Category Archives: telling

The Quran, the Cathedral, and the wrong story

I get sucked into other people’s narratives. Not their lives, but into the compelling stories they tell of ‘the way the world is.’ At worst, into their stories about my own life. As a young person my loving parents persuaded  me out of pursuing a career in the performing arts, because I might end up cleaning for a living as I waited for jobs. And, right enough, I can’t sing or dance. It totally escaped them that I might well have had a career in straight acting, or in directing, or any of the other roles around performance. They wanted me to have the right career.

Then I got persuaded out of a career as an academic, because of all the manifold failings of academia. But actually, a mixture of management, teaching and research is something I could perfectly well have done. I would have loved it.

As it happens, my dyslexia means that most of the more normal jobs open to people are impossible to me. As it happens, my persuadability wrecked my chance of a decent job, and I ended up cleaning for living without even getting a shot at things which might have been more fulfilling, and that was a far worse waste fate than my kind helpers imagined.  It is not the fault of the persuaders, but my own weakness. It does, however, have the desirable side-effect that I see too plainly how others grab the wrong narrative.

The current misguided narrative concerns a very beautiful reading from the Quran in my church, St Mary’s Cathedral, Glasgow, at Epiphany. Now, St Mary’s is a place of the uttermost theological conservatism. It is a place where both the two major creeds are honoured, where the laity, as well as the clergy, observe the beautiful custom of bowing for the name of Jesus, and for the section of the Nicene creed, which describes the Word becoming flesh and dwelling among us.

The chances that anybody in St Mary’s would pick up the mistaken idea people in the church hierarchy there do not believe that Jesus was very God from very God is a risk so small as to be vanishing.

But St Mary’s is a church in a city where worrying racist attacks on Asian religious buildings have happened in the last two years. There is a serious risk, in that city, that the Muslim community could come to believe the Christian community are not supporting them, and that the Christian community might not realise that they have a lot in common with the Muslim community.

To put it bluntly, prejudice between two ancient and honourable faiths is one of the biggest challenges we face today.  That is not a small risk. It is a huge one.

The current hysteria in certain circles over the reading is a classic case of an entirely mistaken narrative. Nobody at St Mary’s stands the smallest danger of not knowing the orthodox Christian doctrines. We will continue to celebrate the Eucharist in all its fullness week by week, at mid week, for saints’ days and for weddings. We will continue to observe Ash Wednesday, and Lent and the Triduum. There will be an Easter vigil and a parish Easter Eucharist. Evensong will be sung, and there will be daily morning prayer. The Old Testament and the Epistle and the Gospel with be read, and Psalms will be variously read and sung. Prayers will be devout, and hymns and anthems glorious. We, her congregation, know that. Glasgow also knows St Mary’s worships one God in three Persons, and does that daily.

The real danger was not that I might not have the perfect career. The real danger was that I might not have a career at all.

The real danger is lack of love and respect and kinship between two great faiths.


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.

It’s time – for smiles, joy, love.

It is the smiling faces I love. I can only too clearly remember when the faces were not smiling. I remember my Uncle Alan, whose life was totally messed up by the fact he was gay. To be gay was to be guilty of a crime, or it was if you tried to love another person. Alan was never caught, never found guilty of love, but he internalised the guilt and it dogged and harassed him. It did not stop him being there at all the great family events, smiling, engaging. His charm, his caring for a little girl, to whom he was not, in fact, related, because he was an Uncle only by virtue of being my father’s friend, ensured that from my first years I had a face to put to the word ‘homosexual’. That face was not a face of fear, of disgust, but a happy smiling family face. I got lucky there.

It has been a very long road for society from there, from the 1950s, to here, to today. Today the Equality Network launch their ‘It’s Time’ video. Because although it has taken society about sixty years to get there, now so many happy smiling faces are ready to welcome the legislation for Equal Marriage.

They are faces of love, of joy, of caring. I count myself incredibly lucky that some of those faces I also know. They belong to happy, strong, caring people I know. I wish we were completely there. I wish everybody in my church was as supportive of Equal Marriage as the faces in the video and the bloggers blogging on it today. Actually, I cannot seriously think why they are not – usually in my expereince it is fear. Perhaps I will blog about that soon. But not today – today must belong to the smiles, to the love. It is time for that.

Put not your trust in Traveline

It is delightful to have a Scottish travel card and to be able to use buses for free. when I had a meeting of the Scottish Episcopal Historians group in Dundee on Saturday starting at 11 am I decided that economy and ecology dictated using the bus.

Accordingly I spent some time researching times and buses on the Traveline website, which is very clunky indeed to use, as every place has to be verified. When I type ‘Buchanan Street Bus Station, Glasgow’ do I indeed mean Glasgow City? Er, yes. I was very careful to put the right date, as Saturday buses can be different. With a sinking heart I realised that in order to go by bus I would need to leave the house at ten to seven in the morning, which meant starting on the animal work at ten to six, and therefore, allowing for some organising and stretching, waking up at half past five. Driving meant leaving at 8.30 and therefore rising at a civilised seven. Still …

I booked the 8.30 bus form Glasgow and resigned myself to catching the 7.30 from Kilmarnock.

I drove to Kilmarnock. I parked. I waited for the bus, which did not come. I checked the bus stop paper-behind-glass timetable, and it appeared that on Saturdays there was no 7.30 bus. The next one would make me miss the connection I had booked. I therefore got in my car and drive to the nearest park and ride, and tried to catch the underground – the train left just as I arrived, and the next one was ten minutes later, and it got me to the bus station just in time to see my bus departing. Had I only driven straight to the park and ride I would have been in plenty of time. Still …

I enquired when the next bus would get me to Dundee – and the next bus was fully booked – bus travel would now get me there horribly late. ‘This happens all the time with Traveline…’ sighed the girl behind the counter.

Having now wasted a fiver, I went back to my car and began the drive to Dundee. It was expensive and wasteful and I had now been travelling for nearly two hours.  Still …

I got to Dundee just before 11. I had sat nav. I got to a roundabout just in front of my destination. It was utterly shut. I could not turn left. There was no indication of how one might later turn left, where there were endless obstructions.  In vain I sought a way – my poor sat nav did not understand and endlessly tried to re-route me to the roundabout. I sought to climb above it so as to drop down. The sat nav offered bus routes, and pedestrianised streets. On and on I drove.  My desperation increased. Finally, I managed to climb and fall slowly down to my destination, where I finally arrived at ten to twelve.  I had been travelling for five hours. The bus should have taken an hour less and driving should have taken a little over two. Gentle reader, put not your trust in Traveline…

Honesty and openness

There really is only one way of meeting another person: directly. All prejudice, all assumptions , all standing back from that person must be laid to one side.

I think I always knew that.  Certainly when I first encountered Martin Buber’s Ich und Du it did not come as any kind of surprise or revelation, but rather as a more elegant expression of what I already knew; a sophisticated working-out of my daily assumption.

I was reminded of what a great and astonishing work it was when I ran full tilt into some numbing prejudice the other day. So for the record: the only way to enter into any encounter at all is to seek to meet directly with the person before one. Each person is unique, valuable, and the only way you will ever know them (or know anything about them) is to stand quietly before them, and to seek to meet them intimately, openly and without reservation. Keeping back information about oneself is necessary, but one can never keep back the self. One should always be open as an equal to the person who is there. This is the quality I call ‘simplicity’, which is always about relationship. It does not mean reckless self-giving, but it does mean honesty, in the sense that what they do meet of you must be all you. The truth, and nothing but the truth, though it does not need to be the whole truth.  Yes, this is a bit of a tight-rope walk. Better, it is somewhat like a came of cards, where what you hold in your hand must be hidden, but what you put on the table must be the cards you acquired according to the rules of the game.

The opposite kills. The opposite states that before I meet somebody I know what their worth is. That worth is determined by their being as close to my tribe as possible. They must share my ethnicity, and they must hold my assumptions. There is one correct code of behaviour and one correct set of cultural assumptions, and they are mine. The other, who should be ‘du’ or ‘thou’ is judged to be wrong from the start.  They are not ‘thou’, the equal of ‘I’ but a mere object of judgement. This means that ‘I’ can never, ever actually meet the person, only judge them to be right or wrong. There can never be a relationship, never a meeting.

This is why my father, difficult man as he was, was utterly right to argue (passionately and to the detriment of every Sunday lunch, and in the teeth of opposition from my delightful but racist grandmother) that there is no superior race, no better culture. There are simply people. And failing to acknowledge this does not just impoverish ‘du’, the person one meets. It bankrupts ‘I’ – for that ‘I’ has already judged most of those who are met as non-equals, and really as non-people.

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.

Introverts in conversation

Outside there is a moon, rising huge over the trees. The trees are bare now, ‘inscapes’ against an indigo sky, introverts wrapped in conversation with themselves. The shapes of the ponies are just visible as they stand on the bank in the warm night, still autumn though November. In utter silence, the lady barn owl passed overhead.

The nearest street lights, though I regret them, are four miles away. The most clearly visible, eight miles. Every so often traffic hums, but it is not as loud as the sounds of the ponies cropping the grass.

I have been away for a week, dog-sitting and house-sitting in warmth and comfort, luxury even. It is the nights here that I miss most.

Once more, with feeling

In brief as I have said this too too often:

it is commitment that makes a marriage, not the gender of those making the commitment

marriage between LGBT people supports the so-called institution of marriage, and strengthens families, it does not weaken them

I totally agree with Beth and Kelvin on the ill-judged, ill-informed and down right stupid statements from the Scottish hierarchy of the Roman Catholic church these last few days.


I had a whole day of holiday – not just a day off, but a holiday. I left home in a leisurely manner. I bought a magazine, an expensive one. I read it on a train. I bought a hat, with an odd grey and pink tartan which goes with my wonderful pink Doc Martens. I had lunch with a friend. I went to the Scottish National Gallery, and among other things, looked once again at Ruben’s amazing ‘Feast of Herod’ and pondered its symbols. I came home on the train, and bought a cup of tea from the trolley.

But none of these, dear and good things as they were and very life-enhancing, were quite the point. The point was that, apart from the time for lunch (for which I was just nicely hungry there was NOTHING I had to do. I was free. Free for all the daylight hours. I could, if I wanted, suddenly and arbitrarily decide to walk into a bookshop and buy a book (I did) or go the long way round to a destination or anything. No constant need to be efficient, to get it done, to just press on, and not to take a break yet, but to get a bit more done first.

After a summer of almost constant pressure it was like – well, NOT like rain on dry ground, so much, I think, as like sun on soaking ground. I could feel myself expanding.

Shining like a beacon

There are two categories of saint in the Christian Church. There are Saints, like Mary and Francis, and there are saints, who fill the pews. We are used, in the church, to people who are pretty holy, who are dedicated, focused and turned towards God, and we take it as a given that we will often encounter others, on the pews and in the leadership, who are like that. They are holy men and women, saints.

Then one runs quite suddenly into extraordinary holiness, and knows why the church has called some people Holy, or in the Latin, Sanctus, Sancta, Saint, in an unqualified way. People who have human flaws, but in whom the qualities of God shine like a beacon. And I sat, yesterday, and listened to one. He is Bishop Christopher Senyonjo. He is the one bishop of the Ugandan church who has stood steadfastly against the demonisation of gay people. He was careful to tell us he was only an assistant Bishop in the Anglican church (although either one is consecrated as a Bishop or one is not, it is not in fact possible to be a bit a bishop any more than it is to be a bit pregnant) and he came retirement age, retired, but went on working as a counsellor. Then some troubled young LGBT people were brought to him, who were having trouble accepting their sexuality, and having trouble finding a place in a deeply homophobic society.

It seemed natural to Bishop Christopher to start trying to change things, for the individuals and for his society. A blog does not allow one to write of everything he said, but I will pick out a few of the things which most impressed me.

At no point would Bishop Christopher get drawn into the blame-game. He did not blame his church or his society. He blamed ignorance of human sexuality. If there was more education, then people would understand. In the past there had been a superstition against women eating chicken, and with education now people understood that chicken was a good food for both sexes. It would be the same for gay people’s relationships.

He wanted to see a fuller and more authoritative role in his society for women, but he did not blame Islam for the patriarchal nature of his society – it was a cultural thing, he said, ages old, and needing changed. Nor did he blame Islam for attitudes to gay people. It was just ignorance, superstition. It was also down to an unhelpful way of understanding how to read the Bible – but he did not blame American Evangelical missionaries for that, either. Once again, the answer was more education, and more love. Love was a theme he came back to again and again, and I was reminded of stories that St John the Evangelist used to be carried in to his congregations as a very old man and would simply say ‘Only love one another.’

He spoke all the time very calmly, with no agitation, with no fear, with a deep deep kindness. He spoke of six months he has spent in America. His wife had asked him not to return to Uganda, because she was so afraid for his life, so many death threats had been made against him. However, in the end he had gone home. There was no anger in his voice. He blamed nobody.

What would the introduction of the notorious Ugandan bill with its draconian penalties for gay people mean? ‘It would be a disaster, a disaster’ not just for gay people, but because Africa should be tackling problems of disease, and lack of education, real problems and not illusory ones.

It what seems to us in the West like a terrible and sad situation, ever deteriorating, did not cow Bishop Christopher any more then death threats. ‘I am an optimist,’ he said, ‘things can change.’

Let me sum up. A man of retirement age tackled the Ugandan establishment head on over an issue which does not in any way personally involve him, accepting it brought a very real threat to his life, a threat of being beaten to death in very nasty ways, and also accepted the odium heaped on him in his society, and he did this because he felt called to love everybody. He refuses to blame those attacking him in any way.

He asked for our prayers. He asked for our support, that we keep lobbying, because he thinks it helps. I left knowing I had listened to one of the saints. No, to one of the Saints.