Helping it

His eyes sweep the room, and he kind of smiles at my partner: ‘All the girls are at the meeting. Except you. And you are not really a girl, are you? Ha ha.’

Words from the Episcopal Church of Scotland’s Cascade conversations on LGBT relationships: ‘They can’t help it.’

The Bishop of the Church of England who stands in the Lords to deplore the hate-crime murders in Orlando does not mention that they were hate crimes, directed against the LGBT community.

Owen Jones leaves a Sky news programme when the other presenters will not acknowledge that the Orlando attack is a hate crime.

The thing is this. If you want to own the pain, and the bishop plainly does, you have to be prepared to be part of the solution. You have to be out there, fighting hard, and taking some of the flack. There is, currently, only one C of E bishop doing this, and Alan Wilson is not in the Lords.

If you are fighting hard, then you will see at once that an attack on a gay nightclub is an attack on gay people.  Some have seen this. Gay Pride events are promised stepped-up policing.

The C of E, not so much. If you are part of a same-sex clergy couple, you risk losing your job. Same sex couples cannot marry in C of E churches. And that sends a clear signal that the relationships of LGBT people are not of equal value to those of opposite sex couples. It is because ‘they’ cannot help it. It is because lesbians are not really women and gay men not really blokes. And that, all of it, the snide comments, the nasty little prohibitions, is the very fertile ground which fed the American gunman who killed fifty people on Sunday night.

 

 

Love, sex and role play

Perhaps it was the cooking pots which were to blame. Lead, you see. Poison. Whatever it was, Roman women tended to have very few children. Well, I say women, but in fact some were little more then children themselves. Today we would look at many marriages from that age, and say ‘child abuse’. A woman passed from her father to her husband in her girlhood.

The Romans had a lot of angst about having enough children – and honoured women who had good fertility. That may in part have fed the suspicion of recreational sex among Roman Christians. Certainly by the late antique period, sex was, for the Christian, to be directed merely at the creation of children, and not to be enjoyed for itself at all.

Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew is without irony. He can imagine that it is perfectly correct for a husband so to break his wife’s spirit that she will simply yield to his mastery. He lives in a world of hierarchy, with the monarch at the top, and then the nobles, the gentry, men, woman and children, all sliding down a pyramid. And marriage shores it up, by making certain that there is a noble self-sacrificing woman under each great man.

It is, of course, very easy to over-emphasise the degree to which women were actually subservient. Lady Macbeth is a monster, and her domination of her husband proves it, but she is very believable monster. Beatrice is a delight, a heroine and anything but subservient. Nobody who listens to Juliet thinks for a moment that the Christians of Shakespeare’s age are avoiding the pleasures of sensual love making.

My point is this – marriage had already changed. Even if the church was still somewhat sniffy about the pleasures of sex, nobody in society was really aiming at joyless sex any longer.

By the time you get to Jane Austen’s writing, women are openly considering the attractions of their potential husbands – whose figures may attract or repel, as well as their characters. Her heroines are seeking what it is posh to call companionate marriage. A marriage based on an equality of regard, if not an equality of power.

Most Victorian women married hoping for children, but plenty of them married past child-bearing age. It is popular to imagine they were too prudish to enjoy the physical aspect of marriage, but private letters, flirtatious, joking, sensual, show that is not so. Nor did they often, or usually, make arranged marriages or merely marry for money. There was a strong romantic attachment to the idea of love and free choice of a partner. In practice, the social circles of many women weer very small, but the ideal was to fall deeply in love, and love excused much.

Marriage changed. There is a huge difference between the Roman girl bride, literally given to a husband, and taught (in Christian circles) that sex should not be enjoyed for itself, and the blushing Victorian bride who has fallen in love with her handsome husband.

Our age has seen other changes. A growth in the belief of the equality of men and women. A much greater emphasis on the free choice of a partner. A strong distaste for particular roles in marriage, at any rate in theory (as usual practice lags behind).

Our society now accepts that some people fall in love with their own gender and make a commitment to go through life with them as a spouse. This arises quite naturally from a belief in the equality of man and women, and of a loving relationship as the basis for marriage. It is the logical conclusion of a path which has stopped seeing marriage as being about gender roles, and accepted that sex is not just about creating children.

Of course not everybody will agree. There are those who still see marriage as being very much about the willingness of a woman to surrender to a particular set of roles. That makes it hard to see that people of the same gender can marry.

Ironically, the emphasis in Christianity on marriage as a symbol of the ‘mystical union between Christ and his church’ really ought to draw Christians to a more modern understanding of marriage as based upon love and not upon role play. For Christians are called to be the body of Christ in the world.We are not called to be something really seriously different to what Christ is, but to be in Him, and to act as he would act. The Christian mystics all speak of the love of Christ, theirs for him, his for them. If we take that seriously, then the gender of a married couple ceases to be relevant.

Exsultet

Exult: exult angel-thronged skies, God-filled mysteries , Messengers and servants of God now blow your loudest trumpets. Such a king and such a victory. Rejoice earth, pure glory has flooded your corners and gloom picked up its skirts and fled.

Oh yes, Mother church rejoices, robed in lightning, and this hall resounds with the deafening cries of the peoples.

It is a just and worthy thing to acclaim with all the loving service of heart and mind and voice the invisible and all powerful Father and his only Son, our Lord Jesus Christ.

For these are the true paschal feasts, in which that real Lamb was slain, whose blood marks out the doorposts of the faithful.

This is the night, in which our mothers’ mothers and our fathers’ fathers, the children of Israel, were led out of Egypt and you crafted it so that they passed through the waters, and not even their feet were wet.

This is the night on which a pillar of fire purged the shadows of sins.

This is the night, this is the very moment, when grace comes back to those who believe in Christ wherever they are, and unites them with the saints.

This is the night when, having shattered the chains of death, Christ rose as victor from the underworld. For what would birth bring us, if he had not rescued us?  O marvel at your loving care enfolding us! O the immeasurable delight of your love: that, to redeem your servant, you handed over your Son! O necessary sin of Adam, expunged by the death of Christ.

O happy fault, which won so towering a Redeemer. O truly blessed night, for only night saw the moment and the hour when Christ rose from the dead. This is the night, of which it was written: And night will shine like day: night will light up my sweet joys.

O truly blessed night, in which heaven is joined to earth, the sacred to the human!

This night you are all grace and graces, fatherly God.

Receive all this: this candle, the solemn gift woven of our praise freely given, and of our work, and of the flowing gift of the mother honey bees.

This is one fire made many, yet never made less by its giving.

Fire and flame and a pillar in your temple, a precious torch which grows by dividing as it is fed by the mother bee’s melting offering.

We pray to you, o Lord, that this wax, dedicated in your name, may endure undimmed to destroy the shadow of this night. Receive it as a pleasing scent and let it join with the stars. May the morning star, the light-bringer, find its flames, that Light-Bringer who never sets. Christ your son, who, returned from the dead, shines serene upon the human race, and lives and reigns for ever and ever.

Amen.

(Sophie Agrell and Rosemary Hannah)

A clergy friend of ours asked if we could manage a free translation, shortened, of the Latin Exsultet, the great hymn of the church sung in the night when we look to the resurrection, which marks the lighting of Pascal candle. What you see above is what we came up with.

Martha’s work

Clearing up after a meal like that – well it is not the work of moments. We are all in a strange mood, too, which seemed to slow everything down. The Rabbi and the New Israel had gone out suddenly, unexpectedly. A group of the others had gone too. Young Mark was one of them. Not grown up enough to be a man, too adult to be a child.

I was organising the clearing, the scrubbing. Pots, dishes, the big wine mixer. An undercurrent of apprehension, of worry, ran like dregs of the cups, put to drain. A sluggish ooze.

Like I say, it was a lot of work and we wanted everything perfectly clean. Then Mark ran in, mother naked except for a scrap of cloth clutched over his privates. He was wide-eyed, terrified, horribly clear and coherent. And we all gathered round to listen.

You know what we heard. The aching sorrow of it. The pitiful betrayal. Judas. I had served that meal. Put the pot of bitter herb before Judas.

Mary went into a corner and rolled herself up into a ball and rocked, dry eyed. I cannot remember now what Joanne did. Somebody went to tell the Rabbi’s mother. Perhaps it was her.  I finished the dishes. Then I took lye and I went into the upper room and I scrubbed and scrubbed the dining bench where Judas had sat until my hands started to bleed at the knuckles and I knew I had to stop.

So I started to clean the whole house. It had just been cleaned for Passover but that did not stop me. I scrubbed the floors. I washed the tables. I was just wiping out the corners with a damp cloth, hoping to catch some new speck of dust, when Peter burst in. He was red eyed, incoherent, but we made out that they were torturing and mocking the Rabbi and some kind of trial had been put on.

It was full day when John came back. I was rubbing over the ceilings with a cloth wrapped round a broom although I had done that an hour earlier. He said: ‘He has been condemned. We cannot let him die all alone. I will fetch the other women. Come, we will go and stand and watch.’ He looked no more than a child to me, a solemn, wise child, full of the childish certainty about what was right.

I touched Mary’s shoulder, daring for the first time to break into her grief, and she touched my bleeding hands, daring for the first time to break into mine. Then we went side by side to do the hardest thing we had ever done.

 

Frog-off 2016

I have been straining my ears for at least the past week, waiting impatiently for Frog-off. It came on Friday night, when a week of malaises (the joys of caring for the young, they share all their germs) had left me jaded and tired. It cam, as it always does, as a joy. The first tiny chainsaw of the frogs, calling out in the dark in hope and desire. Frog-off.

This year, it is on the late side. The earliest I have heard it here is in Feb but the latest was in the chillingly cold spring two years ago when I had to wait until April. It is the first undeniable  point of spring for me. The joyous moment when living things start to return to the upland bog which is my home. My hopes have been raised for more than two weeks by persistent herons frogging in my pond (it has no fish, they were catching something).

The frogs are the clearest sign of the fact that a visually dreary landscape has a rich inner life. Here, the numbers are huge. They are of course supported by all the little things which live under than, the invertebrates, and they in turn support the bird life. They are in important early resource to the herons and the barn owls.

More than that, they are a joy in themselves. The winter is over and past, and the voice of the frog is heard in our land.

Not straight at all

For most of my life, I knew I was straight. To be a little more accurate, I thought I knew I was straight. About two years ago, dancing at a ceilidh with a dear friend, it dawned on me. She was not just a dear friend. She was the woman I loved.

It did come as a surprise. But the more I thought about it, the more certain I became. The more I was with her, the more I fell in love with her. The more I loved her, the more I desired her. Not hard, for she is an astonishingly beautiful woman.

In the summer, she told me that she loved me. That was the beginning of something I had not seriously expected to have again, a real love affair. I wonder if real love affairs are the prerogative of the middle aged and the old. When young, I was unsurprised, if pleased, when I fell in love. Now I am older, maybe even old, it seems a miracle. To find somebody whose company is an endless delight, who prompts one to be the best self one can be is an astonishment. To know one does the same for them is grace upon grace.

What I am trying to say is that I fell head over heels in love with Sophie and that is why I desire her. It was not a matter of deciding I wanted a woman and looking for one. And Sophie brings out the best in me. I find I am capable of a kindness, a consideration for others that is the best side of me. She makes me better. And that is how I found out I am not straight at all.

Call me naive

There is only one God. Or so I thought – go on, call me naive. Only one God, and all of our human ideas about God are flawed and fallible, though we people of faith do what we can to understand understand, to worship and to serve.

Judging from the outcry over Giles Goddard allowing Muslims to hold a prayer service in his church, you might be excused believing that Christians thought there were lots of Gods all in competition to get the good will and worship of human beings. We don’t. Of course we believe that our version of faith is the truest, and most helpful, but we do not, traditionally anyhow, believe that other faiths worship other gods. Muslims, in their turn, of course believe their version of faith is the most true, but that we, too, worship the one God.

Let me be perfectly plain. Calling for a good faithful man to be disciplined for recognising that there is only one God, and that we all try to serve him, makes Christians look foolish, ill informed and narrow minded. It stirs up ill will between the great faiths. It adds fuel to the Islamaphobia which is becoming an ever-more serious issue in our country, and it creates misunderstandings.