Good news

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Speak Its Name was a finalist in the 2016 North Street Book Prize for self-published books (scroll down to the bottom of the page – then scroll back up and read about the actual winners). I’m very pleased about this indeed.

News from the Church of England is also good, though I find myself less excited than I might perhaps have been a couple of years ago. This time around, I got so frustrated by the bi erasure from both sides that I never managed to get into the debate. And I can’t help feeling that things have come to a pretty pass when Synod opt not to note a report that was so dreadful that the Bishops felt that they had to apologise for it and we feel obliged to be grateful for this.

I’m thinking a lot about the Syro-Phoenician woman, thinking about the tables that I sit at and the ones whose legs I prowl around hopefully. Some time over the last few years, it seems, I started wanting more than crumbs.

LGBTQ Christian fiction book recs

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Yesterday, I got chatting on Twitter with the user of the Diverse Church account about books with LGBTQ Christian characters, and how few of these there actually are.

Now, at least part of the reason I wrote one of my own was that I was frustrated with the lack of representation. However, I’ve found a few over the years, and it only seems fair to share the intel. In this post, I’m only listing books I’ve actually read, but in some cases it was a while ago, so I’m not going to warn for anything in these, for fear that I’ll not have remembered something horrible. Proceed at your own risk!

While not all of these end with hugs and puppies, they do start from, or at least eventually arrive at, the assumption that being Christian and being LGBTQ are not incompatible states, and call, in one way or another, for affirmation. Although, reading down my list, I fear that it’s mostly about the G, with a very little about the L. (How like the debate on sexual and gender identity in our own dear Church of England, she says bitchily.)

As for things I haven’t read (yet)… I’ve found Jesus in Love to be a very interesting source of recommendations. Do add your own – either for individual books or authors, or for rec sites or round-ups – in comments!

On to the books…

 

Michael Arditti, Easter. Set in a London parish over the course of one Holy Week, with multiple storylines playing out, seen from multiple perspectives.

Paula Boock: Dare, Truth or Promise. New Zealand teen fiction of the ‘challenges of high school’ type. One of the main characters is Roman Catholic, and there’s a lovely scene with her priest, which meant a lot to me back in the day.

Catherine Fox: Lindchester chronicles (Acts and Omissions, Unseen Things Above, Realms of Glory, the last still under construction). Barchester for the modern day, with outright representation of gay and lesbian characters and engagement with the politics.

Radclyffe Hall: The Well of Loneliness. Definitely short in the hugs and puppies department, but I couldn’t leave it off the list, for much the same reasons as those that Kittredge Cherry explains over at Jesus in Love.

Alex Sanchez: The God Box. American teen fiction, also of the ‘challenges of high school’ type; engages the question head on throughout the book.

Issues with Issues: bisexuality and the Church of England

[content note: discussion of a biphobic document, including a specifically biphobic quotation]

Issues in Human Sexuality has become a very Anglican idolatry: a discussion document published in 1988, elevated without consultation to quasi-doctrinal status and making the lives of LGBT members of the Church of England a misery ever since. It’s the document that ordinands are asked to submit to, the document whose logical conclusion is that same-sex marriages can’t be performed or even blessed in church.

Paragraph 5.8, which attempts to deal specifically with bisexuality, has been floating around Twitter lately, and since I have more to say on the matter than will fit into 140 characters, I’ve taken it to the blog.

5.8 The first is that of bisexuality. We recognise that there are those whose sexual orientation is ambiguous, and who can find themselves attracted to partners of either sex. Nevertheless it is clear that bisexual activity must always be wrong for this reason, if for no other, that it inevitably involves being unfaithful. The Church’s guidance to bisexual Christians is that if they are capable of heterophile relationships and of satisfaction within them, they should follow the way of holiness in either celibacy or abstinence or heterosexual marriage. In the situation of the bisexual it can also be that counselling will help the person concerned to discover the truth of their personality and to achieve a degree of inner healing.

The depressing thing about this – no, there are many depressing things about this, but one of the first that springs to mind is that it relies on a definition of bisexuality that no bisexuals use, a myth that is in wide circulation beyond the Church, namely, that ‘bisexual activity… inevitably involves being unfaithful.’ The majority of my secular straight acquaintance agrees that the Church’s attitude to homosexuality is bafflingly uncharitable, but I’ve had to explain a tedious number of times that no, I’m still only sleeping with the person I’m married to.

I began identifying as bisexual in 2007, having first heard the word in 2006. At that point I was in a relationship with the man I was to marry in 2009. Our seventh wedding anniversary was last Monday. Now, you can make all the ‘seven year itch’ jokes you like, but I have never been unfaithful – unless you subscribe to a particularly literalist interpretation of Matthew 5:28, in which case I suggest you check your own eye for logs. I have from time to time developed crushes on other people, told my husband about them, laughed, and moved on. I will be very surprised if that’s not true for the majority of straight people and gay people.

The paragraph also relies on another common misapprehension about bisexuality: that it ceases to exist when somebody begins a monogamous relationship. My own experience gives the lie to that. I was already in a monogamous relationship when I took a long, hard look at the list of everyone I’d ever been attracted to and realised they weren’t all the same gender. Nor did I not stop being bisexual on 20 June 2009. In fact, it was some of the hard thinking that I had to do as part of marriage preparation that gave me the impetus to come out to my husband. (Whose response, by the way, when I showed him this paragraph the other night, was ‘What the fuck?’)

I am ‘capable’ of celibacy, abstinence and heterosexual marriage, though not all at the same time. I’ve done all three in my time, I’ve seriously considered all three, plus a relationship with someone of the same gender, as possible futures, and all the time I’ve been bisexual. What is ‘bisexual activity’, anyway? At present I, a bisexual, am typing a blog post in my lunch break, drinking tea and listening to the Sullivan cello concerto. No infidelity involved. That’s as far as my bisexual activity goes.

I have had counselling in the past. It helped, but not in the way that Issues seems to think it might. It was the beginning of an attempt to achieve what this calls ‘a degree of inner healing’. What eventually came to the surface was the inevitable conclusion that my attempt to ‘follow the way of holiness in… heterosexual marriage’, ignoring all the bits of my personality that didn’t fit that story, hadn’t worked at all; it had led to me leaving half of myself outside the church door. That stint of counselling, and all the thinking I did after that, didn’t ‘heal’ me of being bisexual, because bisexuality is not something that needs to be healed. ‘Dealing with’ bisexuality by ignoring it is, pastorally speaking, a terrible move.

And guess what? The truth of my personality is that I’m bisexual, no amount of counselling is going to take that away, and accepting it, celebrating it, has brought me a degree of inner healing that pretending to be a straight wife never did.

How to make bisexuals feel welcome at church

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I’m assuming for the purposes of this post that your church is one that wants to make bisexuals feel welcome, that perhaps already has some sort of ‘LGBT’ outreach or ministry, that’s wondering where all the bisexuals are, that’s thinking that perhaps it doesn’t have any.

If that’s not the case, some sort of LGBT outreach would be a good start. And if you are starting from scratch, here’s how to include bisexuals in that.

The tl;dr version:

See us. Let us know you’ve seen us. Believe us when we tell you who we are. Or, if you can’t see us at the moment, let us know that it’s safe to be visible.

Don’t make assumptions.

Understand that you almost certainly have bisexuals in the congregation already. Who knows – they might even have got married in your church. Yes, even if your church doesn’t do same-sex marriages.

A significant relationship pattern among my friends is bisexual Christian woman + straight atheist man. That’s what mine looks like. In fact – let’s take that a little further. My husband goes to church almost as much as I do, and the potential for hilarious misunderstandings is endless. Quite often people come to the conclusion that he’s Roman Catholic – a Polish middle name and a habit of coming to the communion rail for a blessing rather than to receive will do that. They see us sitting side by side in the choir, and they assume that we’re a straight Christian couple.

But he’s not Christian. And I’m not straight.

The moral of this story is: don’t make assumptions about people’s sexuality based on their relationships.

Similarly, don’t make assumptions about people’s relationships based on their sexuality. For me, when I say that I identify as bisexual, I’m talking about potential: what might have been, what might still be. For most married bisexuals, our sexual identity just doubles the pool of people with whom we’re not committing adultery.

None of which is to say that there aren’t other models of relationships that are valid. Christians can be celibate; Christians can be polyamorous. A bisexual might have committed to only pursuing relationships with people of the opposite gender. A bisexual in a different-gender relationship might not want to get married because they know that if they’d fallen in love with someone different, they wouldn’t be able to.

Speaking for myself, I got married when I was 23, and I wouldn’t do it again. Not because of any difficulties in our relationship (except for that incident the other week where I laughed when he dropped his pizza…) but because I’ve come to find society’s insistence on marriage as the highest expression of human relationships damaging and verging on the idolatrous. But that’s just me, and I don’t speak for all bisexuals, not even all Christian ones. Don’t make assumptions based on me, or on anyone else.

Include bisexuality. Explicitly.

I went to a church where we once sang Over The Rainbow under a rainbow flag. It still took me years to come out, because I wasn’t sure that I was queer enough to ‘count’. I came out to the rector, who was fantastic. I was never out to the congregation at large. It would probably have been fine, but I didn’t know. I wasn’t sure that people would accept me as a bisexual. I wasn’t sure that they’d believe me: they’d seen me get married to a man, after all. And so, for five years in a church that I loved, that was fantastic in all other respects, I was never quite myself.

It’s very reassuring to know that my church would accept me if I were to turn up with a partner of the same gender, but that doesn’t tell me that it sees and accepts me as I am now. So talk about bisexuality. Show that you understand that some people are attracted to more than one gender. Show that you understand what that means.

Remember that bisexuality exists. Don’t assume that people with same-sex partners are the only ones who have problems with, or in, the Church. Don’t use ‘LGBT’ if you just mean ‘lesbian and gay’. Don’t include the B and the T in the acronym in the top line of your sermon or newsletter article and then talk about ‘gay people’ all the way through the rest of it. It’s lazy and it doesn’t make us feel included; it shows that you haven’t actually thought through the distinctive experience of bisexuals – let alone trans people. (That’s a post of its own, and I’m not the person to write it.) Similarly, assuming that bisexuality is included on the basis of the ‘everyone’s bisexual really’ meme erases the experiences of those who do identify as bisexual, and of those who explicitly don’t.

Understand that bisexuals are likely to have specific pastoral issues.

There is a statistic floating around that says that bisexuals are more likely to have mental health problems than either gay people or straight people. I resemble that statistic. And I am not remotely surprised.

Whatever our relationship might look like, we’re always half in and half out of the closet – or we’re having to work very hard swimming against the tide of other people’s assumptions. We’re always aware that there’s a side of us that people are choosing not to see. We feel guilty, as if we’re hiding something, but we fear that if we are explicit about our identity then people will accuse us of attention-seeking. Sometimes we worry that we are attention-seeking, but if we try to settle into the role that society has assigned to us we’re always aware that there’s something else, something that we must acknowledge or be damned.

The Christian life calls us to a sexuality that’s pretty much the opposite of the promiscuity that popular culture ascribes to bisexuals. The more we try to live out our Christianity, the more our sexual identity is erased. Monogamy is mistaken for monosexuality, and we disappear into the gap between straight and gay. Being invisible is not healthy, spiritually speaking, and if your vocation is to care for your congregation, then you need to care for both halves of us.

God sees us as we are.

One day, I hope the Church will do so too.

Faith, belief, doubt, and pedantry

I think, for me, there are two main elements to this: the way faith works for me in the context of my history of depression, and my religious background.

First, thought, it’s worth mentioning that I draw a distinction between faith and belief, and that I am acutely aware of the difference between knowledge and knowledge (why doesn’t English translate savoir and connaître properly?) – knowing intellectually, in the head, if you like, and knowing in the heart – the difference between knowing facts and knowing people.

Faith, for me, is not the same as belief. (This, I know, is not something that all Christians would agree on, but I am only talking, here and throughout, about one Christian.) I can remember a real lightbulb moment a few years ago, at one of my parish’s Lent Courses Where One Is Not Told The Answer, where somebody linked faith to trust rather than to belief, and I suddenly stopped feeling guilty about not believing hard enough. These days I think I would describe it as ‘relationship with the Divine’ and leave it at that.

I’m very Anglican. I am both catholic and protestant, and neither Catholic nor Protestant. My non-conformist streak is Quaker, and Quakers don’t conform with anything, particularly non-conformists. And I say all this because the thing about the very Protestant Churches that I was most glad to leave behind was their insistence on belief, the idea that one has to believe the right thing to be saved. It always felt all wrong to me.

I am finding increasingly as I get older (she says, from the ripe old age of 28) that what I believe is becoming less and less important. I don’t worry at all about whether other people are believing the right thing, whatever that is. My own belief has become less certain, and less defensive. I don’t know what I believe about all sorts of things, and that no longer seems to be a problem, except to other people. At the same time, my faith has become much surer. I can’t really describe it, except by saying that it’s a sense of being loved, in a very calm, sustaining kind of way.

Which is all very well, when my brain is working. Quite often it isn’t. I’ve had depression on and off for the past twelve years, I would guess. There are two things about this that are particularly relevant to this post. Firstly: when I am depressed I cannot remember how it feels to not be depressed. (Conversely, when I’m not depressed, I find it difficult to remember how awful being depressed is, but, because my brain is working better all round, I can – if I choose, which I usually don’t – describe it via imagination.) Secondly: when I am depressed I cannot feel love, either giving it or receiving it. I can have my best friend hugging me and feel about as much emotional response as a dustpan.

This is where savoir and connaître come into it. In my head I know that my family love me, that my husband loves me, that my friends love me. Sometimes they tell me this using actual words. They mean those words. And in my head I know all that, and it means absolutely nothing. It doesn’t get any further. When my brain is working, on the other hand, it’s fine. It all gets through and I feel it deeply. I can quite often be in love with the entire universe for whole seconds at a time. (An interesting side-effect of this is that I now cry at pretty much anything. Tinny call-centre Vivaldi, for example. Also discovering that I have more and better friends than I thought I had, which has happened quite a lot over the past few months because of my brain not being so broken as usual.)

What I am driving at here is probably obvious: that a faith that manifests itself predominantly in a sense of love cannot make itself felt all the time, particularly when I can’t feel love all the time anyway. And I suppose the spaces between might well be called doubt. The thing is, though, that I know that the ones who love me don’t stop loving me just because I don’t have the capacity to experience it, any more than the sun stops burning when it’s behind a cloud. The same feels true of the Divine. Apart from anything else, that’s always the first thing to come back.

So: that’s me, and faith, and doubt. I hope… I don’t know what I hope. But there it is. Be gentle.