Extending our search for the truth: reviewing Past Cases Review 2

Today PCR 2 – Past Cases Review 2 – was published by the National Safeguarding Steering Group. It describes itself as “the most extensive review of records ever conducted by the Church of England”. “There are no possible excuses, no rationalisations for our church’s failure to share the love of God and value each and every person”. The Group writes that they “sincerely apologise for our failures and want to reach out to those who are still suffering from the pain and misery they endured. … It was not your fault and you are not to blame.” It saddens me that this still has to be said.

This blog post builds on a series of tweets I wrote as I worked my way through the document this afternoon, and uses direct quotations from the document to give a sense of it. I think it’s a good report, but its overall message of pockets of good practice existing alongside pockets of denial is depressingly familiar. Many of its comments, particularly about senior clergy who have covered up anything that they would rather not have known, and about the “culture of deference within dioceses towards the bishops or other senior members of clergy” which prevents them being challenged, repeat what we already know all too well from the IICSA reports. Again, we read of the closing of the ranks: “There is an impression that members of the Clergy do not like to upset other clergy”. That sense of déjà vu includes the sexism of the Church of England: instances of bias identified here “included misogyny, sexism and attitudes relating to women in the Church, especially as ordained priests; as well as to same-sex relationships”. A woman who is a priest and who experienced misogyny from her fellow clergy is quoted as saying “I was told I would be good for the parish with legs like that, I would draw in the parishioners”. What, I ask myself, is wrong with this church? Why must it still necessary for it to state that “the Church must promote a positive culture towards women in general”?

So, what is PCR2? It is a process which began in 2019 in which 65 reviewers looked at a total of 75,253 files from the dioceses and from other church bodies such as training institutions and religious communities. The reviewers were independent; while the “Archbishops’ Council maintained oversight of the process throughout the initiative and provided some financial support to dioceses, decision making was delegated to the National Safeguarding Steering Group (NSSG)”. They identified 383 new safeguarding cases, most of them relating to abuse by clergy, but the work included lay readers, lay employees and volunteers. As of August 2022, the Diocesan Safeguarding Advisors “were continuing to assess information relating to 208 safeguarding concerns raised by the independent reviewers”, and some of those may lead to yet more cases being identified. While “The independent reviewers were overwhelmingly supportive of the Diocesan Safeguarding Advisors and their teams”, serious concerns remain about their lack of resources and their heavy workload. And there are cases described of some bishops actively ignoring professionals: “the disdain with which the then bishop, even as recently as 2018, treated the DSA, excluding their expertise at every juncture”.

The report issues 26 recommendations, including four where the C of E “must improve”. These are that the “National Safeguarding Team must develop and deliver a national survivor and victim charter with survivors and victims”; that there must be better information-sharing about lay/ordained ministers with a Bishop’s Licence; that Ministerial Development Reviews need to engage with safeguarding; and that there should be more awareness of domestic abuse. The concerns about domestic abuse relate to “a culture of minimising the seriousness of domestic abuse”, observing that “the attitude towards domestic abuse was linked to the belief around the sanctity of marriage”. As we move forwards with the Living in Love and Faith process, that comment on the negative side of our focus on marriage needs to be kept in mind.

The majority of the report’s recommendations concern areas where there is good practice, but it turns out not to be consistent: “some excellent work completed in several dioceses” versus “examples where the engagement was poor or non-existent”. For example, there’s no “common approach to updating victims”; “referrals to support services were not always completed effectively”; “support provided for survivors and victims, once they had come forward, was inconsistent.” This is an ongoing C of E theme! The independence of dioceses and the power of the bishop mean that this inconsistency is sadly predictable. 

On this theme, a key area is inconsistency in information gathering, keeping and sharing. While the reviewers found evidence of good practice in record keeping, they noted “too much inconsistency across dioceses in how practice and recording guidelines were applied”. It is dangerous for different dioceses to have different standards in record keeping. There is some hope that this will improve, with a new “consistent electronic case management system for all dioceses”, but I wonder if that is going to work? Clergy and others (lay musicians are a particular concern here) move from one diocese to another, but records may, or may not, go with them. “The security arrangements in one diocese were described as robust without explaining what ‘robust’ meant or what measures were thought to be robust.” 

The most significant cases mentioned are “examples where concerns were reported, but processes were not considered or not followed up” which goes with “a reluctance to address issues due to the seniority of clergy and church officers”. Indeed, “In one case a bishop failed to introduce suitable safeguarding measures to manage an individual, which culminated in them controlling and influencing the Bishop, leaving the offender in a position to commit further offences.” And the report notes “how difficult it is to remove a failing and problematic member of the clergy”.

In some dioceses, information had a tendency to disappear completely, not only because files were ‘weeded’ with no record being kept of what was removed, but also because some documents were just too potentially incriminating: “In another case cited as a cause of concern, a file that was connected to a safeguarding case contained a memorandum from a bishop, stating that material would be removed from a clergy file as the complaint made ‘had no bearing on your ministry in the diocese’”. The report picks up IICSA concerns about information sharing, particularly about abuse by chaplains employed by organisations: there were cases of “little or no evidence that indicated liaison between the diocese and the employing organisation”.

So, not that much which is new here, but this review is a further step in what it calls “extending our search for the truth” about abuse within the Church of England, and the report argues strongly that safeguarding is not an “add-on” but is “at the heart of our very being”. For saying that, very strongly indeed, we should be grateful to the authors – and to all who spoke to the independent reviewers about their experiences in what is still a shamefully toxic institution.

Posted in Living in Love and Faith, Safeguarding | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Continuing the conversation: from either/or to both/and

updated 4 October

One of the things which various ‘inclusive’ groups – and no doubt other groups too! – are talking about at the moment concerns contacting bishops to put our views and our suggestions about what happens next with Living in Love and Faith. Letters can still be written. Meetings can still be arranged. On 4 October, the official Roadmap for the process was updated to show that, in addition to the various meetings of the College of Bishops, there are more meetings happening between Dr Eeva John, the convenor of the LLF experience, with a range of pairings from the nine bishops of the Next Steps Group and representatives of 21 different groups within the church.

As vice-chair of the General Synod Gender & Sexuality group, I attended one of these meetings on Friday. I asked about why, at that stage, the meetings hadn’t been publicised and, indeed, why the publication of the two new resources on 2 September had not been more widely shared. In both cases the answer, in brief, was that they should have been, and that when the notes from the most recent meeting of Next Steps Group were released, they would be mentioned there. And as of 4 October, both feature on the Roadmap! It seems like an opportunity was missed, but better late than never, I suppose (could that be the new slogan for the Church of England?!). The list of groups makes it clear that, as well as the inclusive groups, they are of course meeting representatives of those groups who do not accept equal marriage or whose opposition to Issues in Human Sexuality is because they don’t think it went far enough and that its constraints should apply to lay people married to a same-sex partner as well as to clergy (the C of E equivalent of a postcode lottery means that, in some dioceses, this is already happening).

So what about these meetings? Others will be saying more about their content since, under Chatham House rules, the existence of the meeting and the information shared can be discussed, just not the identity of the speakers. It was a long day, not least because I wanted to stay around Lambeth Palace for longer to catch up with the afternoon groups, but I thought it was a worthwhile use of my time (and money – no mention of any reimbursement of expenses…). Like many people, I belong to more than one ‘group’, so it was a real pleasure to meet folk to whom I had previously spoken only online, or who I hadn’t seen for a while, as well as new people, and to hear their stories. Although it was billed as a ‘listening’ exercise, in which ‘they’ would listen to ‘our’ reactions to the new resources, it went much further; Dr John and the bishops were willing to answer our questions and there was genuine conversation and honesty.

I would say that the two main themes of the morning meeting were transparency, and hospitality. I didn’t say this at the meeting, but really, to be in a national Church in which there is only one ‘out’ gay bishop, yet it is common knowledge that there are others, says it all; if it is so unsafe to admit to being lesbian or gay in this Church that those at the very top can’t be open about themselves, then what hope for a person in the pews? With the notable exception of those in the Inclusive Church network – represented at our meeting on Friday – local churches are often not transparent about whether or not they are safe places to be yourself. People who are brave enough to take that first step across the threshold of a church need to know whether they will be welcomed; really welcomed, whoever they are. For those of us on the ‘inside’, it is hard to realise just what that risky step into the unknown requires. When I have led groups on exploring the Christian faith, I’ve used the analogy of the betting shop: so, regular church-going person, would you know what to do if you were to go into one of those? And what would you do if someone you knew saw you going into the building??

One of the topics we discussed on Friday was the way that social media can increase the sense of opposition. This isn’t helpful when we are trying to find a way in which we can respect each other’s consciences and stay together as a church – as we already do around women’s priesthood and episcopacy, and around making Church marriages available to people who have been through a divorce. I’ve heard people talk about how, chatting informally to those from a more conservative viewpoint, they’ve found all sorts of areas of agreement; even the fact that this is a discussion about equal marriage suggests that we agree that marriage is a very important relationship for human flourishing. And it’s from social media that I pose this final question, raised in a Twitter thread published on 1 October; there, Andrew T. Draper asked “How can we as orthodox, Biblical Christians push back against the free-for-all ethic of the sexual revolution (where consent is the only acceptable moral category) but then not allow space for gay & transgender people to live holy, faithful lives in monogamous covenants?” Coming away from last Friday’s meetings, I feel that it’s the ‘both … and’ for which we need to make space: not ‘either … or’.

Posted in equal marriage, Living in Love and Faith, marriage | Tagged , , , | 10 Comments

When the information flow stops: where is Living in Love and Faith?

The country, and the Church of England, return to normality today. I assume that means the country will return to the questions of economics, inequality, health and justice which have been put on hold. For the Church of England, among other things, this feels like a moment to pause and ask: what has happened to the Living in Love and Faith process?

I was away on holiday for the whole period from the announcement that the Queen was unwell until the day before the funeral so I’ve felt semi-detached from the various events. While I was away, I signed a book of condolence but, other than a local minute’s silence on Sunday and watching the funeral and the Windsor service on TV yesterday, that’s my lot, although it still adds up to many hours of viewing. I watched with an 88-year old neighbour, and felt the presence of my royalist mother who would have been useful in identifying the various minor royals, of whom there seem to be very many. In contrast, assorted friends queued in London to view the coffin, but even if I’d been home and thus within a 30 minute train ride’s distance, I don’t think I’d have felt the urge. 

Yet, maybe because I’m a historian, I’ve generally been interested in attending historic events. Back in the 1980s I went to several, including the election night in Paris in 1981 when Mitterrand became the French president. Then there was the visit of Pope John Paul II to London in 1982. Standing at the Queen Victoria Memorial outside Buckingham Palace with a lot of Roman Catholic women, once the chat started and it transpired that I was single, one of them brought out photos of her unmarried sons and asked if I’d be interested in any of them, because surely it wouldn’t take much for me to convert? In the same year, I went with my mum to the Falklands victory parade. Later, when I was working in London, I detoured to see the carpets of flowers left when Diana Princess of Wales died, and the smell of them – not pleasant at all – stays with me. There’s a theme here; I’ve only been at these events if I was in the right city already or if I’d been asked to accompany someone else. OK, that probably makes me a lightweight in terms of ‘being there’: others clearly feel a much stronger urge to be physically present.

Even on holiday, however, I was fascinated by the livestream of the Queen’s lying-in-state and shots of The Queue. There’s an excellent thread from Professor Anthony Bale on how people’s experiences in The Queue replicated medieval practices and experiences when visiting the tomb of a saint. As for what it felt it like to be in it, friends who’ve queued for 8 hours, or 12 hours, have explained on Facebook how it was for them. People have analysed the sense of certainty and solidarity they had as they queued. Professor Keith Still, an expert on crowd behaviour, was quoted as saying “So long as people know what’s happening, what’s expected of them, how long it’s going to take, they no longer face the uncertainty” and “It’s as soon as that information flow stops that you get a degree of uncertainty and people start behaving as individuals rather than as a collective.”

As we return to normality, those comments on The Queue have made me think of where we are this month with Living in Love and Faith. In contrast to The Queue, I have been very much involved in this since the process began in 2017. And I would say that the information flow there has definitely stopped. One of the criticisms people often make of the C of E is around lack of communication; websites which aren’t updated, or urls which cease to work, or information which is too well-hidden to come up in a search of the main C of E website. Where LLF is concerned, the Roadmap on The Living in Love and Faith Journey is the go-to site for anyone wondering just what’s going on.

According to that website, where precisely are we in this particular church Queue? What’s happening and how long is it going to take? There’s an immediate difference in that we don’t know where we are going, except that there may emerge some firm proposals from the bishops, proposals which General Synod can discuss and vote on. Well, according to the Roadmap, as of September 2022 two further resources have been published (although there’s no link given on the Roadmap to the page where they now appear, which is in fact this one, and they weren’t published under the titles listed on the Roadmap). On the Roadmap, the next stage is that the College of Bishops “Begin the discernment process”, as informed by the LLF book and these new resources. But because the College was due to meet during what turned out to be the mourning period for the Queen, the dates for that have already been changed, meaning that their three rounds of meetings start on October, although there is still time to get them all in before Christmas.

But there’s something else going on, and the website doesn’t mention it at all. Throughout September, the overall convenor of LLF – the indefatigable Dr Eeva John – is, accompanied by various pairs of bishops from the Next Steps Group, meeting representatives of a range of groups for two-hour meetings. I know about this because I am one of those from the General Synod Gender & Sexuality Group due to meet them on 30 September, and I know people from other groups who have met, or who are due to meet, for these events. The purpose? To hear “our perspectives, hopes and fears”, although I can’t imagine what we can say that we haven’t said already, in questionnaire responses, articles, blog posts and emails. 

Others going to the meetings have asked what the position is with confidentiality and, although the meetings themselves will take place under Chatham House rules, the existence of the meetings is not confidential. Yet there’s no mention of them on the website, so the reader will be left with the impression that the bishops have already gone away to start their discussions and that the rest of us have no more opportunities to talk to them.

This seems odd. While there are plenty of places across the CofE where, invited to engage with LLF, people have stuck their collective fingers into their collective ears and hummed ‘la la la’, or have decided they have other priorities, or just felt too exhausted with everything else to consider running the LLF course, there are also places where people have come together within a parish or with neighbouring congregations, and have spoken honestly – perhaps for the first time – and have listened to those who think differently. It may not be like standing next to someone in The Queue for 8 hours, but meeting and talking have happened.

Anyone outside the groups selected to meet with the Next Steps Group knows nothing of what’s going on. And there is more. We do still have opportunities to talk to the bishops. We can write. We can set up meetings. We need to be kept up to date with what is happening. When information flows stop, uncertainty begins, and that does nobody any good.

Posted in General Synod, Living in Love and Faith | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

Living in Love and Faith: the final documents?

Yesterday, without much of a fanfare, some more documents were published to add to the ‘LLF book’, and the course, and the videos, and the podcasts, and the papers only accessible through registering with the ‘Hub’. We’d been expecting two of them: an analysis of the responses to the questionnaire aimed at those who took the course, and a ‘resource’ called The Gift of the Church. This isn’t quite what turned up. I don’t have time at the moment to analyse these in depth; I hope others will, as these are the documents the bishops are supposed to use for their conversations over the coming autumn.

But, to save you reading it all, or to help you decide what to read, here are some basics. What we have are:

Listening with Love and Faith – a 94-page report on responses to the LLF course. This gives extracts from people’s comments and concludes: Most people in the focus groups suggested that the decisions made by the House of Bishops needed to be bold, courageous, clear and honest. While some advocated strongly for change and some to maintain the Church’s position on questions of sexuality, all agreed that coming to a clear decision soon is vital.

Friendship and the Body of Christ – 71 pages, written in conjunction with the Faith and Order Commission, taking up the LLF book’s image of ‘gift’ but adding in much on ‘friendship’. We are all ‘friends of Jesus’ (the phrase features 21 times), so what does it mean if we disagree with others of his friends? I found this pretty unimpressive, and throughly agreed with the comment on p.41 that There’s a danger here, of course, of stretching our definition of friendship beyond recognition.

As we should now expect, history is completely ignored in this book. It’s amazing, really. There’s a rich and established scholarly literature on friendship – I know of many books and articles on the ancient world and the early modern period, and no doubt there’s much more outside my particular areas of knowledge. But is there any sense of this literature? Not a whiff, beyond the statement that Classical philosophers like Cicero and Achilles mused on the nature of friendship, while great epics like the Odyssey and the Iliad explored friendship (like Achilles and Patroclus). Please… Even mentioning this relationship without noting the different ways it has been interpreted from the ancient world onwards… We can do better than this!

Finally, there’s a 154-page ‘technical report’ on the questionnaire responses.

Actually, this report isn’t only on the 6,400 questionnaire responses alone (that is, of course, a very small number, when measured against those on church electoral rolls or in church every Sunday). That’s only the first 60 pages or so. Then there are 40 pages which talk about what was said in the 9 focus groups, so these pages are commenting on what a total of around 80 people said.

There’s also a section on the 114 individual responses sent in without doing the questionnaire, so those can be people who didn’t do the course but wanted their opinions heard. 21 of the 114 were from just a single diocese, Rochester. And there’s another section on the 22 responses from churches which didn’t appear to have engaged with LLF. Almost all of these opposed any change in the church’s teaching. 12 such responses were from one diocese: Peterborough. Of those 12, 11 did their own bespoke course instead of using the LLF materials.

This means that those who did not fill in the questionnaire end up with more representation in the report than those who did. I assume the Rochester and Peterborough ‘spikes’ are because somebody decided to mobilise a particular group to write in.

Where does that leave us? We can see what some of the people who did the course, or were in a focus group, said. Are they representative of those who make up our church? We don’t know. Is any of this new information? I don’t think so.

That means I remain unconvinced that this expensive and lengthy exercise has moved us beyond the known situation: as Listening with Love and Faith (p.88) states from the focus groups, the House of Bishops have a difficult but essential task, and … a decision on moving forward needs to be made soon.

Posted in Living in Love and Faith | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

Christian dating: just try it!

post updated 31 August 2022

Today on Twitter, Single Friendly Church put up one of those little polls: “Have you or would you use a Christian dating site to meet other Christians?” I was surprised to see how many said they hadn’t used such a site, and they wouldn’t; around 40% of those replying. Well, I did, and I would recommend it. As it happens, I was at a conference recently when – in the context of discussions about the theology of marriage and its importance in the Living in Love and Faith process – someone asked why we don’t have a theology of dating. It’s an interesting question, and one which Andrew Godsall has now addressed here. I am not qualified to comment on the theology, but I do have some practical experience to bring to any discussion!

For most of my life, I hadn’t seriously thought about online dating because, well, you hear stories. But in my forties, never married, I was in our local Christian bookshop and happened to pick up a magazine which featured Christian Connection, which is now a partner of Single Friendly Church. I thought, well, I can probably spot a dodgy Christian man from several miles off (bitter experience…) so maybe that would be worth doing. So I constructed a profile, found some cheerful photos, and began. I set my parameters quite tightly, in terms of distance (I don’t drive) and educational background (for some insane reason I thought that Mr Right needed at least a first degree) and waited to see what happened. Meanwhile, I found that the various discussion threads which at that time featured on the site were very good fun. They ranged from serious discussions of current affairs and theology to more entertaining topics. I started one on fridge magnets. I began to interact with other women on the site (no, the story isn’t going in that direction – although the site is open to LGBTQI+ relationships). I found a supportive community in which people shared tips, checked out each other’s sites to give advice – like, you’re sounding very needy and vulnerable so be careful as you may attract predators – and shared information about some men on the site who weren’t sticking to the rules. I even contacted some men whose profiles were just non-starters, not to set up dates but simply to give some sisterly advice.

I was having such fun in this online community that the men who expressed an interest stopped being the main reason for being there. There was (and still is) a strong emphasis on keeping one’s details private, at least until you’d had a chance to meet in person. I found people who matched the parameters I’d set up, chatted on the phone, and met two of them; both were lovely, but one seemed to be back in the water too soon after a very bad relationship breakdown and, while the other was lovely enough that we had a second date, there just wasn’t that spark.

And then I was contacted by someone who’d found me, rather than the other way around. He didn’t match all my parameters, so I wouldn’t have seen his profile; his own seemed to be ‘female, alive, no baggage, no animals, non-smoker’! But from the first email he came across as honest, happy in himself, and with an excellent way with words; those matter very much to me. We talked on the phone and couldn’t stop talking (some time later he admitted he’d been to the loo somewhere in that first conversation!). He rightly pushed for a face-to-face meeting asap as, rather than falling in love with an image of each other, we needed to connect in person. I was busy the following weekend; what was I doing, he asked? I told him I was going to a plant sale and he announced he could meet me there (despite admitting to no interest in plants whatsoever – later, I’d find that his idea of gardening was to mow the flower beds). It was a Sunday; I told friends at church I was going to meet this man, and several turned out to be attending the same plant sale, meaning that they were lurking in the rhododendron bushes to check things were going well. At the event, I managed to walk into a former student and also a colleague from a nearby university; both were clearly intrigued as to who this man may be, and I didn’t feel able to say ‘This is a bloke I met online a week ago’.

I’d taken the bus to our meeting, and there aren’t many buses round here on a Sunday. How was I going to get home? As we had tea at the plant sale, I also realised there weren’t any loos at the venue. I hadn’t entirely thought all this through, although in addition to the church people I’d notified a friend of what was happening so somebody knew where I was. Tentatively, I asked my date whether he’d see any sign of a loo. He went and asked, and once it was confirmed that there weren’t any he immediately said he’d take me to the garden centre down the road.

Tricky. A firm rule of Christian Connection was not to get into someone’s car on the first date. But… So I did. Impressively, he dropped me off at the garden centre entrance to reduce the length of time before I found that loo, and said he’d park and then find me. As I came out of the loo, I wondered whether he’d be there, or whether this was a way of dumping me… but he was there waiting for me, and has been there for me ever since.

We had more tea and cakes. He dropped me home. We had a little hug. And the rest is history; nearly 20 years of it so far.

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Alliterative Anglicans: see what I did there?*

As you’ll have noticed, we have this tool called the alphabet. As well as the whole expressing-and-preserving-our-thoughts thing, one useful aspect of this is that it allows us to group together words so that we can find what we are looking for in a long document. As a historian, when I started working on early modern printed books, I was alarmed to find that the earliest indices put together all words beginning with ‘A’ but didn’t bother with further alphabetical ordering within the ‘A’ list; still, it was better than nothing. 

And then there’s another reason for putting together words starting with the same letter: the poetic device of alliteration. The world seems to be divided as to whether it counts as alliteration if the repeated initial letter (or sound) of the words is a vowel rather than a consonant, so I’m already into controversial territory with my title. 

A personal opinion: I think Christians tend to take alliteration too far. 

In a previous blog post, I mentioned as an example the title “Winsome Witness in a Warring World”. The argument, I assume, is that such titles are memorable. Maybe it’s me, but I find that they aren’t. The Anglican Communion’s Five Marks of Mission are Tell, Teach, Tend, Transform and Treasure; I don’t find that helps me remember them, as I end up desperately searching my brain for another word starting with ‘T’, and the results can be … well, unhelpful.

Sometimes the use of alliteration is actually doing something rather sinister in suggesting a false link between items, as in a song from the 1983 musical Poppy, ‘The Blessed Trinity’, with its line ‘Civilisation, commerce and Christianity/All go together, and all begin with C’. This musical, on the topic of the Opium Wars, was performed as a pantomime encouraging the traditional participation from the (adult) audience. I’ve only found one review online, from the Imperial College Student Union’s Felix (p.7) but I’m pleased to see that the reviewer enjoyed it as much as I did. The lead story from that issue of Felix, by the way, is ‘Peaceful picket: porn party provokes prolific protest’. It’s not just in churches that we apparently like a bit of alliteration.

My current aversion to alliteration was stimulated by noting two forms of wording (even hashtags) on Twitter in comments on equal marriage: ‘Sodomising secularists’ and ‘Sacramentalising sodomy’. As a historian I know that the word ‘sodomy’ used to mean pretty well anything that wasn’t heterosexual PiV sex, but we’ve moved away from that and today it normally means simply anal sex. Here I’d like to leave aside the strange ideas that only gay people do this – even the Living in Love and Faith book would put people right on that, if they were to read it rather than just talk about it – and that they don’t do anything else that we could possibly count as ‘sex’. Instead, let’s just think about what the alliteration is doing here. 

George Weigel, who holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies at Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, wrote in the National Review at Obama’s re-election:

Those who booed God, celebrated an unfettered abortion license, canonized Sandra Fluke, and sacramentalized sodomy at the Democratic National Convention have been emboldened to advance the cause of lifestyle libertinism through coercive state power.

Ooh, ‘lifestyle libertinism’ too; a bonus.

Sacramentalising sodomy does seem to have originated as a phrase favoured by some Roman Catholics. Here’s another reference, from someone blogging as Damsel of the Faith, ‘Spiritual daughter of Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, Faithful to Eternal Rome, Fighting with the Spirit of St. Joan of Arc for the True Faith’ (wow), commenting in 2018 on one of Pope Francis’s advisors proposing liturgical blessing of same-sex unions as part of ‘closer pastoral care’ for lesbian and gay people. Or from the same year, on a discussion board called Mother of God, ‘DeGaulle’ commenting that ‘someone who attempts to sacramentalise sodomy is equivalent to performing a black mass’. The alliteration is clearly meant to increase the impact of the phrase, maybe drawing attention away from its utter irrelevance.

Yet the place where alliteration has long reigned is in the evangelical sermon. The Dedication, Dilemma and Decision of St Paul. The Age, Appetites and Apparel of John the Baptist. The Beatitudes as Blessed are the Poor/Pining/Pliant/Panting/Pitying/Pure/ Peacemakers/Persecuted. And so on. There are even alliterative guides to using alliteration in your sermon, such as this one from a Baptist minister, which does observe that “You can become more interested in alliterating than in why you are alliterating”. Or Jared C. Wilson’s 5 Cs of Preaching which suggests checking that your sermon is Contextual, Convictional, Clear, Compassionate and Cross-Centred.

A helpful guide to when, and when not, to use alliteration in your sermons could be useful for those who like to rant about sacramentalising sodomy. On one online guide, the first rule, ‘Know what it’s for’ – to add clarity; ‘it can be harmful or wasteful if it reduces clarity’. So don’t force it. Don’t stretch words beyond what they mean. I suspect that the ‘Beatitudes with the letter P’ sermon would do precisely that.

Those ‘SS’ labels use the word ‘sodomy’ with the intention of shocking. They don’t just misleadingly focus on this one sex act; even by focusing on sex, they ignore all the other aspects of marriage. ‘Sacramentalising committed relationships’ doesn’t have the same ring to it, though, does it? Nor does ‘Sacramentalising loading the dishwasher’.

Rather than coming up with snappy slogans (oops), how about concentrating on the fullness of people’s lives, the reality of what LGBTQI+ people and their allies are asking for: being able to marry in their churches, being able as married people to be priests in the wider church? Preaching.com has not only run an article on why alliterative sermons can be really, really bad, but also a 2016 piece by Karl Vaters on how “Alliteration is no longer cool”. Nobody any longer is trying to memorise the sermon; the time spent trying to start each point with the same letter is utterly wasted and a distraction from engaging with the text; people would rather go away with one practical idea for their lives, and real life isn’t alliterative or rhyming; it comes across not as authoritative, but phony. “Pastors think it’s clever. Listeners think it’s fake”. 

And so are snappy alliterative slogans.

*A phrase apparently going back to 1989; https://www.macmillandictionary.com/buzzword/entries/see-what-I-did-there.html

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From a tree to a window to an installation: the visual messages of Living in Love and Faith

I’m continuing to process last week’s General Synod meeting, and there certainly is a lot to process; not just the very full agenda over long days, and not just the ongoing rumblings about the confusion during the elections to the Crown Nominations Commission, in which many of us were unable to vote on our iPads or phones and ended up using paper forms, and some people were apparently unable to vote at all.

As a person involved in creating the LLF resources, though, much of my processing is around the small exhibition at York University and the newly-unveiled art installation on ‘Fracture and Faith’ at the Minster. I’ve shared an image on the previous blog post but here it is again: 

Readers of this blog may recall that, when LLF began, the logo showed a tree. We were given various interpretations of this; deep roots in research, the sap as the Holy Spirit, that sort of thing. I was never convinced by that tree. Its bare roots suggested it wasn’t long for this world. The identikit leaves suggested conforming to one view. The tree changed, becoming a little more relaxed with some leaves falling off, but when the LLF book came out it had been replaced by a stained glass window, as seen here:

I wasn’t involved at all in the discussions which must have led to that logo, but I wondered when I first saw it if it was more about seeing current questions through tradition and history (unlikely when history hadn’t had much of a look-in) or more about lots of little pieces of glass making up our picture, and thus different views on sexuality, gender identity and relationships as forming the church?

The York campus LLF exhibition, which can also be seen online if you register on the LLF hub, is a sample of the creative responses people were invited to make rather than, or in addition to, filling in the questionnaire. Among the photos of people sitting in the groups in which they had done the course, poems, a kneeler, drawings, a knitted rainbow and some tapestry, there are extra items for those viewing the exhibition. These include some stained glass window frames, shaped exactly like the LLF logo, with an invitation to viewers to add a piece of glass to the picture. So there it’s clearly an image of participation. 

During the Minster service on the Sunday of General Synod, the new art installation was displayed behind the nave altar. The Archbishop of York mentioned it during the service and suggested a further spin on the stained glass window theme: that these chains of glass held together by steel looked like a window deconstructing itself – or, a dispersed window coming together. To me, though, it looked more like an almost-invisible wave moving through the Minster. I loved the shape, the colours, the way it changed depending on where you stood. At the start of the Minster service we were warned that there may be some demonstrators disrupting the worship, but that Security had it under control and if protests weren’t peaceful then they would get involved. In the event, there were no such protests, but I was told that one of the groups they had been expecting was of people opposed to the art installation. I was, and am, bemused as to why anyone would object to a thought-provoking and very beautiful piece of art being displayed in this setting. 

Later on the same day, when spending an hour sitting in a hot portakabin with a group of other members each asked to speak for c.90 seconds on ‘what the Bible means to me’ – the LLF ‘group work’ set for this session of Synod – I wondered whether it wouldn’t have been more interesting to ask us for our responses to the art installation. And that’s not just because the idea that the real cause of division is how we engage with the Bible was mooted seven years ago, way back in the Regional Shared Conversations, when one of the resources had essays by Ian Paul, Loveday Alexander and Phil Groves on this topic. It’s still available here: so why reinvent the wheel, why act like this is a new approach? Those who chose not to attend the Minster service could – and some I think did – go in to see the display. I think that would have led to less of the sincere repetition of assorted clichés about the Bible, in which it was immediately clear from what tradition each of our members came, and more engagement. Sadly, it’s too late now, but perhaps this blog post will stimulate some thoughts on what the installation means for other people?

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A Synod Divided: York Minster on Sunday

Regular readers of this blog will know just how alienated I felt back in November at the Westminster Abbey service which formed part of the inauguration of this General Synod. It felt like the whole pomp and history – the sheer weight – of the Church of England was on display, just daring any of us to challenge it. I was therefore surprised at how positive I felt about the York Minster service which was on the programme for the July Synod session. Yet it threw into even sharper relief just how divided we are; so divided that at least one member chose to attend a service in another denomination.

The Minster service was Holy Communion, and presented in terms of us joining the regular congregation for their usual act of worship. That was one reason why it felt good. Seeing the children of the regular attenders as well as those of Synod members processing to the sessions put on for their age groups was a joyful reminder that everyone is welcome; it felt like normal church, rather than formal church. I had the bonus of being close to the BSL interpreters, and the parable of the Good Samaritan came alive in their dramatic version of the story. Another plus was the building which, unlike the Abbey, allows a real sense of gathering round the table. Presiding was the Archbishop of York, who sounded genuinely happy to have us at the Minster and whose gentle humour made me feel far more relaxed. Behind the altar we could see the art installation commissioned for Living in Love and Faith, ‘Fracture and Faith’, made of many pieces of glass found on beaches, and I found it very beautiful, like an almost-invisible wave moving through the building. The Archbishop of York said it made him think of a stained-glass window which was either coming apart, or coming together. That was an interesting reflection.

Perhaps you’d expect all members of Synod to go to this service? Well, for many reasons, they don’t. Some decide to take a break, which is understandable in a packed programme in which sleep can be hard to find. Others want to join in remotely with their home congregation, something which of course hasn’t been an option until now. At lunch afterwards, I spoke to one member who’d joined a group from her diocese which had gone to a parish church where they wanted to offer support to the priest. There are those who find the Minster service (choir, robes, etc) a step too far, and I spoke to some who had headed instead for St Michael le Belfreybecause that was their sort of thing. Among those, there were also people who had friends or family in that congregation.

While I think it would be appropriate for us all to gather round one table on the Sunday of Synod, and I am sorry that we don’t, I can understand these different reasons for going somewhere else. 

When I raised the ‘Where did you go to church this morning?’ question over lunch, though, I met one other response which still baffles me. One member said he’d been to a church of a different denomination (I am not naming it here because it could identify him and he may not want that). I was taken aback, and asked him why he went there; I was expecting him to say that he knew the vicar, or had family members there, or that this was his original denomination until he joined the Church of England. But no. He went there because he wanted ‘the Book opened’. I suppose that could just be code for ‘they preach a good sermon’. But why rule out the possibility of the Book being opened, being given a fresh insight into the Word, sensing the presence of the Spirit, in a denomination in which you have chosen to stand for election to the governing body? No, I didn’t ask that at the time. It was one of those silences like the one I felt at a meal where it became clear that one of my fellow Synod members thinks I am in an adulterous relationship because my husband has been through a divorce, or that very special silence in a ‘facilitated conversation’ about Living in Love and Faith in which someone realises that others in the room think they are going to Hell but are too polite to say so…

But I’m left wondering, as I go through my photos of the Living in Love and Faith installation at the Minster: is it too much to assume that everyone on General Synod is an Anglican?

Posted in General Synod, Living in Love and Faith | Tagged | 2 Comments

Clouds without rain: trying to explore fear

So here’s a question for conservatives in the CofE. What do you fear? I don’t see anyone wanting to force you to marry people or bless them if it’s against your conscience. As with divorced people. So what do you fear?

This was something I tweeted last week. Living in Love and Faith is still going on, and there’s a certain amount of speculation as to whether compromise is possible, or whether this is the end of the road. As you’d expect on Twitter, my tweet led to a range of responses, some of them taking us down quite bizarre rabbit-holes like whether the Methodist Church is a church or a social club. Although some people engaged, many were not those taking a conservative position themselves, but those who assumed they knew what conservatives thought. Hmmm. I was trying to get away from such an approach. Like everyone else, my Twitter bubble is no doubt slanted towards people who largely agree with me, but it is not entirely closed.

Some took issue with the wording of my question, not liking the word ‘fear’ and saying they feared nothing. One person answered ‘The Lord’. Another wrote ‘No Christian fears what any man says or thinks about them. Why would they – it’s not another human who they are ultimately going to be judged by!’ Fair enough: so what they fear is judgement. Me too, actually. Someone tweeting as ‘Justin Welby’s cat’ (!) said ‘We fear the Holiness of God, as the bible tells us too. We fear more getting deceived as being lost eternally, as the book of Jude tells us. That many more will end up as you, clouds without rain’. So that’s Jude 1:12 (surprised that the Bible didn’t start with an upper-case B). Nobody mentioned 1 John 4:18, and perfect love casting out fear.

I asked this question because I am surprised that those who take a more evangelical view (and yes, I know, all these labels are very approximate and risk putting together people whose positions are quite different) are so resistant to offering church marriages to same-sex couples when some – not all – of them are prepared to do so for couples where one or both partners has been divorced. There are two reasons for my surprise. 

First, if a person uses the Bible as their sole or preferred source of authority, well, there are comments from Jesus on divorce but none on LGBTQI+. So I’d expect the sola scriptura people all to be opposed to second marriages: but they aren’t. As for those who are opposed, the position of the Church of England is that no parish priest is obliged to marry someone who has been through a divorce. Individual conscience is respected, and people taking this position are able to remain in a Church which accepts such marriages. 

Second, if your faith is very much about your individual response to God – saying the ‘sinner’s prayer’, giving your testimony – then I’d have expected you to say that your own salvation depends on that response, not on the position taken by the wider Church body to which you belong.

When I was opposed to the ordination of women, alongside the theological arguments that then made sense to me (that there aren’t any women priests in the Bible; and that only a man can represent Christ at the altar), I most definitely felt fear. This fear was focused on church unity; this was the time when my favourite hymn was the one including the lines ‘make thou our sad divisions soon to cease’ and ‘We pray thee too for wanderers from the fold/Oh bring them back, good Shepherd of thy sheep’. If we were to ordain women, wouldn’t this put a further barrier between the C of E and the Roman Catholic church? When I had my Damascene moment of conversion from anti to pro, caused by hearing Mary Tanner talking at our Deanery Synod, the fear ceased. The good we would be doing, by including the gifts of women in our leadership, felt as if it outweighed that hope for unity with Rome.

Those who remain anti on this question can remain in the Church of England. If your reading of the Bible tells you that women should not be admitted as priests, you can ask your parish to pass a resolution that no women will be sent your way. If you believe that women can’t be bishops, your church can ask for episcopal oversight from a bishop who is not a woman and has not ‘laid hands’ on one. 

Yet somehow it still isn’t seen as theoretically possible to stay in a Church which welcomes same-sex couples who want to mark their committed relationship in the place where they regularly worship God, even if that Church accepts that not all priests will want to be involved in such a ceremony.

Sorry, but I still don’t get it. The talk about salvation issues, first-order issues, and creation being applied to same-sex marriage reminds me of what was said when women’s ordination was being discussed, and somehow we came through that. But not this?

Posted in equal marriage, Living in Love and Faith | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

Me and Christ Church: beauty and truth

Even those not in the bubble of Anglican Twitter are likely to have noticed that Christ Church has been back in the news this week, and no doubt this will continue as tomorrow it’s the unofficial farewell service for the Dean, Martyn Percy, whose management of the release of his story via different newspapers and blogs has been highly impressive. Even before it happens, this service has already been ‘interesting’; the Dean was not allowed to have it in his own chapel – which is also the cathedral, the mixture of college and diocese being part of the issue – then it was going to be at the University Church, then that booking was cancelled and Somewhere Else found but, reminding me of various expensive theatrical events in London, those attending weren’t going to find out where it would be until the day before. I didn’t apply for a ticket for the service.

Why not? Well, why would I? It seems de rigueur for anyone writing about the Dean to say he’s an old friend, so let’s say now that he isn’t. I don’t know him personally. I have read some of his writing and liked some of it very much. He has done things which I strongly support, such as allowing the Cathedral to be used for services offering safe space to LGBTQI+ Christians. I have met him once, at an event in the college. He asked me who I was and when I told him he gave me the impression that, as I wasn’t relevant to his world, he wasn’t interested (I wasn’t on General Synod then). Maybe he was just shy: maybe he was having an off day. He moved away to talk to someone else. I’ve met Emma Percy a few times because we both belong to WATCH, Women and the Church, the group set up after the ordination of women to keep an eye on issues around gender justice, equality and inclusion. I’ve seen it suggested online that we support whichever ‘side’ it is because they’re our friends; really, no, that’s not why I’m here, and in any case I also know some of the academics at Christ Church. 

But I still have an interest, not only because safeguarding and bullying, in both academia and the church, have been things on which I’ve focused since being a harassment officer at the University of Reading. I have an interest because Oxford, where the Dean was the senior priest, is my diocese, the one I represent on General Synod. 

And I also have an interest because the place where it all went wrong, Christ Church college, could have been my college. I owe my academic career to having had a Junior Research Fellowship in Cambridge, at the wonderful and supportive Newnham College, and I’ve mentioned briefly my trip round the Oxbridge Junior Research Fellowship circuit here: “I was often the only woman being interviewed, usually the only person not to come from Oxbridge, and certainly the only person working on bodily fluids.” One of the places which interviewed me was Christ Church and there I came second; there was an agonizing wait while they located the successful candidate, who was on his way to South America immediately after interview.

I was relieved in many ways not to get that fellowship. It was always a bit odd at Christ Church. I don’t know if they still operate in a different time zone, five minutes and two seconds behind GMT. But – and I had plenty with which to compare it – that interview was bizarre. About a dozen robed dons, all men, all sitting on one side or the two ends of a long thin table, making me think of the Last Supper. No idea who they were; how would I even be able to spot a Classics specialist, not being an Oxford student myself? (NB at Newnham, more like six interviewers, and a clear diagram for me, identifying who was sitting where) One of the Christ Church people had no shoes on, something very clear from my side of the table, where my seat also felt on the low side, making me feel … well, lowly. If this was the Last Supper, then who was I? A servant brought in to wash the men’s feet? The painter?? Questions were fired from all directions, so my head was moving as if I were watching a high-speed tennis match. I received the most stupid or the most clever question ever (read this in an elderly and wavering voice for the best effect): “Miss King, people have been studying the ancient world for a Very Long Time now: will they ever stop?” I decided to take that as clever, as an entirely serious invitation to discuss the reception of the ancient Greeks and Romans, and gave it my best shot. Apparently, they liked it, although at the time they gave me no clue.

The various leaks of emails between the academic staff of Christ Church have given me the impression it is still odd there. Academics can be pretty unpleasant about each other, but even so these emails are exceptional. The pro-Percy site Turbulent Priest has issued a very useful timeline for anyone needing to remind themself of the successive, different, allegations and tribunals and their findings. What I still don’t understand is why the accusations lurched on from one claim to another, with something new turning up every time a previous allegation was dismissed. Did the governing body have nothing else to do? I would have thought the various other college scandals during the period when the Dean was being attacked would have occupied their minds: an academic jailed in France for child pornography offences, another accused of stealing and selling on papyri, the theft of art from the college gallery…

I wonder if members of the governing body have taken advantage of another Christ Church oddity. According to the college’s Staff Handbook, ‘Specific benefits’ for those employed by Christ Church include this one: 

BEAUTICIAN. Visits from a beautician will be arranged from time to time if there is sufficient demand. A notice is circulated to staff by the Steward’s PA a few weeks prior to each visit and any staff member wishing to make an appointment should do so through the Steward’s PA. As the number of appointments is limited, they are allocated on a first-come, first-served basis. Staff should pay the beautician directly.

Christ Church is, shall we say, ‘special’. For anyone outside the university world: No, a college beautician is not standard practice! Beauty, however, is more than skin-deep. 

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