Thursday, 9 June 2011

The Priority of Justice

As I've indicated in previous posts, Rowan Williams is, in my opinion, one of the finest intellects in Britain. Whatever one's perception of his faith commitments, his erudition is beyond question. I've met him and heard him speak on a number of occasions and I have always been impressed by his patient, nuanced approach. I've also had the privilege of reviewing his poetry for PN Review; it is hard to doubt his substance as a poet, even though his work often gives the impression of 'occasional' work rather than the product of a sustained vision. This is hardly suprising if one places his output in the context of his commitments as a theologian and as Archbishop of Canterbury. It is, in fact, a miracle that he gets to write anything at all.

His comments upon the Coalition's approach to welfare, health  and social reform are very much in keeping with his politics. His commitment to social justice is well-established and one would expect nothing less from someone who represents the Christian Left and who takes his role as Archbishop seriously. Whilst we may not be in the situation we found ourselves in in the 1980s - where some felt that the C of E was effectively the real opposition to the Tory Party - it is clearly crucial that the Church is serious in its questioning of the Big Society.

However, inevitably, for someone like me - a feminist and a lesbian priest - there remains a question why the Archbishop has not been bolder and more vocal in support of justice within the Church and of decision making processes within Anglican Provinces. I do not understand why he has not supported the Anglican principle that national churches make decisions about pastoral decisions without undue pressure from outside provinces. ECUSA and the Church in Canada have made locally-appropriate decisions to affirm gay clergy; these are decisions/policies which were voted for. And yet Rowan has been disinclined to support them.

Equally, there are very real concerns about the need for justice for LGBT people within the Church of England; Rowan - certainly in his pre-Cantuar days - was extraordinarily and publicly affirming. This support has, at best, gone underground.

Justice really matters - for the poor, for the excluded and the silenced. As does mercy. Rowan is absolutely right to challenge creeping notions of the 'deserving' vs the 'undeserving' poor within our social discourse. Generosity to the vulnerable and excluded  - as a kind of mercy and grace - matters. As does commitment to standing in solidarity with them.

I trust and pray that Rowan will demonstrate his solidarity to all who are excluded - both within and without the church -  as he ministers to the nation in the years to come.

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Why America is Vampire Heaven

Vampires used to be sexy, dangerous, and cruel. These days they are just as likely to drive mid-priced European hatchbacks, sparkle and have an unhealthy obsession with refraining from human blood.

Whatever you think about Stephenie Meyer’s The Twilight Saga (and, if you are one of my regular blog readers, I’m guessing it’s probably nothing very polite), only a fool would deny that it has had a significant impact on teen (girl) reading, on perceptions of vampires and on popular culture. Although there is superior literary ‘vampiric’ product out there, Twilight shares with Harry Potter the quality of generating a world which many people want to climb inside and live in.

Curiously, for me, I’m not going to lampoon the series, primarily because it would be almost too easy. Equally, I’m not going to comment on the dubious vision of women found in the Saga – the central character, Bella, is clearly utterly obsessed with Edward and has no goals outside of wanting to be with and please him. This is not an attractive vision of young womanhood.

Edward has that, 'Damn I need to crap a hunk of dried blood the size of a boulder again' feeling

Instead, I want to comment upon what Meyer’s representation of vampires has to say about her picture of the USA. This interests me in part because Meyer is a practising Latter Day Saint. The relevance of this is that the Latter Day Saints are, in a sense, the ultimate expression of a certain kind of American self-understanding sublimated into religion. Let me put it like this: there is a key sense in which America has, in its very DNA, a conception of itself as place of blessing and ‘manifest destiny’. Given that, it is logical that God would speak directly to Americans – would single them out for revelation and blessing. Thus, the Book of Mormon – a revelation which, according to LDS story, was found in the US for a chosen people on a pilgrimage of destiny. While The Twilight Saga is not a LDS book – though it clearly is one of the most ill-disguised adverts for pre-marital celibacy around – it is a book which reveals much about Meyers’ prejudices and pictures about her native land.

The Twilight Saga tells us again and again that vampires are both dangerous and alien. Most vampires prey upon humans and keep their distance from conventional human society. We are told that humans have a natural discomfort in their presence, even though vampires can be extraordinarily charming when finding their prey. However, the real story of Twilight, once we see underneath the sickly romance between Bella and Edward, is about acceptance.

Firstly, the central lovers are essentially insecure. They are addicted to each other beyond reason and sense and, even though Edward presents a more mature front, both spend an inordinate amount of time actually holding onto each other; as if they can only be safe and secure in each other’s arms. What they are both desperate for is acceptance and sense of place.

'Is that a Volvo C30 Edward drives? Hawt.'

Secondly, the Cullen clan, under the leadership of Dr Carlisle Cullen, are driven by the desire to belong – to belong to the ordinary company of good and decent Americans. Thus Carlisle works extraordinarily hard in that most respectable of professions – a doctor; his wife Esme is a homemaker and his adopted children all go to the local school, work hard and get top grades. And they love the American pastime – baseball. This is vampirism as ‘fitting in’. Even when the kids are taken out of school it is on the pretext of doing something wholesome – going hiking. Of course they’re actually indulging in that other All-American pastime – hunting grizzlies. In fact, if it wasn’t for the fact that this family are drinking the grizzlies’ blood they’d give the family from Little House on the Prairie a run for their money.

The message of all this is that, even if you are a vampire, you can find real acceptance in America: as long as you make sure you maintain your wholesome image and you don’t give into any, well, dubious/’unnatural’ urges like wanting to drink people’s blood (among no doubt a much bigger list of things). Oh, yes, and you have an exceptional amount of money and are good looking. For the Cullens have more cash than Bill Gates and Steve Jobs (and are obviously better looking – though there are a number of the previously mentioned grizzlies who can achieve that). They love to drive flashy European cars (which curiously does not annoy their patriotic countrymen and women – clearly the US car industry is totally screwed), have piles of cash lying around the house and wear designer clothes.

Indeed there is a truly profound comment on America here[1]: the message of the Cullens is that if you really want to get on the US today, be exceptionally attractive, drive gas-guzzling, environment destroying motors and throw away insanely expensive clothes after one use. That’s right folks: true acceptance in the US comes to those who are wealthy enough to afford to treat the world as their garbage can and do not care that the creation of their expensive threads has ruined the hands of ten children in a back alley workshop in Jakarta.

Of course, the only ones who really see through the Cullens are the Native Americans...wait a minute, isn’t Meyer’s take on them actually a bit racist (native Americans turn into ‘smelly dogs shocker’) and stereotyped? Oh God, what’s the point...
Just go read the books...or don’t...or meet a handsome vampire and give up on your life ambitions...
Nurse! NURSE!!!

[1] By ‘profound’ I mean ‘silly and pseudo-intellectual’

Friday, 3 June 2011

From The Church Times Vault:: The Sacrifice & Irony of War

This was originally featured in The Church Times in 2007 and reflects the huge influence Paul Fussell, Modrick Ecksteins and Geoff Dyer have had on my thinking.

Most of us would agree that war is brutal, nasty, and violent. Few would instinctively add ‘ironic’ to that list. The cultural historian and literary critic Paul Fussell famously suggested that war constitutes a terrible irony of situation. So, by way of illustration, Fussell notes that in the Great War 8 million people were destroyed ostensibly because two people, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his consort, had been shot. Equally, in the Second World War, air bombardment (which was supposed to shorten the war) prolonged it by inviting those who were its targets to cast themselves as victim-heroes and thereby stiffened their resolve. I suggest that the invasion of Iraq in 2003 was presented as a war of liberation aiming to give Iraq back to its people; in a dreadful twist of irony, its consequences daily seem to lead the Iraqi people deeper into bondage and dependence.

War constitutes an irony of situation because its means are so melodramatically disproportionate to its presumed ends. Perhaps the most poignant example of this is presented by the Great War. Everyone knows that the there was a mass belief that the war would be over by Christmas; everyone also knows that that hope was cruelly crushed by the consequences of total war. The beastliness of war in part lies in its capacity both to inflate people’s hope (by offering the anticipation of quick victory, the defence of national pride or dubious promises of conquest) and also to snuff out that hope by its uncontrollable consequences. The experience of the Great War – characterised by the seeming innocence of the European nations in 1914 about the consequences of industrialised war and the unprecedented nature of what actually happened (three and a half years of stalemate, the development of ever more nasty ways of prosecuting war and so on) – may reveal war’s irony par excellence, but it is hardly an isolated case.

Currently, the U.S.A and its allies are involved in what is usually called ‘a war on terror’; it has been noted by commentators in many quarters that this is a war truly without limit. It does not have, like so-called conventional wars, what might be called an ‘end-game’. It is unclear how ‘we’ will know when it has been ‘won’. The reality of trying to fight an asymmetrical war seems to offer the possibility of taking war’s irony to a new and more appalling level: if we cannot imagine what it would be like to truly bring the war on terror to an end, then we cannot anticipate just how dreadful and limitless the effects of its prosecution might be. One is tempted to suggest that if the governments of the USA and Britain had been more attentive to the ironic nature of war as definitively revealed by the experience of both world wars (but also by less total conflagrations), they might have drawn back from the seemingly uncontrollable, nasty and bewildering expedition in Iraq.

‘Remembrance Sunday’ has a peculiar resonance for me, one which was shaped by childhood. It is as much about memory – my memories of my grandparents, both male and female, whose lives were altered forever by their experience of the Great War – as remembrance. I remain impressed by the bleak peculiar stillness and movement of the National Ceremony of Remembrance from the Cenotaph. As a child I refused to go to church on Remembrance Sunday because I was transfixed by the TV broadcast of this strange event. It was the day each year on which I, a wild excitable child, stopped, and simply goggled  at the stiff choreography of figures so ancient they were surely made of stone and animated by a magical spell.

To use language I’ve learnt since, Remembrance Sunday was to me at 9, a ritual speaking into transcendence and vice versa. I found strange communion in a cold November ritual. My Grandad Bert, a veteran of the Somme and Paschendaele, watched too - but alone. Years later, mum told me this was because he hated anyone seeing him cry. We can forget too easily that the essential purpose of war is injuring, and I have met (and in my grandparents case loved) too many who have been war’s casualties to feel at ease talking too blithely about war’s sacrifice, glory and duty. I know too much about how the Church has, to its shame, conflated martial and religious understandings of these words in order to evoke at best fine feelings and minister to people’s grief, and at worst to stir the Nation on to greater violent efforts. I give thanks that the Church of England today could not conceive of acting as the Bishop of London, Winnington-Ingram, did during the Great War and work effectively as a recruitment sergeant for the war effort, offering rousing speeches based on Biblical texts to stir the common man to join up.

And yet I find it a peculiar privilege to preside at Remembrance Sunday worship. I feel inadequate and somewhat awed to lead prayers in the company of men and women who, through their experience of war, have been party to terrible events and yet remain people who seek after the things of hope, faith and love. I remain convinced that underneath the faintly militaristic feel of many Remembrance Sunday rituals (the bugle, the use of standards and Laurence Binyon’s famous words) there is a ‘hard’ core of significance – the victims and perpetrators of war (who are sometimes one and the same) must not be forgotten. In a forgetful culture, so often dazzled by its technological and monetary success, I should not wish our rituals of remembrance to decay into misuse, even as I anticipate their evolution.

British society has shifted so much since the remembrance rituals were inaugurated after the Great War. Traditional patriarchal notions of honour, duty and glory are for most of us a spent force. Many of us are inclined to see the real heroes of war as those who refuse to fight. In 1994, in Tavistock Square, a memorial was finally unveiled ‘to all who have established and are maintaining the right to refuse to kill. Their foresight and courage give us hope’. As the writer Geoff Dyer noted, for many of us, ‘pride has come to reside not in the carrying out of duty, but in its humane dereliction’.  One of the challenges for Church and Society in the 21st century is nurturing rituals of remembrance which encompass both the prevailing cultural mood with its appropriate abhorrence for war and an honouring of the sacrifices of servicemen and women both in the past and now. Soldiers, like prophets, have often been without honour in their own land, as shown most notably by the experience of ex-servicemen in the USA post-Vietnam. Their service should not be sneered at or forgotten. Equally, a failure to be attentive to the nasty ironies and consequences of war would be to betray them and their successors even more.

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Bashing the Bishop

Where I come from 'Bashing the Bishop' has a very specific meaning. Being extraordinarily innocent I understand that it is something gentlemen do at night with their beards in order to make them more luxuriant. It is not in this sense that I am using that phrase today. Rather I use it in reference to the fact that Bishops in the Church of England have come in for a bit of a hammering recently.

My innocent face
Firstly we had 'Is-he-or-isn't-he-a-mason-bishop-gate'; then we had 'men-who-like-other-men-A LOT-can't-be-a-bishop-gate' and now we've got, 'Just-throw-half-of-the-bishops-in-the-House-of-Lords-out-through-the-front-gate-gate'. Presumably where there will we wailing and gnashing of teeth.

Clearly it is the case that the House of Lords - by every desire to extend democracy and British fair play - needs reforming. (By 'reforming' I am inclined to mean 'scrapping and replacing with an elected house'. For today, however, I am determined not to allow that to cloud my main point.) Given that the Anglican Bishops have 26 seats in the Lords (a mark of Establishment) and there are other faith groups which are under-represented there is a question mark about fairness and justice in representation. Current proposals for Lords' reforms suggest cutting this number by over half.

Busy Day in the House of Lords

Whether this proposal is serious or not, there are significant reasons why I sense this is a progressive move. And this is not especially to do with extending representation to other faith groups. It is to do with dismantling the temptations of preferment and privilege within an already privileged institution - an institution to which I am genuinely commitment.

The Church at its most exciting, interesting and intriguing is an irritating, radical and critical beast. Sadly I have witnessed too many of the church's potentially most interesting voices tamed and neutered once they have got the whiff of purple and moving among the great and the good. Often - and I admit this is anecdotal - the more intelligent and able among the church seek to smooth out their style and move in the right places and ways in order 'to get on'. And the number of seats the C of E has in the Lords is a sign of just how 'exalted' it is possible for a church man (and soon church woman) to be.

Some will tell me that it is important that the Church has a voice in the highest places and that our Bishops do much valuable and radical work there. Certainly some do and I would not wish to deny influence to those who speak truth to power.

However, what is clearly the case is that where the Church has been most potent is when it has been substantially connected to the people. Governments are most troubled by voices which represent the hungers, hopes and aspirations of large groups of  ordinary people. The Church - as numbers continue to decline - sometimes feels like it's lost this connection. Its constituency sometimes most feels like it is a diminishing, sometimes self-serving (somestimes rahter remarkable) group of people who choose to 'hang out' in a sacred building once or twice a week rather than the wider group of people we're called to serve. When the Church connects wholeheartedly with the people, serves them, loves them and is untroubled by privilege and power it may have some hope of  speaking with and for them. Then it might dare to let go of privilege, preferment and Establishment. Then it might be truly dangerous. Good, but dangerous.