Saturday, 23 September 2017

Bitch Doctrine by Laurie Penny Reviewed and Responded to.


I picked Bitch Doctrine: Essays for Dissenting Adults by Laurie Penny up in the little indie bookshop, Camden Lock Books which is based in Old Street Station. It was one of those books I picked up because I liked the bright green cover and because the recommendation on the front came from Caitlin Moran. I’m glad to say I wasn’t disappointed as I read it, the cover wasn’t the best bit.

The feminist essays inside are a set of thought which speak out for justice (and not just gender justice) in a way which is clear and generally well argued. There were points I fervently disagree disagreed with but these relate specifically to different outlooks on “religion”, “sex” and “family”.

Over eight chapters Penny shares a set of essays on the interlinked yet diverse topics of :the US election and what it teaches about madness and resistance, love and other chores, culture, gender, agency, backlash, violence and future.

The basic premise can be seen as the world is messed up due to the behaviour of individuals and institutions and to get real justice we need to start to dismantle those institutions which are inherently oppressive. Rather than basing the arguments around class, as so many men on the left have, this book engages with a structural approach from the point of view of identity politics (which are not a bad thing).

This could be seen as confusing as at times, as in the discussion of polyamory where the view taken is somewhat individualistic but at the same time directly engaging with structural issues. However, it makes sense as an argument, although I disagree with the premise underlining it. Where Penny argues that polyamory makes sense because it frees one from the oppressive ideology of the family and notions of romance and love it is linked to showing how religion has used family as a weapon of control.

This is where as a Christian Feminist I agree with some of her arguments but argue it is the church which has been at fault not the faith on which it is based. If one reads the bible (as opposed to reading just other people’s critiques of it) you can see that there are major problems where multiple partners are involved (in narratives which the church has generally sought to look at in a more positive way – glossing over the patriarchal violence involved by some of the heroes of the bible). Jesus himself referred to a radically different way of looking at family when he asked “who are my mother and brothers?” – but within this he is not advocating polyamory. In Matthew 5 he makes the point that it is the woman who suffers when there are not a set of social customs in place which promote monogamy. The problem is not monogamy, but rather it is the misuse of power and sex as well as the social stigma towards women. However, we can also see in our modern society how men suffer too. When you look at the statistics young black men are less likely to make it through education and more likely to end up absent fathers in jobs which are below the level they’d be in if they didn’t have to leave education early to provide for their children.

Now, the answer here could be – as Penny argues – to reduce the shame around abortion. However, I disagree with that as an answer. Yes, I believe women should have a choice and their bodies and lives are of equal value to that of children, but if we were to encourage men to wear condoms as well as women to use contraception then their lives would often be improved too. Ideally, encouraging people not to have sex until marriage is more likely to be the ideal. However, religion has too often used this to encourage too many people to marry young and have children too early. Parts of this agree with what Penny is talking about in the book, parts of it are totally opposed.

What I am arguing is that if one starts reading the bible there is much which agrees with the analysis in this book, but there are also things which enable you to question some arguments.

One area if we read the bible in this way it backs up what Laurie Penny says we need to really adjust to – that good and nice men after often the rapists and abusers. The bible doesn’t excuse their behaviour it gives radical different approaches to seeing the impact and to looking at relationships.

Take for example Hagar the immigrant slave, who how ever you dress it up, was raped by Abraham on the suggestion Sarah who wanted a surrogate child. Now I have all sorts of problems with some parts of this text but at the end of the day it is God who meets Hagar and allows her to see him and say his name (a really big deal) and God who provides for her and her son, allowing her to prosper. This is the God who argues that single parents must not be exploited against and all women are of value.

If the church allowed people to wrestle with these texts more and see their implications, I believe much would change. However, as Penny says with regard to recent high profile abuse charges it is uncomfortable to wrestle with this stuff and realise nice men commit the majority of assaults. Abraham, the great patriarch was a rapist who used his power in a way which was contextual but still wrong. We’re now thankfully exposing where this same pattern has been at work in the church damaging the lives of generations of men and women. What would have been different if the church hadn’t been controlled by men ensuring the women and others asking these types of questions down the century were censored?  How much sooner would we have moved on from they couldn't possibly have done that? The climate is thankfully changing from where it was as Penny points out and this is as true in the church as elsewhere. We have moved from, although we still have distance to go, from the point Constance Coltman described a century ago when she said, “the only right that no branch of the Church has ever denied to women has been the right of confessing to faith by martyrdom”. (note there is now a q&a sheet which says more about Constance which has been developed to go with Kevin Snyman's film Constance which I have blogged about previously).

So as you see there is much which the book says which fits in with what I believe as a bible believing Christian……so the problem is not religion in itself but the misuse of religion, as so many Christian feminists have said in the past.

A final note on this book, which I highly recommend if you are willing to engage and intellectually debate and wrestle with what the writer is saying, is thankfully it includes material about and relating to the experience of Trans*. It questions the feminist “haters” who do go back to binary essentialist biological views of sex and confuse them with gender as well as ignoring the validity of non-binary and intersex people. 

Friday, 18 August 2017

The Trans Partner Handbook Reviewed by Jo Green Reviewed

The Trans Partner Handbook: A Guide for When Your Partner Transitions by Jo Green is a new guide that’s come out to help support the partners of trans* people, particularly those who are going through transition. It contains good advice from the author and stories and experiences of other partners too. The author herself is the partner of a trans woman and runs one of the main online support groups for partners of trans* people.

I have to say I am one of those who has shared their experiences and so this is not an impartial review. I was privileged to be able to share my experiences in the hope it will help others.

One of the things I like about this book is that it has the right balance of information and stories. The information is comprehensive and very useful. It also shows everybody’s journeys are different but there are some feelings many have in common. It also has a good mix of straight and LGB partners, as well as partners of trans male and trans female people.

With regard to what the book it is split into two halves: The Partner Experience and Transition. The first section includes issues as diverse as Finding Out Your Partner is Trans, Coming Out, Sexuality, A Partner’s Gender Identity, Sex, Mental Health, Counselling and Therapy, Loss and Grieving and Children, Fertility and Adoption. The second half looks at Social Transition, Medical Transitioning and Legal Transition. The resources section is one of the most comprehensive I have come across. Also it is easily readable and does not come across as a text book.

The book is one I would highly recommend to partners but also those who want to understand more about how to support the partners of trans people and what they are going through.

It is a secular book and those readers of this blog who come from a faith perspective need to take that into account at points when opinions are given which may not fit in with their view of life (particularly near the beginning when the author address those readers who may be involved in polyamorous relationships for example). As I say though a really important book which I would highly recommend.


Wednesday, 16 August 2017

Unpopular Culture by Guvna B Reviewed

So I didn’t initially intend to buy Unpopular Culture by Guvina B, which apparently came out in June. However, I did buy it when I found out that he featured heavily in the current issue of the Premier Christianity magazine and that the whole book was only 99p more than the magazine in our local book store, (which had a promotional discount on it). I figured I may as well read the whole book rather than the magazine. What follows is my review.

For the uneducated Guvna B is a MOBO winning British rapper. I could get into the categorisations here but as he says in the book he’s not a big fan of labels and to be honest I’m old and remember when it was as simple as “rap” “hip hop” and “electro”. There’s been times in  his career has been harmed by being pigeon holed as a Christian or gospel artist.

Whilst this book follows a certain evangelical path it is not your usual “trot it out and get them in” paperback. Whilst it’s clear that he has and does perform at big evangelical events it’s equally the case that he points to faith being a journey rather than being “an event”. This is refreshing and reflects the overall honesty which comes through the book.

Early on he briefly talks of his own experience of growing up on a council estate in an area which underwent gentrification as a result of the Olympics. Within this he talks of aspiration and makes clear that those who live in social housing do have aspiration but it tends to be more material and short term than the aspiration with delayed gratification.

I found the material about educational achievement interesting and frustrating. He went on a path of progression which involved doing not so well in his GCSE’s. really not good in his AS Levels but then turning it round to get to university. This path is not unusual but it is increasingly being cut off to people. A Level departments no longer exist in a lot of colleges and the modular system has been abandoned. Whilst he is not overly positive about his university experience it is clear it is “the way out” for many of those young people in social housing (and elsewhere) who do have that long term aspiration.

Now, when it comes to the aspiration “cycle” he makes clear that we need to encourage people to be themselves and own the gifts God has given them. The school, job, relationship, mortgage, family repeat cycle is one which can have negative aspects to it if that is the only goal somebody has.

So you can see a lot of wisdom in this book. It also contains a more positive take on social justice than some books of this type can. As well as talking about supporting a child through the Compassion sponsorship scheme he talks about really engaging in issues. As somebody who says they were desensitized to a lot of things for a long time he says if you start looking at the news and thinking about how you would react if you were seeing your own family it makes a difference. He also mentions, explicitly at various points, the topic of police brutality including the case of Eric Garner.

So do I recommend this book or is it just for young people? Well, I found it useful and at times challenging. Yes, I could get through most of it in the time it took me to drink a large glass of white, but so what. This young man has some important things to say and they appear to being said with integrity. His basic bible teaching isn't bad either.

He does mention the difference of writing for a Chrisitan and secular audience and I have to say I’d love to have read what he’d written if it was for a secular rather than a Christian publisher and with a secular audience in mind to sell to. Still he has a living to make and so do his publishers and so this is the book we get and I have to say it isn’t a bad read all things considered.


Saturday, 12 August 2017

Doorways to the Sacred by Phil Potter & Ian Mosby (eds) Reviewed

Doorways to the Sacred: Developing Sacramentality in Fresh Expressions of Church edited by Phil Potter and Ian Mobsby is the latest book in the Ancient Faith, Future Mission series. As with other books in this series it is predominantly Anglican in it’s outlook, whilst trying to be an ecumenical book and is made up from contributors based in the UK and USA. These include people like Graham Cray, Lucy Moore, Sue Wallace and John and Olive Drane who many will be familiar with.

The book looks at various sacraments: baptism, confirmation, the Eucharist, healing and confession raising questions relevant to their use in missional communities. The book appears, to the outside reader, to have two aims. Firstly, to argue the importance of the sacraments and look at how they might appear in missional communities and Fresh Expressions. Secondly, this book appears to be seeking to give a reasoned argument as to why some of the “laws” or “rules” around the sacraments that the church has need to be re-examined to give more room for them to be contextually appropriate. The book shows how the rules around who should and shouldn’t be taking communion, for example, are already being broken with regard to everybody – baptised or not – being able to come to the table in many situations and words being used which are more contextually appropriate than some of the official liturgies. In her chapter on communion and Messy Church Lucy Moore talks of now being at a point of entering negotiation with the Liturgical Commission.

The book is also interesting for those of us who have been following the literature for many years by showing where some of the people and missional communities themselves have moved onto as time has progressed. It outlines how some have taken the journey from “post-evangelical” to Anglican vocation on to parish priest seeking to use what they have learnt in their missional communities in deprived parishes. Ian Mobsby is interesting in that he has moved on from Moot and in his current appointment is becoming a mixed economy parish containing both “traditional” community and “fresh expression”. Similarly in the USA Karen Ward has moved from a “hipster, arty community” in Seattle to seeking to develop a new community in a poor parish in Oregon. It has Reagan Humber, who is one of the priests at the House of Saints and Sinners in Colorado talking about their recent move of building as well as about the open policy they have, which readers of Nadia Boltz-Weber’s books will be familiar with.

Cray starts by talking about how sacraments are useful in our contemporary world but they have to be something which take us beyond our current yearning for individual experience. This is something which is echoed by other authors, but as John Drane points out it can be that individual experience within a corporate ritual which enables somebody to have a moment with God where they become oblivious of everything and everybody else. Sue Wallace uses the example of the Eucharist being the Tardis which enables us to go back to the foot of the cross – which I think is a good example for showing how sacraments can and should be both communal and individual experiences both at the same time.

With regard to who should take the sacraments and whether they should be truly open to all this is explored in the book. As one might expect the overwhelming response is they should be. However, there are some useful points made about why boundaries or careful handling may be needed. Ian Mosby talks of the value of confirmation as a sacrament but how we need to ensure that it is done of a young person’s own free will and certainly not just to help said young person get into the religious school of their choice. As somebody who made my own daughter argue her case for “adult baptism” before I would give permission – wanting to ensure that it was done from a point of belief not “fitting in” I echo what he is saying. 

Jonathon Clark has an interesting chapter where he looks at how baptism can be open but it needs to be seen as a commitment to a community rather than an individualistic act.
The book is split into five main sections: Sacraments in Context and Culture, Sacraments in Formation and Worship, Sacraments in Initiation, Sacraments in Eucharist and Holy Communion and Sacraments of Healing, Confession and Reconciliation. However, as one might expect with this type of book Eucharist and Holy Communion does tend to dominate.
The most interesting section of the book for me was the final one on healing, confession and reconciliation. With my low church background I had never thought of confession as a sacrament. Yet, it is an important one as Bryony Davis who mixes prison chaplaincy with leadership of a missional community in Surrey (not linked to the prison context) explains within her chapter.

I think that this section is important because whilst other chapters allude to working with survivors this section directly relates to it, (amongst other groups). There is a huge work to be undertaken with regard to this area and it is something that I believe churches are only just beginning to get their heads around. Missional communities by their nature of working “on the margins” to some extent are useful sources of wisdom on this work. Yet, as Julie Leger Dunstan makes clear there is a difference between what is occurring in these contexts and counselling. She highlights the place of spiritual directors in being able to hear confession, but not being counsellors (as they are very clear they are not there to be).

The one real nod to UK ecumenicalism, apart from some of the comments in Lucy Moore’s chapter comes in a moving chapter from Simon Sutcliffe who talks of reconciliation rather than confession. He argues that this sacrament is deep in Methodist DNA if one looks back at the class meeting structure, yet he says as Methodists we only tend to concentrate on communion and baptism as the sacraments.

So is this book worth a read? I would say yes if you want to think through what sacraments are in a way which is non-threatening. I say this as somebody who values ritual but finds the rules of the church with regard to who can and can’t do things related to sacramentality and how they have to be done “properly” difficult to get my head around. This book speaks into my experience and the times I have found the eucharist most special being ok. These experiences came in festival fields where nobody knew who was what and my CP blessing / wedding when we had an open communion table in Bletchley Park. Excluded from the church building in that situation due to what our birth certificates said about gender we were able to have a table in space where all were truly welcome in what was effectively a pop up church where the ball room became church for that hour.


If you are somebody who is hung up on “proper polity” you might find this a difficult read, but that’s good too because we need to find ways forward. We need to find ways where the traditional is fully respected but also all are open to receive the invitation to wholeness God which the sacraments offer.

Monday, 7 August 2017

Worry Dolls - Go Get Gone Reviewed

The Worry Dolls debut album Go Get Gone is jaunty from the start. Endless Road the first track shows off their musical abilities, particularly on strings.

The next song Train’s Leaving goes on to showcase their country credentials but it is the third track Miss You Already which truly brings both together. This heart break song which has Nashville stamped all over it is both ghostly and beautiful. The duo who sing and play on here showcase the beauty of both their playing and their voices on this one.

The album shows off what they can also reproduce live. The banjo on Don’t Waste Your Heart on Me sounds like it was honed in the fields of the American South, but in reality it was Liverpool in England where they came together when they were both studying music.
You might wonder if there is something fake about them then? Are they just another couple of country singers like Ward Thomas who look good and don’t sing too badly? No, having seen both live at Cambridge Folk Festival this year I have to say there is a clear difference between what the Nashville Machine has done with the Ward Thomas twins and the real talent of the two girls in the Worry Dolls. Don‘t get me wrong I enjoyed the Ward Thomas set but it didn’t enthuse me in the same way as the Worry Dolls set did, which got me straight over to the merchandise tent buying the CD.

She Don’t Live Here the fifth track on the CD highlights the folk roots which mix with the country sound. Whilst not the strongest song, with keyboard featuring more heavily, it does have a romantic feel to it.

Bless Your Heart is probably my favourite song on the album. It’s got slightly more of a dancey feel than some of the other tracks. It’s also got a bit of bitchy humour in it, but sung so beautifully.

Light oh Light takes it down again and highlights the harmonies the duo have going on as well as giving the strings centre stage again. Lyrically it gets a bit repetitive, but hey ho…..when the key line is “I’m tired of singing the same old song” they may have an underlying reason for doing so.

Passport gets a bit dancey again, in that kind of floaty dress hot summer kind of way which doesn’t require much energy.

Things Always Work Out is lyrically a good song with a chilled feel, the sort you’d like to listen to with a good glass of wine.

Finally you get Someday Soon which is another floaty, perhaps a little to chilled if anything. That said the sound and strings on it remain mesmerizing.

The album is definitely worth listening to and I’d highly recommend it, but I would say if you get to see them live that’ll be even better; they’re touring the UK again in early November.


Friday, 4 August 2017

The British Sea Side Stay Reviewed - Morecambe

It was high season in Morecambe last week, but it had the feel of a seaside town in March or April. There was a strange mixture of hope and aspiration alongside a resigned culture of decline in the town, which we stayed in for three nights.

Why did we choose Morecambe in the first place? Well we couldn’t decide between the country and the coast and Morecambe gives the best of both – having the bay, but being in such proximity to the Lake District.

Then if I’m honest there was the cost element. We were booking a holiday on a budget, taking advantage of the Virgin Train Sale. This meant that our choice was going to be somewhere along the West Coast Line. We could get from Birmingham to Morecambe for under £30 taking advantage of this sale, along with use of our Two Together Railcard. Hotel wise we went for the Travel Lodge on the basis of you know what you’re getting and it was relatively cheap – giving a discount as we were staying a third night, but also very clean and comfortable.

We knew that we weren’t planning to do breakfast at the hotel, but rather find a local cafĂ© or coffee shop. We weren’t disappointed Kerry’s Coffee House did well. It did an excellent breakfast menu, using local organic ingredients. We got a good breakfast for two people each day for somewhere in the region of £10. The staff were friendly enough, but some of the other customers were symptomatic of the resorts problems we thought. On the second morning there were a couple of older ladies came in and it was obvious we were sitting on “their table”. There were comments made about not liking to sit near the door, but we ignored them. Then they appeared on the third morning, when we were sitting at a different table. They were clearly somewhat confused or dismayed that we were there again. Their view was that we didn’t fit and a comedy style conversation between the them then ensued where we heard that my husband and I were obviously not happy, because we weren’t looking at each other enough and he must be on benefit. In fact he is a Methodist Probationer Minister about to take up his first appointment and we are very happy.

The feeling of middle class 30 & 40 year olds choosing to being there on holiday being somewhat of a novelty was palpable elsewhere too. We were looked at like we were oddities, something we did not experience in Lancaster, Heysham or the Lake District but we did quite a bit in Morecambe. 


As I say though there is clearly an aspiration for this to do what Margate is doing and becoming a revitalized resort. This is not only apparent through the restoration of the Midland Hotel which is an example of art deco magnificence but also through places like The Honey Tree Chinese Restaurant. Having wandered down the sea front ruling places out, primarily on the basis of the staring from the local residents we found this wonderful place. The food was first class and the bathrooms with the individual flannels and hand creams were also excellent (although a new hand dryer wouldn’t go amiss). What showed the aspiration most though was the way that we were treated, there was almost a desperation to give wonderful customer service – so much so we did wonder if they thought we were food critics. The waitress who delivered our food sounded like she had been trained Eliza Doolittle style, having perfect diction with her broad Lancashire accent when she told us “smells delicious doesn’t it”.

The difference between our experience in Morecambe itself and it’s neighbour of Heysham couldn’t have been more different. Heysham is more middle class and whilst the service at the The Royal was more relaxed, whilst still being of a very high standard – we didn’t feel like some kind of novelty here. The menu here was what one might expect in a typical British village pub and we had a great Steak and Ale pie at a very reasonable price. Walking back along the coast from Heysham we were able to take in a beautiful sunset and enjoy the two mile walk.

For those wondering about visiting the resort I’d say go for it. Not only do you get the sands and scenery around the bay it really is so easy to get to the Lakes. We got a £11 Northwest Day Ticket from Stage Coach and took advantage of the bus to go to Windemere and Bowness. It takes just under hour and half but you get to see the most breath-taking scenery. For Keswick and Derwent Water we took the train to Penrith and then the bus.

One thing I was a bit sad about was that whilst there were lots of tributes to Eric Morecambe about there was little commemoration of Thora Hird, who had also been born in the town.

I have to say I so hope that Morecambe does keep going with trying to achieve the aspiration which is clearly there and more people get to see the charm. If you haven’t been I advise you to do so, but be ready to deal with the culture of despair amongst some of the ageist (and that’s what the elderly women in the cafe were) locals. If it all gets too much I can recommend the Rotunda Bar to escape to, it’s attached to the Midland Hotel, it’s not the cheapest bar in the area but it’s worth a look in.






Tuesday, 25 July 2017

Realms of Glory by Catherine Fox Reviewed

Realms of Glory by Catherine Fox is the third of the Lindchester Chronicles (after Acts and Omissions and Unseen Things Above). It again looks at life in this fictional Anglican diocese over the course of a year. As the third book it of course provides continuity but this one felt different, less catty – certainly from June and the middle of the book onward and desperate to give us some hope.

The books were written in weekly blog installments, but I have preferred to wait for the complete books. Thus, I didn’t know what to expect – although I did know this is the one where some of the loose ends or perhaps loose characters were likely to be sorted out. This tying up of loose ends was arguably too neat, but one knows that just because the end of one stage of life ends with apparent tidiness and just the odd frayed end that it can all unravel again and this is a mere snapshot of one point in time.

As I say this book somehow differed in tone but was perhaps my favourite as it was less pantomime in places. There was no moral commentary on what we should think of people and perhaps most importantly no highly characterised villain - (just as well because after the last one I spent two years as a university chaplain wearing a navy hoody with the word chaplain on the back being mocked by my husband). There were ordinary people struggling the difficult aspects of ordinary life.

This book contains no sensational affairs or falls from grace, although the ones from the first book is touched upon at one point. It does contain compassionate, sensible safeguarding and pastoral care – perhaps reflecting on how the world and the church has moved on from when the first book was written. In fact, there is only one point when it moves into the realm of possible, but really? And that is when one of our heroes delivers a baby – but really? I mean he’s good but delivering a child that quickly as well as keeping the other kids occupied with cookies?  Still it did raise yet another smile in relation to this character who the reader has been rooting for through all three books.

The author lets herself slip through slightly more in this book I think. She is a lecturer who teaches creative writing and there are writing tips peppered through this one. Whilst all fictional it was interesting to see how life has mirrored art. The lecturer married to the archdeacon finds herself married to a bishop when he gets promotion. In real life Fox wrote this in blog form whilst married to a cathedral dean and by the time it was published in book form her husband had been promoted to bishop. The angst she, like many, felt about both Brexit and Trump also comes through.

But what of the CofE politics you might ask? Those things so prominent in the first two books. Well they’re here in this one…..the Green Report and the ongoing debate about same sex marriage. Yet they are less of a focus, certainly after Brexit. They move, rightly, into the background with points (such as the reliance of many diocese on LGBT+ staff) being implicitly rather than explicitly made.

Did I enjoy this book as much as the other two? Yes, and in some ways more. It wasn’t the happy endings it was the fact surprising things happened but in a more gentle way.

As I end this review I want to say thank you to the author for the trilogy, which I have very much enjoyed.