Monday, 9 July 2018

In Praise of Synod...

I’ve survived my first General Synod. I must admit, I was very nervous before heading off to York last Friday. It’s always weird joining something ‘halfway-in’ as it were; it’s tricky being the new girl when everyone else seems to know each other very well already (even if that perception is illusory). I also felt like a bit of a marked woman, in part because I knew it was perhaps harder for me to be as incognito as many others in my position.

I’ve had to come home early, so – while everything is fresh – I thought I’d jot down a few general notes …

·     Synod really is very odd, in a mostly charming way. Once one is in the ‘York campus bubble’ (I know it will be different in London) it can very difficult to escape; time and space warp and after a while it can be difficult to tell what day it is.
·     Synod is sometimes accused of not being terribly representative of the wider C of E. There is a truth to this. There are a significant number of quite remarkable eccentrics and curiosities, amongst whom I count me. In that respect, perhaps I’ve found my tribe (or one of them). If I am not exactly to the taste of many at Synod, there is a sense in which even those who might find me irritating or even anathema are more like me than they are to those who don’t stand for Synod. We are united in an activity that is odd, rewarding and strange.
·     Synod includes people who possess remarkable levels of knowledge and experience on a huge variety of topics. It is encouraging and impressive for the prospects of the Church. There is a quality of thought and attention that is not always captured in the media’s obsessions with the quick headlines.
·     The backline staff, including the people who help the chair match faces to requests to speak, are high quality.
·     There is a lot more humour than one might expect.
·     Sometimes it can feel like a grind to get through the amendments, but it struck me as worth it; so often the devil is in the detail and good canon law requires seriously careful attention.
·     There is (to my admittedly tortuously academic mind), a little less theology than I should like.
·     John Spence, of the Archbishops’ Council, is a bit of a legend.
·      I felt very much at home after a few hours, mainly because most people are very friendly and kind. I had some unexpectedly lovely conversations with people I might not otherwise get to chat to, who expanded my understanding of the C of E and its possibilities.
·     When you are an introvert like me, Synod can be very intense and tiring.

Some more specific points:

There were powerful debates and discussions around safeguarding, climate change and the work of National Investment Bodies, as well as the ethics of nuclear weapons, among other things. It was fascinating to witness how much Synod has processes which mirror Parliament (one needs to stand if one wants to speak, for example; there are order papers and so on), yet debate is far more civilised, although it can get tetchy at times.
Much depends on the skill of the chair and their team to ensure that Synod hears a variety of positions and is kept to time. Sometimes it seems mysterious why some people get called and others don’t. I hope that will become clearer over time. 
As an old rhetorician and debater, it was also fascinating to witness the techniques speakers and advocates deploy. Synod loves a bit of humour and a bite-sized metaphor; some deploy anecdote and emotion with mixed results; some operate by being careful technocrats.

Beyond the big debates, there are some extraordinarily detailed debates on draft legislation. It is where those with technical (dare I suggest ‘nit-picking’, in the best sense) brains come into their own. I found it fascinating and the ex-philosopher in me could see how I could end up getting into that way of thinking if I don’t control myself.

Of course, inevitably, there was reference to sex and sexuality and gender. The Saturday afternoon was devoted to seminars exploring a range of topics that were dominated by updates on where the Teaching Document on relationships and marriage is up to.

I don’t want to dwell on personalities or specific details here, mainly to give the process devoted to this Document (or set of documents) time to breathe. Nonetheless, I was not without anxiety regarding the three seminars I attended.

I was quite worried about the lack of trans and intersex voices in key areas. I’m delighted that Tina Beardsley is part of the Co-ordinating Group for this work, but there are some glaring absences in other areas I really hope can be addressed. I managed to have some conversations with relevant people about these absences and we shall see if anything emerges (I do not hold my breath!). I hope there is still time for some new voices to be added – not as witnesses speaking to members of established work streams or the pastoral advisory group, but as full members. I desperately want this work for the House of Bishops to have credibility; it still runs the risk of failing hold the trust of the wider LGBTI faith community because of absent representatives who can speak out of lived experience, as well as think about it in a scholarly way.

Finally, I thought I’d share the text of my Maiden Speech in Synod. I spoke as part of the Nuclear Weapons debate, proposed by Stephen Cottrell. I was stunned when I was one of the first two people called to speak and I suspect my nerves were evident in my delivery. I think I might have taken more time and been a little less intense! One learns from experience, though I must admit I do rather have a style of my own that I make no apologies for. 

It’s been a tremendous privilege to go to my first Synod and represent the clergy of Manchester Diocese. Here’s to going deeper into the mysteries of this governmental process and making a difference!


Thank you, Chair, for inviting me to speak on a subject which draws close to many of my abiding concerns. I speak as one who has written about war, military power, remembrance and their place in British cultural myths and identity. I also speak as a recovering teaching fellow in philosophy and ethics.

I speak in support of this motion, though I wish to offer what I feel is a deeply Anglican caution.
As a student of war and its obscene, if sometimes unavoidable effects, I feel confident to say that nuclear weapons are the final iteration of war’s most savage logic, that war is in the business of injuring, it abridges hope and struggles to limit its effects. The specific perversity of nuclear weapons lies in their inability to control their effects at all, even at the tactical level. Their use salts the earth for the innocent and the blameworthy alike. They harness power so titanic it can wipe the earth clean and create seas of crystal glass. Even if we major on their deterrent effect we do so on the presumption of threatened use. Brinksmanship with such weapons represents living less on the promises of the living God and more on the threats of human vanity. The poet Milton reminds us, one of the names of Satan is Lucifer – the light-bringer. The nihilistic brightness of a nuclear blast represents one vision of Lucifer’s light.

And yet, I suggest Anglican ethical thinking requires an acute attention to the located and grounded. We might find it burdensome or irritating, but we are still a parochial church grounded in local community. So, Synod, I say be bold in supporting this motion, but let us avoid the risks of gesture politics. There are communities in places like Barrow-in-Furness that have found their past, present and futures deeply woven into the Nuclear Art of Defence. At a time when many of our poorest communities are breaking under a lack of central funding, the absence of rewarding jobs and profound anxieties about the future, the defence industry, and the remarkable Senior Service of Her Majesty’s armed forces, offer one kind of stability. Yes, a precarious one, but stability nonetheless. 

I was raised in a working-class world where work was taken where it could be found, sometimes in the armed forces. So, Synod, while I commend this motion, I do so while inviting us to recognise that should the UK abandon its commitment to Trident there are real implications for work and prospects – often but not exclusively in the underfunded North. An Anglican response surely requires attention to what comes next for human beings should we abandon this unusable hardware. Anything less sends a signal that for the Church of England there are some people in hard-pressed and ignored communities who are easy collateral in our politics of faith.

Friday, 30 March 2018

Good Friday at Derby Cathedral: The Precarious Body on the Cross of Love


O Tree of Life, Wondrous Mystery,
We gather before your glorious and broken body;
O, you who are faithful to Abundant Love,
Expose, our savagery, our wantonness, our greed;

O Tree of Life, Tender Stem of Love,
Trained by us into contortions of agony;
O, you who are faithful to Glorious Mystery,
Help us to wait with you in your hour of need. Amen

Section One: The Brutalised Body


Life is a simple matter. It’s a question of knowing what you can control and what you cannot. Of knowing when to bend and when to be firm. That, I think, was this man's mistake. 

He was immature. Naive. His politics, crude. I guess this is what happens when simple folk get ideas. They don't know how to wield them or negotiate. He's not stupid - indeed I believe he’s more than his share of wit and talent. It's just that without an education these people tend to lash out. Like beasts. They inflame a mob. Like a toddler, they lack the character to be able to moderate or compromise. If only they'd pay more to their leaders. Leave the thinking to the grown-ups. At least we can do business with them.

Once, I asked a soldier to demonstrate a crucifixion to me. It was...instructive. I can’t remember who the poor soul was who we crucified. Someone. A criminal. A person. Does it really matter? I was surprised by how quiet it all was. I mean, not that there was any lack of distress. There was quite a lot of that. The nails elicited agony. Rather I mean the skill of the executioner was impressive. He got it all done with such little fuss. He knew his tools and task well. There was an understated economy about it.

What I hadn’t expected was the intimacy, which I guess reflected my own naïveté. On reflection, how could there not be? When two men are drawn together in such proximity, one attaching another to planes of wood, how could it not be intimate? In that moment, one man sees death in the lines and wrinkles of another's face.

And there was something terrific - astonishing even - about witnessing the scene. It made me realise that killing another might be erotic. Exposing. I imagine that's how it feels to enter the arena, to fight like a gladiator. Or go to war. It was revelation.

I can't tell you how glad I am that I asked to see that execution close-up. It changed me. Changed how I dealt with people like this Jesus and all the bruisers and revolutionaries and wanton holy men who’re sent my way. It made me understand that it isn't the fact that we crucify them that matters so much as how. That it is as much about aesthetics as punishment. I think that’s made me better in my job. Though I might not hammer in the nails, I strive for my own economy of action. An elegance, a gentleness perhaps.

So when I met Jesus I was calm. Considered. I like to think he too understood the moment, for he didn’t speak. I simply explained what we had to do and why it was important. And there was no snivelling or complaint. I was impressed. If he had any majesty it was in his dignity and control.

I know some men crave theatre and show. And that's what so much of power consists in - the spectacle. That's why we have to crucify them in a public space.  But I’ve always preferred intimacy. That moment when you meet someone face to face and you are yourself. And part of the beauty and power of the moment lies in the fact you’ve acted with economy. Because you’ve not made any fuss about an unavoidable act. That’s how it was between Jesus and me.

And then we were done. And he was taken away to his fate. And I washed and bathed – like people sometimes do after making love – and I slept and I did not dream.


Do you know what it’s like to hold the most precious thing in the world in the palms of your hands?

All those years ago I held him - my first born. My miracle. He was so tiny. So tiny, I thought, How could anything so delicate live and breathe and be so hungry? My baby. My promise.

Look at him now.

Have you ever held the most precious thing in the world in the palm of your hand?

I was there for him from the beginning. I fed him from my breast, I taught him his first word, I held him when he scraped his knee and cried.  I stayed with him even when he said those hurtful words in front of me, ‘Who is my mother?’

I’m with him now.

Mothers, as a rule, don’t want to let their children go. Not in their most secret heart. They want to keep her babies safe. We hold them, but we have to let them go.

I held the most precious thing in the world in the palm of my hand...
He said he was going to save us all...
And I had to let him go...

How often have I wanted to hold him, make him safe ...
Before this day is over I will hold him again.

Section Two: The Humiliated Body


I’m not a good man. Never have been.

I’ve been a soldier for twenty five years and I’ve whored and drunk and fought my way all over the Empire. I’ve seen stuff you can barely dream of: Celts running into battle painted blue, known what the darkness of forests in Germania. I’ve picked up filthy diseases in Rome.

I’m not a good man. I’ve done a lot of nasty things. And enjoyed them. I’ve spent as much time on a charge as I have following orders. Why do you think I ended up here, doing this? Nailing fanatics up...half of them drunk on their god, the other half just criminals. The one we nailed up today, they say, is a bit of both.

I deserve this job. When I started I liked to look at them when I hammered the nails in. I liked them to know that it was me who was killing them. That no matter how holy or righteous or tough they thought they were, it was someone as ugly as me taking their life. I wanted them to know that their god wasn’t going to protect them. I wanted them to know that the world is ruled by ruthless men and the things we’re prepared to do.

Maybe I just nailed too many of them up. Maybe I got bored.

All I’ve ever wanted is to feel. Isn’t that what everyone wants? I’ve spent my whole life doing this, that and the other - mostly the other - just because I wanted to feel something. I want to feel like they do – these idiots and fanatics and holy men. But I’m not a good man. So what can I do?

There’s this thing that keeps me awake at night. When I’m not showing the world what it’s got used to seeing. My secret – my hate for it. I hate the pain and the screams. I hate looking at their eyes.

I hated the one they call the King of the Jews most of all.

The one they call the King of the Jews. He looked at me. Stared. And he knew. I swear he looked past my face and saw what I really am. He knew how much I hate all this. He knew how empty I’ve become. I almost gouged his eyes out for that.

That’s what a bad man would do. And I’m not a good man.

We were told to break their legs. For the sake of the Jews and their festival. You know, when you break their legs they can’t breathe anymore. They can’t push themselves up. They drown in their own water and blood.

Sometimes I don’t mind breaking their legs. It’s like I’m being merciful. Like I’m helping. It makes me feel good. Better. That I can do something kind.

But I didn’t want to touch him. Not the one they called the king. It was his eyes. The way he’d seen what I was, but didn’t judge. He knew I wasn’t good. He saw I was nothing. And he didn’t judge. It was…it was what I reckon love might be like.

I was glad when we didn’t have to break his legs. But I had to shove the spear in his side. To make sure he really was dead. They’d have killed me if I’d have said no. But he was already dead. It was like he was being merciful to me. He gave up his spirit so I didn’t have to hurt him anymore.

I think he was good that man. I met him once that was all. And I was his killer.

I don’t cry. What’s the point? But the water that flowed from his side was like all the tears I’ve never cried pouring out. It was like all the pain I’ve ever caused flowing out of his side.

When I’m alone maybe I’ll weep tonight. And I’ll pray that he – wherever he is – might find it in his heart to forgive me.


Unless you become like little children you cannot enter the kingdom...

I never understood why Jesus said that. I always thought, what does he know? Sure, he was a child once, but you soon forget. Unless you're a woman and a mother. Then the world never lets you forget.

It sounds so simple, doesn't it? It almost sounds attractive...become like a child...Children are so full of life. I remember my boys, little James and his big brother Joses, sticking their noses in everything, buzzing with energy even when we had nothing...being cheeky and climbing trees. That's not so bad is it?

But that's not what he meant. Not if he's the person I think he is. He's not sentimental. He cares for proper stuff.

What I think he meant was become a nothing, become a nobody. And you don't have to be a woman or a mum to get that, but it helps. I've seen how it works you see. I know.

I know how it's always the kids who pay the price.

How the soldiers and the fanatics make use of kids because they're naive and enthusiastic. I've seen fanatics using little boys and girls to set traps for the soldiers or make diversions. I've seen soldiers using kids as shields and hurting them to get at us. Both sides are as bad as each other. Both sides use kids for their own ends.

I've seen girls get used and then told to shut up.

Become like a child. Jesus might as well have said become like a woman. He might as well have said step into the shadows, lose nothing.

I wouldn't be stood here now if it wasn't for him. Jesus called James and Joses and me into another path. Away from the fanatics. He’s always treated women well. Has seen us. And I love Jesus for that. But I never got his line about becoming like a child. It’s like he sets you free, gives you a voice and standing, and then talks like we should give it all up. I never got it ...till now...

Today they’ve nailed him up and today I know he understands. Today he is truly one of us, today he is a child. Today he is a woman and a little boy and a little girl.


Jesus dies on the Cross

Wishing he could nestle now
In crook of mother’s arm – first-born,
Wonder, pearl unexpectedly found;

Or further back, sea-being, smoke-eyed,
Dart in shadows till trap is sprung,
Net raised high, business quickly done;

But he is last of his tribe,
Deaf to secrets only he knows,
Gabbles alone, mouth open, no song.

Mary Laments

Now I’ll tell you things you’ve never known:
How old age grows, a vine around the throat,
Of wounds that never heal, grain breaks,
Begins again in the ground.

You unlocked secrets with a clap of your hands,
Snapped open eyes, loosened tongues, took spit
And soil, kicked up crowds in dust you left behind.
If I knew the trick I’d crumble earth, rub it in,

You’d blink awake, I’d stare you down,
Tell you the news, I told you so.
How you’d smile and look away, walk off
As if there were somewhere still left to find.

Joseph of Arimathea

How easy would it be to say
I gave what I gave for love;
to save his body from howls
and bones, meat and dog,
endless dark in the dawn?

How easy would it be to say
I came in search of festal lamb;
scrap of understanding,
food for escaped bodies,
beginning and end and begin again?

How easy would it be to say
I sought soil for seed, land in storm;
some way to fill cold room of want
with aloes and myrrh,
an offering to ripen ancient fruit?

Body of Christ

Find me when the journey ends and sun
bleeds into night; and I shall conjure spelt's
wild thunder, make bread crack and roar,
tear stories with my hands, let grain shatter and fall.

And we shall eat in the dark, mute in wonder,
understanding or not; will walk softly in fields
as if we still breathed, as if we knew company
of the dead, our dreams tremble in the dawn.

And we shall speak as if our mouths
are no longer our own; I going on ahead,
if that is what you need, learning secret tongues,
searching melodies and chords for glorious song.


Broken Bread, Living God,
in the dazzling dark
you give yourself to death,
and we are afraid.
In the daytime of our panic,
in the bloody ground of our fears,
we pray that we may trust
the mystery of hope and glory
sealed in your death;
may we know your Passion is hope,
may we find through the ruins of your Body
the road to faith, forgiveness and love. Amen