Thursday, 30 November 2017

Miranda Threlfall-Holmes: Advent is a feminist issue (and so are posh Advent...

Miranda Threlfall-Holmes: Advent is a feminist issue (and so are posh Advent...: Posh Advent calendars. They're a real thing this year. I'm old enough to remember when you couldn't even get chocolate in a Adve...

Advent is a feminist issue (and so are posh Advent calendars)

Posh Advent calendars. They're a real thing this year. I'm old enough to remember when you couldn't even get chocolate in a Advent  calendar, just either a Christmassy picture behind each window, or a Bible quotation. Chocolate started a few years too late for my childhood, but hell yeah. And then, silently but surely, posh Advent calendars have developed as a thing.

My kids got a Lego one six or seven years ago, and absolutely loved it.  I think I first became aware of gin ones three or four years ago in Twitter. Then make up ones last year. I can't justify £50+ myself, but a few weeks ago I saw a scented candle one in Home Bargains and snapped it up.

 'Deeply ironic', the Archbishop of Canterbury said of the rise of posh Advent calendars last week. Pshaw, say many clergy and others, deeply rooted in the Anglican Church year - Advent is a time of fasting, a time of abstinence and preparation, to be contrasted with the feasting that comes in the 12 days of Christmas.

It's taken me a while to think through what I feel about Advent. I do deplore the loss of the twelve days of Christmas . Personally I go to the panto then, and last year I worked with the Real Chocolate Company to produce a Twelve Days of Christmas box of champagne truffles - a Christian add on to your Advent calendar. We should celebrate more, not less!

But I have a deep unease about the demonisation of 'secular' feasting in Advent. Every year when clergy moan about carols in Advent, or Christmas decorations before Advent, I cringe. And in the fuss about posh Advent calendars, I think I've finally identified the source of my dis-ease with this pious insistence on observing the season of Advent 'properly'.

Fast and feast is the cycle of the church year. We are often told to stop in the busyness of Christmas preparations as this should be a season of prayer and contemplation, not of busy activity to prepare for the coming feast - that comes later. But in a cycle of fast and feast, only the privileged - elite men, some elite women - could hold themselves wholly above the preparations for the coming feast. While you were fasting, praying, reading, contemplating the meaning of the season, ready to enjoy the contrast with the coming 12 days of feasting, who do you think was getting the feast ready? It simply isn't possible - and even less in the past - to have 12 days of feasting without a good few weeks of baking and making and larder filling.

So the exhortation to a holy Advent is actually an exhortation to everyone to behave as the elite were able to behave in the past, while the servant classes prepared for them to feast at the end of their fast. To demonise those who are working hard to allow others the luxury of the fast/feast cycle is literally to add insult to injury.

This is of course both gendered and class-bound. Women have always borne the brunt of domestic activity at all class levels, as the lower classes have borne the brunt of the preparations for the leisure of the upper classes.

And so I am unsurprised that the majority of the luxury Advent calendars that I have seen have been largely aimed at, and in my experience purchased by, women. (I'd be really interested to see any market research data on the market that anyone has access to, to see if this experience is borne out by the figures).

 It is a well known fact that in a recession, sales of red lipstick go up - because, apparently, women bearing the brunt of coping feel the need to splash out on an affordable treat. I suggest that the rise and rise of the posh Advent calendar - with its daily treat of chocolate, make up, booze or a scented candle - is a result of exactly the same dynamic. Those who are bearing the brunt of the work of preparing for others to celebrate the Christmas feast feel the need for 'a treat each day during a busy period' (as @lamnotRach said in response to my question on Twitter asking why people bought posh Advent calendars).

Seen from this perspective, I suggests that the rise of posh Advent calendars is neither ironic nor a sign of encroaching secularism, but rather a sign of increasing self-confidence, self-worth and self-care amongst those who have historically been marginalised in religious praxis. We are familiar with the idea of the mother-whore double-bind that women often find themselves in; I suggest that Advent typically presents women, and lower-status men, with a similar dilemma: prepare for a sumptuous Christmas feast, whilst simultaneously being expected not to look busy. It's a common trope in Christian feminism that the besetting sin of women (on average, of course) might not be pride but over-humility. I wonder if the rise of the posh Advent calendar perhaps reflects a rise in awareness among these groups, that this is an unrealistic expectation, and that we need to look after ourselves and find our own Advent calm and peace in a moment of self-indulgence rather than a moment of self-denial made in the comfortable knowledge that someone else has the preparations in hand.

Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Talking Jesus

Durham Diocese is about to embark on a four day mission event, with 20 of the bishops of the Northern Province ascending to our county to lead, inspire and assist with all sorts of evangelistic events. Each parish was asked to put on an event, and almost all have responded, with events ranging from the modest (a coffee morning, a school assembly) to the inventive and even bizarre!

In Durham Deanery we have a huge range of events going on, from 'What the Actress said to the Bishop' (hosted by Shincliffe church - where they have a local actress in conversation with a bussed in bishop!) to a night of stand up comedy by two of the north east's finest comedy revs, Kate Bruce and John Sinclair. From two 'crafternoons' - one in my own church, one the other side of the Deanery - to a pet blessing service. (The brave vicar who agreed to host the pet blessing service that a brainstorming session generated said 'but I'm scared of animals!' but the visiting bishop seems pretty clear what to do!). From attending Durham Park Run to a debate on science and religion in the university.

All these things should be great, but they rely on two things to really work on their own terms:

Firstly, people need to invite people who aren't already churchgoers to attend them! This should be obvious....but its amazing how many churchgoers have signed up for tickets to events and seem taken aback, and on occasion even offended, when reminded that the point is really for them to get tickets for themselves AND A FRIEND!

And secondly, we need to actually talk about Jesus at these events. Not just leave that to the visiting bishop or ordinand, but be prepared to talk about our own faith and why we find Jesus interesting, inspiring, puzzling, intriguing, captivating, attractive ....(insert your own word here). We don't need to preach - in fact, I and many others have been at pains to reassure people that they can invite their friends to these events without any fear that they will suddenly be pounced on with a crashing gear change of the conversation from friendly chat to overt conversion mode! But we do need to get more confident at naming Jesus easily and confidently in our conversations.

Most of us find that this does not come easily. 'Church' seems much easier to say than 'Jesus'. But all the research is that most people who do not come to church find Jesus a much more attractive proposition than church!

The most common reason I've identified when I've asked my congregation members what holds them back from talking about their faith with their family and friends is the fear that people will be offended.

People ARE offended if you try to force them to share your beliefs, or imply that they are inferior for not believing or behaving in the same way as they imagine Christians do. But people are NOT offended by you happening to mention that you have a faith in Jesus, and leaving it to them to ask more if they wish. In fact, people tend to be fascinated if once they realise that they can ask you about your faith without you being offended or pushy.

Our Deanery Co-ordinator for the Talking Jesus event found this out at work a few months ago, when her boss asked her if she'd had a good weekend. She found herself answering honestly that it had been very busy with the preparations for a diocesan event called Talking Jesus that she'd got herself involved in organising. He was fascinated, and she reported that she had had the longest conversation she'd ever had about faith at work as a result!

So....come to the events! Invite people to the events! And talk about the events. Maybe just telling people that there's a Talking Jesus diocesan event happening is a good way to mention the name Jesus in a non-threatening way? And maybe practice to yourself, at home, in the shower, in the car, how you might answer a follow up question about what Jesus means to you?

Friday, 27 January 2017

Sex and the bishops

The report of the House of Bishops on where we go from here on same sex marriage and relationships is now out, and I'm wondering how to respond to it - both now, and in General Synod in ten days time.

On the one hand, I feel a bit fraudulent saying anything at all - after all, I'm not gay, I'm not in a same sex relationship, and I worry that talking about my feelings or my views will just be the response of cis-privilege. But then I think that I shouldn't stay silent, just because its not primarily me who is being hurt here. I might blunder, but better to blunder than to be complicit.

So, caveats aside, my primary feeling on reading the document was 'here we go again'.

I don't want to go through each paragraph or recommendation of the report, such as they are. That would be too depressing. So let's talk about 'tone'. The report is very keen on 'tone'.

Emotionally and ecclesiologically, the tone throughout is all too familiar from the interminable reports on women's ordination that we had to wade through. From the basic assumption that these people are an inconvenience, a problem to be solved, a difficulty we would much rather not have to deal with, to the carefully crafted tone of agonised eirenicism throughout. The report is at pains to emphasise just how difficult and painful all this has been - FOR THE BISHOPS! - and begs us to sympathise with them in their hard task of steering the ship between two extremes.

This really isn't good enough. And I say that as someone who has been part of the Shared Conversation process in Synod, and so is not particularly surprised by the actual proposals (basically not to do anything, although with a few hopeful noises about changing the tone and being a bit more permissive).

But how do you change the tone without changing the tone? The tone of this report is exactly what we have come to expect. Agonised reporting of your own pain at a difficult decision and pleas for patience are not tone-changing.

And how do you change the tone without changing the underlying assumptions, doctrines and rules? The very reason that the current tone is so negative towards gay people is because those who wish to be negative can perfectly correctly point to their position as upholding the Church's teaching. Those who wish to be unwelcoming can perfectly truthfully talk about definitions of sin. The point of rules is not primarily to punish, but to set tone - unless you change the rules, it is very hard indeed to see how the tone gets to change. That's one reason why we campaigned so hard for Women Bishops - not for a few women to have a particular job, but because of what the change means for the whole tone of how our church talks about and to women.

Tone does matter. But to set the tone, you need to begin by setting it in reports like this - and all this report does is bolster the hand-wringing 'oh, it's all very difficult to balance, isn't it' tone that we have got so used to. 

There is a welcome moment of light relief at the end of the report, though, when we are asked to suggest ways in which the House of Bishops could make a new report on sex and marriage and relationships more useful beyond the church. As if anyone beyond the church cares, or is likely to listen. Frankly, the mind boggles at what such a report might say.

But just in case the House are serious in asking, here are some suggestions:

1. Stop talking about sex outside marriage being inherently sinful. Celebrate it as the gift it is, as something that can lead to a deepening of relationship and may in time lead to marriage/committed relationship. Recognise that virtually every heterosexual couple we marry has been living together for years. They do not see this as sinful. If you talk about it as such, they will stop listening and assume that the rest of what you have to say is irrelevant too.

2. Understand that these couples - ie, virtually everyone that gets married - see their marriage as the 'crown upon the head' of their relationship - it is because of the quality of their relationship that they want to marry, not the other way around. Marriage isn't primarily creating something new, it is celebrating what already exists.

3. Admit that most of our morality surrounding marriage is historically to do with controlling conception, the possession of women, and inheritance of property. Take seriously the difference that first the legal changes to the status of women (from the nineteenth century), and more recently the widespread availability of safe contraception (coupled with the decrease in infant and maternal mortality) have had.

4. Recognise that perceptions, images and understandings of marriage are historically, geographically and socially context-bound and changeable. Take academic advice on this, and learn from it. I still shudder when I remember the fiasco the Church centrally made of Linda Woodhead's point that the arguments used against equal marriage were near-identical to those used against the Deceased Wife's Sister Bill. She was right. She quoted from Hansard. The church completely ignored her and simply denied what she was saying, in a way reminiscent of the 'alternative facts' debacle last week.

5. Stop talking about 'biblical marriage' and be honest about the mess that so many of the Biblical characters make of their marriages, the many different forms of relationship that that title is used for, and the variety of sexual moralities that the Bible reflects from its several thousand year history.

6. Then you can start talking about when sex IS sinful. At the moment, the mantra of 'sex is bad unless in a heterosexual marriage' is stopping us saying or being heard to say anything constructive about the full spectrum of sexual abuse, addiction, degrees of and uses of porn, marital rape/coercion, what happens when sex dies off but one of you still wants it, viagra, etc, etc, etc. The only decent thing written on this recently was the preamble to the Pilling report by Jessica Martin, but that was largely buried due to being attached to Pilling.

7. Be very, very careful about what you say about gender. There has been a worrying tendency in recent years for statements about equal marriage or same sex relationships to parrot the line 'one man and one woman', and go on to emphasis that this is about complementarity or some such post-hoc justification, without (at least, I hope it wasn't deliberate) thinking about what statements about men and women and gender relations are being accidentally made in the heat of trying to fend off the same sex 'issue'. The two are linked - and they are linked because of this.

8.Take love seriously. 1 Corinthians 13 describes it as being even greater than faith - an amazing claim. Let's discuss this more. Frame discussion of human relationships in terms of them being mirrors in which we see something of God's love for us reflected.

9. Take forgiveness seriously. Christ died for us while we were still sinners - stop colluding with a 'conservative' view that we need to be perfect to be acceptable.

10. And finally, for goodness sake, start taking the Bible more seriously - or using it more intelligently. Some of the discussion of the Bible that I heard at Synod last July appalled me in its literalism and ineptness of exegesis. Talk of marriage as a 'creation ordinance' 'because it says so in Genesis' is no more valid than seven-day Creationism. The Bible is an extraordinary collection of sacred writings, and we need to take seriously the variety of genre, historical period, context and aim of each piece in aiming to understand its meaning for us. The Church seems to have gone backwards in understanding this in the 20 years that I've been a Christian - show some leadership here, bishops!

Tuesday, 24 January 2017

Baptising Aliens

A fascinating radio review in the Church Times this week asks 'Would you baptise an extra-terrestial?'. Apparently this is a question addressed by a Steven J.Dick, who has the job of coming up with protocols to govern NASAs engagement with any alien life forms they may encounter. The Jesuit answer, we are told, is: only if it asks to be baptised.

It seems to me that this question raises some really interesting points about what the incarnation means. Christians believe that Jesus took on human flesh, and that the combination of this incarnation and his subsequent death and resurrection somehow redeems/saves humanity. But there is debate at an academic level, and considerable vagueness at a popular level, about how much it matters what kind of flesh Jesus took on at the incarnation.

At one end of the spectrum, we have the kind of lazy racism that assumes Jesus redeemed white flesh and finds it inconceivable that he was of any other ethnicity! But the issue that I have most engaged with over the years is the question of whether it matters that Jesus was male.

Over the course of the many debates about women's ordination, some people clearly thought that because Jesus was male, men were in some special theological category of godliness - men could represent Jesus in a way that women couldn't. Ts is clearly nonsense, as the theological point of the incarnation is that Jesus assumed human flesh so that human flesh could be redeemed. If you take the fact of his maleness as not simply an incidental feature of his particularity (ie, in order to become fully human you have to be A PARTICULAR human, not generic 'humanity') but as of key salvific importance, then the logical implication is that women aren't as fully saved as men are, which no serious theologian would argue.

So I was really interested to see this question about extra terrestial life! It opens up a whole other area for discussion - which is, do we think that God in Jesus assumed HUMAN flesh, so PEOPLE are redeemed? Or do we think that, in assuming 'flesh', God became identified with the whole created order, so that what is redeemed is creation itself? The scriptural reflection on this is mixed, sometimes talking about 'man redeeming man', sometimes about 'creation'. Its a question that has pastoral implications for those of us who are clergy, who are surprisingly often asked about whether pets go to heaven, and similar conundrums.

So the thought experiment about alien life is fascinating. Few of us would now see 'creation' as simply involving this planet - the whole created order clearly involves all the universe. So do we think that the incarnation of Jesus as a Palestinian child about 2000 years ago sufficed to save the whole created order, or just humanity? What do you think?

Wednesday, 4 January 2017

Church: Ice Dancing or Musical Statues?

Ever since reading Richard Holloway's book 'Dancing on the Edge' (when I first became a Christian at university), I've loved the idea of truth being found teetering on the knife edge between one false certainty and another.

That image became even more vibrant and alive for me when I started having ice skating lessons. I was about 25 and doing my doctorate, and needed some sort of active exercise to give me a complete change from my books. I lived in Newcastle at the time, just a few stops down from the ice rink on the metro, and I'd always loved Noel Streatfield's books as a child, so the idea of acting out my White Boots fantasy suddenly seemed a sensible one! Well, I was never any good, and I soon gave it up due to it being too expensive a hobby for me on my PhD grant.

But what I did discover was that ice skating blades are not flat - or even sharp - on the bottom, but are made up of a double blade (a bit like a double-hulled catamaran). You basically never skate on the whole blade, but on one edge or another - so you are always moving forwards in a series of curves, sweeping one way or another. And of course, like cycling, you are never balanced properly unless you are off balance but moving swiftly enough to create balance.

It seems to me that this is a good image for our faith, though I don't know if the specific ice skating image was in Richard Holloway's mind when he wrote that lovely title.

We only move forwards by being on the edge; we only create balance by moving fast enough not to come crashing down; we only make progress by sweeping curves.

I have seen some commentary recently on social media (and forgive me, but I can't remember where now - someone may helpfully put it in the comments?) suggesting that the point of faithful Christianity is to 'guard the deposit' of faith that has been handed on to us. This instantly set my historical antennae twitching. It's a sweeping generalisation, but broadly speaking the Western Christian tradition has seen faith as something that develops, whilst the Eastern Orthodox view has been that the tradition stopped developing at the last of the great Ecumenical Councils, and the task is now simply to pass it on intact. This was the fundamental point at issue in the 'filioque' debate for example - the Western (anachronistically, the Roman Catholic) Church claimed the right to add that small phrase to the creed that had been agreed by the Councils, whilst the Eastern church denied that was a valid thing to do.

Hence the title of this post. Is faith, for you, more like ice dancing or musical statues? Does the music stop sometimes - perhaps for the last few hundred years, or the last millenium - and until some cue says it should start again, the task is to hold still, faithfully in the position you were in when the music stopped? Or is it a continual dance, a backing and advancing, side to side swaying, dancing on the edge, beautiful as a dance rather than necessarily aiming at striking a particular pose