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.

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

Time to Dump Mission and Embrace Evangelism?

During the ‘break-out’ discussion at Manchester Diocese’s recent clergy formation day I said something that raised a few eyebrows. In a moment of hyperbolic flourish I lost my head and suggested that ‘the age of mission is over, we’ve now entered the age of evangelism’. I think this took some evangelical colleagues by surprise and made some of the old hands who'd lived through the ultimately bleak ‘Decade of Evangelism’ want to gather up the jerseys, deflate the football and go home.

Much as I love a provocative flourish I’m actually quite serious. Truth is, I’m not sure I even know what ‘mission’ is anymore, let alone ‘mission-shaped church’. Frankly, I think it’s time we stopped talking about it.

Ok, so I was formed for ministry at Queen’s. This might explain why I’m a bit bewildered about the notion of mission.  At Queen’s one got the impression that ‘mission’ could be pretty much anything as long as it was done with an eye for God, love and grace. I left Queen’s feeling that just going out of the house and walking down the street, as long as it is done in a non-defensive manner, is mission. And maybe it is.

Words are tricksy things. We pile words on words to disguise the erosion of meaning. Perhaps that’s what’s happened with the notion of mission. Mission-shaped church has become a way of buttressing both ‘mission’ and ‘church’, hoping to retain semantic grip. Mission Action Plans can leave us feeling we, as church, are outward-looking when we’re really just formalizing our insularity (‘how can we increase our numbers?’ ‘how can we look busy?’). I’m not saying this is necessarily the case, but I worry this is what they’ve become.

By contrast, I’m drawn to the notion of ‘evangelism’ because it requires we think about what good news ‘we’ (let’s leave that open for the moment) have to offer.

Evangelism gets stereotyped as people knocking on doors or asking questions like, ‘Have you heard the good news about Jesus Christ?’ (One is always tempted to ask, ‘Oh, is he doing a farewell tour?’). Evangelism can be reduced, on this picture, to a kind of horrifying sincerity that’s crass, embarrassing and intrusive. Such an approach to evangelism is not my style, but if I dare ask why I’m/we’re uncomfortable about talking about and embody ‘good news’ I suspect it’s revealing.

By thinking in terms of evangelism – as an activity of sharing and participating in the good news of God – other interesting fault lines emerge. It’s exposing.

For, if I’m honest, I think there are serious questions about what kind of ‘good news’ the church and I, as one of its representatives, has to offer women, LGBT people, people of colour and so on.

I want to say that God in Jesus Christ is good news for all, but only an idiot would suggest that we can completely disentangle that from the realities of being and living church.

So what am I trying to say? I want to say that when we think of mission we tend to quickly turn that into the ‘mission of the church’. This has the spaciousness (amorphousness??) to give all traditions wriggle room. It liberates us from the crass and quite possibly useless notions of evangelism many of us are horrified by.

But talk of ‘the church’s mission’ tends to be uncritical of the notion of ‘the church’ as we’ve received it. As many have argued, including the rather wonderful John Hull, the notion of ‘mission-shaped church’ tends to treat the notion of church as the primary focus for God’s Kingdom and a kind of good in itself.

By contrast, to force ourselves to think about evangelism is a jolt. To concentrate, however temporarily, on what it means to communicate and share in the evangelion – the good news – invites us to take a long hard look at what we, as church, actually think we have to offer.

What actually got me excited, passionate and fired up in the first place – as a Christian and then as a priest – was not the church.  It was not mission. It was good news. It was the good news that this often sucktacular world we live in is exceeded by the Kingdom. It was the good news that that Christ cannot be reduced to the church. It was the good news that if the church can model reconciliation, love, etc. it only does so insofar as the Body is a living, breathing embodiment of Christ. It was the good news of Jesus Christ.

And – do I need to tell you again? – all too often the church is offering bad news to those who don’t fit its normative pictures of human being. It’s time we all got serious about good news. It’s time we got serious about what God in Christ is up to in this compromised world.

Monday, 26 January 2015

A Prayer for Libby

A few people were asking for the prayer the Ven. Sarah Bullock used at the end of her sermon for Libby Lane’s consecration. It was a privilege to be asked to write it and make a small offering to a magnificent day. So, here it is:

Prayer for Libby

God of the Dawn, Morning Star,
Mother and Father of All,
we bless your holy name!
Sing through your creation
as you did on the First Day!
Enfold your servant Libby
with your encouragement, hope, and grace.
Inspire her and your whole Church
to embrace the wholeness of your Kingdom,
the promise of your love. Amen

Rachel Mann

Friday, 23 January 2015

Taking God's Creativity Seriously

“As for the nature of the Church, and the priorities for its recovery, it is simply assumed that the improvement depends on more and better clergy; that only congregations can fund it (with a fillip from the Commissioners); and that being a Christian is a matter of "discipleship".”

I found Linda Woodhead’s reflections in The Church Times on the C of E’s recent reports on reform, mission and discipleship both challenging and impressive. The way they point up the church’s tendency to focus on the clerical and the congregational over the lay and societal are, as some of my rock and roll friends might put it, ‘truth bullets’.

One section was particularly striking for me. Linda says,

How different it would have been if the reports had a more glorious vision of life in the Spirit, in which we are no longer mere disciples, but "partakers in the divine nature", capable of having "the mind of Christ". The gifts that we are given allow us, together, to make up the mystical body of Christ. God present not only in churches; the Spirit is poured out not only on the clergy; and leadership appears in many places.

Cynics will be inclined to say, ‘Ah this is easy, high-flown rhetoric’. And, in some respects it is. Many of us love to take off into the stratosphere and spin a picture in language.  It was the kind of stuff I reckon Jesus was quite good at and I wish we, as an institution, were more attentive to and prepared to try.  For how something is spoken of and written about shapes our imaginative possibilities. We are, in so many ways, the stories and poems we tell. The ancients knew that better than us I think. And those of us who put a lot of energy into the craft of making stories, songs and poems are (if we’re lucky) called poets and storytellers. If we’re unlucky, we get called less flattering things.

There’s no doubt the church of God needs a wake-up call. Linda Woodhead acknowledges that. But I reckon she’s asking for a little more of that stuff that got me excited about God and the kingdom (and – sometimes, just sometimes – the church) in the first place: imagination, creativity and attentiveness to the terrifyingly bold Divine Nature.

As far as I’m concerned, this isn’t flimsy, dreamy stuff. This isn’t the kind of stuff some of our more macho co-religionists might dismiss as ‘mimsy nonsense’. If God is the creator and is in creation and creativity, it is in a disciplined, sustained and sustaining way. That’s what I see anyway when I reflect on the universe we’re part of. Our participation in God’s calling is, like that of a serious poet or writer, about the disciplined hard work of attention, discernment and craft.

My modest work as a poet and occasional teacher of creative things suggests to me that often the stuff of God – the works of imagination and creativity I reckon most of us are capable of and are certainly capable of being part of – is not the special preserve of anyone. There is nothing as exhilarating as witnessing someone who thinks they're uncreative or untalented beginning to find their voice. The imaginative hope of the church no more lies in a special class of people (clergy) than in a special class of uniquely gifted individuals we might label ‘artists’. Participating in the mind of Christ or the Godhead – the fierce love that sustains creation and unfolds redemption – is something that can happen both inside and outside the church, among both lay and ordained.

However, like all creative work it flourishes under conditions where it is intentional and encouraged. As a writer, I’m not terribly interested in sitting around ‘waiting for inspiration’ or ‘expressing my feelings or thoughts’; I want to keep plugging away, being attentive to the shifts and play of language, participating in a creative and critical community of writers and thinkers. I’m not saying that everyone in the church needs to be writing poetry (well, if you pushed me…I certainly think we should all be reading more poetry…yes, ok, and writing it…) or painting and so on. But I wonder what the church might be like if more of us orientated our realities around stuff that might broadly be called 'creative arts', play and imaginative and creative responses to living. It would certainly make a change from the grind of keeping the church on the road.

If we really started looking beyond the functional and the technological (i.e. that which offers a technique for getting to 'x', e.g. producing disciples) I suspect we might take the world, other people and the unconventional a little more seriously. Hell, we might even start taking the Godhead herself a wee bit more seriously too.