Sunday, 22 March 2020

Made for Rest - Learning to Pace Ourselves in a Time of Crisis

Like many, I’ve found the past week disconcerting, strange and worrisome. As a parish priest, I’m learning what on earth it means to be a priest in a time of social-distancing, self-isolation, and no public services. Like many priests, this has entailed both creativity (using the internet to broadcast worship) and going back to the basic call to pray, love and (using safe means!) connect with people.

This last week has been very busy. I’m not moaning. I’m stating a fact. As Area Dean as well as parish priest, there’s been a lot to consider, respond to, and rework. I can’t imagine how difficult things are for people with real responsibility, like emergency workers, senior leaders and those who have direct care for people with great personal need. I also have no idea how it must feel to be self-employed and lose all one’s income overnight or be anxious about renting and the threat being made homeless.

What has come home to me is how tempting it is to try and find new ways of being busy. Instinctively, I am a busy person and I think that’s okay. I rather love it. However, this week, my diary has gone from having things happening almost every hour during the day and evening, to seemingly nothing.

At the same time, the crisis has provided new things to be busy about. In so many ways I’ve been busy seeking to cope, with good colleagues, with all that crisis throws our way, as well as meet real felt need in the community. A signal of trying to cope with this new reality is my lack of sleep and rest. The word ‘unprecedented’ has been over-used this week. However, there is a reason it has been used so unrestrainedly.

For, from a Church of England point-of-view, there is no one – from Archbishop to the most-freshly baptised Christian – who is not facing an entirely new set of social and ecclesial realities. We are all improvising. We are all hoping, and we are all scared. We have come to realise that our old ways of going on as Church need to be re-examined. As a Church in a time of virus, we cannot rely of lazy formulae or many of our ready-made assumptions.

This past week I’ve thought a lot about that line attributed (in my head!) to the great spiritual writer, Gerard Hughes: ‘We are made for rest, not for work’. In the midst of stress and busyness and the need to address crisis conditions it has resonated around my body. 

Gerry Hughes’ remark is a reminder that, for as much as we are inclined to define ourselves by ‘work’, rest is God’s defining gift.

I say this with all due caution. I’ve experienced unemployment and enforced worklessness as a result of ill-health and disability. I know how important work is, for financial as well as psychological and social reasons.

However, I do worry that too often people like me define ourselves by the work we do. Work is valuable, but few of us, if any, will say – when we come before the Living God – if only I’d spent more time in the office. 

Rest requires slowing-down, letting-go and learning to listen to and make friends with silence, space and seeming pointlessness. 

If God rests so can we. We take our cue from him. He is the one who goes ahead and shows us who we are made to be. 

If there is one thing us ministers can rediscover in these strange times, it is rest. Those of us who lead are not always good at taking time out to befriend God’s quietude, silence and restfulness. Let us dare. It will really matter in the tough and testing days to come.

St Nick's Live Stream Eucharist: An Introduction

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Tuesday, 17 March 2020

A Self-Isolator Attempts to Pray


* In light of the decision to suspend public worship in the C of E, I've decided to revive this blog as one way of digitally reflecting on prayer & worship with parish and beyond in extraordinary times.*

Last night I had a chat with a senior colleague about what suspension of public worship might mean for us in the C of E. He said, (words to the effect) ‘perhaps it’s an opportunity for us to pray.’ For as diaries empty, services stop, and our public activities are suspended, what are we called to do as the people of God?

This past week I’ve been in self-isolation with some COVID-19 symptoms. I suspect it’s not COVID-19 and my symptoms, though unpleasant, were ultimately too mild to warrant a test.  Nonetheless, it has been a salutary and, at times, uncomfortable experience.

One of the things that has come home to me in this past week of isolation is how difficult it is to pray and yet how necessary it is. I’d love to be a mystic and a ‘proper’ person of prayer, but especially when I’m poorly, I often struggled to sit down, pray and listen to God.

However, this experience of finding myself a kind of ‘short-term hermit’ or anchorite – where I have had to rely on the kindness of friends to bring me food etc. – has reminded me of my vocation to pray.

Indeed, since I started to feel a bit better, I found myself asking for people to send me prayer requests via Twitter. I have received many and have taken them to God.

Rather unexpectedly, the deeper I’ve gone in to self-isolation the more connected I’ve felt with prayer and the better able to take the concerns of others to the Living God.

This has not been grand work or impressive work. Being alone has reminded me of my insignificance. I might like to pretend that I am ‘this’ or ‘that’, but self-isolation has taught me that I am, for the most part, irrelevant.

The real question God presents is this: am I – are you, are we – prepared to be faithful? Will I/we dare pray, for others, for the world, for myself/ourselves? Will I/we dare to be exposed to the living God?

Like most modern people I am almost infinitely distractible. Indeed, over the past seven days I’ve watched a lot of crap on Netflix; I’ve flicked through my phone in search of entertainment. I’ve searched the Net for the latest updates. I’ve wasted time.

I actually think that’s okay and normal. I’m no more a saint than you. As humans, we are time-wasters. We have a gift for it.

However, I have also felt that call that the anchorites know, that the likes of Julian of Norwich knew: to pray and listen and hold others in God’s wondrous Love.

In the days and weeks to come, when public worship is suspended, I hope that we all can find time to listen to God; to hear his still small voice in the oddness of the days we are living through. I hope we can pray for others and ourselves and become alert to the extent to which we are in each other’s hands.

I hope we can pray this prayer of St Julian of Norwich:

In you, Father all-mighty, we have our preservation and our bliss.
In you, Christ, we have our restoring and our saving.
You are our mother, brother, and Saviour.
In you, our Lord the Holy Spirit, is marvellous and plenteous grace.
You are our clothing; for love you wrap us and embrace us.
You are our maker, our lover, our keeper.
Teach us to believe that by your grace all shall be well, and all shall be well,
and all manner of things shall be well. Amen

Saturday, 23 February 2019

‘In Company’ – A Few Remarkable Days at Synod

As General Synod’s February 2019 sessions draw to a close, I’d like to offer a few reflections on my latest experience of the Church of England’s legislative and governing body. Rather than offer a frame-by-frame analysis, I should like to offer something a little more personal. This personal approach runs the risk of being by turns self-indulgent and self-pitying or self-aggrandizing. In order to process my experience of Synod, I’ll just have to take those risks. I hope that what I have to say doesn’t, at times, read as either passive-aggressive or graceless. I beg your forgiveness if elements of it read that way.

I want to start in a curious place. I want to place my experience of Synod in the context of something non-Synodical: my visit, on Friday night, to watch Stephen Sondheim’s Company with my younger brother and his wife. I found it an almost overwhelming experience. The new production has switched the gender of the central character, Bobbie, and this revised and updated version of Sondheim’s exploration of the nature of relationships, marriage, singleness, loneliness and friendship feels simultaneously classic and modern. I wept and laughed and came away more alert to what it means to live in ‘a city of strangers’.

I suspect part of the reason I was so deeply affected by the production was tiredness – Synod is tiring and demanding. However, I was also profoundly affected by the way Company exposes the power of solidarity, friendship and gift in contexts where we can feel alone, a little isolated and a little bewildered.

This Synod has – from my point of view – felt energised and, often, energising. I had the great privilege to speak in one of the Evangelism debates and I was thrilled by the tone of openness. I’m excited about faith communities embodying good news and sharing the good news of Jesus Christ. If, during legislative business, there were moments when I felt a little tetchy at what I felt were over-pernickity obsessions with detail, I understood the reasons why people get carried away on those details. My main disappointment concerned the fall of  the motion to remove secret ballots in CNC episcopal ballots.

However, there was another dimension of my experience of Synod that – on reflection – I’ve felt a little heavily in my bones. Forgive me for commenting on it, for I’ve no desire to be mean or silence anyone. That dimension concerns the extraordinary number of questions regarding the House of Bishops’ Transgender Guidance. 

I trust you understand why I’ve sought to keep my counsel, as best I can, on the various responses to the Guidance. It also struck me as crucial that I – as the first out trans person on Synod – stay silent during the supplemental Questions. I decided, however, I needed to be in the Chamber and witness the Questions session.

I’m not going to lie. Some of the questions were difficult to hear. Some of them led me to want – despite the fact that Synod doesn’t work like this – to shout out, ‘Objection!’ I wanted to correct false information and challenge some of the language questioners used. 

It was not my job to respond to the supplementary Questions. It was the Bishops’ job and I thought they did a fine job. In many respects, the whole thing was a damp squib. The Bishops played a dead bat in an impressive way.

That doesn’t remove the cost I felt in my body. Hearing the supplementary questions was often challenging. I got very close to tears at one point, but – thankfully – didn’t cry. I don’t think my tears would have helped. They might even have been read as politics (‘Oh, look, the trans woman is weeping …’) Still, to hear the Supplemental Questions was often quite bruising. It is – I discovered – a curious thing to be in a minority of one.

Still, I’m glad I was there for the Questions. I’m glad because, by being present in a silent way, I ensured that, for the first time, those who – consciously or unconsciously – represent trans people as problems or delusional could not do so without at least one trans person witnessing this. People like me are part of the Body of Christ, are part of Synod and the Church, and we are ordinary members of those bodies. We are here and we are not going away, even in the midst of the cost.

Which brings me back to Company. It’s a musical about commitment and, as Bobbie sings in the final song ‘Being Alive’, we do that in risk and in community. She asks for someone to mark her with grace. I certainly felt marked with grace during Synod, both during Questions and elsewhere. God was moving. I cannot tell you how profoundly I felt the warmth and generosity of so many in the Chamber on Wednesday evening. That witness was quiet, alert and generous, as so much witness often is. It helped me to feel alive and be alive during the Synod.

I was glad not only to be in the Chamber then, but throughout the week as the Synod sought to be outward-looking and engaged with the Nation. We may disagree on how we do that, and so often we do that clumsily, but we are at least willing to try. 

Thank you, colleagues – even those I disagree profoundly with – for ‘company’ and the willingness to wrestle and work together on the grand things and the small. I hope we are prepared to take the risk of being converted towards each other. I also ask that those who who read this blog and are praying types, pray for all on Synod. Keep me in your prayers as I sit in the gift of being an elected member of Synod, but also negotiate the aloneness and loneliness that can come through being in a minority. Pray especially for those of us who are out LGBTI+ Synod reps (and those who cannot yet be so), that we are a generous, kind and a transforming presence.

Saturday, 22 September 2018

On the Radar: Cultural Highlights, W/E 22nd September 2018

It's a sign that I've been rather busy in recent weeks that I've so little to share. This is also my first post in two weeks. Work intervenes in culture!


FICTION

Lethal White – Robert Galbraith

The latest outing for Galbraith’s (AKA J.K. Rowling’s) detective Cormoran Strike. It remains a highly readable, twisty-and-turny series, very much in Mayhem Parva mode, with added swears and flashes of modernity. It’s an absolute doorstopper of a book which – given it takes c. three-hundred pages to get to the first murder – would have warranted better editing.

NON-FICTION

The Cold War: A World History – Odd Arne Westad

I can be a sucker for one-volume histories, and this is one heck of a door stopper. Nonetheless, it’s popular history, a synthesis by a Harvard professor. It contextualises the Cold War in the Great War which is actually very helpful, especially if one is inclined to read the Second World War as a continuation of the First War. Inevitably, Westad slides over large swathes of modern history, but this is immensely readable and timely stuff. Arguably, our current travails – re:- Korea and the US, the Russia and the UK and the EU – are essentially grounded in the issues of the Cold War.


CINEMA

The Little Stranger (dir. Lenny Abrahamson)

The tone of this offering is – like Stephen Resnick’s soundtrack – spectral and melancholic. It does its best with Sarah Waters’ gothic horror novel, but doesn’t quite reach the level it might (neither does the source material). Fine, period-appropriate performances, especially from Charlotte Rampling and Ruth Wilson. Domhnall Gleeson as the male lead is fine, but Hundreds, the house which is the focus for Glesson’s obsessions, isn’t quite the star it should be.



Saturday, 8 September 2018

On the Radar: My Cultural Highlights, W/E 08th September 2018

RADIO

Top Girls – Caryl Churchill (Radio Four Extra, on iPlayer till the end of September)

The BBC have re-broadcast a World Service version of Churchill’s play to celebrate her 80thbirthday. Her classic study of the tensions inherent in feminism and liberation (especially individualist vs communitarian versions), ought to feel very dated. However, that opening scene in which the central character gets pissed with increasingly lairy feminist heroes of the past still hits the mark. As their behaviour increasingly mirrors those of the men they want liberation from, it exercises a real grip. Its comments on Thatcher, the end of society, and the status of women unable to ‘get to the top’ remains essential.


Jaws – Peter Benchley (Radio Four, on iPlayer till the end of September)

I am part of a generation still terrorised by Benchley’s (false) representations of the perils of the Deep. This edited audio book – which cleverly uses John Williams’ score for the film version as soundtrack – brings out nuances lost in Spielberg’s adaptation. It’s pulpy, scary and compelling.


MAGAZINES/JOURNALS

PN Review (243)

Of the various poetry journals I subscribe to, PN Review is the one which challenges and extends me the most. In the latest edition, I’ve enjoyed new poems from the ever-witty Sophie Hannah, Ireland’s Vona Groake as well as Chris Beckett/Hiwot Tadesse’s translation of Bedilu Wakjira’s ‘Truth, my Child’. There are also four poems by the recently deceased Matthew Sweeney. Vahni Capildeo’s report continues to mesmerise.

POETRY

Michael Symmons Roberts – Mancunia (Cape: 2017)

Roberts continues to develop as a poet. That’s saying something, given his previous work. After the extraordinary effort of his previous collection, Drysalter, I was anticipating disappointment. Rather, this collection – an exploration of utopia and the Manchesters of the mind and soul – displays Roberts’ ability to marshall all his formal gifts with even greater boldness.

Sarah Howe – Loop of Jade (Chatto: 2015)

I’m cautious around major prize-winning collections (this won the T.S. Eliot in 2015), but Howe’s debut collection is a tour de force. Her storytelling voice is sharp and bold and her formal skills are, at times, breath-taking. Her account of her dual heritage – Chinese and British – is scintillating.


MUSIC

The Little Stranger (OST) – Stephen Rennicks (2018)

Spectral and melancholic, Resnick’s soundtrack for the new adaptation of Sarah Waters’ 1940s ghost novel, is the kind of thing one expects to be played behind lots of shots of people wearing tweed, as they crunch across gravel and stare up at a louring country house.
It is perhaps a little unfair to read a film based on its soundtrack, but one imagines the accompanying film will look washed-out, autumnal and full-on Brit-heritage sumptuous. I can’t wait.


Jackie Oates – The Joy of Living (2018)

Oates’ new album took me rather by surprise. About half-way through my first listen, I found myself in tears. This was partly because of the sensitivity with which Oates handles the album’s folk material; it was also a reflection of her ability to speak of joys and pains of being alive with understated vulnerability. Highly commended.

LIVE MUSIC

Camel – Moonmadness Live at the Bridgewater Hall (Friday 7thSeptember)

Andy Latimer’s rejuvenated outfit continue to dazzle. The night displayed Latimer and co’s ability to handle difficult music with precision, skill and wit. The rapport between band and audience was marvellous.

Thursday, 6 September 2018

The Limits of Sex: The C of E, priggishness, and its violence against LGBT couples

CONTENT WARNING: Contains references to Sex...


When I came to faith over twenty years ago, I worshipped in a large Evangelical-Charismatic church. As a new Christian, I was just beginning to explore what it meant for me – a trans woman – to offer my whole life to God. Part of that exploration concerned who God was calling me to be in my intimate relationships.

This ultimately led me into a quite extraordinary conversation with a new friend, a Christian of very longstanding, about sex. The conversation came down to a question: ‘What constitutes ‘sex’ for Christians?’ For, as I’m sure most of you will know, the official position of the Church of England is that sex is something only appropriate within the covenant/contract of heterosexual marriage. In this blogpost, I want to reflect briefly on what the ‘sex’ word might mean.

The provocation for this post is a couple of blogs written by Anglican priests, one by Richard Peers and the other, Jeremy Pemberton. You can read them here and here. Both reflect powerfully on the Church of England’s structural and pastoral mess around matters of sex and sexuality. They are very fine, sobering and, I found, distressing pieces of writing. They indicate the pernicious impact of the ‘official’ Church line on the psychological, emotional and spiritual health of same-sex couples.

Such was the respective power of Peers’ and Pemberton’s blogs, that I’ve felt compelled to reflect further on where I sit in this mess, as a single woman whose primary orientation (with a number of exceptions!) is lesbian.

Both blogs left me asking, ‘When the Church says same-sex couples shouldn’t have sex what does it think constitutes sex and sexual intimacy anyway?’

For, the current position suggests that, for same-sex couples to be obedient to the Church’s teaching, they must be ‘celibate’. (Presumably, this discipline applies also to het couples outside of marriage.)

Now, I don’t propose to wrestle with the hoary old topic of whether the word ‘celibate’ is being misused by the Church. Rather, I want to explore its (arguably) crude understanding of intimacy and sex. The prism for that exploration is my experience of worshipping in a conservative-evangelical context a couple of decades ago (a context that arguably modelled the Church’s current position on ‘sex’).

So, *that* conversation I had with my married friend. The provocation for the conversation was my – at the time – rather desperate, if sincere attempt to figure out who I was being called to be as a sexual being in the Church of God.

I’d picked up very quickly that in the Evo-Charismatic community of which I was part, ‘sex’ was not permitted outside of marriage (which, of course, was merely a het institution at the time). So much, so obvious. But was that the whole story? Let’s suppose I did start ‘going-out’ with a guy, what might be permissible sexually speaking??

I was no ingĂ©nue when it came to sex (most twenty-six year olds in the UK in the 90s were not!), but I was stunned by my friend’s account of what she and her husband had considered permissible ‘sexual’ behaviour, but NOT actually sex before they were married.

I won’t go into details. Let’s just say, to my worldly ears, they’d basically tried all the fun things in the heterosexual box with the sole proviso of ensuring that his penis didn’t enter her vagina.

Let’s be clear here, this couple were faithful, profoundly committed Christians, absolutely devoted to each other. Their love was inspiring. They wanted to remain faithful to the Church’s discipline and teaching on ‘sex’ and had found their 'strategy' to do so.

A further eye-opener for me was discovering that in the Evangelical sub-culture of which I was part, all sorts of conversations went on about ‘how far could you (faithfully) go?’ I.e. ‘What was the line of Sin?’’ Sex before marriage was off the table, but what might one do?

Strange as these contortions seemed to my newly-converted ears, there was something kind of cunning and impressive about this discourse. The Church-imposed constraints seemed to generate an extraordinary determination to test the limits of the rules. (Cynics might call it hypocrisy!) I think my own take was, ‘intimacy will find a way!’

Why am I talking about this? Well, because – frankly – what my friend told me she and her partner had got up to pre-marriage, struck me then, as it strikes me now, as sex and sexual intimacy

This committed adult couple – with all the cleverness of young people finding wriggle room within the rigid rules of the prudish and priggish Church – found ways to delight in intimacy and each other’s bodies. They’d been told that ‘Sex’ = penetration of a vagina by a penis… Understandably, they came to a mind – along with no doubt thousands of other Evangelical straight couples have – that the rest is … well, it’s a grey area …

I like to imagine that even for the chilliest, unimaginative person, Sex is not reducible to penetration of a vagina by a penis. If it is so reducible, doesn’t sex becomes deeply troubling? It displays a poverty of vision and imagination that runs the risk of leading to the very worst exploitative behaviour embedded in patriarchal power codes. It can become about body parts; it can become about regulation of women’s reproductive bodies … 

This might all seem a little icky for some, but this matters when it comes to Church polity and ecclesiology, especially same-sex couples.

When same-sex couples, utterly committed to each other, are told that if they have ‘sex’ they fail to be obedient to the church’s discipline, what is being said?

Does it really come down to ‘penetration’??!? (What kind of penetration?) If sex = defined, really, as a penis-vagina thing, then one presumes most same-sex couples are never going to have sex. Or if it does come down to penetration of any sort …then – as with my het friends, pre-marriage - ain’t the field wide open for all sorts of other intimacies?? 

Or is the Church actually suggesting that the riches of intimacy demonstrated by my faithful, loving straight friend with her husband-to-be are also excluded? Or is that irrelevant because, well they’re straight, and they were engaged anyway and … and …

Or … are there people out there who want to say that when even lovely straight, committed couples have lots of bodily fun (even without 'penetration') they are committing 'Sin'?

(This is before any consideration of the status of masturbation, mutual or otherwise …)

If the Church wants to condemn all varieties of intimacy outside of heterosexual marriage, what does it imagine it’s doings? 

Some will respond, ‘what matters is the difference between intimacy and affection’.

But where is the line drawn and by whom?

Is kissing ok (for gay and straight alike)? Holding hands? Kissing with tongues? Running a finger nail across the palm of one’s betrothed when one holds hands with them? 

Dancing, as long as people stay a foot apart?

If this is starting to sound ridiculous, that’s surely the point.

One of the profoundest dishonesties within the Church concerns its anxieties about the riches of adult consensual sexual intimacy; its account of desire and its relationship with sex and bodies displays profound poverty. The Church has dug itself into a terrible hole around the power and possibility of Eros.

The Church makes same-sex people pay a disproportionate price for its inadequate account of the body, desire and the scope of sex. The Church acts like the superego of a priggish adult who – straight-jacked by its crude formulations around the body’s possibilities – will only be happy if it applies them to everyone else.

When the Church dares to say to same-sex couples, ‘church discipline requires you be in a non-sexual/celibate relationship’, does it have the slightest idea what it’s saying?