancient world’, which he presents as functioning with a continuum model of gender with women located at the weak/cool/less rational/less perfect end of that continuum. He doesn’t give any references but the main ancient Greek statement for the continuum model comes in a treatise called On Seed/On the Nature of the Child (some extracts here) and the underlying theory applied by Thatcher comes straight from Thomas Laqueur’s Making Sex (1990). Like Laqueur, Thatcher goes for an early modern shift (Laqueur called it a ‘watershed’) between this more fluid model and the emergence of the idea of ‘two “opposite” sexes’, and he links it to ‘advances in anatomy and microscopy’ meaning that ‘the basis of biological differences began to be better understood’.

Bodies ancient and modern

I should be sympathetic to Thatcher’s argument that most people read back the ‘two-sex model’ of difference into the Bible, without realising that it’s a model that only goes back a few centuries. And I am, sort of, and I like his initial caution in presenting this – ‘But there are answers! This is how one of them goes’ (my italics). Despite that caution, however, he still seems to buy into his own/Laqueur’s binary, the idea of a one-sex model (‘the ancient theory’) and a two-sex model (‘the modern theory’). Thatcher presents ‘the ancient theory’ as one which ‘asserted a common humanity’ – hmm, not necessarily, and there’s no reference here, for example, to the influence of Hesiod’s Pandora as the first of the ‘race of women’, which doesn’t major on ‘common’ anything. Continue reading

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Temple prostitution for Christians

Sex in the ancient world: it’s all about temple prostitutes, depraved emperors and orgies, right? Wrong.

As readers of this blog will have noticed, now that the Shared Conversations in the Church of England appear to be over, I’ve moved towards using it to reflect on where my life and faith meet: where the day job in classical studies collides with/illuminates current discussions on sexuality. Today, I’d like to argue for a more balanced view of ‘pagan worship/pagan practices’ in the Greco-Roman world within which Christianity spread. It feels slightly odd to be standing up for ancient paganism, but I’ll try anyway. Specifically: from reading recent online discussions, I want to point out, first, that the hypersexed pagan temple is a myth – priestesses ‘routinely’ having sex, auctions of brides and temple prostitutes are all equally imaginary (see Beard and Henderson) – and second, ancient Greek and Roman paganism was nowhere near as wild as it comes across in some contemporary Christian imaginations; indeed, it majored on monogamy.

By Henryk Siemiradzki - http://fotki.yandex.ru/users/hds-shah/view/187521/?page=6, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9462693

Henryk Siemiradzki, Roman orgy at Caesar’s time, 1872 (https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9462693)

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Sharing the knowledge

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Can we see each other properly? And can we stay together? These are challenging questions which have come to the fore for me this week.

All of us who took part in the regional Shared Conversations signed up – literally signed – the St Michael’s House Protocols, which set the parameters for the safe space in which we talked. I found this was a very solemn moment. For me, it marked the point at which it all became very serious indeed.

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As well as committing us to protecting the identities of others in our Conversation, looking for shared interests, separating people from the problem, actively listening to others, and telling our stories, the Protocols encourage us where possible to share our knowledge and understanding  from taking part. I see this blog as part of that; so far it’s had over 3000 views. I also offered to speak to my deanery synod, an offer that was welcomed, and earlier this week I spoke to an evening event in my parish, open to anyone in our team ministry.

Talking in the parish

Many of those who came along to this event were members of a particular home group where the leader had encouraged them to read one of my earliest posts as part of their reflections on ways of reading the Bible. Others were individuals who, I know, have found the blog interesting. I kept the event deliberately ‘safe’, opening with a description of what the Shared Conversations were for, and what had happened at the one I attended. I then did an exercise based on the one I described in ‘Fruit or Chocolate?’ to illustrate the point that people take up a position in a debate, or embrace a label, for very different and often unpredictable reasons. After that, we had a discussion.

I found the event very interesting, and I’ve had positive feedback. In keeping with the spirit of the Protocols I won’t say anything about individuals. But, generalizing from the evening and from comments from one of those attending about how they hadn’t found much interest in it from those in their church, a couple of points became clear.

Seeing the invisible

First, in many pretty standard parishes of the C of E, our response to LGBT+ people and in particular to same-sex couples, married or in civil partnership, just isn’t thought worth discussing. Not because of any negative reactions, not from any theological position, but just because such people aren’t visible to us. It’s ‘not our problem’. And maybe that’s why there are still people in our parishes who, despite various newspapers featuring the Shared Conversations, have never heard of this process. Of course, when it comes to couples seeking to have their union blessed, the known opposition of the C of E means that they’re not likely to come near their parish church in this particular situation.

Yet many people are aware of LGBT+ people in their families or among their friends. Others, interestingly, aren’t, and say they don’t know anyone like this. Some of us see: others don’t. And this brings me to my second observation. I no longer believe in ‘gaydar’, that firm sense that someone ‘must be’ gay, but I’m still surprised that the undoubted presence of gay people in our congregations somehow isn’t seen by everyone.

Those who came to the event this week were interested to hear things they didn’t know about the C of E, for example the rules about clergy not being allowed to be in same-sex relationships. This made me wonder why we don’t all know this already.They wanted to reflect further on what we mean by ‘sexuality’; how far are our identities fixed, and how flexible are they? As we fall in love with a person because of who that person is, can we fall in love with someone of the same sex when we identify as heterosexual – and vice versa? It’s great that the current debates have made it possible for Christians to think about these questions.

Better together?

On the Big Question, will the C of E find a way to hold together or will it split, I found surprising one of the articles on the Shared Conversations in Christian Today earlier this week. The journalist presents the SCs as a ‘desperate programme’ to hold the church together – but something which has been going on in every diocese over the course of a full year doesn’t meet my definition of ‘desperation’. He interviewed separately two of my fellow Shared Conversationalists from Oxford diocese, Jayne Ozanne and Andrew Symes, and despite their very different views on LGBT+ issues both are quoted as saying that they think a split is inevitable.

While I appreciate Jayne’s “Quite frankly I do not want to be breaking bread with someone who thinks I am going to hell”, in the C of E nobody with access to transport has to put herself in that situation. There’s a long history of people moving to the next parish along, whether that’s set off by a new vicar, a change to the pattern of services,  the presence or absence of a choir, or reordering of the building. As I said at the parish event this week, I came away from the Shared Conversations feeling strongly that I didn’t want to lose my fellowship with some of the lovely people I’d met who disagree with me completely and passionately on the inclusion of LGBT+ people, both those with ‘same-sex orientation’ and those in full relationships.

There are people in the C of E who still won’t accept the ministry of women priests, the authority of women bishops, or women of any kind preaching. I wouldn’t flourish in a church where this was the norm. Yet when I’m volunteering as a Street Pastor, I work in teams including members from churches where women are not given authority to lead. Is the current issue really so different? Is a similar accommodation possible?

 

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Pausanias and Agathon: a ‘same sex relationship’?

Thinking Anglicans notes that the Evangelical Group of the General Synod, EGGS, has issued this briefing document to its members and friends ahead of General Synod’s shared conversations, scheduled to start on 10 July. The document proposes that “The ideas/opinions/statements expressed (in bold) are amongst those that members might hear articulated and which we believe can (and need) to be responded to. The thoughts/responses offered are a resource from the (elected members of) the Committee to help reflection on the likely issues and questions.”

Like other commentators on this document, I’m not sure the ‘if you hear that, respond like this’ format is very helpful; if you’re listening out for the trigger words of a particular dodgy statement, will you really hear what someone is saying to you? But I’ve a deeper concern, and that regards something I’ve commented on already in this blog: the use of the ancient Greeks without any sense of historical context. This, I think, is systematic of the casual use of history by some Christians, and it contributes to a rejection of Christianity, as something requiring believers to leave their brains outside the church door.

The section of the document I have in mind is a potential response to someone expressing the view that ‘Scripture isn’t clear on a number of issues regarding human sexuality’ and it goes like this: “Some have suggested that faithful same sex relationships were not known in (pre) biblical times and therefore the bible is silent on this matter. This is not true: such relationships are acknowledged by Plato and others, and it is likely that Alexander the Great was in a same sex relationship with Hephaestion, as was Pausanius with poet Agathon.” Continue reading

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