Summer in the city

I was informed last night in a speech at the East London Mosque by the Mayor of Tower Hamlets, John Biggs, that ‘this summer, the summer of 2017, has been the hottest summer the UK has seen since the summer of 1976, when [he] graduated secondary school.’ Whether or not this is absolutely true is the business of meteorologists and record-keepers; I can only attest to a pleasant, hot proper summer that has visited the southern UK over the last few weeks.

The week before my ordination to the priesthood in mid-June, I went to one of my favorite places THREE TIMES: the Hampstead Heath ladies’ pond.

hhlp

Although going to the seaside is lovely and I’ve been lucky enough to make it to Margate on a sunny day, I must confess that I really prefer wild swimming in fresh water. Having grown up in a place where opportunities for river- and lake- swimming were plentiful, I have never quite been happy with salt-water swimming. Hence my deep and abiding love for the ponds up at Hampstead, which are (a) within 90 minutes journey from my house by public transport, (b) include a trip to the Heath, (c) deliciously cool and unsalty. The ladies’ pond has the added advantage of being a strictly women-only space, and the relaxed attitude to clothing makes my inner nudist happy.

This summer is also my first full summer back in Bethnal Green, with windows perpetually open to the noise of east London: a school across the road, too-sensitive car alarms going off at all hours, foxes shagging in the churchyard, junkies arguing on my front step, the distant sound of stringed instruments from the Duke of Uke and the muffled chatter from people drinking outside the pub at the end of the road. I remember writing a poem whilst living in Cambridge about the annoyance of the road crossing beep noise on Jesus Lane going off at all hours…how spoiled I was in that quiet little corner of the fens!

I was up in the fens last week — in Ely — for a mini-residential for Stepney area clergy. I had meant to go to the cathedral for a pray and a look-round and to visit Toppings for some books (always more books!) but the retreat house where we were staying was working its magic and making me feel very sleepy indeed. I find that whenever I spend more than a day in a retreat house I start going into retreat mode — the first couple days of which are always dominated by catching up on sleep.

In summer it’s hard to make myself go to sleep early, because I still glory in living in a place with no (or few?) mosquitos where I can sit outside, put on some candles or fairy lights, and enjoy the warmth still radiating from the paving slabs in the garden ( / glorified parking space). I know that six months from now I’ll want to roll into bed at about 8.30 because of the dark evenings — but of course in autumn and winter the evenings are busier. City people seem to accomplish a kind of anti-hibernation, hustling and persevering in the cold months, only to disappear during the warm, to holiday destinations, if they can.

I’ve had my big holidays for the year already; January in Marrakech and April in Lisbon. The year has felt slightly front-loaded with travel because of it. It has been wonderfully indulgent to travel so much and to be a two-income couple, but the period of spending and settling in feels like it is ending. Max & I have married, we’re settled in to east London, I’m feeling more confident in my work in the parish and Max is taking the next steps in his own life and career. Sometimes I have to pinch myself and be reminded: this is real life — my real life — and that although there are always changes to be weathered, getting through training, ordination, and deployment is done. For the next two years (-ish) my job is just to be the best I can be as a curate in Bethnal Green, to keep figuring out what it means to be a good partner in marriage, to give myself space to enjoy this city, to learn, to be with friends, to be a neighbor.

I’ve always felt a little bit grumpy when Christians nick the passage in the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah about ‘seeking the welfare of the city’ in order to justify their community-developing efforts — not because I think Christians shouldn’t pour their time into developing their communities, to being neighbors, but because that passage is about a displaced people who have been carted off into exile by their enemies and are being held in captivity. The prophet’s instruction to ‘seek the city’s welfare’ is a hard saying indeed, to a people who are living in ‘the city’ as spoils of a conquest. Contemporary urban-dwelling Christians simply are not in the same place as the ancient Hebrews, no matter how much some may like to spiritualise the concept of exile/captivity in the present day.

However, the welfare — the well-being, we might say — of the city of London does desperately need seeking, by Christians, by atheists, by all people of faith and conscience. Just how I can best use my time and energy in this project is a project of exploration for me in the years to come.

This summer, and especially the recently-ended fasting period of Ramadan, has seen quite a lot of unrest: violent attacks by (those who claim to be) Muslims, and on Muslims, as well as the Grenfell tower fire. In some ways these disasters and tragedies have only served to bring together people who want to seek London’s well-being. London is tough and Londoners are tough in crises. But what the Blitz spirit / the stiff upper lip is giving way to, I hope, is something more multicultural and nuanced, and something which reaches beyond London.

Londoners, after all, voted overwhelmingly to remain in the EU during last year’s referendum. The diversity of London, the sense of it being a European city, a global city, is strong at many (but not all) levels. I can’t help feeling that many who call London home would feel more in common culturally with Paris, Amsterdam, Chicago or Milan than they would with parts of rural Norfolk, leafy Berkshire, and so forth. Is this just what is meant by globalisation?

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Speaking of Paris, I was watching a little bit of Richard Linklater’s Before Sunset yesterday: the second in his excellent series of Before… films featuring Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy. I was happily surprised to realise that several of the streets that featured in this film, set in Paris in summer, were little back streets in Le Marais which I had walked down with Max as we started out our honeymoon this year, en route to Lisbon. ‘Look! I remember that gate, and that fountain, and that bookshop!’ ‘It looked even posher in April, though, didn’t it?’ The film came out in 2004 which seems a long time ago, but isn’t really.

London is a city which in my head is as much a city of cranes and perpetual construction as a city of fog and rain, pie and mash, an assortment of villages and mindsets. Thus I can make few comments about my city’s ‘timelessness’, or indeed the timelessness of Paris, whose back streets — at least a few — remained unchanged from 2004 to 2017. But I think there is something timeless, or at least enduring, about the experience of a hot summer in a city, especially a city that also knows freezing cold (New York and Berlin, I’m looking at you, too!) It’s the reason that so many songs are written about ‘summer in [whichever] city’, a small selection of which I leave you with, to ponder & enjoy.

Ah, the Lovin’ Spoonful. See also great covers of this by Joe Cocker, Quincy Jones and B. B. King.

Regina Spektor’s glorious, graphic anti-folk-jazz tune.

https://open.spotify.com/embed/track/0tnAYrhqcpmUhf2czi4LzD

Robbie Stuart’s very 21st century pop with strings, autotune and sampled monologue.

 

 

 

 

 

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#Reaffirm5?

For those of you inside or near the Church of England bubble, you’ll have been aware of some media furore over the last week about the incoming bishop of Sheffield, +Philip North.

In brief: Colin Podmore of the Society of St Wilfrid and Hilda (a conservative doesn’t-approve-of-women-priests society) has lamented (in laypeople’s terms), “How do we know who’s an acceptable priest now that WOMEN BISHOPS are a thing? These priests might have been ordained by a woman, or have been ordained by a bishops who has ordained women — therefore the are not ‘real priests’ and we ‘cannot accept’ their ministry. Perhaps we should have some kind of identification system so we know who’s OK and who’s not.”

In response to this, Martyn Percy, a priest and currently the Dean of Christ Church in Oxford, has called for +Philip North, who helps to lead the Society of S Wilfrid and Hilda (hereafter, SSWSH) to either radically distance himself from this group, or to not take up his post as Bishop of Sheffield.

Much opinionating has followed. As always.

The Church of England currently recognises 5 ‘Guiding Principles’ regarding this ongoing conflict between traditionalists and progressives, which point to a goal of ‘mutual flourishing’ for all. At their heart these principles are about inclusion and tolerance — not values, notably, that all in the CofE prioritise highly (especially not those opposed to women priests). In the course of this debate, a Twitter hashtag has sprung up in support of +Philip’s appointment to Sheffield: #reaffirm5. The argument there is that there church will never not be diverse and will always require the laying aside of differences for the sake of the kingdom; that Philip’s work especially promoting the causes of the least privileged make him a great bishop and a focus of unity, even though he doesn’t believe that 1/3 of the clergy in the Diocese of Sheffield are ‘really’ priests, because of their sex.

I have stayed fairly quiet during this debate, partially because hey, there’s a passel of fascists running the USA and so I’ve been preoccupied with that more than church politics. But also because, deep inside, I’ve never been certain that the 5 guiding principles can mean anything of value to anyone outside the church: the very people whom the church (should be) seeking to serve, love, and point Christward.

‘Mutual flourishing’, as Percy points out, cannot really be ‘mutual’ if one side is still denied full humanity before God. I do not doubt that +Philip has much compassion for those experiencing poverty, for the north of the the UK, and that he is a wise person who, many tell me, is a good, pastoral overseer. However, he is also a key player in the SSWSH which does two harmful things. Firstly, it believes that women cannot exercise priestly or episcopal (or in some extreme cases, diaconal) ministry, therefore denying the ultimate equality of women and men before God. Secondly, it promotes a system of ‘alternative episcopal oversight’ whereby those who do not agree with their local bishop can seek a bishop they do agree with, usually over the issue of women’s ordination. This, which a few of my colleagues refer to as ‘Tesco bishop-ing’ (in that you go to the bishops and just pick one off the shelf you like the best), undermines the collegial and ecclesiological fabric of English Anglicanism, furthering sectarianism of many kinds. So this ‘mutual flourishing’ at its heart is actually about preserving a corner of the church where it’s OK to reject women’s ministry, on either traditional or biblical grounds.

The leaders of the SSWSH have condemned a theology of ‘taint’ whereby their members refuse to be ordained by a female bishop, a male bishop that has ordained women, or where members might refuse to concelebrate with male priests who’ve worked with women or concelebrated with women, trained female curates, ever dressed in drag, etc. The reality is, however, that such a theology is alive and well amongst traditionalists on the catholic and evangelical ends of the Anglican spectrum, whether it is acknowledged or not. (If I may be permitted the innuendo: a taint by any other name would smell as sour.)

Of course the great beauty of Anglicanism is its breadth and, in theory at least, its lack of a ‘thought police’ (though it sometimes seems to be moving in this policed direction). People and priests are free to have their private beliefs so long as they show up, worship God the Holy Trinity, engage with the historic creeds and the 39 articles, and worship using the approved forms of the Church of England.

Naturally, this freedom means that sometimes people are going to pick up a bible or a bit of the historical church doctrine and see ‘Women are subhuman, women should be silent, I do not permit a woman to teach,’ etc., and decide to take these things uncritically. The bible is a beautiful, inspired book, but it was penned (mostly) by men in a thoroughly patriarchal society which didn’t have a lot of time for women. It’s a patriarchally-infused, often outright sexist, book. As are many of the writings of the church fathers, from which the earliest notions of priesthood in the western and eastern churches were drawn and developed in later centuries.

I write ‘decide to take these things uncritically’ because that is what a rejection of women’s full humanity, women’s ordination to all holy orders, is: a decision. It is not a moment of submission to a text (though it might be couched as such); nor is it a moment of seeing through to the ‘true textual meaning’. It is a decision to privilege the patriarchal content of the text as the full content of the text, rather than engaging with the text as a living document reflecting both the culture in which it was produced, and the cultures (still quite patriarchal) in which it is today read.

Naturally, as a woman in holy orders my approach to the text and the tradition are different.

And yet, I do thoroughly value a church where people are allowed to differ in opinion, allowed to doubt and challenge and change. In my life I have been a person who wasn’t OK with women’s leadership in church, much less women’s ordination; I have been someone who used the bible to excuse my own homophobia; I have been someone who could not see the grace of God for the legalism in which I bound myself. And yet, I found churches that let me exist there, let me encounter a God of grace and love who broke me — slowly, painfully — out of these places, and many others.

So, do I think there’s a place in the church for people who refuse to accept the sacramental ministry and leadership of women? Yes. Because I was once one of them.

However, do I think the Church of England should be ringfencing un-collegial, ecclesiologically unsound, sexist and donatist arrangements with the 5 guiding principles? I admit, I do not. I currently affirm them because my church — the one who trained, ordained, and supports me — requires me to affirm them, to respect my brothers and sisters who differ from me in their views. But I think this is an insufficient solution, one that is promoted by the SSWSH whose agendas and practices I find quite shocking. The SSWSH uses the language of ‘ministry we can receive with confidence.’ They reject the notion of will, of choosing to receive women’s ministry, instead suggesting that ‘there they stand, they can do no other.’ (An interesting sentiment from an often highly Reformation-skeptic group.)  I myself am highly suspicious of this passive language, as it removes the agency from the members and seeks to put it elsewhere — the church? Christ? The Godhead? Who knows. It is a triumph of the passive in English language and culture. But, as those who study grammar know, the passive does not connote inaction, or lack of will on the part of a subject. It simply is a linguistic convention designed to speak around something, for the comfort of the speaker, the listeners, the whole society. The language of ‘cannot receive’ is just an encoded language of ‘will not receive’; such resistance to the teaching of one’s church used to be called heresy, apostasy, or at the very least, canonical disobedience. These days it is given special protection.

If +Philip North cannot distance himself from this group which promotes this unjust canonical disobedience and seeks special protection for it, I have trouble seeing how any flourishing for women and men he can (or will) promote would be truly ‘mutual’. And what’s more important, I don’t know how the church of England, if it promotes sexism (even in God’s name), can speak with integrity to people and societies worldwide that are slowly but surely coming to recognise the full humanity of women as a lynchpin for human justice.

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note:  Until very recently my own diocesan bishop has been +Richard Chartres, who took a similar line to +Philip: he was a diocesan bishop who would ordain women deacon but not priest, and he would never concelebrate with anyone, to avoid that debate altogether. Luckily I’ve had a brilliant suffragan bishop who is totally supportive of my ministry, but I would be lying if I did not say that the Bishop of London’s refusal to make women priests did not (a) hurt personally and (b) exacerbate unhelpful and sexist politics in the diocese.

 

Saint Scholastica

Until very recently (today) someone who writes blog posts for this blog was not aware that Saint Scholastica was St Benedict’s (possibly twin) sister. As a sister to a fabulous brother myself, I felt a sudden kinship with the saint and desired to look upon artists renditions of her. Great news! She’s (kind of) happier looking in art than Saint Cecilia usually is. Witness:

‘If I stand very still it might not poo on me… Oh! And now I have time for theological reflection. Does the holy spirit really become incarnate as a dove and if so, would it poo anyways?’

statue

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‘Ah yes, Bennie, yes yes, you go on talking…’ (knowing look to bestie nun)

side-eye-2

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‘My crozier brings all the boys to the the yard.’

crozier

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‘Bennie! Our monastery looks just like Harry Potter’s forehead!’

lightning-bolt

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‘Yeah, yeah, they bring that sign with me wherever I go. Gets kind of embarrassing, sometimes.’

red-book

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‘LOOK I’M ALMOST SMILING! I HAVE THE JOY OF THE LORD!’

screen-shot-2017-02-10-at-14-07-19

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‘Is this a quill or a sword I’m holding? You’ll never know…’

quill

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‘Hey, B, me and my girls are just chilling out here. You couldn’t go make yourself helpful and put the kettle on, could you? Thanks, hun. Shut the door when you leave, mmkay?’

benedict-and-scholastica

the duchess be with you

Amidst what is quickly becoming one of the scariest and least stable years I can remember, this week news broke of some incredibly minor shenanigans at the college where I did my theological training, Westcott House. Some students organised an evensong in polari, a language that’s been developed and used by gay subcultures in the past few decades. Articles about the college’s ‘apology’ and ‘repentance’ over this service showed up in the Grauniad, the Torygraph, and the Beeb. Even NPR picked the story up, so I’m told.

I don’t really want to get into the internal politics of the situation here — though let it be known that I am entirely in support of the students who planned the service and think that they have been rather awfully thrown under the bus by some of their peers and their supervisors. What I want to muse about is *what is so offensive* about the language that was used, what is so terrifying to the religious establishment.

Complaints were made that a ‘polari bible translation’ was used. This translation uses the word Gloria in place of Godthe Duchess in place of the Lord, Josie in place of Jesus, and the Fairy fantabulosa  in place of the Holy Spirit — amongst many other substitutions. These choices and others were seen by some to undermine the historic doctrine of the church, as well as make an unhelpful contribution to the currently very-hot-indeed issues around sexuality in the Church of England. This same week, the C of E bishops issued a statement which confirmed no change in some traditional teachings around sex and marriage (not surprising, but still sad). This statement urged churches, where necessary, to repent of their homophobia and to ‘change the tone’ of their engagement around issues of (particularly queer) sexuality. I could write multiple posts about the bishops’ statement; right now I want simply to note the synchronicity of these two events.

So — back to the ‘polari bible‘ and its paraphrase of scripture, particularly its use of female God-language. Those who know me will know how dear to my heart this issue is; how incredibly important I believe it is that people of faith are enabled to see how patriarchy & phallocentrism is harmful, especially in the way we speak about God.  The God of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures refers to Herself in female terms, metaphors, and pronouns as well as male. [1]  Many reasonable theologians and biblical scholars accept this. However, it is one thing to accept the concept that ‘God is neither male nor female but both and, more importantly, beyond’. (Not all Christians accept this! If I had a nickel for the number of times I’d sat across a table from a Christian, usually a man, and been told that ‘God is not a man, but God is male!’ well, I’d probably be able to buy a coffee at Starbucks.)

It is one thing to accept this concept and quite another thing to put it into practice. Still, today, the feminine, and especially the female (see footnote for disambiguation) tends to make churchy people incredibly squeamish. [2] Even churchy people with a high regard for Mary or female saints. [3]  Why is this? I think it comes down to the famous dictum of radical feminist Mary Daly: ‘If God is male, then male is God.’ If people’s overwhelming linguistic means for describing, praising, and speaking to God is male or masculine — if we project onto God a man’s face, stereotypical properties, even genitals — then it is not long before they, before we, project what we perceive to be Godly attributes onto the males of the species, and those who display more culturally ‘masculine’ attributes.

By tightly orthodox Christian standards, polari is an intentionally irreverent, transgressive, thoroughly ‘indecent’ language  — I am reminded of Marcella Althaus-Reid’s ‘indecent theology’. The ‘polari bible’ was produced by the queer activist group the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. They’re an activist group, not a religious order. But it’s funny how the lines between activism and religion blur and swerve: how many nuns one finds on protest lines, how much space the church has made, perhaps quite unintentionally over the years, for (often closeted) gay men.

God as Gloria – Jesus as Josie – the Holy Spirit as the fantabulosa Fairy. What is it that offends people here? I ask about offence, not theology, right now. Why do these titles make people physically and mentally cringe, even before they marshal theological arguments? Changing the address ‘Lord’ to ‘Duchess’…aside from the variation in gentry rank [4], what is the problem? How are they different?

They are different, of course, because of gender. Christians are so accustomed to God as Zeus, or the Trinity as ‘two men and a bird’. We imbibe the patriarchy of the earlier centuries and millennia which produced our holy texts, and we continue imbibing the patriarchy of today which denigrates the female, and the feminine, and finds them nauseating. We perpetuate this.

To protect ourselves from realising how much of this debate is about offence and internalised, institutionalised misogyny (and homophobia), we marshal theological arguments: ‘If God were female, then God would have been incarnate as a woman, surely’; in short, ‘because Jesus was male, God cannot be at all female’. Such an argument willingly ignores St Paul’s writings on people of all genders, ethnicities, and classes as literally the body of Christ, spiritualising the bible’s words beyond all significant meaning (a heresy which is usually referred to as Gnosticism).

Alternatively, even if we can admit that God might be, somehow, in some way, female as well as male, or beyond gender, we stick to the safety of male God-language. Perhaps we stick in a bit of language around God’s ‘midwifery’ or ‘nurturing love’, but do we make that leap to God as Her, She, Mother, or Sister? Do we address God as such in the depths of our beings? I am convinced that until we learn to do so, it is very difficult to nail the last nail in the coffin of our culture’s, and our religion’s, debts to patriarchy.

The polari bible is not meant as a serious biblical translation. I don’t know for sure, but I’d reckon that no biblical scholars were consulted in its production. Raise all the questions you want about the wisdom of using that bible in a theological college evensong. The fact remains that the move in that service towards female God language, though in jest, is primarily what scares the significantly male-dominated global religious establishment — not just a branch of the Church of England. The fear felt by the establishment is the reaction to the removal of privilege: in this case, the privilege that comes particularly to men when God is imaged exclusively as male.

Such fear so often becomes hatred. Whether we call it homophobia or misogyny or not, that is what it is. No amount of card shuffling, of attempting to shift the debate back onto ‘real theological issues’ can detract from the fact that the church has demonstrated once again its deep unease, distrust, and ultimate rejection of the female, and with the queer. And believe me, those of us who are female and/or queer and love Jesus feel this rejection sharply, like swords piercing the soul.

 

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[1] An accessible book on this topic is ‘Is it Okay to Call God Mother?’ by Paul Smith.

[2] I draw a distinction between ‘the feminine’ and ‘female’ because, it seems apparent to me, that while people are born male, female, or intersex; they are also born with brains, bodies, and personalities that miraculously mix and combine traits which various cultures assign (variously!) as more ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’.

[3]  I do think, as I have argued elsewhere, that part of the reason for the strength of the cult of Mary and of female saints is the lack of space that many Christians find in their God-images, and God-language, for anything female.

[4] The Sister of Perpetual Indulgence are an American group. We Americans don’t really do gentry titles. We find them quite queer.