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.

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Recommending Brum

Culture and community are two words I’d use to sum Brum up, as I come to the end of my two years here. These words have been reinforced in various ways over the last few days:

First the culture; we’ve been enjoying The Big Sleuth which is a trail of beautifully painted bears around the city. As with the owls two years ago these are raising funds for Birmingham Children’s Hospital. They can be found around the city and surrounding area. The Cathedral Square by the CofE Cathedral is a particularly good place to find them. Incidentally they also have a retro 80's film festival coming up.

The bears also embrace the community feel as within the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery and elsewhere there are bear cubs which have been painted by schools and community groups.

In the main Library of Birmingham the themes also meet with the Connecting Stories exhibition. This exhibition looks at the contribution people from South Asia have played in this country over the centuries and in contemporary society.
If you enjoy social history, including women’s or social movement history, this is definitely for you. It has a great story of a princess of South Asian decent, who was born in Suffolk, selling suffragette newspapers outside Hampton Court where she had apartments. There is also local material linked to the Rock Against Racism movement of the 1970’s.

As I prepare to move on in the coming weeks I can truly say I’ve never lived anywhere I have loved as much as here. The culture is vibrant and the community welcoming.

If you’re wondering where to come for a day out or even a weekend away this summer you could do worse than consider Brum. I’d really recommend both the bears and the exhibition, especially as both are free to enjoy.

Monday, 10 July 2017

Why advice on pastoral care for families is needed alongside the liturgy of celebration

I fully welcome and celebrate the Church of England’s decision to move towards an official liturgy for trans people, but I think an element of the discussion has been missing. We are talking about giving ministers a liturgy to use, but we have not spoken about giving them advice or training on the pastoral care needed around administering these services and the feelings that they may arouse in family members, which will need to be handled with sensitivity.

I have spoken before on this blog about the feelings that were aroused in me when my husband had this type of liturgy within a service. Whilst it was a time of great celebration, it created feelings of real dissonance in me. I was suffering from feelings of ambiguous loss and had had no formal way of acknowledging that. For me, the naming liturgy felt like a funeral as well as a celebration. It was formally celebrating the “new” identity of Karl which implicitly meant his “dead” name was truly that, as was the “old identity”.

One aspect of the debate not being fully acknowledged or explored at the moment is the impact on family and partners who are supportive but are having to deal with the feelings of dissonance and ambiguous loss we have been talking about.
We need real work doing not just on the pastoral care of trans people but of their families too. Churches will often be welcoming families who are on a journey, not just the trans people.

Now, I get this is a sensitive subject – I have been in rooms where when I have spoken about this there has been difficult emotion. There have been trans people who have been rejected by families and there have been trans people who have felt guilt about the journey others have had to take with them. On line I have had trans people who have said what I am saying seems to reject trans people.

I want to be clear, my husband’s transition is the best thing ever to have happened to him and I have seen him flourish as a result of no longer having to repress who he is. We have a Hungry Caterpillar money box which celebrates the butterfly emerging. I am 100% supportive, but I had to go through a grief process as a result of this and those feelings of loss that family, particularly, go through needs to be recognised. We need to produce resources which help those coming alongside in churches to understand the complexity of these situations and how to pastorally approach them.

Reflecting on a weekend of Pride, Hope & Celebrating God at Work

This weekend was Pride in London and there were a Christians at Pride group marching again, just as there have been for a number of years now. Except this year it was different, very different.

This weekend the Church of England synod in York and as has become a regular happening LGBT+ issues were discussed. Except this time it was different, very different.

This weekend I preached at the church which has been home over the last couple of years, just as I have in other churches. I was faced with the dilemma of whether to mention anything about LGBT+ witness and mission in my sermon, just as I have on a couple of other occasions as a local preacher. Except this time it was different, very different.

So what were these differences and what do they have to tell us about what is going on in the churches and the Christian LGBT+ world?

The Christians at Pride Group was bigger than in the past, much bigger. This year it was made up of about 250 people and was the third biggest group after Barclays (the main sponsor) and Stonewall. It was also a much more mixed group culturally, with a far higher number of BAME people involved, (despite what this picture seems to show). It was not just “the usual faces”, many of them were watching in the crowd – being among those who stood next to the “angry Christians” turning their yellow negative placards into a rainbow proclaiming love. There were also some at the church where the annual Pride Service was being held offering hospitality through a tea party in the garden.

The Church of England synod was different because whilst there was the “official discussion” on what to do about LGBT+ issues with the usual prevarication and kicking into the long grass there were compassionate and important motions passed. These were motions bought by synod members and diocese which committed the Church of England to condemn conversion therapy and look to develop an official recognised liturgy for people who wanted to mark their transition and reaffirm their new/ true identity.

The church I was preaching in is a URC/ Methodist church which has in the past year signed up to Inclusive Church and become a recognised One Body One Faith Church. It set up a stall outside the church, which is on the Birmingham Pride route, and gave out water and sweets to those in the Birmingham Pride parade this year. It was also one of the co-ordinating groups involved in getting Christians at Pride in Birmingham off the ground this year. Preaching there I didn’t have the dilemma of whether to mention LGBT+ issues I knew I could do so, encouraging the church in the way in which God had been working in there. I could talk about the impact that their actions have; how they help the LGBT+ community and the way God is obviously working through them. I could talk about the way in which I know that church has not changed their thinking (it all went through Church meeting very quickly and without much debate) and they probably don’t think they’ve done anything much but actually what they’ve done is really important.

The passage I was preaching on yesterday was Matthew 11: 16 -30 (note without the gap which the lectionary suggests) and this talks about some recognising God’s signs and wonders whilst others rejected them. To recognise what God was doing in the world then you had to recognise experience. I think the same is true now…..we need to look at experience as well as using scripture, tradition and reason.

Experience is what is telling me something is happening, God is at work through ordinary people in the church who may or may not belong to the LGBT+ community. Experience is telling me that divisions in the church between different groups are being broken down. Is telling me, through conversations I’ve been having with people and coverage of Christians at Pride in publications like Pink News, that the perception the wider LGBT+ community has of Christians and the gospel message is beginning to change.

Yet, I know all this doesn’t happen without hard work. I know that there are those who have been patiently working towards where we are now for many decades. So I want to thank them for their hard work and faithful witness over the years.

I also know that there is still much to be done if LGBT+ people are to be fully accepted, acknowledged and included in the church. There is still much to be done if our relationships are to be treated on an equal basis. I know that the more the church embraces the LGBT+ community the more vicious some opponents will become, as they realise they have lost the argument (I remember the late Pauline Webb explaining this was the case with the campaign for women’s ordination in the Methodist Church).  

Yet as I have shown God is at work and I have more hope than I have ever had.