Tuesday, 15 November 2016

Dear Anonymous UK GAFCON Guy

Dear anonymous UK GAFCON person,

In response to your recent document which ‘names and shames’ the Lambeth-Violators (of which it seems you think I’m one), I thought I’d take a moment to write back.

To write to you is really hard. Not because I’m especially upset by your piece (despite it acting as a potential invite to target individuals), but because (ironically, given you’ve named lots of people in your document), you’ve not revealed your name. It’s very hard to humanise a generic voice. And, well, despite the violence implied by your words, I’d rather not respond in kind. I’d rather prefer to speak to you as a human being and Christian sister/brother.

It’s also difficult to write to you as there’s a big part of me that doesn’t want to give oxygen to your position. I suspect it’s helpful for the GAFCON position to generate ‘controversy’. I hope that doesn’t do a disservice to you, but a binary mentality does rather depend on its opponent, doesn’t it?

However, I wanted to say to you, anonymous UK GAFCON guy (sorry! In my head, you are a guy), you are, despite the aggression in your document, still part of the family. God loves you and, well, I’d rather like to say ‘I love you.’ Because I think that, despite the unpleasantness of your actions, I think we’re called to love each other. And that’s blooming hard given what you said, but Christ never said it would be easy.

We are, at a profound level, still family. Family, of course, is a difficult metaphor for Church, because families are both places which can be springboards for human excellence as well as the scenes of abuse and violence.

However, I still want to say, we’re family. I suspect that – to develop the metaphor – we’re very distantly related and it’s unlikely we’re ever going to want to spend much time together, but…family, nonetheless. Christ remains central. And while it would be easy for me to cast you as the embarrassing uncle or aunt who holds deeply questionable views and who should be kept out of sight (just as, for you, I’m possibly a version of the criminal child who never should be mentioned) I’d rather not do that. I’d like to believe in the wideness of God’s mercy and the generosity of God’s parental love. I might wish you’d change your position, but I’m not going to dare pronounce you anathema just because your position is entrenched. If I am inclined to code you as ‘enemy’ (as you would me), that is an invitation to redouble the work of grace.

Having said that, I know that I speak from a position of privilege. Your words are not, for me, especially wounding. However, insofar as your position is a springboard for the diminishment of the weakest and most vulnerable and the victimization of LGBTI people, may God call you to account.

As you might be aware, the list you’ve come up with has rather been claimed as a list of honour by many. I’ve had various people from all traditions getting in touch asking to be added to the list. I suspect your action only indicates how far the Church – evangelical as well as Catholic and liberal – has moved on from your particular vision of holiness.

But – despite it being hard for me to say – I don’t want to lose you. Please don’t cut yourself off. I hope that all of us – people who want to be faithful to the hope that lies within us – can turn towards the one who is all in all and whose peace exceeds our understanding.

May God be gracious to us all and bless us.



Friday, 11 November 2016

The 21st Century Has Taken Place

 2016. It’s dangerous to call it ‘significant’, ‘world-changing’, blah, too soon, but 2016 is shaping up as the year when not only have a key number of western cultural icons have joined the Great Majority, but Brexit and Trump seem to have reconfigured our political landscapes. We are, for example, often told we’re in a post-truth, post-welfare culture.

Like everyone I’m trying to process recent events, and I’m mostly failing. In my bewilderment I’ve reached for a wee bit of history. Truth is, despite a life-long fascination with history, I’m no pro-level historian. Please bear that in mind, as you read on. (Though, in our post-truth world, maybe I should just claim to be 'the World's Greatest Historian'!! ;-))

Memory tells me that one classic way of dividing European/Western-centric political history is to claim that the '19th Century' ‘begins’ in 1815 (with Waterloo) and the 20th century in 1914 (with the outbreak of the Great War). Clearly, these dates are euro-centric and arbitrary. What, after all, is  'a Century'? However, they suggestively indicate the way ‘reading history’ creates undertows and overlaps as well as drawing on key, focal events.

Thus, 1914. Clearly, there were any number of artistic and cultural moments which anticipate and were already constructing ‘the 20th Century’ before 1914. Modris Ecksteins’ famously takes the 'riot' at the first performance of Stravinsky’s The Rites of Spring in 1913 as a performance of 20th century subjectivities; equally, one can ‘read’ Literary Modernisms in texts long before Eliot and Pound’s post-war ‘triumph’. The violences of 1914 were already anticipated in the imperial adventures of the European powers.

However, there are some grounds for claiming that 1914 signals a key blow to the Meliorist fantasy of cultural-political progress and continuity. Yes, pre-1914 was hardly the settled aspic of Edwardian lawns and white frocks it is sometimes presented as, but ‘14-18 was arguably a catastrophe for the European Imperial mind. Some have suggested that, for example, the famous Christmas Truce of 1914 was the last moment of the Victorian era. Yes, this does rather ‘read’ history one way – overstating war and violence, buying into certain kinds of politics – but it is suggestive.

So, 2016. Is it a kind of watershed? Does it signal that the 21st century has taken place? I guess the answer is – as ever – possibly. It signals something. It may be that it signals the last flicker of the horrible racist-patriarchal dream of ‘The Old White ‘Strong’ Man’ who offers a fearful bargain – 'protection' in exchange for 'submission'. Perhaps that cultural imaginary is at its most dangerous when it is most wounded. And it is (arguably) wounded. But equally it may signal the end of one kind of neo-liberal (Whiggish?) fantasy of consensus and progress – that ‘history’ flows in one direction, a progressive one. (As many have suggested, if we’re serious about rights, respect, justice etc. now may indeed be the time to organize, etc.). Some of the assumptions of the 20th century seem to have been exposed.

Equally, the death of a whole bunch of western cultural/pop culture icons in the past year or so indicates the death of one version of the 20th Century’s ideas about cultural production. The likes of Bowie and Cohen – productions of the 20th Century -  are going.

As 20th Century artistic productions disappear, so equally a number of 20th century referents become seemingly less available. In no order of significance, these include:

Earning a living as artist/musician/writer.
Having an 'ordinary' job that might generate a decent pension or enough to buy a house or even to be able to rent a house and save a bit.
A belief that society should care for the weakest and most vulnerable, including those displaced across borders.
A commitment to the claim that ‘compassion’ (after the serial violences of 20th century wars) is foundational for society, and so on.

These were just a few of the beliefs I feel the 20th century communities I was raised in held (for good or ill) as valuable and significant. And, yes, I know that as a European and and a Brit I speak from privilege and am taking a culturally-privileging position, but…

2016. The year the 21st Century took place?

Tuesday, 6 September 2016

New Book: 'Fierce Imaginings'

I'm thrilled to announce my new book, 'Fierce Imaginings: The Great War, Ritual, Symbol and God', due to be published by DLT in early 2017.

Structured around a series of icons of remembrance (cenotaph, poppy, battlefield pilgrimages, and so on) as well as family 'relics' of the war (a wallet, a photograph), 'Fierce Imaginings' examines the rituals of remembrance, the poetic possibilities and cultural impact of the Great War. It does so through the prism of my grandparents' and great aunt's 'lost' voices ,and the silences their silence generated. It asks what happened to spirituality and indeed to the meaning of 'God' as a result of that terrible conflict and it seeks to offer fresh readings of writers like Owen, David Jones, Rosenberg, Dorothy L. Sayers, J.L. Carr, & Isobel Colegate, among others.

David Moloney, Managing Editor of DLT writes:
I’m delighted to announce news of a book by Rachel Mann that we will be publishing early in 2017. ‘Fierce Imaginings’ is a superb reflection on the place occupied in our individual and collective memories of the First World War, what the rituals and memorials devoted to it now mean to generations increasingly distant from those who lived through and fought in the conflict, and how the wisdom of Christian spirituality can help us understand the subsequent century of lost innocence. Rachel’s manuscript is beautifully written – as anyone who has read her memoir ‘Dazzling Darkness’, or ‘The Risen Dust’ (her recent collection of poems and stories for Easter) would expect – and shares both personal memories and many that will be shared or recognised by so many for whom the wounds of the Great War lie deep within. Look out for this one – it’s a moving and fulfilling read.

Friday, 12 August 2016

Personal Response to the 'Open Letter to the College & House of Bishops'

“We are committed to building a church that is genuinely welcoming to all people, irrespective of the pattern of sexual attraction which they experience. We would welcome initiatives to help local churches do so in a way that is affirming of and consistent with Scripture and would hope to support suggestions you might wish to bring to Synod to that effect.”

The above is an extract from an open letter to the College and House of Bishops from 72 ‘conservative’ members of the Church of England’s General Synod. The full text can be found here.

The letter essentially seeks to encourage the Bishops to refrain from considering “any proposals that fly in the face of the historic understanding of the church”. The signatories feel that “much more biblical study is needed before we will be able as a Synod to make theologically informed decisions about human anthropology and sexuality.”

For an extensive response to the letter from a liberal/affirming perspective read Andrew Lightbown’s blog.

I want to offer a brief comment on the paragraph quoted at the top of this article.

When the signatories say “we are committed to building a church that is genuinely welcoming to all people, irrespective of the pattern of sexual attraction which they experience” I actually don’t know whether to laugh or cry. I'm sorry if some of you think this is an inappropriate response, but it's genuinely thrown me.

I am simply bewildered. I acknowledge that I am a bear of little brain, but I can’t begin to get my paltry grey cells around it.

Because what it seems to be saying – behind the words – is ‘We are committed to a church that is ‘genuinely welcoming’, but…”

For, as the letter unfolds, it would seem that ‘genuinely welcoming’ is not be defined in relationship to people who actually might like to be welcomed (i.e. outsiders, visitors, gay people who would like to have their relationship celebrated in the sight of God), but by the those who are already the ‘gate-keepers’.

Now, ‘gatekeeping’ is inevitably part of being human. We probably all carry around within us ideas about what ‘genuine welcome’ looks like. It will be drawn from Biblical, cultural, inter-cultural ideas and experience.

Yet – call me odd – but my experience of what constitutes ‘genuine welcome’ is a dialectical matter.

So, as a vicar I might say, ‘My church is very welcoming…indeed, it’s trying to be genuinely welcoming.’ And perhaps I could adduce all sorts of examples of how welcoming our church is, primarily drawn from people who are already ‘within’ I suspect. (I suspect that when church's do 'audits' about welcome they draw far too often from the experiences of 'insiders' rather people on the edge or new members.)

But surely it’s a crummy account of ‘welcome’ that precisely excludes the experience of those who are not ‘on the inside’, who aren’t the ‘gatekeepers’.

It would be like me, as a vicar, being told (as I have been from time to time), ‘Vicar, your church isn’t very welcoming because of x, y, z,’ but insisting that – while that feedback is welcome – it’s not the visitor/stranger/outsider’s job to tell ‘us’ how welcoming we are. They are not the arbiters of what welcome looks like.

And I think that – given the rhetorical formats this letter uses (e.g. talking about ‘patterns of sexual attraction they experience’ rather than someone’s ‘sexuality’) – the signatories aren’t really that interested in hearing these constantly reiterated refrains:

"A symptom of the Church’s lack of welcome and affirmation of LGBT people is the refusal to bless and celebrate our committed, loving relationships.

When 'we' (LGBT people) repeatedly say that the Church is a bit rubbish at welcoming us can you please take that seriously? We're not making it up.

That to talk of ‘genuine welcome’ while treating our relationships and lives as failed, second-rate or to be carefully ‘controlled’ is not what welcome looks like."

Here’s what the Church's 'position' typically communicates:

"We like to talk about ‘genuine welcome’ but what we really mean (wrapped up in hand-wringing, and an apologetic shrug’) is ‘conditional welcome’.

We like to put up signs saying ‘genuinely welcome’, but how often we invite people into limited affirmation, love and a bleakness that encourages self-loathing."

And even affirming LGBT priests like me feel the cheapness of that welcome. For time and again I’ve said to LGBT couple friends who want to marry in church, ‘Sorry, hun, I can’t marry you in church…but I can offer private prayer.”

And if 'we' think offering, e.g. private prayer as an alternative to blessing or marriage constitutes ‘genuine welcome’ in the modern world, we’ve probably had a very limited experience of being ‘unwelcome.’

And – here’s the thing – I reckon most everyone in the pews and in ministry (even in some relatively conservative settings) gets that ‘conditional’ welcome is not the same as ‘genuine’ welcome.

Because actually most Christians are suckers for commitment and love and want to celebrate and bless it. Because they see God blessing those people’s committed lives.