Tag Archives: church

Get down and Party like it’s 1874

(I talk about the law quite a lot here, and not as much as I might about my anger on behalf of LGBT Christians; another of whom has written a fine post of her own on the topic.)

These aren’t fun times for left-leaning Anglicans like myself. The women bishops measure may not have been kicked into the long grass, but the ball has definitely stopped moving for a bit. I wrote recently on the dismal contrast between the sexist exclusion ingrained in our modern church and the breadth and inclusiveness of the early church shown in the Acts of the Apostles. And then, just for a moment, things started looking better.

Next Friday, the House of Laity (which had failed to reach the necessary 2/3 majority on women bishops) will convene in an extraordinary session to consider a motion of no confidence in its chair, Dr Philip Giddings. Dr Giddings, who teaches politics at the University of Reading, is also Chairman of the Church’s Council for Mission and Public Affairs, a member of the Archbishops’ Council – and most significantly, convener of Anglican Mainstream. This extremist pressure-group emerged when Archbishop Rowan Williams attempted to appoint Dr Jeffrey John, then Canon Theologian at Southwark Cathedral, as suffragan (assistant) Bishop of Reading, in the Diocese of Oxford. Dr Williams bowed to conservative pressure and withdrew the nomination; Dr John went to be Dean of St Albans instead. The hideously mis-named Anglican Mainstream has subsequently aimed to stand in the way of all inclusion and diversity in the Church of England; it also has links to the schismatic ‘GAFCON’ faction in the wider Anglican Communion, and supports harmful ‘ex-gay’ therapies. So having Dr Giddings as chair of the House of Laity is pretty much like having the Speaker of the House of Commons being an active member of UKIP. I sincerely pray that the motion of no confidence succeeds.

At the same time that this motion was announced, the Prime Minister announced that he had changed his mind, and would now support religious as well as secular equal marriage. This came as very cheering news, and liberals and libertarians across the political parties rejoiced. (I noticed Louise Mensch, for example, praising the move – she’s also been arguing that the Church of England should lose its representation in the House of Lords if it will not admit women as bishops.) It seems probable that the change was prompted by the women bishops vote: it gives the Conservatives a way to look more progressive than the Church at the drop of a mitre. The nay-sayers within the Conservative Party were predictable. Foremost among them was backbench tub-thumper Peter Bone, MP for Wellingborough, who along with his sidekick Philip Hollobone recently lent his support to a failed move to repeal the Human Rights Act. Let’s not forget that the Human Rights Act is one of the main pieces of legislation in the UK which protects religions from unwarranted interference by the government. But Bone and Hollobone have so far proved to be altogether hollow; they clearly annoy the Prime Minister and the Speaker as much as they annoy those on the Opposition benches. So things were looking up.

Then came today’s thunderclap.

Maria Miller, who as Culture Secretary will have responsibility for putting the equal marriage legislation through parliament, announced in the House of Commons that although religious equal marriage would indeed be in the Bill, the Church of England and the Church in Wales would be specifically banned from conducting same-sex weddings. This is a staggeringly unjust move (which Stonewall completely ignore in their fawning response). For one thing, the Church in Wales is not established by law, and has not been since 1920. It therefore seems very peculiar for the government to restrict its freedom of action like this (and the Archbishop of Wales thinks so too). For the established Church of England, the situation is no less baffling. Under the Church of England Assembly (Powers) Act 1919 and the Synodical Government Measure 1969, the acts of the General Synod have the force and effect of acts of parliament, and may touch on any issue relating to the Church. It’s already apparent from the equal marriage proposals for other churches that the churches themselves will have to make their own specific provisions if they wish to conduct same-sex weddings; no religious group will be obliged by law to do so. So given that the Church of England would have to pass a legally-binding measure in order to introduce its own equal marriage provision anyway, and that an existing act of parliament could not generally stop it doing so, it seems utterly needless to include an extra ban in the equal marriage bill. It is folly.

Sir Tony Baldry MP, who as Second Church Estates Commissioner represents the Church of England in the House of Commons (when not working as an MP, a lawyer, or director and shareholder of several oil companies, or driving into lots of street furniture), tried to defend the move. He did so in bafflingly essentialist terms, arguing for distinctive and complementary roles for men and women, and that “removing from the definition of marriage this complementarity is to lose any social institution where sexual difference is explicitly acknowledged.” Sir Tony may wish to look again both at British society and the Church in particular, before he suggests again that unequal marriage is the sole bastion of gender difference in our society. I’d love to think it was, and that this was the last barrier before the destruction of the patriarchy! He might also like to look again at Galatians 3:28 before he next waves his order paper to defend sex discrimination: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.”

There’s a lot of disingenuous claptrap, espeically from the likes of Peter Bone, about ‘redefining marriage’. This is, fundamentally, a big fat lie. Civil marriage in England and Wales has existed since 1837, and in the run up to the change in the law the previous year there was a great deal of fulmination in the press from clergy and self-appointed experts as to the wrongness of taking marriage away from the Church. The Church had only had it since 1754, when the Church of England (and perhaps Jews and Quakers) were collectively given total control of marriages in England and Wales; prior to Lord Hardwicke’s Act of the previous year, there had been a thriving trade in clandestine, but nonetheless valid, marriages in places such as the Fleet Prison. But since 1837, it has been entirely legal for consenting adults to be married by a registrar, who will almost certainly be a member of the laity, and has stood a good chance of being female for much longer than Anglican priests have. So it very much appears that in the law of the land, marriage is whatever parliament says it is, rather than what a dictionary-thumping bigot on the government back-benches claims it is. Similarly, no change in the law has been proposed which will compel any religious group to do anything, nor will it restrict the use of terms like ‘husband’ and ‘wife’, nor will it compel faith schools to misrepresent their own faith in teaching. Those interested in the history of the Church of England may take note that the man who commissioned its Authorized Version of the Bible, King James I & VI, Supreme Governor of the Church, addressed his male lover, George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham, as ‘husband‘, and appears to have planned some kind of marriage to him.

It’s been suggested that the reason to shore up unequal marriage in the Church of England (which was unlikely to disappear promptly anyway) is to prevent legal challenges from same-sex couples who would, if they were instead of opposite sexes, be entitled as of right to get married in their local parish churches. However, there is a precedent for working around this problem: the Matrimonial Causes Act 1965 allows a parish priest who does not wish to marry divorcees to decline to do so [link opens Word file], and to rule that their church may not be used for this purpose. Whatever one may think of the ethics of this provision, allowing an individual opt-out would surely be more inclusive than banning two whole denominations from doing what any other religious group may freely choose to do. As an aside – the current GOV.UK page on arranging a wedding instructs anyone wanting an Anglican church wedding to contact their vicar – even though many people live in parishes that never have a vicar because they have rectors instead, or which currently have a priest-in-charge, or no parish priest at all. So don’t trust everything the government or the civil service tell you about marriage or the Church of England.

So, in short, we have the secular parliament putting its boot into the business of churches, established and disestablished, and telling them what services they may or may not hold. There’s plenty of precedent for this; in 1928, despite the 1919 Act mentioned earlier, the House of Commons stopped the Church of England from adopting a new Prayer Book that the Church Assembly (precursor to the General Synod) had approved. It didn’t get approval until 1966, and in the intervening years any priest who used the 1928 Prayer Book (which had been issued as a sort of consultation document) was breaking the law. A similar, though more bitterly partisan, clash had occurred in 1874 with the passage of the Public Worship Regulation Act. This Act strictly regulated what service books, clothing, ornaments and rituals could be used in the Church of England. Benjamin Disraeli’s Conservatives, having somewhat unexpectedly won their first absolute Commons majority since the 1841 election, rushed through a piece of legislation which appealed to the Protestant tendencies of the Queen and the Prime Minister. William Ewart Gladstone, Leader of the Opposition, was high-church himself, and was revolted by the politicisation of worship. Five priests were imprisoned for worshipping God in ways contrary to the Act. Ritualism was a hot topic in Victorian times; in 1898 the founder of the Protestant Truth Society, John Kensit, started an anti-ritualist riot in Kensington on Good Friday, in protest at what he regarded as unacceptable Catholic practices in the Church of England. Action ceased to be taken under the 1874 Act in 1906, but it stayed on the statue books until 1965.

So what does all this mean for me, as a queer Anglican? For one thing, it means I would get married in a register office, not a church. Just as Gladstone feared, the worship of the Church of England has again become a political football, and I don’t wish to make my own marriage a part of that. For another thing, like many queer Anglicans, I also am a ritualist. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that the campness of a world in which men wear dresses and sing, and everything is settled by arch remarks over port or gin, has long appealed to the other-than-straight members of our faith, and I am no exception. I experience the divine through music, artistic imagery, philosophical exploration, drama, and formalised worship. I do not rely on the dry reading of a single version of scripture, and the interpretation of a single minister, in order to learn about the ancient world from which my faith derives. I find the ‘beauty of holiness’ to be a compelling element of worship. And I regard John Kensit as an odious bigot. (It should be noted that Kensit died a slow, unpleasant death from a head wound caused by a thrown chisel during one of his speeches; I wouldn’t wish that on anyone, nor blame him for it, but a dead bigot is still a bigot.) While there is much to admire about Disraeli, including his own camp sensibilities, pride in his Jewish heritage, and championing of romantic friendship, nevertheless his legislative programmes were bad news in many ways, and my spiritual forebears became political prisoners as a result. Others, among them many Christian Socialists such as Percy Dearmer, were prevented from practising their religion as their consciences dictated.

But beyond all this, I am a believer in the validity of the Church of England as a church. I know full well that it separated from the Western (Catholic) Church over a marriage dispute; but it has its spiritual roots in the Reformation, and the desire of many who, like Martin Luther, started out as faithful Catholics, to see the Church better itself rather than pretend to be perfect already. I believe that our bishops are bishops in exactly the same way as Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox bishops. I also believe that the Presiding Bishop of the Anglican Church in America (who is a straight woman) and the (established) Lutheran Bishop of Stockholm (who is a lesbian) are just as much bishops as the Pope himself is, and frankly, they both do a rather better job of it. Moreover, both wish to remain in communion with the Church of England, which the Pope scarcely recognises as a church. And so the Church of England should not have to bow to Rome to ask whom it may ordain and consecrate to ministry, and it should not have to nod to Westminster to agree whom it may and may not marry. If (as it appears) the UK Government will not respect Synodical Government, this is yet another compelling argument for the full independence and disestablishment of the Church of England.

Let’s have a church – or possibly more than one – that can reflect the diversity of this country, and not be used as a punchbag by ideologues of all stripes. I want to see a church that consecrates women as bishops, marries same sex couples, and can put on a show with bells and smells if it wants to. But I want to see a church that is free to do that – not a church that is forced by law to do, or not do, any of it.



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Unspeakable Acts of the Apostles

Today is Transgender Day of Remembrance. Separately from anything else I say in this post, I want you to remember the brutality and injustice suffered by trans people around the world, educate yourself about trans issues, and if you can, do something positive to help.

Today was also day two of the winter session of the General Synod of the Church of England. This fantastically bureaucratic, partly democratic body is the main governing organ of the mother church of the Anglican Communion, and one of the largest Christian churches in Britain. And today, that church quite frankly shot itself in a foot which hadn’t fully healed from the last blast; it voted against the latest proposed code to introduce women bishops.

That’s a slightly unfair characterisation – in fact, the measure received the required 2/3 majority from the Houses of Bishops and Clergy, and only just missed it in the House of Laity. And the introduction of women bishops has already been agreed; the debate is about when, and how to do it without alienating people whose views on the priesthood are closer to Rome than to Canterbury (or Uppsala).

What bothers me, as a relatively agnostic member of this church, and a queer feminist, is how far we’ve come, in a negative sense, since the days of the early church. I think St Luke, in particular, is fairly clear who’s welcome, and who can lead.

Luke is the probable author of the Acts of the Apostles, which was the only one of the many books of ‘Acts’ kicking around the Hellenistic Near East to be taken up by the church at large. The book continues the same story, in the same style, as the Gospel attributed to Luke. And the way the story unfolds appears to me to say something quite specific about how the early church saw itself.

Firstly, in Acts 2, we’re reminded that Judaism in those days was a diverse and complex community of faith; those celebrating Pentecost in Jerusalem include Jews from all over the region, including modern-day Turkey, and Egypt. (The Jewish community in Alexandria produced the Greek version of the Tanakh which was adopted by the Roman church as its Old Testament.)

But it’s the wider picture of the early Christian church that especially interests me. After Jesus’ death, the community in Jerusalem was led by his brother James, whose murder is described in Acts 12:2. James, known as ‘the Just’, and latterly as ‘the Brother of God’, was a rabbi, as Jesus had been – a faithful Jew, and a member of the local (but not national) religious establishment. And like his brother, he was from Galilee, beyond Samaria – a far northerner, and a stranger in the eyes of national leaders. In many ways, he was very much the sort of person one might expect to find leading a splinter group of Pharisaical Judaism in those days.

But the church was spreading out beyond Jerusalem, and far more unlikely people came to be involved. The first specifically identified African person to become a Christian shows up in Acts 8. We never learn this person’s name; but they are identified as a eunuch, a senior civil servant in the Treasury of the sovereign queen of Ethiopia. This makes it highly likely the eunuch was what we would regard as a black African; the kingdom of Ethiopia was beyond Greek-dominated Egypt, and continued to be ruled by an indigenous dynasty. The eunuch’s devotion to Hebrew scripture, and Philip’s willingness to accept him into the community, are particularly significant: the Torah (Leviticus 21:16-24) forbade the priests of Israel from having any contact with eunuchs, which it declared to be a defiling influence. The later prophets had taken a different view: the book of Isaiah depicts God promising the Temple – seat of the priesthood – and an everlasting name, to faithful eunuchs. Philip’s actions can definitely be seen as following the prophet’s challenge to the Law.

The movement to spread the faith more widely became the pet project of a Hellenistic Jewish travelling salesman – Saul of Tarsus, otherwise known as St Paul. As a Syrian, Paul was a Roman citizen and not a Judaean subject; and he had previously been a fierce opponent of the new sect. But his new zeal brought him into contact with a wide range of people, and took him further afield than ever. His first European convert was a Hellenistic Jew like him – and she became the leader of the first church in Europe. Her name was Lydia of Thyatira, and she was a seller of purple cloth. Excuses are sometimes made about how this must have been her husband’s or father’s business, but the text doesn’t mention them – just Lydia, and her profession. It’s ironic that the trade in purple supplied the Roman aristocracy with the formal robes which gave rise to the attire of modern bishops in the western Church. Yet in most of the churches which follow from Lydia’s beginning, women can’t even be priests, and even in those where they can, they often can’t become bishops.

So the picture Luke gives of the early church is of an institution that, in just three people, spans three continents, three careers (religion, public service, and business), three ethnic groups, and three distinct gender expressions. It’s a damnable shame to us all that the institution they founded now excludes, discriminates and harms people because of who they are, what they do, and how they express their identities. And I, at least, am not going to leave, or to shut up about this.

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