Conversion therapy: faith without fear

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Surviving Lockdown 3: a guest post

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

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

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

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

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

But I am OK thank you.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So I’m OK Thank You.

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Messiahs I have known

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bristol Old Vic: grief and pain can become hope.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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Deleted sex scenes from Living in Love and Faith (3)

I’ve explained what these pieces represent, in the first post of the series. So here is another. In terms of trying to condense a huge topic into a few accessible words, this one was the biggest challenge. But I wanted to get across the point that ‘science’ is not neutral, that biological differences have been read in social terms, and that science is contested.

The history of biology 

While ‘sex’ is commonly used for biology and ‘gender’ for social roles, it’s clear from history that things are more complicated. 

Blood has long been seen as a key bodily fluid. In medieval and early modern medicine, it was one of the ‘four humours’, which could cause disease if there was an excess; the amount in the body could be controlled by diet and regulated by bloodletting. Menstrual blood was considered to be the result of women having more spongy flesh which took up more fluid from their diet, and many disorders in women were attributed to menstrual blood accumulating in the wrong place. By the nineteenth century, those arguing against women’s education suggested that too much use of the mind would deprive the womb of the blood needed to make a baby. Ideas about gender roles clearly influenced how biology was seen.

In the early twentieth century, when blood chemistry was still developing as an area of medicine, differences between men’s and women’s blood were noted. On average, women had lower levels of haemoglobin and of calcium. These biological differences were quickly interpreted in social terms. Women’s lower haemoglobin meant they should not exert themselves too much: their lower calcium made them more ‘highly strung’ and less ‘stable’. In England, those interpretations were then used by a 1923 Board of Education report into whether boys and girls should have the same school curriculum. The report was evidence of concern about the risk of ‘physical fatigue and nervous overstrain’ in girls, and it was recommended that they should be set less homework because it was assumed that they would also be doing domestic duties at home. The report drew on the second edition of Dr William Blair Bell’s book The Sex Complex, published in 1921, on the effects of puberty on both sexes, although the authors noted that this was ‘not yet generally accepted by physiologists’. 

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LLF and IICSA, revisited (updated 20 November 2020)

Back in October, I blogged for Via Media on the lack of connection between Living in Love and Faith (just published) and IICSA (published in October). I called for the Church of England to ‘connect the dots’: to recognise that the abuse of children and vulnerable adults is not a separate topic from the questions around sexuality and gender identity that prompted ‘Living in Love and Faith’.

In that blog post, I asked whether the LLF resources were reviewed by the National Safeguarding Team, as the Archbishop of Canterbury had said they would be “to ensure that they sufficiently address safeguarding issues”. I still don’t know the answer to that. I raised the points made in the IICSA hearings, that not being able to be open about your sexuality contributes to a culture of secrecy which has effects on the reporting of abuse, and that the church has a record of being confused about what is and what is not an appropriate same-sex relationship.

So now LLF is out: does it show evidence of learning from IICSA? The short answer is “No.”

At the July 2019 General Synod, the Bishop of Coventry answered a question about whether LLF would learn from the IICSA hearings by saying that

The purpose of the Living in Love and Faith resources is primarily educational: the plan is for the resources to be widely used by parishes, deaneries, dioceses, the House and College of Bishops and members of General Synod to enable teaching and learning. In this way LLF will demonstrate its learning from the IICSA process by promoting a culture of mutual respect, clarity, openness and transparency across the Church in relation to matters of human identity, sexuality, gender and marriage. It will also provide appropriate correctives to misinformation about human sexuality and identity.” 

There is, however, only one reference to IICSA in the LLF book: a textbox on page 87. This doesn’t engage with IICSA, or “demonstrate its learning” from it. Obviously the final report was only published a month before LLF came out, but as the transcripts of the hearings and an interim report were issued in 2018, and as I had asked questions about the connections between IICSA and LLF throughout the LLF process, I am disappointed to find the following sentence in the p.87 textbox:

“While acknowledging the reality of abuse in the church, it is important that the specific work of theological reflection on IICSA be carried out separately from the Living in Love and Faith project, and, importantly, together with victims, with great pastoral sensitivity and only after the findings of IICSA have been carefully assessed.”

This is not about learning from IICSA. It’s about making a case for separation from it. It suggests a future process of “reflection” at some point in the future. When? By whom?

I am updating this post as a result of reading the published answers to questions to the November 2020 General Synod, just released. In answer to Jayne Ozanne’s question (Q.61) about safeguarding changes made by the House of Bishops to prevent similar situations to that which led to the death of Peter Farquhar, the Bishop of Huddersfield replied that

The Living in Love and Faith work will seek to consult and engage safeguarding perspectives in its ongoing work. 

In answer to a further question (Q.63) about implementing the independent reviewer’s recommendations concerning the same case, the Bishop of London replied

One of the ways in which Bishops will promote implementation of these recommendations is by encouraging the whole church to engage with the LLF resources.

She also replied to Q.65, this time saying that

the LLF Next Steps Group will work collaboratively with the National Safeguarding Team to ensure these lessons are incorporated into both LLF and safeguarding development work.

Does any of that answer my question about whether the National Safeguarding Team saw the LLF materials before publication? No. The message seems to be that, if the whole church (?!) engages with the LLF resources, this will enact the independent reviewer’s recommendations. At the same time, safeguarding perspectives will be brought into the LLF reception process; which is interesting, when one of the common reactions to LLF from the LGBTQI+ community seems to be that people are unhappy about taking part in group discussions because they don’t feel safe.

Finally, the Bishop of Coventry replied to another question (Q.70) in defence of keeping IICSA and LLF apart, just repeating what was said in the LLF book:

these reflections need to be carried out together with victims of sexual abuse (not talking about victims, but with victims) and only after the full published findings of IICSA had been assessed. 

Clear as mud, then. Also, strangely circular. And reflection isn’t enough. On the same day as LLF was published, the House of Bishops met. Their statements never tell us very much, but this one included a reference back to an initiative proposed in September, stating that

The House was then updated by the Bishop of Huddersfield, (Bishop for Safeguarding) and the Director of Safeguarding on a range of safeguarding matters. The House noted and agreed that progress on the Interim Support Scheme must be made by the end of the year. 

This Scheme is envisaged as a pilot project to help survivors of abuse. Progress “must be made”. I like that. Let’s hold them to it.

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Deleted sex scenes from Living in Love and Faith (2)

I’ve explained what these pieces represent, in the first post of the series. So here is another. This one summarises something I have in the ‘online library’ of working papers we wrote during the three years of LLF. That was originally written for a meeting of the College of Bishops. I had chosen the topic because in LLF there isn’t much of a sense of the sexuality of those who identify as women, and also because it meant I could discuss the support of the late nineteenth-century Church of England for a maverick surgeon who was carrying out clitoridectomies in London on girls and women who didn’t fit social expectations of their behaviour. I’ve written a short piece on him for The Conversation. I was trying both to put female sexuality on the agenda, and to illustrate the rather dodgy enthusiasm of the church for what they thought was ‘science’.

The clitoris

Much of what has been written about sexuality seems to start from assuming that the heterosexual man is the norm. This makes the clitoris a problem: is it a version of the penis, or does the penis correspond more to the vagina, something suggested by the word ‘vagina’ itself, which means the scabbard into which a sword is placed? Freud argued that healthy female sexuality was all about transferring the seat of pleasure from the clitoris to the vagina, but for most people with vaginas it is on the clitoris that sexual pleasure usually relies. 

One medical claim to have ‘discovered’ the clitoris was made by Realdus Columbus in 1559. His book, De re anatomica, described a small oblong area which, if touched, caused great pleasure. He gave it a name: “since no one has discerned these projections and their workings, if it is permissible to give names to things discovered by me, it should be called the love or sweetness of Venus.” It was seen as a worrying organ because it suggested that women had no need of men to give them pleasure. In the late 1990s research by the Australian urologist Helen O’Connell demonstrated not only that current medical textbooks gave very little information on this organ, but also that it is far larger than the illustrations suggested; rather than a small oblong, it includes erectile tissue which extends up to 9 cm from the external section.

It is often described as the only organ in the body solely devoted to pleasure, although a study published in 2019 argued that orgasm improves lubrication and vaginal blood flow, and alters the position of the cervix in a way that encourages the motility of sperm. The view that female orgasm somehow improves fertility is not new. In 1671 Jane Sharp’s The Midwives Book suggested that the clitoris stimulated a woman’s imagination, which then sent a message to the woman’s ‘spermatic vessels’ to produce ‘seed’. This suggested female orgasm was necessary for conception, but the idea that women have ‘spermatic vessels’ and seed was discredited by the discovery of the ovaries.

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Deleted sex scenes from Living in Love and Faith (1)

When I met the man I went on to marry, I was less than impressed with his bookshelves. However, I observed that he had a copy of Pride and Promiscuity: The Lost Sex Scenes of Jane Austen. At first I was mildly alarmed, but once I realised the book carried the imprimatur of the President of the Jane Austen Society, I relaxed.

I can’t claim any similar imprimatur but, Reader, I offer you these short pieces. They were written on request for Living in Love and Faith. The rationale was the ongoing lack of history in the book, despite having had a History Thematic Working Group, to which I belonged. I happen to believe that history is important, and that many of the themes of LLF were described in ways that implied that they only emerged in the 1960s or later; that was also true in the facilitated discussions called the ‘Shared Conversations’, in which I took part. I also think that a short, accessible historical example or two can be a good way of engaging people in a discussion. Well, I would say that, wouldn’t I, because I’m a historian.

I shall be writing a longer piece about history elsewhere and will link to that when it is published. Meanwhile, though… I wrote these pieces but for various reasons, including ‘Comms’, they were not included.

I wrote this first one because it seemed to me that it would be useful to point out that ‘pornography’ isn’t a new phenomenon, but that some features of the modern form are particularly pernicious.

Pornography and history

Defining ‘pornography’ is very difficult, although today it often implies inequity between partners and the objectification of people. There is often no way of knowing whether images from the ancient world which today seem ‘pornographic’ were viewed in the same way at their own time. Sex manuals existed in ancient Greece, among them one attributed to a woman of the fourth century BCE, Philaenis, written ‘for those who wish to lead their life with knowledge gained scientifically’. It included advice on chat-up lines. But is a sex manual ‘pornography”? The Roman poet Ovid’s Art of Love ends by guaranteeing success at love-making to anyone who reads it; he was banished from Rome and the work banned from public libraries, but it survived and was printed in the fifteenth century. 

In both pagan and Christian moralists, only one sexual position – frontal – was seen as ‘natural’, so texts describing anything else, among them the works of Philaenis and Ovid, were denounced as licentious. In 1527 appeared an edition of a book of engravings entitled I modi, in which the poet and satirist Pietro Aretino presented poems to illustrate sixteen images of various sexual positions, modelled by couples from the ancient world such as Venus and Mars. Although the Roman Catholic church destroyed all copies of I Modi, ‘Aretino’s Positions’ became a byword for eroticism, mentioned in many publications from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century. However, the message was often a political or satirical one, suggesting that the Italians were morally depraved and ‘we’ weren’t. The pattern of dressing up sexually explicit material by making it look ‘classical’ continued in an eighteenth-century publication from the art dealer Pierre-François Hugues d’Hancarville in which erotic scenes from Suetonius’ Lives of the Caesars were illustrated; in one of them, the Roman emperor Tiberius is shown admiring a painting of a sexual scene from Greek myth. 

What changed in the nineteenth century was partly the medium – photography made it possible for images to be shared beyond the literate elite – but also the people involved. A photograph of a real individual, who could be someone you know, is very different from using scenes from myth and history as vehicles for explicit imagery.

So there you have it: an attempt to condense this into the right number of words for a text box. I have written at more length on some of this in a piece I published in a collection of essays edited by Roy Porter and Mikuláš Teich, Sexual KnowledgeSexual Science: The History of Attitudes to Sexuality.

Posted in Living in Love and Faith, Shared Conversations | Tagged , , , , , | 5 Comments

Waiting for publication: the week before Living in Love and Faith

Well, there’s quite enough to think about without this. New lockdown for England, all the uncertainties about jobs and furloughs and church buildings to get our heads around, plus awaiting the election results in the US.

But next week, on 9 November, something I’ve been engaged with for a long time now finally gets to be released: Living in Love and Faith (LLF). Publication day has, like so much else, been delayed by the pandemic, but the Church of England as a whole has spent a lot on getting to this point. The cost of the preliminaries, the Shared Conversations, between September 2014 and August 2016, was announced in 2017 as £384,525. The cost of LLF, up to February 2020, was estimated as being £600,000, taken – to quote the response to a General Synod question – from “the diocesan apportionment, an Archbishops’ Council restricted fund, the Church Commissioners, and a grant from a charitable trust. These financial figures do not take into account the very substantial ‘in kind’ contributions of over 40 people to the production of the resources.” 

As one of the “over 40 people”, and one who has blogged here about various aspects of the events in General Synod which led to the LLF process, how am I feeling right now?

Pretty tired, actually. I’ve never been involved in producing an official document of the Church of England before. I suspect this will be my only experience of it. It was far more onerous in terms of time, and far more exhausting in personal terms, than I’d expected. And all this for a series of ‘resources’ which in themselves bring the church no nearer to accepting its LGBTQI+ members on equal terms: able to marry in church, to take on the same roles in congregations as anyone else, and to offer themselves for ordained ministry without having to give assurances of ‘celibacy’. The current state of play blithely ignores the usual understanding of celibacy as a vocation for some (regardless of their sexual orientation) and makes it into the only way of life acceptable for those who are lesbian or gay.

I was invited to take part in the History working group. It wasn’t clear at that point whether we’d be writing sections of the final book – and the target audience for that book shifted around between being one of two (popular/scholarly) or one for a wide audience or one to educate the bishops and other leaders – or whether someone else would summarise our materials and do the writing at the end of the time allocated.

I knew there would be meetings, but not how many: there were meetings of the group, and then full meetings of everyone involved. All were face to face although in our group we’d been very keen to meet online for some of the time. From being part of the initial small group where we had come to know each other, as the months went by I felt the project spinning away from me; in the full-day and residential meetings when we all came together, it was impossible to get a sense of what everyone else in the 40 or so people involved was doing, or why. Papers from other groups were shared on Dropbox but it was impossible for me to read everything, not just because of the amount of material but also because the material kept changing. At formal meetings, “Not everyone has seen this yet” was a common comment. There were even more meetings which meant a significant investment of time in preparation and travel; I spoke to the College of Bishops – the same talk three times, with question time – while other members of the project ran events at General Synod.

Throughout, the seven drafts which LLF passed through were circulated for comment, usually with a week, or even less, of reading time. As the final document is 468 pages, you can imagine how many hours were spent on all these drafts. In comments on one draft, I see that I wrote for one section “I feel I have read so many versions of this that I can’t face another.” At one point, a factual historical error which I’d pointed out wasn’t corrected, so I had to ask for it to be corrected on the next draft (remember, 468 pages – that’s a lot to read). I hope it will not have drifted back to the error version in the final product…

But I haven’t seen the final version of the book: nothing was sent to me after Draft 7, but I was approached for some additional ‘text boxes’. My understanding is that, in fact, these are not being used. More on that when I find out whether or not that’s the case. At the last meeting we had, we saw some of the other resources – the videos of people with a range of sexualities and gender identities – but I’ve not seen any more than that initial batch. There’s a study guide which I was sent for the first time in proof, with only 24 hours to go until its deadline for submission. 

At an initial meeting back in 2017, we’d done the dreaded post-it notes exercise, and had to write down things like “how we’d hope to feel when the document is published”. My personal notes from that day say that people were using words like authentic, honest and kindly, and I was expressing the hope that “everyone can hear their voice” in the final product. It would be interesting now to revisit that exercise, but like all such exercises it was never mentioned again. At the last meeting of the full LLF group, we were instead asked to reflect on what we had learned from being part of LLF. I suppose the post-2017 entries on this blog represent my response to that.

What would I add now on my ‘learning’? This is very personal, but that’s what this blog is about. So… 

  • That some people really like meetings and others don’t.
  • That adding on a time of worship to a meeting doesn’t make you feel better about it all.
  • That it’s very difficult to feel part of things when you’re a lay person not employed by the church: when this started, I knew only a handful of the 40 or so people and some of those were from being on General Synod a very long time ago: I left in 1993. I’ve met some people with whom I’ve made good connections, but often felt I wasn’t part of the general chatter and bonhomie. 
  • That my own feelings of exclusion and not being heard were nothing compared to the way all this could feel to those who are LGBTQI+; required to be the object of discussion at the same time as allegedly being full members of the group doing the discussing.

When I’ve seen the final products of those years of work, I’ll write more.

(updated 5 November to correct the number of pages, when the final version reached me, and 9 November, to show my collapsing copy: no, it isn’t supposed to be loose-leaf)

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


Here we are in late August at the point in The Time of Covid-19 which may come to be known as The Stopping and Starting. I’m finding it difficult; despite evidence of lower numbers of deaths here from The Thing, the last two weeks have felt more worrying than the previous months. Any illusion of a slow but steady easing of rules as we progress towards a resumption of the Old Normal is slipping away as local lockdowns become more common and quarantine periods are imposed with only a day or so given as notice. Even New Zealand, once proudly free of The Thing, now has cases again. Plus there’s the weather; it makes me realise that what has been manageable in warm dry conditions is going to feel very different when it’s cold, dark and dismal out there. When I’ve aired these feelings in conversation, many have agreed, and have even been grateful that I’ve voiced this so that they know it’s not just them.

Dislocation, in physical terms, is when the ends of your bones are forced out of their normal positions, and your joint is immobilised. And it hurts. I think there’s a mental equivalent, and I had a moment of it last week. We went for tea and cake at a familiar local venue which doesn’t require bookings. Social media had suggested that this venue – which has lots of open-air seating, some of it under a canopy – is well-run and safe. And it is: you have to sanitise and then to give your details to a visored staff member before they’ll lift up the rope and let you in. Ordering is online or you can go in and take a look, using the one-way system. Outside there are arrows and new boundaries between seating areas. It was great: but as I started my cake I had a moment of dislocation. I’ve been to this place so many times, with family and friends. On the surface, it is very, very familiar. Yet so much of it was unfamiliar, and it felt like the remembered place was trying to break through the current reality. I’ve had this feeling before; for example, in going to an academic library where they completely refurbished the familiar reading room and added on a modern extension, and where my many years of knowing the old system kept coming to the surface as I negotiated the new building.

Let’s just dwell for a moment on the booking system, from which that café is mercifully free. One of the aspects of The Time of Covid-19 which I’ve found particularly challenging is the need to plan. Book a table for a meal (for the record, I have eaten out precisely 6 times since March). Book a slot for an English Heritage or National Trust visit (I’ve done more than 6 of those). Book to go to church (so far, not done that). Today on Church Coffee Zoom someone with family members who were shielding was saying how the life of bookings doesn’t work for her, because she never knows if it’s a good day until the day itself. This conversation reminded me of Kathy Charmaz’s book Good Days, Bad Days (1991) which looks at the way perceptions both of time and of the self change as a result of chronic illness.

After several conversations last week, I’m wondering if Charmaz’s work applies to all of us in The Time of Covid-19. Plenty of people are suffering a different kind of ‘dislocation’ as their homes become their offices while they live on Zoom and Teams; their weeks still have structure but what they do is still very different. But many of us have lost our grip on time; the regular commitments which punctuated our weeks have gone and our calendars are empty. The middle days of the week seem particularly difficult to grasp. As for the year, in my town the end of summer is usually marked by a huge, free, music festival on the weekend after the August Bank Holiday. This conveniently happened at the end of our garden. It was an occasion for friends and family to descend on us to join in, and for festival food to replace normal meals for three days. No more.

Time, both week by week and across the annual cycle, has other meanings now. What about Charmaz’s other focus: the self? In another conversation last week, someone said that what she most disliked was that she felt she had become a different person. Specifically, this applied to shopping. From buying bits and pieces as needed, she has been transformed into someone who secures her supermarket delivery or click ‘n’ collect slot and then decides well in advance what she needs and, as soon as one ‘shop’ is complete, she then plans the next one. I identified strongly with what she said. Again, it’s that lack of spontaneity. I know we are very fortunate here in that we aren’t particularly restricted by our incomes in terms of what we can afford; we aren’t relying on food banks. We have a garden and can invite a few people into it. But just because there are other ways that the self can be threatened doesn’t make this one less significant to those who experience it.

One of the punctuating points of my week used to be attending church on Sundays. I’ve posted elsewhere about how I took my mother on a lockdown tour of churches she knew, to see what they were all up to. My mother has since died. At my church, things have now moved; from pre-recorded in people’s homes, to live streaming from the church building. I haven’t been back yet. I thought that my faith needed the Eucharist, and before The Time of Covid-19 I regarded non-eucharistic services as somehow ‘not really worship’. Clearly for some in our congregation this is still their position as, despite the lack of congregational singing (we have organ + cantor + invitation to hum along) and despite the oddity of communion in one kind delivered to your hand by a masked and visored celebrant using gloves and tweezers, they want to go every Sunday.

In terms of time, yes, Sunday is still when I (virtually) go to church, although it may be a service other than the one at ‘my’ church. Last week I went to the church I used to attend in Vienna, because it came up on my Facebook page at breakfast time. I have less sense of the church’s year, because I’m not seeing the liturgical colours every week and Easter wasn’t anything like it usually is, and I may be peeling vegetables while ‘being at church’. I normally go to the Church Coffee Zoom, because although the full screen of people can feel very falsely positive about everything, when we are sent to breakout rooms of 4 or 5 people there may be deeper conversation. Sometimes I go to several online services, maybe fast-forwarding through the hymns. I usually stick around for the sermon, which is how a couple of weeks ago I found the most helpful piece I’ve heard since all this started, by the Bishop of Reading, Olivia Graham.

+Olivia acknowledged the disruption we are feeling and linked the current stage of the pandemic to ordinary time and to the hard work of dying. Her sermon acknowledged instability and looked at how we’ve shifted from the drama of the ‘acute’ stage of this pandemic to the long haul of what she called the ‘dull ordinariness’ of the ‘chronic’. She reminded me that I need to stay as far as I can in the present moment. At some point, I suppose I will be back in the building doing what someone at Church Coffee Zoom referred to as ‘real church’, a label I’d resist. I suspect that here, too, the remembered place will try to break through the current reality, and I’ll feel disoriented and it will hurt. But that is ‘then’, and this is ‘now’, and what matters is what’s important ‘now’.

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