Did you know E. M. Forster wrote sci-fi? I didn’t!
‘You write one little book about a Christian Union kerfuffle,’ I remarked earlier this week, ‘and every time there’s a Christian Union kerfuffle everyone goes all, I saw this and thought of you.’
This is perhaps unfair. Christian Union kerfuffles can happen at any British university, at any time, and anyone who happened to be even tangentially involved – on any side – will shudder gently to themselves at the memory and consider pouring a stiff drink. Many readers have told me, ‘Oh, I remember something just like this happening at __________ in the mid ____ies…’
On the other hand, perhaps it is fair. So far as I know, nobody apart from me has written about them in fiction. I can’t imagine why. (Other than the fact that they turn out to be very difficult to get published, I mean.) They generally attract enough drama, misunderstanding, and deeply felt and opposing idealism to fuel an epic.
It’s easy to understand why. Universities are full of people who have time, energy, and deeply held beliefs, who may be homesick or lonely or vulnerable, whose horizons have been suddenly and forcibly widened. There’s always a kerfuffle waiting to happen.
The most recent one happened at Balliol College, Oxford, earlier this term. I am not qualified to make a specific comment on the events at Balliol, for the following reasons:
- it’s over a decade since I graduated
- I went to a redbrick university, not Oxbridge
- I live in Cambridge these days
What did I do when I read the story, then? I shuddered gently at the memory and considered pouring myself a stiff drink. It’s a general response to a general occurrence. As is this:
Over the years that I’ve been keeping an eye on these events I’ve developed a set of questions that I ask when I read stories like these. This is the big one:
- Is this a simple question of secular versus sacred?
Because the story almost always appears to be about the Students’ Union versus the Christian Union, and it’s almost always a whole lot more complicated than that.
- Whose voices are we not hearing?
- What voices from other faiths?
- Come to that, what about other Christian voices? Do we have a Roman Catholic take on the situation? Quaker? Orthodox? No? Well, what about the college chaplain?
- If not, why not?
- Is this particular Christian Union representative of all Christians?
- Who’s affiliated to what? Do those affiliations tell us anything about the approaches, beliefs, or behaviour that can be expected?
- Is everybody who they say they are? Are they as immediately involved as they claim to be?
I tried to give a fuller answer than we usually get to all of those questions when I wrote about a fictional kerfuffle at a fictional university. No, Stancester isn’t real, and nor is anything that happens there. But for all that it’s a familiar story, and it could have happened anywhere.
The Provincial Lady inhabits a very different world from the one that we live in, but her constant battle with domestic chaos is nevertheless familiar. And very funny.
- To see what the fuss is about
- You loved it last time around
- You loved that other book by the same author
- It’s very good
- The plot has got you hooked
- It’s so bad it’s funny
Good reasons for finishing a book you’re not enjoying
- It’s a requirement for your course
- You’ve got into it now
- You want to see if it gets better
- You want to see how bad it can possibly get
Good reasons not to read a book
- It sounds just like that other book you hated
- It sounds fine, just not very interesting
- Somebody on the internet said it wasn’t very good
- You would rather read a different book
- The author was rude to or about somebody like you on Twitter
- Life’s too short
Good reasons to abandon a book
- You don’t feel like finishing this book
There are many further variations. Add your own in comments!
I’m looking forward to the release of Our Witness: the unheard stories of LGBT+ Christians later this month. As a contributor, I’ve had the chance to glance through the proofs of this collection of personal essays, and I’ve been impressed by the sheer breadth and depth, as well as the honesty, of the content.
Too often, the debate in the Church around gender and sexuality assumes that the question begins and ends with gay men. Lesbians are ignored. The rest of us might as well not exist. Even among allies, there’s a depressing tendency to write ‘LGBT’ in the first line and then revert to ‘gay’ for the remainder of the article/sermon/book, as if that covered everyone’s experience. Terms like ‘gay marriage’ are thrown around with, er, gay abandon. One gets the impression that the middle-aged cis white gay men are the only ones in the Church with any problems.
This book goes a long way to redress that balance. There are stories from gay Christians, yes – but there are stories from lesbian Christians, bisexual Christians, and trans Christians too. I’m in there as The Amazing Invisible Bisexual Christian – the woman who’s been married to a man for getting on for a decade and still stubbornly refuses to forget that she’s queer. There are stories from ordained ministers and from laypeople; from many denominations; there are stories of hurt, and stories of hope.
Some stories are not found in there: how could they be, when there are as many stories as there are LGBT+ Christians? Some will appear in the US version, which is coming next year. Others, of course, won’t. But there are more stories in here than I have ever seen before.
Our Witness: the unheard stories of LGBT+ Christians is published on 29 October by Darton Longman and Todd.
Is it possible to get earwormed with a fictional song? A song that exists only in a book? I think Ann Leckie may have managed this with:
My heart is a fish
Hiding in the water-grass
In the green, in the green
and particularly with:
It all goes around, the station goes around the moon, it all goes around…
… My mother said it all goes around, it all goes around, the ship goes around the station