December Reflections 6: angel

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Nobody gets angels right, particularly around Christmas. No six year old in glittery tulle wings, not this vision in her plastic farthingale, not even Michael Sheen’s Aziraphale, manages to convey the sheer awesomeness of a creature whose first words are very often, ‘Do not be afraid’. Which implies that they are, in fact, something to be afraid of.

Which is something that has been said many times before by many other people. So I won’t labour the point further, or mutter for very long about how the belief that angels are what our deceased loved ones become misses some important points about what it is to be human. (In fact, that’s the thing about all the portrayals of angels I mentioned in the first paragraph: they’re very, very, human.)

Angels in disguise are another matter, of course. If I ever met any, they were carrying umbrellas. (Incidentally, I read somewhere that P. L. Travers thought of Mary Poppins – her Mary Poppins, the mystical, supernatural being of the later books, not Disney’s instrument of 1950s conformity – as one of the archangels. Which makes sense. Benevolent, but still terrifying.)

Angels bring news, instructions. Sometimes you see them in stained glass windows or nativity sets carrying neat little banners saying Gloria in excelsis Deo or Peace on earth, goodwill to all. I’ve been listening out for messages this year. Some of them I haven’t liked at all. Others have not been exactly clear. I have learned over and over again that I am not as good at communicating as I think I am, that I operate on assumptions that turn out to be incorrect. I am trying to keep on listening.

Early in the year, I demanded a neon sign. The next neon sign that I saw read:

Started at the bottom.

Now you’re here.

Which is certainly true as far as it goes. The question is, where exactly is here?

I will keep my ears open. And my eyes.

A metrical version of the Magnificat, to an appropriate tune for the day

My soul proclaims God’s mighty glory
and my spirit shall rejoice
in God who saves me and exalts me,
who makes the poor his choice.
God’s bounteous blessings fall upon me
from now and through all years:
the mighty one has raised me upward:
God is holy, and God hears!

So take comfort, who suffer; this good news is for you:
Your trials will be changed to triumphs, and you will receive your due;
So take comfort, who suffer, and claim your rightful place:
God loves you, and has chosen you, of all the human race.

God stands with those deprived of power,
and God’s power will win the day;
He gives the hungry food in plenty
and he sends the rich away.
He empties thrones, and lifts the humble,
brings confusion to the proud;
He remembers those who are downtrodden,
and has saved us, as he vowed:

So take comfort, who suffer; this good news is for you:
Your trials will be changed to triumphs, and you will receive your due;
So take comfort, who suffer, and claim your rightful place:
God loves you, and has chosen you, of all the human race.

 

 

After Luke 1 46-55, obviously. You’re welcome to use this in church if you think you can get away with it.

Happy May Day, everyone!

#indiechallenge – 119: my life as a bisexual Christian (Jaime Sommers)

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The blurb

As a bisexual Christian woman, happily and faithfully married to a man, a mother of three children and with a blossoming ministry as a preacher, Jaime Sommers had always felt as if her true self did not really exist in the eyes of the Church. She could find neither theology nor pastoral support for a person who felt the need for physical closeness with both sexes in order to feel well or ‘whole’.

Following a brief, isolated incident in which Jaime kissed another woman, the full extent of the Church’s inability to acknowledge or understand her identity became apparent. The disciplinary process to which she was subjected led to her suffering depression and anxiety and feelings of isolation.

Jaime’s powerful and emotive story reveals the failure of the Church – and of large parts of wider culture and society – to recognise and support the experience and needs of those who identify as the silent ‘B’ in LGBT.

The publisher

Darton Longman Todd is an independent Christian publisher, specialising in books for the awkward squad. (I’m paraphrasing their ‘About‘ page there. I am myself a proud member of the awkward squad and have an essay in Our Witness, published by DLT.)

The bookshop

I bought this in Gay’s The Word, a long-established independent London bookshop (not far from my office, to the great detriment of my bank balance).

The bingo card

There are quite a few squares that this one could be filed under. ‘A book from your TBR’. ‘Biography’. ‘Marginalised people’. ‘Non-fiction’. ‘LGBTQIA’. Even ‘A debut’. I’m going to see what else I end up reading before I decide where to put this.

My thoughts

The ‘119’ of the title refers to the 119 words granted to the subject of bisexuality in the Church of England House of Bishops’ Issues in Human Sexuality. Those are 119 words that I’ve ranted about myself before now, and this book resonated. The early parts, dealing with Sommers’ childhood, adolescence and university years, felt a little incoherent and self-conscious, but when Sommers begins to address the crisis that forms the greater part of the book all that falls away, and she recounts the events with an honesty and clarity that roused my anger and kept me reading. Because yes, this is what it feels like:

It was very clear that they had absolutely no idea what to do with me. I wasn’t gay, but I wasn’t wholly straight. My marriage was not in trouble and my husband was supportive of my sexuality. I did not fit a single box they sought to put me in. In short, I was an inconvenience – and a major one at that.

I don’t experience bisexuality in quite the same way that Sommers seems to – for me, it’s more like a dormant but undeniable sense of possibility, the knowledge that, regardless of the gender of my current partner, my next one (if there is a next one) could be of any gender. But the consciousness of all that being erased, looked past, ignored, because one looks like a straight married person – I recognised all that. And realised how very fortunate I’ve been not to have come up against the Church’s misunderstanding of it in such a destructive manner.

In some ways, ‘119’ feels like a slightly irrelevant title. This book challenges Issues in Human Sexuality, yes, but it’s much more than that; it’s a personal account of how the system failed an individual; it’s representative of the failure of a whole system to recognise and provide for a whole group of people within it. Having said that,  the title does highlight how criminally inadequate the current thinking is.

… what is missing in the bisexual Christian’s life is the ability to hold a bisexual identity – and a clear sense of personal identity is imperative to mental health. Bisexuality is largely invisible in church publications and doctrinal debate and support for bisexual issues are missing in our churches and faith communities. It is as if we don’t really exist, that we are just a figment of our own imagination.

People forget about us, particularly when we can be slotted neatly into the ‘married’ box. I’m glad this book exists, because it must go some way towards stopping people forgetting.

December Reflections 4: best decision in 2018

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I spent much of the summer and autumn of 2018 wondering, Now what? I’d been on my epic adventure. I’d launched my new book. Now what? I was ready for the next big thing, but the big things were just too big, and they hovered infuriatingly just out of reach. (They still are, though I’m gathering boxes to stand on.)

At a church ‘praying with art’ event, I happened to mention that I was in the middle of a transition, and that I didn’t really know what it was. I’d been looking at The Visitation by Sebastiano del Piombo, and been very struck by the way that the two women’s faces and Mary’s right arm make a heart shape, and by all the bustling going on in the background. It’s a painting about transitions. Now what?

A couple of months later, the curate suggested that I might be interested in Cursillo. I heard ‘Casio’, like the calculators; when she spelt it out to me and explained that it was Spanish, it immediately felt like a good thing. Three days of talks and discussion groups, with the Eucharist every day. As I looked into it more, and discovered that much of the imagery came from pilgrimage, it felt like a good thing that might fit into the same place as the Camino de Santiago. I got my form filled in and returned with, for me, unprecedented speed.

The weekend is difficult to describe. (There’s a perception that one isn’t meant to describe it, which I think could be a little off-putting; certainly I appreciated having been given an outline of the way it works, and told ‘not to expect a retreat’.) It was what I was expecting, but it was more than what I was expecting. I knew that there would be talks and discussion groups; I knew that I would have to work quite hard to find myself spaces of time where I could be alone and quiet; I did not know that there would be rainbows and butterflies and a pervasive sense of joy.

I think that what it did for me was to bring out all my awkward bits, and bless them. I have a lot of awkward bits. (Probably most people do.) Most of them came up in discussion. My queerness, and my brain (both my insistence on using it, and when it refuses to work), and my extensive experience of burnout, and my unfashionable opinions on marriage. It has often been lonely being me, being Christian. I’ve had to work a lot of things out on my own. So I spent Friday and Saturday thinking that I’d heard it all before, and Sunday crying, because I’d been heard. On Saturday night I really wanted a hug, and on Sunday I got dozens. I felt as if I’d been taken apart and cleaned and put back together again.

It was only a couple of weeks ago, and I’m still working through everything that came up. (And quite often that’s meant “ignoring everything that came up, while I catch up on sleep”.) But it’s been good for me, and I think it will go on being so.

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!