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.

Section 28: the chip on my shoulder

Earlier this week I was an interviewee over at Louise Walters‘ blog, where I talked about my experience as a self-published author and being shortlisted for the Betty Trask Prize. (I really recommend Louise’s blog if you want an insight into the differences between mainstream publishing and self-publishing. She’s done both, and writes about them very eloquently.)

I mentioned in passing my theory that Section 28 had killed off the genre in which my book might have been published conventionally. And I’ve written a longer piece for LGBTQ Reads about that – about my experience as a writer, and about my experience growing up in that context, as someone whose schooling was entirely overshadowed by erasure on a national scale, and who didn’t even know it at the time.

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.

Art, time and change

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Tomorrow evening my church choir will be singing Maurice Duruflé’s Requiem. It’s an oddly appropriate choice for Remembrance Sunday, and it feels even more so given recent events: it was commissioned by the Vichy government in 1941, but Duruflé only finished it in 1947, after the war was over and the world was picking up the pieces.

Part of that, I suspect, is because Duruflé had a tendency to drag his feet on things he didn’t want to do. Only one of his works, the Notre Père, is not based on Gregorian chant, and that is because he only finished it after his wife had started writing it for him, having been requested repeatedly to set the Lord’s Prayer in the vernacular.

But part of it is the simple fact that art takes time. To create, to perform, to consume art, absorbs our attention for long enough to give us a new perspective. The six years that it took Duruflé to write the Requiem, the forty minutes that it takes to sing or to listen to it – that time makes space for things to change, for us to change.

For a couple of years I had a habit of picking up The Count of Monte Cristo in about October, when the days were getting shorter and my mood was getting lower. It’s about 1100 pages long; by the time I got to the end, something would have shifted.

One of the greatest gifts of art is the way that it takes us out of what we think is our own timeline; shows us – sometimes quite literally – the bigger picture; allows us to step back from the overwhelming emotion. Sometimes that feels like a betrayal: how can we possibly feel any less angry, any less hurt, any less scared, than we do at the moment? Surely this devastating news deserves nothing less than everything we have?

The last news story that made me cry was the murder of Jo Cox MP, just before the referendum in which the UK voted to leave the European Union. After that, nothing has really surprised me. Disappointed me, yes, but not surprised me.

The one before that was the General Synod decision in 2012, the one that voted against the appointment of women bishops. That was a November vote, too.

From where I am now, I am thinking, gosh, was that all I had to cry about in 2012? But it only seems trivial now because I know what happened next. When I’d cried about it, I wrote a blog post. Having written the blog post, I found that I was still hurt and angry, still feeling rejected because of a fundamental part of my own identity, and the only thing I could think of to do with that was write fiction.

Lydia choked, rolled onto her side, and sat up. ‘I never realised,’ she said wonderingly, ‘how much it was going to hurt. It goes right into the heart. They don’t want me. They were OK with the person they thought I was, so long as she stayed in her place, and was happy to teach the approved version of events and not rock the boat, but they don’t want the person I really am. I always knew, in theory, that I was only there on sufferance, that as soon as anyone worked out who I really was I’d be out on my ear, but it didn’t hit me until today how terrible it was, when you understand the reality that nobody wants you.’

That was where I began with the final draft. It went on from there: a year of writing; a year of editing; a year of becoming brave enough to put it out under my own name. I burned up the anger that had first fuelled it; I put it all into the text.

By the time I published Speak Its Name on 2 February 2016, six women had been consecrated as bishops in the Church of England. While I was writing, things had changed.

I’m not saying that things will magically become better if we can only wait it out. For some people it is, indeed, already too late. I am not saying that art can fix everything. There are some things that are just wrong. Nevertheless, it is the best tool that I have to make something good, something useful, perhaps even something beautiful, out of emotions that, left unchecked or harnessed for ill, will destroy the world.

The wisdom of rowing coaches

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I’ve mentioned before that I live very close to the Cam. What this means is that it’s very rare for me to cycle to the station, go out for a box of teabags, or just have a wander, without seeing a rowing boat or three on the river.

And where there are rowing boats, there are coaches. The rowing coaches cycle up and down the towpath with buoyancy aids slung over their handlebars and with their eyes on the river, yelling at the boats. Sometimes, when the boat has slowed and the blades of the oars are trailing in the water, when the coach has brought their bike to a standstill, I overhear what they tell their charges. I like to listen, because their instructions are often useful clues.

Some seem pretty specific to the sport:

Here’s a trick that might be useful to you: imagine that you’re controlling the oar of the person in front.

Some seem to have more general application.

You should only be spending about 30% of the time on the stroke. The rest is recovery.

And then, yesterday,

You can’t fix the current stroke. You can only fix the next stroke.

You can’t fix the current stroke. You can only fix the next stroke.