Back on General Synod after all these years…

Today I attended the online count on Zoom and discovered that I have been elected to the House of Laity of General Synod to represent Oxford Diocese for the next five years. It’s still sinking in… The elections work by Single Transferable Vote, and I was the third of 24 lay candidates to be given one of the 9 places. I am amazed, since I am not currently a member of Diocesan Synod so not really known much outside my own patch. I spent a lot of time on the ‘campaign’; I emailed every voter individually and addressed them by their names (that took much of three days), responded to emails back, recorded the optional 3-minute video on where I worship/what I can bring to Synod/what the issues are, and answered the 4 questions selected from those sent in by voters, in 120 words or less.

It’s over 35 years since I first stood for Synod, for the Guildford Diocese. I very seriously considered standing in 2015 but it wasn’t the right time; I was about to retire, my mother wasn’t well and needed more care, and it just didn’t happen. This time, it did. I shall think about this more when I’ve recovered from the shock, but meanwhile here’s the text of my election address: I was as straightforward as I could be about where I stand on ‘the issues’, the various connections I have with formal church groupings, and so on. And I didn’t feel the need to mention Cranmer!

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Election address, 2021

In some ways I may be the typical Church of England member in this diocese – average age, a woman, middle class – but that doesn’t mean I am happy with the status quo! I have served on General Synod before, when I was one of the youngest members. I’ve attended as a visitor since then: I know what’s involved, and what the current issues are. Back in 1985 when I first offered myself as a candidate, I noted that I couldn’t say how I would vote on every issue, because if I knew that already there’d be little point in holding a debate: I want to listen as well as to speak. But I have some fixed points: above all, full inclusion, as modelled by our God who lived among us in Jesus, an inclusion covering not just gender and sexuality, but also age, disability, race and class.

Church and church roles
I’ve worshipped in a range of churches, from a gathered evangelical church when I was a teenager, to a flagship Anglo-Catholic church, to Anglican churches in Paris and Vienna when I was working there. Most of my life, however, I have simply gone to my parish church, and done what’s needed – from serving coffee to polishing the brasses. I believe in the parish system with all its openness and fuzzy edges. I’ve had moments when I have felt God’s presence very strongly in a range of church settings, and – after some years not attending church – when walking down the road at night.
I am currently an authorised lay preacher, server and intercessor, and am on the team running a weekly online contemplative service in my parish; as a Chapel Homilist at Corpus Christi College, Oxford I also have a chance to engage with young Christians and enquirers about the Christian faith. In my parish, I’ve also been a sidesperson and Deanery Synod rep, and led Emmaus groups, specialising in the introductory level, ‘Nurture’, which is aimed at those wondering what the church believes, or who are new to faith. I have represented the Church of England on the British Council of Churches and at the European Council of Churches. I was an Oxford Diocese participant in the Regional Shared Conversations and then was asked to join the national team preparing Living in Love and Faith, working with the History sub-group.
I fully support the ordination of women and their flourishing in churches of all traditions. My stepdaughter is a priest in secular employment. I’m concerned about the flourishing of women in dioceses where the bishop does not recognise them as priests, and about inequalities in selection which mean that only a third of ordinands under 35 are women. I’m a former member of the Movement for the Ordination of Women and currently belong to Women and the Church.

Education
It’s my career – and my passion.
Trained in ancient history and social anthropology before moving into the history of medicine and of the body, I have worked full-time in higher education all my life, teaching, researching, writing and managing people, in Cambridge, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Reading and at The Open University. I’ve held visiting roles in Europe and the USA. I also worked in Liverpool for 7 years at Liverpool Institute of Higher Education, for 5 years as a resident tutor. LIHE was formed from Anglican and Roman Catholic teacher-training institutions; our little chapel was where I first served and preached.
At LIHE I particularly enjoyed working with returners to higher education – often young men made redundant from Ford Halewood – so it was a real pleasure to end my formal career at the OU, where such students are the norm. To encourage more people into learning, I was invited to design a free online course on Health and Wellbeing in the Ancient World which is on the FutureLearn platform; this encourages interactive learning as a community from all over the world.
I continue to work with the Quality Assurance Agency and the OU on quality review, including supporting a college in Leeds for which the OU validates their degrees. I have been a Church of England reviewer, for theological colleges and lay training schemes. The future of theological education is under debate and I think I can make contributions here.

Safeguarding
I haven’t experienced sexual abuse in the church, but I know those who have. The terrible experiences of abuse, secrecy and failure to believe reports are something for which we should all repent. Safeguarding training is essential – no excuses. So is proper recompense for those whose lives have been affected. At the same time, the process of reforming the Clergy Discipline Measure has begun, so that the lives of innocent clergy and their families are not destroyed.

Marriage and sexuality
I didn’t marry until in my late 40s, and I’m an enthusiast for it! We met online, through Christian Connection and we’ve run The Marriage Course together. My husband was widowed, remarried and then divorced before we met. In my youth, divorced people weren’t allowed to take communion – not permitted until 1981 – but even in 2005 my husband’s divorce still meant interviews with our vicar before we could be allowed to make our vows in church. I feel for those whose legal civil partnerships and marriages can’t even be blessed in their churches, and support equal marriage while accepting that some priests would not feel able to preside at these marriages. I also believe in and will work for full inclusion of LGBTQI+ people in ministry. I’m on the steering group of Changing Attitude England and belong to Inclusive Church, OneBodyOneFaith and the Campaign for Equal Marriage.

The gospel on the streets
I’ve been a Street Pastor in my town since my husband helped set up this scheme locally, and I love it. The depth of theological discussion that happens with young people in the early hours of the morning can be wonderful, but they are quite clear that they have no urge to enter our buildings. We sometimes talk about ‘taking the gospel to the streets’ but I find that God is already there, ahead of us as He usually is, in the support people are showing to each other when things are tough for them.

Older people
While we work to make sure that children are aware of the stories of the Bible, for example through the ‘Open the Book’ project in schools, I worry that we are forgetting the older members of our society. I was the main carer for my mother during her final years and both of us often felt very isolated. I now support (mostly) older people in various voluntary roles: accompanying our vicar to take communion into care homes, working with the Home Library Service, as a digital helper in the local library, and recording for the Talking Newspaper. I’ve also helped run ‘Grave Talk’ locally.

I tweet on @fluff35; I have written articles for the blogs of Modern Church and Via Media, and have my own blog on church issues, https://shared-conversations.com. I would love to have your first preference vote: and please feel free to contact me now or if I’m elected, with any questions.

Posted in Shared Conversations | Tagged | 2 Comments

Counter-cultural Cranmer?

Those who can vote in the current General Synod elections have this week received something from a group calling itself ‘CounterCulturalChurch’. This is a reaction to two emails from another loose grouping, ‘InclusiveOxford’, which I have supported. The full text of that ‘CounterCulturalChurch’ message is at the end of this blog post.

There are many, many questions raised by their insistence that the church “has always been called to be counter-cultural”. Some of these are matters of historical fact; in the early church – the period about which I know most – the relationship between the message of the church and that of Roman imperial culture is hardly so simple. I suppose you could get around that by stressing “called”: the church has not always listened, when called. Other questions are contemporary. What exactly is ‘culture’ saying, today? That women should give up their jobs and stay at home? That women should be included at all levels of society and paid equally? That transphobia is acceptable, or that people who are gay should be assaulted? Or that it’s fine to be trans or gay or both? Which ‘culture’ are we called to ‘counter’?  

But as a historian, I am also disturbed by the email’s statement that “Cranmer wrote these prophetic words: ‘What the heart loves, the will chooses, and the mind justifies’”.  

Because, quite simply, he didn’t.  

It doesn’t take much effort to find out that the words are not those of Cranmer, but of Ashley Null; see for example here. It’s “not a direct quote from Cranmer”, as noted here, and it’s only on ‘Quote sites’ that it is attributed to Cranmer himself, as here. You can easily find out more about Ashley Null and his work on Cranmer, for example here, but the writers of the email don’t seem to be interested in him.  

Why a “Cranmer quote”? As it happens, I included a chapter on ‘Hippocrates in quotes’ in a book I wrote about the history of creating one’s own version of Hippocrates in order to promote a drug or a method of healing. The whole book is open-access, online, here. I noted there that “Quotations give the impression of knowledge without the hard work of reading the rest of the text from which they are taken.” They are often lifted out of context, altered or even created from scratch by their receivers. An Internet quote has various features, some of which are more or less specific to the electronic medium; the quote is usually presented as something someone ‘said’ rather than ‘wrote’, it is noteworthy and repeatable, and it has an implicit meaning that is largely taken for granted, so it needs no explanation or commentary. It is not just presented with no context; the very concept of there being a greater text is absent. “Hippocrates quotes” commonly give no date and no title of the text from which they are supposed to originate.  

But this “Cranmer quote” is even worse – it is very simple to find that these are not words which he wrote! So, why Cranmer? I think I’ve worked out why whoever wrote this message wanted to include his name. I suspect it goes back to the advice issued by CEEC and EGGS to their candidates for Synod, discussed here: in essence, try to sound like an Anglican. Thomas Cranmer: just saying his name means you are a proper Anglican. Or, not.      






The email:
You will have received two emails from ‘Inclusive Church’ so to find some balance here’s an email from a group of candidates who, united around Jesus’ teaching, want to achieve pretty much everything ‘Inclusive Church’ wishes to but without being swept along by culture by redefining marriage.
 
The church, if true to the Gospel, has always been called to be counter-cultural.  The church, as a lifeboat, should be in the sea but when the sea gets into the lifeboat we’re in trouble.  This is the predicament we’re in now.
 
Cranmer wrote these prophetic words: “What the heart loves, the will chooses, and the mind justifies” but we, the candidates listed below, promise to uphold the truth as revealed in scripture. 
 
As John Stott said: “Truth becomes hard if not softened by love;
Love becomes soft if not strengthened by truth”
.  We – a broad coalition of orthodox clergy and lay people – commit to holding grace and truth in balance so please prayerfully consider voting for us:
 
Clergy:
Andrew Atherstone, Johnny Dade, Martin Khurt, Joy Mawdesley, Kevin Mentzel, Jeremy Moodey, Will Pearson-Gee, Kate Pellereau, Vaughan Roberts and David Walker.
 
Lay:
Andrew Bell, Gracy Crane, Prudence Dailey, Andrew Gibson, David Horrocks Helen Lamb, Andy Marshall, Daniel Matovu, Olly Shaw and Jacob Wigley.
 
The deadline to vote is this Friday at midnight. Don’t miss it!
 
Yours in Christ,
 
CounterCulturalChurch
 
[This is the first and last email you’ll receive from us.]
Posted in Church of England and gender, General Synod | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Being winsome

You know how a word passes entirely under your radar for years, and then suddenly you see it everywhere? Well, I’ve become alert to “winsome” recently. I’ve seen it in job adverts for Christian institutions (one here, another here), as well as applied to various Christian leaders like John Stott and John V. Taylor, Bishop of Winchester from 1974-84, and I feel sure I’ve also seen it applied to Tim Dakin, the outgoing Bishop of Winchester. It even turns up in a puff for a book on the theology of sport (“in winsome fashion it advances a conversation that is much needed”). And now it has turned up on a document posted on Twitter by Fr Steve Hilton, something which appears to come from a handy guide for General Synod election candidates issued by the Church of England Evangelical Council (CEEC) and Evangelical Group on General Synod (EGGS), offering “examples of winsome election statements”.

What does it mean? It’s not a word I have ever used, and after doing a little research I am not sure I ever shall. It’s one of those words which seems to have acquired its own meaning in some evangelical Christian circles. 

Starting before all this Christian winsomeness, the Oxford English Dictionary takes it back to Old English wynsum and Saxon wunsam, meaning “Pleasant, delightful, agreeable. Obsolete.” The win part means “joy” or “a source of joy”. The modern sense of the word is given as “Pleasing or attractive in appearance, handsome, comely; of attractive nature or disposition, of winning character or manners”. Other dictionaries go for “sweetly or innocently charming”. But I wonder: is this charm for its own sake, or is it the idea that the charm, or the attractive appearance, somehow wins somebody over to your point of view?

Turning now to Christian uses, it’s not an entirely new word in church circles. In the November 1951 edition of The Venerabile, a publication put together by those involved with the Venerable English College in Rome, there’s a poem by their archivist Henry E.G. Rope, entitled Ostia Antica, in which children “request/Some picture of a saint with winsome mien”. And nor is it as girly as I had assumed from all that sweet innocent charm: The Witness for 10 December 1921 includes a reference to Roman Catholic priests in the USA with Irish names and a “commanding presence” which “tends to make them winsome to men in their congregations”. 

Here, being winsome does seem to suggest “winning some” to Christ. There is a 2020 book entitled Winsome Conviction: Disagreeing without dividing the Church by Tim Muehlhoff and Richard Langer. It’s a follow-up to their Winsome Persuasion: Christian influence in a post-Christian world (2017). Persuasion… interesting word. Indian Hills Community Church website has a 2018 article on “Winsome Evangelism”. The author, Ed Daly, notes that you’re not going to find the word in your concordance, but the absence of any equivalent in Hebrew or Greek doesn’t stop him arguing that it encapsulates James 3:17-18. He defines it as “the idea of gracious speech and a loving demeanor characterized by joy, wisdom, faith (total trust), a sure and steadfast hope without compromising on the truth and our convictions, and above all compassion”. The Church Mission Society magazine The Call for Autumn 2020 includes a church planter in Valparaiso asking for prayer that “the church missionary communities  … continue to be active, fervent and winsome”. Ed Stetzer gave a talk to Saddleback Church in November 2020 on “Winsome Witness in a Warring World” (maybe going too far on the alliteration front?). Being winsome, he says, is having “an attractive personality”. 

Some winsome fans are more explicit about how this quality is effective in mission and witness. An articlefrom 2015 tells readers that “The Bible calls us to be winsome for the gospel”, using 1 Corinthians 9: 19-23 about becoming “all things to all people, that by all means I might save some”. So, Paul suggests, you change your approach according to those to whom you are talking – be a Jew to Jews, be under the law to those under the law, be weak to the weak and so on. Of course, he really was all those things: he wasn’t faking it! And another article is explicit that being winsome is “to be persuasive, to win people to your side”. Maybe not so “innocent” after all?

Also from 2020 is the article “Should Christians be winsome?” by Jim and Amy Spiegel. This helpfully points out that plenty of Jesus’ behaviour was “not exactly the stuff of winsomeness”: overturning the tables in the Temple is just one example. They also challenge the frequent claim that being winsome is obeying Jesus’ “unless you change and become like little children…”, pointing out that this is about humility rather than “charming naivety”, and that “there are no biblical commands to be winsome”.

What worries me in this call for winsomeness is that it is not entirely honest. Certainly, we all need to find ways to talk to those with whom we disagree in a respectful way. But being sweet and charming and doing it with a smile doesn’t negate the basic disagreement, nor does it acknowledge it as such. In so many ways, I would like a more honest church, not a more winsome one.

Posted in General Synod | Tagged , | 1 Comment

The Church of England as a WASGIJ

No, this isn’t an acronym. In this blog post I want to think about strategy and schemes in our church; and at the end of it, you will learn more about my hobbies than you cared to know.

But first: the context. At central level, the Church of England has been making some attempts to face the brutal facts of its own possible demise. In my own parish, the finances have largely held up during the pandemic – the advantages of moving regular attenders to standing orders rather than relying on the plate collection – and, although we have lost the income we’d expect from coffee mornings and from renting the recently reordered building to local groups, we haven’t spent as much on heating and lighting because of the lower level of use. Within the team ministry in which this parish sits, things are less rosy and the solution has been to draw on reserves, which is fine as a temporary solution, if a church actually has any reserves. But none of that helps with the deeper problem: the skewed demographic which makes me, at 63, one of the younger members of the congregation.

What’s the answer? If we believe in our message, how do we tell other people about it? In recent weeks there has been quite a lot of faff around a plan put forward by a group called Myriad, a name which makes me think of the passage in Mark’s gospel in which Jesus talks to a man who is possessed by “an unclean spirit”, asks the demon for a name and is told “My name is Legion, because there are many of us”: but that’s probably not what Myriad had in mind.

Myriad is an initiative of the Gregory Centre for Christian Multiplication (no, I’d never heard of this before either), choosing the name of Gregory partly because he was a saint “plucked from the business world … amidst the collapsing Roman Empire”. Sort of independent, but sort of Church of England – it’s run from the office of the Bishop of Islington – it describes itself on its website as “a movement of people with a vision to see a multiplication of new forms of church across this nation and beyond”, going on to explain that “Our aim is to support the planting of 10,000 new, predominantly lay-led, Church of England churches in the next ten years resulting in 1 million new disciples of Jesus Christ.” So, alongside the multiplication in the sense of different “forms of church”, there’s the basic maths: 10,000 new churches with 100 new members in each. The website uses a very odd pseudo-Greek font for headings, so in the word “plant” the ‘a’ is an alpha and the ‘n’ is the Greek pi, so if you tried to pronounce that it would be “plapt”. Yes, I’m a classicist and I notice this sort of thing. While we’re on the Classics, the Myriad people say that the word “suggests a variety of lights and colours”, which quite honestly – it doesn’t. The ancient Greek myriad just means 10,000, or in some cases ‘countless’: indeed, ‘legion’.

Much of the discussion of this so far has focused on the words “predominantly lay-led”. So many questions arise: how would these people be selected, trained and supported? What about safeguarding concerns? Then there was the use of the unfortunate term “limiting factors” – factors presented as limiting any growth – which suggested that the main limitation at present is having to spend so much on training priests. At the end of July, the Gregory Centre issued a statement trying to explain that none of this was intended as an attack on priests. At the July General Synod, the Archbishop of York addressed that directly: “Even where some services or mission initiatives are lay led, they remain under the oversight of the local incumbent”. Who, of course, has nothing else to do in their day job…

Nor did it help that this “10,000 churches” statement coincided with the Church of England using exactly the same figure. Coincidence, or not? Different people involved seemed to be giving different versions of whether these were the same 10,000 or a further 10,000; there’s a good summary here. It isn’t clear who currently funds Myriad: the director, Canon John McGinley, referred to “personal supporters” and “a couple of trusts”. So, who is paying this particular piper? He commented on the number 10,000 that “interestingly that number has now been adopted by the church in its national vision and strategy … We are simply wanting to contribute to this”. Oh, so no connection then; just an interesting coincidence? This does seem unlikely. He tried to explain that “We are offering our experience of church planting to serve the national vision for 10,000 new Christian communities” (the national vision??), but that doesn’t really help – it still suggests that there is one scheme, with Myriad offering its solution to the C of E in general. The C of E is officially talking about a “mixed ecology” of parish churches alongside fresh expressions (“new forms of Church”); and, no surprise, Myriad refers to this on its own website (defining a mixed ecology church as one which is “Christ Centred and Jesus Shaped” – the language of the C of E’s “vision and strategy journey”), further giving the impression that it’s all the same 10,000 churches and that they are going to deliver what the C of E has apparently decided it wants.

The C of E is currently very fond of “data-rich discussions” and “measuring progress” (as in the Church Development Tool approach), along with management-speak and official titles for work schemes, although usually these are a lot more clunky than Myriad: there’s “Renewal and Reform”, the “Transforming Effectiveness agenda” or “The Emerging Church of England”, as well as management diagrams like the one here. Then there are the bizarre titles of new senior management posts in some dioceses, such as the Associate Archdeacon Transition Enablers of Sheffield. Such initiatives and posts have been seen as diverting money away from the parish level, hence a new movement to “Save the parish” rather than funding large churches to spawn more churches modelled on themselves. And what is a church, anyway? Earlier pronouncements from the centre seem rather confused about that: this press release, from 2018, talks about £5.3 million for Leicester Diocese to develop “up to 50 new churches, or worshipping communities, in the area”. Isn’t a church a “worshipping community”?

Of course none of this is easy. The Church of England is a very complex structure. But there’s something about these top-down, work streams and management processes which feels all wrong to me. I’ve been mulling over my own solution for a while now, but decided the time has come to throw it out into the blogosphere. Rather than thinking about “vision” and having a list of national strategic priorities to create churches in a particular shape, why not learn from the Wasgij? “Wasgij Church”: you heard it here first.

So: I enjoy jigsaws, and always have. When I was caring for my mother in what turned out to be her last years with us, jigsaws became my sanity device, something I reflected on here when I realised that “At the moment I’ve no idea what the picture within which I’m living is supposed to be”. My favourite type, the Wasgij – as the name indicates – is a jigsaw done in reverse. There’s a picture on the box, but this isn’t what you are aiming to recreate. Something has happened: perhaps a crime has been committed and you are trying to find out what the scene looked like earlier; perhaps it is a few minutes later and something has happened to disrupt the picture; perhaps it’s many years later and the people in the picture are older while the buildings in the background have been upgraded. Alternatively, your task is to create what a particular individual pictured on the box can see, thus explaining why everyone is screaming (there’s a lot of screaming in Wasgijes).

To do a Wasgij, it may be possible to use the jigsaw technique of doing the edge first, but will any of the natural or man-made structures in the picture still be relevant? If you are trying to see the scene from the point of view of someone in it, then there’s no point thinking about the edge at all, as you are looking in the wrong direction. Instead, you need to look for colour: there’s a lot of dark blue, so what can that be? A detailed fabric from an item of clothing can be found on several pieces: can you move those pieces around to make a larger section? But where does that section go, when the box can’t help you?

Why my husband and I enjoy these jigsaws is the sense of mystery which can last right up to the final few pieces. What has happened? As all those brown pieces start to come together into the shape of bears, what is going on in those woods? The designs are in the style of a saucy seaside postcard, which adds to the fun.

The current Grand Scheme for the C of E involves “six bold outcomes … which begin to describe what the Church of England might look like if our endeavours bear fruit”. How about if we turned that around? If, instead of thinking what our church might look like, we looked at what we’ve got, and thought about how it could fit together? If we abandoned any idea of what the picture on the box – whether that’s our historic experiences of church, or some cloned church plant – looks like, would this give us the freedom to find something entirely unexpected, and glorious?

Posted in Renewal and reform programme | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

Handing on the baton?

I’ve just been listening to today’s “Handing on the baton” presentation to General Synod, taken by the Bishop of London (leading the Next Steps Group) and Dr Eeva John (noble facilitator of the whole LLF thing). Dr John focused on the words which began the LLF process: following General Synod’s refusal to ‘take note’ of GS2055, the Archbishops’ call in February 2017 for a “radical new Christian inclusion”. 

Dr John tried to unpick that, rightly noting that for some it is “a troublesome phrase”. She insisted that it means we are all equally human, equally made in God’s image but, as Marcus Green commented during LLF, the restrictions put on some of us – not able to marry in church, not able to offer ourselves for ordained ministry – don’t give that impression at all. As for “new”, Dr John took that to mean that in the LLF process the whole church has been invited by the bishops to learn with them; that wasn’t what I thought it had originally meant, so I went back to look at that February 2017 document. What the Archbishops wrote then was: 

To deal with that disagreement and to find ways forward, we need a radical new Christian inclusion in the Church. This must be founded in scripture, in reason, in tradition, in theology and the Christian faith as the Church of England has received it; it must be based on good, healthy, flourishing relationships, and in a proper 21st century understanding of being human and of being sexual.

Going back to the Archbishops’ letter was, however, more illuminating than I had expected. Further down I read this:

We will also be suggesting to the Business Committee a debate in general terms on the issues of marriage and human sexuality. We wish to give the General Synod an opportunity to consider together those things we do affirm.

Now, I’m not currently a member of General Synod, although I do try to keep up with it; but I can’t remember this debate ever happening. Instead, every time there has been a private members’ motion or a diocesan synod motion coming along, or a question posed in the formal Questions section, which has concerned “marriage and human sexuality”, the response has been that this can’t be discussed while the LLF process is going on. The General Synod has not had the opportunity mentioned in February 2017.

As for the rest of the joint presentation today, I’m not sure what was new in its contents. We were told about the Pastoral Principles Course published in April to “create braver and safer places” but surely we all knew about that already. The shift from “safe” to “safer” seems like a sad acknowledgement that there isn’t safety; even in the earlier regional Shared Conversations, where facilitators were present to provide safety, plenty of people were bruised. In the short question session allowed after today’s presentation, one Synod member shared this (her words were “verbally battered”). I was interested that Dr John, in response to a question about particular readings of St Paul, commented that LLF “filtered out more left-field views of Scripture” and that we “take serious readings of Scripture seriously”. I’ve registered my surprise that, while queer theology is mentioned in LLF, no queer readings of Scripture are included, but there’s my answer: that these are not considered “serious” readings. 

Throughout today’s presentation, though, I noticed the language of ‘we’ and ‘ours’. I have observed this at every stage of the LLF process and I find it no less revealing and no less dangerous now. From the Bishop of London: “our actions” can cause distress; we need to acknowledge “our authority and power”; “how do we as a church make space for…”. Who are ‘we’ here? Thank God, despite everything, there are already people who are LGBTI in the Church of England, including in the House of Bishops. Why is it that, whenever I hear presentations about LLF, they sound as if the cis-het majority ‘we’ are graciously allowing various ‘theys’ to enter ‘our’ space?

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

Rewriting your history: thinking about the Winchester case

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Conversion therapy: faith without fear

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Surviving Lockdown 3: a guest post

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

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

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

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

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

But I am OK thank you.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So I’m OK Thank You.

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Messiahs I have known

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bristol Old Vic: grief and pain can become hope.

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

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

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

Masturbation

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

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

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

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