Thursday, 22 June 2017

Transfigurations - Transgressing Gender in the Bible by Peterson Toscano Reviewed

Peterson Toscano, who will be familiar to Greenbelt Festival goers, has a video of his work exploring biblical texts relating to gender diversity, which can be streamed through Amazon now. It is work you may be familiar with if you have seen him in recent years, but which will be new to many.

Transfigurations – Transgressing Gender in the Bible looks at a range of different biblical characters through the use of a range of performance pieces. He begins by looking at Deborah and the scripture found in Judges 4-5. This illustrates how femininity is cannot be defined in a particular way because what it means to be female is something which has diverse meanings.

He then moves on to look at the story of Joseph, described through the perspective of the hyper-masculine uncle Esau. Within the explanation of this narrative which follows Peterson talks about the way that the story talks about blended families before moving on to looking at gender diversity. He looks at the issue of gender diversity using biblical scholarship to explore the clothing of different colours which Joseph was given and the context he was working on. He acknowledges the explanation he gives may not be the only one but it is one which needs listening to.

So within the first two pieces he introduces us to a piece of scripture many of us will not have explored before and reintroduces us in a new way to a biblical character we will have been familiar with from a young age.

Next he moves on to eunuchs and explains their place in the ancient world. He uses the book of Esther to look at this group again using a performance piece. As with the other dramatic representations the use of his hands and intensity of his facial expressions are key to making this work.

In the discussion he moves on to look at other eunuchs including an Ethiopian one in Jeremiah. Again whilst gender variance is the thread which links this with the other characters in the concept of ethnicity is also gently dropped in.

From here Peterson moves on to another performance piece looking at the more familiar Ethiopian eunuch who we read of in the new testament. We don’t know the name of this eunuch so Toscano gives them a gender neutral name. Finally we get another character who gets a bit part mention in the bible but again seems to be acting outside gender norms.

If you are not familiar with the concept of gender diversity I would suggest that you use these videos in conjunction with the Genderbread Person materials from Sam Killerman to help you understand further the concept of gender diversity.


I would recommend this video for those who want to explore gender diversity from a biblical perspective. I’d also say this is a great way back into scripture for those who want to explore scripture more but currently it somewhat dry.

This video is particularly something I would recommend to those who are scared of theology, thinking it is something dry and dusty done by old men in cathedrals or universities. This shows biblical scholarship can be interesting and transmitted in ways which are interesting and culturally relevant.


Tuesday, 13 June 2017

Conference of European University Chaplains Reviewed

The granite city of Aberdeen was grey rather than sparkling when I arrived in the drizzle. However, the rain didn’t dampen the spirits at the Conference of European University Chaplains (CEUC) 2017.

It was a predominantly Christian gathering, reflecting the current makeup and ethos of the group and so worship together was a central aspect of the time we enjoyed together. This took place in the beautiful surroundings of Kings Chapel at the University of Aberdeen. During it we used liturgy from the Iona Community which both reflected the spirit of the conference but was also appropriate to the ecumenical nature of the gathering.

The first evening was spent getting to know each other, something which seemed remarkably easy. I was struck by the willingness of this group to truly engage with each other. Of course some people had known each other for years and were catching up but for those of us who were new we were immediately able to feel at home. We began with some variation of what became the standard conversation openers of the week. “where are you from? What’s you’re context like?”  This was great because from the beginning it became clear the focus of the week was learning from each other.

I learnt that in Hungry there is a student pastor who is developing his work by moving on to a church plant for recent graduates, whilst in Norway they have re-imagined the old mission to seaman for the 21st century by sending chaplains to different countries and continents to support students abroad and ex-pats. I learnt in Australia, (yes there were a few from further afield than Europe) there is a chaplain using plants to help people cope and give meaning to transitions caused by the move from one style of building to another. In the Netherlands there are all sorts of exciting things happening including a really exciting innovation at Delft University from TeamMoTiv who have re-imagined chaplaincy into helping develop leadership and soft skills. I also learnt a lot about chaplaincy in Finland, where there is not the multi-faith style of chaplaincy I work in at Aston.

It helped, I think, we all had to truly listen to each other. For the native English speakers we had to concentrate to understand unfamiliar accents whilst for those speaking English as a second language they had to listen into order to interpret / understand. We also had to pause as we spoke, for the native speakers we had to speak at a slower pace and for those who were using a second language they had to pause in order to translate what they were saying before they said it. This was a useful skill.

The key note speakers included Dr. Kristin Aune talking about the latest HE Chaplaincy research going on, Rev Professor Tom Greggs who was looking at Chaplaincy as Sharing in the Sacrificial Priesthood of Christ and Dr Liam Waldron looking at Loneliness on campus: what can the chaplain do to help. Whilst all different they were all useful in exposing the complex nature of chaplaincy and world it is working in. We live in a world where people can feel isolated within a busy environment, where chaplaincies do not come in a one size fits all form and where students, institutions, chaplains and sponsoring bodies/ Churches all need listening to when looking at chaplaincy within education. It is also a world we need to remember that God loves and calls churches to exist for, rather than existing to keep themselves going as Tom Greggs reminded us. 

Beyond the keynotes there were also workshops. I attended one given by Rev Greg Hughson, a Methodist chaplain from Dunedin, New Zealand on A Practical Theology of Suicide Prevention. The work going on there is similar to that being done by Papyrus and others in this country, although he also talks of the need to bring in theology when working with or from the Church to look at this issue. I also gave a workshop on HE Chaplaincy – A  Positive Chance for Engagement through the Diversity and Employability Agendas. Unfortunately this meant I was unable to go to the Team Motiv session looking at their film The New Connection and the work they were doing in Delft in the University of Technology.

It wasn’t all work though, a lot of the networking took place through social events. There was a European Market which was effectively the ultimate Eurovision party, but without the music, a trip to a castle (which I opted for rather than the distillery) and a civic reception at the Aberdeen Town House hosted by the Lord Provost followed by dinner and a ceilidh.
Would I recommend chaplains to consider this conference? Yes, definitely, I think that there is much to learn from the innovation going on in other parts of the world, just as we have something in our multi-faith contexts to offer to the conversation.






Saturday, 13 May 2017

Valuable Methodist Chaplaincy Resources

Every so often I read back over a post, particularly one which has been written from a place of emotion and think um……perhaps I could have phrased that a little differently or perhaps I could have included more reference to some good work going on elsewhere. So it was with my recent post “Movingon in to ???”

In my frustrations about my husband going into his student presbyter role whilst I am not sure what my future holds I realise I may have given the wrong impression about Chaplaincy as a ‘stream’ in Methodism. What I meant is whilst one can express a clear calling to certain types of ministry and there are clear pathways through there is not the same clear route through to chaplaincy ministry and not the same opportunities for this to be a paid role.

However, it is clear stream which is supported by the Connexional Team. There is a page on the Methodist website which gives clear links to those who support the different types of chaplaincy. The problem which exists is highlighted within the “about chaplaincy” pages within the PDF document which can be linked to.

It says:” What kind of people are chaplains? There are many different kinds of Methodist chaplains. Most are volunteers - ordained ministers working full time as chaplains are very much in the minority.”

This paragraph totally ignores the lay person for whom this is their paid vocation. The impression given is that the lay person will be a volunteer. This is what is at the root of my personal frustration and what I didn’t perhaps adequately express.

It is this assumption which is also implicit within much of the Methodist material on chaplaincy, although it is found within excellent resources which are of equal worth whether you are considering chaplaincy as a volunteer role or as a career or if you are more experienced. Indeed Chaplaincy Everywhere and Chaplaincy Essentials are excellent resources which I would recommend more widely than just to Methodists.

Additionally, Cliff College runs an excellent summer school with a mission stream which is focusing on “Vocation and Mission: New forms of Chaplaincy” and a number of links from last year’s course can be found on the website. This advertises itself on Facebook as for both those looking into chaplaincy and experienced chaplains and for lay and ordained. It’s organised by the Methodist Discipleship and Learning Network in conjunction with the College, which runs an excellent range of course.

So as I hope you can see there is a lot of excellent work going on and I have benefited from part of it. The HE Chaplaincy link in the network has been a great encourager to me over the last two years as I have been in my current role.

Tuesday, 9 May 2017

Moving On into ?????

Standing at the front of a crowded room in the Hare and Hounds on Friday, jumping up and down to punk folk indie outfit Skinny Lister after indulging in the 90’s nostalgia of American garage punk support AJJ I was in my element. To me the evening summed up much of what has been good about the last couple of years in Brum. We have fitted in here and I can honestly say I have flourished. Yet, it is time to move on….subject to the approval of Methodist Conference (have to get that caveat in)……Karl is moving from student to probationer Methodist Presbyter in September. Thus it’s time to pack up and move on again.
As I get ready for this I am faced with the questions of what next? This is not a new place to be in on one hand, I am somebody who can now be described as semi-nomadic and is used to starting over in a new place. Yet, this time it is different because of the flourishing which has occurred in Birmingham.

For a number of years I have been seeking to search out how to express my calling…if you like what my vocation is. I have gone on various searches including candidating for Diaconal Ministry and looking into pioneer ministry in the past and nothing has seemed to quite fit. Yet, at being a lay chaplain in a university has fitted and has given me the opportunity to express all those things that didn’t quite fit in other boxes.

I’ve had the opportunity whilst here to explore in more detail that calling and reflect upon it as well as learn about some of the theory underpinning it through the Chaplaincy and Young People course at Newman. I have found the way to sensibly express what I have very clumsily been talking about for years in a form which makes sense and bridges academic and informal learning. Next week I get to present a paper on that at a BIAPT and Queens conference on Christian Mission in Post-Christian Cultures. It expresses how I have a firm foundation built upon the model(s) of religious and secular understanding of chaplaincy which are combined in my approach, a contextual missional approach and a set of questions I use flowing from the Methodist Quadrilateral (including how does scripture inform my work). It then goes on to show what the use of this model looks like in practice when curating and helping create apt liturgy for the LGBT+ community within the context in which I work.

I’ve also been able to develop a project on helping students engage with employability and the privatized areas of their lives (particularly faith or sexual orientation / gender identity). It’s something I am happy to pass on to others but would like the chance to develop more widely. That is being developed into an academic paper on HE Chaplaincy – A Positive Chance for Engagement through the Diversity and Employability Agendas for a conference next month in Aberdeen.

So you see there is lots of exciting stuff going on but I am not sure where it all goes next, whether I am being asked to walk away or whether there will be some way of developing the chaplaincy role. Now, let’s be clear I knew two years ago the timescale I was probably in the West Midlands for; what (if I’m honest), I didn’t expect was to flourish in the way I have and to really find what my vocation looked like in practice not in my head.

The thing that makes it harder for me is the irony of certain things. Just as Karl is being released to fulfil his ministry in a church which understands and has a “system or pathway” for his role I am being sent into this void of ok, how does this work now? I am effectively a lay free lancer with a specific ministry which I have had tested in the ways which are possible to somebody in my situation (i.e. via interview panel, professional, vocational course and being accountable to the committee which I am employed by as well as to the church of which I am a part). If he had been stationed to a different part of the country the roles would exist for me to apply for, and to develop what I’m doing now. As it is the roles just aren’t there in the same way where I’m going. There are roles for the lay chaplain, but they tend to be for chaplaincy assistants who are part of live in communities and intended as stepping stones into discerning vocation.

Then there’s the practicalities of preparing to be a “clergy spouse” (no jokes here about flowers or baking). For me the issues arise over the employment issue again. How do I find something where I can have the same day off as my husband when Saturdays are not a good day for him to consider taking as a day off because quite frankly? I live in the world of Monday to Friday on the whole…..this is going to involve compromise and change.
Some things are settled though, building on what has worked well in Birmingham. I am going to be going to a different church in a neighboring circuit. Karl is ready to take the flack on this one. But it is what we have found has worked well for us here. I am able to be my own person and he has not had to deal with me in his “work” situation. We do support each other’s ministries but it doesn’t mean we have to be in each others pockets. It is easier for the boundaries to be maintained the way we work it.

So Birmingham has been good to us and we have both, I think, flourished here. We’ll miss it but it is time to move on……..



Saturday, 15 April 2017

Responding to Aune's How Can Universities Tackle Religious Descrimination

Yesterday Kristin Aune, an academic from Coventry, published an excellent article in the Guardian about how universities can tackle religious discrimination. Within the piece she uses evidence from the research collected for Religion in Higher Education in Europe and North America which she co-edited with Jacqueline Stevenson, (which I reviewed here), to give three obstacles to this:

1.    Religion being seen as being a minority interest
2.    Students are seen as a threat
3.    We don’t listen enough

Having looked at these three she then comes up with three things which could help:

1.    Collecting more data on religion and mapping this across to outcomes
2.    Integrating religious literacy into those courses which relate to post-grad teaching and learning qualifications
3.    Creating religious equality working groups

The comments generated by this article showed the barriers which are put up by secularists whose own ideology is, at times, as strong as any conservative religious believer. The comments also tend to relate to a particular view of teaching and learning which fails to look at the weight now put on the overall student experience by those in power. I want to look at this article from the perspective of a Christian chaplain embedded in the Methodist denomination.

The first point I want to make regarding religion being a minority interest. It’s a Christocentric view that I think many of us within the church can fall into too. The narratives of secularisation and church decline have been intertwined in a way which has ignored the reality that the two are different. As Linda Woodhead has said in a recent article in the Journal of the British Academy and others have pointed out they are two separate narratives. One can be said to be generally true whilst the other has been shown to be at best complicated and at worst false. We live in a country where church decline has occurred and more young people are describing themselves as being of no religion but religion and spirituality have also grown through a combination of factors. Those young nones are rejecting secular labels as well as religious ones. 

This dismissing religion as a minority interest also has the problem of ignoring faith is an aspect of identity which intersects with other aspects, particularly race and ethnicity.

As a chaplain who works with others in the university to try and increase employability skills among under-represented groups the lack of data is frustrating. I want to be able to demonstrate to managers that supporting initiatives which seek to help students identify the transferable skills young people are gaining through their involvement with places of worship is worthwhile and will add value to the organisation. To do this properly and monitor impact I need data.

If we learn to see it as church involvement is a minority interest but religion and spirituality isn’t it puts more of a focus on seeking how we can engage with people where they are, outside of the church context. This is a pastoral and missional approach which looks at helping people engage with God where they are, which is what Wesley focused upon.
Secondly, I agree with Aune that through legislation such as Prevent the surveillance of students can be problematic. I work in a university which has taken a very clear approach to the government legislation linking it to safeguarding and so avoids a lot of these problems. However, I know that the approach being taken isn’t uniform across universities. As the legislation is built around guidelines rather than firm definitions it is open to a range of interpretations.

The Methodist Church along with partners from the Baptist and United Reform Churches, together with the Church of Scotland has a strong history of examining this type of issue through the Joint Public Issues Team (JPIT). However, they need to be directed to do so by the churches and until recently this has not been on the radar of many in the Methodist Church, (or I would argue elsewhere), to a certain extent we have simply left it to the Anglicans to deal with and advise us on.

This is changing and several Methodist regional synods have recently passed motions noting the concern that some of us have regarding this legislation and the impact it has on chaplaincy work within universities and on multi-faith working. There is a hope that this will be discussed at conference with some kind of Methodist approach to the issue being given. Many of the concerns link specifically to the points Aune raises within this article.
With regard to the need to take religion as seriously as other protected characteristics I think this is really important. A founding principle of the non-conformist denominations was religious freedom. Linking back to the last point this is something which still needs to be defended, increasingly from conservative secular discourse.

As a Methodist who values the Methodist Quadrilateral I view experience as important. However, I am also aware that whilst the quadrilateral seeks to invoke Wesley’s way of doing things through looking at the role of the Holy Spirit it was actually put together by the United Methodist Church in America to help them work out how to bring together a range of strands of Methodist thought and the pluralism within that. The secular use of aspects of this approach can be incredibly useful in universities where there is a focus on “the student experience” and where senior managers, support services and teaching and learning staff are all required to consider this “student experience”.  

As a Methodist who is a chaplain I look at the experience through the lens of reason and tradition (both the tradition of the institution and the Church) and through the lens of scripture. This is why I agree for experience to be heard and injustices and good practice from it to be acted upon there need to be processes and forums in place. 

As Aune has identified these type of forum exist for other groups. I would argue that with regard to religion Chaplains are well placed to help develop and co-ordinate this type of work within universities. Yet, as already said the work we do on protected characteristics should not just relate to religion. We have a specific role that can be played in negotiating situations where different protected characteristics appear to be in conflict with each other. We are also well placed because with our semi-independent status we are also able to speak truth to power, in appropriate ways, which others may not feel able to do. 


With regard to the need to develop religious literacy strategies within post grad teaching and learning qualifications, again I think this could be an area that chaplaincy could contribute to.

Thursday, 13 April 2017

New Art Reviewed

Wondering what to do in Brum over Easter? Or looking for some great art to enjoy outside of London? You could do worse than come and explore some of the work being shown in the city at the moment. I Want! I Want! Art & Technology is on at the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery until 1st October, New Art West Midlands is displaying work around the West Midlands at the moment including in the Waterhall Gallery, (also part of the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery) until 14th May. Then finally, with a shorter run, Eddie Aigbe’s Beyond the Depths of Skin is in the Church at Carrs Lane until 19th April. Yesterday I explored all three, including the opening of the third, (and Eddie was kind enough to say I could photo and include some of the images from that exhibition in this post).

The Aigbe exhibition may be being held in a church and be part of their Easter worship, but it has challenging content, much of which comes from the artists experience working and having a studio in one of the more deprived parts of Birmingham. The paintings are in a variety of mediums and styles. There are pencil drawings which appeal to the more traditional tastes, pop art style portraits and more abstract collage styles amongst the work. The theme of the silencing of certain groups is subtly included in a number of works. There is a striking self-portrait included within the exhibition which Gillian Houghton has reflected on in the Holiness Journal.

The poet Bob Cooper, (Birmingham Methodist Circuit’s poet in residence), has a number of works in his most recent collection Everybody Turns which relate directly to his interpretation of Aigbe’s work. He read a couple of these at the preview last night where local singer and community artist David Benjamin Blower also played a number from his The Book of Jonah Album which was very reminiscent of Billy Bragg’s A13 in it’s acoustic punk style. I really enjoyed the exhibition because it wasn’t “twee”, “safe” or “nice”; it is edgy and if one has a knowledge of different types of head injury potentially disturbing. As the artist said last night “the exhibition is best enjoyed when you’ve got the chance to peel back beliefs and soul search and search Beyond the Depths ofSkin.”

The blurb for the Waterhall Exhibition says, “it’s showcasing a series of works of a neo-surrealist or other-worldly nature.” When you walk in you see Lisa Nash’s The Circle of Nature which has a giant rabbit behind a young woman cradling a young rabbit. For me it evoked the spirit of Mary Tofts the woman who lived in Leicester Square in 1726 and persuaded the great and good of the time she was giving birth to rabbits. Now admittedly that association may have been because I’ve just been reminded of her story in Tim Moore’s book Do Not Pass Go: From the Old Kent Road to Mayfair, (which I’m currently enjoying), but I think it is the way that the baby rabbit is being cradled.

Natalie Seymour’s work takes a look at a disused college which look amazing and is part of a wider collection of hers called "the college". My husband’s favorite work was a fractal based digital billboard by Jess Maxfield. It was one of a range of works we enjoyed in this exhibition which was probably the easiest to engage with and would be a really good introduction to modern art for the uninitiated.  


Then there’s I Want! I Want! This is the highest profile exhibition in the city at the moment being an Arts Council Collection being put on in partnership with the museum and art gallery. I have to say it was my least favorite of the three exhibitions. There were some clever pieces of work in there and the one where you obliterated text using original space invader gaming was brilliant. However, there were too many images floating around at once for a brain which developed before life seemed like one long Saturday night in a noisy pub where screens dominate in an environment which is far more sterile than it used to be. 

Saturday, 8 April 2017

Now We Are 40 by Tiffanie Darke Reviewed

At first glance Now We Are 40: Whatever Happened toGeneration X may be dismissed as just about how what Tiffanie Darke (the author) and her famous/ successful mates think about their lives. But to dismiss this book in that way fails to recognise two important factors :1) the irony and 2) the depth this book actually contains within it.



The book covers a range of material from the reasons God is going down on her lifestyle list but is seen as one of the most important brands by June Sparpong to how we should embrace aging and issues around parenting. She also makes some important points about the difficulties and lack of opportunities Millennials face within this book.

Now that might all sound way to serious but the whole thing about this book is it’s written in a way which is fun, as you would expect from a lifestyle writer who was at the centre of the Gen X hedonism. You get nostalgic anecdotes thrown in which take you back and make you think, yup that was the 90’s. Now I’m not pretending that my experience of that time was any where near as exciting as Darke’s but there was something about being part of that generation which made life fun.

Generally I think the conclusions Darke reaches in this book about the way we took our eye of the ball and let the future generations loose many of the opportunities we had are true. However, having recently read Helen Pearson’s The Life Project (a book about the story of cohort studies – again a much more interesting read than that summary suggests) the evidence is that the pulling up of the drawbridge had already started happening by the time we get to our generation. In Pearson’s book data from a study following people born in 1970 were having less opportunity to reach the top than those born in 1958 if they hadn’t had a private education.

The parenting discussion focuses on Gen Z children, but the Danny Goffey (formally of Supergrass now of Vangoffey) and his wife Pearl Lowe had their first children in the 90’s like I did. Whilst many people were putting off having children until later some of us do have Millennials. I’d be interested in hearing what Pearl Lowe has to say about her kids experience now.

Brexit is also addressed in this book and the grief that many of our generation feel about leaving the EU is particularly palpable in her reading.

Would I recommend this book? Yes, totally, especially if you a Gen X’er yourself. I’d also recommend it to people who want to understand Gen X spirituality and faith. Whilst there is the Eat, Pray, Love approach discussed there are also some really interesting nuggets in there for those of us who are interested in hearing from people themselves rather than just listening to what the Church thinks is the case.

Note: the review of this book was what my last post was about. That was written in a hurry and when I was tired and most importantly before I read the book. Having read this book I stand by what I said in that post but want to add some more thoughts. We were the generation who found out it was ok to doubt and explore. God may be on the going down lifestyle list but he's still there being spoken about. 

We are, as the current Methodist Connexion magazine (which has grown into something really interesting) says well in a time of transition. X'er Trey Hall sums this up totally when he says it's a time of glorious mess. We have people like Trey, who is the Birmingham District Mission advisor there ready to give us a kick up the backside. We are in a time of chaos and uncharted waters and we need to be careful to make sure that we don't take our eyes off the ball, as Darke warns we have previously. 

In the same magazine another X'er Joanne Cox-Darling asks a couple of questions which stem from our generation. "What if we were courageous - and told our own personal stories of transformation and growth?" and "What if we were bold enough to celebrate the most creative ideas offered to us?" In this book Darke is doing exactly that telling stories of transformation and growth together with advocating the same thing as Cox-Darling that we celebrate the creative ideas offered to us. Whilst Darke's doing this generally and Cox-Darling is advocating these things to the church perhaps these messages are the strong ones we need to hear both as and from Gen X.