Monday, 31 March 2014

Champagne Easter

Who is going to be using champagne in the chalice this Easter?

A few years ago I published an article in the Church Times reflecting on how much more embedded the Christian feast of Christmas is in our culture compared to Easter, and suggesting some ways in which we might make Easter more celebratory in ways that chime with our culture.

At the end I made four suggestions, saying

"I want us to make the Easter story just as ubiquitous, just as loved, just as owned by so many as the Christmas story.

1. Let’s make more of Shrove Tuesday. It comes at a cold, dark, miserable time of year. Lent is still a widely recognised and owned cultural phenomenon, but the Church looks depressingly pious unless we balance fast with feast. In the parish of St. Gabriel’s, Heaton, where I was a curate, we built on the expertise and contacts developed through a summer holiday club week by introducing a Mardi Gras weekend. On the Saturday before Lent we held a Mardi Gras children’s activity day, and on the Sunday morning a Carnival Eucharist. Pancake parties are better than nothing, but in this age of foodies they may need to become a bit more sophisticated in some social contexts.

2. I first came across Easter trees in the Netherlands over a decade ago. A few bare twisted branches are decorated with blown and painted eggs, small birds, or anything you like. Ideally the branches are of pussy willow so they already have their catkins, but the decorative twigs you can buy now would also work well. This would make a good family or Sunday school activity for Easter weekend. Decorations could be devised which reinforce the story and are cheerfully bright and attractive (perhaps Mexican crosses and butterflies).

3. I have heard of a cathedral letting off fireworks from its roof at its dawn liturgy. This is a great idea. Fireworks are ideal imagery for Easter. They literally lift your gaze and heart, exploding into dramatic and exultant life. Dawn could be problematic with noise in many locations. Also, the core audience attracted by fireworks, families with youngish children, are unlikely to attend at 5am. But fireworks on the Saturday evening could be a winner.

4. Finally, our Easter morning Eucharist should be seriously distinctive. A note of extraordinary celebration needs to be struck, preferably at the heart of the Eucharistic liturgy. My suggestion is that on Easter day we use champagne as our communion wine. Champagne is part of our cultural shorthand for celebration. Its use chimes perfectly with the Easter message of the reckless extravagance of God’s love, and with imagery of the wedding feast."

Since then, I have heard of quite a few churches doing number 4, and have done it myself. People LOVE it! And the celebratory 'pop' of a champagne cork at the preparation of the table is brilliant. I highly recommend you try it this Easter.

Thursday, 13 March 2014

Sex and Marriage

Christianity,  feminism, marriage and same sex marriage

Let me say something blatantly obvious. So obvious it shouldn't really need pointing out: but something I have not heard anyone say out loud in this whole marriage fiasco that the Church is getting itself into.

The controversial thing about same sex marriage - as distinct from same sex relationships, same sex civil partnerships, or even plain old same sex sex - is that if sex takes place within marriage, it isn't sinful. Not all marriages (or other relationships) involve sex, of course. But it is the sex that is controversial.

Those who take an unhealthy interest in other people's sexual sin have had a mantra - all sex outside of marriage is wrong. Marriage good, all other sex bad, is meant to be the rule. (Its a rule few people observe, but the point of this sort of rule is idealism rather than realism).

And that, of course, is why the idea of a couple of the same sex marrying each other, if you think gay relationships are always wrong, is a problem. Thats why the Church authorities - who argued vigorously against Civil Partnerships when they were first mooted - are now desperate for clergy in those partnerships to stay there, rather than get married.

If 'Marriage is good, all other sex bad', then anyone married and having sex (with their marital partner) is by definition not sinning. So if you want to continue to define gay sex as sinful, you have to argue it isn't really a marriage.

But why do we say that in the first place? In the story of Adam and Eve, they never went through any form of marriage. If it was so important, don't you think the Bible writers might have mentioned it? (At least, if you believe that the Bible contains all things necessary for salvation). There is an awful lot of sex in the Bible, much of it quite disordered. Giving a slave girl to your husband to bear children for you? Mmm, that Biblical ideal of marriage...

Marriage is a feminist issue.The thing is, sex is a powerful human urge, that can lead us to destructive and selfish behaviour, as well as forming powerful kin-bonds. For most of recorded history, the point of marriage law has been to regulate sex. It has been legislated for primarily to regulate the ownership of children and thus inheritance and property. Because women bear the children, and before DNA tests men couldn't be sure of their paternity, controlling women's sexual activity became an economic imperative for the landowning classes. Not to mention the fact that women were themselves considered a form of property. Those with little other property didn't want someone else making use of what was theirs.The fact is, much 'common sense' morality surrounding sex is an internalisation of these property interests.

And the ironic thing is, in the middle ages the Church was at the forefront of challenging this. The  Pope repeatedly clashed with heads of states, as both claimed the right to regulate marriage. Kings wanted to control it because of the dynastic interests and property rights involved. The Church radically claimed that this was about two people, and that they had to give their free consent. Further, the Church began to raise sex in importance, claiming that having sex was effectively giving yourself in marriage. It was a radical and controversial idea, that if a man had sex with a woman, they should get married (or even WERE married), even if they were of different social classes. The fact that consummation became part of the legal definition of marriage perhaps indicates that sex was not, in fact, a key part of many dynastic marriages. But it was important that marriages involved sex if marriages were about establishing legitimate heirs.

Marriage was a contract more than a relationship. Until relatively recently, it was possible to sue someone for 'breach of promise' through the British courts if they pulled out of an engagement. The assumption was that the other party reneging on an agreement to marry damaged the goods or brand you were selling. Partly, at least, that was because it was assumed you may well have had sex with your betrothed on the basis of the contract to marry.

Believe it or not, the Church was championing women's rights in the context of its days. He told you he wanted to marry you, and slept with you? You might be pregnant and become destitute? Right then, he must marry you. Even if your family had hoped to do better for themselves.

It is sad that a doctrine of marriage that once was designed to uphold the interests of the people involved against powerful other interests that saw them as pawns, is now being used to do the opposite.

I could say more. The medieval worldview saw everything in hierarchical terms. God at the top, ranks of angels precisely graded by status beneath, then men, women and children (in that order, and in their various degrees), then birds, animals, fish, plants, rocks. Everything had its place. In this worldview, it was 'natural' for men to subordinate women, just as it was 'natural' for humans to exploit the planet. If this is your understanding of how the world is, the worst thing about gay sex is men subordinating and being subordinate to other men, rather than exerting mastery over women.
(Lesbian sex is also seen as wrong, because women are not submitting to men, but its not as important because women aren't as important).

I've been married for 17 years, and I'm very happy to recommend marriage as the ideal form of human relationship. The trust, commitment, mutuality and fidelity of a good modern marriage are ideal conditions for human flourishing. It's for that very reason that I want as many people as possible to be able to avail themselves of it. But the marriage I want to recommend is not a property transaction. It's not about a dominant and a submissive partner (a view associated worldwide with higher levels of domestic abuse, according to research conducted by Dr. Susannah Cornwall). It's about mutual love, commitment, delight, tenderness, self-giving, and, yes, sex which is all of those things too. Against such things, there is no law.

The first line of every marriage service I conduct is:
'God is love, and those who live in love live in God.' I find it hard to see the sin in that. So opening up marriage to same sex couples is indeed a radical step, redefining what they are doing as God-given and a cause for rejoicing. It is clear that the Church as an institution is not quite ready for that, but it isn't getting any choice: gay people are getting legally married.

It's fascinating, as a historian, to see Church and State still arguing over who gets to define marriage. But marriage laws predate the church by many centuries. History says that the Church has only ever won its case by persuading the State that it has the moral high ground. I'd love to see the Church get back on its real high horse, campaigning vociferously and in every nation for the interests of two people in love to trump political unease or vested interests. Any chance?

Sunday, 9 March 2014

My faith and George Herbert's poetry

I am currently writing a series of articles for the Guardian website, in a series called 'How to Believe'. In them, I am discussing my faith in conversation with George Herbert's poetry, which I have loved since I first encountered it in sixth form. As someone said on twitter, proof that God can work even through A level set texts.

The first three (of a series of six) are now online:

George Herbert: the man who converted me from atheism

How can we measure the immeasurable?

If God is love, then can God also be love, heat and passion?

Update (15.3.14): number 4, on prayer, is now at

Why do we pray? What is prayer?