Christian dating: just try it!

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. 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.

Posted in marriage | Tagged , , , , , | 6 Comments

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

Posted in equal marriage, preaching | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

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?

Posted in Shared Conversations | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

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. 

Posted in Safeguarding | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

What do the bishops think? LLF and trans people

What do the bishops think?

Well, that’s something of a mystery to us at the moment. In General Synod, when there is a division by houses, the members of the House of Bishops currently all vote the same way. It was not always like this; expressing disagreement was not an issue, but – as I was told when I asked my diocesan bishop about this at a meeting last week – apparently this disturbed people, so now the bishops just vote together. So we may know what our own bishops think about something – or we may not – and we’ll hear more from those who are called to speak in a debate but, as far as the majority of the House goes … no idea.

The House of Bishops, like the other sections which make up General Synod, sometimes meets on its own. When it does so, there’s a press release which gives the rest of us the key points from the meeting; at least, in theory. The notes from the meeting of the House of Bishops on 24 March 2022 were released last week. We are now becoming familiar with their regular mixture of management-speak and deliberate obfuscation. How is any reader supposed to know what ‘proposals to join up the work of the Diocese Commission and the Transforming Effectiveness work stream’ really mean? When the House discussed ‘possible mitigation opportunities’ for dioceses with financial problems, what might those be? No idea. 

And that’s all we’ll be getting, because the House does not issue minutes, so we have no idea who said what, or what different points of view were expressed, and so the rest of the church isn’t properly informed about what is going on. Significantly, in contrast to General Synod, nobody else can turn up and listen to the House of Bishops in action. The Standing Orders of the House of Bishops state that the public can be admitted (SO 13) but I am not aware that they ever are, and that would suggest issuing an agenda and meeting time in advance: does that ever happen? Overriding SO 13, the bishops appear to be invoking SO 14, which allows the House to go into something called ‘Committee of the Whole House’ which means that the public have to leave. Reading those Standing Orders, the way they are set out clearly suggests public presence is the norm, and asking the public to leave is not. Yet, currently, we can’t attend.

According to these skimpy notes which are all that we have, most of the recent meeting of the House of Bishops was on Living in Love and Faith. There are many questions buzzing around at the moment about the bishops and LLF. The official statement is that ‘Importantly, the Bishops are themselves committed to learning using the resources’ offered by LLF, but it isn’t clear what that means. Telling other people to ‘learn’, or doing it themselves? I’ve heard of dioceses where the bishop did the course with their staff team. At my own diocese’s most recent Synod meeting, the bishop said he had done sections of the course with the House of Bishops. Yet I’ve also heard of Diocesan Synods where the bishops didn’t take part in their small group meetings to talk about LLF. So what does ‘using the resources’ mean?

Apart from confirmation of the LLF timetable for 2022, the notes from the House of Bishops include some new items. First, the LLF Reference Group is going to ‘accompany the bishops’ during ‘parts’ of the three meetings scheduled for the College of Bishops later this year (for anyone bemused by the C of E, the College includes the suffragan/area bishops as well as those in overall charge of each diocese – so, it’s larger than the House of Bishops). The role of the Reference Group members is now going to be ‘to enrich the discussions by offering perspectives from outside the episcopal arena, ensure that the insights and sensibilities of diverse lived experiences and convictions are embedded in the discernment process, and act as a diverse sounding board.’

This is progress. When the Next Steps Group (bishops only) was set up, the Reference Group was going to provide ‘diversity, experience and expertise’ on which the Next Steps Group could draw. Questions have been asked at General Synod about how this group has been used to date; answer, well, er, we intend to use it later on. That wasn’t clear when the NSG came into existence. Perhaps at last the Reference Group will be able to help, although I am not sure what ‘accompanying the bishops’ means. Does a group of bishops get its own personal RG member to have chats with? Do they sit together for lunch? Will sections of the RG be brought on to the stage to address the bishops? (I had to address the College of Bishops during LLF and can tell you it is a very strange experience, not least because I had to do my talk three times because there are a lot of bishops and there wasn’t a very large room) Will members of the RG be involved in the rest of the College’s meetings, for example being asked to serve at communion or read the passages set for the day? Did they sign up for any of this, or did they expect this to be a desk-based role?

The second change is that a Pastoral Consultative Group is being set up – however, as with so much of the LLF structure, it is going to comprise only bishops. There will be external advisers with ‘subject expertise as well as pastoral and lived experience’ but it’s not clear how much they will be used, let alone how they will be chosen (always a mystery for the working groups of the Church of England). Do they have any connection with the Reference Group? This is not to be confused with an earlier LLF grouping, the Pastoral Advisory Group, which came up with the pastoral principles ‘for living well together’. So what’s the difference between ‘advisory’ and ‘consultative’ supposed to be here?

Those pastoral principles, by the way, identified what they called the six ‘pervading evils’: prejudice, silence, ignorance, fear, hypocrisy and power. And those are relevant to the third change announced in the notes of the recent meeting; one that seems to have no positive dimensions at all. ‘The House then reviewed attempts to explore questions of gender identity and transition and agreed to seek and commission an appropriate group to take this work forward.’ Once more, what counts as an appropriate group? You may think it would be a good idea to involve trans and non-binary people, but as it happens there was an earlier stage, back in May 2021, at which the House of Bishops agreed to form a working group on gender identity and transition. Trans people who had been involved in LLF were disturbed by this, and correspondence went back and forth through the rest of 2021. They argued that there was no point in yet another working group: LLF had already discussed these questions, and to single out trans people as a special case, as needing yet more ‘exploring’, would be abusive. Revd Tina Beardsley’s July 2021 letter to Bishop Sarah, chair of the NSG, has been published here. At one point it looked like what was wanted was just an annotated bibliography on gender identity and transition, but there are already suitable resources on the LLF Learning Hub.

There’s a much bigger question here, however: why is the House of Bishops still wanting to talk about trans people, rather than being prepared to stand by the existing pastoral guidance? The guidelines for those considering a call to ordination make it clear that trans people can be considered for selection. In 2017 General Synod passed a motion recognising that transgender people need to be welcomed and affirmed in their parish churches and asking for some liturgical material for marking gender transition. In 2018 resources were published about using the rite of Affirmation of Baptismal Faith in this situation. What more needs to be said? Why can’t the Church of England be a beacon of welcome and support for a group of people who really need that?

Last week also saw the government back-tracking on its stated commitment to conversion therapy. A U-turn to a U-turn then saw a claim that the ban on conversion therapy would cover lesbian, gay and bisexual people – but not trans people. Why not? Let’s go back to the pastoral principles and their ‘pervading evils’ of prejudice, silence, ignorance, fear, hypocrisy and power: why don’t they apply to the House of Bishops riding rough-shod over what trans Christians have said to the Next Steps Group? The medical profession condemns conversion therapy. The Prime Minister has said it’s ‘absolutely abhorrent’ and ‘has no place in a civilised society’. 

But somehow it is still OK for trans people? Isn’t that prejudice and hypocrisy? What do the bishops think of that?

Posted in Church of England and gender, General Synod, Living in Love and Faith | Tagged , , , , | 5 Comments

Church and the new normal

From one of my other blogs: some reflections, for the record, on where we are two years into the pandemic.

Posted in Shared Conversations | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

General Synod, February 2022: what felt most bizarre


This isn’t a summary of decisions made at the February 2022 General Synod. You can find that elsewhere. Instead, I want to offer my overall reflections on the meeting and how it felt.

To summarize: it felt not just tiring, but pretty bizarre. Before General Synod met, there was considerable discussion about the plan to change how the Archbishop of Canterbury is chosen. After debate, the consultation period on this continues, so I am saying no more about this now.

The other main concern we had as rank and file members was around how we would be doing Questions – this may sound really petty in the great scheme of things, but it’s the one chance we have to ask for data and to hold those in authority to account, as well as to bring topics to the attention of other members. This time, we had two and a half hours allocated for this, but we still didn’t make it through the 150 Questions submitted. The system is that a written answer is supplied in advance, so the meeting only involves asking supplementaries on these written answers. I was lucky in that both of my Questions were reached – one on John Smyth’s African victims, the other on how the House of Bishops’ blanket rejection of FGM manages to coexist with a lack of interest in Ghana’s draft Family Values Bill which would involve non-consensual surgery on girls and women with variant sex characteristics. However, due to the hybrid nature of this meeting, we were all restricted to a maximum of two supplementary questions. Almost everyone obeyed this request and we are too polite to object when someone doesn’t. I obeyed, which meant I couldn’t follow up on several questions around how and why the 30-year-old document ‘Issues in Human Sexuality’ came to be binding not only on those going for ordination but even for lay ministers in some (not all) dioceses. There’s so much to ask here, but I had to let it go. Questions felt more than usually constrained.

More of the bizarreness, though, was down to the Standing Orders being summonsed out of the dark places where they usually lurk. ‘Is there a quorum in the House of Bishops?’ (because if there isn’t, then we stop, but it can be hard to count as they don’t all wear purple) ‘Chair, would you accept a motion for a count of the whole Synod/count by Houses?’ (because sometimes the voting is too close to call just by looking at a show of hands/sometimes it’s significant to know that one House – Bishops/Clergy/Laity – disagrees with the others) Moves like this can require at least 25 members to stand up to support them, which at least gives us some exercise. 

Most tricky of all proved the Standing Order allowing Synod to ‘adjourn’ debate on one motion. That took place in the case of a multi-paragraph ‘following motion’ tabled against the simple ‘take note’ motion on the most recent update on safeguarding (if I’ve lost you there, sorry, but just let it go and keep reading, although I’m not sure things will necessarily improve). This following motion was important because it was clear that there was unease with how the National Safeguarding Team is working; for example, the following motion was asking for more checks on how effective the NST are, and pointing out apparent inconsistencies between what the Independent Safeguarding Board has asked for, and what is really happening. There was also concern expressed that bullying is not being addressed. According to the official statement of what we did, Synod actually voted to ‘pass to the Next Business‘, not to ‘adjourn debate’. That’s important because – if I’ve got this right – when you agree to pass to next business, not only does the following motion fall, but its various paragraphs can’t be discussed again in the life of this General Synod. That’s tricky because the proposer also has two Private Member’s Motions in the system, with similar wording. I’ve been back to the Standing Orders and I don’t know what happens next – I’m actually more confused now than I was when it happened – but apparently there’s always the discretion of the Business Committee to invoke, in terms of deciding whether the intention of Synod was indeed this dramatic.

For the 60% of so new members, this was all either traumatic or a revelation, or possibly both at once. 

Another revelation lay in the value of proposing an amendment. I’ve heard people saying that, if only they’d realized how it all worked, they’d have tried amending the motion to extend the special arrangements for having meetings on Zoom beyond 7 August 2022. But no such amendment was tabled. Members now have more sense of how the system works and of what they need to do to make it work for them.

For me, the most bizarre aspect of this session came in the meeting of the House of Laity, at the end of the final day. In an earlier Zoom meeting of the House we’d discussed co-opting 5 members from global majority heritage people to improve our diversity. I thought this was done and dusted – the way it would work, with invitations for nominations and then a vote, had all been aired in advance. Yet we ended up with a surprisingly long debate about whether or not to proceed. Those opposed seemed to think that they’d stood in the main elections, and been elected, so nobody else should be allowed in. Yet it was also clear that, with the voters being deanery synod members, there was often little chance of anyone who didn’t look like them getting on to Synod. One Black member said he’d recently been to his first deanery synod meeting (if you get on to General Synod you are ex officio on the deanery synod) and he was the only black or brown person in a room of 50 or so members. Earlier in the week, Paul Boateng had made an inspiring speech to us in his role on the church’s Archbishops’ Commission for Racial Justice. He had pointed out that the government’s front bench are far more diverse than the people on the platform with him when he addressed Synod. The proposed co-option was a very simple way of improving diversity. Yet it proved contentious. Eventually, we agreed to go ahead. I was very pleased that we did, but not happy about how the debate had played out.

Finally, back to the point this was the first hybrid Synod. It worked pretty well, I think. Being hybrid made it much more inclusive. There seem to have been around 50 members on Zoom and they were able to vote and to speak in debates, thanks to the hard work of the excellent admin and tech people who support us all so well. There was also steady improvement over the course of the three days in terms of putting up motions-as-amended on the screens in the debating chamber, so we could see exactly what we were voting on, and also in terms of Chairs of debates spelling out ever more carefully just what each vote was about and what the implications of accepting or rejecting it would be.

One of my friends asked me why I’d bothered to go to London when I could have just zoomed in. Well, that’s easy; being there in person makes it so much easier to meet new people, forge relationships, hear what others are thinking… and that was, as in November, very valuable indeed.

Posted in General Synod, Safeguarding | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

February 2022 General Synod – before it starts

It’s February 1; one week until General Synod meets again. I’m writing this for those who have been asking me when it is and what’s on the agenda. The theme (there isn’t usually such a clear theme) this time is racial justice: we have an update on how things have been going since various targets were set (answer: not as well as one would hope, shortage of funds taking some of the blame) and a diocesan synod motion on slavery and human trafficking. GS is of course a legislative body, and so we have some legislation to consider; there’s also an update on safeguarding, a preliminary look at plans to change how the Archbishop of Canterbury is appointed, a review of clergy remuneration, a further stage of the governance review, and an update on the ‘Setting God’s People Free‘ report, a 2017 aspect of the ‘Renewal and Reform’ programme which was a big thing at the time and which aimed to create ‘whole-life discipling dioceses’ and a national portal to inspire your average lay person. That portal is here, but I’ve tried to register on it several times in the last few days to no effect (and yes, I have sent a message about that), so maybe we’re not there yet. The ‘SGPF’ report contains a huge range of suggestions, including that clergy should have two days a week off so that they could ‘sustain friendships with lay friends’; but the laity are supposed to be the focus, with lay development supported and some sort of strategy developed for encouraging lay people to explore their gifts and their vocations. As someone in a diocese-based authorised lay ministry, I have many views on this, not least that exploring one’s gifts and vocation doesn’t have to take place within the church.

There’s plenty of interesting material on the agenda, but I am not sure how any of this is going to make a difference to the average parish. We shall see. It’s also quite a range of topics for one meeting. When they tell you the likely workload, people tend to present it in terms of three weeks of work a year, and they usually add something about how, recently, GS hasn’t used every one of the three weeks which are in your diary. Of course, they add, if you serve on any committees or working groups, there’ll be more. What they don’t say, though, is how much there is to do between meetings. Nor do they mention the length of a synodical day.

Let’s start with that synodical day. Thank God, unlike when I was on GS for Guildford in the late 1980s, there’s an allowance for accommodation, so I don’t have to commute; facing the rush hour was never pleasant. I can stay in a simple hotel five minutes away from Church House. Getting refunded for this can, however, take a while; months rather than weeks, and I know I am not alone in this experience. So much for any idea that being on GS is easy for those without some money in the bank. For this session, we are only (only!) meeting from lunchtime on the Tuesday until the evening of the Thursday; so, much like November 2021, except that some of the time there was spent on the Westminster Abbey service and the inauguration, plus the initial sessions on how it all worked. Because of this relatively short session for November, the various fringe meetings are squashed into two lunch breaks and two evenings. This means that, for anyone whose interests go beyond a single issue – and I would hope that means all of us – it’s very difficult to sort out the diary. In the interests of sanity, I am prioritising the Affirming Catholics in Synod evening event (Mass + meal) because it sustained me so well last time around. On Wednesday lunchtime, I’m prioritising the General Synod Gender & Sexuality Group, and on Thursday lunchtime it’s Inclusive Church’s event on disability and church. But because I am going to GSGSG, I can’t be at the Conversion Therapy event scheduled for the same slot, or the panel discussion on the reform of clergy discipline, both of which sound interesting, although the Conversion Therapy meeting appears to be promoting the claim that prayer for people to change their sexuality is fine, whereas I would say that this can be just as coercive and damaging as other forms.

However, I could still attend the one breakfast event. Breakfast event! I didn’t realise these existed! The newly-formed RIGGS, the Rural Interest Group, sounds interesting, and although I live in a market town my diocese has many rural areas. But… breakfast event. Starts at 7.45 a.m. I just can’t. It is fun talking to other members at the hotel’s breakfast and I think the connections made there are essential, otherwise we could just stay in little bubbles of like-minded individuals.

Self-care at GS is essential. This requires thought and planning. There are no breaks other than the lunch hour, so cups of tea, loo trips and so on have to be fitted in while debates are in progress. Last time around, I managed to combine loo trips with high speed walks down the road to Pret to have a cup of soup to sustain me, but it’s a risk; what are you missing in the debating chamber? My back tends to seize up with long periods of sitting, even with my trusty lumbar cushion, and I don’t want to risk returning to pre-diabetes (my experiences of which are discussed here), so both exercise and healthy eating are important. One can spend much of the time in the tea room, in which there’s a screen showing what’s happening, but there’s nothing I am able to eat there; sitting down isn’t really what’s needed; and that room can get crowded, with it feeling wrong to hog the limited number of chairs.

As for the between-GS meeting activities… Well, first there’s reading the papers. They come out in a batch, in this case issued on 21 January for a meeting starting on 8 February. That isn’t long for reading. I wonder why they can’t be made available as and when they are ready, and I know someone is asking a question about that in the formal Questions sessions. Then, in the weeks before we meet, many of the different groups have Zoom sessions of an hour or so to brief members on items of relevance to the group; others send a digest around to serve this purpose. Dioceses, many of which would normally have a meal for the bishop to brief her or his diocese’s reps on the local dimensions of the topics on the agenda, may meet in person or on Zoom. This time around, the House of Laity also had its own Zoom meeting to consider the suggestion of coopting more people from UKME/GMH backgrounds to the House. And then there are the between-sessions elections; meaning election addresses to read, votes to cast.

If there are issues about which you are concerned, you may want to send in a formal question, and that involves researching the background, drafting the question, maybe sharing it with someone else you know on GS for feedback, and making sure you submit it by the deadline. The question may then come back to you with suggestions to improve it, as not everything can be asked. This time around, because the meeting will be a hybrid one (hooray – so much more inclusive) we also have to give notice of any supplementary questions we would like to ask, although we don’t need to say which questions they refer to – and as the list of questions comes out a few days before GS meets, I need to factor in that reading time as well, to discover the answers to the two questions I’ve posed, and to decide whether a supplementary is needed.

And then there’s the rest of life to fit in. If you take your role as an elected member at all seriously, General Synod isn’t easy, even for someone like me who is not working a 9-5 job. Be warned!

Posted in General Synod, Renewal and reform programme, Safeguarding | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment