hear the prayer we offer (and the one we don’t)

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I have a rather tiresome cough at the moment, which has made singing in the church choir… interesting. On Sunday I’d got to the point where the singing was mostly OK, but I was paying for it in the spoken bits. I don’t understand the physiology enough to explain why I could force my way through the Gloria (sung) but was having to miss whole chunks of the Creed (said) in order to cough.

Anyway, I suspect nobody in the congregation actually noticed, particularly over the sound of the rain, but I was aware that it must have sounded rather as if I was having theological objections to some of the least controversial bits of the Creed. I coughed through ‘and was buried’, for example, but managed ‘and the Son’, ‘the holy, catholic and apostolic Church’, and ‘the communion of saints’ with no problems at all.

That reminded me of someone I knew at a previous church who refused to say the line about ‘the resurrection of the body’, because she didn’t believe in it, which then reminded me of a story the rector of that church told about a couple whose thoughts about Firmly I believe and truly used to be very audible, because they just stopped singing when they got to a bit they didn’t believe in.

Personally I can do most of Firmly I believe and truly, though I do mentally cross my fingers when I get to ‘and her teachings as his own’.

There are plenty of reasons to dislike a hymn beside theological or moral objections. Clumsy use of language. A melody line that goes too high or too low (I cannot tell manages to be both, for a lot of people), or is simply banal. (Brother, sister, let me serve you, I’m looking at you.)

There are various different ways to deal with the discovery that a hymn you really dislike is coming up next. You could walk out (though you probably won’t). You could sing the bits you agree with and keep your mouth shut for the bits you don’t. You could spend the whole thing looking for cash for the collection. You could rewrite the words on the fly. I’ve used all those tactics except the first one on the second verse of In Christ Alone.

I try to avoid altogether any kind of service where there’s a danger of I vow to thee, my country. I refuse to offer my country ‘the love that asks no question’: that kind of idolatry is how we end up with the mess we’re in now. And Thaxted is a tune that wasn’t written for the human voice, and it shows.

So far, so uncontroversial. Or, I suppose, so predictably controversial. But my own particular peeve is a hymn that’s sung a lot in ordinary Church of England parish churches, particularly during Lent. Father, hear the prayer we offer.

It’s the first verse that annoys me: Not for ease that prayer shall be/But for strength…

The subtext of this hymn is: I could cope with this, if only you would make me stronger. I don’t know much about the life of Love Maria Willis, the writer: it’s quite possible that it wasn’t easy; that she had to put up with a lot and not complain about it. But this – like I vow to thee, my country, in fact – is mixing up the human values of a bygone century with the values of the kingdom of heaven.

I want to ask: what’s wrong with praying for ease? What’s wrong with praying for things to be easier? That prayer may not be answered, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a worthy prayer.

The assumption that there is something wrong with it drives me up the wall. I think it’s picky and prideful; it’s that old human fault of telling God how to fix things.

What would happen if, rather than assuming that we aren’t strong enough, we entertained the possibility that actually, this situation is intolerable?

I know.

But we worship one whose strength was made perfect in weakness, whose yoke is easy and whose burden is light. God does not tell us to put up and shut up, but Come unto me, ye that are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Our insistence on our own strength is risible in the face of that almighty understanding.

No, give me the steep and rugged pathways and the green pastures. To be fair, the rest of the hymn does; it’s just the first verse that I object to.

Fortunately, it’s easily fixed:

Father, hear the prayer we offer:
Both for ease that prayer shall be,
And for strength that we may ever
Live our lives rejoicingly.

See you on the Book Bus

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Later this week I’ll be back on the Isle of Wight for Ventnor Fringe, an independent arts festival that turns every conceivable nook and cranny in this delightfully higgledy-piggledy Victorian resort into a performance space. Ventnor is possibly my favourite town in the entire country, but I have never yet managed to make it down there for the Fringe. Until now.

You may well find me in the Book Bus in St Catherine’s churchyard, where I’ll have copies of both my books on sale. (Mine are new. Everything else on there is second hand.) The bus (which is the one in the picture above) will be there all week, and is open from 10am to 6pm; I have to eat and sleep and would quite like to see some of the other events as well, so I can’t guarantee that I’ll necessarily be there when you happen to turn up. But hey, it’s a bus full of books; you don’t need me to be around to have a whale of a time there.

All this talk of independent events reminds me of an initiative I came across via Twitter this week, Just A Card. The idea is that if everybody who came into a [studio/craft shop/art gallery/bookshop] bought ‘just a [card/brooch/fridge magnet/book]’, that establishment would be able to remain in business for rather longer than it would otherwise.

Obviously I’m not advocating filling your house up with useless crap that you hate, particularly not if money’s tight; but if you find something cheap and pleasing, something that you think that a friend or family member might appreciate even if it’s not your thing, then buying it might go a little way to keeping an independent business going.

(Connoisseurs of British seaside towns may legitimately point out that this is obviously Brighton, not Ventnor. Unfortunately I don’t have a picture of the bus in Ventnor, although by this time next week I almost certainly will have fixed that.)

Learning, past, present and future: judging the UNISON writing competition

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Last month I had the very great privilege of announcing the winner of UNISON’s first-ever creative writing competition at National Delegate Conference in Brighton.

I’d never judged anything before, and this was an enjoyable, if intimidating, place to start. We’d asked entrants to work with the theme of ‘Learning: past, present, and future’. My fellow judges were Genevieve Clarke, from The Reading Agency, Andrew Jennison, UNISON learning rep at De Montfort University and mastermind of the #DMUReads scheme, and Kirsi Kekki, Policy Officer for English and maths learning at Unionlearn.

Reading through all the entries was a very pleasant way to spend an afternoon, and rereading and deliberating over my choices occupied my mind for the next couple of weeks. Names were removed, along with other identifying information, before the entries were passed to the judges. There were also a couple of genuinely anonymous entries, which we couldn’t consider. I took a look at those, too, out of interest, and I think one of them might have made the final six if it had only been sent in with a name attached. The moral of that is: be brave!

Interestingly enough, deciding on the winner was easy. There was only one entry that all four of us had on our own personal shortlists. It was agreeing on the rest of the shortlist that was difficult. Some of us had firm favourites that didn’t appear at all on others’ lists. And I certainly looked at a couple of other lists, saw entries that I hadn’t included, and said, ‘Yeah, good point…’ Writing is such a subjective thing to judge; readers’ tastes vary so much. At least, ours did!

What made the winning entry stand out from the rest of the field? In a word, consistency. Conservative Party Conference 2050 started strongly, with an attention-grabbing burst of onomatopoeia, and it never faltered. It built on that with a rousing testament to the power of learning, and finished with a twist that had more than one of us laughing out loud. There isn’t a weak word in it.

As for the rest of the shortlist, we tended to favour pieces that took risks, or that went in a slightly different direction from the obvious. Petrichor, for example, was the only entry that had a narrator who wasn’t human.

Three personal accounts of learning made it into the final shortlist, reflecting a heavy weighting of entries with that theme. However, one of those, A Teacher Prepares, was written from a teacher’s point of view rather than a student’s, and another, Learning: a love story, drew the theme of learning into all aspects of the writer’s life with rueful, self-deprecating humour.

With all that said, There, Inside Of Me didn’t try anything fancy, just told the poet’s own learning story in a few well-chosen words. And we had a few submissions involving post-apocalyptic visions of education; of these, A Different Class stood out because of its strong worldbuilding and bleak humour.

I got to announce the shortlist and the winner. My colleague Clair got to read the winning entry out, and had far too much fun pretending to be a Tory MP.

I very much enjoyed being a judge, although it did tie up more of my work time than I’d expected. Out of curiosity, I went Googling to see how the real pros do it. This is what one of the 2014 Man Booker Prize judges said:

All six judges read 156 books submitted by 94 publishing imprints, and argued about them. That sentence makes this part sound rather breezy. For just over six months, I read a novel a day.

Whew. Reading that, I’m very glad that we imposed a 1500 word limit on our competition.

Listening to the stories: Our Witness

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Some people have very specific ideas about what a Christian story ought to look like. You can tell by looking at the reviews of Catherine Fox’s books on Amazon. Too much swearing: one star. A story about Christians can never, ever, include the F-word. Other stories are to be ignored, overwritten, or, if the worst comes to the worst and one finds oneself reading one, given a one-star review.

Because Christians don’t swear. Except they do. We do. I do. And if you say you don’t – well, I’ll happily believe you, but it doesn’t stop the rest of us existing. Or swearing.

I really enjoyed the Lent course I attended this year. We started with something constructed by the Diocese of Ely, improvised icebreakers concerning the idiosyncrasies of our socks, ate snacks introduced with increasingly tenuous connections to the themes we were talking about (the Club biscuits – ‘set apart’ in their own wrappers, but yet together in the packet, and therefore an illustration of ‘holiness’, were my personal favourite) and tried to discern our own callings. For many of us, I think, that turned out to be something about being who we were, about not trying to force ourselves into what we thought a Christian ought to look like, about showing up, just as we were, and trusting that this was who we were meant to be.

For me, that was about being out as bisexual. It often is. From curling up in a ball the first week, muttering darkly that actually the Church isn’t necessarily a safe space to be yourself, to outing myself by telling a story of when I outed myself, to making and wearing symbolic jewellery (see picture at the top of this post) being myself as a Christian does tend to involve to ensuring that people know that I’m queer, and that I believe that that’s how God created me.

I’m always aware of a push-pull: the pull of the conviction that what other people think about me is none of my business; the push of knowing that, if I don’t say in so many words that I’m bisexual, people will assume that I’m straight. And – particularly in Christian circles – because I’m bisexual married to a man, if I don’t say that I understand a hypothetical relationship with someone who wasn’t a man to be as valid as the actual one that I have with someone who is, there’s the risk that people will assume that I chose to be with a man because he was a man. As opposed to falling for this person that I happened to live with.

In LGBT Christian jargon this is known as the ‘Side A/Side B’ question. (I have to look up which side is which every time.) Side A is LGB Christians who see no contradiction with same-sex sexual activity. Side B is LGB Christians who accept their identity but who would understand acting on same-sex sexual desires as sinful.

My problem is that I am very much Side A, but I know that in a heteronormative society I look very much Side B. And the only way to correct that assumption is to fill in the gaps, to tell the story. I am always telling stories, both fictional stories and true stories, and it’s almost always because the story that I’m hearing, or that I’m reading, isn’t the whole story. And when stories that don’t fit the dominant narrative – whether that’s Christians don’t say ‘fuck’ or A woman who’s married to a man must be straight or Christians don’t have sex with people of the same gender – are erased, it’s all the more important to keep telling them.

And so we come to Our Witness: the unheard story of LGBT Christians. The British edition came out last year; the US edition was released yesterday. Our Witness tells the stories – mine, The Amazing Invisible Bisexual Christian, and many, many more. The stories are all different, but they resonate with each other. If you’ve already bought the British edition and you only wanted to read my story, you don’t need to read it in the American edition. It’s the same, bar an ‘own goal’ metaphor which didn’t survive the voyage across the Atlantic. If, however, you’re looking for different stories, for a wider sample of all the different voices that make up this communion we call the Church, then read both. Every voice, every story, adds something to the symphony, and the more I listen, the richer the sound becomes.

 

 

A sense of perspective

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A few years ago I read something about a woman who wanted to go to Africa. I forget where I read it, or why the woman wanted to go to Africa in the first place, but I remember that the moral was that she had to become somebody for whom going to Africa was normal. She would never go to Africa until she got to thinking of going to Africa as No Big Deal.

I felt somewhat ambivalent about this at the time, and I still do. On the one hand, I can see the point: if I see a particular ambition, desire, or goal, as being Not For The Likes Of Us, then I’ll never manage it.

On the other, if I see it as No Big Deal, then what on earth is the point of doing it at all?

There’s an irritatingly pious part of me – think first year Hermione Granger, if first year Hermione Granger was into self-help woowoo – that wants to point out that well obviously the moral is that I should try to be more present in everything, because everything is a Big Deal! Which is of course true, every bush is alive with angels and all that, but if she could only be less obnoxious about it then I might be more inclined to pay attention…

All joking aside, it’s very easy for me to forget how far I’ve come.

It’s only in the past few years that things like ‘publish a novel!’ and ‘go InterRailing around Europe!’ have moved out of the ‘things I’d like to do, someday’ category and into ‘things I’m going to do’ – or ‘things I’ve actually done’.

The problem is, the moment they move into ‘things I’ve actually done’, they become No Big Deal. If I can do that, I tell myself, then anybody could.

And I forget. I forget how once it seemed like something that was Not For The Likes Of Us. I forget how many times other people had to tell me, ‘That sounds amazing! You should do it!’ I forget how much work it took to get where I am. I forget that I’m a massive success in the self-publishing world. (It might help if I made more than pocket money from it – but then again, I’d probably think that that was No Big Deal, too.) I forget that I’ve made literal history, that I have been the first person to do this particular something. A small something, admittedly, but still a something.

What’s the answer? Listen to Hermione Granger, I think. Remember to look around, and see what’s there, and enjoy being with it, if possible. Remember to look back, and see how far I’ve come. Remember to look forward, and identify what I want to do, and see that there probably isn’t any particular reason why I shouldn’t.

Pottering

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You know those Saturdays when you don’t really have anything scheduled, but you find yourself busy all the time, and can occasionally display a finished task as proof of your effort? That’s what January has been like for me so far. I’ve been pottering around, doing a thing here, a thing there, hoping that something will get finished sooner or later.

What have I been working on?

  • Well, there’s been the tedious day-to-day stuff of life: cooking, cleaning, keeping the wolf from the door. Sometimes it feels like all my brain goes on the day job and all my time is spent keeping the hamster wheel turning.
  • Speaking of the day job, I’ve been doing a little more at work with my author hat on. Watch this space.
  • A Spoke In The Wheel is out with several different readers, editors and checkers at the moment, so I’m not worrying about it too much. Which is not to say I’m not worrying about it at all. Any of us might miss something! What if I’ve made a mistake, and look stupid? (Then I’ll be no different from the rest of the world, says my partner, and he’s right. But still…)
  • Various elements of the sequel to Speak Its Name have been gathering in my head. Some come in the form of sentences or paragraphs, or even entire pages, which I write down; some are more general insights like ‘Oh! Abby has a blog! An anonymous one!’
  • That means research. I’ve been looking up things like ‘can an international student be a Cambridge choral scholar?’, ‘chemistry PhD subjects’ and ‘Church of England: vocations process’. I’m regretting a few choices I made in Speak Its Name, but I’m stuck with them now.
  • Fandom stuff. I’m very glad to have got back into fandom last year, but it doesn’t half take up a lot of time if I let it.
  • Spending my prize money on an epic European rail adventure. My plan is to book the expensive Scandinavian portion of the trip in advance, and spend the remainder of the time following my nose around central Europe, but this does rather rely on me and my rail map and my diary being in the same place at a time when I have sufficient brain power to know that I’m not going to do something stupid that I can’t cancel. And I still haven’t written up my last epic European adventure. (Which will be worth doing. The photo at the top of this post comes from that, and the tractor sculpture wasn’t even the weirdest thing we saw.)

In February I’ll get going in earnest on the launch procedure for A Spoke In The Wheel. Cover reveal? Blog tour? Who knows? We’ll find out!

Good reasons to read a book

  1. To see what the fuss is about
  2. You loved it last time around
  3. You loved that other book by the same author
  4. It’s very good
  5. The plot has got you hooked
  6. It’s so bad it’s funny

Good reasons for finishing a book you’re not enjoying

  1. It’s a requirement for your course
  2. You’ve got into it now
  3. You want to see if it gets better
  4. You want to see how bad it can possibly get

Good reasons not to read a book

  1. It sounds just like that other book you hated
  2. It sounds fine, just not very interesting
  3. Somebody on the internet said it wasn’t very good
  4. You would rather read a different book
  5. The author was rude to or about somebody like you on Twitter
  6. Life’s too short

Good reasons to abandon a book

  1. You don’t feel like finishing this book

There are many further variations. Add your own in comments!