Sunday, 30 November 2014

Pain, frustration and Advent Hope

I’ve spent a fair amount of time in the last two weeks wondering why I’ve been unable to write a blog post. I’ve started two – the first a reflection on the lack of out gay bishops in the C of E and the second on the ethics of ‘outing’ people – and been unable to finish them.

It’s only this evening that I’ve figured out what’s going on.

I’ve realized I’ve been caught up in a matrix of frustration and pain. I know. That's sounds a bit over the top. And maybe it is. But this ‘matrix’ has elements of the personal and the corporate, and it’s only now that Advent has arrived that I can begin to articulate their meaning.

Firstly, the personal. My health woes have been documented (‘over-documented’?) on this blog. Truth is, things are ok and I have very little to complain about most of the time. But I do find the gastro-related pain a bit wearing. I’m eating some food and I’m being very careful, but basically everything I’m eating is causing pain. I have access to decent pain relief, but that pain relief itself has side-effects. When all of this is figured into a world marked by slowly moving NHS gears and a(n over-)busy life it can all get a bit frustrating. I can be a right bloody grump. It can lead to a pretty jaded reading of reality. I apologise to anyone who's had to put up with that recently!

But these personal factors have been caught up in my frustration with more corporate matters to do with ‘The Church’. (I put those words in ‘scare’ quotes to indicate my acknowledgement that to blame the ‘whole’ church is slightly absurd.) Ultimately, I get frustrated that the church isn't quite as 'sorted' as many of us would like it to be. I think of my mate Lucy Gorman’s recent experience of a church in Hull – a church she grew up in – that felt it could not stick a poster advertising Hull’s LGBT Fellowship on the church noticeboard. From that ‘detail’ I then think of the appalling treatment of LGBT people in various parts of the world and how the leadership of the C of E seemingly won’t stand up and speak out about the tragic human cost. I also think of the list of trans men and women that was read out at last week’s Trans Day of Remembrance event in Manchester – a list of over 250 people killed for being trans in the past year – and how far skewed readings of faith beliefs might have been a motivating factor in murder and its attempted justification. And so on…

I know I am tired and frustrated and in pain and often a grump because of it. I know that in so many ways the world seems to be moving forward and that I, like so many, live a life of extreme privilege. And I know, only too well, that for people of faith the feeling of ‘why can’t the institution be shaped according to my beliefs’ is a common (and faintly ridiculous) one.

To be in the season of Advent is helpful, however. If we can allow ourselves to resist – however feebly – the tinsel and mammon-fest that December has become, Advent offers a space for pause, reflection and waiting in anticipation. It is a kind of matrix of hope.

I choose the word ‘matrix’ deliberately. In terms of the Latin root, ‘matrix’ is a term of fecundity – a word for a body capable of reproduction. This can have oppressive implications (e.g., of a body used for breeding), but I want to claim ‘matrix’ as a positive - as a place of possibility; as a place of darkness, not in a negative sense, but as a place of warmth, of incubation and of new life.

We are always in cultural and discursive matrixes, and Advent is a point of origin – of news and beginnings and the rehearsal of beginnings. Advent might be seen as gesturing towards what Judith Butler calls a structure of relations that makes individual acts of will possible, providing their “enabling cultural condition”.

To put it simply, Advent is a womb, a point of origin. It offers the possibility of good news – of good news that might be anticipated, but cannot yet be seen or known.

I feel the positive power of that in my personal life. But I sense also its truth in the corporate struggles for new life, justice and good news that are going on in the wider church. To place current birth-pangs in a context of Advent isn’t (it seems to me) to justify all the crap. But it offers the promise that the crap might be part of a hope-filled story.


  1. The pain trumps truth argument taken to its logical extent, which would have authorised the martyrs of the past and present to deny Jesus and today leaves the CofE looking ever more stupid as it fails to stand up for the faith once given to the saints. There is something VERY wrong with a church that cannot give a clear answer on the gay issue but claims to know enough about God to preach about Him; it just doesn't compute.

    The tradition of the church of England is clear - and as has been said to many of the opponents of women's ordination by the liberals in recent years, you've known what we believe - so why do you hang around. So if you are a 'single clause' proponent on women's ordination, I suggest you apply the same logic to yourself and leave the CofE which isn't for you.

    1. The Church is struggling to give a clear answer on the 'gay issue' (not keen on it being described that way...) because it is a new (in church terms) issue. The Church has only seriously begun to address it in the last thirty to forty years, and some of the most important scholarship has only been done in the past ten to twenty. Previous generations were never faced with the question of whether permanent, monogamous, faithful, same-sex relationships could be of God.

      In the eighteenth and nineteenth century, the Church couldn't give a clear answer on the slavery issue. In the seventeenth century, it couldn't give a clear account on the Christmas issue. In the eleventh century, it couldn't give a clear account of the filioque issue. In the eight century, it couldn't give a clear account of the icon issue. And I could go further back... Paul's time, the Church couldn't give a clear account of the gentile issue.

    2. Actually recent discoveries show that gay marriage WAS in existence in the Classical World and that the church's coming to power marked its ending.
      [Yes I know it's Wikipedia, but there's a reference to a book there]

      Therefore the church HAS addressed the issue, has already rejected it and is therefore being asked to reverse its former tradition.

    3. As the Wikipedia article shows, legally marriage had to be between a male and a female in Roman times. I also note that the meaning of C.Th. 9.7.3 is actually unclear, and that Kuefler's article (cited in the Wikipedia article) suggests that it may refer to marrying eunuchs (Kuefler, 2007, 362). I also note that the general context was still one where there was usually both an age and power imbalance between partners.

      To sum up, we have a law condemning something involving same-sex activity which may or may not include eunuchs in an utterly different context from ours. We don't normally use Roman laws as proof that the church has carefully debated an issue having been presented with all sides of the argument. I don't see this type of debate happening in the early church (up to and including the fifth century).

  2. Thank you for your attractively anonymised feedback.

    1. Fair comment.
      Bruce Patterson

    2. Actually Vaughan Roberts, a celibate 'gay' Evangelical would be an entirely appropriate appointment to the episcopacy...