Monday, 27 February 2017

Vintage pop, controversial bishops and Alexander Hamilton

'There's always something happening, and it's usually quite loud': Vintage pop, controversial bishops, and Alexander Hamilton (just another month in the Church of England)

February 27, 2017
The Church of England has certainly had more than its fair share of column inches in the British press this month; firstly, over the General Synod gathering which rejected a report on sexuality which had been written by a group of bishops, and then, just when the dust had started to settle, Martyn Percy, the Dean of Christchurch Cathedral in Oxford was reported in the Guardian to have suggested that the man who will be the next Bishop of Sheffield, Philip North, should step down, not for any scandalous reason but because Philip North has never been anything other than honest about his view that women should not be ordained. I can't help thinking of the line from the vintage pop song, 'Our House': 'There's always something happening, and it's usually quite loud.' Truer words were never spoken of the C of E! As you can imagine, and may well have seen, there was a huge outcry in response, from those who agree with Martyn Percy, those who agree with Philip North, and those who agree with neither Martyn nor Philip.

I find myself in the latter camp; strange, you mind think, for someone who is a woman vicar. How can it be, you might wonder, that in this day and age the Church of England can have bishops who don't agree with women being ordained alongside bishops whose job is to ordain women and, of course, ordained women?  And how can an ordained woman be relaxed about a bishop who doesn't believe in the ordination of women? What rabbit hole have we fallen through here? Surely the Church made its mind up on the issue of women priests in the 1990s and on the issue of women bishops more recently, the people spoke through the representative channels of Synod, action was taken as a result of those votes, and that's that?

Well, in true Anglican fashion, yes and no. The Synod did thrash out all the ins and outs of ordaining women, the vote was (very narrowly) in favour of women priests and yes, obviously, many women have been ordained as a result of that vote, myself included. However, what didn't happen in the 1990s or since then, was for the Church's representatives to say to those who voted against women's ordination anything along the lines of 'We won; you lost; get over it; the people have spoken.' Quite the opposite; those who voted against women's ordination were recognised as part of 'the people' and therefore, the next problem on the table became how to honour the consciences of those who had voted against women's ordination, which, after all, had the weight of most of Christian history behind it. In this spirit, provision was made for those who had voted according to their consciences, and those in pews up and down the country who would agree that women shouldn't be ordained, and although some clergy did choose to leave the Church at this point, others didn't: hence Philip North and those who share his convictions. 

It'd be disingenuous of me not to admit that this way of knocking along together isn't complex or bruising for some of us, sometimes. It is, undoubtedly, easier to get on with people who think like oneself, but for me, knocking along together despite differences without for one moment caricaturing or trivialising those differences is worth the complexities and bruises, because to me, it is the way of being together that is most authentically Christian. The Madness song 'Our House' is a song about family, and the Church is family. After the February session of General Synod, the Archbishop of Canterbury issued a statement calling for a spirit of 'radical Christian inclusion.' I see the consecration of Philip North as living proof that this radical Christian inclusion might just be more than a slogan; radical inclusion (although I'm not a great fan of the word 'inclusion') means recognising the Christian least like me as my sister or brother, and doing unto him or her as I would want to be done unto myself. This, I believe, is close to the heart of being a Christian. 

It's much more intellectually honest, too, to own our differences and own each other despite our differences than to pretend that we all think the same. Our current household obsession is the hip-hop musical 'Hamilton', based on the life of the Founding Father Alexander Hamilton who, as the writer, Lin-Manuel Miranda put it, 'caught beef' with just about every other Founding Father before being shot dead at the age of 47 by his nemesis, Aaron Burr, in America's most notorious duel. (This seven-minute mash-up is great!) Aaron Burr, an endless equivocator who is 'not particularly forthcoming on any particular stances', runs as President against the brash Thomas Jefferson, who hates Hamilton ('he knows nothing of loyalty / smells like new money, dresses like fake royalty. / Desperate to rise above his station, / Everything he does betrays the ideals of our nation'). A 'key endorsement' is needed in this tightly-fought electoral battle and Hamilton, having been knocked out of the political running due his 'torrid affair', shocks the voters of 1800 by endorsing not Burr, whom he has known since teenage years but Jefferson because 'when all is said and all is done, Jefferson has beliefs. Burr has none.' Burr's last words in the libretto are poignant; 'I was too young and blind to see...the world was wide enough for both Hamilton and me'.

I'm with Hamilton on this one; I'd far rather have leaders with beliefs, even those with which I disagree, than leaders without beliefs, both in secular life and in the church. And I'm glad to say that the Church of England is wide enough for both Philip North and me. After all, duels are so eighteenth century. 

Sunday, 12 February 2017

Why 'Welcome' and 'support' are not enough: another voice in the post-Bishops' Statement, pre-Synod polyphony

It's been a few weeks since the Bishops' Statement was issued, and since then, a mighty polyphony of voices has arisen in response, rebuttal, re-enforcement and recalibration. As I've listened to these voices, I've heard myself wondering if I have anything to add that hasn't already been said by people who are passionate, sensitive, theologically and ecclesiologically astute, faithful Christians. Policy documents are often picked over like a Sunday chicken, but all the more so when a policy document defines the parameters of people's lives, and the life of an institution with which its members and supporters identify passionately and generously, if not always submissively. There are those who find the polyphony of voices in blogs, op ed pieces, columns and open letters more like an irksome cacophony; the decrying of 'theology by popular vote'   is a sure-fire way of shutting people up (ironically, by speaking over them) but I, for one, am glad to belong to a church in which people do speak up for what they believe in and hold dear - even if their values and perspectives don't match up with mine. This welcoming of diverse voices, I believe, is the best antidote to the much-vaunted echo chamber effect, along with belonging to a parish church in which as much of human life as is locally available rubs along each other, shares the peace and kneels together for Communion every week. So I've listened carefully, and respectfully, to the bishops in their statement and to quite a few commentators since then. I've tried to listen to the voice of God, too. 

As I've listened, one voice has sounded through the others, quietly but insistently. It is the voice of Archbishop Justin Welby, speaking nearly four years ago just before he knocked on the door of Canterbury Cathedral and was let in by a teenage girl. In an interview with Peter Tatchell, Archbishop Justin famously praised the 'stunning quality of relationships' he had seen among LGBT people. That phrase, 'stunning quality of relationships', has resounded in my ears over the last few weeks. Let's leave that phrase there for a moment and listen to the Bishops' Statement.  

The words which echoed loudly from the Bishops' Statement for me were from the section which many people have taken to be the most optimistic; paragraphs 29 to 33, calling for a 'fresh tone and culture.' In particular, the words that shouted out for my attention were 'welcome' and 'support', the two things which the Statement considers the church able to offer LGBT people. 'What on earth can  be wrong with that?' I hear you cry (I may be projecting, or over-dramatising here, admittedly). 

Well...in one sense, you're right, nothing. But on the other hand, I can't help remembering the vicar of a large church I used to attend who was notoriously bad at remembering names and faces, and would shake my hand as I left the church every Sunday for months on end, cheerfully saying 'My dear, are you new here?' I also re-hear the voices of well-meaning members of another church, asking me week after week, 'Have you settled in yet?' I realised that I'd know when I'd settled in because they'd stop asking me if I'd settled in yet! 'Welcome' is a slippery word, and whatever it defines, it cannot refer to an ongoing quality of relationship, stunning or otherwise. It is the start of a relationship, not the substance of one. We welcome people in to the church in baptism, we welcome newcomers (hopefully), and we welcome our people as they come through the door each week.

If we only ever welcome, we deny the possibility of an ongoing relationship by keeping people by the door. What sounds like a friendly, warm word can be, paradoxically, exlusionary, jut like my rather forgetful vicar was, unintentionally. 'Welcome' can mean, when you've been around for six months already, 'I have no idea who you are.' We need to pause here and recognise that the CofE already knows, at least in theory, that LGBT people are among its bishops, deans, clergy, lay ministers, churchwardens, PCC members, musicians, volunteers and parishioners. To 'welcome' such as these would be perpetuating my vicar's terrible, exclusionary, gaffe. I'd ask you to read the Bishops' Statement and ask yourself whether it recognises this, and if not, why not?    

Not only that, but 'welcome' says nothing about the people involved; all sorts of people can be welcomed into all sorts of places for all sorts of reasons. I have been welcomed into more shops than I can remember, for entirely capitalist-transactional reasons, by people whose names I was not expected to remember and whose customer service didn't extend as far as asking mine (let's face it, that would be weird). The list goes on: buses, plumbers, delivery people, medical patients, best friends, spouses and children at school gates are welcome sights daily. 'Welcome' just says 'I'm glad to see you.' What it can't say is why; in other words, it can't comment on the quality of the relationship of the people involved in this welcoming moment.

'Support' is, I think, another slippery word, for much the same reason. All sorts of people can support all sorts of things for all sorts of reasons, some more wholesome than others (I remember here the indignant voice of the drug addict: 'I've got a habit to support!') 'Support' is, strangely, a highly relativistic word; people support rival football matches, rival political parties, rival contenders on reality shows with greater or lesser degrees of involvement or knowledge of the factors involved (I speak as a very nominal Watford supporter). Many people would say that gay conversion therapy is supportive; many people would say that abortion and assisted dying are supportive. Others would contest all of these claims. What 'support' cannot do, as a verb, is to say why a thing, institution or person ought to be related to in a certain way. All it can say, in the vaguest of terms, is that the person ought to be related to in a way which seems good, or at least defensible. Like 'welcome', it simply doesn't have the semantic range to comment on the quality of relationship. 

Both 'welcome' and 'support' are oddly secular words for a church document, too. Neither of these words has much provenance in the New Testament to describe the inner reality of the early church which drew so many into its rich, transformative life. I'm Barthian enough to get itchy when I recognise the creeping influence of secular vocabulary on ecclesiology, and so I find myself wondering which words are better and truer to describe the quality of relationship which the New Testament calls for: love, fellowship, belonging, forgiving, admonishing, sharing... Maybe the problem is that these words are too powerful to use with regard to LGBT people without causing someone some offence; but we abandon them at our peril, and risk acting out the person of a strangely secularised institition which performs religious functions rather than what we actually are, the body of Christ on earth. 

So, back to the question of the 'stunning quality of relationships.' What I've pondered as I've re-heard these words recently is not so much the quality of relationships between LGBT couples (which is about the same as the quality of any relationship between any couple, unsurprisingly, since we are all human) but the truly stunning quality of relationships that LGBT people have with local churches and the national church superstructure. As I've said, LGBT people are everywhere in the CofE, doing pretty much everything (not all by themselves, I hasten to add!) The person who said, wistfully but with no hint of self-pity, 'I'm not bothered about being able to get married, I just want a church where I can be myself' and sticking with it long enough to find such a church despite humiliating knock-backs along the way; the person who stands up for sticking to canon law even though it disadvantages them as a gay person; the person who volunteers hours to do dull-but-necessary paperwork for the sake of a local congregation; the minister who gives way above and beyond but can never talk about their private life; the other minister who goes public and faces much opposition, the churchwarden whose throat constricts every time marriage banns are read in church, and yet keeps serving anyway...the list goes on. 

There are so many LGBT Christians whose relationship with the church is nothing less than stunning in its quality, all the more so because it is a sacrificial relationship in a way that, without wishing to stray into competitive virtue-signalling, no heterosexual person is ever required to sacrifice of themselves in personal relationships by the church (I refer you back to the churchwarden and the banns). These are the people whose lives are directly affected by the Bishops' Statement, and it seems tragically sad to me that the Statement can't seem to bring itself to say what it really thinks of them, and why.  Does the church love its LGBT children? If so, it needs to say so, and it needs to surround itself with New Testament language to define that love (1 Corinthians 13 is the obvious starting-point). Are LGBT Christians part of the fellowship of faith? If so, the church needs to say so, often and compellingly enough to neutralise the many voices of rejection and censure that these folk have heard in their lifetimes. 'Welcome' and 'support' can, and do, mean anything and everything, and therefore, mean nothing. Now is the time for the stunning quality of relationships within the church, which already comprises gay, straight, bi, trans, pan, non-binary and all sort of other people, to be asserted with grace and conviction. 

What about the voice of God above and beyond, yet also within and through all of these voices? Well, I am no prophet, as a herdsman once said, but I offer these words, one of my favourite hymns, for all God's children, wherever they fall on the sexuality spectrum that we are only just beginning to understand:

I heard the voice of Jesus say,
"Come unto me and rest;
lay down, thou weary one, lay down
thy head upon my breast."
I came to Jesus as I was,
so weary, worn, and sad;
I found in him a resting place,
and he has made me glad.


I heard the voice of Jesus say,
"Behold, I freely give
the living water; thirsty one,
stoop down and drink, and live."
I came to Jesus, and I drank
of that life-giving stream;
my thirst was quenched, my soul revived,
and now I live in him.


I heard the voice of Jesus say,
"I am this dark world's light;
look unto me, thy morn shall rise,
and all thy day be bright."
I looked to Jesus, and I found
in him my Star, my Sun;
and in that light of life I'll walk
till traveling days are done.