The Greeks didn’t have a word for it

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A lot of statements about the ancient Greeks, the Romans, and sexuality can be found on Christian websites. They give the impression that there’s complete certainty surrounding their comments, for example on the Greeks ‘tolerating homosexuality’, phrasing which implies a historically-consistent ‘thing’. But in fact there’s still plenty of debate in the scholarly community, where the statements that travel round the web originate. As part of the Day Job, earlier this week I attended the launch event for a re-issue of one of the most influential books from my student days: Sir Kenneth Dover’s Greek Homosexuality, first published in 1978. The cover of the re-issue, shown here, uses the same image as the original, Ganymede with a hoop (and a cock – yes – it’s a gift from Zeus), but zooms in on it; the hoop invites the viewer through to look at the boy’s genitals, but this new edition conveniently covers them with an ‘O’. That in itself is an interesting comment on what we can, and can’t, ‘see’ in the past.

In terms of whether the Greeks ‘had a word for it’, they had a lot of words for whichever ‘it’ we have in mind. Continue reading

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Behind closed doors

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This image is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License.

So, next stop for the Shared Conversations: General Synod in July, as discussed at the last meeting of GS. This will be the third stage, following the conversations in the House of Bishops and then the Regional conversations, in one of which I took part. Last week’s Church Times announced the imminent General Synod ones with the snappy headline “York Synod will close its doors to talk about sex”. What this seems to mean is simply that the campus will be closed; no press, no visitors observing proceedings. Simon Butler, the Prolocutor of the Lower House of the Convocation of Canterbury, expressed the hope that “people will talk together over meals and in the bar, which is why the shared conversations worked so well regionally, as we had the time to engage with one another as people rather than as representatives of a particular party line.”

From my point of view, though, as someone who served on General Synod and who took part in the Regional Shared Conversations, it’s not easy here to apply ‘why the shared conversations worked so well regionally’. Continue reading

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Meanwhile, back in the toilet…

This is the third in a series of reflections after the Shared Conversations (edited 31 March)

In a previous post, I’ve commented on how wonderful it was to get to the loo and sit alone in a space where nobody was talking and where the walls were plain, rather than being covered with posters of questions and answers. And now I’m back to that topic again – but from a rather different angle.

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Yes, this is a gents’ toilet: well spotted.

In the central part of the three days of the Regional Shared Conversations format, we were asked to go away into the grounds of the conference centre, or find a spot in one of the lounges, and reflect on our lives in terms of sexuality, preparing to tell our stories in the groups of three. For many of us, we already had experience of thinking back and reconstructing our story in different ways; I’ve certainly done it as part of the discernment process of my own vocation, where the focus was on identifying those times when I’d felt most alive, most confident that I was where I should be. But this theme gave it all a different spin. Continue reading

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How we communicate

This is the second in a series of reflections after the Shared Conversations

Following my experience of the Oxford/St Albans Regional Shared Conversations, I’m going to reflect here on one of the sessions on the first day. The facilitators explained to us that the three-day process forms an hourglass structure, narrowing in on the second day to personal stories and then expanding out on day 3 to the wider church again.

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While I knew the focus was on conversation – and as I’ve noted elsewhere there were a lot of words, not just spoken ones but all the words our ‘table groups’ wrote on posters and giant post-it notes which went up around the walls –  I’d somehow imagined that the very first session, on using language, would be more like a lecture on the import of different words. For example, in an earlier report, the CofE used the term ‘homophile’, which doesn’t get used today but which I suppose implies orientation Continue reading

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Come and have breakfast

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This is the first in a series of reflections after the Shared Conversations

Now that they’re over, there will be several posts here on the Shared Conversations as I process what happened. Let’s start with something that only occurred to me after the event.

At one point we were asked to share our favourite verse from the Bible with a small group, before discussing how the Bible affects our views on human sexuality issues. Only since I came home have I realised something I’d not previously considered about my chosen verse, which was John 21:12, ‘Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast”‘. I chose that, as I explained at the time, because of the generous simplicity of the invitation. Food: a basic human need. Fresh-caught fish, cooked on the beach. As I say or write those words, their sensory power is such that I can almost smell the fish! The invitation is directed at the disciples, but was soon to be extended to all of us. The meal echoes the Last Supper, which in turn was prefigured in the feeding of the 5000, the account of which echoes the miraculous feedings in the Hebrew Bible. Continue reading

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Self-care: recovering from so many words

So, I’m back from the Regional Shared Conversations. And it was every bit as demanding as expected (maybe, more so), not least because there were so many words over those three days. I do words, all the time, so if I respond like this, how on earth must others be feeling? Not just intense and personal revelation in groups of 3, feedback to a trusted group of 9, working in different groups round tables, talking during meals and tea breaks, ‘open space’ events in the evening after dinner, and plenary sessions, but also posters and giant post-it notes building up all round the walls of the plenary room, covered in groups’ key points, thought showers and questions. Words, words, words. On the final morning, in a loo break between sessions, it struck me just how lovely it is to spend time alone in a toilet cubicle: no people, no words, no speech, no reading.

In the final session, it was made very clear to us that our ‘re-entry’ into our normal lives could be difficult, and not just a matter of recovering from physical exhaustion. So I’m going to leave it a few days before I try to process all that happened. And when I do, obviously I’ll be working under the St Michael’s House Protocols, so it can’t be too specific. I’ll focus on my own reactions – which, at this stage, could be summed up as ‘wow, what a privilege’; ‘oh dear, how are we going to manage the levels of disagreement?’ and ‘how early can I go to bed tonight?’

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Luggage and baggage

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Rediscovering “Good Disagreement”

The Right Revd David Walker, Bishop of Manchester, blogging on Good Disagreement: and see the comments for the issue of whether good disagreement is impossible, being inherently biased towards the powerful.

Source: Rediscovering “Good Disagreement”

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Sex and power in the spotlight

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The event which made me start this blog is approaching fast. I’m glad I began reading up on the subject of human sexuality, Christianity and the churches’ responses back in November, when I was asked to take part in the Shared Conversations – the relentless pressure of the day job will make it impossible to do much next week, and next Saturday I’ll be off to the three-day meeting. I’d hoped to do some more thinking here about sex and gender – and in particular about the craziness of assuming that ‘sex’ is biological but ‘gender’ is cultural, when anyone doing the history of science/ medicine will tell you how we always interpret the biological through a cultural lens; and this of course recalls how we always meet the Bible through a cultural lens, too. But then I remembered that I’ve already written something on this for another blog, Nursing Clio, so there’s no point repeating myself. Phew.

To the movies

Meanwhile, yesterday I went to see ‘Spotlight‘. In the context of the churches and human sexuality, it’s more about ‘inhuman’ sexuality, and of course it narrates real Continue reading

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Bishops, for beginners: on diversity and change

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So, my diocese’s Shared Conversations are imminent; check-in info for the venue has been issued, dietary preferences requested, information on the facilitators issued. I need to re-read the supporting documents. But something I don’t understand at all is why it should be OK to have not just a range of views, but a range of practices, within the Church of England on some issues – women priests, women bishops, remarriage of divorced people – but not on the ones the Shared Conversations are about: the roles of gay people in the church, and same-sex marriage.

When the legislation making it possible for women to be priests was enacted, parishes were allowed to pass Resolutions A and/or B and proclaim themselves no-go areas for women priests; women can’t be appointed as their vicars, or can’t preside at the Eucharist or give the absolution if they’re visiting the church. The situation has changed more recently, although those resolutions currently remain in force unless a local church decides to rescind them.

For those parishes where people’s convictions make it impossible for them to accept the ministry of women, they can ask to have confirmation services led by special bishops, those of Ebbsfleet, Beverley or Richborough, while parishes of a conservative evangelical disposition can call on another special bishop, the suffragan bishop of Maidstone. I think that all these bishops’ sees have been revived from lost dioceses of the past, and they accommodate those with various views who can’t go along with what’s now the official position of the C of E, namely that women can be priests and bishops. We can be cynical about this – why can you pick a bishop to match some of your views and not others? – or we can be positive – at least we all stay in the C of E, although the ‘special bishops’ have something of a record for resigning and joining the Roman Catholic Church instead, after that church established the Ordinariate (it’s complicated).

You’ll see where I’m going with this. Why can’t we have a situation in which some parishes offer same-sex marriages, and others don’t? We wouldn’t even need special bishops, as they aren’t involved in marriage. It would be more closely akin to the current position on the remarriage of divorced people in church; since this became possible in 2002, some vicars will, some won’t, and there’s a handy form to fill in to start the process of discussing with the vicar whether this is going to be possible or not. It’s not a matter of the vicar’s whims – although some just won’t do this for anyone, and that’s their conscience, which is respected – but of why the divorce happened, and what the couple think marriage is about. For example, the issues to be addressed include “Does the divorced person appear to be relatively free of self-deception and self-justification about the past?” and “Did the divorced person take the first marriage seriously and has he/she learnt from mistakes?” I can’t argue with the sanity of all that.

But there is another way of looking at all this. Would a C of E in which some parishes  were no-go areas for women priests, others would not carry out any marriages of divorced people, and others turned away all same-sex couples, be simply too much of a mess to claim to be one church? I suppose it all depends on what you think a church is. Is it about belief, or practice? And which beliefs are essential, which are not? There’s that wonderful story about the church service in which the priest invites everyone to stand and join in the Creed, but to sit down for the bits they don’t believe in. Sometimes everyone stands up, but usually there’s someone sitting down. Does that matter? Is it about what we believe, or what we do? At the Last Supper, Jesus invited the disciples to ‘Do this’: not to offer him a detailed description of the doctrine of atonement. Yet again, the Shared Conversations are timely; as well as being a way of exposing how everything goes back to how we understand the Bible, they challenge us to face issues of diversity, consistency – and change.

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