Sunday, 19 March 2017

'A Question of Upbringing': Reading Jeffrey John through Anthony Powell

It may surprise some of the readers of this blog that I’m very fond of Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time sequence. Surprising because Powell’s twelve book sequence constructs an essentially conservative, upper/upper-middle class representation of British (or more specifically English) life between 1920 and 1970. Equally, stylistically, its use of an observer ‘everyman’ figure, Nick Jenkins, who mediates every relationship is hardly fashionable.

However, given that the C of E and the wider church is, so often, rather behind the curve, I see in Powell’s funny, sometimes supercilious and internecine representations of upper-middle class life some telling remarks on current church issues.

The Dean of St Albans Jeffrey John has gone public about his rejection as the next Bishop of Llandaff in the Church in Wales. For those who forget, John is an out gay man in a celibate civil partnership with another male priest. He has been in the running for bishop posts on several occasions in the past fifteen or so years, including the notorious incident when the protests of nine conservative bishops led to his not taking the position of Bishop of Reading.

John has alleged that he has been the victim of homophobia regarding the Bishop of Llandaff post; in essence, he has been discounted from the process because he is likely to bring ‘unwelcome and unsettling publicity’ to the diocese. It would seem that he has been discounted from a position for which he is arguably very suitable because he will be a bit embarrassing for some.

It’s bewildering that in our present culture that this might be adduced as sufficient evidence to discount an obviously talented and called human being. Yet it reflects something deeply problematic in our church culture.

Here Powell is helpful. Dance to the Music of Time is not especially interested in the Church (though it has a significant subplot about spirituality, the occult and destiny); it is concerned with class, art and what it means to belong.

However, the sequence skilfully indicates how privileged mid-20th century British culture negotiated and ordered itself around tropes of what was considered outré and, more or less, successfully reformed itself.

Powell indicates something significant about upper middle-class culture at mid-20th century that arguably hangs over into church culture at this late point: it rather doesn’t matter what one gets up to as long as one is an ‘insider’ (as a result of breeding, birth, artistic skill, recognition) and/or one doesn’t cause too much scandal.

In Powell’s world, flouting many of the middle-middle and lower-middle class mores and self-representations doesn’t prevent people from ‘getting on’ or being recognized as long as one isn’t too obvious in one’s quirks and ‘deviations’. People have affairs, get divorced and remarried, are gay and it’s no great issue. What matters is discretion or belonging to right class group.

John clearly belongs - from the point of view of the traditional ideas about suitability for these sort of things - to the right kind of group to be considered bishop. He's a man. He studied at Oxford and classics at that. He was Dean at Magdalen and so on. (That he is also Welsh might reasonably be said to fit him to be a bishop in Wales.)

Yet, his sin is that he has not hidden who is he is. He has not fit the strange mid-20th century class overhang in the church that says that, to be a bishop and gay, one must be discreet or even worse, in the closet. The Bishop of Grantham, Nicholas Chamberlain, is also in a civil partnership, but kept very quiet about it until he felt under great pressure to come out. I’m often told, by people better connected and informed than the bog-standard parish priest I am, that there are a goodly number of other bishops who are gay, bi etc. But they have played the old game of discretion and secrecy. They have ‘chosen’ to live in Powell’s world, perhaps because – at some level - they still think they’re living in the old world of privilege and discretion.

Now I’m not suggesting that, as long as one is discreet, anything goes in the church. However, the institution's seeming approval of 'closeting' as well as its ‘we all know that x is y, but no one talks about it’ pseudo-sophistication comes across as an anachronistic echo of Powell’s world where the rich, privileged and the bohemian often acted in private with little reference to their public personas and pronouncements.

Thankfully there is a greater level of congruence in wider culture now. Closeting is not a healthy place to be. The world where 'you can be LGBTI in the church and get on as long as you're discreet' needs to die. Yes, we all need to negotiate distinctions between public and private, but a culture which rewards those who keep their significant identities ‘discreet’ for the sake of form or getting on while punishing those who are congruent is hardly healthy. This is not the 1950s, no matter what some in the church might hope.




Thursday, 16 February 2017

What Now For the C of E and Sexuality? A Trans Perspective

So, GS2055 ‘fell’ in the House of Clergy. That document is gone and shall not determine the way ahead for the Church of England.

Many within the Church (for that, read: ‘a few geeks like me') will be wondering: What now? For we have been told that the only so-called ‘road map’ is gone.

No one quite knows what the future holds. People like me are hopeful that something richer, more radical and more celebratory shall be possible. Archbishop Justin’s words at the end of the GS2055 debate were heartening.

So far, a number of groups and individuals with whom I am in solidarity and sympathy have indicated various, possible ways forward. You can find various statements here:  OneBodyOneFaith, Alan Wilson, Modern Church.

As a trans person, I want to add my own small personal coda as we move forward.

Whatever happens, wherever we go, I ask this: Please do not ignore trans and intersex voices. The habit of imagining that we don’t problematize the church’s discourse on sex has to stop.

T & I voices really, really matter…not just to be listened to with a patronising ear (as many of us have experienced), but as critical resources to break open new joyous ground for our stale discourse on (what so often seems to comes down to) who can place their 'sex bits' where and when.

I say this not from an inclusion point of view (though that’s important), but a theological/philosophical one. For while I don’t want to underestimate the inclusion dimension, the importance of T & I (among other queer voices) lies in a theological matter that I’ve consistently suggested is absent from the C of E’s thinking:

We cannot hope to come to a theologically and philosophically sophisticated set of positions on sexuality until we, the Church, arrive at a sensitive and critically-informed account of terms like ‘gender’, ‘body’, and ‘embodiment’. (These terms need to be defined, but that is not my key point today: my key point is that, if they are complicated, problematized terms, they indicate how lazy much of our thinking about ‘sexuality’ typically is.)

We need to critically interrogate our theologies of gender if we are to begin to re-reflect hopefully around theologies of 'sexuality'.

The tragic fact is that most of the thinking I’ve come across in the Episcopal discourse on sexuality – i.e. its purposes, its place in the human and divine economy – is grounded in a lamentably uncritical ‘natural’ discourse around ‘men’, ‘women’, ‘male’, ‘female’ and gendered ‘bodies’. Too readily these notions have been treated in ‘naturalistic’ ways; or even (worse), as if Biblical discourse about ‘bodies’, ‘men’, ‘women’ relates uncritically to modernist ideas about ‘two sexes’ and so on.

Uncritical assumptions around so much discourse on ‘the body’ is hamstringing our capacity to think both clearly and imaginatively about what it means to bear the Image of God and grow into Christ’s likeness in the world.

Whatever else history, philosophy and critical theory might teach us, it is that representations of the body – the divine, sainted body as well as the so-called ‘fallen’ body and so on – cannot simply be ‘read out’ from the Bible or even from Church history. The serial violence done to the bodies of those coded as ‘female’ in Church and Biblical ‘imaginaries’ is signal enough of that.

Trans people etc may seem ‘oddities’ from the perspective of those in both episcopal authority as well as many in wider society. Yet, many of us trans people (and there are more of us than you think) have channelled our wits and guts into making critical space available for reflecting again and more critically about so-called ‘gender roles’ or ‘natural bodies’.

We attempt to make space available to question the naïve and stereotyped ideas about what a man or woman is, about what ‘sexuality’ is, and what it means to be bodies consecrated to God.

Please start taking us seriously.*



*Oh, and when I say 'us' that applies to others typically excluded from the sexuality conversation: lesbians, bisexual people etc.

Wednesday, 15 February 2017

Before the Sexuality Debate: A Final Thought

Ahead of today’s Take Note debate on the Bishops’ Report on Sexuality (GS2055) I’m reminded of something a colleague and friend said to me in the wake of the Jeffrey John debacle in 2003. It concerned the then archbishop Rowan Williams.

My friend said that Rowan – as Archbishop of Canterbury (ABC), as institutional self – would, on balance, say of his decision not to back Jeffrey, ‘I did the right thing.’

However, as Jeffrey’s friend, Rowan would have heard the cock-crow.

(I suspect Rowan wouldn’t be that simple, but you get the force of my friend’s point.)

Today, I think a whole load of people who are minded to take note of the Report are in danger of hearing the cock-crow. Yes, after the vote, they may feel they’ve done the right thing as ‘institution people’, as bishops, as ‘people loyal to their bishops and to Anglicanism’.

But let’s be clear. The anger and shock of LGBTI people about this Report isn’t us doing a Trump. It isn’t us wanting to throw the toys out of the pram. It’s not childish. It emerges from the marrow in all of us who want grace and celebration and love.

It’s an acknowledgement of just how bad we think this paper is. I’m as emotional as anyone else. But I’m also, at heart, moderate and eirenic. If someone like me has had enough, that signals something.


Another story...When Rowan went to see the then ABC George Carey in the ‘90s to speak about justice and the gays, the rumour was that he asked Carey, ‘Who pays the price?’

This story might be apocryphal, but the force of it holds good.

LGBTI people are bone-sick of paying the price.

I know none of us are people of clean hands. We are all compromised. But today I think the decision is clear: do not take note of this report. We are better and can do better than this report, even if it is to signal the fact of our disagreement. God is in the facts and sometimes those facts are unkind. But God is there.

And if the Report is ‘accepted’? Well, the cost comes back to humans. To my friends and colleagues who are already feeling either on the edge of church or – as priests – worn down by institutional double-think and dishonesty.


The cost is to people. And so many will hear the cock-crow.