The indecent Virgin

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

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

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

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

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

Image result for brompton oratory mary

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

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

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

Related image

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

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

Image result for santa librada


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

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

Image result for walking madonna frink wikimedia commons

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Challenging experience

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

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

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

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

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

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Men as the Brides of Christ?

modified 28 December 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Out in Africa?

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

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

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

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

Protesters outside Church House

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To quote from Epprecht’s conclusion:

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

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

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



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Can women be laity?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Love that dares to speak: a study course

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Seeing the tree in the woods

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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Pandora: the Greek Eve?

(John William Waterhouse, Pandora, 1896)

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

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

Making Eve

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

In the first of these versions, God created:

humankind in his image,

in the image of God he created them,

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

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

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

Making Pandora

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

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

Pandora and Eve

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

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

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

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Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch: a sermon

In one of those moments of diary failure with which we are all familiar, I thought that this coming Sunday I was down to preach at the 10 a.m. service immediately before the Annual Parochial Meeting. Wrong. I’m preaching at Evensong: different readings. I’ve now written a new sermon but, having had some useful moments online and face-to-face talking to others scheduled to preach on the Ethiopian eunuch, I thought I may as well put up here the sermon I’m not preaching, not least because it focuses on a ‘shared conversation’! It’s written for a middle-of-the-road Anglican congregation with a few children present (mostly in the choir) so I wouldn’t major on the medical details…


Acts 8.26-40: The Ethiopian eunuch

Two of the buzz words of today are ‘inclusivity’ and ‘diversity’. In the education world, any new policies need to be evaluated for both of them: are these policies promoting inclusivity and diversity? That’s to say, are our actions doing enough to make sure people of all sorts – women, gay people, those with small children or other caring responsibilities, disabled people, black and other ethnic minorities – to make sure they are all fully included? Today’s gospel challenges us to think about the radical inclusivity and diversity of the love of God as revealed in Jesus’s teaching, his death and his resurrection.

The story comes in a sequence of encounters in which the brand-new church finds that the message of Jesus is not only for the Jewish people who were his first followers. Before this story, Philip has been working with two other followers of Jesus, Peter and John, spreading the good news of Jesus in the villages in Samaria. If you remember the story of Jesus meeting the Samaritan woman, you’ll recall that Jews and Samaritans were traditional enemies. That was the case from Old Testament times onwards: because the Jews regarded the Samaritans as basically ‘foreigners’. The Samaritans regarded themselves as the true Jews, and accepted the first five books of the Hebrew Bible – but not the rest. When the Samaritans offered to help rebuild the temple at Jerusalem, the Jews turned down the offer! So wow, after the work of Peter and John and Philip, now some of the Samaritans are part of this new Jesus movement: already there’s some serious inclusivity and diversity happening here!

Philip is then told to go to the road that leaves Jerusalem to the south, where he encounters the eunuch. Who is this man? Across human history, it has been common practice in societies around the globe to use surgical castration for some senior royal officials. Why? Because not being able to reproduce meant that there was no danger of them wanting to set up their own descendants in opposition to the royals they served. Without their own family to promote, they were thought to be more trustworthy, more loyal. I’ve seen it argued that ‘eunuch’ here is just a job title, like ‘Chamberlain’, rather than a description – which would mean that the Ethiopian holds one of these trusted positions, but has intact organs – but that seems really unlikely because he is also described as a ‘court official’, and if ‘eunuch’ already told us his job, we wouldn’t need that extra label. There’s another Ethiopian eunuch in the Bible. ‘Ebed-melech the Ethiopian, a eunuch in the king’s house’ features in the book of Jeremiah, where he is the person who helps this prophet to escape when he has been thrown down a well because nobody likes his prophecies.

In earlier translations, this eunuch we’ve heard about works for Queen Candace of Ethiopia: in more accurate translations like the one we’ve used today, he is ‘a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury’. Candace is definitely a title. There’s clearly a diversity moment happening here, because the eunuch is almost certainly black. The Greek word ‘Ethiopia’ actually means ‘with a burnt face’; the dark complexion is summarised in the name. The place he is from isn’t where we think of as Ethiopia, but is probably the kingdom of Kush, south of Egypt and once ruled by it, in what’s now Sudan. It was a very rich kingdom with a thousand-year history.

This man has just been to Jerusalem. We don’t know why: financial business for the Queen, or a personal trip? When we meet him on his return journey, he is reading the work of the prophet Isaiah. Did he buy this in Jerusalem? Is it new to him, or something he has been reading for a while? In the ancient world, people normally read out loud, so as Philip approached he’d know precisely what the Ethiopian eunuch was reading. It’s from the Hebrew Bible. So what was this man’s own faith? Later in history, there were Jewish settlers in what is now Ethiopia, but there’s no evidence for this during New Testament times. Martin Luther reckoned he was a Gentile, a non-Jew. John Wesley thought that he was someone who’d already converted to Judaism. Was he someone on the fringe of Judaism but not a convert yet? Or did he follow the religion of his region, which was similar to that of Egypt with a strong focus on the afterlife?

There’s an interesting exclusion point here: the Ethiopian wouldn’t be allowed in the Jerusalem Temple. Jewish holy law (Deuteronomy) strictly forbids a eunuch from entering the assembly of the Lord. So did the eunuch go to Jerusalem to worship, despite the fact that he’d be turned away by the religious establishment, or was he there for state business? Whatever the case, he is interested in Jewish sacred texts, because he is reading Isaiah.

Specifically, he is reading Isaiah 53, which many of you will know because so much of it features in Handel’s Messiah: ‘all we like sheep have gone astray’ and ‘he was despised and rejected by others, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief’. So here we have the eunuch, a powerful man who is physically impotent, reading the prophecies about Jesus, in whom God emptied out his power in order to become the suffering servant, the victim. But he hasn’t yet got to the best part of Isaiah for him, chapter 56: ‘Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say, ‘The Lord will surely separate me from his people’ and do not let the eunuch say ‘I am just a dry tree’.’ The foreigner… the eunuch… and this man is both. ‘For thus says the Lord: To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name …’ This section of Isaiah is very much prefiguring the expansion of the church from the original Jewish followers of Jesus, to the rest of the world. ‘Thus says the Lord God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, I will gather others to them besides those already gathered’. Radical inclusivity. Foreigners – and eunuchs!

So what’s this story about? What’s it doing in the Bible? Like many people, I was brought up to see it as a story about evangelism, about how the good news is best shared person to person. Philip was the hero, and the eunuch was the person he was ‘converting’. But now I’m not so sure. This seems to be quite a journey they take together, discussing the Bible and what it means, talking about who Jesus was. It recalls to me the road to Emmaus, when Jesus himself came and walked with his disciples, explaining the Bible to them. Are Philip and the eunuch learning from each other here? And does Philip learn that the way of Jesus is even more inclusive than he’d thought?

Today is our annual parish meeting. Perhaps the story of the Ethiopian eunuch is a reminder to us to look for those who are not like us, in colour or class or sexuality. But perhaps it is also a reminder that those who are not ‘like us’ may already be far nearer to God than we are. ‘Inclusion’ suggests that ‘we’ who are already the powerful ones generously make sure that we allow others to join us. What we see in this story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch is the excluded foreigner who doesn’t fit into binary categories of male and female, whose sexuality is not going to lead to sons and daughters, inviting Philip to join him – ‘he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him’. While our focus at the annual parish meeting is on our buildings and what we do in them, perhaps the story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch reminds us that we also need to be open to invitations to meet people on their territory. Maybe, we need to get out more!

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Being officially ecumenical: chocolate, mints, the Church of England and the Conference of European Churches

This week, the Church of England General Synod is discussing union with the Methodists. One of my favourite jokes ever is the ‘guy on a bridge‘ one, which is all about church divisions and micro-divisions. Union, or separation? Is reunion possible? Thinking about this, and reading something Jayne Ozanne posted about whether there should be a real effort to make sure the Church of England sends LGBTQI+ delegates to other bodies, reminded me about something from my own history. Halfway through my life so far, I went to the 1986 Assembly of the Conference of European Churches (CEC). It was quite enough of a shock to the system to be young and female there – I can’t imagine what it would have been like as a lesbian. I’ve been reflecting on that pretty intense experience and, whatever my effect on CEC may have been (not much at all), I’ve concluded that it had a lasting effect on me.


Why was I there? Well, I was put forward because as well as being on General Synod at that time (a year after my PhD was awarded; it seems like another world) I was also on the British Council of Churches (BCC), a body which ceased to exist in 1990 when ecumenical structures changed. Even before I was elected to General Synod, I was already an enthusiastic ecumenist, having been on the steering group of my local Council of Churches for a while, so the invitation to represent the Church of England on the BCC was not too much of a leap, and meant that I was involved in some really interesting meetings. In terms of learning life skills, it was through BCC that I learned how to clap without exhausting my arms, instructed by one of the Pentecostal church delegates.

I was one of the youngest people on BCC, so it was probably a no-brainer to ask me if I would represent the Church of England at the CEC Assembly. ‘Europe’ – that sounded like it could involve travel! I found out that the previous meeting of CEC Assembly had been in Crete; as an ancient historian, and at that point in my life pretty untravelled, this sounded wonderful. But it turned out that this meeting wasn’t going to be so far away: the venue was Stirling. I was disappointed, but hey, I was still delighted to be asked and so I agreed to go.

Being young (relatively!)

It was all pretty eye-opening. It was very intense, very word-heavy. Every day we sat in an enormous hall listening to long addresses and presentations, taking part in debates, and voting. We had simultaneous translation through headphones, which proved to be an exhausting way to listen. There was some small group work, but not much; however, there seemed to be a lot of voting. We weren’t issued by the Church of England with instructions on which way to vote, so we used our initiative as well as chatting among ourselves. We were issued with red and green cards to hold up for ‘no’ and ‘yes’, but not long into the Assembly I lost them and so made do with a Kit-Kat wrapper and a Polo Mints wrapper; I think my votes still counted.

The balance between different sorts of church was, of course, quite unlike what I was used to in suburban Surrey! On arrival in the hall, a delegation from the Old Catholics ran up to hug the Church of England group. At that point I didn’t even know what an Old Catholic was, but apparently we were brothers and sisters, so that was fine, probably. Many delegates were from Orthodox churches. Even without this contingent, the event was very much dominated by older men. The youngest people there were the volunteer stewards, and I spent time with them because we were closer in age and often had more in common. They met in the evenings to recover from the day, which often seemed to include them being treated as slaves by some of the delegates. With other younger delegates, I went along to chill out with them.

Conversations with this unofficial ‘young’ grouping meant that I was put forward by the younger delegates for membership of the central committee because they thought as a member of the Church of England I had a chance – that this could somehow disguise the fact that I was under 30 (!) and female. I wonder now why people took/still take one look at me and reckon I should be put on the committee? Maybe I behave too well (other than losing the red and green cards). It didn’t work out, and I was very glad it didn’t. I found the processes of CEC opaque and I didn’t find the members of their central committee very welcoming.

Challenging and changing

Being part of the Assembly was significant for my own faith in two ways, neither of them part of the meetings in that vast hall.

It was the first time I ever spoke from a pulpit. On the Sunday morning, we were all sent out to different churches in the wider area. I had thought this was just about worshipping together but on arrival I was asked to talk about my faith in the sermon slot. Only when I was leaving the building did the incumbent tell me I was the first woman to speak from that pulpit… In later life I explored the possibility of preaching regularly, and am now an authorised lay preacher.

The Assembly was also one of my first experiences of seeing and hearing ordained women, from the Lutheran tradition. On the flight back, I had a long conversation with an ordained male member of the Church of England delegation where he asked me whether I had a vocation to priesthood (this was of course one year after General Synod voted in favour of ordaining women deacons, but before 1992 when General Synod passed the motion in favour of ordaining women priests). I appreciated the direct approach which helped me in thinking this question through. I found that my answer was simply that I couldn’t say. Until it became a real possibility, this was like asking me if I had a vocation to be a rock; it wasn’t something open to me, so how could I consider it seriously? Only some years after it had become real was I able to think about it, alongside a spiritual director, and we came to the conclusion that I am called to be lay.

And now?

And am I still as ecumenical today as I was then? At my core, yes. My impression, now far away from these centres of power, is that some of the fire of ecumenism has gone out in the wider church. For myself, I’m currently co-leading a course with a Baptist minister-in-training; I am a street pastor in a town where the vast majority are from a community church which was an offshoot of the Baptists; I’ve been to local Churches Together Lent groups; and I try to attend the local Churches Together shared worship events where possible. But to me, it feels like there is just a hard core of ecumenists, maybe a couple from each church, who are the Usual Suspects, and that they are the older members of the congregations. We seem to be more interested in doing our own thing rather than doing as much as we can together.

I don’t know whether current disagreements around women’s roles and sexuality play a role in keeping us apart, but I confess here that I often take the easy route, not bringing up these topics with Christians from other churches. Mea culpa?

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