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.

 

 

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.

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.

What you think the project is, and what the project really is

Minor spoilers for Speak Its Name in this, including an extract from a chapter very near the end.

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I mentioned last time that my main purveyor of author tracts (warning: that’s a link to TV Tropes, and if you follow it you may lose the rest of the day) in Speak Its Name was Peter. Which is not really surprising, when you consider that the book started out as a story of how getting too interested in student and/or Christian politics can play havoc with what you thought was a vocation to ordained ministry. That’s pretty much where I was when I started writing it, after all, so it made sense to bestow some of my own opinions upon the character who was dealing with that.

The other one was Abby, who is Lydia’s cousin, and who is in some ways much closer to an author avatar (TV Tropes again), or at least an author caricature. (‘A self-insert who turns up at the end to pontificate,’ was how I put it to one of my editors.) I am not blonde, or pregnant, or given to wearing pink, but at the time of writing I was very aware that I looked a lot like the Perfect Christian Woman. And – aside from the fact that my family is much less of a clusterfuck than the Hawkins – this was very much what my experience looked like.

‘What I wanted to say,’ Abby said, ‘was that I know that our family is not at all helpful when it comes to relationships that happen in anything like the real world, and that I know that your parents are if anything less helpful than my parents and that – if you wanted me to – I would come out.’

Lydia choked on her prosecco. ‘What?

Abby told Colette, in a stage whisper, ‘I said it wasn’t a helpful family.’ Then, in more serious tones. ‘I’m bi.’

Lydia could think of nothing to say. Colette, clearly amused, said, ‘She looked less shocked when I told her I had a crush on her.’

Abby smiled, though it looked like an effort. ‘I wasn’t ever going to tell anyone. Not in the family, at least. It never occurred to me that I might not be the only one.’

‘Same,’ Lydia just managed to squeak. ‘Does Paul know?’

‘Of course – I wouldn’t have married him if I couldn’t tell him that.’

‘People must do,’ Lydia said. ‘Oh, God, this must happen all the time.’

Abby nodded. ‘I know four or five – happily married, most of us, still in love, still Christian, still trying to find a way to be truthful, always knowing how bloody lucky we are: that we could so easily have gone the other way, fallen for someone we couldn’t take to church with us…’

Except… when I was reading it through, on the second to last editing pass, I was struck by the horrifying thought, Good grief, that sounds miserable.

And then I remembered that was me, that the last paragraph there describes precisely the way I thought about myself and my faith and my bisexuality at the time I was writing. I might as well have put it in there so that I could say to anyone who asked, ‘You know the bit with Abby at the end? That’s basically where I am.’

Not any more. Somewhere in the writing process I’d moved far beyond where Abby was. I was mostly out, as opposed to being mostly closeted. I’d stopped thinking that the only appropriate way for me to be bisexual was quietly. I’d realised what a mess I’d made of myself by trying to do that. I’d started speaking up, and out.

The project is never what you think it is. I thought Speak Its Name was about vocation, and politics, and faith, and sexual orientation, and it is, but it is mostly about being OK with who I am, and I had to learn more about that before I could finish it. Writing a book changed the book, and changed me.

I suspect that writing Wheels will have something to teach me about working too hard and physical capacity and the importance of not doing things. I asked to learn more about that, after all.

I suspect that I do not currently have the breadth of understanding to imagine what it’s going to teach me. I suspect that it’s going to go far beyond juggling my working patterns and keeping every other weekend free. I suspect that it’s going to take me apart and put me back together again, and maybe I’ll notice while it’s actually happening, and maybe I won’t. Maybe, like last time, I’ll just happen to glance back over my shoulder and think, Good grief, is that where I was? What a very long way I’ve come.