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.