Monday, 27 June 2016

Where do we go from here? Thoughts on post-EU Britain

These are my thoughts about what is happening and has been happening since Friday, following the vote to leave the EU.

I hope and pray there will not be a general election soon as I believe that the only winners if this happened would be UKIP. They would not be likely to win but they would be very likely to increase seats. I suspect, they would use the argument that they wanted to act as a power to ensure that those in power were accountable. If this happened the right wing voices we’ve been hearing during the referendum campaign which have made those who are on the extreme right feel legitimised in their blatant racism would increase and I fear the increase in hate crime we’ve been witnessing over the last few days would also increase.

The last thing we need at the moment is a political vacuum but this is what we appear to have, with the exception of the voice of the Scottish Nationalists and the leadership of Nicola Sturgeon. Unfortunately for the UK the leadership they are giving is to one part of our domestic economic union, (which is what I believe the UK is).

As a Labour member, (and somebody who joined in the last leadership campaign), I joined because I supported the ideals of Corbyn and felt his campaign was giving the Labour party a truly left wing identity again but I did not vote him as my first choice. Rather I put him as second choice because I believed Yvette Cooper stood more chance being seen as electable in the country as a whole and she seemed the moderate left candidate with the other two challengers being, in my view Blairites.

With regard to what is happening now I am saddened but not surprised. Corbyn who has never been a great EU enthusiast was honest during this campaign about his feelings and that honesty seems to have meant he has become the scapegoat for many. I think this is disgraceful, but as I say I think it was somewhat inevitable because many of the PLP are more right wing than a great deal of the members now. They were, I am sure, looking for an excuse to get rid of Corbyn at the first opportunity. I think that is what has happened.

What we need now is a leader who can act as a unifier but not a leader who will take us to what is now the right, in order to win votes at the expense of Labour values. We need to create an atmosphere where we can deal with the real concerns of those voters who did not vote Labour last time and those who voted for Brexit in imaginative and concrete ways.

We need to find ways to talk about immigration in a way which shows many of the real concerns they have are due to structural failures in the social policy of successive governments due to the failure of the neo-liberal consensus. Within this the New Labour project needs to be ready to shoulder blame too. At the same time, as we are in a situation where those structural failures are causing real concerns for people who are finding it hard to get their kids into schools and to get GP appointments.We need to have vision as to how to deal with these problems. It won’t just involve throwing money at them but it may well involve investment which will involve increased taxation.

We need to find ways to help people feel and get involved in civil society again. A lot of people who voted leave did so because they felt that accountability was being taken away from their elected representatives.

We need to deal with the social divisions in this country linked to class, ethnicity and age. This referendum showed the fault lines we have in this country around all three and I fear as the impact of both the Tory austerity programme and the leave vote both hit over the next five years this is only going to get worse.

Finally, we need to find ways for institutions and the academy to regain trust amongst ordinary people. The way in which the referendum campaign treated the concept of “expert knowledge” was in some ways understandable. It reflects the way in which society and post-structuralism in an information age has been developing. However, we need to work together to reinforce how in some areas people do have expert knowledge. Many of the people who were encouraged to distrust experts were those with trades. We need to show that we go to the hairdressing salon because we know that the person there will do a good job, similarly we go to the academy because the people there have something to offer us. When I go to the hairdresser I expect to have my say and to be listened to seriously and I think on the other side of the coin the academy needs to be ready to listen more to the public and not just as research subjects.

In practice where do we go from here and how do we get some of this stuff happening? Well, I don’t know to be honest - it's one of the reason why I think that people need to be talking not blaming now. However there are some things I think we can all do:

1)    Be ready to listen to those who voted differently to ourselves and to why they made that choice and what their concerns are.

2)    Stand up against racism and other forms of hate crime. We need to make sure any incidents we witness are reported.

3)    To recognise that the common enemy we have is inequality in our society and to seek to identify and challenge the real causes of this (which tend not to be immigration). To support those academics who are engaging with this through whatever discipline.

4)    To vote, even if we find it difficult to try and find the least bad option.

5)    To try and find at least one way to positively engage in our society. If we give up on trying to hope we really are stuffed.

Saturday, 25 June 2016

Birmingham Central Hall.....Hidden Space or Living Heritage?

Today my lunch break from work was spent wandering around the old Methodist Central Hall in Birmingham, where Birmingham's Hidden Spaces are holding an exhibition until tomorrow.

I hadn’t been in there before, but I had heard about its history. There are various outlets around it and back in the day it had been a big rave venue. These days it has been a club, but it has lost it's licence and a recent appeal and so it's future is yet again up in the air. I knew it wasn’t in great shape, but I was shocked by the level of disrepair within there. There is a major investment needed in this building which is grade 2 listed as you will see from the pictures I took in there.
Wandering around this building that the Methodist Church had sold some time ago I was deeply moved. There was an emotional reaction which I wasn’t expecting.
As I looked around there was something within me which was trying to make sense of it all. This was not just a building, this was the former spiritual home of some of those I worship with and some of those who sit in congregations I preach to when I am fulfilling local preacher appointments. It is also the building that I pass every day on my work in a university chaplaincy which is on the campus which lies in the shadow of this great building.

In an effort to make sense of it all I turned to the work of Rev Dr. Joanne Cox-Darling and a paper within the Holiness Journal, which Wesley House, Cambridge produce. The article I turned to was Mission-shaped Methodism and Fresh Expressions. Now, before I start I want to make clear that I am aware chaplaincy is not a fresh expression, as such. However, as Kate Pearson identifies within her chapter in Ross and Baker (eds) Pioneer Spirituality: Resources for reflection and practice there is an overlap between chaplaincy and pioneer ministry.

Within her article Cox-Darling has a section on Central Halls which she quotes one minister as identifying as “the Fresh Expressions of their day.” She goes through and identifies some key aspects of their theology and ecclesiastical practice which were important and went beyond the buildings.

As I read through this article and reflected on what I had heard a guide in the Central Hall say with regard to what she thought had contributed to the demise of the central hall I was conscious that within our work we need to recognise far more the inheritance we have and the link to those who were there before, sometimes in the same physical area.

Cox-Darling talked about Central Halls having their own standing orders and legal status, giving a flexibility. When I compare my role and place as a chaplain, who is not ordained and is answerable to an ecumenical management committee of whom the Methodists are a part to my husband and the world he is entering as a student presbyter I appreciate that I do have a freedom others don’t. I do have far more flexibility in my ministry.

The guide at the exhibition had explained that the physical geography of the area had changed and that contributed to the decline of the Central Hall. In the early twentieth century the area was an urban one on the edge of the city centre, surrounded by houses where the universities now stands. For the Central Halls, Cox-Darling argues, “the context is the primary focus of mission and ministry, not necessarily to the original inhabited congregants. “
Today chaplaincy exists not only within the university where I work but also amongst the retail community in the city centre. There is also a Methodist Deacon who has a city centre focus within the area. Reading Cox-Darling reinforced something that has been there in various ways all year as I have thought about our proximity to the old building, we in those roles are in a very real way the current incarnation of the Central Hall.

She goes on to talk about the way in which “the missional theory of Central Hall ecclesiology maintains a focus on contextual appropriate service to a local community and a relevant vehicle for authentic and passionate communication of the gospel.” This acts as both a comfort and a very big challenge to me. This isn’t about proselytising, that is clearly not something we can (or wish to) do in this context. It is about being there and being honest why you’re there and sharing God’s love in a way which is real and passionate.

For the most part, as I explained in a recent piece for the circuit bible study material linked to Holy Habit on service, that translates to those things which get built upon filling or emptying the dishwasher and setting out chairs. It is the hospitality and being about which builds relationships and it is through them you not only get to support Christians but most importantly to come alongside and share God’s love with those who are unlikely to set foot in church and learn from them as they to show God's love too (even if they would not name it as such). Put like that, I think that a lot of what was going on in the central hall probably isn’t too different from what we do in our context.

So whilst the building might be crumbling I would like to think the spirit of Central Hall is still there and yes, it is there in fresh expressions and inherited church but it is also there very much within chaplaincy.

My understanding of the heritage I have as a chaplain in the context within which I work has grown as a result of the visit to this space and the wrestling which accompanied it. I still have questions relating to what I saw today and am still disturbed by aspects of it but thanks to the insight of Cox-Darling I am not despairing rather I am humbled as I realise that it is my turn to hold their baton for a season. 

Wednesday, 22 June 2016

10 things learnt this year as a student presbyter spouse in Brum

So it’s been almost a year that we’ve been up here in Brum, and I’ve done a full academic year as a chaplain in term of teaching time for undergraduates. I’ve did a bit of a review at the 6 month mark so here is my end of year one.

As you’ll notice I’m not going to focus on the chaplain bit, which incidentally has been great. I want to put together 10 things I’ve discovered as a student presbyter’s wife which hopefully will give my friends a bit of an update whilst maybe helping some people who are getting ready to come here in September. I admit as I read this it is a very middle class list….but hey I am middle class and so I make no apologies. Also I am conscious I have been able to get a job up here and so can afford to do some of these things, even if they are not extravagant. Not everybody is in that position.

1.    Whatever you think it will be like living in a theological college you’ll probably be wrong. – I had a whole load of assumptions which had to be unlearned very quickly. I think lots of other people did too. For me the issue was thinking I was entering some kind of academic bubble where I would be able to talk theology with lots of people. Truth is as a partner you don’t get to talk theology much, apart with your partner. The students want to chill and not talk theology in the evening and so you have to find spaces to engage in elsewhere unless you are auditing a class (which I understand some partners do).

2.    Living in a communal environment requires you to be sociable. – I am a southerner, as such the idea that people might knock on your door just to be sociable was an anathema to me. I haven’t really ever encountered neighbourliness of the sort they have round here before. It’s all a bit strange. For me the one bit I actively choose take part in when I can is Sunday lunch. I am entitled to a couple of more meals a week but don’t take them. I know some people think this is crazy because they see them as paid for in with our rent, but I don’t. One thing that helps you stay sane round here is keeping hold of the choices you can. So much is dictated by the rhythm of the college that it’s good to be able to hold on to what decisions you can.


3.    Whilst it’s a moderate drinking culture there is more of a social drinking culture in the theological college than I was previously used to. – Hubby and I are not big drinkers but all the way through the first term we noticed that because we hardly ever drunk much before our intake really did significantly increase when we arrived because we were drinking more regularly. The bar in the common room is very reasonably priced.


4.    Birmingham is a great place if you’re looking to have a good life on a budget.WinterbourneGardens and the Birmingham Museums are worth getting membership too. The IKON gallery is also well worth visiting regularly. The Crescent Theatre has some good value stuff on and Waterstones in Birmingham has some really good events. That’s just for starters.


5.    If you shop right Waitrose can be cheaper than Sainsbury’s. – Now this was not something I was expecting to find, but if you’re clever with what you’re buying and use the offers together with buying the excellent tasting Waitrose own brand you can do brilliant shops on a budget there. This is excellent because it’s the biggest supermarket in walking distance to where I live. The My Waitrose Card is my favourite loyalty scheme.


6.     A daily planner on the fridge is really useful. - In terms of knowing when you and your partner will be eating together / get to see each other I find the planner we got after I forgot how the routine of this place worked really useful. It enables us to identify which night Karl is going to eat in college (he has to every lunch time during term time and at least one evening). It’s also useful for me to know when he will be out on placement and so grabbing something quickly after a lecture, before I get home from work. Also it enables him to know when I am working late or out at a meeting and so will be eating at a different time too. Paper Chase do some lovely ones.


7.    If you want something to happen try and organise it. – The one thing I really wanted not to lose when I moved was being part of a book group which was a small group of Christians meeting together to discuss literature. So I organised a small one on campus when I arrived. It’s primarily for partners and adult children but anybody is welcome. Sometimes when you organise something nobody will be interested, but other times it might just happen.

8.    Date Time is important – I am a tad independent and am very much myself as well as being Karl’s wife. I also was lucky enough to find a job when I moved. As such I am not, perhaps, your “typical partner” – not that that person exists. Karl and I schedule in “date time” because we are both busy people. When we do get time together we tend to go off campus to have time away from the computer and to enjoy exploring Brum and the surrounding area or more often than not catch a film using our Cineworld Unlimited cards (something I think are an excellent investment). This means that people don’t often see us together. Apparently some people can find that a bit weird or problematic and it can give concerns about the state of a marriage. Truth is now Karl’s not commuting and I am not spending lots of time doing prep and marking we get to see each other far more than we ever have. The fact we have both come from professional backgrounds means that we are used to having to put in that time for each other but also allowing the other to be very much their own person in terms of having time to do whatever it is they need to be doing well.


9.    You end up mixing with all sorts of people – It’s great you mix with people from so many different backgrounds here, but it can be hard especially initially. I’ve learnt that just because I have one set of norms and values it doesn’t mean other people have the same ones. However, you have to learn to live with each other because underneath it all you’re going through similar things.


10. Make your own space in your flat and keep it as your home– For me putting together my kitchen space with an inspiration board and prayer space within it was really important. It meant that within this environment which is dominated by my partner’s studies I have a bit of space which I can say is mine. It is also useful if you can work with your partner to ensure that they have clear work and home division. For us it works well because Karl has a clear ethos of dividing the two and dresses for “work”, normally, as well as using the library for study so our flat is truly our home.

Tuesday, 14 June 2016

A personal evaluation of what went wrong with Methodist & other responses to Orlando

There has been a lot of discussion on social media around the hurt caused by the initial prayer offered by the Church of England yesterday and by the initial official response issued by the Methodist President and Vice President as well as the prayer offered by the URC.  In the case of the CofE there was a later joint statement by the Archbishops of York and Canterbury which sought to repair some of the damage. It was welcomed by many, but also seen as ringing slightly hollow in terms of the difference between the words and level of hurt many within that many within that Church have experienced as a result of the policies and actions of the church.
In contrast to this the contributions of LGBT+ Christians, particularly Ric Stott and Rachel Mann were welcomed and widely shared. Indeed by the end of the day their two contributions had been combined into a very moving and visually attractive prayer.

To be fair at times there was a coming together of the welcome and unwelcome. The Methodist initial statement included as links below the CofE prayer which had caused so much pain with the one by Rachel Mann which had been balm to many.

As I followed what was going on and felt the pain caused along with others I struggled to understand what had gone so wrong. Those releasing the statements and prayers which had caused the pain by their omission were seeking to give solace and respond in a compassionate way, of that I was sure. However, in not understanding a crucial aspect of the context their words were painful.

I was reminded of a quote I understand is drummed into the students studying where I live, “a text without a context is a pretext”.

So what had gone wrong in their, and others, reading of the context and what might we be able to learn from this.

Firstly, I believe those responding had read the context in a hegemonic way. That is they had read it in terms of those impacted being “like them” – predominantly white, middle class, heterosexual, middle-aged and cis. This context was not one where these were the dominant social characteristics of those most directly impacted. Most importantly those impacted were LGBT+ and many were Latino. Whilst one might hear as a defence these responses were put together before all the information was available the key piece of information, “that this took place in a LGBT nightclub” was there from the beginning.

Secondly, I believe that the responses which were lacking focused on seeing “community” in term of a physical, geographical location. The community impacted in this case was not only the geographical area of location but the LGBT+ community, which is a global community. This illustrates, I think, that the institutions are rooted in modernist understandings of community, rather than those linked to our current networked communities, which are far more based on identity. The formal discussions around these changing understandings of community have tended to revolve around digital/ online faith communities and fresh expressions within our institutions. We need to catch up on understanding the world we live in now. Our responses to tragedies need to be focused and context specific rather than generic.

Thirdly, I worry that those initially responding were doing so based upon media reports which were seeking to frame the story within a particular hegemonic way. Until Owen Jones walked out of the Sky studio so much discussion had sought to  frame this as a “terrorist” attack and to straight wash away the fact that a hate crime could also be a terrorist attack, the two did not need to be separate and that when the LGBT+ community were targeted that was relevant. As a prophetic community we need to be ready to think through the messages we are getting from the wider media as well as those we are contributing.

Finally, I think we need to think about the audience our messages are going to be read by and how they will be read. Again I think that this is where part of went wrong was hegemonic understandings that are held by some. I believe these statements would have been checked and published by people with similar outlooks and that is why nobody appeared to pick up why others might be so hurt was going out. We need to ensure that the teams we have working within the church are as diverse as possible and that in situations such as this we have people in place to check what is going out from an EDI point of view.
Between beginning to write this and posting it on my blog the Methodist statement has been expanded with some excellent statement and material by London Chair, Micky Youngson, an ally who gets it. This has changed the piece totally. I have then also updated this post because the media department have again updated the response so only Micky's material is showing and the original response is now a short link at the bottom. It's been a fascinating exercise in seeing how media responses change according to how understanding develops.

So where do we go from here, bearing in mind that Micky's material has been added later after a lot of the initial damage had been done and however much that original response is changed and the media department seek to erase it they cannot erase our memories of it? Well, I think that it would be useful if the president or vice-president and the media department were to apologise, admit that they had got it wrong and explain why. We are a faith that believe in confession and repentance, to illustrate this now I think could be very powerful.
*as a post script to this I have just seen a beautiful prayer on the President's face book page which expresses his care for the LGBTQI community. I have no doubt that this is an honest and heartfelt prayer and was very moving.
The president and vice president statement has been updated with wording which explicitly addresses the hurt caused they say
""We stand in solidarity with our LGBTQI brothers and sisters, and acknowledge the pain caused when we fail to live out the love of Christ for all. We are desperately sad that hurt has been caused by the statement made yesterday, which was an immediate response to assure people of our love and prayers for those affected by this tragedy. The murders in Orlando were an abhorrent tragedy, possibly the largest targeted killing of the LGBTQI community since the Second World War. God's love is for all. As Christians we are called first and foremost to love all. We stand in together with gay and straight men and women, and continue to hold the LGBTQI community, the victims' friends and their families in our hearts, thoughts and prayers."

I for one want to thank them for these words and that we, who were hurt by the statement yesterday, have been heard.


Monday, 13 June 2016

Some prayer pointers for Orlando

The tears are falling for the Orlando shooting and the loss of 50 LGBT lives in an attack. Reading through the social media streams and watching the mainstream media has provided an interesting contrast for me which highlights the issue…..there is much about this tragedy and other LGBT deaths which the straight/ cis world doesn’t, perhaps can’t get.

This post is seeking to give some pointers to help us pray in an informed way for this tragedy.

After we have prayed for the dead and injured the first group that many of us will be praying for will be the family and friends of those who have died. This tragedy may be particularly difficult for some who struggled to accept their child’s sexuality or gender identification. Then there may be those whose children may have lived a closeted life. We don’t know if some, in their grief, will also be dealing with disclosure of their children’s sexuality or gender identification. As we pray for the parents let it be in an informed way with these things in mind.

The next group that we might want to pray for are the friends of the bereaved. Many of these friends are going to be part of the LGBT community, others will not. Again for those who may of lived closeted lives there may be those friends and colleagues who are having to come to terms with feelings related to “why didn’t I know?”. Amongst the LGBT+ community there will be a range of feelings, whilst the aim of the community is to love and give acceptance there will also be anger as well. There may also be fear, particularly amongst BAME members of the LGBT community, who already face discrimination amongst their own LGBT community at times. Let us pray that those members of our community know they are truly accepted.

We also need to pray for those friends and members of the community who regularly experience hate and for those whom this confirms all the negative views they have of religion about being a source of hate.

We also need to pray for each member of the LGBT community as they seek to support others in their community. There will be people, particularly in that local community and in those cities preparing for upcoming Prides who will be extremely busy in their grief and will be seeking to provide so much support whilst not having the space to grieve themselves. We need to particularly remember them.

Then there are the first responders and surgeons. We need to pray for them in their work and as they possibly face post-traumatic stress for what they have faced. Within some of these people there will be contrasting feelings about the LGBT+ community. Franklin Graham has indicated on Facebook one of the chief surgeon’s is on the board of Samaritans Purse. They will be doing their job professionally, yet it might bring them face to face with the reality of the prejudice that their faith has within it.

Let us pray for these people that may be facing a real dissonance through this experience. Let us pray too for those whose dissonance lead to responses which seem lacking and hurtful through what they omit.

Let us pray for the media too. The way in which news is made means that complex things are often reduced into soundbites, particularly by people who don’t understand the pain that their reductionist approach is giving. Let us pray against reductionism, this was a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender tragedy as President Obama said. Let us not reduce it to “gay”.

When praying for communities affected let us not get sucked into just thinking of the physical Orlando community but also let us think about the wider LGBT+ community, who are closer and much more of an actual community than many realise.

When talking about a terrorist attack let us not believe that it can be separated from a hate attack. The very fact you are part of a community who is subject to hate crime can increase your risk of being a terrorist target. It can also make you more liable to further hate crime when you are innocently part of another group who terrorists happen to be an unrepresentative minority of. Let us pray against both homophobia and Islamophobia.

Let us pray for love most of all and for a change of hearts amongst those who would sow the seeds of hate through ideology which forgets people.

Finally, let us pray for the family and friends of the guy who shot these people. They are also bereaved and going through all sorts of pain too. Let us show them love rather than hate too.
If you want a ready made prayer I would highly recommend one put together by Rachel Mann.

Monday, 6 June 2016

Response to Marriage and Task Group Report and Open Church Charter

This past week has seen the publication of two important documents relating to the church and LGBT+ people. The first is the Oasis Foundation Open Church Charter and the second is the Methodist Church Report toConference from the Marriage and Relationships Task Group (report 29 in the second part of the Methodist Conference Agenda).  At the outset I want to say I am supportive of both documents and wish to express thanks to those whose hard work has produced them. What follows is intended as a supportive critique rather than negative criticism.

I will start with the Methodist Report. My first question point comes from the legal implications. As the report does explicitly mention trans issues within it I would suggest that this section also needs to include that ensuring that legislation related to gender recognition is duly considered. This is relevant to marriage and relationships because if one looks at the legislation one will see there is a grey period where a trans/ cis couple which was previously same sex may are legally be considered to still be of the same sex if the trans person has not gained their gender recognition certificate. The legislation does not allow for them to remain in a civil partnership but for the gender recognition certificate to be granted they must be married. The Equality Act 2010 states that trans people who are going through gender reassignment cannot legally be discriminated against in the provision of goods or services (and as the working group report does state) there is no religious opt out on the law around those going through gender reassignment.

With regard to the report this is picked up in 3.2.2.b.ii “A reality is that the marriage of transgender people in church may be already be happening, because the authorised person and celebrant would probably not know a person’s gender status other than what is on the legal documents. If the Task Group recommends that the definition of marriage be revisited and if that revisiting recommends removing or widening statements around gender, then the issue of transgender in relation to the marriage definition would be irrelevant – although there would continue to be pastoral responsibilities.”

This paragraph is important because it shows that currently, as explained above trans issues are currently relevant in the discussion of marriage and relationships and will only cease to be so if the task group recommend the definition is widened.

 With regard to the definition around homophobia I understand how this came out of the 2014 report and why, as a result of this, it would be outside the remit of the group to also say that definitions of transphobia and biphobia should be excluded within their discussion. However, if a definition of homophobia is going to be included with the CPD document I believe that definitions of transphobia and biphobia should also be included, thus I would argue that these issues also need discussing with Faith and Order in relation to 2.1.4.

What this document is, quite unintentionally doing I believe, is reinforcing the privilege of gay and lesbian people within discussions on LGBT+ (which then serve to make invisible or secondary the concerns of other groups within that spectrum who are impacted by both prejudice and lack of visibility within the church). Following on from this it is important to understand that gender queer people do not have the legal protection that those going through gender reassignment do. Whilst the report recognises and explicitly mentions intersex people it makes no reference to those who are gender queer and does not refer in any way to the problems which the use of binary language in the documents being discussed may cause to those who have a non-conforming gender identity and those seeking to minister to them within the church when it comes to marriage and relationships. In terms of listening to each other I think it is vitally important that these minority within minority voices are heard and that we consider what policy reflects the world we are in now. This is particularly important with regard to the development of scriptural understanding and theology. This is an area where the Methodist could take a lead in producing some excellent scholarship if it included the full spectrum of identities in the work it understands it needs to produce to examine the issues in a truly Methodist way.

I am not sure if relevant documents relates only to documents which have been to conference but I would argue within the Methodist Context the document We Are Family which was a piece of research sponsored by the Methodist Church is also a relevant document to be considered when looking at the issues here.

The fact we can remain united whilst holding disagreement on some issues and disagreement on the dominant interpretation of scripture is important and I am glad the report has underlined this. The model statement on Living With Contradiction in 1.5 is quite moving and I believe should be held up as a model of good practice.

The EDI toolkit produces excellent resources and I would argue needs to be much more widely available. I understand why it takes the form it does but because of the wider importance and use of a number of the documents I would argue they do need to be made more easily and freely available via the Methodist website.

The issue of shared premises and legislation raised in 2.4.1 links to the second point of the Open Church Charter and explains why the term “within the scope of current British law” is so important.

The report brings to light the problems for churches who share premises. Whilst this is a minority problem at the moment I believe if the URC were to say it became a congregational issue and vote denominationally to allow congregations to hold marriages on the “opt in” basis that the number of problems could increase. Whilst understanding about the wish not to pre-empt conclusions I think the delay may be problematic and cause deep hurt in churches which may in the next couple of years wish to “opt in” if the denominational barrier within the URC is removed but are told the discussion cannot even begin to happen because of their Methodist partners providing a legal bar on this. As the report makes clear within it the URC is due to come to a conclusion in July of this year and the Book of Reports 2016 which has been published by the URC ready for their General Assembly (page 32) shows that they are taking the view there is no common view and so recommending it come down to individual churches.

I am pleased that the wording being looked at by various committees in relation to 2.5, on the provision of assistance, is including “other immediate family members” as it widens the scope to not only include assisting partners but also adult children who may for various reasons still be dependent upon their parents.

The discussion of the impact of our understandings and policy on marriage and relationships upon mission is one which is both informative and moving. The discussion shows a real understanding of many of the issues involved and the understanding of what the impact of this issue has been on some church leavers.

The pastoral issues raised show insight and are very important too although at times the insertion of the words “and gender identity” would be helpful too. This is one of the strengths of the Oasis document. It is not cis-normative in its language and outlook.   

3.1.2 is an important piece of this document and it is good that there was work between Faith and Order and the working group on this. Within the issues linked to the view marriage is for procreation I think that further work might be done to look not only at same sex marriages but how this understanding needs to be examined in the light of the marriages of those heterosexual couples who choose not to have children or cannot have children, and those older couples who might marry late in life. This is again a rich area for theological reflection if the church chooses to invest in it.

I want to look at 3.2.2b, already referred to in detail. The argument that there is little or no biblical material on gender identity is true to some extent, however emerging scholarship and theology is being to develop this particularly in how it links to existing liberation theologies and the scholarship around them. The reality is indeed that gender identity is more complex is true and so it is a pity that nowhere in the document there appears to be reference to the concept of “gender queer” or “non-binary” and transgender is in there instead of trans*. Now, I know that much of this will have been based on the consideration of the knowledge of the readership but I do wonder how much actual trans input there has been on this. It is right and proper and really good that the report recognises that gender identity is different to sexuality but there is a complex connection between the two which may exist. I think this is something that all sectors of the church need to look at in more detail, particularly as the number of people who identify as trans and those close to them is growing within the church as a whole, as well as becoming more visible in society.

The recommendation of the EDI to produce some simple guidance on trans is important, although I believe the wording should relate to gender identity as a better and more inclusive term. I also believe that within this there should be specific work, guidance and resources given to providing some resources around the pastoral care of the friends and family of trans people. This is important in relation to issues of loss I have talked about extensively elsewhere within previous posts on this blog.

With regard to the preparation of appropriate marriage resources this is where working with organisations such as the Oasis Foundation, (whose charter explicitly refers to marriage preparation within it) may be useful. Traditionally we have focused on looking at ecumenical partners. I think in the current age it may be useful to look at what para-church groups and organisations can be seen as useful partners too with regard to this type of thing.

The report highlights the excellent work being done by other working groups within the church and the need for joint working. What I think the references to the working group and EDI work, amongst others, do is identify why there needs to be a more joined up approach at times within the church.

What about putting on a national Methodist equality and diversity conference where all the groups concerned with and working on the issues related to the wide range of these areas of diversity and inclusion can come together and share their experiences identifying the common ground between them and how this can be Connexionally harnessed.

The recommendation in 3.2.2 is welcomed but I am concerned about the wording for the reasons previously mentioned. I think the inclusion of the term “non-conforming gender identity” would be an important amendment to make.

With regard to the issues of non-participation I would like to add that within one circuit there was selection of those asked to participate and that to break through that system one had to be eager enough to pursue information on when the consultations were taking place.

As explained in a previous post on this blog I agree the concentration on same sex marriage issues was a shame., especially in light of the range of excellent resources provided to take the discussion beyond this. 

I was heartened by the way in which the youth participation strategy has been taken seriously with regard to this issue and the feedback from 3 Gen has been extensively included.

So the overall conclusion of the task group is we keep on talking and we keep on working on things. On one hand this is really frustrating and I want to scream….can we just get on with it. On the other the way this is being handled is bringing real fruit. There is, through this report, a motion on looking properly at trans issues going to conference and there is real discussion going on about change.

My worry is something which has been reinforced by looking at the conference agenda more widely….do we want to carry on talking until the Anglicans have sorted themselves out and so we can put in place policies which more closely mirror theirs? I know a lot of work went into this report and I do not believe that is the motivation of the working group….but I do wonder if it is the motivation of some others in the church.

As I finish though I want to reinforce my thanks to those who have put this report together and all those who have been involved in helping facilitate the discussions. What we are doing, when compared to many of the other denominations via the resources put together through this group and via the EDI, is actually putting together a lot of good practice.

It does highlight though a worry I have with the Open Church charter. Whilst I fully support it I do worry that point 2 within the charter, because of the messy situation within our denominations, may put people off from signing. Now I know it has been carefully worded to say: “Within the scope of current British law we will offer marriage to couples regardless of gender identity and sexuality and where this is not allowed under law, we will offer celebration, preparation and support for same-sex marriage partners in loving, healthy monogamous relationships” but I still worry if it might cause churches who would otherwise be quite happy and willing to sign to delay.

A long post I know but I hope you appreciate why this one had to be.

Saturday, 4 June 2016

The Invisible Church by Steve Aisthorpe Reviewed

Invisible Church by Steve Aisthorpe is a book I was eagerly awaiting having heard some good things about this study into Scottish Christians who were not church attenders. It is a book which has some excellent cartoon illustrations from Dave Walker whose work you may be familiar with.

The book acknowledges that it builds upon the work of Francis and Richter in Gone for Good? And Alan Jamieson’s A Churchless Faith. What it fails to mention is that both these books are somewhat dated now. Gone for Good was published almost 20 years ago and A Churchless Faith published in 2002 was followed up by Church Leavers: Faith journeys five years On in 2006. The texts this study is building upon are therefore not cutting edge. Yet, as Aisthorpe acknowledges they are still useful.

What I was surprised about was that he did not make mention of much of the work that has arisen on the subject of pioneering and which has itself build on Jamieson’s work. He does make passing reference to FreshExpressions and new monasticism as well as the recent Church Growth research but I felt the text could have made more use of some of the contemporary work. It was a particular loss that it was clearly produced just prior to Grace Davie updating her text on Religion in Britain since 1945 and producing Religion in Britain: A Persistent Paradox. I believe that reference to this updated text would have been particularly useful to the author.

The sample for the qualitative part of the study was relatively low at 30 interviewees. However, Aisthorpe does make use of other social survey material which had a much larger data set and used a random sample.

It was a highly readable book which was easy to work through, but perhaps that was part of the problem with it. It was too readable and seemed to lack depth. There were so many places where I wanted him to expand because he seemed to be only skimming the surface of some very important points.

One area where the book was very good was critiquing some of the stories and studies which have given rise to a range of assumptions about who leaves church and why. His myth busting chapter two was well balanced and made some important points which people who have not been closely following the development of the secularisation debate in the UK may be unaware of. This, summed up both the strength and the weakness of the book for me. It provides an excellent introduction to the current situation but for the more knowledgeable reader if felt sadly lacking.

The “So What? Questions and Activities for Further Reflection” sections at the end of each chapter were useful reminders and provided some useful tools for reflecting on my own practice as a local preacher and experience as a church member.

Whilst he is wary of the models of stages of faith as put forward by Fowler and others this topic is what he is really discussing in various forms in the chapters on “exit routes” and “life really is a journey”.

My favourite chapter was “A Longing for Belonging” which explored a range of issues related to welcome and inclusion in churches beyond those topics which are normally included.

The view of the church which came out of this was one which was realistic, if at times stark. I think these parts of the book are important for all of us to consider.

As with many others Aisthorpe is of the view we are at a pivotal moment in the history of the church and in the mist of something happening which we need to be ready to go with. He highlights some of the risks associated but this book explains why they are important.

Would I recommend the book? Yes, if you are new to the topic or if you are a local preacher, etc who needs a kick up the backside. As I say it is certainly very readable.