Love that dares to speak: a study course

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Seeing the tree in the woods

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

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

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

tree.png

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

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

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

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

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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.

Selection

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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The Episcopal Teaching Document

(as of June 2018, the yet-to-be-written ‘Document’ is now known as ‘Living in Love and Faith: Christian Teaching and Learning about Human Identity, Sexuality and Marriage’. I’m not yet sure what I make of that but I’m thinking about its logo …)

So, here’s a turn-up for the books; I am now publicly announced as a member of the Historical Thematic Working Group which has been set up to feed material into the Teaching Document on Human Sexuality which the C of E Bishops have said they intend to produce by 2020. The announcement of the membership of the various groups was made on 15 November and, a week on, the few discussions I’ve heard or seen online are overwhelmingly negative.

Sometimes the theme is that this is all taking too long, or even that the production of such a document is simply a typical example of C of E delaying tactics. Well, let’s see. Having lived through the changes which saw first women deacons, then women priests, and now women bishops, I know what long processes look and feel like. When it comes to human sexuality, certainly the C of E has a record of producing documents and then not doing much about them. But does this one have to go the same way? We don’t know yet.  The 1988 ‘Osborne Report’ to the House of Bishops on homosexuality was suppressed, but you can now read it here. To quote that report, ‘No-one was asked to dilute or comprohmise their respective allegiances. Yet we found that we could still live with each other. More than that, because we experienced the strength of what unites us we were committed to finding ways by which we could live with our divisions’. The 1991 statement by the House of Bishops on ‘Issues in Human Sexuality‘ (study guide here) looks very dated indeed now, not least in its use of the word ‘homophile’. The 2013 ‘Pilling Report’ (to give it its full title, Report of the House of Bishops Working Group on Human Sexuality) was responsible for setting up the Shared Conversations in which I took part for my diocese. Its main proposals are summarised here.

For others, the issue is not so much the process as the identity of those on the groups; are there enough LGBTQI people on them, because of course ‘there should be no decision about us without us’? For me, that rather misses the point; well, several points. First, it’s human sexuality we are talking about, even though the background is whether the church will do anything in response to the state’s acceptance of equal marriage – and I think everyone on the groups is human; second, does anyone have the right or even the knowledge to label those of us on the groups by our sexuality; and third, how can you  achieve a perfect balance of assembling groups of people who have some claim to know about the topic with people of the right range of sexuality and/or gender?

As is appropriate, my membership of this group is governed by some rules, so I suspect that’s all I can say at the moment. I won’t be saying anything about the working of the group. However, I think I’m within the rules to say that I believe that thinking about history is a good move, and one which hasn’t been used that much in previous reports. Why do we make appeals to history? What is good history and what is bad history? How far can history help us to think through contemporary issues? When I was asked to join this group, I accepted, because I think these questions underlie the current debates, just as do questions about how we use the Bible.

It’s not going to be easy, but I hope it will be worthwhile.

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Nothing new here: how the human sexuality debate repeats the women priests debate

I’ve been going through my old papers from when I was on General Synod; I represented the Diocese of Guildford for seven years or so. During the July 2017 sessions, I read a lot of comments about the complexity of some of the motions, with so many amendments proposed that it could become difficult to keep track of what was going on, and a lot of comments about the behaviour of members. At the time I thought, ‘Come on, people – hasn’t it always been like that?’ I also reflected, and not for the first time, that the current debates around sexuality are very similar in many ways to those I lived through around the ordination of women.

Below, you’ll see my report for the diocesan newspaper in 1989. I’ll leave you to read it – I think any commentary from me would be superfluous.

IMG_2003

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Getting into a muddle about sex: lifelong virginity and the Louden amendment

File 03-08-2017, 14 57 54

For various reasons, I’ve been going through some of the papers I kept from my stint on General Synod; eight complicated years which included the Higton debate, the AIDS debate, and the various stages of the legislation to permit women deacons and women priests. This afternoon I’ve been reliving the November 1987 ‘Higton debate’ through the reports and press cuttings from that period.

For those young enough to have been spared prior knowledge of any of this, Tony Higton’s original motion aimed to ‘reaffirm the biblical standard’ of sexual intercourse (whatever was meant by that) taking place only between a married couple of one woman and one man. It identified ‘fornication, adultery and homosexual acts’ as ‘sinful in all circumstances’ and called for Christian leaders to be ‘exemplary in all spheres of morality’. What Synod eventually passed was what was considered a less severe motion, formed largely as the result of passing an amendment from the then Bishop of Chester, Michael Baughen:

‘This Synod affirms that the biblical and traditional teaching on chastity and fidelity in personal relationships is a response to, and expression of, God’s love for each one of us, and in particular affirms:

(1) that sexual intercourse is an act of total commitment which belongs properly within a permanent married relationship,
(2) that fornication and adultery are sins against this ideal, and are to be met by a call to repentance and the exercise of compassion,
(3) that homosexual genital acts also fall short of this ideal, and are likewise to be met by a call to repentance and the exercise of compassion,
(4) that all Christians are called to be exemplary in all spheres of morality, including sexual morality, and that holiness of life is particularly required of Christian leaders.’

Mr Higton’s opening speech in the debate made it clear that the behaviour of leaders was the key one for him; the current situation is that there is still a different standard, as gay clergy are not supposed to ‘practise’ their sexuality, which also of course affects the life of a lay person who is married to a gay priest. Back in 1987, of course, the priesthood was entirely male, but the debate’s focus on gay men also reflects a more general omission of women’s experience; as Clare Sealy – then South-East Regional Organiser of the Student Christian Movement – wrote in Speaking Love’s Name, the Jubilee Group’s document published in 1988, ‘The confusion of the generative with the erotic is a mistake made because male sexuality was taken as paradigmatic. It is tempting to ponder what sort of sexual ethics we would have now if female sexuality had been taken as archetypal. After all, if the sole function of the clitoris is to give pleasure, what sort of telos does that imply for sexual behaviour?’

Nearly thirty years on, Speaking Love’s Name makes very interesting reading, and not least because it contains an Introduction by Rowan Williams written before he became a bishop (he was consecrated Bishop of Monmouth in 1992). In 2011, the excellent website Thinking Anglicans reminded readers of the existence of the book, and of Dr Williams’ comments, although the link given there to the full Introduction now seems to have died. Dr Williams commented on the Higton debate that:

While well-meaning ‘liberals’, equally afraid of the harshness of the original motion (about which the less said the better) and of getting involved in a genuinely theological debate on sexuality, joined hands with some of the most disturbing elements in the contemporary Church of England, those who are determined to make it an ideologically monolithic body, to produce a vote which has, in practice, delivered much of what the original motion aimed at. This shabby compromise has been held up by bishops as representing the ‘mind’ of the Church, and accorded something like legislative force.

Yes. I was there, as a well-meaning liberal (although I’m not sure I would have called myself that), and I voted for the motion as amended, for fear of finding something worse.  I’m sorry.

In Speaking Love’s Name, someone else who was there – Martin Peirce – went through his impressions of the Higton debate, from the point of view of another ordinary member of General Synod. Some of what he wrote rang bells for me: some didn’t. Into the second of these categories came this description of the first amendment to be moved, submitted by Revd Terry Louden. Here’s what Mr Peirce says about it:

It removed all the words of Mr Higton’s motion after This synod, and added … reaffirms the biblical teaching that lifelong virginity is the ideal sexual ethic for Christians, and endorses the opinions of Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, Cyprian and Jerome, that, for Christians, an orderly sex life is inferior to no sex life at all.

I once co-supervised a PhD on gender in the early church, so I do know something about the Church Fathers; but at the time of the Higton debate I hadn’t read any of this material, so maybe it all went over my head. Mr Peirce continues:

Mr Louden spoke with dead pan face, and it was not easy to guess his real purpose. That was the fun of it. He left many of us with a powerful reminder that the Christian Church has a long history of getting into a muddle about sex, and that we would be wise never to pronounce with too great confidence about the detail of the practices which God has or has not laid down for our good. Mr Louden kept us guessing throughout, and in the end asked leave to withdraw his amendment.

Mr Peirce ends his analysis of the debate with what feels very much like a challenge to us now, and seems to prefigure the Shared Conversations process. He writes:

Sexuality, of course, is just one field where committed conversation between Christians who disagree is rarely attempted. It is easier to talk with our friends. There was in this debate a painful failure of nerve. We must find other days, informally among our neighbours as well as in synods, to be bolder disciples.

Amen to that.

 

 

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No tongues?

It can be a difficult experience to attend a major Christian celebration at a point when the church is reeling from yet another scandal. Last week, the Gibb report into the disgusting behaviour of Bishop Peter Ball was issued, complete not only with details that you can’t un-read, but also with far more information than was previously in the public domain on how senior figures in the C of E tried to cover it up. However, this is also the season for ordinations to the diaconate and priesthood, so at the weekend I was attending one of these in another diocese; always a cause for rejoicing, especially when you know one of the ordinands and have been privileged to share to a small extent in her journey to this point.

I suppose it was too much to expect the sermon at the cathedral to help me think through the ‘Ball(s) business’ (Peter’s identical twin brother, Bishop Michael Ball, doesn’t exactly come out of the report well, not only trying to use his influence with figures inside and outside the church to insist that Peter was innocent, but also sometimes letting Peter stand in for him at official events; if this were a novel, the editor would by now be asking for cuts). The sermon was directed to the role of a priest in making God known; entirely appropriate. But I thought I heard an acknowledgment of the failures over Ball(s) in the prayers, not in the standard wording (a fixed part of the service, and also sent to the printer long before the events of the past week) but in the tone and the use of pauses in the Dean’s delivery of the words it included:

For those who are lost and for those who have strayed,

That they may return to the way of Christ,

Let us pray to the Lord: Lord, have mercy.

At times like this, words fail us, and the set litany must take over, and lead us on.

But people attending ordination services aren’t always part of the church ‘club’. They can be family members or colleagues or friends who are there because they want to support a candidate, even if they don’t share that candidate’s beliefs. This was acknowledged at the end of the service when, as now seems to be standard, church members were asked to reflect on whether anything in it had prodded them to examine their own vocations, and those who aren’t connected to the church were invited to ‘talk to someone’ if something in the service had nudged them towards wondering what faith is all about. So if you are someone who isn’t a church member, how are you supposed to react to that invitation when you’ve been reading in the news about the abusive actions which a priest – who then became a bishop – was able to get away with, for many years? And here you are, seeing another bishop ordaining people as priests and listening to him formally asking the parish priests with whom the candidates have been working for the past year if ‘those whose duty it is to know these ordinands and examine them [have] found them to be of godly life and sound learning’?

Perhaps I’m over-thinking this. Perhaps those who aren’t Christians are more interested in how the Christians around them behave than in bishops who have recently been released from prison on licence. But I wasn’t too sure that the message there was always positive, either. Behind us in the nave were two people who had come to support a different ordinand from us. One of them, a man, was very talkative indeed. Even when we were told, 15 minutes before the official start of the service, that the candidates were now in a side chapel praying with the bishops, and we were asked to be silent and to pray for them, this man continued to talk, very quietly, but loud enough for us to hear him. It was clear from all he said that he was a church member, and that his particular C of E ‘club’ was an Evangelical one. In particular, when greeting two other people (both women) in his row, he insisted loudly on more than a ‘hello’: ‘Greet one another with a kiss! That’s what St Paul said! But no tongues. Well, not that sort of tongues’.

This made me feel so nauseous that I considered finding a seat elsewhere. Can’t I take a joke? Well, usually, yes. But not this week. Not this joke. Why not?

First, it was pushy, to say the least. In some contexts, it would be abusive; for example, if a man in a senior position in the church (and I’ve no idea whether this man was a minister, a lay reader, a sidesperson in his own church) said the first part to a woman or indeed to a man who didn’t want even a peck on the cheek from him. The Ball(s) business shows how much power an ordained person, and in their case one who is also a member of a religious order, has when telling others what is and is not behaviour acceptable to God. I think the comments from the man behind us are thus the thin end of a wedge, and the use of a Bible reference (the phrase about greeting with a kiss occurs several times in the epistles) to reinforce it sounds too much like Peter Ball’s insistence to his victims that praying naked with him and being beaten was somehow part of Franciscan spirituality, something which another priest commented (para 3.5.17) ‘is all rot……this is only an excuse for his lustful way of life.’

Second, the use of an in-joke. If you were in that cathedral as a vaguely-interested enquirer, would you get the reference to speaking in tongues? I suspect not. So, here we have the use of language to create a superior group, as well as the Bible being used potentially to abuse others. And what other issues in the C of E today does that remind us of…?

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Return to the public gallery

GS 2017 Feb.jpeg

Having written to my bishops (replies received, thanks) and to lay representatives of my diocese on General Synod (wish I could say the same), I was sufficiently disappointed in the Bishops’ Report (GS2055) that I took the opportunity to go along to Church House, Westminster, for much of the day on which it was debated. I was on General Synod for 7 years, and before I stood for election I used to attend regularly – and not just for the Big Debates – to get a sense of what it was all about. The public gallery was therefore familiar territory to me, but when I started my journey on Wednesday I didn’t care whether I made it that far. I just wanted to register my disappointment and to be with those hurt by the Report.

Outside Church House

I started off joining those stationed outside the building, complete with banners; it was great to meet people I’d only previously met online, as well as lots of new people. I also said hello to members of GS with whom my path has crossed over the years. I even spoke to my bishop. I sat with for a while on the steps with someone from a news channel who wanted to know what a ‘take note’ debate meant and what passing or rejecting the motion to take note would mean; I remember my Standing Orders pretty well and was able to give her some pointers.

The last time I stood there on the steps, I was holding one letter of the word WAITING, as part of a Movement for the Ordination of Women vigil. It all felt very familiar. At that time, many people assumed I was active in MOW because I felt a vocation to be a priest, but that was never the case; I was there because I believed that all roles in the church should potentially be open to women, because women are as much members of the church as men are. This time around, perhaps those who don’t know me assumed I am in the LBGTI+ group. Wrong again: as before, I was there because for me this is an issue of inclusion and of recognition that all members of the church are of equal value. I think it’s very important, in both debates, to have people present about whom it can’t be said ‘You’re only here because it’s all about you.’

Despite a lot of media people desperate to get some footage, I avoided giving interviews – I think it’s far better that those closer to the issues than I am are able to share their experience. Some people I stood with were very much a part of the Church of England, including those hearing a call to full-time ministry: others had reluctantly left our church, making their presence at the vigil outside Church House perhaps even more significant.

One highlight on the steps was when a supporter came along with sandwiches, fruit and sweet things for those of us who hadn’t managed to take a break to eat. I was very touched that someone would do this. His gift reflected a sense of generous hospitality all round.

As we stood on the steps, there was also a lot of confusion, which brought back many memories of my time on GS. We heard the (true) rumour that as many as 60 people had decided not to take part in the session in small groups discussing real-life case studies (while I was on the steps, one person came out of a group in tears because of what someone else in that group had said). We heard that the Archbishop of Canterbury was going to see the people who had opted out of group work (also true). We heard that around 160 people had asked to speak in the debate (again, true). We also heard about when tickets to the public gallery would be issued, and I decided to try to get one of those. Success.

Inside the debating chamber

Once installed in the gallery, I spoke to the woman sitting next to me. She was, she said, a supporter of ‘traditional marriage’. We spoke for a while and I told her something of my story. I resisted asking why she uses the words ‘traditional marriage’ when marriage has changed so much over the centuries. Others sitting around me were familiar from Shared Conversations or from my time on the steps of Church House.

I spoke to the staff in charge of keeping order in the gallery; they weren’t really expecting any trouble (and we behaved impeccably – apparently someone in the morning had a banana confiscated, but we weren’t as daring as that!). One said ‘I don’t see the problem – two brides, two grooms, what does it matter?’ Another agreed and said they’d be ‘praying into’ the debate.

The debate was interesting; one of the best I’ve heard in GS, either from my years there or from listening online since. It was firmly chaired, which was a mercy as I don’t think I could have managed to listen to much more from the one speaker who had to be stopped at the three-minute time limit (we had reached something about excommunicating people, so I think we may have been in the wrong church there…).

Highlights?

  • A speaker on the use of the language of ‘welcoming’ LGBTI+ people as wrong because it’s suggesting we (straight married people) are inviting other people into our home, but it’s not, it’s their home too. Nobody needs to be welcomed into their own home!
  • A speaker on his fraught relationship with another person on GS who disapproves of his civil partnership, and who drew on Genesis 32:6, ‘I will not let you go, unless you bless me.’
  • A deaf speaker on what it feels like to be excluded; and a BAME speaker on the difference between being excluded because of something visible to others, and being excluded because of something unseen by them.
  • Lay speakers on how, if they are in civil partnerships with clergy, they find the special rules for clergy (basically, no sex in the relationship, whatever ‘sex’ means) affect them too; how had I not thought of that before, when I’ve met clergy with lay partners?
  • The result: the vote against ‘taking note’ of the report, and the clear message that sends to the House of Bishops who endorsed it.

Lowlight?

Other than the excommunication speech, that has to be the attempts of the House of Bishops to maintain collegiality regardless. The motion was passed in that house with one vote against, and the errant bishop promptly apologised because he had pressed the wrong button. Apart from the excellent joke which that generated – about how one should never get in a lift with him if one wants to get anywhere – this was depressing. Why did the bishops decide that, regardless of their own opinions, this theologically weak and pastorally insensitive report, which – as many speakers observed – does not reflect the Shared Conversations, was worth supporting as the next step (backwards?) on our journey? Some insisted that the words ‘maximum freedom’ used in the report were key – it’s too much effort to change canon law (er, but we do, in other cases) and it wouldn’t get a two-thirds majority (possibly true) so let’s be as free as we can within the bounds of canon law. I suspect that those opposed to further inclusion – even the very mild version in which clergy would be as free to bless a civilly-partnered gay couple as they are to bless a fox hunt or a warship – were alarmed by ‘maximum freedom’. The rest of us felt that there wasn’t much freedom on offer.

It doesn’t feel right to have a House of Bishops where nobody dares to step out of line. One of the people I met on the steps, someone who like me used to be a member of GS, observed that back in our day the voting of the bishops reflected disagreement, seriously-argued theological disagreement. Interested in this point, I looked back at the voting patterns of the House of Bishops. In November 1984, on the motion asking for the Standing Committee to bring forward legislation to permit the ordination of women to the priesthood in the Provinces of Canterbury and York, the bishops were in favour, 41-6. In 1992, when all three houses approved the women priests measure by the necessary two-thirds majority, the bishops voted in favour 39-13. Most recently, on women bishops, the bishops voted in favour 37-2 (one abstention). No sense of the need to be collegial. No three-line whip.

Do the bishops think nobody will take them seriously unless they speak with one voice? For me, the reverse is the case.

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