Sunday, 29 June 2014

Martyn Jospeh @ The Stables 28th June 2014

Martyn Joseph was clearly a man of purpose at The Stables, a beautiful intimate venue, last night. There was a spark to him and his music which is great when it's there and noticeable when it's not.

Dic Penderyn (The Ballad of Richard Lewis), the second song, set the tone for the evening. Joseph was strumming and singing with all the passion of a protest singer on a mission. The mission was the Let Yourself Trust, Josephs new charity initiative which we heard about during the gig. This was one of three launch concerts, but it wasn't a chugger event, (which I have to admit I feared it might be). The music was still central.

He played Thunder and Rainbows for an audience member who had emailed him in the first half and Cardiff Bay in the second half. The latter getting perhaps the greatest audience reaction of the evening, but primarily this was an evening for protest songs reflecting the content of Kiss The World Beautiful, his newly released CD which was available at the gig. The album mixes familiar tunes of the last few years with the odd new one.

Whilst some reference to the Let Yourself Trust was made in the first half of the gig it was the beginning of the second half where it was given more prominence. There was a video of a project in Palestine, which is the first the Trust is focusing on. Whispering Bob Harris of Whistle Test Fame is patron of the Trust and he came on to be interviewed by Martyn. The interview focused on Bob Harris broadcasting legend, rather than the trust and it was a pleasure to listen to him talk of his love of music.
Then it was back to the music and one of several Springsteen covers thrown in. The focus then returned to Palestine, where Joseph had been playing the Bet Lahem Live Festival the previous week. He unpacked the story behind the video and told more about the Trust before, tears in his eyes, launching into Luxury of Despair. It was sung with an intensity only the anger at injustice seen firsthand can give. An intensity, unfortunately, not replicated on the CD, although it still stands out as a particularly strong song.
Faith, as one expects with Joseph, was mixed in too. The instrumental intro to Brothers in Exile was long and touching, being the most beautiful interpretation of the hymn How Great Thou Art I've ever heard. The song, obviously sung from the heart, reflecting how over the last 28 years or so he has gone through a range of stages. From the young Christian playing venues like Suffolk College, (where I first saw him), at events intended to help convert the audience through the stage of being a Liberal Backslider who was rejecting that past. It now seems he has a mature faith of some kind which is beyond institutional engagement and based on an uncomfortable bedrock of doubt but as strong and real as any believer I know.

He played homage to Guthrie as well as Springsteen in the set with Deportees, a song written in 1940s America but, as he said, equally relevant in the UK today. Its deep social comment is echoed in Martyn's own song writing as Half a Man, a song about domestic violence and our failure to do anything about it, demonstrates.
All in all a cracking performance demonstrating how he has endured and grown as a song writer and activist over time, even if at times the schedule and pressure of the new project were showing. Looking forward to see if he can deliver the same passion at Greenbelt in August.

Thursday, 26 June 2014

Celebrations and Lessons in Activism with Methodist Women Presbyters

Women Presbyters in the Methodist Church are something I can't imagine a world without. Yet, they were only authorised to have this role within my lifetime. On Saturday I was privileged and humbled to attend a service at Wesley's Chapel for the 40th anniversary of Women Presbyters, (and I don't use those words lightly). It was a service which was a lesson in a particular strand of (Christian) Feminist history but also contained within it a wonderful lesson in how activism works.

Four of us travelled down from Milton Keynes in a group organised by one of our women presbyters who was brilliantly adorned in a pink t-shirt proclaiming "God isn't a boy's name" together with her dog collar.

On arriving I felt a little uncomfortable, there were it seemed very few lay people there for this celebration and I wondered if I was crashing a party I shouldn't have been at. However, as the service unfolded I felt it was exactly the right place to be and I was so privileged to be able to witness it.

The service itself took a traditional hymn sandwich format where prayer, praise and preaching mixed with messages of greeting and an overview of history.

One thing which struck me throughout was the way in which whilst history was acknowledged its relevance for the present and future was never forgotten. There was an explicit message that we should never get complacent that women in our church have been given this privilege when it is denied to others. The outgoing President of the Methodist Conference Ruth Gee spoke of the way in which she had encountered some situations this year which had underlined that women in senior leadership positions is not the norm in many parts of the church.

During the greetings we were also reminded of places in the world, such as North Korea, where women are not allowed the freedom to practice their faith and in others they are not allowed to speak freely or hold senior positions. I thought the way the official CofE greetings were followed by greetings from WATCH (Women and the Church, the campaign group for Anglican women who still await the authorisation of women bishops in this country).

There were three moments in this service which really stood out for me and which I couldn't divorce from wider issues in the church and important discussions and votes coming up at conference over the next fortnight.

The first was singing Summoned by the God who Made Us Rich in Our Diversity. It is a moving hymn about singing a new church into being "one in faith and love and praise." The idea of singing in a new church was one which struck a chord with me. Too often it seems we want to argue in a new church where diversity is truly celebrated and inclusion is a reality. The lyrics of this hymn were instead focused on worship and trusting "the Spirit strong within". (This YouTube clip I found of a choir singing it elsewhere isn't great quality but it gives a feel of the song).

The second part which I was really moved by was the giving of a bible to the Connexion. Too often the bible has been and in some cases still is a weapon which has been used against women, as well as other groups within society. There have been particular dominant interpretations given which have been used to repress and oppress on the basis of sex and gender. This act of the giving to the Connexion of a bible was highly symbolic. In the programme it was described as being given to mark this ministry of sacrament and word. However to me as I watched it had another meaning. As I watched the women of the class of 1974 hand it over I saw the liberated giving back a book which they knew contained not the harsh words of oppression but rather the beautiful songs of liberation. (Note that wasn't explicitly said.....but it was what I felt was implicitly happening).

The final element of the service which deeply moved me was the part of the story entitled "The Methodist Conference decision". Dr. Pauline Webb, who it seemed was a familiar figure to practically everybody else in the hall apart from me and Karl, stood to speak. She could have reminisced about it but rather she chose to give a 5 minute lesson in effective activism using the story of the women's struggle to get recognised as Presbyters to illustrate. It was one of the best training sessions I have ever sat through and one I found incredibly moving personally.

She spoke of the long journey it had taken from Conference first discussing the idea in the late 1930's to the ratification of the decision in the early 1970's. The women had not been listened to initially, indeed they had been painfully ridiculed. Yet, they did not give in. They learnt the constitution and the way in which decisions were made. They learnt when to find their own ways around a system stacked against them, writing their own reports. They ensured they got themselves elected as representatives and they did not give up. Eventually the laughter changed sides and that is when Dr. Webb said she knew they had won. They were no longer being ridiculed, rather their opponents were the ones being laughed at. She encouraged those of us there to hold on to our dreams and continue to make the painful and courageous journey because one day we would get there. Throughout she was non-specific allowing each woman to have their own dreams and causes.

As I sat transfixed, and leaning more and more forwards absorbed by the words, I was touched somewhere deep within. Later this week Conference begins and next week the report on the consultation on marriage and civil partnerships. It is the latest chapter in the move towards LGBTQI equality in the church.

It's something I care about because it's personal but it's more than that. For me central to the LGBTQI debate are two things: (i) the acknowledgement the identity given by God and (ii) authentic, loving mission and evangelism.

I have a dream that I know others within the denomination are working towards....and I know I need to network with them more. My dream is that one day we will see a trans naming service and a marriage service, which can legitimately be used by all and whose wording can reflect all, within the Methodist Worship Book.

My dream is that one day we can happily offer everybody, with ministers working according to conscience, the opportunity to get married in church with the marriage prep which goes alongside that. My dream is that all LGBTQI people who wish to do so can worship and be open with those they worship alongside without fear. My dream is of a denomination which explicitly recognises the T within it in its policies and constitutions.

On Saturday Dr. Webb explained that dreams can become reality with a heck of alot of hard work and thought put in. I was both humbled and inspired by what her generation had done for women in our denomination. 

Saturday, 14 June 2014

More than just Christian and Proud

It's June, the sun is shining and Pride in London season is almost upon us. That means it's time to freshen up the purple Christians Together at Pride t-shirts proclaiming we are Christian and Proud and get ready to head to the capital not once but twice. On 28th June we head down to the main Pride in London event meeting outside Methodist Church House where last year we had a communion on the pavement, which I found really moving, before going and lining up for the parade. Then on 5th July there is the Christians Together at Pride service which is part of the wider festival of events that go on for pride. There are full details on their website, together with a note that the last date for t-shirt orders is Monday 23rd June.

June is also the month which has Tracey Byrne formally start her new job as CEO of LGCM and I wish her well in that. She is a familiar face to Greenbelt people having been one of the driving forces behind the Outerspace events.

On the subject of Greenbelt which is a great arts festival for people of all faiths and none besides the Outerspace events happening over the weekend I'd like to bring attention to a few other recent announcements re the festival which you may be interested in. Christian Feminist Network have announced they are hosting one of the worship events, Feminist academic and philosopher Marika Rose has been announced as one of the speakers and Vicky Beeching has announced she is hosting a panel looking which will be exploring faith and LGBT issues. This is an area where both her and Steve Chalke are increasingly acting as vocal allies in. Both of them are speaking at the Accepting Evangelicals anniversary event in October, (Vicky has recently been announced as a patron of this organisation) and at an exciting event Oasis are running next April The Church, Sexuality, Mission and theFuture which you can currently book for. Vicky is also one of the speakers at the Gay Christian Network (GCN) conference in the US next year.

GCN is an international network which is led by Justin Lee author of Torn. This organisation has members all over the world, including the UK, but is based in the US. They announced this week they have launched a new ministry programme called Sanctuary to create safe spaces in local congregations for LGBT Christians and those who care for them.  

Something to be celebrated too is the announcement that Rachel Mann, a trans lesbian Anglican priest, has been made a minor cannon at Manchester Cathedral. It is interesting to note that this together with the publication of a couple of other articles caused Anglican Mainstream (a conservative Anglican organisation) to claim in a post there were coordinated LGBT messages being put forward in  the English Christian media. The claim, which one can understand this type of organisation making as part of their wider campaign against what is happening at the moment, is wrong I believe and misunderstands what is happening.

The truth is there are a couple of things which have happened/ are happening which may make it look like this but are actually signs of something different.

The first reason I think there is more coverage at the moment is that we are now at a place where the subject is being properly debated, however uncomfortable that is for many, in a number of forums. The "don't ask, don't tell" and "don't mention the issue" culture is slowly and surely being eroded by a more healthy one where differences can be discussed as adults and people can be open about who they really are. Whilst this is not always easy I believe the spirit of fear is being broken, but in a way which seeks to be sensitive to those who find it difficult because of their own interpretations of scripture. This is something I think we should be especially thankful to high profile allies such as Chalke and Beeching for. The Christian media, who have a set of news values and processes just like other forms of media, is simply reflecting this spirit I believe.

The second is that there has been the emergence of new groups and new voices over the last couple of years. For example Diverse Church, a sister organisation to Two:23, which is the wonderful new group supporting 18-30 year olds, particularly who are in churches where they are not supported or affirmed. Some of these voices have been slowly, quietly developing over a number of years but because of the new climate are now being heard more widely. They are also involving people who are plugged in to a range of networks within the LGBT Christian world and beyond. The fruits we are seeing now are, in part , due to the mentoring which has gone in the past.

Thirdly, linked to my second point, there is a spirit of co-operation at the moment which means the fragmented Christian LGBT world is becoming far less fragmented. We are becoming much more of a networked community where "evangelical" and "liberal" groups are communicating well. This has led to something being formed which may seem akin to a movement because yes people are becoming more coordinated and media savvy, but it this is not the conspiracy Anglican Mainstream would like to claim.

There is also a growing body of academic work around queer studies which is actively seeking to include religion in its work. I have spoken about the Weeks Centre before and next week they host a conference looking at Queer Youth Histories. Queering Religion, Religious Queers edited by Yvette Taylor and Ria Snowden will be launched at this event. A review of the book will be published on this blog at some point over the next couple of weeks, (when my marking pile diminishes enough for me to read it properly and give it the attention it deserves). This is opening up ears in some quarters too I believe.

Finally, there has been a wider change I have started to observe. People are separating  the issues of who should be allowed to do what from the pastoral issues. There appears to be a wider recognition of the need to be pastorally sensitive to LGBT people. This is exemplified by  the fact the Methodist Conference programme shows a slot for discussing the pastoral implications of changes in marriage legislation on Monday 30th June which is separate to the main debate on the report of the working party on marriage and civil partnership happening on Wednesday 2nd July.

Going back to my third point there is also a growth in the cooperation between different parts of the LGBandT communities, the T is being more consciously included. This isn't just applicable in Christian circles, where organisations such as Accepting Evangelicals are exemplifying it. I was heartened to read on Twitter this week that Stonewall's Ruth Hunt is having a meeting with trans activists about further cooperation. I really, really hope that these talks are productive and that the trans activists going don't become a stumbling block in this process. Stonewall Scotland already includes the T element in its work and I passionately believe, as does my trans husband, that Stonewall England and Wales need to too.

Update: As I wrote this I hadn't caught up with the fact Colin Coward Director of Changing Attitude has been awarded an MBE in the Queens Birthday Honours List. This is well deserved and I congratulate him on this for all the hard work he and his team do. This is an example of how external factors often influence the timing of stories in both the secular and Christian media, something even Anglican Mainstream have to acknowledge cannot be controlled by LGBT activists.

Also caught a tweet from God_Loves_Women to say she had nominated Rachel Mann for a Diversity Award. Seems like something good to get behind and involved with. Nominations for the National Diversity Awards close on 18th July 2014

Thursday, 5 June 2014

Responding to the Methodist Working Party on Marriage and Civil Partnerships Report

The second volume of the Methodist Church Annual Conference Agenda was published today. Within it were many important documents but there are a couple of particularly significant reports within it which are probably of interest to people beyond the Methodist Church. One relates to "Statistics for Mission" and the second is the report of the "WorkingParty on Marriage and Civil Partnerships." Within this post I am going to be reflecting on the latter of the two.

As I write this I have to outline my own position, for readers who may be new to this blog. I am a Methodist Local Preacher and member of a local fellowship who is writes this blog very much in a personal capacity. I am also a gay woman who is in a civil partnership with a female to male trans man currently going through gender reassignment. In line with the requirements of gaining a GRC we are planning to transfer our civil partnership to a marriage, because the legislation currently forbids us from keeping our civil partner status if my husband is to gain his gender recognition certificate. This is a personal response to the report and on that basis I make no apology for this post being subjective.

I want to start my response by paying tribute to the members of the working party. I know a couple of them, but the majority are unknown to me. Together they have produced a document which shows real sensitivity whilst coming to difficult conclusions.

I am personally disappointed by some of the conclusions reached within the report. However, in contrast to certain similar documents published by other denominations, this has been sensitively written and one cannot fault its apparent understanding of the issues involved. One example of this understanding is how the working group have drawn attention within the report to responses making reference to trans, intersex and bi exclusion.

Often reading such documents as a gay Christian I have been made to feel that we (gay Christians) are an unwelcome problem to be dealt with or that our feelings of dismay when reports such as this are published are not at all understood. This report didn't have that problem. Throughout it underlines the way it believes LGBTQI people should be treated by respect. Paragraphs 70-73 of the report outline there was dismay amongst the working party at the homophobic attitudes displayed by a small number of respondents to the public consultation. There is also a recognition of how disappointed some will be with the recommendations that the denomination should not to revisit the Methodist understanding of the meaning of marriage. The report refers to the way in which they might interpret them as not standing up for justice and rights of people whatever their sexuality.

Therefore one of the resolutions going to conference relates to clarifying what is and isn't homophobic language and instructing conference, if the Equality, Diversity and Inclusion unit think appropriate, to bring a formal statement to conference on the issue. I think this would potentially be very helpful for a wide range of institutions not just the church.

With regard to the discussion of what is and isn't acceptable language there was one section of paragraph73 which particularly stood out. It says: "There is a limit to what is acceptable and where that is over stepped it needs to be taken seriously in the same way that we as a Church have done in declaring that “racism is a denial of the Gospel."

The report methodology was clearly outlined and explained. In addition to a literature review there was the collation of quantitative and qualitative data. What I was pleased about was the way in which it was clear there was an emphasis on the qualitative data. This had involved a real listening process. The few quotes peppered through the report illustrated this. One of the criticisms levelled at the Church of England amongst other organisations is they have not really heard what is being said by LGBTQI people or their allies. This report demonstrates that both hearing and understanding have taken place.

The key recommendation in the report has been to institute a listening period of genuine "reflection and discernment" which will feed back to Conference in 2016. This may be seen by some as a delaying tactic, but I think in light of the announcements made by other denominations it was to be expected. What is slightly different to the responses of some other denominations is that the report put forward some serious ideas about how to help people engage with the issue.

The recommendations being voted upon at conference include the following which I feel has major significance if followed through:

"40/4. a) The Conference adopts the recommendation contained in paragraph 157 and appoints a task group on marriage and relationships to be responsible for the implementation of the work. It recognises the significance and therefore the need for adequate resourcing and support of this work.

b) The Conference directs that the tasks which the group shall work to implement shall be as follows:

(i) to seek to engage the Church more widely in exploring the two major themes of

i. living with contradictory convictions, and

ii. the nature of the authority of the Bible by drawing upon the existing material produced connexionally and identifying other ways of resourcing and encouraging these conversations throughout the Church;"

That resolution also proposes that the Conference should vote:

 "(iii) to explore in depth the implications arising from the divergence between the Methodist Church’s teaching on marriage and the legal definition and concept of marriage now applying in England, Wales and Scotland. These explorations should include

i. the missional challenges involved

ii. the tradition and experience of the Christian Church in living in contexts where its values, teaching and practice as to marriage have not been shared with those of the surrounding society

iii. the considerations for and against the continued involvement of the Methodist Church in the solemnization of (opposite sex) marriages;

(iv) to find ways to encourage Local Churches (and if thought necessary, equipping them with pastoral and teaching resources) to welcome same sex couples and their families and to enable their participation in the life and worship of the Church;

(v) drawing as appropriate upon the theological material already produced by the Faith and Order Committee and in collaboration with that committee, to develop resources to help people to explore the teaching and practice of the Church in relation to cohabitation"

The reasons I am encouraged by this resolution is that it comes out of the reports underlining of the fact to hold a different interpretation of the bible to others is not to deny the authority of scripture. It does acknowledge that some will disagree with seeing it in that way.

I am also particularly encouraged because the report as a whole and this resolution recognise the missional issues and problems which are connected with the position being put forward.

Too often I have found that LGBTQI people such as myself are accused of not caring about the bible (and of being liberals on this basis) and not caring about the gospel. I am an evangelical Christian who really does care about the authority of scripture and has a heart for mission. This report and recommendation allow for recognition of that whilst seeking to ensure those with more traditional interpretations are also heard and can feel listened to.

The door to changing understandings of marriage has not opened with this report, but the door has been opened for more in depth discussion as to whether civil partnerships should be celebrated within church and to wider discussions on family and relationships.

Very importantly the report and resolutions coming out of it are seeking to ensure that the measures protecting clergy as well as lay people in civil partnerships are extended to those within same sex marriages. There is also a resolution seeking to give provision for the protection of those who are already in same sex marriages should the main resolution not be passed. This is a significant difference to the CofE approach on the issue and one to be welcomed.

In the report and responses it is interesting to note the part the URC position at the moment has played. The URC have yet to report on their position and won't do so until after the Methodist Conference. They are one of the major partners to the Methodists. This looks as if it has had a positive impact on what has been proposed.

Amongst the international responses reported I was most interested in that from Uruguay given in paragraph 123. It explained because of their experience of living under a dictatorship that protection of all human rights was important to their church. This showed how within some countries there is an intersection between liberation theology and attitudes towards sexuality and gender issues.

I want to draw out of the report was that just before the closing date of the consultation there was a surge of responses as a result of online activism from those resisting change. These were taken into account but so was the way in which they altered the pattern of responses up to that point. This shows wise discernment by the group.

Finally, the breakdown of the statistics for the responses cannot be taken in isolation. The data they give has to be seen in relation to the wider statistics of the church, particularly those in those mission statistics I referred to at the beginning. The age distribution within the Methodist church and the attitudes of the different cultural and age groups need to be considered in light of that data and I believe the working group have to some extent done that. However, they have also recognised if that demographic data is to change some decisions which some older people may struggle with may need to be taken.

All in all whilst I believe this just one more frustrating step in a journey I wish were over, in some ways, it is also a very hopeful document. I hope that the recommendations including the one which would provide full on going protection for all same sex couples in marriages whether lay or ordained are passed. I look forward to engaging in the conversation and learning much from all positions in the listening process.