Monday, 7 September 2015

'An (un)holy mess': The NW Region Shared Conversations, Part Two

NOTE This blog post (as with the previous one) has been written under a commitment to the St Michael House Protocols. I suspect the impact of this commitment on my writing will mean some people will find what I write here too sketchy and general. I write this blog post as part of my own process. I aim to be fulsome about my own reaction to participating the N.W. Region Shared Conversations on Sexuality (S.C.s). If I am discrete it is to protect the innocent.

One of the intriguing features of the construction of the S.C.s was the attempt to place them in a very wide social and cultural context. We were encouraged to consider the process in terms of human sexuality, not just homosexuality. So, for example, the images that were on display on the first day were not just representations of homosexuality. There were representations of divorce, contraception, single-parent families and so on. The images – intended as conversation starters – were chosen to indicate how our society has shifted regarding human sexuality in the past fifty years.

I welcomed the desire to place the S.C.s in wider contexts. However, I was stunned that there was a sense in which the whole process was guilty of (Alarum!! Use of rather provocative neologism warning!!) ‘cis-washing’: I was stunned that no reference to the impact of trans, intersex etc experience was even vaguely present in the set-up of the conference. Indeed, there was a lack of appreciation for the way our discourses on gender and gendered bodies impact on and are in dynamic relationship with our readings of our sexed bodies.

I’m pleased to say that when I raised this matter (as well as drawing attention to some slightly ill-advised linguistic faux pas re trans stuff on the part of a facilitator) with the facilitation team I was responded to warmly and sensitively. But, oh my! I know the C of E is hardly alight with the presence of trans* people, but… As with the Pilling Report, the structural silence regarding trans experience (as on lesbian experience) was telling.

Nonetheless, the attempt to frame discussions about ‘the LGBT issue’ in the Church in a wider context led to some telling reflections. Perhaps the most telling one – offered by several voices, included some Evangelical ones – concerned ‘Divorce’. I heard several people say – rightly - that the Church has found a way not to schism over divorce.

The example of divorce is especially telling as it is a subject about which Jesus makes explicit and unequivocal negative comment. Yet here we are struggling to hold together over something Jesus says nothing directly about: homosexuality. If – as a number of people pointed out - we can find a settlement regarding divorce and remarriage, then why on earth can’t we do this over same-sex relationships? Indeed, at least some present (as I heard it) have divorced and remarried in church and have not been anathematized.

Perhaps I was not paying attention, but I didn’t hear any terribly interesting responses to the above challenge. I heard people say that they would not, e.g., remarry divorcees themselves and did not want to be forced to do so (which of course, because of the Conscience clause, they cannot be made to do). We have all learned to live with that situation. We have all remained part of the C of E.

There were – I think – people present who would not accept the episcopal oversight of women or who will have passed resolutions in their parishes that prevent women from presiding at the table etc. (I may be wrong in that assertion!) The fact is that we’ve all grown to live with that situation. I’ve found the compromises that led to female episcopē very challenging, but we’re committed to living with the Guiding Principles.

The fact is the C of E has been living with profound hypocrisy over sexuality for centuries. If you doubt this go read a book like Tim Willem-Jones’  ‘Sexual Politics in the Church of England 1857-1957’, which examines the complications faced by the C of E from the 1857 Matrimonial Causes Act onwards. Equally, it’s a cheap point, but one doesn’t need to have read ‘Wolf Hall’ to recognize that the C of E was born out of an inconvenient complication over sexuality in the 16th century.

Yet we have held together, more or less. I came away from the S.C.s even less convinced by the way some of my sisters and brothers in Christ have made beliefs about LGBT people and our relationships a kind of shibboleth over which orthodoxy is decided. It becomes less clear how LGBT people's status in the church acts as the trigger point for the exit of some, should blessings or equal marriage in church become permitted.

Some participants felt there was an insufficient attention during the three days to reading scripture together, including reading the (in)famous verses. I felt slightly different. I hope this is not because (as some might like to stereotype me) I have insufficient affection or interest in scripture. Rather, after twenty years plus of studying, debating and reading those texts it’s clear to me that our strategies of reading and interpretation lead to radically different conclusions; it seems clear to me that unless ‘reading scripture together’ is framed in contexts where trust, friendship and respect are already present, ‘proof texts’ rapidly become weapons of power to undermine people’s lives.

However, I’ve committed myself to read scripture together with some others who were on the S.C.s – some of whom are from very different theological positions. However, I feel more confident in doing that post-S.C.s. I feel like our reading will be grounded in a seeing of the Other as a human being and a fellow pilgrim with Christ rather than as a holder of a stereotyped position. I trust that I can participate in that process of interrogating scripture (and being interrogated by it) as someone who is understood as serious about biblical texts.

Nonetheless, I’ve come away from the S.C.s aware of the differences between the reading strategies commonly appropriated by different theological traditions. One participant spoke to me of letting ‘scripture be scripture’; perhaps it is a mark of how far I’ve fallen into perdition, but I felt I had to indicate that that very statement needs to be (though I didn’t use this word) ‘problematized’.

Equally, I very much respected another participant’s reminder that we need to understand the power and impact of the words we use and how we can all attempt to claim the ‘higher ground’ (!) by skillful use of metaphors.  Indeed, one of the fractures between ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’ evident in some of the remarks of participants concerned understandings of ‘truth’. For some, ‘scripture’ is ultimately linear, unequivocal, coherent and perhaps univocal rather than being subject to the aporias, partialities and messiness of our lived linguistic and contextual realities.

For some, I felt, the Bible is treated as a text which reads itself, or a texte that is hors texte, guaranteed by a God ‘unpolluted’ by the realities of compromised human being (either in the form of our fleshy embodiment or in the form of our often grubby church community and politicking). One phrase I heard used several times that troubled me deeply was the notion that we must discern the way forward ‘under scripture’. I shall be thinking about the meaning of that phrase for a long time I think.

I came away from the S.C.s more hopeful and energized than I’d expected. For while the 60 or so participants didn’t strike me as especially representative of wider society or even the realities of our churches (there was, for example, a woeful lack of delegates from minority ethnic communities), I sensed that most people were inclined to be affirming of LGBT people. I sense that most delegates, including a number of broadly evangelical ones, wanted to affirm LGBT people's desire to have our committed, faithful relationships honored in church and to seriously explore the possibility of formal blessings for LGBT people, as well as marriage in church.

Here’s the rub, however. What was telling was the difference between behavior in small groups and that in larger ones. When participants were in small groups, invited to listen and not dive in with critique or comment, relationships often began to form between those of quite different perspectives. In larger groups, however, participants were inclined to rehearse established positions.

I don’t see how the S.C.s can be replicated outside of its current carefully ordered, ultimately financially costly settings. When the new General Synod talks about sexuality in 2016 it’s hard for me to see how it won’t be a bit of bloodbath. Why? Partly because G.S. is – by its very nature – a legislative body shaped around political identities, but also because it is a large, public body. When people are ‘on show’ they readily behave in quite different ways to intimate, vulnerable settings. Audiences can make or break performance. Grandstanding and acting-out are encouraged. The media, in particular, is the audience and many of us want either attention or applause, or both.

Some on the conference called for ‘passionate patience’ (a phrase of Rowan Williams). It is a beguiling line. I heard its power and want to believe in its seductions. It’s a very Rowan line, part Hegel, part Holy Man. As ever, I want to meditate on the extent to which it is a line that emerges from a position of privilege and power: the urgency for change that some of us feel is not based on impatience, but on knowing that the patience of LGBT people, tested over endless centuries, has worn thin. But at the same time I don’t want to dismiss the use of Rowan’s line. The deployment of that sentiment might be a stalling tactic, but it might also be about giving some good, faithful and – dare I say it – holy people time to process and discern.

A final thought. One of the words repeatedly questioned by some of my more conservative sisters and brothers on the conference was ‘journey’. ‘How might this journey proceed?’ was (as I recall) one of the questions we were asked to consider. ‘Journey implies a destination’, some responded with concern. I think it’s fair to say that there were people on the S.C.s who think the notion that the Church is or should be on a ‘journey’ regarding matters of (queer) sexuality 'anathema'. Some others countered that to be human is never a static matter. We can undertake a journey without a clear destination in sight. The facilitators, in particular, were determined to note that the S.C.s are ultimately just that: conversations. There is no end game regarding LGBT relationships at the moment. There is no terminus.

I know some of my campaigning friends will be unhappy to hear those final two sentences. I too want to ‘get there’ – whatever that ‘get there’ is. A number of people expressed a view that they’d rather we, the Church, (via G.S. or The House of Bishops or whatever) made some decisions soon. There’s a big part of me too that would rather just get some clarity. I mean, I don’t especially want the G.S. to rule out the possibility of equal marriage or same-sex blessings in church for the next ‘x’ number of years, but at least one would know where one stood.

Yet if the S.C.s are anything to go by, there’s going to be no clarity or decision for a long time to come. Many will want to go slow in the hope of keeping as many people on the C of E bus as possible. But more significantly I’m not sure we have the legislative means to find an accommodation that can hold the various positions together. If I was going to go all Columbo on you, on the basis of these conversations, I think there’s no way we’re all going to stay together. My gut tells me that blessings and equal marriage in church are inevitable (I have no evidence for this, of course!). This will lead to some leaving, but I think fewer will leave than some currently believe. I also think that – as with the fissure over women priests – some will leave and later return.

The S.C.s reminded me that there are some truly extraordinary people within the C of E, whose faithfulness despite profound challenges is beyond doubt. I was moved to tears by the simple request from a number of people to have their faithful, committed and loving gay relationships acknowledged as beautiful and sacred. I was reminded, at the same time, that mess can be holy and missional. The church’s human frailty can show God’s face. But most of all, I was reminded that the longer we postpone the full acceptance and equality of LGBTI people, the more absurd the church’s public rhetoric of love, grace and justice is in danger of becoming.

Sunday, 6 September 2015

Mirrors, Shadows and Confessions: The NW Region Shared Conversations Part 1

NOTE a. This blog post has been written under a commitment to the St Michael House Protocols. I suspect the impact of this commitment on my writing will mean some people will find what I write here too sketchy and general. I write this blog post as part of my own process. I aim to be fulsome about my own reaction to participating the N.W. Region Shared Conversations on Sexuality. If I am discrete it is to protect the innocent.

NOTE b. Several other people have written in response to their experiences of previous regional Conversations. Memory tells me at least some of them draw attention to the mechanics and process of the conference. I’ve deliberate sought to place my reflections in a wider psychological and philosophical frame.

NOTE c. This is part one of two blog-posts. The second post will examine some of the process dimensions of the conference a little more strongly. It will also reflect specifically on my experience of attending the conference as a trans woman. I will draw attention to some of the weaknesses of the Shared Conversations (S.C.s) on matters of the intersections between gender and sexuality.

‘…if his story is really a confession, then so is mine…’

The older I get the more I find Francis Ford Coppola’s ‘Apocalypse Now’ a bloated and excessive piece of film making. I’m increasingly inclined to prefer Conrad’s short, precise ‘Heart of Darkness,’ upon which ‘Apocalypse Now’ is loosely based.

Nonetheless the above line of script (spoken in voiceover by the protagonist, the army assassin Willard) keeps coming back to me. Since returning from the latest Shared Conversations on Friday, Willard’s words – offered in meditation on his target, the unbalanced, rogue army commander Kurtz – have pinged ‘round my head like a pin ball.

Willard and Kurtz are shadows of each other. Willard is the hardened and disciplined killer, operating at the behest of a psychically-questionable U.S. government, while Kurtz, the brilliant army commander whose experience of violence has made him a living exposure of the insanity of war, is the killer whose main sin is to have gone off the government’s prescribed map of violence. As Willard reads of and listens to recordings of Kurtz’s disturbing career, Willard sees that they are caught, indeed bonded, in confession. ‘Confession’ here acts as a mutual disclosure of the Other – the protagonist and antagonist are mirrors and shadows of each other, simultaneously substantial and insubstantial, clear and distorting.

Not least among the impacts of the three days of the Shared Conversations was my sense of being caught up in mutual disclosure. One of the horizons of ‘confession’ is ‘acknowledgement’. The nature of the process, as I experienced it, was partly about ‘acknowledgement’: acknowledgement that those people I am inclined to read according to stereotypes and as placeholders for my anger, distrust and sense of injustice are actual people.

I trust that I don’t need to unpack that statement in order for you, dear reader, to appreciate how powerful, disturbing and potent that can be. I – like all people – am inclined to stay in comfort zones: I want to hang out with like-minded individuals and communities. Part of the process of the Shared Conversations is to bring together people whose default position is ‘suspicion’ and ‘fear’ of those they’re inclined to characterize as (depending on your theological prejudices) ‘homophobic’, ‘unsound’, ‘unbiblical’, ‘lacking in grace and generosity’ and so on. That someone with as fierce and decided views on a number of things as me might spend the best part of three days in the company of those who find me (in the least) ‘a bit dodgy’ and (at the most) a dangerous heretic and not just be polite is a testimony to the skill of facilitators and the structure of the event.

Running further and deeper with this notion of mutually-revealed confession, I had not anticipated that I might begin to see myself as my ‘opponents’ might see me. In one sense it’s irrelevant if this mirroring of the shadow was intended as part of the Shared Conversations process. For me, it happened. I began to see how troubling, disturbing and outré I might look to some whose readings of scripture, theology, the being of God and so on are more univocal, timeless and monolithic than my own.

I am conscious of my own violence and my capacity for it. One aspect of that is making other people ‘monstrous’. As part of the S.C.s I began to relearn a half-forgotten truth – that those who I am inclined to characterize as grim and judgmental, rule-bound and priggish are three-dimensional human beings who bear their own share of hope, love and faith. I saw them. We met face-to-face. I met family, even if – as with our human families – there were moments when I was glad there was a sufficient number of rooms in our Lord’s House (well, four star hotel) for each of us to retreat into alternative spaces. The conference reminded me that family is holy and extraordinary and therefore dangerous and risky. I have never been surprised by the claim that ‘family’ is the theatre for our truth-telling and sustenance, but also that most abuse takes place in family settings. It is a place where power-dynamics can work to conceal their violence, but also is a key setting for our growth into extraordinary people.

I don’t want to be romantic or sentimental about this talk of 'meeting' and 'family' and 'confession'. I speak, I think, from a position of considerable emotional and psychological privilege. Though I have been significantly wounded both by the Church’s and individual’s rehearsal/performance of certain theological positions, the S.C.s revealed just how safe and secure I actually feel. I occupy a position of relative power and authority.

I sense that not all LGBT people represented in the latest conversation felt so safe (though I think some did). The way in which the the S.C. are set-up – not to privilege one set of narratives over others – meant that some LGBT participants may have felt they had to endure language and claims about their lives that were offensive and judgmental. As the C of E slouches towards the New Heaven & New Earth (whatever that might look like!) I fear that we may cut off our pastoral noses to spite our theological faces.

Or to mix my metaphors somewhat - I fear the power dynamics of family will be ordered around the demands of those who (despite occupying traditional positions of authority, power and position) will perform hurt so loudly that it will silence the centuries of exclusion and pain lived by a group of humans who simply want an equal place in the family. As I said at one point in the S.C.s, if we are to truly be God’s family we cannot continue to live a reality that permits second-rate, tolerated members. There are no second-raters, there are none here under sufferance, unless we all are. And we stand together and fall together.

Tuesday, 1 September 2015

'Shared Conversations', Violence and Trust

‘You’ve got that staring look…like you’re thinking about your hands.’

These words – which my literary memory is inclined to attribute to Mendel, George Smiley’s factotum and trusted side-kick in John Le Carré’s classic spy novels – have been running through my mind over the past couple of days.

Mendel speaks these words when he sees Smiley gearing up for his final pursuit of the Russian Spymaster ‘Karla’. Mendel reflects on how, as a young boxer, when a fight approached he would start thinking about how to prosecute the contest. He sees a similar look in Smiley’s eyes. Indeed, Mendel’s words capture something of the focus that applies to us when we are readying ourselves for a complicated and challenging situation.

Tomorrow – along with c. 60 other people – I shall take part in the 'North-West Regional Conversations' as part of the Church of England’s on-going discussions about the place of LGBT people in the Church.

I shall blog about my experience of this process, in full, in due course. Some powerful reflections have already been offered and – once I’ve recovered from what I suspect will be an exhausting three days – I will attempt to offer my own thoughts and reflections.

However, before I head off I wanted to acknowledge the extent to which I’ve been absorbed by what Mendel calls, ‘that staring look’. I’ve caught myself rehearsing the kinds of things conservative Anglicans might say about LGBT people and my counter ‘jabs’ and ‘punches’. I’ve thought about the way arguments shift and proceed. I’ve geared myself up for a fight. I’ve been thinking about ‘my hands’.

I’m not happy about that. I want to go these conversations with open hands. I want to lower my guard. I may be the sort of person trained for a certain sort of fight  - anyone who has been trained philosophically knows how to intellectually spar and fight – but I want to leave that nascent violence at the meeting’s door.

I want to be vulnerable and meet others in their vulnerability. I’m not sure I can, but I’m going to try. I’ve no doubt the facilitators will be skilled at managing and facilitating conversation, respect and trust in the process. My problem is that I struggle with being managed. I can kick and snarl.

Nonetheless I want to go to the conversations as what I am – someone with my own partial glimpse of glory, truth and hope – respecting that others bring their own version of that too. I ask for your prayers for all of us – conservative, liberal, radical etc. – involved in this process. That we will be humble and honest. That we can dare to leave our weapons at the door. That we can meet Christ in the Other.

Wednesday, 17 June 2015

On 'Sin', the 'Unwholesome' and 'Homophobia'

Earlier, on Twitter and Facebook I asked whether calling gay relationships 'sinful' and 'unwholesome' counts as 'homophobic'. The responses were - given the kind of people I'm friends with etc. - hardly surprising. The mood of the 'poll' were an almost unanimous 'yes'.

The stimulation for the question were  reports of Bishop Richard Inwood's comments at the public Employment Tribunal into the Diocese of Southwell & Nottingham's treatment of Canon Jeremy Pemberton. Inwood apparently described marriage between two people of the same gender as 'sinful' and 'unwholesome'.

Anyone who's ever read this blog will know I have a particular interest in words and the way they play off other words and representations. Words/word choice, as I'm fond of saying, do(es) matter.

The word 'unwholesome' is striking. I decided to go off and check my (paper) thesaurus and dictionaries. The root for the word 'wholesome' seems to be part of our broadly Germanic heritage. It's a word with implications - unsurprisingly - of health and flourishing, both physical and moral/ethical. Some of the synonyms include 'salubrious', 'beneficial', 'virtuous' and so on.

'Unwholesome', then, has implications of ill-health, decay, and the insalubrious. It is suggestive of vice. It is a striking word. It is a word that almost seems drawn from another era.

I am struck by the way 'un/wholesome' reads itself into a discourse of health. Health is one of those discourses that has often been used as a way of marking out the margins between virtue and vice. Think of how 19th century discourse about 'fallen women' was often framed in terms of public health and led to a series of laws that meant women who were even slightly 'questionable' in the eyes of a patriarchally-shaped legal system could be open to summary health checks of the most intrusive nature.

This kind of moralism is enacted on the 'questioned' and 'questionable' body. In other words, on those who are characterised as 'the other' of the Normal, the Good, and the Righteous - usually white, middle-class powerful & heterosexual masculinity.

It is intriguing that the panic around male homosexuality in the '80s took place in the theatre of public health. The 'other' of gay men was constructed as a danger to public health in the AIDS panic of the '80s.

It strikes me that Bishop Inwood's remarks may be read as a kind of echo of the way moral, spiritual and physical health - wholesomeness - is enacted on and against the bodies and lives of those designated as 'Other'. Insofar as it represents a position within the C of E it represents how far the C of E has yet to travel in order to see 'The Other' as fully human, fully respected and fully loved.

Tuesday, 2 June 2015

'Oh Mother!' What's at stake in our God-Talk

In the past week, there’s been a flurry of excitement in both broadsheet and tabloid press about how we address God. ‘Male’ or ‘Female’? ‘Father’ or ‘Mother’? And so on.

Those of us who’ve been writing about this stuff, academically or otherwise, for many years have been inclined to yawn. Some have said this is a ‘70s debate, presumably along with discussions of bra burning and such like.

The level of reaction is partly an indication of how very far the Church and, perhaps more significantly, wider society has to go before talk of God in non-masculine terms is irrelevant.

As a feminist writer and poet I’m acutely aware of the extent to which the male is the default. One does not need to be a post-Lacanian theorist to be aware of the inscriptions of gender in the way we talk. One does not need to agree with ‘Where God is male, the male is God,’ to be aware that the way we talk about God has implications for how we construct what it means to be a human.

If there truly is nothing at stake when we say ‘Christ is our sister’ or invoke ‘God our Mother’, I do not understand why such terms are not everyday in our liturgies and prayers. Our Liturgies are one of the ways we construct our conversation with the Ineffable and we negotiate the terror of the Ineffable addressing us. How we speak about God is a potent indicator of how we see ourselves and delimit the possibilities of God/G-d.

I am minded of a conversation I once had with a senior woman cleric regarding the use of expansive language in a liturgy I’d written celebrating women’s ministry. She said it was 'So very ‘70s'. I assume she meant that it was of the past and of a time we have since transcended. As if the presence of women as ordained is what transformation ultimately adds up to.

The liturgical theologian Gail Ramshaw once wrote about how the Church has said 'yes' to Father and Lord, and has rejected other terms (like 'witch'). Others are still being tested. Perhaps one of those is ‘Mother’. Ultimately, the Church may reject it.

I want to say we haven’t really tried with expansive language, certainly not in the C of E. One of the questions feminist theologians have raised about the monomaniacal obsessions with terms like ‘Father’ and ‘Lord’ is the extent to which they indicate authoritarian and tyrannical discourses.

The dismissive, mocking and often fearful reactions to a desire to be expansive in our God-talk seems to me to indicate a profound anxiety at the heart of monarchical, authoritarian thinking. It is a politics which relies both on creating an 'Other' and defining itself as 'complete' without her. It is contradictory. It is doomed to pull itself apart.