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