Tag Archives: Christian

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.

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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.

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.

 

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.

 

 

Happy New Ephphany!

When I lived in England I did not understand the New Year at all. As a ex-pat Scot who was reared in England and now lives in Scotland I am still not sure I wholly get it. Maybe the version I have is all my own, but as it is precious to me, I cling to it.

It falls in what is the (liturgical) Christmas season, yet it has a very different atmosphere. Christmas (to me) is pure magic. Not the kind which works against the world, but the kind which works with it. The magic deep down the fibres of life. The kind which makes you draw a breath of wonder at each tiny baby, and stare with astonishment at the beauty of a new born gripping a finger. Not because it cannot be explained, but because the explanation takes you to deep quiet places. Its best services are full of silence and and quiet embraces.

Christmas is arrived at after frantic hard work, and in a state of tiredness, an an increasing sense that there is no tie at all, and yet comes to a moment of utter stillness. A moment to enfold your beloved ones.

The New Year is about another kind of silence. The time to reflect on what is lost and why some of it is well lost. A time to look to plans and hopes with a heart which suddenly thinks that there is a whole year to get there, and time to rejoice and dawdle on the way.

We do rejoice and dawdle. We catch up with old friends. We even make new ones. Our plans are extravagant, all-embracing. New Year spills out past Christmas and into Epiphany, when we are able at last to party for the new born and show him off to everybody. The Scots are still wishing people a happy new year well into January, and the church by then is remembering just how that baby set aobut transforming the world.

And we need the hope and the resolutions, even if we only half believe in either, for they hurl us forward into our own new efforts at transformations. Happy New Year, everybody. Believe you can change your own lives and the lives around you. You need all the faith you can muster for the New Year.

staggeringly normal

You never met my Uncle Alan. Not actually a blood relative, he was a dear freind of my father’s and a dearer friend of mine. He came to most of the family events, and was kind, funny and helpful. He was a dear who knew how to entertain and delight a young child and talk with a theatre-mad older one.

I must have been about twelve when I said to Mum that it was a pity Alan had never married for he would have made such a wonderful father. She said that he was homosexual. (This was years ago, remember.) I was puzzled. Desire was beginning to put exploratory feelers into my world, and I understood enough of the need for privacy over it to have something like understanding.

I was standing in my parents’ sitting room as my mother explained that this dear and kind man had had his life made a living hell because other people could not accept that he desired his own gender, not the other.

I stood looking at their old fashioned curio cabinet as I understood more. Nobody despised him as much as he despised himself, because he could not want a woman and he had to want men. This had ruined his life. My mother seemed to think this sad but not totally unreasonable. Not me.

I  realised at once that it completely ridiculous. There could not possibly be any merit in desiring one gender or the other. If it was fine for women to be desired and fine for men to be desired, then it could not possibly matter if a man or a woman was doing the desiring.

People had taught my Uncle Alan a monstrous lie and they ruined his life, and I was utterly furious. Utterly. And I swore: never again, not on my watch. I have never seen or read or heard anything to change my mind.

I had a huge advantage over most people in this debate. I never knew a strange gay monster. Gay meant a dear friend. It never entered my mind for a moment there was anything odd in desiring ones own sex.

I have heard so many permutations of Alan’s story. Most of the early ones had a huge element of shame. Entirely socially produced shame. There was a lot of wasted love. More recent ones tend to focus on happy endings. On love found, on finding happiness in seeking the good of another. This gives me great joy. That some people are stuck with my mother’s understanding makes me sad. What was understandable in 1964 is no longer so easy to account for.

Two things have not changed. One is the courage of men and women who are prepared to discuss their most intimate lives until others can see that it is staggering normal to desire your own gender. The other thing is, sadly, that the fight still goes on, because some people are still trying to shame others by teaching the lie that the love for one’s own gender is different. Not on my watch.