Saturday, 15 February 2014

Personal Response to the House of Bishops’ Pastoral Statement

"The House is not, therefore, willing for those who are in a same sex marriage to be ordained to any of the three orders of ministry. In addition it considers that it would not be appropriate conduct for someone in holy orders to enter into a same sex marriage, given the need for clergy to model the Church’s teaching in their lives."

Few in the Church of England can be surprised by the tenor of the House of Bishops’ pastoral statement, though many will be sad that it was issued around St Valentine's. For as a statement of ‘love’ about ‘love’ it is at best equivocal.

I want to flag up one aspect of my reaction to it. I accept that this reaction is visceral and emotional. This is precisely why I want to mention it – to remind anyone who reads this blog how it can feel to be on the wrong end of something like the House of Bishops' Statement. Such things are not mere paper but have human consequences.

I actually cried when I read the statement. Weeped. I am an emotional person but I was surprised. And then I realized where my own particular pain was coming from.

Members of my church have often said to me, ‘Rachel, we want you to be happy.’ They know I can be a miserable so and so (:-)) and they know that I am alone, without a partner. They want me to have a partner. They also know that this will not be the solution to everything, but who does not want the joy, challenge and reality of a loving relationship?

The last time I was in a relationship my dream was that we might get married one day. That it would be possible for two women to marry each other. Because – and call me old-fashioned – I wanted that covenanted expression of our love. Alas – for many reasons - it was not to be and our relationship ultimately came to an end.

But now if I and another woman fell in love and became deeply committed to each other we could – in the eyes of the secular state – get married. And there would be much rejoicing! There would even be bishops who’d be invited along to share in our joy. My congregation would no doubt want to come and throw confetti.

And yet…the church qua church might ask me to leave a cherished ministry. In truth, if it wanted me and people like me so little, I’d probably just go. But the joy of being married to one’s beloved would bleed into the pain of being seen as one who is failing in God's love as it is being shown in the Church.

I weep for all my sisters and brothers – good, ordinary and faithful LGBT Christians and clerics – who are in committed relationships and yet are being pushed ever to the outside where there is wailing and gnashing of teeth. I sense God is weeping too.

Thursday, 13 February 2014

Reflections on Changing Attitude's Unadulterated Love

‘I come before you empty-handed.’

Even for a hardened preacher and speaker like me it’s always tempting to prepare what you plan to say to death and then stand at a lectern clutching your notes like a comfort blanket. But when I stood up to speak at Changing Attitude’s Unadulterated Love event in Manchester on Saturday 08th February 2014, my opening words ‘I come before you empty-handed’ were true in more ways than one. I had no script, no notes and – lacking a pulpit or lectern – nowhere to hide. And, in hindsight, this was precise how it should be at an event like Unadulterated Love.

The fact that I stood before the people at Unadulterated Love empty-handed was – in the nicest possible way - all Colin Coward’s fault. When he asked me to speak I said, ‘Great. But what would you like me to do?’ His answer – essentially – was, ‘Speak from the heart.’

One of the temptations anyone faces – whether we are liberal or conservative, queer or straight, and so on – is to try and control situations. At every level of life this happens. Sometimes it feels like the church is obsessed with stage-managing ‘God’ and ‘faith’ for its own questionable purposes. In taking Colin’s invitation seriously and standing up in front of the audience/congregation basically ‘empty-handed’ I wanted to offer space for concepts, ideas and words to emerge from my unconscious. I’ve often talked about how God is ‘spacious’ and I wanted – insofar as a control freak like me ever can – to let the Spirit speak into the silence.

The only ‘prop’ I had was a list of three dates – 1946, 1865 and 1918. It was probably not a promising place to start for a group of people looking to challenge the church to properly welcome and respect LGBTI people in the here and now. But sometimes you have to go back to go forward. And all these dates link into moments of hope, challenge and possibility.

I’m not going to bore you with a precise re-run of how I linked these dates together primarily because I was so caught up in the moment that I cannot reconstruct the precise details of what I said. In outline however: 1946 was the year the French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty published ‘The War Has Taken Place’; 1865 the year America managed finally and irrevocably to outlaw slavery and 1918 was the year a group of Swiss Quakers went out to post-Great War Poland to help in the reconstruction of that shattered land and died serving others.

My reasons for bringing together these seemingly unconnected events is more interesting I think. For I wanted to emphasize that in so many ways – in ways which both we in the progressive LBGTI community and the wider, often backward-looking church community sometimes fail to appreciate – the ‘war’ or ‘battle’ for equality has already taken place. I know it doesn’t often feel like it, but there is hope in the truth that our society is radically changing. There has been a revolution in society’s attitudes towards LGBTI people in the past two decades. We are here now and we are not going away.

But we should not be children. That is what 1865 reminds us of. If slavery was abolished in the U.S. in 1865 – if ‘slavery’, in Lincoln’s words, ‘was done’ - then it is important to remember that segregation lasted another hundred years and even now equality and respect is a live issue. If for LGBTI people like us certain battles are ‘done’, then the call to live out God’s hope is predicated on how very far we still have to go to transform prejudice and hate. And I sense the church – as institution – has got a lot of repenting to do before we get anywhere near the inclusion and equality we all dream of.

And what might this dream of inclusion look like? Well maybe the parable I told from 1918 might help. The Swiss Quakers served the sick and the dying in a Polish village. They served patiently and lovingly and, inevitably, they too succumbed to cholera and Spanish flu. But the villagers they’d served recognized love when they saw it. And though the Quakers were not Roman Catholics they petitioned the parish priest to have them buried on holy ground. But, with regret, the priest turned them down. They were not Roman Catholics and, therefore, not of the church. And so the Quakers were buried in a plot just outside the graveyard. However, the following day, as people got up they witnessed a quiet miracle – over night the fence of the graveyard had been moved to bring the Quakers inside.

I don’t know if this actually happened. Does it matter? The important thing is that is captures a hopeful truth. It invites all of us whether we are LGBTI or not to be attentive to the way boundaries can both be policed and moved, for good or ill. So often we have been like people kept outside and rightly we are angry when those who have the power to ‘move the fence’ (or sit on them!) actively exclude us. But perhaps because we have been kept out we are precisely the ones who can expose these arbitrary borders and barriers for the traps they are.

We are impatient and hungry for change. We know that there are gatekeepers who will work hard to keep us out. Some of us, quite understandably, will walk away and only a fool would not be tempted to do so. But the Spirit is impatient for change too. And if she will not be stage-managed into second-rate roles or being less than she is, nor should we. The fences will fall. And God will help us tear them up.

Monday, 10 February 2014

'Practicing' vs 'Expert' Homosexuals in the Church - Response to Church Times Survey

At what point does one become an expert in something? If memory serves the journalist & ex-table tenis player Matthew Syed suggests about 16000 hours. 16000 hours in order to become a top quality basketball player or kick-butt artist.

Such a calculation is always questionable, but – in this very brief blog post (no time today) – I feel moved to respond to data in a recent Church Times survey about attitudes towards ordaining ‘practicing homosexuals’. When I read these results I asked, via tweet, how those of us who are fully-trained or expert ‘homosexuals’ (when I say that word I forever say it in an RP/1950s whispery voice emphasising the 'homo' bit) are seen. 

Ok, it’s an old joke and it’s a joke grounded in a deliberate misreading of the word ‘practicing’. But as dear old Jacques Derrida reminds us it is often in jokes and puns and ‘mis-hearings’ of our systems of writing that the problems and aporias in our language are revealed. The very notion of ‘practicing’ or ‘non-practicing’ gay folk reveals the attitudes and prejudices implicit in church discourse about people like me.

I don’t blame The Church Times as such. I am very fond of it and it has been incredibly supportive towards my writing. I take that as a token of its breadth. Yet when we talk about practicing or non-practicing LGBT* people we have already decided how being queer is seen. It has been trapped in terms of an expressive/non-expressive account of gender and sexual being. Once again –and I’m rather sick of pointing this out – it places identity in a category of lifestyle choice. And it will not do.

Friday, 7 February 2014

Sochi, Asylum Seekers and Getting Serious about anti-LGBT Violence

Over twenty years ago, I lived and worked in Jamaica. As the Sochi Olympics begin and at a time the legal status of LBGT* people around the world is being highlighted I want to talk about one aspect of my time in Jamaica.

While I worked there I remember being told a story. It was the story of a young gay teacher’s terrifying experience in the village I worked in. At the village high school, there had been a procession of us paid ‘volunteer’ teachers from the UK and a few years before my arrival there’d been a ‘scandal’.

It had been discovered that a young British man was gay. And, in the story I was told, a large posse from the surrounding villages – yes the word 'posse' was used – was formed to find him and ‘tar and feather’ him.  He escaped this terrifying ordeal through being smuggled out of the village to Kingston and thence to be deposited on a plane back to England.

The imagery – in my febrile imagination – seemed a mix of what I’d read about Ku Klux Klan practices against African-Americans and something from a Gothic novel. I was a callow and gullible youth. Perhaps it was told to frighten me about how edgy Jamaica was at that time. The truth is that shocked and scandalized as I was, I could not quite believe the story. Or did not want to believe it. I still suspect that elements of the tale were amplified for my ‘titillation’ and – if it was true – it does not take much wit to realize that there may have been elements of the original story that had been redacted out.

Nonetheless this story bears truth. Jamaica in the early ‘90s was – and, indeed, remains – an unsafe place to be gay, especially a gay man. Violence against gay men has – notoriously – been inscribed in aspects of Ragga and Reggae music. Readers of The Pink News and other media will recall that very recently Christian Concern’s Andrea Minichiello Williams spoke at a conference In Jamaica was organised in order to lobby against the repeal of the country’s law banning gay sex.

I do not write this to ‘bash’ Jamaica. Jamaica like all the post-colonial countries bears the sins of white ‘father’ figures and culture. The religious and legal instincts of 18th and 19th century imperial ideologies have become so culturally embedded - despite brilliant post-colonial work - that in some places, notably in Africa, that hatred of LGBT* people can – at a phenomenological level – be presented as 'natural'. In such a context it is hardly surprising that some folk will wish to legislate against LGBT* people in order to protect 'the good' of society. Yet, as I see it, the bearers of privilege like Britain bear an ongoing and barely resolved responsibility for the creation of legislated hatred.

I trust that very many of us are taking differing kinds of action to both protest ongoing and emergent hatred against LGBT* people in large swathes of the world. I hope we are trying to hold a rainbow banner up against Sochi to embarrass the likes of Putin. I am yet to be convinced that there is nothing ‘we’ can do to keep the struggle alive for people facing the daily threat of murder, torture and imprisonment in the majority world.

However, organisations like Stonewall have reported how difficult it has been for lesbian and gay people to be taken seriously by the UK asylum seeker system. Having lived under conditions of fear and death it can be especially difficult for LGBT* people arriving in the UK seeking asylum to articulate their stories. The ongoing situation faced by Jacqueline Nantumbwe, an LBGT asylum seeker, who faces deportation back to a state (Uganda) which criminalizes her is only one among many. It is time that the UK – which bears such a heavy responsibility for creating contexts of hatred around the world – to take seriously its responsibility towards the victims of its missionary and imperial adventuring.