Thursday, 29 March 2018

Maundy Thursday

Thoughts for Maundy Thursday, on John 13:1-15

Footwashing was a rather more normal thing then, of course, than it is now. If you were walking in sandals on hot and dusty roads, through donkey dung and maybe worse, then your feet needed even more cleaning than even the pongiest toes amongst us nowadays. We find taking our socks and shoes off to have our feet washed in this annual ritual a bit awkward feet – few of us like our feet, so we might worry about what they look like – we worry about smelly – personally, I worry about getting cramp if my feet get cold – you might worry about being ticklish. But in Jesus’ day footwashing wasn’t an odd, awkward ritual – it was just another dirty everyday personal hygiene task.  Perhaps the closest analogy for us is wiping your bottom.

In fact, thinking of it as a bit like wiping your bottom perhaps gives us an insight into why Peter reacted as he did. I have often heard from people who, as they are getting older, are fearful and resistant to becoming dependent on others for that sort of intimate, embarrassing personal hygiene assistance. In contemporary society, we tend to guard our independence fiercely, and can often imagine nothing worse than letting others do such things for us and to us as we decline and become incapable of doing them ourselves. Sometimes people even speak of a preference for suicide, hoping to take a trip to Switzerland before they get to that stage of dependency.

Peter, I’m sure, was quite used to having his feet washed by slaves or servants. Yet he refuses that help from Jesus twice, and emphatically – ‘you will NEVER wash my feet’. What he couldn’t accept was the idea of Jesus, someone he looked up and admired, someone he had recognized as the Messiah, doing something like that for him. It was a class issue as much as an issue of personal space. I recognize that, too, from conversations I’ve had. I’ve heard people who would reluctantly accept intimate assistance from a nurse, or a paid carer, express their humiliation at the thought of their spouse, or their children, or a friend having to do those things for them.

So Jesus here challenges some quite deeply held feelings – both in Peter and in many of us – about wanting our independence, and about what classes or types of persons we find it acceptable to receive help from with intimate tasks.

Jesus’s response is intriguing. He doesn’t deny that he is in a class apart, that he is someone special. Rather, he recognizes that prejudice against someone like him doing something like that and plays into it. ‘You call me Teacher and Lord – and you are right, for that is what I am’.

Jesus’s washing of the disciples’ feet comes out of a deep confidence in who he is and what his calling is. That confidence is emphasized again and again in this passage. We’re told first of all that it’s the Passover, that festival that we’ve just been exploring, with all its long historical roots of freedom and identity as a chosen and called people. Then we’re told that Jesus KNEW that his hour had come to depart - he has the confidence that comes from a deep inner conviction of the time being right. Then again, during supper, we hear that Jesus’ act of footwashing happens ‘knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God’. Again, Jesus’ confidence in his identity and calling is emphasized.

He washes their feet, has that conversation with Peter, and then returns to the table to explain what he has done. Yes, he says, ‘you call me Lord and Teacher, and rightly, for that is who I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example’.

Out of Jesus confidence in his identity and calling comes this astonishing commandment, to wash one another’s feet. To both give and accept loving, intimate, personal service, in humility and interdependence.

In the other gospels, in Matthew, Mark and Luke, the instruction that Jesus gives at this point is to celebrate communion – ‘do this is remembrance of me’. That has proved a much easier instruction for followers of Jesus to put into practice over the centuries. Here in John’s gospel, though, which is so often about the meaning behind the symbols, the instruction John emphasizes is to wash one another’s feet. The point of communion, John’s version seems to say, is not just to eat together, or to remember that last supper of Jesus, or even to make a sacramental communion with Jesus. The point is what it will enable us to become. To become, like Jesus, confident in our own identity and calling - so confident that we become able not just to serve others in humility, but even to accept our own humiliating interdependence.                           

Thursday, 1 February 2018

Disentangling Christianity and Patriarchy

Is Christianity inseparable from patriarchy, or can we somehow disentangle the threads?

I am beginning to suspect that this task of imagination is the urgent task of the church today. It is no secret that numbers of churchgoers are falling, and I suspect that this is because the dominant narrative and metaphor of traditional Christianity – patriarchy – which used to also be the dominant narrative of traditional society, is beginning to fail. Hallelujah to that! 

It is exciting to be part of a new generation of scholars and practioners who are re-focusing on Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection as the paradigm of gender-bending patriarchy-smashing. Jesus refused to enact the cultural expectations of masculinity and power, instead literally bursting from the man-made tomb that he was placed in by powerful men.

It was a question that came into particular focus again for me this morning, as I sat saying the Church of England’s morning prayer in a coffee shop in my parish, with a young woman parishioner. Today is the feast day of St Bride, the patron saint of one of my parish churches, and we were struck by the contrast between her story – as an abbess of a mixed monastery – and the patriarchal structures that the daily readings are imbued with.

How do we separate the patriarchal structures that the Biblical texts were written in, reflect, take for granted (and, granted, sometimes challenge and/or subvert), from the ‘core’ or ‘essence’ of the Scriptures – the good news, if you like? Is it possible to do so? To me, at least, it seems obvious that it is desirable to do so, but I’m fully aware that in itself is a contested claim. And as a historian and theologian, I wonder how much it is possible to separate the context of the scriptures from their content. Since so much is revealed to us through contested history, narrative, story, poetry, is it even possible to say that there is a ‘truth’ that can be found within or beyond the context?

I gave a talk at a conference for women preachers back in the autumn, where I tried to untangle some few threads to give some strategies for preaching the text without drowning in patriarchy – look for the few women that ARE mentioned – they tend to be there for a reason, not accidentally. Look for what their stories do in the context of the main ‘male’ narrative – they often reflect on, or give a counterpoint to, the other characters or emotions that are portrayed in the same or adjoining passages, and often in really fascinating ways. Particularly look at, and take seriously, the few words that women speak – given how much the nature of the narratives tend to silence women by privileging male experience, when women DO speak, their words are hardly likely to be irrelevant. Study the original languages, where at all possible – sometimes our translations misgender passages or interpretations, by, for example using male pronouns because they are conventionally used by a language for a mixed group of men and women.

So there are things we can do, as feminist readers of the scriptures. 

But more fundamentally, we have an issue with the whole patriarchal structure of society that is the context in which the scriptures were written, which provides their dominant metaphors and analogies, and which has then used the scriptural status of those dominant metaphors to justify itself. As Mary Daly put it so well, ‘when God is male, then the male is God’. Or in a different context, James I is said to have declared, ‘no bishop, no king’, recognising that the church and societal hierarchies were intimately bound together as part of the same interpretative framework and worldview.

This is a much deeper question than simply looking for the women in Bible passages, or (correctly) pointing out that the scriptures often contain a subversive undercurrent which speaks of liberation and critiques the power structures that it mirrors and is used to bolster.

It isn’t just about maleness or masculinity, though of course these are key metaphors and components within patriarchy as a system of power. This is about the whole system of partriarchy – with all its ramifications for kingship, lordship, inheritance, strength, power, battle, success, as well as questions of gender, masculinities and femininities. Patriarchy is implicated in class and race struggles as well as gender struggles – it is a whole system of hierarchical values, where those who best fit the reigning view of masculinity (who yes, might, on rare occasions, be a female, or gay, but who generally won’t be) are assumed to not just have de facto power, but to be the ones who ought to be in charge.

In morning prayer this morning we read psalm 99, which repeatedly refers to God using the metaphor and dramatic tropes of kingship and power. It begins:

‘The Lord is king; let the peoples tremble; he is enthroned above the cherubim: let the earth shake’.

If we remove all the references to God as a king or lord – which are of course human metaphors – from the Bible, or indeed from our contemporary prayer books or song books - the pages would crumble into so much confetti. 

Trying to pick hymns for a service that don’t reinforce patriarchy is possible, but blooming hard work. Trying to address the patriarchal threads in the Bible readings can seem relentless – I don’t want to lose sight of everything else that is in there, and preach an unbalanced diet, but I also don’t want to let the patriarchal undercurrents go unchallenged.

Does this mean that we can’t ever rescue Christianity from patriarchy? Or is it possible to dream of a future where patriarchy has been replaced with egalitarianism, and Christianity is still true and loved? I do hope the latter is true, and it seems to me that it must be possible, since to me and to so many feminist and liberationist theologians the driving motivation and rationale for smashing the patriarchy is our Christian faith and the call to follow the example of Jesus Christ.

Disentangling these threads, of Christianity and patriarchy, is not going to be an easy task. But it is one we must face, with courage and a sense of humour. 

Because ultimately, I simply don't buy the arguments that the Bible says God is a man and so men are more God-like than women, or that God is king-like and so monarchies and hierarchies are more God-like than egalitarian societies. The Bible was written by people trying to make sense of how they had encountered God, or heard God speak, in their own contexts and cultures, just as we all inevitably do. They inevitably - just as we do - reached for their own metaphors. To deify those metaphors simply because they are in the Bible is, I'm afraid, to indulge in an unproductive process of circular argument. 

Jesus, not the scriptures, is God's definitive Word. To be in relationship with a person is a two-way process, and so it will and should be constantly changing - because even if God is unchanging, we are not. 

Can Christianity be disentangled from patriarchy? I do hope so.

Thursday, 30 November 2017

Miranda Threlfall-Holmes: Advent is a feminist issue (and so are posh Advent...

Miranda Threlfall-Holmes: Advent is a feminist issue (and so are posh Advent...: Posh Advent calendars. They're a real thing this year. I'm old enough to remember when you couldn't even get chocolate in a Adve...

Advent is a feminist issue (and so are posh Advent calendars)

Posh Advent calendars. They're a real thing this year. I'm old enough to remember when you couldn't even get chocolate in a Advent  calendar, just either a Christmassy picture behind each window, or a Bible quotation. Chocolate started a few years too late for my childhood, but hell yeah. And then, silently but surely, posh Advent calendars have developed as a thing.

My kids got a Lego one six or seven years ago, and absolutely loved it.  I think I first became aware of gin ones three or four years ago in Twitter. Then make up ones last year. I can't justify £50+ myself, but a few weeks ago I saw a scented candle one in Home Bargains and snapped it up.

 'Deeply ironic', the Archbishop of Canterbury said of the rise of posh Advent calendars last week. Pshaw, say many clergy and others, deeply rooted in the Anglican Church year - Advent is a time of fasting, a time of abstinence and preparation, to be contrasted with the feasting that comes in the 12 days of Christmas.

It's taken me a while to think through what I feel about Advent. I do deplore the loss of the twelve days of Christmas . Personally I go to the panto then, and last year I worked with the Real Chocolate Company to produce a Twelve Days of Christmas box of champagne truffles - a Christian add on to your Advent calendar. We should celebrate more, not less!

But I have a deep unease about the demonisation of 'secular' feasting in Advent. Every year when clergy moan about carols in Advent, or Christmas decorations before Advent, I cringe. And in the fuss about posh Advent calendars, I think I've finally identified the source of my dis-ease with this pious insistence on observing the season of Advent 'properly'.

Fast and feast is the cycle of the church year. We are often told to stop in the busyness of Christmas preparations as this should be a season of prayer and contemplation, not of busy activity to prepare for the coming feast - that comes later. But in a cycle of fast and feast, only the privileged - elite men, some elite women - could hold themselves wholly above the preparations for the coming feast. While you were fasting, praying, reading, contemplating the meaning of the season, ready to enjoy the contrast with the coming 12 days of feasting, who do you think was getting the feast ready? It simply isn't possible - and even less in the past - to have 12 days of feasting without a good few weeks of baking and making and larder filling.

So the exhortation to a holy Advent is actually an exhortation to everyone to behave as the elite were able to behave in the past, while the servant classes prepared for them to feast at the end of their fast. To demonise those who are working hard to allow others the luxury of the fast/feast cycle is literally to add insult to injury.

This is of course both gendered and class-bound. Women have always borne the brunt of domestic activity at all class levels, as the lower classes have borne the brunt of the preparations for the leisure of the upper classes.

And so I am unsurprised that the majority of the luxury Advent calendars that I have seen have been largely aimed at, and in my experience purchased by, women. (I'd be really interested to see any market research data on the market that anyone has access to, to see if this experience is borne out by the figures).

 It is a well known fact that in a recession, sales of red lipstick go up - because, apparently, women bearing the brunt of coping feel the need to splash out on an affordable treat. I suggest that the rise and rise of the posh Advent calendar - with its daily treat of chocolate, make up, booze or a scented candle - is a result of exactly the same dynamic. Those who are bearing the brunt of the work of preparing for others to celebrate the Christmas feast feel the need for 'a treat each day during a busy period' (as @lamnotRach said in response to my question on Twitter asking why people bought posh Advent calendars).

Seen from this perspective, I suggests that the rise of posh Advent calendars is neither ironic nor a sign of encroaching secularism, but rather a sign of increasing self-confidence, self-worth and self-care amongst those who have historically been marginalised in religious praxis. We are familiar with the idea of the mother-whore double-bind that women often find themselves in; I suggest that Advent typically presents women, and lower-status men, with a similar dilemma: prepare for a sumptuous Christmas feast, whilst simultaneously being expected not to look busy. It's a common trope in Christian feminism that the besetting sin of women (on average, of course) might not be pride but over-humility. I wonder if the rise of the posh Advent calendar perhaps reflects a rise in awareness among these groups, that this is an unrealistic expectation, and that we need to look after ourselves and find our own Advent calm and peace in a moment of self-indulgence rather than a moment of self-denial made in the comfortable knowledge that someone else has the preparations in hand.

Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Talking Jesus

Durham Diocese is about to embark on a four day mission event, with 20 of the bishops of the Northern Province ascending to our county to lead, inspire and assist with all sorts of evangelistic events. Each parish was asked to put on an event, and almost all have responded, with events ranging from the modest (a coffee morning, a school assembly) to the inventive and even bizarre!

In Durham Deanery we have a huge range of events going on, from 'What the Actress said to the Bishop' (hosted by Shincliffe church - where they have a local actress in conversation with a bussed in bishop!) to a night of stand up comedy by two of the north east's finest comedy revs, Kate Bruce and John Sinclair. From two 'crafternoons' - one in my own church, one the other side of the Deanery - to a pet blessing service. (The brave vicar who agreed to host the pet blessing service that a brainstorming session generated said 'but I'm scared of animals!' but the visiting bishop seems pretty clear what to do!). From attending Durham Park Run to a debate on science and religion in the university.

All these things should be great, but they rely on two things to really work on their own terms:

Firstly, people need to invite people who aren't already churchgoers to attend them! This should be obvious....but its amazing how many churchgoers have signed up for tickets to events and seem taken aback, and on occasion even offended, when reminded that the point is really for them to get tickets for themselves AND A FRIEND!

And secondly, we need to actually talk about Jesus at these events. Not just leave that to the visiting bishop or ordinand, but be prepared to talk about our own faith and why we find Jesus interesting, inspiring, puzzling, intriguing, captivating, attractive ....(insert your own word here). We don't need to preach - in fact, I and many others have been at pains to reassure people that they can invite their friends to these events without any fear that they will suddenly be pounced on with a crashing gear change of the conversation from friendly chat to overt conversion mode! But we do need to get more confident at naming Jesus easily and confidently in our conversations.

Most of us find that this does not come easily. 'Church' seems much easier to say than 'Jesus'. But all the research is that most people who do not come to church find Jesus a much more attractive proposition than church!

The most common reason I've identified when I've asked my congregation members what holds them back from talking about their faith with their family and friends is the fear that people will be offended.

People ARE offended if you try to force them to share your beliefs, or imply that they are inferior for not believing or behaving in the same way as they imagine Christians do. But people are NOT offended by you happening to mention that you have a faith in Jesus, and leaving it to them to ask more if they wish. In fact, people tend to be fascinated if once they realise that they can ask you about your faith without you being offended or pushy.

Our Deanery Co-ordinator for the Talking Jesus event found this out at work a few months ago, when her boss asked her if she'd had a good weekend. She found herself answering honestly that it had been very busy with the preparations for a diocesan event called Talking Jesus that she'd got herself involved in organising. He was fascinated, and she reported that she had had the longest conversation she'd ever had about faith at work as a result!

So....come to the events! Invite people to the events! And talk about the events. Maybe just telling people that there's a Talking Jesus diocesan event happening is a good way to mention the name Jesus in a non-threatening way? And maybe practice to yourself, at home, in the shower, in the car, how you might answer a follow up question about what Jesus means to you?

Friday, 27 January 2017

Sex and the bishops

The report of the House of Bishops on where we go from here on same sex marriage and relationships is now out, and I'm wondering how to respond to it - both now, and in General Synod in ten days time.

On the one hand, I feel a bit fraudulent saying anything at all - after all, I'm not gay, I'm not in a same sex relationship, and I worry that talking about my feelings or my views will just be the response of cis-privilege. But then I think that I shouldn't stay silent, just because its not primarily me who is being hurt here. I might blunder, but better to blunder than to be complicit.

So, caveats aside, my primary feeling on reading the document was 'here we go again'.

I don't want to go through each paragraph or recommendation of the report, such as they are. That would be too depressing. So let's talk about 'tone'. The report is very keen on 'tone'.

Emotionally and ecclesiologically, the tone throughout is all too familiar from the interminable reports on women's ordination that we had to wade through. From the basic assumption that these people are an inconvenience, a problem to be solved, a difficulty we would much rather not have to deal with, to the carefully crafted tone of agonised eirenicism throughout. The report is at pains to emphasise just how difficult and painful all this has been - FOR THE BISHOPS! - and begs us to sympathise with them in their hard task of steering the ship between two extremes.

This really isn't good enough. And I say that as someone who has been part of the Shared Conversation process in Synod, and so is not particularly surprised by the actual proposals (basically not to do anything, although with a few hopeful noises about changing the tone and being a bit more permissive).

But how do you change the tone without changing the tone? The tone of this report is exactly what we have come to expect. Agonised reporting of your own pain at a difficult decision and pleas for patience are not tone-changing.

And how do you change the tone without changing the underlying assumptions, doctrines and rules? The very reason that the current tone is so negative towards gay people is because those who wish to be negative can perfectly correctly point to their position as upholding the Church's teaching. Those who wish to be unwelcoming can perfectly truthfully talk about definitions of sin. The point of rules is not primarily to punish, but to set tone - unless you change the rules, it is very hard indeed to see how the tone gets to change. That's one reason why we campaigned so hard for Women Bishops - not for a few women to have a particular job, but because of what the change means for the whole tone of how our church talks about and to women.

Tone does matter. But to set the tone, you need to begin by setting it in reports like this - and all this report does is bolster the hand-wringing 'oh, it's all very difficult to balance, isn't it' tone that we have got so used to. 

There is a welcome moment of light relief at the end of the report, though, when we are asked to suggest ways in which the House of Bishops could make a new report on sex and marriage and relationships more useful beyond the church. As if anyone beyond the church cares, or is likely to listen. Frankly, the mind boggles at what such a report might say.

But just in case the House are serious in asking, here are some suggestions:

1. Stop talking about sex outside marriage being inherently sinful. Celebrate it as the gift it is, as something that can lead to a deepening of relationship and may in time lead to marriage/committed relationship. Recognise that virtually every heterosexual couple we marry has been living together for years. They do not see this as sinful. If you talk about it as such, they will stop listening and assume that the rest of what you have to say is irrelevant too.

2. Understand that these couples - ie, virtually everyone that gets married - see their marriage as the 'crown upon the head' of their relationship - it is because of the quality of their relationship that they want to marry, not the other way around. Marriage isn't primarily creating something new, it is celebrating what already exists.

3. Admit that most of our morality surrounding marriage is historically to do with controlling conception, the possession of women, and inheritance of property. Take seriously the difference that first the legal changes to the status of women (from the nineteenth century), and more recently the widespread availability of safe contraception (coupled with the decrease in infant and maternal mortality) have had.

4. Recognise that perceptions, images and understandings of marriage are historically, geographically and socially context-bound and changeable. Take academic advice on this, and learn from it. I still shudder when I remember the fiasco the Church centrally made of Linda Woodhead's point that the arguments used against equal marriage were near-identical to those used against the Deceased Wife's Sister Bill. She was right. She quoted from Hansard. The church completely ignored her and simply denied what she was saying, in a way reminiscent of the 'alternative facts' debacle last week.

5. Stop talking about 'biblical marriage' and be honest about the mess that so many of the Biblical characters make of their marriages, the many different forms of relationship that that title is used for, and the variety of sexual moralities that the Bible reflects from its several thousand year history.

6. Then you can start talking about when sex IS sinful. At the moment, the mantra of 'sex is bad unless in a heterosexual marriage' is stopping us saying or being heard to say anything constructive about the full spectrum of sexual abuse, addiction, degrees of and uses of porn, marital rape/coercion, what happens when sex dies off but one of you still wants it, viagra, etc, etc, etc. The only decent thing written on this recently was the preamble to the Pilling report by Jessica Martin, but that was largely buried due to being attached to Pilling.

7. Be very, very careful about what you say about gender. There has been a worrying tendency in recent years for statements about equal marriage or same sex relationships to parrot the line 'one man and one woman', and go on to emphasis that this is about complementarity or some such post-hoc justification, without (at least, I hope it wasn't deliberate) thinking about what statements about men and women and gender relations are being accidentally made in the heat of trying to fend off the same sex 'issue'. The two are linked - and they are linked because of this.

8.Take love seriously. 1 Corinthians 13 describes it as being even greater than faith - an amazing claim. Let's discuss this more. Frame discussion of human relationships in terms of them being mirrors in which we see something of God's love for us reflected.

9. Take forgiveness seriously. Christ died for us while we were still sinners - stop colluding with a 'conservative' view that we need to be perfect to be acceptable.

10. And finally, for goodness sake, start taking the Bible more seriously - or using it more intelligently. Some of the discussion of the Bible that I heard at Synod last July appalled me in its literalism and ineptness of exegesis. Talk of marriage as a 'creation ordinance' 'because it says so in Genesis' is no more valid than seven-day Creationism. The Bible is an extraordinary collection of sacred writings, and we need to take seriously the variety of genre, historical period, context and aim of each piece in aiming to understand its meaning for us. The Church seems to have gone backwards in understanding this in the 20 years that I've been a Christian - show some leadership here, bishops!