Category Archives: not mere Christianity

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.


How to avoid being party to a huge, vile, cruel injustice.

Of course I know, really I know, that the slow process of changing minds and warming hearts cannot be hurried. It is a matter of example and quiet words and funny stories. Sometimes, however, the bossy little girl who still lives within me gets the upper hand – and she finds the  warming hearts and telling funny stories unbearably slow. So, just for her, and based on this week’s news and eves-droppings, public and private, are some useful rules for living.

Never fear asking the idiot question. Others may be unsure of what is going on too. They may be afraid to ask. You will do everybody a favour by being the one prepared to look an idiot.

Never ever be afraid to stop a meeting by pointing out just what it is doing.  Stay polite to individuals, but point out in graphic detail just where they are going and what hurt they are causing. There are worse things than a whole room full of people looking at you in disgust. Yes, honestly, there are.

Justice and truth always matter more than pleasing people. There is no real comfort without them.

You do not need everybody to like you.

Never sign a joint report without knowing what is in the rest of it. There may be a can you are unwilling to carry.

There are always ways of avoiding being a party to joint responsibility for evil actions. They may be painful, but there you go.

Dear readers, follow these rules, and you will never, ever find yourself in the position the current members of the English House of Bishops finds itself today (all bar one member, we are led to understand).

That position is the most painful I can imagine, and I am more glad than I can tell you that I have no part of it on my conscience.

Moving to centre stage

Readers of this blog might enjoy my guest post on Thinking Anglicans.

When Jesus was born there was peace. Any recorded disturbance was no more than a half-forgotten slur on his mother, which surprisingly did not result in an ‘honour killing’ but, against the odds, a marriage. Even today, nobody is much threatened by Christmas. Not so much because it is unthreatening, but because its message can be missed so easily, as it is on so many cute Christmas cards, and in so many charming nativity plays.

Epiphany marks the move of that child from the shadows onto the centre stage. His glory begins to be manifest. On Sunday or Monday (depending on the congregation) we will all celebrate that glory. In some countries, for instance Mexico, Epiphany is still the main day of rejoicing and present giving. It makes sense. We are celebrating the moment when people first start to take notice of the child, the moment when somebody who matters in the eyes of the world senses his glory and begins to feel after who he is. It is no coincidence that at that very moment, when we first celebrate the glory of Christ openly, the trouble starts. Because at all times and in all places Christ is a threat to the established order.

The values of Epiphany are the values of the Magnificat, and, come to that, the values most consistently stressed in the Hebrew Scriptures, our Old Testament: justice for the poor, joy for the sorrowing, and repentance for the rich.

Some aspects of this challenge to the established order are easier for our world to swallow than others. It is politically expedient at the moment in our country to blame the ills of society on the poor, the sick, and the stranger. These are the very categories of person in whom, according to St Matthew, we meet Christ in all his glory. Those with the courage to point out that the blame does not lie where it is apportioned are (now as then) vilified. Christians singing hymns, or practising personal pieties, are welcome to their private devotions. Christians speaking openly about the growing numbers unable to feed themselves in one of the richest countries in the world? Not so much. It is inconvenient to direct attention to the truth that, so far from being work-shy loungers, many of the poor are in jobs, often the jobs others would not wish to undertake.

Many leap with delight on the idea of sending the rich empty away, and small blame to them. Only, this has never been a popular message to those in power — and in our age that includes the media. They may admire Pope Francis hugging those with disabilities, but they only admire the rest of his message if they can imagine it directed to countries far away.

The Epiphany gospel is drawn from Matthew, and a part of it is the idea of strangers coming to worship the Christ. Matthew will take up that idea later, where the suggestion is that when we invite in the stranger, we invite Christ himself, and all that is good with him. Today it seems strangers are only welcome when they are neither Romanian nor Bulgarian — oh, and as long as they are not also sick, because then we will only help if they can pay.

The work of Epiphany is to bring the private moments of Christmas into the public area. It is our work. The song which Mary sings to Elizabeth must now be sung out loud for all the world to hear, even when it tries to stop its ears. If the glory of Christ is to be seen and his values are to shine out, each of us must sing that song, and loudly, too.


There is much that is astonishing and good in the Law, so  much that it is hard to know where to start.  Randomly, I am starting with the Jubilee passages in Leviticus.  I suspect that the idea land should lie fallow every so often is a beautiful idea and for subsistence farmers, totally impractical.

The rest though – quite stunning, even if not yet achieving all it might.  You may, of people fall on impossibly hard times, take them as kind-of slaves.  But you shall never, ever, keep them like that for ever.  They must be set free after a fixed term. They always have an absolute right to redeem themselves.  They are, and they remain, your kin.  You must never forget you are children of one family.

The flaw?  Leviticus (these rules are found in Leviticus 25) does not yet see that all people are children of one father.  But once one does, then so  much would follow from this, if taken seriously.  Oh sure, we all know it now, and yet put it back to the Iron Age – quite stunning.

Oh sure – we all know it now.  Only – don’t we actually struggle with it?  As a church, as a country?

An abomination

So, for not-mere-Christianity, we   can agree at once that a lot of the law is good sense, and we would want to adhere to it anyway.  The problems start because most  Christians are not Jews, and they do not want to keep all of the law, most especially the parts which refer to keeping the Sabbath (in as far as we keep any holy day still, it has become the Sunday, and not the Saturday) and the rules governing food.

Pretty early in the history of the church, Peter had a vision  which convinced  him that the disciples ought to be preaching the good news about Jesus to Gentiles as well as Jews, and after a dust-up and some incredibly tough arguments, Paul convinced him that Gentiles could not be made to stick to Jewish food and purity rules.

And this is the first time we get a clear distinction being made between purity laws and moral laws.  The Torah,  the Law, the first five books of the Bible, know nothing of this distinction.  It is a tricky distinction to set about making because of this very fact: it is an artificial distinction.  The writers of the texts did not set them up to be divided in this way.  They had no concept of two kinds of laws.

It used not to matter so much; a consensus had been reached that food/washing/sacrifice laws were no longer biding on Christians, end of.  Then the question arose of whether it was right for a man to have sex with another man.  This is quite plainly forbidden in Leviticus, one of the books of law, where this is described as ‘an abomination’.  For  many this ends the argument.

However, quite a lot of other things are described as ‘an abomination’.  These include things like incest, which we still forbid, and other things, like eating ‘unclean’ birds which we do not.  Indeed, by implication, one passage suggests strongly that eating any forbidden food (shrimps, pork) will be ‘an  abomination.’   Christian opponents of equal sex values don’t give up eating  pork, do they?

I see how the church got backed into this position, because I see why the Jewish church wanted to cling to the profound moral values found in the Torah,  while letting the Gentile church off the hook of the dietary laws.  But it led them into an exceedingly awkward place.  And in my next thrilling instalment, I will look at those piercing profound laws on which we have not touched yet; laws so enlightened that even today they sound radical.


Because he rose

‘It must be a great comfort to you to believe that you will live after death,’ says yet another person, ‘I suppose that is what it is all about.’

Er, no. Because he rose, he is with us helping us work now. Looking to him we find life, energy.

Energy to work for justice, so that trade generates wealth for the producers and workers, so that they can live a full life. And for the environment, while it is still there to be loved and nurtured as the God-given thing it is. Energy to work for a world where people are individuals, free, accepting of who they are, and yet striving to be the best they can be. Where nobody is limited by class, colour, gender, or orientation. A world where people can face pain, and disappointment, and that hope deferred which makes the heart sick, and still get up the next morning and start again.

Above all, to work for a world where people can forgive, and can accept forgiveness. A Kingdom where shame has been destroyed, so that people can face their guilt, and work on not endlessly repeating the same mistakes. A Kingdom where each person knows they are loved, and loves themselves, and can therefore love others.

Because he rose, we are set free to live and love now. And wonderful as it is to know we are loved for ever, it is not as important as knowing that hatred can never destroy love, and we are loved now, now.

Because he died

Gentle reader, you are due a non-religious post. Not a hope.

This is Good Friday, and the Christian world is racked with pain. Read it here and here.

Anything I can add will be very poor, but I still feel impelled to try. I have been trying to explain to incredulous customers why I (as one of them put it) ‘bounce up and down the motorway’ and increasingly unseasonal times – last night home at 1am and on Sunday, starting at 6.30 am having previously fed lambs and walked dogs. Why do this to sit in church often hungry and thirsty, sometimes in tears, usually tired, when I could be having a jolly holiday?

Because life is deeper than that. More mysterious. Because some day I will sit and know I will be leaving my family and leaving it to go alone to death. Because I have sat with myself enough to know the terrible depths which lurk in the nice old lady. Because I live in a world where children die from lack of food. Because I have more than some people I know, and far less than others. Because pretending I never damage the environment, or hurt others, is a hollow lie. Because I believe God is everywhere, and suffers with every single sufferer and rejoices in every act of love. Because to find a faith which can encompass the depths of sorrow and the heights of joy, I have to make time to sit and think, to experience, to kneel, to ache, to struggle with sleep, to have the tiredness headache, to kiss inanimate objects because of what lies behind them, to read blog posts and cry in a cafe, to lose jolliness.

Because it is only after that lot I can actually get out there and function a good nearer the me I can be at best. Or cope with the ordinary miseries of life. It is not because Jesus rose on Easter Day that I can face death, especially the deaths of those I love. It is because he died on Good Friday.

Group identity should never involve the sacrifice of the individual’s truth

Have identity politics gone too far? Rowan Williams is, very properly, making use of his last months in office by saying what he wants to be heard to say, rather than being driven by topics on which others want his to speak. This weekend, he wanted to say that ‘identity politics’ have gone too far. That is to say, if I understand rightly, that people have become so involved in campaigning for the rights of women, black people and LGBT people that they will put those rights forward at the expense of everything else. The overwhelming drive for these things has now passed the point of championing the disadvantaged and now is putting individuals before the greater good of the whole.
I would reply that, as far as I can see that is precisely what Jesus always did. When he found himself with a load of hungry disciples, and one women, Martha, was struggling to get the meal together for them, and her sister was selfishly and most improperly sitting with the men, learning, Jesus championed Mary, the improper learner, and let the good of the group go hang. When a woman with a reputation turned up and anointed his feet, a woman touching a man in public, damaging his good name, and that of his whole movement, Jesus let the movement be damaged. When he was touched by an unclean woman, he made no attempt to hide the fact, and, and, and…
I cannot think of one single time when Jesus in fact put the good of the group before the good of the individual. It seems that each time he had a choice, he went for the individual. It is true that these were individuals, they were not ‘movements’. There is however a reason for movements,and why there are gay pride marches, and not straight marches. It is, generally, that those who have power already do not need to protest.

There are of course exceptions, exceptions where whites and men (who look like the majority) protest. They are generally those who feel disadvantaged, those who have lost a power they used to have. Both the white urban poor become BNP, and those who believe women cannot be priests, and that they contaminate male priests just by being ordained, they both protest. I think that generally the difference between them and ‘rights’ voices is this: the voices of feminists, gay and civil rights are asking for inclusion on strictly equal terms. The voices of those who have had and are losing power are asking for others to be excluded. ‘Don’t have blacks as equal members of society, don’t have women in this or that position of power.’ They are not asking ‘Allow me to be all I can be.’
And that is the thing, isn’t it? Jesus’s overriding concern seems to be that each person should be all they can be; forgiven, healed, learning, acting in love. You might call this ‘the individual’s truth’, their being what they are called to be, and not impeded because they upset others. I cannot imagine any circumstance in which he would ask a person to stand back from office because it would upset others. Instead he asked others to do as he did: to further the individual, and to allow the group to support and care for those who were in any way hurt.
At the same time, I do not think that Jesus’s gospel is very individualistic. He has his ‘twelve’ who are his ‘new Israel’. He is envisaging a new community, living together, holding both truth and possessions as a common good, but not at expense of the individuals within it, rather, through their fulfilment. Group identity should never involve the sacrifice of the individual’s truth.

A wandering Aramean…

I am leaving Genesis, not because it does not still have plenty to challenge, enthral, exasperate and delight, but because there s still a heck of a lot of the Hebrew Scriptures needing some kind of an over-view.
The end of Genesis explains that the Hebrews fled famine in Egypt, where they ended up in the kind of slavery. They were rescued by a great leader, a man with an Egyptian name, Moses.
He took them over a sea, a sea of reeds, into the wilderness, and there, they wandered. It is commonly claimed that one of the most reliably ancient parts of the New Testament is the song of Miriam after the sea-crossing, and readers with a taste for my fiction will find my take on it here.
What we have in the four books (Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy) are the ‘takes’ of various sections of the later Israelites and Jews on what appears to be this very ancient tradition of their peoples, encapsulated thus.
‘‘A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labour on us, we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.” (Deut.26. 5b-9)
Another ancient tradition is that while they were in the wilderness, the people of Israel got a set of laws from Yahweh. The different sections of the tradition have different ‘takes’ on the contents of the law. The tradition of our ‘Ten Commandments’ given at ‘Sinai’ appears to be (and not my caution here) appears to be among the later traditions.
But I do not write this because I particularly detest the ten commandments. Will they ever set one on fire? No. Will they tend to lead to a sane society? Yes. They seem to me a pretty sensible set of rules. It must be admitted that they are expressed negatively but what they teach is good sense. Be honest, be true, be kind to those of your family and to your god. What’s not to like?

The long journey to understanding

The story of Jacob is every bit as beautifully written as that of Abraham, and even more subtly. Jacob is the younger of a pair of twins, and he deeply resents the fact that his brother is to inherit. With the help of his mother, he cheats his brother out of his inheritance. His brother is furious and Jacob runs for his life. Alone and sad, he lies down to sleep. He dreams that he is next to a ladder, and angels are climbing up and down it, to where God (and once again, it is God) is enjoying the cool of the roof of the world, just like a rich town dweller with his summer room on the roof of the house to catch the breezes. Jacob is comforted to know that this world connects with God’s. He goes on his way to find his uncle, where the trickster is tricked. He works for seven years to earn the woman he loves, and finds he has been married to her sister. It takes another seven years to earn his true love, and then he finds that being married to sisters, jealous and competitive, is not all it is cracked up to be.
When he has worked his way to a fine family, and is rich in flocks and herds, he sets off home. He is almost there, very near the place of his dream of ladder and angels, when he hears his brother, the brother he wronged, is coming looking for him. He trusts in his brother’s mercy to women and children, and also in his brother’s desire to break Jacob’s neck before wrecking vengeance on anybody else.
Once again, he is alone and afraid, just much older and with more to lose. He goes into the wadi. It is night. A stranger comes and wrestles with him. The stranger can hardly get the better of Jacob, until he puts out Jacob’s hip. Dawn is coming, and beginning to guess who the stranger is, Jacob demands his name, and a blessing from him. He gets the blessing, but rather than telling his own name, the stranger re-names Jacob ‘Israel’ which means ‘Strives with God’. Then the stranger goes, and Jacob calls the place ‘The face of God’ for he knows with whom he has fought.
See how Jacob’s understanding of God has grown: no longer a rich man sitting on his roof enjoying the air, now he is a person who is in the depths of a ravine, wrestling in the water and mud. It is a huge leap in understanding. Yet the most astonishing thing, the apex of the story is still to come.
The wronged brother Esau arrives. He is a much bigger man than Jacob has given him credit for being. Jacob starts off with propitiatory bowing, but Esau, the disinherited, wronged Esau, falls on his neck, weeping and embracing him. And then Jacob , who has spend the night with God, who glimpsed the face of God in the half light before dawn, Jacob says to the brother he has wronged: ‘Seeing your face is like seeing the face of God.’
Each time I get to this point I sit back and consider how astonishing this insight is. I suppose it is not so very old. Depending on which theory you follow, it might belong to about the time of the Buddha, of Confucius, of the wonderful religious and creative flowering that still amazes with its depth and insight. It strikes me that this particular story equals most others. It is a deep creative story of a man learning to see ever deeper where he may find God: close to earth, in a desperate struggle in its darkest places, where he finds a God he can neither beat or be beaten by, and then, not in the faces of those who have wronged him, but in a harder place, the hardest place. He sees God is the person he has wronged. And this is the part of the Bible I am so often told is full of a God of wrath.