Friday, 14 November 2014

Honest To God: Faith, Disbelief & Constructions

A couple of weeks back both old and new media were all a-splutter over a headline which read, ‘2% of Anglican priests don’t believe in God’ (The Independent. October27th). Lifted from a YouGov poll of over 1500 clergy on a range of topics, it was a headline designed for our ‘click-bait’ age. Just one glance at it conjured images of head-shaking and spoon-dropping over the breakfast tables of those who still give a damn what happens in the church.

I guess the headline made a good newspaper story. The suggestion that 2% of Anglican clergy surveyed in the poll see God as a human construct and that 16% are inclined to agnosticism makes for good copy. Linda Woodhead’s follow-up comments in The Church Times on the survey – which she developed with YouGov for the Faith Debates series – are more nuanced, noting how clergy, from all traditions, share in an overwhelming sense of commitment to a personal God.

I’ve been thinking a lot about that Independent headline – clickbait though it was – and the various reactions I’ve heard to it. I’ve read comments that cover a gamut from ‘Typical C of E’, ‘Boot them out’ to ‘It shows how hard it is to leave ministry’. I’ve been thinking about the headline because I’ve found some of the reactions unhelpful. I want to offer the beginnings of a defence of those in ministry who might struggle with God’s ‘reality’, even to the point of seeing him/her/it as a construct. And that defence is predicated on a sense that we should not parody those who – sometimes with the utmost rigour and boldness – are exploring the possibilities of faith and doubt and reason in a crucible of modern and post-modern thought.

I guess I should flag up that I’m no ‘Sea of Faith’ cleric. I have a strong sense of the reality of God and a faith in a personal God. I am also someone who knows what it means to move from a place of atheism to a place of faith in my personal narrative. At the same time, my training as a philosopher – primarily in secular settings – has taught me to be suspicious, rigorous and questioning. If I have a strong sense of ‘the reality of God’ I also question what those terms mean and am inclined to see the old lines – which shaped ‘The Sea of Faith’ movement, for example – between ‘Realism’ and ‘Anti-Realism’ as a questionable dichotomy.

It is easy to take a headline like ‘2% of Anglican priests blah’ and read that through the prism of ‘x has lost his/her faith and is a time-server, not wanting to lose their pension’ or ‘x should be disciplined for error’. However, I’ve known some clergy – often of a certain post-60s vintage – for whom their engagement with modern critical thought has led them to a place where, yes, in all honesty, they’ve felt a need to affirm God as human construct, but nonetheless want to assert that God and religion have a key, active place to play in humanity’s endless constructions of its realities.

It is now common coin for many atheists to parody Christian (and any religious) faith as a belief in a kindly Sky-Fairy or some grouchy All-Father/Bloke with Beard who serves up nice things for some and rubbish for others. Most thoughtful Christians will blanch at this parody and know that far more nuanced understandings of God are available. But we also need to be prepared to examine our faith in the light of challenges raised by recent thought. Otherwise it’s likely to look comedically inept to some of our more sophisticated critics (who generally don't fall into the Sky-Fairy camp). (Whatever one feels about Radical Orthodoxy, one has to accept that Millbank, Pickstock et al have at least spent a bit of time in the company of recent critical thought.)

I’ve spent half of my life wrestling with philosophical texts by the likes of Derrida, Foucault, Lacan, Wittgenstein, Hegel, and so on. I know I’m inclined to take texts and textuality far too seriously, but I feel like I’d be betraying my faith if I didn’t expose its meanings and possibilities to the work of thinkers who have examined the aporias and questions at the heart of logocentric identity and thought. I am – as I’ve already indicated – very serious about my faith and that of others, but when I say ‘I believe in God’ any number of questions and qualifications to and about that statement go through my head. It strikes me as childish to say that that statement is not complex, compromised and part of a matrix of discourses which create and construct our realities. Representation is unavoidable.

I guess I’m asking for a kind of generosity in our readings of headlines like ‘2% of Clergy don’t believe in God.’ I suspect that’s asking for a lot from the sometimes blunt tool that is the media, both social and traditional. I suspect we need more Christians, lay and ordained, who are prepared to seriously engage with the various questions raised by post-structuralism, post-modernity, feminism et al. I’d also like to see more atheists – especially those who tend to deploy scientistic and positivistic strategies – submit their claims to the critical challenges of radical thought. It might help us all to be a bit more humble. 

Saturday, 25 October 2014

Greenbelt Short talk: How To Be Trans

In case you missed this short video, 'How To Be Trans':

I suspect I 'get away' with the two 'poems' on offer here. 'Get away' because they both need a lot of work to get them to be where I want them (as 'page poems')  especially the first. 'Checklist for a Trans Person Entering Church' might yet work as a list poem, but I haven't had the energy to do anything with it since GB. 'Coming Out' is now significantly different, especially the closing section (Though every part has been sharpened up and shaped). I think that what matters about these pieces as you find them here is the rhetorical force rather than the craft. Performance is an odd thing. Jean Sprackland said to me recently that sometimes we might need different versions of the same poem for different settings. At GB I felt like I had a particular point about trans and church, so maybe these words aren't too bad.

Saturday, 18 October 2014

Health Update: Not Defeated Yet!

I don’t usually use this blog for health updates, but this seemed the simplest, quickest way to tell the many kind friends and supporters who’ve asked about where things are up to. I’ll try and keep it brief!

On Friday 17th October I went to Manchester Royal Infirmary for an attempt to dilate a narrowed section of my ileum. As many of you will know I have Crohn’s and that led to the removal of my large intestine/colon in 2008 and the formation of a permanent ileostomy. Ongoing active Crohn’s has led to further damage in my remaining bowel, including a 15cm long severe stricture about 80cm proximal to my ileostomy. The stricture is c. 5mm wide which leads to pain and discomfort. My hope was that by stretching the bowel some relief might be had and I could get back to a more normal approach to eating. (Running alongside this plan has been an increase in the drug regimes that I’m on in the hope that my active Crohn’s Disease would be brought under control.)

I went to hospital with what I would call 'measured hope'. My consultant, Dr Rob Willerts is a regionally and nationally respected specialist and the one chap in the North West who combines the endoscopic skills and, more importantly, judgment to decide 'to dilate or not dilate' a stricture. If anyone was going to deal with the challenges, well, he’s the man. But I also knew that this procedure was exploratory – until the scope was inside the bowel, no one could be sure about the precise state of the stricture/s. Crucially, a balloon dilatation would only happen if they comprised scar tissue rather than active, ulcerating Crohn’s.

Alas, things have not gone quite as I’d hoped. When Rob and his team got to the stricture it was clear that the narrowing is full of active Crohn’s. As he explained afterwards, as soon as the scope touched the stricture it bled. That, however, is not the worst of it.

Rob did manage to get the scope through the stricture to take a look further up. Sadly there is further ulceration behind the stricture and it looks nasty, circumferential and active. At this point the team decided to end the procedure. It was not realistic to dilate the multiple problems.

In addition, there may be some Upper G.I. issues – apparently my scans show the possibility of a narrowing in the duodenal area. This is, of course, a wee bit worrying.

Where does this leave me? Well, it is a bit deflating. Despite being on high doses of advanced treatments for Crohn’s the disease has not been brought under control. It’s a reminder that my Crohn’s is of a complex variety.

I will be sent back to my team at Salford Royal and the hope is that the increase in some of my drugs will – over time – bring the active disease under control. There is a new Crohn’s drug Vedolizumab now coming on-line and that might be worth exploring. Obviously, drug treatments bring with them constant issues about side-effects, but I’ve been dealing with these for years and I’ve not been defeated yet! There is, of course, the shadow of surgery as well, but – given the fact that my previous, extensive adventures under the knife make that the very last resort – that will need to be considered with a calm and measured mind.

Those of you who know me best know that I am not easily deflated or knocked-back. I continue to try to be sensible with my energies and resources and, more often than not, end up acting like an idiot. I shall attempt to process this new info with sense and prayerful discernment. God, in my experience, is incredibly gracious and good, even in the midst of (quite literally) shit. I remain hopeful of a way ahead that is life-giving and flourishing.

I remain so energized by the opportunities ministry, the arts and, well, life throw my way. I actually believe that God is often most creative in the midst of the most troubling challenges life can throw at us. Until such time as I cannot, I shall just keep on keeping on. And in the meantime 'good news' will emerge, good news that is not predicated on some childish and easy myth of what 'good health' looks like. 

Thank you for all your love, good vibes/prayers/crossed fingers/etc and support. It means so much. You’re wonderful. xx

Saturday, 11 October 2014

National 'Coming Out' Day

Perhaps ‘Coming Out’ shouldn’t matter. Perhaps we should live in a world where saying one is LGBT* is no more significant than saying one is ‘coming out’ as straight. But it does matter because we still live in a heteronormative world, especially in the church.

Yesterday I spoke at an Inter-Diocesan ‘Mental Health’ Day. I welcomed the opportunity to help people reflect on how both Church and Society can be places which have deleterious effects on the well-being of LGBT folk. Sometimes consciously and sometimes unconsciously, the Church creates environments in which LGBT people are encouraged to stay so far in the closet they’re stuck in a Narnia where Christmas never comes.

Being able to be safely congruent with friends, neighbours and society is one of the ways human flourishing works. This is one of the reasons why ‘coming out’ matters. And if you think there is too much ‘look at me’ in ‘coming out’ stories I invite you to take a good look at yourself. Heterosexuality and heteronormativity have their own ‘coming out’ narratives and we are expected to celebrate them. We call them things like ‘getting engaged’ and ‘getting marriage’. And, yes, these are things worth celebrating; it is just that they are so much part of the habitus of our lives that they conceal their nature as ‘coming out’ events. Being out is not about showing off; it’s about being congruent and being real. And for a lot of LGBT people it is still incredibly costly.

Earlier I was thinking about how tricky it is to come out, especially in the Church. This will be the case for the foreseeable future. I know people find it hard enough in liberal church contexts like those reasonably common in a diocese like Manchester. How much more so in less diverse church settings?

As I thought about these issues I concluded how extraordinary it would be to hear some messages of support from those in authority in the church for those who are using this day to ‘come out’.

Maybe I’m a fool, but I like to imagine a day when on social media and such like, you will be able to read a whole load of messages from bishops and archdeacons and, hey, even a few more lowly vicars like me saying, ‘Love, prayers and support for all coming out today.’ Of course it would signal an extraordinary shift in the fabric of the church and perhaps such a shift is impossible. But as long as the church and its leadership remains committed to a vision of human flourishing predicated on being our true selves in the reality of God, such a shift is surely possible. For the shalom of God can never based on living a lie, but on being honest to God, self and community.

Thursday, 21 August 2014

Coming Out

A poem about my experience of 'Coming Out' as trans. It's still a work in progress, but I think it has some energy & is worth sharing.

A quick note: I say, 'On this day when I'm talking about 'coming out and Zacchaeus' in my opening spiel. I was asked to offer some thoughts on Luke 19 for Diverse Church, which I did in a longer post before I put this together! I shall probably link that here at some point.

Sunday, 17 August 2014

'Shared Conversations' and the place of LGBTI people in the C of E

‘When are the shared conversations starting and who’s going to be involved?’

I’ve heard and been asked these two questions in various settings over the months since The Pilling Report came out. 

The Pilling Report commended a process of ‘facilitated conversation’ as a way of moving forward discussion and relationships within the Church of England on all things LGBT. In light of the House of Bishops’ meeting earlier this year, the notion of ‘facilitated conversation’ shifted towards ‘shared conversations’ between various interested parties, leading up to a discussion in General Synod in 2016. (One assumes that the term ‘facilitated’ was troublesome because it held the implication that healing and mediation might be necessary.)

As I understand it, this formal process of shared conversation begins after a meeting of the College of Bishops this coming autumn. Diocesan bishops will then nominate representatives for regional discussions, including LGBT reps and a mix of lay and ordained.

I’ve been thinking an awful lot about this (by church standards!) imminent process in the past couple of weeks. While this fact is no doubt a symptom of my need to get out more, my rumination is also unsurprising. Like pretty much every LGBT person who has chosen to stick around within the church I am profoundly conscious of the extent to which ‘we’ have been treated as something to be talked about, as an issue. So there’s a part of me that’s intrigued by the possibility that we might be talked to. Really talked to.

And, yet, the Pilling Report was also, supposedly, part of a process of being talked to and with. As someone who conversed at length with members of the Pilling Committee I’m not especially convinced I was listened to. It would not be beyond the possibility that I might the kind of person who was asked to participate in the upcoming conversations.  (And I suspect there will be a goodly number of people who – as much out of a desire to know what this process will involve – will be keen to participate.) And yet that previous experience has made me suspicious of the whole process.

In some respects it feels like the world is changing fast. The number of ‘coming outs’ recently, including Vicky Beeching, has hopefully left some church people thinking, ‘are there actually any straight people in the church?’ (;-D). However, the treatment of Jeremy Pemberton and the patchy nature of support for LGBT people in the C of E should give pause. As someone said to me recently, ‘We live in a bubble in Manchester diocese.’ It is a place where – more or less – LGBT lay and ordained can thrive and feel supported. You don’t have to travel too far outside the bounds of the city to experience a quite different reality.

Why am I suspicious about the ‘shared conversation’ process? Partly because ‘conversations’ have been going on in one form or another since at least the Consultations of the ‘70s. And yet it’s not clear that the C of E institution qua institution has shifted that much.

However, I am more concerned about whether the conversations will truly be conversations. The notion of ‘conversation’ includes the meanings of a ‘turning together’ or a ‘changing together’ as well as a living amongst or dwelling together. It is a mesmerizing possibility, but given things like the House of Bishops’ Pastoral Statement (aka The Valentine’s Day Massacre) it’s difficult for those of us who have been traditionally excluded from welcome in the church to trust that those with power, privilege and authority will genuinely place their privilege at risk of conversion, of conversation.

I believe that, in conversation, a mutual conversion to one other is certainly possible and I guess many of us would still be willing to give it a go. But we’d better hope God is around to give all participants a reality check, a regular kick in the shins.

Monday, 4 August 2014

Two 'War' Poems

Grandfather 1978

he is sitting in a high-backed chair watching fat wrestlers on TV
the screen thicker than a cartoon character’s glasses

his shirt grimy collared fraying around the cuffs     his trousers
great clown-worthy trousers imprisoned in braces
and a belt surely made from the side of a cow

the liver-spotted arms    the muscles thin as his hair   
that finger    the third on his left hand knuckled short
as if a knife has been taken to it as vicious as the one he uses
to de-string sausages for tea

and the sigh he gives when
I ask how the finger was lost

the words he speaks

Mametz    Neuve Chappelle    Wipers and finally

Passchendaele    said as if his mouth is clotted with mud


Some days we receive them as gift,
held above us like snow falling,
yet seeming to rise, threads packed thickly,
heavy with names. Threatening to wipe away
the familiar paths beneath our feet.

Down here there is nothing,
but waiting, trying to remember
the lessons that would make us safe,
forgetting how when the storm comes we shall
find nothing to cling to, the night
slick with ice; how it is possible for frost to be made

in summer, how there can be emblems waved,
celebrations at which no one is found.