Tuesday, 8 November 2016

The US Election, New Scientist, and Good Disagreement

My husband is a chemical engineer, and subscribes to New Scientist magazine. I tend to read it over lunch, and for a while now, I've been pondering starting a series on this blog, theologically reflecting on a New Scientist article each week. Because almost every single week there is at least one article that has fascinating theological implications, or that sheds new light on a knotty moral or theological question, or that just makes you wonder again at how amazing this world is.

The one that has finally made me crack and give this is a go is this New Scientist article by Aviva Rutkin on ways in which Americans are trying to crack the 'good disagreement' nut.

How to do disagreement better has become something of a key theme in the Church of England in recent years. It has been repeatedly suggested that, if we can do this, it is something important that we can offer to the rest of society. The Shared Conversations process that dioceses and Synod have been through over the past few years on the issue of how the church should respond to same sex relationships have been a concerted attempt to put this into practice.

Important elements of this have been listening well; focusing on understanding others positions and making your own understood, rather than focusing on arguments; and reminding ourselves of what we hold in common, not simply what divides us.

What I hadn't appreciated until I read this article in New Scientist was just how many other people are also working on similar processes in very different contexts. Rutkin's headline example is of the US election, and how some groups are already thinking ahead to try to build bridges between Republicans and Democrats whatever the result, in an election in which both candidates are 'both parties' most disliked candidates in recent history'. Other examples take on racial prejudice and attempts to get the pro-choice and anti-abortion lobbyists talking to each other.

The stories are encouraging ones, but what struck me most was how similar the processes described were to what we have been doing in our own Shared Conversations. On the one hand, this is pleasing - it suggests that such techniques do indeed work - not to change participants' deeply held views, but to change the way they go about expressing them and the extent to which they relate to those of other views as people rather than as simply 'other'. On the other hand, it rather punctures any nascent sense that we may as the CofE have something new to offer!

But the main feeling I am left with from reading this article is a sense of relief and pleasure that at least some people of good will, all around the world, think that reconciliation, communication, and bridge building is important. Reading about science, and evolution, and politics, it is easy to be overwhelmed by the sense of 'original sin' in humanity, seeking our own advantage at the expense of others. (Reading politics and economics, it is depressing to realise just how much capitalism makes this into a prime virtue rather than a sin). But then there is always a shaft of light, like this - the reminder that there are always some people, perhaps just a few, working to build rather than to destroy, to communicate rather than to win. And not even doing so primarily for themselves, but helping others to do so in the hope of a better society for all.

The Church and the World are not always in opposition (as one commentator on a previous blog post here argued): how can they be, when the World is the one that we believe that God created (no, not in seven days, but created nonetheless), loves, declares to be good, and died to save? Things like this are a healthy reminder that God's spirit of peace and love and joy is working just as much 'out there' as 'in here'.

Monday, 7 November 2016

Talking Jesus and the natural grammar of evangelism

It is really fascinating just how reluctant we Christians tend to be in talking about Jesus to our friends and workmates. I've been asking people what stops them, and there is a general feeling that people might feel put off, might not like you anymore, or it might make future conversations and socialising awkward if they think you might be about to pounce on them again.

Of course, we've all experienced the kind of evangelism - whether from a Christian or a telesales person - that feels like a 'hard sell', and puts our backs up rather than attracting us.

But we've also all 'evangelised' to our friends about things that excite us, that we've found out about and enjoyed, and that we think they would enjoy to. There is a 'natural grammar' of evangelism in our day to day lives.

We don't feel embarrassed saying, or hearing, sentences like:

 'I went to that new coffee shop last week! It was great, really fab cakes. You'd love it!'.


'Have you seen that a new branch of [whatever shop you like] has opened up in town? I went in to have a look and it was BRILLIANT! You should SO go in next time you're in town.'


'You know that garden centre that you pass on the way to the supermarket? Have you ever been in it? I've passed it so many times and never given it another thought. But I couldn't find what I was looking for anywhere else so I gave it a try and that had such a great range! You should try it!'


'Thanks for the compliment! Yes, I'm feeling great - I've been going to that gym down the road for a couple of years now, I love it! Never felt so good. Do you want to join me one day?'

We naturally evangelise about new things we've discovered that we love and think others would love. And what we say tends to go something like:


That is, we tend to say: 'I've found a new thing! I loved it/had this experience. I think you'd love it/would you like to come with me?'

(Sorry those initials don't make a catchy acronym, but I'm not changing them just so they do!)

It seems to me that one of the difficulties we have in the Church of England is that so many of our churchgoers have been attending for so long that it isn't NEW to us anymore. The most natural evangelists in my experience are children and new churchgoers. Most of the people who have joined my church in recent years have been invited by a friend who is themselves new to church.

The natural way to evangelise is to share new discoveries, and one reason that it can feel 'creepy' to share our faith normally is because sharing 'old news' is not part of our social grammar.

So my suggestion is that part of the reason that church planting, fresh expressions and so on work is precisely because they are new! Doing something even slightly differently gives people a natural reason to share their faith with others. This chimes with Bob Jackson's research, in which he found a strong correlation between churches that were growing and churches that had made a change - any change! - in the last five years.

What could you do differently in order to give your congregation something new to share with their friends and family?

Wednesday, 26 October 2016

Infant Baptism: An Anglican Model for Same Sex Blessings?

No babies were harmed in the making of this blogpost
As I looked out over the crowded church, something struck me.

I was saying, to a 100 non-churchgoers who had gathered to celebrate little baby X,  that in the Church of England we baptise tiny babies because it shows that our acceptability to God doesn't depend on anything we achieve.

What struck me anew on Sunday, was that it might be able to help us through our current debates about same sex blessings. Why?

Baptising infants has long been a contested practice. Indeed, my own church here in Durham before I arrived had a policy of only baptising the children of churchgoers. Those denominations which believe in only baptising adults or those old enough to answer for themselves - 'believer's baptism' - have a great deal of sense on their side. Baptism makes you a member of the Church, so doesn't it make sense to wait until someone can say whether that's what they want? But the main churches of the Reformation - Calvinists, Lutherans, Anglicans - have always held fast to the principle that babies can indeed be baptised. Partly this is because these 'magisterial' denominations have always been partially concerned about civic cohesion as well as right belief, but partly it is due to the fundamental theological principle that we are saved by God's grace, not by our own 'works'.

That's a theological principle that was the bedrock of the Reformation - but it predates it by a long way. It was core to Augustine's understanding of Christianity, for example. The idea that we could, by working hard enough at being a good Christian, contribute to our own salvation was condemned as the Pelagian heresy by the early church councils.

So infant baptism quickly becomes a test case, almost a thought experiment, in whether we actually believe this or not. Do we actually believe that God's grace is enough, or do we think that we have to do something towards our own salvation? For the early reformers such as Luther, that was anathema. Infant baptism became a cause celebre because it was seen as proof that a church really believed, or didn't really believe, that God's grace was all-sufficient for our salvation.

I think this is still the case. Baptising babies in a church full of non-churchgoers, however much preparation you have done with the parents and godparents in advance, always feels like an act of pure faith in God's power to do something amazing with the tiny resources we offer.

Not doing so - insisting on the ability to make a coherent statement of faith, or insisting on a show of commitment from parents and family first - in many ways is more obvious. It is common sense. It is logical. Baptising a baby with none of this, just the bare minimum of parents and godparents being prepared to come to church and say or mumble some simple words of faith, feels risky. It feels transgressive. It is a powerful symbol of the Church's trust in God's power to save, regardless of how good or bad the individuals' faith or practice might be or seem.

So I wonder whether this Anglican heritage of infant baptism provides a fresh lens through which to examine the question of blessing same sex partnerships?

The problem we have come up against repeatedly in our debates so far is the seemingly intractable one of whether same sex (sexually active) relationships are inherently sinful or not. Perhaps I'm wrong, but I can't see our different views on that particularly fraught question being resolved anytime soon. And at the moment, our debates have been stuck there, with one side wanting blessings to prove that they aren't sinful, and the other side determined not to be seen to be blessing sin.

But what if we take the infant baptism approach, and ask instead  whether our practice in this matter reveals a theology of salvation by works, or by grace? Hard cases make bad law, we are told: yet in the case of infant baptism, that is exactly the approach that we have taken. Baptising babies is a 'hard case' in testing out whether we really believe that God can save regardless of any effort on our part.

At the risk of offending same sex couples who may feel hurt at being described as a hard case (I know I hated women being discussed as a problem, so I'm sorry), I suggest that a fruitful way forward in our current impasse may be to take this approach to blessing same sex relationships. That is, you might not think they are a good idea. You might think that they are sinful. You might think that they are not God's plan. In which case, blessing them or not is a good test of whether you really believe that our salvation depends on God's grace alone.

Personally, you see, I really think it does. I really think, and preach, that our salvation comes from what Jesus has done for us, not on what we earn for ourselves.

Believing that, it seems to me that baptising babies and blessing relationships that many in the church think are dodgy are both great ways of demonstrating that our belief as a Church is that God's blessing doesn't depend on our works-righteousness but on His grace alone.

Our statement that we were prepared to do these blessings as a Church could say explicitly that people remain divided about whether same sex relationships are sinful, but that we are taking this opportunity to make the point that it doesn't matter whether they are or not. Every one of us is complicit in sin, some we recognise, some we don't even see as sin, some we are ashamed of, some we are perversely proud of. We preach as a Church that God is greater than all this, and that what Jesus has done for us is sufficient for our salvation. Do we really believe that?

Monday, 25 July 2016

Difference in Christian Thought 2: Order and Chaos

This is the second in a series of blogposts reflecting on my current research on how difference has been understood in Christian history. In this post, I’m thinking about the human need for order and fear of chaos, as powerful driving forces as we seek to understand and make sense of difference.

Consider the well-known creation story in Genesis 1. Here, God’s act of creation is portrayed first in terms of creating a series of distinctions. In the beginning, there is ‘a formless void’ (Gen 1:1). God’s activity first separates light from dark, then sky from what lies below, then land from sea. This creates a series of diverse habitats, and the next stage of God’s creative activity is to call forth from those habitats a wide variety of life appropriate for each – first vegetation, and then living creatures to populate the sea, sky and earth respectively. The teeming variety of such creatures is deftly evoked: ‘every living creature that moves, of every kind, with which the waters swarm, and every winged bird of every kind….cattle and creeping things, and wild animals of the earth of every kind’ (Gen 1:21,24).

In this creation account, difference is presented first as being about bringing order out of chaos by acts of separation and arrangement. Secondly, it is presented as generative. Once order has been established by the separation of different elements, these can become fruitful (note that this is not, at this stage, about sexual difference but about diversity of habitat). And thirdly, diversity – in all its creeping, squawking, splashing abundance – is presented as a fundamental feature of God’s intention in creation, an indicator of God-given abundance. These three dimensions of difference – order, fruitfulness and diversity - will recur again and again as we look at how difference has been understood theologically. 

Early Iron Age grave in South India
There seems to be a deep human craving for order which transcends most cultural, political or religious divides. Psychologists have repeatedly shown that much of our sense of beauty is driven by an appreciation for symmetry –the more symmetrical a face is, the more beautiful it is rated by test subjects. Chaos seems to be a deep primal fear, and the earliest human societies are often marked (or diagnosed) by features of arrangement – of structures, mark-making, deceased bodies, and so on. 

Some sociologists of religion even theorise that religion itself arose out of this deep human instinct to seek order to keep chaos at bay. One could just as easily argue, of course, that humankind being made in the image of a God who brings order out of chaos would naturally seek to do the same. The point is that whether looked at from a religious or purely secular standpoint, the human desire to seek order appears to have been the earliest response to the existence of difference.

It seems to me, as I’m doing this work on the history of how theology has thought about difference, that most of what I’m seeing consists of elaborations and different systematisations all aiming to fulfil this basic human desire – to arrange chaos, so that it emerges into an order which is found to be, at all levels, life-giving. Furthermore, it is disagreements about what is most fruitful, generative and life-giving that lie at the root of most of the disagreements which have ensued about difference and diversity. This applies not just to our sexual arguments in the church (which so often circle around not simply questions of procreation, but also and even more fundamentally a desire for ordered relationships, which will create a stable society, and so allow human life to flourish). It also can be seen much more widely in society, where arguments and debates about cultural diversity so often turn on a deeply felt desire or need for social stability and communities of belonging that we feel comfortable and safe in. We want order, not chaos.

Our deep human fear of chaos is foundational to arguments about difference, and is why such arguments are so deeply felt – we feel viscerally that these arguments matter, because they are all that lies between us and our primal fears of chaos. 

This is also, I suggest, why such arguments can seem petty, trivial and even pathetic to those who see the ‘thin blue line’ between chaos and order in a completely different place. Because all such arguments are fundamentally about arrangement they very easily be characterised as ‘rearranging the deckchairs on the titanic’, or re-arranging the books on the shelves by colour or height rather than by subject. Arrangements of things almost inevitably feel trivial to those whose preoccupation is with arranging something else! It is worth briefly considering different hobbies, and how absorbing and
important they seem to their adherents – from stamp collecting, model railways, football, knitting, dog breeding and showing…… their rules seem arcane and trivial to those outside, but are very important to those inside.

And this is where societal blindness comes into play – it is very difficult indeed for a society which just assumes a particular arrangement of things is a given to see that as just one set of possible arrangements. This is one of the key insights of liberation/black/feminist thought – the need to problematize assumptions and see ‘common sense’ as a particular societally bound way of thinking. So, to those for whom the line between order and chaos lies in getting religion right, stamp collecting is a ridiculously trivial example whilst heresy is literally a matter of life and death. Whereas to those who see the line between order and chaos in politics and policing, for example, religion can seem a dangerous triviality.

One of the themes I’m going to keep coming back to as I explore different models of difference is to think about how that model defines ‘good’ and ‘bad’ difference. It is a very notable feature of that creation account of Genesis 1, that God repeatedly affirmins the goodness of what has been ordered, separated and created in all its diversity. ‘And God saw that it was good’ runs as a repeated refrain through the whole of the first chapter of the Bible. The first mention of anything not good comes in 2:9, with the mention of the tree ‘of the knowledge of good and evil’ – around which, of course, the action of the next chapter centres. Moral judgements and morally good and bad behaviour do exist in this milieu, but they are secondary and subsequent to the basic goodness of what has been created in and of itself. 

It is also important to note that the divine activity of arrangement or separation, creating difference, in Genesis 1 is not about dualism. It is not the case that one of each pairing is good and bad, as so often in our way of speaking in pairs or in ‘binaries’. It emphatically is not the case that, for example, the light is good and the darkness bad, or the sea bad and the land good, as is so commonly the case in later discourse and metaphor. In Genesis, the arrangement itself, and all that has been arranged, is good.

The typical explanation in Christian theology for the basic question ‘why a Good God would make a world in which there is so much pain and suffering and hardship’, is that everything God made was originally good, but that the option of bad enters the world with the Fall. The created order is good, but human choices can be bad – and as a result of bad human choices, the created order is to some extent turned against humanity and becomes a place of toil, pain and hardship. Things have become disordered as a result of human disobedience, runs the argument. 

However, this strand of theological thought does not simply map onto a theory of difference. In theory, perhaps, the idea would be that differences that bring order are good, differences that bring disorder, bad. But the concept of the Fall problematizes that, because disorder is in some sense seen as part of the new natural order, God’s dispensation, and it may be disordered to seek to bring order! This idea can be seen, for example, in the Victorian debates over pain relief in childbirth, where some religious authorities argued that seeking to remove pain in childbirth was against God’s will since God mandates such pains in Genesis 3:16. It can also be seen, I gather, in some right-wing American arguments against international peacekeeping.

I’m aiming to discuss various different paradigms for difference that have existed over the course of Christian history. The discussion of one after another shouldn’t be taken to mean that one supercedes or replaces another, nor that one stops when another starts. In the history of thought, it is generally the case that as one model or paradigm rises to prominence, others continue in the background. It is not even the case that most people move from one to the other and a few conservative or backward souls cling stubbornly to the previous model – ‘flat earthers’ – rather, most people are not fully aware of the incongruities or incompatibilities between different models, and often will assent to a new one whilst still having elements of older patterns of thinking very much underlying their beliefs and practices – their ‘gut feelings’ or idea of ‘common sense’.

Order is not so much a theory in itself, I suggest, (unlike the specifically hierarchical theory of an ordered universe which I have already outlined here), but is a fundamental human desire which underlies all of our theories, and gives so much visceral strength to them and to our response to them being threatened.

Thursday, 21 July 2016

Sex in the Anglican Communion 2

In my last blog post, I set out the ways in which the early Lambeth conferences talked about sex. But there is another side to this: the emphasis that the Anglican Church, as a missionary church in the nineteenth century, put on regulating sex and family life as an essential part of its 'civilising' mission.

This, I realised as I read the sermons, reports and resolutions of the early Lambeth conferences, is still having a serious impact on our conversations today. Here I pair some of what I learned last week in synod with some of what I have learned this week in the library:

At Synod:

In the synod Shared Conversations last week, as some others have already noted, there was a particular contribution that shocked me, and I think shocked everyone I spoke to. A panellist representing the views of the African churches made two statements which caused sharp intakes of breath around the room - even from some of our most conservative members. The first was a (I hope) clumsily expressed statement that although speaker wasn't advocating for FGM, we should understand that the point of it had been to regulate women's sexual activity. The second was a clear statement that the belief of the African Anglican churches was that women had been created for men to slake their desires on.

I hope - and in conversations afterwards was somewhat reassured - that these views had been perhaps expressed with less nuance than they might have been. However, I was shocked at the unambiguous clarity with which these statements were made, and by the assumption that we should sympathise with them and modify our behaviour to accommodate them.

Furthermore, there was an odd dynamic in that contribution whereby the main argument presented against the Church of England changing its views was that we had given the African church those views in the first place, and so we could not now change our minds. It would seem logical that if the only or main reason for these churches holding these views was that they had been ours historically (an imperialist view point that I don't think anyone in the West would dare to make), then they could indeed be changed if our minds changed.

Another contributor made a point which was almost as controversial, and which was received with considerable derision in the conversations I experienced afterwards. This second speaker argued eloquently and with great personal conviction for celibacy for those who experience same-sex attraction, and the argument was broadly, I felt, sensibly expressed and sympathetically made. However, this speaker lost considerable credibility with me when to these arguments was added the idea that same sex relationships were the root cause of poverty, the breakdown of the family, and deprivation on inner city estates.

In the Library:

I have been musing on the points made by these two speakers because as I have read the reports of the early Lambeth conferences such arguments are very prominent. I was rather shocked to discover just how central such ideas were to the faith that the Church of England was evangelising the world with in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

So, first: yes, it is entirely true to say that the Church of England exported these attitudes. And it wasn't just that we exported them accidentally. The faith that the Church of England mission to the world spread was, so the Lambeth conference of 1888 proudly proclaimed, explicitly far more about civilising people by spreading what was considered to be a Christian way of life as it was about doctrine and religious practice per se. (Warning if you read on: this was expressed in terms which most people would, I hope, consider highly offensive, hypocritical, or at the very least patronising, today!)

Here, for example, is the Archbishop of York preaching at Westminster Abbey to the Lambeth conference of 1888:

'Higher ideas of the basis of society, of the marriage union, of family life, of self-restraint, of truthfulness, not only lift the individual but form the people. A recognised commercial morality, an even administration of justice, a conscience in dealing with subject races, public action on principles not merely selfish, the devotion of lives to benevolent causes, are things found under Christian governments and scarce looked for elsewhere. Independent witnesses avow these to be the direct results of Christian faith, and the growth of national character through these, far more than numbers of adherents, or prevalence of observation, assures us that the Church is still the nurse of nations.'

He goes on....

'[God] has placed the Anglo Saxon race at the forefront of the nations. They are carrying civilisation to the ends of the earth. They are bringing liberty to the oppressed, elevating the downtrodden, and are giving to all these divers tongues and kindreds their customs, traditions, and laws.'

It should be pointed out that successive Lambeth conferences made a point of stating that they rejected race discrimination, and they consistently supported the independence of the various national churches. Nevertheless, it is clear that they had a very strong view that the  English/Christian way of life - a somewhat romanticised version of it, to say the least - was what first brought civilisation where there was none before (they saw the case of India and the Oriental cultures as somewhat different) and would develop 'child' nations to maturity and independence.

Secondly, it is no accident that marriage and family life head the list of civilising influences that the Archbishop lists. Successive statements by the conferences make it explicit that marriage and stable family life were indeed seen as the bedrock of stable societies and nations. The contributor to the Shared Conversations who suggested that anything that challenged marriage was destroying stability and creating poverty could have been quoting one of these nineteenth century reports verbatim. Then, as now, rapid urbanisation, job insecurity, mass movement of people away from stable family units and the existence of stark inequalities were recognised as huge social problems, and the conferences continually plead for marriage to be upheld as the most effective bulwark against social chaos.

For example, the 1888 report on Purity - and I'm pretty sure that by impurity they mean any sexual activity except that in marriage, but most particularly promiscuity and the widespread use of prostitutes - argues that, though they are nervous about talking about the subject, they need to speak out because:

'sins of impurity] are not only a grave public scandal, but are also festering beneath the surface, and eating into the life of multitudes in all classes and in all lands'.

Sexual sin is seen as catastrophic, not simply or even primarily for individuals, but for national life, and this is described in apocalyptic terms:

'wherever marriage is dishonoured and the sins of the flesh are lightly regarded, the home-life will be destroyed, and the nation itself will, sooner or later, decay and perish'.

It is striking that no arguments are given in support of this view - it is presented as self-evidently the case. This is particularly notable in the context of two other reports presented that year, on  Temperance and Socialism. These demonstrate that the bishops were by no means naive about the complexities of poverty and the issues facing society. Furthermore, the Socialism report not only goes careful through various arguments, but also makes a clear distinction between what is obviously the gospel imperative, and what is pragmatically possible in the current context. Funny how money has always seemed much harder to criticise than sex.

So - where does this take us?

First, it is certainly true that we - the Church of England - exported to Africa the conservative attitudes that some of us now find so problematic. We did so very deliberately, convinced that such attitudes were a key component of a civilised society, and convinced that what was currently in existence was not a civilisation worthy of the name. Personally I find that a cause for repentance rather than an argument for their continuation.

Secondly, the idea that marriage is the bedrock of society  - and that sexual promiscuity is an urgent and catastrophic threat to the fabric of existence - is certainly not new. (And in fact you can find people saying this at all times and in all places. The morals of a younger generation have always horrified their parents). However, whilst the social problems being diagnosed are very real, then as now, I think the cause and cure have been misdiagnosed. It is not the decline of marriage per se that is/was the problem, but the chaos caused by the rapid industrialisation - and now, of course, the collapse of industries - rapid urbanisation, labour exploitation, poverty, the decline of neighbourly communities, the estrangement of production from relationships and so on - all the things which, even then, the report on so-called socialism identified. To put all this on the shoulders of sexual promiscuity - let alone on same-sex relationships - is a clear act of scapegoating. To tell people that all would be well if they would just work harder at marriage is a sticking plaster for nettles that are too hard to grasp (to mix my metaphors with gay abandon!).

Thirdly, and finally - I think I begin to understand why for some people, any suggestion of change to marriage law or sexual morality is felt to be so threatening. One of the things that took me by surprise at Synod was just how high emotions ran amongst conservatives. I had expected the conversations to be emotionally charged for gay people, but I learned how threateningly personal this issue is felt to be for conservatives. I understand more now - though I still disagree with the proposition - why for some people - particularly in the African churches - this is felt to be a deeply doctrinal issue. That's our fault. We, the Church of England, told the African churches, repeatedly, that sexual morality was a key part of the faith when we first evangelised them. I do find is frustrating and bizarre that we can be accused of cultural imperialism for wanting to change something when it is clung to on the basis that we first taught it, but I can also understand more deeply how, when something was received as an inextricable part of a new faith, that is a deeply threatening thing to begin to try to unravel.

Some light relief:

And finally, on Renewal and Reform and Clergy MBAs.... I can't resist ending on the note that the 1888 Report on Socialism recommends that clergy should be required to have 'some knowledge of economic science'!

Sex in the Anglican Communion 1

Last week I was at the General Synod shared conversations, feeling a bit like a Martian who has just landed as we discussed discussing sex whilst hardly ever mentioning the s-word!

I found it striking how little we actually talked about sex. We didn't discuss the negative aspects of it - that it can be addictive, compulsive, abusive, and we didn't discuss the positive aspects - that sense of beauty, nobility, creativity beyond mere procreation. Instead we discussed 'the problem' of same sex relationships in an oddly detached and passionless way.

This week I am at Gladstone's Library, and I have been reading the reports and resolutions of early Lambeth conferences. My main interest has been in what they say about difference and diversity (that's another post!) but incidentally I've been able to follow through the development of what they say about sex, that perennial source of unease in Anglican life and thinking.

In the very early days, rather like at our Conversations, the assembled bishops could hardly bring themselves to talk about it. The word they chose instead was 'Purity' (and this links with my main interest in ways in which we think about difference - purity, impurity and defilement is clearly a big theme). In 1888, discussions of 'purity' were held, and a report commended to the Church at large. But it is never actually specified what purity means as the bishops show a typically Victorian horror of the subject:

'we are not blind to the danger of dealing publicly with the subject of impurity. We dread the effect, especially upon the young, of any increased familiarity with the details of sin'.

Ten years later, they commend again the same report, and in the Encyclical Letter of the conference make slightly less coded reference to the subject, and the subject of associated diseases and unease about barrier methods to prevent them are raised:

'We know the deadly nature of the sin of impurity, the hold it has on those who have once yielded, and the fearful strength of the temptation. The need for calling attention to this is greatly increased at present by the frightful diseases which everywhere attend it. We recognise the duty of checking the spread of such diseases, but we recognise also the terrible possibility that the means used for this purpose may lower the moral standard, and so, in the end, foster the evil in the very effort to uproot it'.

Agonies about contraception continue in the reports of the following councils, but what I was particularly struck by was the fact that, in 1920, it was made very clear that our current terms of debate (sex in marriage = good, sex outside of marriage = bad) were explicitly rejected. In 1920 the conference made a point of complaining about

'the teaching, which, under the name of science and religion, encourages married people in the deliberate cultivation of sexual union as an end in itself'.

Sex is not, they say, good in itself even in marriage. This is not simply about emphasising the importance of procreation but also

'the paramount importance in married life of deliberate and thoughtful self-control'.

Sex in marriage was emphatically not, in the eyes of the 1920 conference, a good thing in itself.

I wonder what changed in the intervening decade? By 1930, the language and stance of the conference was radically different. Contraception was still decried as not really a good idea at all (though permissive noises 'where there is a morally sound reason' for the exception were made). But the radical difference is in the way sex is spoken of.

In 1930, suddenly the conference

'declares that the functions of sex as a God-given factor in human life are essentially noble and creative'.

And even - in stark contrast to the 1888 report terrified to even mention the subject lest they corrupt the young - advocates for good sex education:

'before the child's emotional reaction to sex is awakened, definite information should be given in an atmosphere of simplicity and beauty'.

We could do, I think, with bringing the sometimes orgasmic, sometimes beautiful, sometimes painful, sometimes disappointing, always messy reality of sex into our discussions, if they are to have any substance to them. If even the bishops of the Lambeth conference could 'go there' in the last century, we should be grown up enough to do so now.

Friday, 15 July 2016

Greenbelt Quilting Bee

I'm delighted to be running a Quilting Bee at this year's Greenbelt!

To find out more, and to see how you can get involved, please visit this post on my quilting blog.

The link on the Greenbelt programme is here.

Thursday, 7 July 2016

Difference, Diversity, Deviance and Hierarchy

This weekend the Church of England's General Synod (of which I am a member) will lock itself away into several small rooms to discuss human sexuality and how we deal with our differences over this issue.

As a historian, I have been interested for many years in how the Christian churches have thought about and dealt with difference. I'm currently doing some sabbatical research on the history of how difference has been handled theologically.

The existence of difference (and consequent inequalities) has always been something that people have noticed and tried to explain (perhaps explain away) theologically. Difference itself is clearly part of the nature of creation - it is naturally observed that, for example, our children are very different from one another, or that different people have different tastes. It is easily observed that there is wide diversity in nature - diversity of plants, animals and so on. It is also naturally observed that whilst some differences are good (we all enjoy diversity in a view, or different things to eat when we can get them), others are life-threatening (such as the difference between a poisonous and non-poisonous mushroom).

Over history, people have tried on for size various different 'paradigms' or models to understand difference, and to decide what is good or bad difference. The language that we use tends to imply how we have categorised differences. In modern English 'difference' is fairly neutral, or is used positively of what we consider to be normative but interesting, the opposite of  'common', while 'diversity' is non-normative but good and 'deviance' is non-normative and bad. We could conjugate these:

I am different; You bring a welcome diversity; He is deviant.

Once you have a model for understanding difference, it then gets used to decide what is 'good' difference and what is 'bad' difference.These have very often been drawn from the experience of civil society at that time - feudalism, the family, and so on.

The prime example of this comes from the medieval period, when feudalism was the basic model of society. That is, everything (in theory at least) belonged to the monarch and was parcelled out from him down a hierarchy of lords, barons, freemen and serfs. Following this model, creation itself was envisaged as being essentially hierarchical - with God at the top, followed by complex hierarchies of angels in heaven, then the human hierarchy, and finally birds, animals, minerals and rocks. The most complex examples of this 'Great Chain of Being' established hierarchies for which birds came above other birds, which rocks were more 'noble', and so on. Even the Trinity was at times portrayed as hierarchical, with the Father at the very top, the Son next (just as would be the case in a human royal family), and the Spirit third.

Of course, the inevitable happened, and this idea of a divine hierarchy was then used to justify the existence of earthly hierarchies - they were, 'as any fule no', divinely ordained since that was 'just the way the world is'.

This hierarchical understanding of difference has proved very persistent (see for example some conservative evangelical writings even today, which attempt to locate gender relationships within the context of an essentially hierarchical reading of the Trinity). Patriarchy is a variant of this model, too, in which 'natural' family relationships are seen as both a model for understanding God, and are then read back onto human society as normative. (As an aside, this is why I very much dislike the version of the creed which speaks of  'God the Father, from whom every family takes its name' - this is a very clear example of this circular thinking).

A hierarchical understanding of difference has been considered to be normative for Christian theology for much of Christian history. The practical impact of this is that 'good' differences have been seen as those which fit the hierarchy, while 'bad' differences are those which are out of place or which defy categorisation.

Test this theory on gender relations: in the hierarchy, men are above women. So women challenging this model or taking authority are criticised, as we would expect, as being 'unnatural' or against Godly order. Similarly, I suspect it likely that one fundamental unease with same-sex relationships is that they challenge this same 'natural' order of things in which a man pairs up with, and dominates, a woman. (I suspect that is why one of the prurient questions that I can remember being often asked of homosexual men in previous years was the telling 'but which one goes on top?').

So I think that a considerable amount of the angst involved in our current conversations about same-sex relationships is not precisely about those relationships themselves, nor even about 'how we interpret the Bible', but about whether we subscribe to this hierarchical worldview - and whether Christianity can be disentangled from it. Really, although people keep saying we have moved on from 'the women issue' to 'the gay issue', we're still discussing the same question: is Christianity irredeemably patriarchal?

More, on other models for difference, in another post...

Thursday, 26 May 2016

On Sabbatical (and finding it hard to relax)

As I write, I'm four days in to my first ever sabbatical. I never had a 'gap year' or anything similar, so this is the first time in all my adult life when I've not been working full time at something. It feels weird!

The closest I suppose I've come to anything similar is my 3 maternity leaves, but as anyone who has had babies knows, that is really not a break in any meaningful sense. Though to be fair to those of you who think maternity leave really is a break, when I was pregnant with my first I did think it was going to be a nice break.  I even bought a piano, thinking that on maternity leave I would of course have time to learn to play it. (Cue hollow laughter). As it turned out, for the first few weeks I didn't even have time to eat lunch. And I was back at college for the second year of my theology training 2 months after he was born, as it was either that or take a whole year out which we just couldn't afford at that time (no maternity pay when you are training for ordination).

So this is the first time I've had anything like an actual sabbath period in my working life. I keep feeling that I should be doing something. In fact, I haven't yet broken myself of the habit of making a daily To Do list - garden, quilt, have a swim - and feeling guilty when I don't manage everything on the list.

I had a quiet day at Shepherd's Dene retreat house yesterday, and found that even then, I was stressing about not achieving sufficient 'spiritual quiet day' success! Do you find that a problem when you go on retreat?

The message I came away with was simply to  relax and let be. As anyone who knows me in real life will testify, this is definitely the spiritual gift that I am most in need of! So though I started the sabbatical with a list of things I wanted to achieve, I am really hoping that I can relax, and for perhaps the first time in my life, find out who I am before God when I am not achieving stuff. I know the theory of 'being not doing', but putting it into practice in real life - in MY real life -  feels like a real leap into the unknown.

Wednesday, 18 May 2016


I was struck this year by the theme in both the Acts and Gospel readings for Pentecost, of thinking big.

In the Pentecost story, when Peter tries to explain what is going on to the gathering crowd, he tells them:
"this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: ‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams' "(Acts 2:16-17)

When I get frustrated by the church - which happens all too frequently! - it is usually a frustration with us thinking too small. We don't tend to dare to dream dreams, prophesy, imagine a different future, try to live up to our visions. Our thinking on church growth can all too easily be limited to 'we'd like it all to stay the same but with a few more people on the coffee rota please'.

And when we do try to dream and envision a different future, I seem to hear a sense that this is for the young ones to do - that we oldies have had our day and it is someone else's turn now. Yet the Pentecost story does not let old folk off the hook! Both young and old, slave and free (in verse 18), men and women, girls and boys are expected to participate in this dreaming, prophesying, visioning.

Its not surprising that we don't tend to dare to dream dreams. All too often in life we are told not to be so stupid, so naive, when we dare to imagine how things could be different. We can probably all remember being a child saying 'that's not fair!', and being told firmly by adults to get used to it, life isn't fair. And it is all too common for someone who dares to dream of a different future to be firmly slapped down by those around them. (Terry Pratchett describes this brilliantly as crab-bucket syndrome in 'Unseen Academicals' - the crabs can't climb out of the bucket because other crabs keep pulling them back down). We hear the voices in our heads, internalised from long repetition, telling us not to be naive, not to waste our time day-dreaming, that we won't make any difference.

Maybe part of receiving the kingdom of God as a little child is daring to get back to that childlike expectation that life SHOULD be fair, that things SHOULD be different? Daring to have impractical dreams once again?

In the Gospel reading from John, Jesus is quoted as saying:
"the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it." (John 14:12-14)

Ask for ANYTHING? Dare we?

In church this morning we thought about this and then spent some time in silence, in which people were invited to admit to God what they really, really wanted. What in their wildest dreams would happen. First for ourselves, and then for our church.

What would be a dream come true for you? Why not risk praying for that?

What would be a dream come true for our church? For the world? Why not dare to pray for that?

Saturday, 2 April 2016

'Doubting Thomas' and Christian witness

A brief reflection on the lectionary readings for Sun 3rd April
 (Acts 5:27-32, Rev 1:4-8, John 20: 19-31)

The theme of Christian witness runs through all these three readings, in ways that make it quite clear that witness is not an optional extra to being a Christian, but essential to what a Christian is.

I'll say that again: witnessing to Christ is not one activity amongst many that Christians may choose to engage it. It is what being a Christian IS.

The apostles in the Acts reading are boldly telling people all about Jesus, even though the civic authorities have banned them from doing so. They can't do anything else, they say - 'We are witnesses of these things'. Being a witness compels them to speak - not to do so would be to live a lie.

In the gospel reading, Jesus's first concern when he appears to the disciples is to show them his hands and his side - in other words, he is making sure that they are witnesses to the reality of his resurrection. This is really him that they are witnessing - he is forcing them to examine the forensic evidence so that their subsequent testimony will be informed and accurate.

This is the often overlooked background to the story of  'Doubting Thomas'. Thomas' rather gory (to modern ears, at least) insistence on poking his fingers and hand into the holes that the nails and spear would have left on Jesus' body emphasises that it is only these wound marks that would prove if it was really Jesus that his companions had seen. This is exactly what Jesus took pains to show the other disciples when he appeared to them, a point reiterated by Thomas's story. And when Jesus finally appears when Thomas is present, he doesn't rebuke Thomas for his desire to see this evidence for himself, but immediately displays it and invites him to investigate.

And the gospel then goes on to make the point that this is also why the gospel itself has been written down - so that you may believe that Jesus is really the Son of God. Just as Thomas wanted to be an eye witness for himself, the gospel writer accepts that we are going to want as much evidence as possible for who Jesus was if we are to believe the really startling claims of his disciples - and that is why the stories he has selected have been presented to us. As a dossier of evidence, so that we can witness for ourselves what Jesus was like and the sort of things he did - in the hope that we will draw the conclusion that he was indeed the Christ.

But its not just the disciples and the gospel writers who are witnesses. The author of Revelation describes Jesus himself as 'the first witness'. Jesus in his very being is witness to us of who and what God is.

So being a witness is not just something that certain special Christians do - it is the nature of the Christ we seek to follow.

Being a witness to what we have seen or glimpsed of Jesus is an integral part of being a Christian. It is not an optional extra.

Last week, I challenged the 8am congregation to tell one person that day or that week that they had been to church on Easter Day - but not just that they had been. I asked them to mention one thing that had struck them, or that they'd been reminded of, about Jesus. And I asked them to specifically mention the word Jesus! Because I had noticed, I said, that whilst we had spent over a year in PCC meetings and elsewhere telling each other our faith stories, hardly anyone had mentioned Jesus or God by name. Most people clearly feel much more comfortable talking about going to church than talking about Jesus. But feeling comfortable isn't enough - we are called to be witnesses. Even, as the Acts story makes clear, when that is certainly not going to be comfortable.

When I issued the challenge last week, I asked them to write down on a slip of paper as soon as they could after the conversation - anonymously - what they had said, and what the reaction had been from the person they said it too. I asked them to bring those slips to church tomorrow for us to share.

In conversations at the door, it seemed that people were up for the challenge!  I wonder how many and how varied the stories we will hear tomorrow will be...

Monday, 21 March 2016

The Strength of Grass

Here, for National Poetry Day, is a poem that I wrote on retreat a year or two ago:
The Strength of Grass

I want the strength of grass.

For too long I have huddled in the shelter of walls,
Barricaded myself behind books,
Armoured myself with a carefully constructed C.V.
Invested in equity-cushioned bricks,
Double-glazed, triple-insulated against the cold:
Nothing can touch me now.

But I am lonely, safe in my fortress.
I do not want my epitaph to read:
'She was safe'. Safe as houses.

And so I rummage through the other available metaphors.
I could be strong as a rock? Too static.
Strong as an ox? Too bovine.

I want to be strong like an oak tree -
No, make that a flowering cherry -
Firmly planted in the gound,
Roots drinking from living water,
Holding fast to the rock,
Resilient, bending before high winds,
Bearing in due season
Exuberant blossom,
A lush green canopy,
Gleaming juicy fruit.

But still alone.

I want the strength of grass:
A mat of roots so tangled
God only knows where one plant ends and the next begins.
Cut low and growing thick,
Packed together so that even the chillest wind
Barely causes us to shiver.

Heavy weather and heavy boots
May trample us into the mud -
But we will spring back, re-grow,
Flush green again for generations to come.

I want the strength of grass.