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.

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.

 

 

This year I have punched 0 Arians

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Today it is the feast of St Nicholas, famous for:

  • distributing presents to deserving children;
  • punching Arius at the Council of Nicaea

so it seemed like a good day to consider my relationship with the rest of the Church and how that’s changed this year. As I say, I haven’t punched anybody, although if I’d happened to meet Franklin Graham I might have made an exception.

I seem to be pretty much settled in what I still think of as my ‘new’ church. ‘It takes years to train a man to love me,’ says Katisha in The Mikado; similarly, it takes years for me to begin to feel at home in a new place.We’ve been here three years now, and I’m getting the hang of it. It suits me well: I’m just a Parish Anglican, really, not very High Church and really not very Low Church. The current church has a cycle of services that runs from ‘about as low as I’m comfortable with’ to ‘slap bang in the middle of my comfort zone’. And I get to sing.

I did go to Little St Mary’s for St James’ Day, however, because my protestations about Not Being That High go out of the stained-glass window when it comes to things Jacobean.

I’ve joined a house group for people in their 20s and 30s. It’s a little bit anarchic – sometimes someone volunteers to lead an evening or a series of evenings; sometimes we just make it up as we go along. It’s been good. I’d forgotten – perhaps I didn’t know – how good it is for me to pray with other people.

I went to two launch events for Our Witness and found both very refreshing. It’s an unusual experience, to walk into a church full of strangers and to know that nobody’s going to think it remotely odd that I manage to be simultaneously bisexual and Christian.

It’s been an interesting year to be bisexual and Christian more generally. There was that Report on Marriage and Same-Sex Relationships and the Synod vote not to take notice of it. There was another chapter in the Jeffrey John saga. There was Tim Farron’s resignation. There was the Scottish Episcopal Church vote to allow same-sex marriage in church and the various reactions from the rest of the Anglican Communion. I continued to think that perhaps destroying the institution of marriage would not be such a bad thing, although my own continued to be enjoyable.

Meanwhile, my own internalised biphobia was prowling and prowling around – possibly more this year than last. I’m still not sure who I’m out to (at church and elsewhere) or what they think about it. On the other hand, I began to be able to articulate a growing sense of my spirituality aligning with my spirituality – and then going to Pride with a lesbian Christian friend was a joyful and affirming experience and I grinned solidly all afternoon.

What does next year have for me, in terms of church and Church? I’m not sure at all: I don’t seem to be able to visualise it at all. That might mean that it’s going to be about learning more and going deeper; or it might mean that there’s something huge and unexpected coming. We’ll find out!

Christian Union kerfuffles: some useful questions to ask

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‘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.

Our Witness: the unheard story of LGBT+ Christians

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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.

On Tim Farron

I’m Christian. I’m bisexual. I’m a member of the Labour party. And I am finding the tone of the commentary surrounding Tim Farron’s resignation somewhat upsetting.

I am not qualified to make pronouncements on Tim Farron’s beliefs. (Not that this seems to be stopping anyone else.) And so I’m just going to make a couple of observations, in what’s probably a pointless effort to introduce some nuance to the debate. One:

  • In Church language, ‘We’re all sinners’ is usually code for ‘I wish to describe some other group of people as sinful, but know that this will be frowned upon.’ Usually, but not always. However, even if one is inclined to extend the benefit of the doubt, this was at best a massive error of judgement.

Two, and I fear I’m going to be saying this for the rest of my life:

  • The assumption that LGBTQ and religious identities are mutually exclusive does not make life easier for those who happen to have both.

That’s it. Carry on.

Giving up, and giving up on giving up

This year I’ve been doing Lent differently; by which I mean that I’ve not been doing very much differently at all. I haven’t given up anything, partly in an attempt to disconnect the idea of virtue from that of self-deprivation, and partly to see if there’s any correlation between Lenten discipline and the seasonal depression that tends to land early in March and lift around Easter.

It turns out that not giving up meat, not giving up alcohol, not giving up coffee, not giving up tea, not giving up biscuits, and not giving up anything else, has made precisely zero difference, and March has been as much of a slog as it always is. This has, oddly enough, made me feel rather optimistic. It would have been annoying to discover that I’d brought all my misery on myself by trying too hard to be ‘good’. Next year I can do what I feel like doing and not worry about it. And I also know for next year not to schedule any social events during March, because I’ll either flake out and disappoint people, or turn up and then cry and embarrass them.

I keep meaning to write about the structure of the Church year, and how useful I find it. Firstly, there’s the way that it keeps turning on and on with or without my involvement. I can fail to get out of bed three Sundays running, work a weekend away, and then go on holiday, and when I come back I can still reorient myself by the colour of the altar frontal, the readings, and the anthem. And then there’s the fact that there is actually an officially sanctioned time for feeling dreadful, followed by a time of feeling a huge amount better and being thankful for that. That bit’s coming up soon. I’m looking forward to it.