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.

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

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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

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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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So, what was the point of all that?

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Last week the House of Bishops published GS2055 Marriage and Same Sex Relationships after the Shared Conversations. I immediately read it through twice, once to see what they were proposing to change – answer, nothing – and again to see how they managed to come up with that conclusion. I’ve just read it all again.

My initial reaction is to ask why we had the diocesan Shared Conversations. I found my experience of these, as a straight, married, ally, draining but also inspiring. I met some wonderful people and heard their stories. I was shocked to find that there are members of my wider church who not only don’t believe a woman can preach or lead (I knew about that already) but also don’t believe that anyone should be married if they are divorced with a partner still living. As someone in those categories, I found it more painful than anticipated, but of course my pain is nothing compared to that of LGBT+ people whose whole identity was denied by some present, and seen as a sin in need of repentance. I also realized, from the deeper conversations in groups of three, that our stories are rarely simple – if we are honest about them. Having been there, I do understand why GS2055 uses the wording ‘lesbian and gay people and those who experience same sex attraction’, which many LGBT+ people, especially if they’ve been through the abuse of ‘deliverance ministry’, find deeply offensive; what the bishops are trying to do here is to include in the same sentence both those who are sure that they have been created by God as lesbian or gay, and those who think this is impossible/wrong and who therefore try to be ‘delivered’ or who enter into a relationship with someone of the opposite sex. If it’s so difficult to include both groups in one sentence, you can see why it’s difficult to include them both in a bishops’ report.

But I don’t see any sign in GS2055 that the experiences of the diocesan Shared Conversations have been taken on board. They are mentioned in the preamble as ‘help[ing] prepare us all … to address together the challenges we face’. Sorry, but that’s waffle. There were no reports from the diocesan events; in my diocese, there has been no further sharing. Perhaps, since they ended, people who have the ear of their bishop have been meeting to chat about it all over coffee? But I’m not clergy, I don’t work for the church, and I’m not on General or Diocesan Synod, so I don’t have coffee with any bishops.

The report is big on the bishops’ claims that they ‘recognize [their] deficiencies’ and that they have spent a lot of time in prayer. They don’t have a monopoly on that. The report starts with a nod to the Bible, but it’s an odd one: Galatians 2.19 ff on Paul being ‘crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me’. I felt that a reference to us as crucified didn’t bode well for what the report was about to do to LGBT+ Christians… Then there’s the standard Anglican mention of scripture, tradition and reason, the last of the three developed here as ‘the ways that changing approaches to human knowledge and reason inform or challenge the Christian faith as we have received it’. I feel that this is an area which the bishops have avoided addressing properly.

The rest of the document reads like a balancing act or, perhaps, a juggling performance. The bishops talk about the difficulty of ‘holding together’ (para 5) and Anglicanism as a ‘contested tradition’ (para 8). The image I’ve used for this blog post is ‘Juggling with balls and knives’. Will the bishops be able to keep all those balls of canon law in the air? Annex 1 gives the legal advice they received; the handy Canon B5.2 which allows a minister to use ‘forms of service considered suitable by him [sic]’ if there’s nothing in the Book of Common Prayer or approved by General Synod for the occasion. Aha! A loophole! But no: Canon B5.3 says that ‘he’ can only do that if it is not ‘contrary to, or indicative of any departure from, the doctrine of the Church of England in any essential matter’. And there we have it. Canon B30.1 says that marriage is ‘in its nature a union permanent and lifelong, for better for worse, till death them do part, of one man with one woman … for the procreation and nurture of children’ (although as far as I know nobody in the church thinks that the absence of children means it’s not a marriage). And the 2005 statement on civil partnerships (quoted in Annex 1, para 9) states that ‘sexual relationships outside marriage’ fall ‘short of God’s purposes for human beings’. Whatever ‘sexual relationships’ means: I’ve written elsewhere on this blog about the church’s inability to engage with what ‘sex’ is, and I don’t think I can stand making any more comment about this.

I wonder whether some of the weirdness of GS2055 comes from juxtaposing paragraphs from bishops with different views. But I suspect it’s because they are trying to come up with lots of reasons for doing nothing. They claim that this report moves us towards ‘a fresh tone and culture of welcome and support’ for LGBT+ people; nobody I know who’s lesbian or gay (bi and trans people, as ever in the C of E, don’t feature in the report) finds that at all convincing. The bishops say they ‘seek to make steps together that will allow us to act together while retaining doctrinal coherency’ (para 10). But, as my husband often says, ‘Just remember that the thing you’re trying to do may be impossible’.

 

 

 

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Reading the comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Into Advent

 

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

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

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Pouring the lay?

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

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

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

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One sex, two sexes, and Christians

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

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

Bodies ancient and modern

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

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Temple prostitution for Christians

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

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

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

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

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