Rewriting your history: thinking about the Winchester case

When I was involved as a contributor to Living in Love and Faith, the ‘History’ group – with which I initially worked – was chaired by the Bishop of Winchester, Tim Dakin. I’m a lay person and I have never been employed by the church, so I don’t tend to hang out with bishops very much, and I had not met this one before. On 20 May, Thinking Anglicans posted “Winchester rebels against its diocesan bishop”, the story of how Bishop Tim has “stepped back” from his diocese for six weeks. The ‘stepping back’ seems to be because of a threatened motion of no confidence from the Diocesan Synod, one backed by a large number of clergy and lay members. I am not going to discuss my encounters with Bishop Tim in the context of the LLF group because personal information of that kind is still under the embargo of the Memorandum of Understanding (“Under no circumstances will views expressed within or to the groups be attributed to individuals outside group meetings”). Instead, I want to pick up on two points which have been made in the subsequent discussions of this extraordinary situation: one about history, the other about power.

First, some context. The diocesan website has so far said nothing about the bishop’s ‘stepping back’. But, at the time of writing this piece, 349 comments have been made on Thinking Anglicans and from these and from the blog posts and newspaper stories it seems that the dispute concerns management style and the methods of pastoral reorganisation. That long TA thread has often gone off-topic, taking opportunities not just to revisit the Bishop’s role in the circumstances in which the Channel Islands were moved from Winchester diocese to Salisbury and his involvement with the merger of the South American Mission Society and the Church Mission Society, but also to tell stories about other bishops, past and present. Questions were raised about the gaps in Bishop Tim’s published CV; about the circumstances of his ordination and the lack of any theological college training or of parish ministry experience; about what he means in his unusually long online bio on the diocesan website by saying he ‘unexpectedly transferred, as an ordinand, from Oxford to Nairobi diocese’; and, in the comments on the Surviving Church blog, about his 2020 PhD ‘by publication’ (presumably still assessed and examined by academics?) from the University of Winchester and the presence on his submitted list of work that was not in fact ‘published’ (the list includes a book review, conference papers with no publisher listed, and papers produced for various boards). 

There have been plenty of attempts to fill in the gaps here. But what counts as a reliable source when writing someone’s history? Some TA contributors did sterling work in finding back issues of various publications such as Oxford Diocese’s The Door and the journal Anvil and comparing them: also comparing the entries in Crockford, Who’s Who and Wikipedia. Which is the most authoritative, here? It’s difficult to say. In my line of work, when someone needs 150 words about me, they’ll usually ask me to write them. So it’s up to me what I include – and what I don’t. If someone introducing me at a conference decides instead to go it alone, well, there’s plenty online that they could use; but despite having a detailed university page about my background, I’ve also had experiences of being introduced at conferences as the author of books I did not write! The very length of Bishop Tim’s (self-constructed?) diocesan bio just makes the gaps more obvious, and it isn’t even up-to-date; it still has him chairing the LLF History group, but now that’s … history.

In a church where testimony plays a role, perhaps personal experience trumps everything else. That could be why LLF makes a point of including many individuals’ stories in the teaching materials; I’ve often wondered what happens if one of those individuals rewrites their story later, when one stage of it is preserved forever by LLF? In the TA thread, people who had worked in senior roles, for example in the Church Army UK, gave their own recollections, but even then these weren’t accepted without challenge.

Another of the contributors to the thread, Simon Bravery, who had already intervened several times, shared what he interpreted as a positive comment about Bishop Tim, from a blog post written seven years ago. In this, Rachel Hartland was upbeat and enthusiastic about her experience of Deacon’s Day in Winchester, mentioning the bishop’s “seriously inspirational talk” about ordained ministry, his vulnerability when questioned by the ordinands and his “fresh ideas and a fresh way of doing things”. She then described how the bishop asked the ordinands if they were willing to be ordained in red stoles, for the colour of the Holy Spirit. As it happened, Rachel had already had an ordination stole made, in ivory and white, created from her wedding dress and incorporating a reference to a cross her father gave her at university and wool from her mother’s saddle-cloth. She was clearly uncomfortable with the bishop’s idea but went along with it, and tried to reflect on the incident as showing how our “nicely laid plans” can be “well and truly shot out of the water”. Yes, as a mere authorised lay preacher, I’ve done that training too: the Kolb reflection cycle, when you try to make sense of your reaction and learn from it for next time… 

And that would have been the end of it, except that Rachel responded on TA to Simon’s posting, as follows:

I wrote this blog post as an ordinand 7 years ago as a reflection on my first meeting with the peers with whom I was to be ordained. Our meeting that day with +T was in that context. A lot has happened to myself and colleagues since then: his seeming vulnerability when he spoke to us initially could now be interpreted differently. His snap decision over the stoles – with no concern for the personal significance of their design – is hardly a positive reflection on his pastoral care for his clergy.

Simon apologised for misrepresenting her current views, writing that he was “trying in the interests of balance to find something positive to say”. Nice try, but it didn’t work.

With that input from Rachel, we can revisit her blog post. Upbeat and enthusiastic, yes, but also – think about it, you’re moving towards ordination to the diaconate and your bishop comes up with an idea. Who has the power here? Precisely. Are you going to risk being forever in the bishop’s bad books by saying, ‘Actually no, Bishop; while I understand where you’re coming from, that’s not an appropriate thing to suggest at this point, and don’t try to bully us by bringing the Holy Spirit into it’? If we read that alongside another TAcomment by a member of Winchester Diocesan Synod that “People are fearful of using their real names for comments online in case they incur +Tim’s wrath”, what happened seven years ago feels even more significant.

I was interested in this exchange, not least because made me wonder about my own blogging. I started this blog in 2015 when I was chosen as one of Oxford Diocese’s representatives on the Shared Conversations process. I was very excited about this. But I realise now that I was also very, very naïve. In my first blog post, I blithely talked about how I’d worked with Christians with views very different from my own about all sorts of topics. Ha! It wasn’t until the Shared Conversations that I met, to give just one example, someone who thought that people with intersex characteristics were evidence of The Fall; and, while we’re on this, that The Fall was a real historical event. I had absolutely no idea what I was getting into. 

And then I was asked to join LLF. Again, I hadn’t a clue. I think at some level I was excited to be in what my favourite musical, Hamilton, calls ‘the room where it happens’. But that room wasn’t a place of equality. Most people there knew others in the room. Clergy know each other. Bishops know each other and know clergy. There were very few lay people present, and I got the impression that most of those knew each other from General Synod. I haven’t been on General Synod for decades now – I left in 1993 – although such is the nature of the Church of England that some who served with me are still there, and were involved in LLF. But in general I didn’t have the ‘history’ which they all shared. As a non-clergy, non-church-employed, non-theologian, I was of very little interest to them (with a few notable exceptions). There are many comparable situations in the Church of England. Most importantly, for most clergy or church-employed people, then taking part in projects like LLF can be presented as part of your job, whereas for lay people in particular you need to take leave to make it possible to be there.

I’m not going to rewrite any of the blog posts I’ve put up here. They represent where I was, at a particular time, and as such they’re a historical source. I reserve the right to object, and to clarify, if someone takes them as my current views. I wrote as a person without power in the church, and was probably unaware of some of the power moves taking place in the room where it happened. It is interesting now to read more about the person who was chairing our group, and to wonder how I would have reacted if I had been aware of some of this at the time.

Posted in Living in Love and Faith, Shared Conversations | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Conversion therapy: faith without fear

Unusually today, I was up in time to listen to some pre-7 a.m. radio, so I heard the very rushed interview the Today programme was running on conversion therapy. Anyone who still doesn’t know what this ‘therapy’ entails can read the stories told by those featured in the current harrowing series being featured on Jayne Ozanne’s Via Media blog, for example this one

The context for today’s brief interview is the considerable unease about the 11 May statement issued by Bishop Sarah Mullally in her role as chair of the LLF Next Steps Group. In this she stated that 

The General Synod has voted overwhelmingly to reject coercive Conversion Therapies so we welcome the Government’s commitment to explore these matters further with a view to enshrining that position in law.

We recognise the difficulties in defining Conversion Therapies and look forward to working closely with the Government to develop a viable definition and subsequent legislation.

We want to prevent abuses of power, and ensure that issues of consent are made absolutely central to any future legislation.

There are many problems with this statement. First, the General Synod motion to which it refers, passed back in 2017 (!), never mentioned the word ‘coercive’. It wasn’t distinguishing between different forms of conversion therapy. You can read the motion as passed here. Second, there are already viable definitions. Third, consent is not as simple as the statement seems to suggest, and it’s on that point which I would like to focus briefly.

In the Today interview, Peter Lynas of the Evangelical Alliance seemed to be confusing celibacy – in the Christian tradition, a specific vocation – with abstinence – not having sex. He emphasised that people asking for prayer to end their ‘same-sex attraction’ (the preferred terminology of those who don’t think there is such a thing as ‘being gay’) do so “with their own free choice”. He said “they’re an adult, they’ve made their own choices”.

I think the safeguarding scandals usefully help us to think about this. “They’re an adult”: but are they what safeguarding would call a ‘vulnerable’ adult? Who is a vulnerable adult? The definition has expanded considerably in recent years, and when I took the safeguarding training it was emphasised that any adult can be vulnerable at some point in their life. In 2015 Stephen Parsons discussed this and pointed out that ‘vulnerable’ is less about the “individual personality, but more the particular setting that he or she finds themselves in”. Stephen discussed poverty, illiteracy and the time between childhood and adulthood as just three of the “‘vulnerabilities’ that impact on the way that a individual is rendered more susceptible to the blandishments of religious teachers”. Another setting, I think, is being a gay person – particularly a young gay person – within a congregation which believes homosexuality is a sin.

In the Today interview, as well as using the words ‘choice’ and ‘choose’, Lynas expressed his worry that, if prayer is included as a form of conversion therapy, then people who are ‘same-sex attracted’ “won’t be able to get prayer”. Leaving aside what to me is a very consumer-focused view of prayer as a commodity which you ‘get’ from someone else, it’s not a ‘free choice’ asking for prayer if your whole world is a church which tells you that you can stop being gay if you pray hard enough or if the right people, or enough people, pray for you to be straight. In the world of ‘getting’ prayer, this means telling people who think homosexuality is a sin that you think you are gay, and it means the church leaders – the gatekeepers, those with the power to evict you – are likely to be the ones praying with you. Does that sound like a wise move? Isn’t the unequal power dynamic obvious?

I’m reading Brian McLaren’s Faith After Doubt (2021) at the moment. He discusses how the gatekeepers “articulate the box of norms that members must follow, then police conformity, and then impose punishments or dispense rewards accordingly”. His theme is the expression of doubt but his points also apply to conversion therapy. McLaren writes, “Many of us are drawn to faith communities because they are places of warmth, safety and belonging. But sometimes, they are among the most dangerous zones we enter.” People who have been through conversion therapy talk about how they wanted to belong, to stay in the church which to them was their whole life, the place where their friends and family were; how they wanted it to ‘work’ and how they had to pretend that it had done so, because if it hadn’t then the authority of those from whom they had ‘got prayer’ would be challenged.

But a safe community of faith is one where we can express our doubts, and our sexuality, without fear.

Posted in Living in Love and Faith, Safeguarding | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Surviving Lockdown 3: a guest post

I’ve never put up a “guest post” on this blog before – so, here’s a first! This was written by a friend of mine who is a retired missionary. She has never been married, and she lives alone in a flat. When we put together the Living in Love and Faith resources, I was delighted that the book includes singleness, and that the videos include older single people like her. But singleness, whether or not someone feels ‘called’ to it, is particularly difficult in a pandemic. 

When my friend shared this with me, I immediately wanted to share it with a wider audience – because what she says is so revealing about a group whose lockdown experience is often ignored. I’m not finding Lockdown 3 easy myself, but I am in a very different situation to my friend. More generally, when we casually pass someone in the street and ask them how they are, and they say they’re OK, we don’t always realise what that means. Her advice on how to structure time is wise and sensible, whatever or not you are a Christian!

When people say to us “How are you?” the answer from most is “I’m OK thank-you” and then the person enquiring really can’t go any further. The answer seems to close down any discussion.

I have decided to put down on paper why I am OK Thank You!

I live alone.  I am not in anyone’s bubble which means I don’t go into anyone else’s house nor does anyone come into mine, and this has been so for most of the past year. I was 86 this month and am on cancer preventative medication.

But I am OK thank you.

Why?  Perhaps due to the kindness and grace of God.  Each morning I get up at 7.30 as I don’t want to be tempted to lie in bed, so a specific time to get up is good for me – scheduled by the Sports report on the Today programme! I then go into my lounge and drink two cups of tea slowly while I enjoy everything I can see.  I have windows which look out in three directions from my living room. On one windowsill are five colourful plants, each given by a friend or neighbour, and this is the window from which I watch most. It looks on to a lovely horse-chestnut tree with sticky buds already breaking.  Then across the road is a public open space where I admire fast walkers, joggers, dog walkers, and a lady pushing a pram as she exercises herself. In the trees there is a pair of squirrels recently joined by a baby one which they guard carefully between them as they run fast along the branches and telephone wires. Across the road in the car park one or two of the local supermarket workers park, looking at their watches as they realise they have only five minutes left to check in. I get to recognise these people.

Gradually the six or eight school buses come up the road from the outside areas and I try my best to see if I can spy the one, or sometimes two, children in each these days.  Not easy, because I don’t know whether to look up or down, front or back.

After getting dressed and having some breakfast I take 20-25 minutes to read something from my Bible and pray for the increasing number of people, near and far who are in need, or who are glad of God’s support day by day in all they do.

The Daily Service comes on the radio at 9.45 for 15 minutes and is the highlight of this part of the morning.  Led by a different person each day, from a wide variety of Christian backgrounds, it always includes three hymns, a Bible reading, comments on this, and prayers followed by the Lord’s prayer.

Then the day’s normal and varied life begins.  I try to make a note in my diary the night before of one or two things I should do, whether it is writing a birthday card, doing a shopping order, tidying a cupboard, or phoning someone.  This is the basis as I then at least have something to anticipate. There are always unexpected things not planned for and I am grateful to people who ring my bell and then stand half way down the corridor to have a chat or bring a magazine – or sometimes a bit of cake they have made! Then, too, I may think of someone and decide to write a card or make a phone call. The one creative thing I have done during this Lockdown is make greetings cards and birthday cards on the computer, and so far I have sent out 50 of these.  I do have a lot of personal work which occupies me on my computer for quite a bit of the day, and since Lockdown I have become much more of a reader than I ever was. 

Just recently I was horrified to realise I weighed more than ever in my life before so have started to make myself go out for what at present is a short walk each day – short because my legs are not good and I don’t have a lot of breath to go far. 

Many of us say we hardly know which day of the week it is and therefore I make a big point of Keeping Sunday Special.  I try to wear some of my better clothes, though these days “Sunday clothes” seem to be things of the past, so that is not so easy.  I won’t open my computer just to be different from week days, and as I live off Wiltshire Farm Foods (commended by the GP in case you think “how awful”!), I always have a very special meal of theirs on Sundays. There are church services, Songs of Praise and other “different things” on Sundays which then set me up to begin another week again the next morning!

So I’m OK Thank You.

Posted in Living in Love and Faith | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Messiahs I have known

I’ve long lost count of the times I’ve been to a performance of Handel’s Messiah. It was a feature of my childhood, with a train trip from the suburbs to London to hear it. I remember everyone stood for the ‘Hallelujah Chorus’, a convention which has its own myths surrounding it – well, some people stood and then the others picked up the idea and joined in. But it always came as a surprise to find that this wasn’t the final section.

I went on attending through later years. On one occasion in Liverpool, my housemate and I invited a recently-widowed friend along, without realising that he and his wife had been to hear the Messiah every year of their marriage. Hmmm. Would we have asked him if we’d known? On balance, I think it was OK, although of course he was very emotional.

But in recent years, interpretations of the Messiah have seen some transformations, to the point where I am not sure I am still interested in those large choral performances with which I grew up. I’m not referring here to those innovative ways of singing it on Zoom, as with The Self-Isolation Choir, but to professional performances which were thinking outside the box well before the pandemic.

The first of these transformations, in 2011, came with the Merry Opera Company’s staged Messiah. We’d been to hear them when they came to our town with another show, and were impressed with their energy and their innovative approach to opera. When I heard that they were bringing their Messiah to our town, and not just to our town but to our church building, of course I had to go. I was so impressed, so emotionally overwhelmed by the evening, that I emailed the company to say ‘That was the Messiah I have waited all my life to hear’, a comment they picked up for their marketing!

I’ve since seen this Messiah again, in another local church. It was different, because they use the space they have, with a very simple set: a few boxes. But the context they give to the music is the same: that twelve people who are finding life tough come to a church in the hope of finding some meaning. One is a harassed businessman – has he been sacked? Done a dodgy deal? Another is pregnant: does she want this baby? What has happened – does she have a partner? We are not told, but we see these isolated individuals come together into something which supports them all. They form into groups; they run through the building: they dance; they sing, and they move as they sing. I’m still not sure whether a cast member ran up the wall at our church in 2011; I was at the point where nothing would have surprised me.

And what about the Hallelujah Chorus? I’m glad you asked. It’s on YouTube. By this time the cast have shed their everyday clothes for all-white costumes. And of course there are no scores to hold, allowing lots of joyful arm movement. It’s not stately, it’s simply happy.

In 2018 we saw another Messiah which moved me to tears. This was the Bristol Old Vic performance, which we saw in the cinema. They are showing this until 28 February 2021 via this link. The whole performance is currently free on YouTube (until 5 January) although of course you are invited to make a payment to support the theatre. The theme here is the drama at the centre of the story: we are asked to imagine that Christ has been crucified, and the singers are his followers who loved him deeply, recalling what happened to him and trying to make sense of what it all means. This staging is less physical than the Merry Opera Company’s version, but it is just as intimate and immersive. The trumpet sounds from the circle: a young singer performs from the stalls. The musicians play interwoven with the singers. A key feature is the presence of Christ on stage, as a non-speaking role. And the Hallelujah Chorus? It was chosen as the soundtrack to the trailer, although what you see on-screen is taken from across the evening’s performance. The Chorus itself is sung superbly, with Christ’s bloodied body on stage. Also, and I don’t think this is a spoiler, as the Bristol Old Vic is using this as its key image: it’s sung with all the singers lifting up bloody hands at the end.

Christ – here, known as ‘The Beloved’ – is played in the recorded version by Jamie Beddard, a writer, actor and director with cerebral palsy. He was interviewed here. The idea of Christ having a body that is disabled is very powerful. His passivity, his need for care from the other cast members, is deeply moving. His expressions of pain during ‘And with his stripes we are healed’, as cast members took it in turns to attack him, made me cry. I’d grown up with all those notions of perfection: that a body which was not ‘perfect’ could not be holy. No physical blemishes were allowed. In Leviticus 21, God tells Moses:

No one of your offspring throughout their generations who has a blemish may approach to offer the food of his God. For no one who has a blemish shall draw near, one who is blind or lame, or one who has a mutilated face or a limb too long, or one who has a broken foot or a broken hand, or a hunchback, or a dwarf, or a man with a blemish in his eyes or an itching disease or scabs or crushed testicles. No descendant of Aaron the priest who has a blemish shall come near to offer the Lord’s offerings by fire; since he has a blemish, he shall not come near to offer the food of his God. 

As Christ is our great high priest, how can his body be ‘blemished’ in any way? Beddard’s performance made me rethink this. He brought Christ’s humanity into focus for me, as ‘A man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief’.

I’ve just seen the third of the new interpretations I want to mention here. It’s more traditional in form: choirs, soloists, performance. But what is different is that it takes the engagement with inclusion even further. This is the Canadian Messiah/Complex, from Against The Grain Theatre. It opens with a gay Chinese-Canadian tenor, Spencer Britton, singing ‘Comfort Ye’ as he walks across a rainbow-painted street crossing, and it features soloists from a range of ethnic backgrounds, who sing in different languages: English, French, Arabic and various Indigenous languages. The non-English sections have subtitles, but if you know your Messiah these are particularly interesting because, for example, referring to God as ‘Creator’ not as ‘God’ is part of a strong emphasis on the created world – some spectacular Canadian scenery – and on our call to care for it. The intention is to translate in a way which ‘capture[s] the gist of the song rather than its specifics’, as Diyet van Lieshout commented on her translation of ‘O Thou that tellest great tidings’ into Southern Tutchone, helped by her grandmother – one of the only speakers of the language still alive. Some of the transformations are greater than anything you’ll see in the Merry Opera or the Bristol Old Vic productions; a Tunisian-Canadian singer changes ‘He was despised’ to ‘She was despised’ as she recalls her mother’s experience as a Muslim woman in Canada. I’ve seen the production described as ‘polytheistic’ on Christian media; I assume this refers to ‘I know that my Redeemer liveth’, superbly sung in Dene in a snowy landscape with a traditional ritual involving smoke; the words ‘land inside, water inside, air inside, earth inside’ don’t feature in Handel, but the calm certainty of the singer’s ‘My creator living, I know’ is very powerful. It’s available online until the end of January 2021.

And then there’s the Hallelujah Chorus. In this piece shot all over Canada, respecting the conventions of covid-safety, it looks utterly traditional, really. Performed by a choir , recorded in a way that met pandemic guidelines, using shower curtains for social distancing, then lip-synced in a park in Toronto.

It is impossible to summarise these three interpretations in a way which captures their essence. If I had to do it, maybe it would be like this:

Merry Opera Company: we need to come together, trust each other and become something more than the sum of our parts.

Bristol Old Vic: grief and pain can become hope.

Against The Grain: cherish the earth. Change is coming.

Posted in Shared Conversations | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Deleted sex scenes from Living in Love and Faith (4)

In this final post of the series, we turn to one of those elephants in the room. There’s nothing on masturbation in the LLF book, although it must surely be the most common form of sex. It’s also something on which Christians have had ‘views’ for a long time. A text box seemed like a good way to mention the subject. But others didn’t agree.

Masturbation

One area of sexual experience which we don’t talk about is masturbation. Yet ‘the solitary vice’, ‘self-pollution’ – or, as Woody Allen put it in the film Annie Hall – ‘sex with someone you love’ – is the most common sexual activity of all. It doesn’t have to be ‘solitary’ and it is often part of a sexual relationship, and it carries minimal risks of pregnancy or of catching a disease. 

Like everything else, masturbation has a history. It used to be called ‘onanism’. In Genesis 38, the Bible includes the story of Onan, who was told by his father to marry his brother’s widow, Tamar, to ‘raise up seed’ for his brother. This responsibility of a man to father children on his brother’s behalf is common in many ancient societies. Onan slept with Tamar, but spilled his seed on the ground because he didn’t want his dead brother to have any children as this would affect his own inheritance. God was angry, and killed Onan. 

But that story is about contraception – about what would be called ‘the withdrawal method’ – and not about masturbation. Despite not being mentioned in the Bible, masturbation became a sin or, at the very least, something to be resisted by Christians. The eighteenth-century book Onania, or the Heinous Sin of Self-Pollution, And All Its Frightful Consequences, In Both Sexes, Considered made masturbation into a medical disorder. The main aim of the book, which went into many editions and translations, was to sell products: the ‘Strengthening Tincture’ and ‘Prolifick Powder’ which would cure the perceived problem. More respectable medical treatises picked up what quickly became a popular obsession. They argued that masturbation – ‘self-abuse’ – would cause a huge range of physical problems ranging from vomiting to pimples, and would even lead to insanity, premature old age or suicide. These diagnoses only died out at the end of the nineteenth century.

Posted in Living in Love and Faith | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Deleted sex scenes from Living in Love and Faith (3)

I’ve explained what these pieces represent, in the first post of the series. So here is another. In terms of trying to condense a huge topic into a few accessible words, this one was the biggest challenge. But I wanted to get across the point that ‘science’ is not neutral, that biological differences have been read in social terms, and that science is contested.

The history of biology 

While ‘sex’ is commonly used for biology and ‘gender’ for social roles, it’s clear from history that things are more complicated. 

Blood has long been seen as a key bodily fluid. In medieval and early modern medicine, it was one of the ‘four humours’, which could cause disease if there was an excess; the amount in the body could be controlled by diet and regulated by bloodletting. Menstrual blood was considered to be the result of women having more spongy flesh which took up more fluid from their diet, and many disorders in women were attributed to menstrual blood accumulating in the wrong place. By the nineteenth century, those arguing against women’s education suggested that too much use of the mind would deprive the womb of the blood needed to make a baby. Ideas about gender roles clearly influenced how biology was seen.

In the early twentieth century, when blood chemistry was still developing as an area of medicine, differences between men’s and women’s blood were noted. On average, women had lower levels of haemoglobin and of calcium. These biological differences were quickly interpreted in social terms. Women’s lower haemoglobin meant they should not exert themselves too much: their lower calcium made them more ‘highly strung’ and less ‘stable’. In England, those interpretations were then used by a 1923 Board of Education report into whether boys and girls should have the same school curriculum. The report was evidence of concern about the risk of ‘physical fatigue and nervous overstrain’ in girls, and it was recommended that they should be set less homework because it was assumed that they would also be doing domestic duties at home. The report drew on the second edition of Dr William Blair Bell’s book The Sex Complex, published in 1921, on the effects of puberty on both sexes, although the authors noted that this was ‘not yet generally accepted by physiologists’. 

Posted in Church of England and gender, Living in Love and Faith | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

LLF and IICSA, revisited (updated 20 November 2020)

Back in October, I blogged for Via Media on the lack of connection between Living in Love and Faith (just published) and IICSA (published in October). I called for the Church of England to ‘connect the dots’: to recognise that the abuse of children and vulnerable adults is not a separate topic from the questions around sexuality and gender identity that prompted ‘Living in Love and Faith’.

In that blog post, I asked whether the LLF resources were reviewed by the National Safeguarding Team, as the Archbishop of Canterbury had said they would be “to ensure that they sufficiently address safeguarding issues”. I still don’t know the answer to that. I raised the points made in the IICSA hearings, that not being able to be open about your sexuality contributes to a culture of secrecy which has effects on the reporting of abuse, and that the church has a record of being confused about what is and what is not an appropriate same-sex relationship.

So now LLF is out: does it show evidence of learning from IICSA? The short answer is “No.”

At the July 2019 General Synod, the Bishop of Coventry answered a question about whether LLF would learn from the IICSA hearings by saying that

The purpose of the Living in Love and Faith resources is primarily educational: the plan is for the resources to be widely used by parishes, deaneries, dioceses, the House and College of Bishops and members of General Synod to enable teaching and learning. In this way LLF will demonstrate its learning from the IICSA process by promoting a culture of mutual respect, clarity, openness and transparency across the Church in relation to matters of human identity, sexuality, gender and marriage. It will also provide appropriate correctives to misinformation about human sexuality and identity.” 

There is, however, only one reference to IICSA in the LLF book: a textbox on page 87. This doesn’t engage with IICSA, or “demonstrate its learning” from it. Obviously the final report was only published a month before LLF came out, but as the transcripts of the hearings and an interim report were issued in 2018, and as I had asked questions about the connections between IICSA and LLF throughout the LLF process, I am disappointed to find the following sentence in the p.87 textbox:

“While acknowledging the reality of abuse in the church, it is important that the specific work of theological reflection on IICSA be carried out separately from the Living in Love and Faith project, and, importantly, together with victims, with great pastoral sensitivity and only after the findings of IICSA have been carefully assessed.”

This is not about learning from IICSA. It’s about making a case for separation from it. It suggests a future process of “reflection” at some point in the future. When? By whom?

I am updating this post as a result of reading the published answers to questions to the November 2020 General Synod, just released. In answer to Jayne Ozanne’s question (Q.61) about safeguarding changes made by the House of Bishops to prevent similar situations to that which led to the death of Peter Farquhar, the Bishop of Huddersfield replied that

The Living in Love and Faith work will seek to consult and engage safeguarding perspectives in its ongoing work. 

In answer to a further question (Q.63) about implementing the independent reviewer’s recommendations concerning the same case, the Bishop of London replied

One of the ways in which Bishops will promote implementation of these recommendations is by encouraging the whole church to engage with the LLF resources.

She also replied to Q.65, this time saying that

the LLF Next Steps Group will work collaboratively with the National Safeguarding Team to ensure these lessons are incorporated into both LLF and safeguarding development work.

Does any of that answer my question about whether the National Safeguarding Team saw the LLF materials before publication? No. The message seems to be that, if the whole church (?!) engages with the LLF resources, this will enact the independent reviewer’s recommendations. At the same time, safeguarding perspectives will be brought into the LLF reception process; which is interesting, when one of the common reactions to LLF from the LGBTQI+ community seems to be that people are unhappy about taking part in group discussions because they don’t feel safe.

Finally, the Bishop of Coventry replied to another question (Q.70) in defence of keeping IICSA and LLF apart, just repeating what was said in the LLF book:

these reflections need to be carried out together with victims of sexual abuse (not talking about victims, but with victims) and only after the full published findings of IICSA had been assessed. 

Clear as mud, then. Also, strangely circular. And reflection isn’t enough. On the same day as LLF was published, the House of Bishops met. Their statements never tell us very much, but this one included a reference back to an initiative proposed in September, stating that

The House was then updated by the Bishop of Huddersfield, (Bishop for Safeguarding) and the Director of Safeguarding on a range of safeguarding matters. The House noted and agreed that progress on the Interim Support Scheme must be made by the end of the year. 

This Scheme is envisaged as a pilot project to help survivors of abuse. Progress “must be made”. I like that. Let’s hold them to it.

Posted in Living in Love and Faith, Safeguarding | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Deleted sex scenes from Living in Love and Faith (2)

I’ve explained what these pieces represent, in the first post of the series. So here is another. This one summarises something I have in the ‘online library’ of working papers we wrote during the three years of LLF. That was originally written for a meeting of the College of Bishops. I had chosen the topic because in LLF there isn’t much of a sense of the sexuality of those who identify as women, and also because it meant I could discuss the support of the late nineteenth-century Church of England for a maverick surgeon who was carrying out clitoridectomies in London on girls and women who didn’t fit social expectations of their behaviour. I’ve written a short piece on him for The Conversation. I was trying both to put female sexuality on the agenda, and to illustrate the rather dodgy enthusiasm of the church for what they thought was ‘science’.

The clitoris

Much of what has been written about sexuality seems to start from assuming that the heterosexual man is the norm. This makes the clitoris a problem: is it a version of the penis, or does the penis correspond more to the vagina, something suggested by the word ‘vagina’ itself, which means the scabbard into which a sword is placed? Freud argued that healthy female sexuality was all about transferring the seat of pleasure from the clitoris to the vagina, but for most people with vaginas it is on the clitoris that sexual pleasure usually relies. 

One medical claim to have ‘discovered’ the clitoris was made by Realdus Columbus in 1559. His book, De re anatomica, described a small oblong area which, if touched, caused great pleasure. He gave it a name: “since no one has discerned these projections and their workings, if it is permissible to give names to things discovered by me, it should be called the love or sweetness of Venus.” It was seen as a worrying organ because it suggested that women had no need of men to give them pleasure. In the late 1990s research by the Australian urologist Helen O’Connell demonstrated not only that current medical textbooks gave very little information on this organ, but also that it is far larger than the illustrations suggested; rather than a small oblong, it includes erectile tissue which extends up to 9 cm from the external section.

It is often described as the only organ in the body solely devoted to pleasure, although a study published in 2019 argued that orgasm improves lubrication and vaginal blood flow, and alters the position of the cervix in a way that encourages the motility of sperm. The view that female orgasm somehow improves fertility is not new. In 1671 Jane Sharp’s The Midwives Book suggested that the clitoris stimulated a woman’s imagination, which then sent a message to the woman’s ‘spermatic vessels’ to produce ‘seed’. This suggested female orgasm was necessary for conception, but the idea that women have ‘spermatic vessels’ and seed was discredited by the discovery of the ovaries.

Posted in Church of England and gender, Living in Love and Faith | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Deleted sex scenes from Living in Love and Faith (1)

When I met the man I went on to marry, I was less than impressed with his bookshelves. However, I observed that he had a copy of Pride and Promiscuity: The Lost Sex Scenes of Jane Austen. At first I was mildly alarmed, but once I realised the book carried the imprimatur of the President of the Jane Austen Society, I relaxed.

I can’t claim any similar imprimatur but, Reader, I offer you these short pieces. They were written on request for Living in Love and Faith. The rationale was the ongoing lack of history in the book, despite having had a History Thematic Working Group, to which I belonged. I happen to believe that history is important, and that many of the themes of LLF were described in ways that implied that they only emerged in the 1960s or later; that was also true in the facilitated discussions called the ‘Shared Conversations’, in which I took part. I also think that a short, accessible historical example or two can be a good way of engaging people in a discussion. Well, I would say that, wouldn’t I, because I’m a historian.

I shall be writing a longer piece about history elsewhere and will link to that when it is published. Meanwhile, though… I wrote these pieces but for various reasons, including ‘Comms’, they were not included.

I wrote this first one because it seemed to me that it would be useful to point out that ‘pornography’ isn’t a new phenomenon, but that some features of the modern form are particularly pernicious.

Pornography and history

Defining ‘pornography’ is very difficult, although today it often implies inequity between partners and the objectification of people. There is often no way of knowing whether images from the ancient world which today seem ‘pornographic’ were viewed in the same way at their own time. Sex manuals existed in ancient Greece, among them one attributed to a woman of the fourth century BCE, Philaenis, written ‘for those who wish to lead their life with knowledge gained scientifically’. It included advice on chat-up lines. But is a sex manual ‘pornography”? The Roman poet Ovid’s Art of Love ends by guaranteeing success at love-making to anyone who reads it; he was banished from Rome and the work banned from public libraries, but it survived and was printed in the fifteenth century. 

In both pagan and Christian moralists, only one sexual position – frontal – was seen as ‘natural’, so texts describing anything else, among them the works of Philaenis and Ovid, were denounced as licentious. In 1527 appeared an edition of a book of engravings entitled I modi, in which the poet and satirist Pietro Aretino presented poems to illustrate sixteen images of various sexual positions, modelled by couples from the ancient world such as Venus and Mars. Although the Roman Catholic church destroyed all copies of I Modi, ‘Aretino’s Positions’ became a byword for eroticism, mentioned in many publications from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century. However, the message was often a political or satirical one, suggesting that the Italians were morally depraved and ‘we’ weren’t. The pattern of dressing up sexually explicit material by making it look ‘classical’ continued in an eighteenth-century publication from the art dealer Pierre-François Hugues d’Hancarville in which erotic scenes from Suetonius’ Lives of the Caesars were illustrated; in one of them, the Roman emperor Tiberius is shown admiring a painting of a sexual scene from Greek myth. 

What changed in the nineteenth century was partly the medium – photography made it possible for images to be shared beyond the literate elite – but also the people involved. A photograph of a real individual, who could be someone you know, is very different from using scenes from myth and history as vehicles for explicit imagery.

So there you have it: an attempt to condense this into the right number of words for a text box. I have written at more length on some of this in a piece I published in a collection of essays edited by Roy Porter and Mikuláš Teich, Sexual KnowledgeSexual Science: The History of Attitudes to Sexuality.

Posted in Living in Love and Faith, Shared Conversations | Tagged , , , , , | 5 Comments

Waiting for publication: the week before Living in Love and Faith

Well, there’s quite enough to think about without this. New lockdown for England, all the uncertainties about jobs and furloughs and church buildings to get our heads around, plus awaiting the election results in the US.

But next week, on 9 November, something I’ve been engaged with for a long time now finally gets to be released: Living in Love and Faith (LLF). Publication day has, like so much else, been delayed by the pandemic, but the Church of England as a whole has spent a lot on getting to this point. The cost of the preliminaries, the Shared Conversations, between September 2014 and August 2016, was announced in 2017 as £384,525. The cost of LLF, up to February 2020, was estimated as being £600,000, taken – to quote the response to a General Synod question – from “the diocesan apportionment, an Archbishops’ Council restricted fund, the Church Commissioners, and a grant from a charitable trust. These financial figures do not take into account the very substantial ‘in kind’ contributions of over 40 people to the production of the resources.” 

As one of the “over 40 people”, and one who has blogged here about various aspects of the events in General Synod which led to the LLF process, how am I feeling right now?

Pretty tired, actually. I’ve never been involved in producing an official document of the Church of England before. I suspect this will be my only experience of it. It was far more onerous in terms of time, and far more exhausting in personal terms, than I’d expected. And all this for a series of ‘resources’ which in themselves bring the church no nearer to accepting its LGBTQI+ members on equal terms: able to marry in church, to take on the same roles in congregations as anyone else, and to offer themselves for ordained ministry without having to give assurances of ‘celibacy’. The current state of play blithely ignores the usual understanding of celibacy as a vocation for some (regardless of their sexual orientation) and makes it into the only way of life acceptable for those who are lesbian or gay.

I was invited to take part in the History working group. It wasn’t clear at that point whether we’d be writing sections of the final book – and the target audience for that book shifted around between being one of two (popular/scholarly) or one for a wide audience or one to educate the bishops and other leaders – or whether someone else would summarise our materials and do the writing at the end of the time allocated.

I knew there would be meetings, but not how many: there were meetings of the group, and then full meetings of everyone involved. All were face to face although in our group we’d been very keen to meet online for some of the time. From being part of the initial small group where we had come to know each other, as the months went by I felt the project spinning away from me; in the full-day and residential meetings when we all came together, it was impossible to get a sense of what everyone else in the 40 or so people involved was doing, or why. Papers from other groups were shared on Dropbox but it was impossible for me to read everything, not just because of the amount of material but also because the material kept changing. At formal meetings, “Not everyone has seen this yet” was a common comment. There were even more meetings which meant a significant investment of time in preparation and travel; I spoke to the College of Bishops – the same talk three times, with question time – while other members of the project ran events at General Synod.

Throughout, the seven drafts which LLF passed through were circulated for comment, usually with a week, or even less, of reading time. As the final document is 468 pages, you can imagine how many hours were spent on all these drafts. In comments on one draft, I see that I wrote for one section “I feel I have read so many versions of this that I can’t face another.” At one point, a factual historical error which I’d pointed out wasn’t corrected, so I had to ask for it to be corrected on the next draft (remember, 468 pages – that’s a lot to read). I hope it will not have drifted back to the error version in the final product…

But I haven’t seen the final version of the book: nothing was sent to me after Draft 7, but I was approached for some additional ‘text boxes’. My understanding is that, in fact, these are not being used. More on that when I find out whether or not that’s the case. At the last meeting we had, we saw some of the other resources – the videos of people with a range of sexualities and gender identities – but I’ve not seen any more than that initial batch. There’s a study guide which I was sent for the first time in proof, with only 24 hours to go until its deadline for submission. 

At an initial meeting back in 2017, we’d done the dreaded post-it notes exercise, and had to write down things like “how we’d hope to feel when the document is published”. My personal notes from that day say that people were using words like authentic, honest and kindly, and I was expressing the hope that “everyone can hear their voice” in the final product. It would be interesting now to revisit that exercise, but like all such exercises it was never mentioned again. At the last meeting of the full LLF group, we were instead asked to reflect on what we had learned from being part of LLF. I suppose the post-2017 entries on this blog represent my response to that.

What would I add now on my ‘learning’? This is very personal, but that’s what this blog is about. So… 

  • That some people really like meetings and others don’t.
  • That adding on a time of worship to a meeting doesn’t make you feel better about it all.
  • That it’s very difficult to feel part of things when you’re a lay person not employed by the church: when this started, I knew only a handful of the 40 or so people and some of those were from being on General Synod a very long time ago: I left in 1993. I’ve met some people with whom I’ve made good connections, but often felt I wasn’t part of the general chatter and bonhomie. 
  • That my own feelings of exclusion and not being heard were nothing compared to the way all this could feel to those who are LGBTQI+; required to be the object of discussion at the same time as allegedly being full members of the group doing the discussing.

When I’ve seen the final products of those years of work, I’ll write more.

(updated 5 November to correct the number of pages, when the final version reached me, and 9 November, to show my collapsing copy: no, it isn’t supposed to be loose-leaf)

Posted in Episcopal Teaching Document, Living in Love and Faith, Shared Conversations | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments