Are We to be Doomed by Intransigence?

by Jayne Ozanne, Editor of ViaMedia.News and Director of the Ozanne Foundation

Jayne Ozanne new

Whether or not Albert Einstein actually said “insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result” I think we can all agree that in the most part this sentiment holds true.

That said, perhaps a better, more accurate saying actually might be “if you want a different result then you have to try a different approach”.

Certainly President Trump and the Democrats could learn this, and arguably Theresa May and her Brexit deal too (we’ll find out soon enough!).

One thing is clear though, simply repeating the same rhetoric over and over again is not likely to unlock any deadlock or move people nearer to finding a solution that is acceptable to the majority.

While many would love for the content of what is being said in various key debates to change, the first thing that normally needs to be addressed is that of the debate’s tone.  Hence the constant talk of “good disagreement” – not as an endpoint, but as a way of working together towards trying to find one.

Anyone who heard President Trump lambasting the Democrats for not agreeing on his demands for a border wall, and laying the blame for any deaths of children in custody firmly at their feet, will understand I am sure what I mean.

He has stormed out of meetings, he has shouted at reporters, he has made what many would see as outrageous claims – but the one thing he has not done is modelled any form of “good disagreement”.  Or compromise.  For to do so would be seen as weakness, or so it seems he believes.

This is “stubborn hard man” diplomacy – which most of us learnt earlier in our childhood rarely works.

Intransigence it seems can be rather infectious, affecting both sides of the pond.  Indeed, our very own Prime Minister has been accused of the same tactic.

However, at least in her case she has brokered a deal with all 27 EU nations, and appears to be trying to address some of the concerns expressed over the backstop.  Perhaps most importantly, her tone – whilst firm – has been far more respectful and as such a much better model of “good disagreement”.   Who can forget her willingness to sit, listen and answer hours of questions in the chamber back in mid-December – a model that perhaps her counterpart in the US would do well to heed?

Intransigence, of course, is not the sole purview of politicians.

We see it constantly in various polarised debates across society – not least in matters concerning the sexuality debate within the Church.

I would suggest we had a perfect example of it last week.

A letter signed by some 100+ clergy within a large diocese of over 1500 clergy, which criticised their bishop for a letter he himself had sent a few months before.  Their complaint?  That he had failed to mention things that they felt he should have said, and that he had said things that they felt he should not have said (despite it being completely in line with the current House of Bishops guidelines).  Their “overriding concern”, or so they said, was that it implied a certain “direction of travel” in the diocese – even though it was a direction that the Archbishops themselves had committed the whole Church to undertake.

Ironically it beautifully proved why the bishop’s letter was needed in the first place!

Of course the hard truth is that their letter said nothing new.  It was the same intransigence that we have seen throughout this whole debate.  Yet again they chose to ignore the fact that – as the House of Bishops have themselves stated – there is a wide body of opinion on this matter.  Yet again they failed to engage with the critical issue of pastoral care for the LGBTI community and the significant harm that has been caused by their teaching.  Yet again they threatened to go elsewhere if their demands weren’t met.

What struck me most however was the letter’s tone.

It’s a tone that many are now becoming all too familiar with.

It’s a tone that has the veneer of seeming gracious and kind, yet has veiled threats at its heart.  An iron fist in a velvet glove.  “Stubborn hardman diplomacy” that gets us nowhere.

It’s a standoff.

Or should I say a very Mexican standoff?

Where (according to Wikipedia) “no strategy exists that allows any party to achieve victory. As a result, all participants need to maintain the strategic tension, which remains unresolved until some outside event makes it possible to resolve it.”

So what could this outside event look like I wonder?

Well, it’s very difficult to speak for either the US or UK situations, but I wonder whether in the Church it will be when the congregations of these clergy start to stand up to them and say “Not in my name!”

Ideally of course they would follow this up with action – such as choosing to stop their financial assistance, and perhaps instead divert it to an inclusive church organisation.

The good news is that we know that there is an inevitably about this particular “standoff”.  For research has shown there is a younger generation of Christians that are growing older by the year who hold a completely different view on this issue to their older leaders.

It is purely a matter of time.

Sadly there is the burning question about how many lives will be traumatised before this time comes to pass…but the answer to that is of course in our hands.

My answer to the very Mexican standoff that we are currently experiencing is therefore that we pray that the voices of those in the pews will become louder over the year ahead, and that they will vote with either their feet or their wallet against letters sent in their name.

Posted in Good Disagreement, Human Sexuality, Jayne Ozanne, Politics | 2 Comments

Hope at the Hinge of the Year – Football and Fear-filled Futures

By the Rt Revd David Walker, Bishop of Manchester


God willing, at 3 o’clock on New Year’s Day I’ll be sat in the stands at Salford City FC watching them take on Wrexham in the National League. I love local football games. I like the fact that the crowd care about both the club and the town whose name it carries.

By New Year the season has a define shape. We could make a good guess about which teams are likely to win promotion, and who will get relegated. But there’s still time for all that to change. A decent run of results will send a club surging up the league table. The hope of going up can be rekindled. Fears of the dreaded drop can drain away. In another month or so it will be too late. Players and fans alike will have stopped hoping, and stopped believing.

My other local team, Bury FC, faced that last season. By February they were painful to watch. They had no confidence or belief, nor any hope they could play better. They passed the ball back towards their own goal more often than forwards. They wasted most of their chances to score by taking too long. Hope had died and paralysing fear had taken its place. Thankfully, the present season is going much better. They have their hope and their belief back again.

Beyond football, there’s plenty to be fearful about in both our country and our world. But I want to hold on to this as being a time for hope. In this last year in Manchester I’ve seen people from churches, and charities, businesses and the public sector, come together determined to tackle rough sleeping in our city centre. We share a real hope and belief we can turn round a desperate situation. We’ve a common goal that we are kicking the ball towards. And I can see it beginning to work.

Wherever we get to on the big political challenges of things like Brexit, the U.K.’s future success will depend less on the details of any plan and more on our being determined to work together for the future. We need  hope and belief in ourselves, belief that we can make it work for everyone in our nation.

For me as a Christian, it’s because I have hope and belief in God and the message of Jesus Christ that I also believe in people. We are made in God’s image, and can do remarkably good things. Human driven climate change is by far the greatest global threat to our children and grandchildren. For the last couple of years I’ve been working with a group of investors who are passionate about tackling it. Our teamwork, and our combined skill and muscle is forcing some of the biggest and most powerful companies in the world to change the way they behave. Had we given up hope when our first attempts were rebuffed, we would not be making the difference we can now see.

The stories of Jesus repeatedly show how he brings fresh hope to those who need it most. And he tells his followers to do the same. Little things, gifts of food and drink, comfort to the suffering, friendship to the outcast, make a world of difference.

One of our local football teams in Manchester has recently sacked its manager. I wasn’t surprised. Over recent months I’d seen players and supporters lose hope that the existing regime would deliver the results they wanted. I’ve known teams where the manager wasn’t the real problem suddenly start playing better once that individual has gone. Sometimes even before a new appointment has been made the simple resurgence of hope is enough to make the difference between losing and winning.

So, whichever football team you support, I wish you and them a hopeful New Year. And well beyond the hallowed turf of our sports stadiums, my prayer is that the God of hope will fill all of us with his hope for 2019.

Posted in Bishop of Manchester, Human Sexuality, Social Justice | 1 Comment

When “the Goodies” become “the Baddies”…

by Jayne Ozanne, Editor of ViaMedia.News and Director of the Ozanne Foundation

Jayne Ozanne new

One of the things I love most about the Christmas story ever since I was a child is the way in which God makes heroes out of the least expected characters – be they single mums, smelly uncouth shepherds or star-gazing foreigners.  What’s more, I soon learnt that those you assumed ought to be “good”, like powerful Kings, were anything but – just like the villains in a pantomime.

It helped me understand that things are never quite what they seem in God’s upside-down kingdom.

As I got older I also began to understand that those we deemed the “bad guys” seldom saw themselves as the “baddies”.  I mean, take the religious leaders of the time – they were convinced that they were saving the Jewish faith from a false preacher who had come to usurp the law.  They truly believed they were the good guys, and were used to being perceived as such in the face of the pagan Romans.

The Gospels go out of their way to continually make this point.

Those who ought to have been the wise, kind, spiritual mentors of the people turn out to be more obsessed with being “right” than being open to what God was doing right there and then amongst them.  They were more in love with defending the law as “they had received it” rather than being open to what the Holy Spirit was doing amongst them in their generation.  Their longed for Messiah was standing right in front of them, fulfilling all that they had read about and studied, and yet they just couldn’t see it – despite all the loving acts and miracles that were done in their presence.

All, that is, save Nicodemus.  As John explains there was at least one religious leader who recognised who Jesus was and sought him out, even if it was under cover of darkness.  He humbly braved everything in the process – particularly his standing amongst his peers – and in doing so found himself challenged to be “born again” of the Spirit.  He would no doubt have been labelled unsound by his colleagues on the Sanhedrin for doing this, but as we learn later in the Gospel it was a price he was more than willing to pay for the prize of being true to the God he worshipped.

To be fair, nobody I think likes being seen as the “bad guy”, especially when they think they are actually the “good guys” who are just being severely misunderstood. History shows us they normally create a narrative that says that they are in fact victims and that this is the cross they bear for being ‘true believers’.  I wonder if that’s what the religious leaders in Jesus’ day did amongst their friends?

In fact, I wonder how many got to a point – perhaps at or after his death when there were so many signs and wonders – of realising that they were in fact wrong? Did they repent?  Or were they too fixated on trying to prove they were right and everyone else was wrong? Or maybe just too proud?

We all know the type.  There is a hardness that seems to descend, a stubborn outer shell that seems to be formed that is impervious to logic or truth.  A friend of mine calls it “the voice of no negotiation”.

I wonder, what does it take for someone like that to admit that they might have been mistaken?

This has got me reflecting on what was the biggest mistake I’ve ever made, where I had to admit at some cost that I was wrong.  There have been several but the one that comes to mind immediately is one that at the time I greatly feared would lose me both my job and my career.

It was during my first year at Procter & Gamble when I was working on the multimillion dollar Fairy Liquid Defence plan against Unilever, which would become know in the trade as the great “Soap Sud War”.  It was a year of intense promotional activity, which had given me significant exposure to the company’s Senior Management Team and was something extremely unusual for someone of my junior level.  Given the millions we were having to spend to protect the brand, we needed the most senior managers in the company to sign off and agree our plans.

On the way to the Board Room on what has to be the most nerve wracking presentation of my life, I suddenly realised with a great sinking feeling that I had made a major miscalculation in the budget. This was even more embarrassing given the fact that I was a mathematics graduate from Cambridge, and should have known better than anyone how to do the calculations.  It was a mistake that meant our plans were out by quite literally millions.

I tried to get my bosses attention, but he had already gone into the intimidating boardroom and was seated at the head of the table and was waving at me to sit next to him.  I tried to whisper under my breath that we had a problem, but he just motioned me to be silent.  I realised that I had a choice – either I needed to own up in front of the whole Senior Management Team that I had made a terrible mistake, or I needed to just stay silent and let the problem be discovered at a later time.  I remember feeling sick to the stomach and could hear my heart pounding in my ears as I decided I couldn’t possibly let this expensive error go unnoticed – it would probably cost me my job, but I didn’t want my boss to ultimately blamed. It had been a genuine mistake, made in good faith, but it was still wrong.

So I sat there and stutteringly explained that I realised there had been a significant miscalculation.

I remember my General Manager (my boss’s boss’s boss’s boss) staring at me and then over at my boss, who was looking at me as if he would explode. I wondered if I should just get up and leave.

And then something happened that I will remember for the rest of my life – the General Manager sat back and smiled.  Looking me straight in the eyes he congratulated me for having had the guts to own up to my mistake, and for being willing to take the rap.  He explained that it was an easy mistake to make, and that none of us were infallible.  Yes, the plans would cost the company a significant amount of money, however they were still the right thing to do.  We proceeded and “won”.  I got promoted.  It seemed honesty and courage was valued far more than being “right”.

I believe that God values that too – far more than we know.  Honesty, courage and I believe humility.

For “He chooses the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and the things that are weak to shame the strong” (1 Corinthians 1:27).

It’s an upside down world.  Always.

Posted in Human Sexuality, Jayne Ozanne, Social Justice | 1 Comment

O Little Town of Bethlehem….How Still Do We Really See Thee Lie?

by Dr Meg Warner, Theologian, Lecturer and Member of General Synod

Meg Warner

At this time of year our thoughts and our imaginings go winging to Bethlehem – the ‘little town’, ‘where the dear Christ enters in’ to ‘meek souls who receive him still’. Bethlehem sounds so lovely when you put it like that, although the reality, of course, is, and was, quite different. Matthew’s gospel, in particular, makes it clear that Judea was an area under the ruthless control of Herod, the ‘client-king’ (some would say ‘puppet’), who owed his primary allegiance to Rome. No wonder rumours of the birth of a new king, in Bethlehem was sufficient a threat to goad Herod into ordering the slaughter of all boys under the age of two (Matt 2:16-18).

It had always been like that in the Holy Land. The geography of that place, as a land bridge between Egypt, Asia and Europe (a bit like Belgium), led to a history marked by a succession of empires – often violent: Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece and Rome in the biblical period alone. The ancient Israelites had to learn to live with this parade of colonising overlords. The Bible gives us clues as to some of the ways that they achieved this: sometimes cooperating, sometimes practising subversion, sometimes retreating into the desert, with different groups taking different approaches at the same time. Life was harsh – the ancient Israelites had to contend with droughts and shortages of all kinds as well as periods of occupation punctuated by military battles, ostensibly between the current occupational forces and those hoping to be next, but all played out in, and over, Israel’s territory.

Today everything is the same and everything is different. The Holy Land is divided – between the relatively recent (post-1948) state of Israel and the Palestine Territories, which Israel occupies. Today’s Palestinians, ironically, live, in many respects, as the biblical Israelites themselves lived, with many of the same concerns about shortages of resources, restriction of freedoms, erosions of sovereignty, destruction of property and threats of violence.

Only, it’s not really so ironic. Research into the effects of trauma on communities shows us more and more clearly that the impact of traumas, such as those experienced by the ancient Israelites, stay with communities for generations, causing a narrowing of perspective such that identity can be constructed in only one of two guises – oppressed or oppressor.

Traumatised communities tend – without some form of intentional intervention – to adopt one of these roles, oppressed or oppressor, or often both in turn or at the same time. Don’t forget, part of the historical land of Israel was given to the Jewish people by the international community (the UN), partly to make up for the victimisation of Jews in the Holocaust. The tragic irony is that the victim then became the oppressor.

We have seen this played out in history many times, around the world. South Africa offers a particularly vivid example: it was colonised by French Huguenots escaping religious persecution in France and Holland, whose descendants many centuries later came up with apartheid as a ‘biblical’ principle for managing relationships between peoples sharing land. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was in many ways a remarkably successful intervention against the patterns of community trauma, following the eventual dismantling of apartheid. However, once again the tragic irony is that twenty years after the TRC, the new majority black government has succumbed to many of the temptations of corruption and violence that plagued their white predecessors. As Desmond Tutu puts it, ‘the ANC stopped the government gravy train just long enough to get on it’.

The other way in which things are still the same in the Holy Land is that its politics are still being determined by forces from afar.

Last week Australia (my native country) became only the third nation, after the US and Guatemala, to recognise West Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. While there is no immediate intention on Australia’s part to move its embassy to West Jerusalem until it can put a Palestinian embassy in East Jerusalem, nevertheless the announcement itself is sensitive, and brings with it the potential for violence such as that which occurred after the US recognition of Jerusalem. The background, what’s more, is extraordinary. In October this year there was a byelection in the seat of Wentworth, in Sydney. The byelection was rather important to the Australian government, which held a parliamentary majority of only one seat. The seat of Wentworth has an unusual profile in the Australian context – it is 13% Jewish, and the government’s fielded candidate in Wentworth, Dave Sharma, had previously been Ambassador to Israel. The average percentage of Jews enrolled to vote in Australian electorates is 0.5%. Numerous media commentators, including the former Bishop of Canberra and Goulburn, George Browning (Guardian Online, 16 October 2018), have been clear that the policy shift, first mooted prior to the 20 October byelection, was carefully timed to improve Sharma’s (and the government’s) chances.

In the event, the Government lost the byelection, its parliamentary majority, and probably also the respect of the Jewish voters of Wentworth. Even so, Israel remains on the agenda of the now markedly weakened Australian Government as last week’s further announcement shows, just as much as it is it is part of the partisan politics of Trump’s America, so that Israel’s fate remains subject to the random whims and aspirations of imperial powers around the world.

At this time of year our thoughts and our imaginings go winging to Bethlehem, and indeed to Jerusalem. Bethlehem was never the ‘still’, ‘silent’ town of the hymn, just as Jerusalem (Jeru/shalom) was never truly ‘the city of peace’. Instead, they have been, and remain, sites of negotiation and tension, conflict and violence, practised both by and against Israel, and by and against Israel’s neighbours.

In the midst of your Christmas celebrations, please pause to ‘pray for the peace of Jerusalem’ and of Bethlehem, Gaza and Ramallah …, that peace might be found within their walls and security within their towers (Ps 122:6-7).




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A Modern Day Nativity Policy: Last Week’s Other Global News

by Colin Blakely, Editor of the Church of England Newspaper and Co-Editor of ViaMedia.News

Colin Blakely

The last week has been a momentous one. Unfortunately, those who are reading this in the UK may be unaware of the level of importance of these events.

Of course the subject in question has long been controversial, and created divisions between the right and the left, between families and even between Governments. Last weekend, it even led to the collapse of the coalition Government in Belgium. But finally we may be seeing some light at the end of the tunnel.

It all centres on the thorny subject of migration.

For some, it was the driving force behind the UK’s Brexit referendum result, but it continues to be a subject that has raised temperatures all around the world.

And the fact that real temperatures continue to rise is one reason that global migration is on the rise. Changes inflicted by our warming planet are making more places inhabitable. To survive, they simply have to move. But where to?

Last Monday at a conference in Marrakesh, Morocco, some 164 countries – including the UK — adopted the new Global Compact on Migration proposed by the United Nations. There are two principles to the pact: firstly that migration –which has always been a human fixture – should be managed and safe, and, secondly, that national policies are more likely to succeed with international co-operation.

It sounds reasonable and uncontroversial. However, for some those “troublesome migrants” are only on the move for economic reasons: they want our money and our jobs. And for some governments it has been seen as a sensible policy to ban humanitarian rescue ships in the Mediterranean rather than to save the lives of desperate people who will almost certainly die without intervention. To them, this new pact will only encourage more illegal immigration.

Here in the UK this story has hardly been reported. It’s been a bit like an important foreign language movie that is only on show at a few art house cinemas for one showing at an inconvenient time.

That may have helped the Government, as my colleagues in the media have been preoccupied with the extraordinary events in SW1 this week. That fact meant there was no backlash to the signing of the pact here in the way that happened in Brussels. But it could have been. Some media outlets had reported on the pact weeks before last week’s summit and the best interpretation they could find was that it could lead to anyone who opposed the EU’s migration policies being slung in jail.  While it might have made a dramatic headline, it was far from the truth. That was just one of the “many falsehoods” that had been noted by the UN Secretary General António Guterres as he opened the Marrakesh conference.

And to be clear, this pact is not legally binding or even a formal treaty. Nor would it allow the UN — or anyone else [including the EU] — to impose migration policies on a member state. “It is a framework for international cooperation, rooted in an inter-governmental process of negotiation in good faith,” he told delegates in Marrakech.

The pact was signed as the UN is marking the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a point not lost on Mr Guterres: “Voluntary or forced; and whether or not they have been able to obtain formal authorisation for movement, all human beings must have their human rights respected and their dignity upheld.”

Making that reference to forced migration was also meant to include the threat of human trafficking – an issue to which the world has woken up in recent years. That was an issue that brought to the fore by many Christian agencies and their action prompted Government action here in the UK.

Climate change, migration, human trafficking and the battle for human rights have all been ideas championed by influential Christian movements over the years. This latest pact is a testament to their hard work.

Indeed as we think of one particular family who was forced into migration 2,000 years ago, the Marrakesh Conference is in part a testament to them, and gives us all, and even the Government in Brussels, a worthy standard to set.




Posted in Colin Blakely, Human Sexuality | Leave a comment

“Enjoy But Don’t Inhale!”

by the Revd Canon Rosie Harper, Chaplain to the Bishop of Buckingham and Member of General Synod

Rosie Haarper

The past few weeks in the church where I work there have seen some of the largest numbers ever, and some of the lowest. What’s going on?

Remembrance Sunday was mega all round the country. We ran a variety of events across that week-end. They were all well attended, and it was standing room only at the service following the ceremony around the memorial. At the end of the day we had a quiet thoughtful evensong and 50 people attended. That is huge for a little village church. Then the bells rang out again (the third time that day) and we processed out into the dark to light the beacon. I was bowled over. Yet more crowds. People had walked up the hill in the dark to come to a very simple ceremony at a church they otherwise never go near.

The service for folk who have been bereaved called ‘Remembering with Love’ was also packed. When we manage to offer something that people actually want they pitch up.

I asked some of them why they had come. ‘It’s important to remember.’ ‘This year is particular we need to be here.’ ‘My Grandfather died in WW1’ ‘It’s a sign of respect.’ ‘We need to say thank you.’ Lots of very good reasons. Here’s the issue: their motivation was good and solid and human. These were all the sort of person who had depth and an instinct for values beyond their own personal story. But none of them said they were in church to worship God. None of them. Not even the  regular paid up church goers.

So were they worshipping? When the community got together to remember WW1 and all the sacrifice and the honour and the relief and pride that it all came to an end on 11.11.18  -were they doing something  secular in a church building, or was it worship? I believe that when you do something that comes from the depth of your humanity it can it be worship even when there is no deliberate religiosity about it.

One of the depressing aspects of Facebook is the snarky comments of the super religious. The colour of the advent candles, the exact vestments, the singing of carols before Christmas. All these and of course more profound issues are bickered over as if true worship can’t happen unless we get it all correct.

Maybe real worship can’t be conjured up at all. A bit like happiness, it is what falls out of being fully alive, of living in a connected loving, compassionate way that makes sense of being human. Maybe the unchurched pitching up at Remembrance Sunday were more in touch with God than the faithful few who work so hard to get their liturgy right in order to conjure up God. I’ve just read Anglican Mainstream’s response to the House of Bishop’s Pastoral Guidance for blessing transgender transitions. I struggle to discern even the faintest fragrance of God in what they say, and yet they are confident that they speak in his name

The same probably applies to ‘Mission’ We are running on old software. Our aim is still to get people to come and join the club, and we totally fail to recognise that most people have a pretty deep inner life and firm and good values. They just don’t articulate or express things in religious terms. My example would be the Christmas Tree Festival we held in church last weekend.  Again the church was full to bursting with folk who rarely come to services. There were multi layered conversations, lots of laughter, children having fun in the church rather than being told to be quiet. And yes, someone said; ‘This is what church means to me. All sorts of local people from our community getting together   -looking out for each other.’

That little festival felt pretty close to the way Jesus saw it   – they’ll know you  are Christians by the way you love one another. Surely mission falls out of loving one another and loving your local community?

On the whole the Church is moving in the opposite direction. It is looking for ever more ingenious ways of telling people their lives are shot without God. In a way that might be true, but the offer is always ‘you need MY type of God’ and it simply is never going to work. Think of the way things have changed in the world of shopping. In a very short space of time people have moved on-line. It is no good shouting at them telling them to get back to the High Street. Things have changed. It really is the same for church. It is not good shouting at people telling them they ought to come. The thing which we call a ‘Service’ is probably toast. Some of us love it, and in Cathedrals and the like it will survive as a supreme part of our culture. Most surely you can encounter God there. But it is mostly a social and cultural construct which now carries with it so much baggage that people look elsewhere for ‘a God moment’.

The baggage certainly makes it tricky for me. The class, the hierarchy, the bigotry, the language; it’s all neatly packaged and the good experiences when they come, happen despite that massive handicap. In a way what we actually do in church doesn’t matter that much. We have created some wonderful and some dire liturgies over the years. Surprisingly research shows that people are not that interested in what is taught either. Warm supportive relationships, in a context where power is used well and justice and equality are clearly the ground values, make for something worth striving for. The way that happens for the next generation is surely going to be very different. The  regular ‘service’ will probably continue but as a niche product.

At the moment that drive to define the church as a place for ‘true believers’ is very strong. The bar for belonging is getting higher. There is more emphasis on discipleship and on getting the fringe of the CofE drawn into the centre.

My personal experience is that I see more of Christ in people on the edges. Getting really keen on religion doesn’t seem to be very good for your character. Most of the in-fighting we are struggling with at the moment is amongst sincere but judgemental people who “know they are right”. Treading lightly, with a good dose of doubt and questioning and creating a holy space where you can just come along as yourself is healthy.

Religion is not the point but the pointer. We have to remember that most of it is a human construct, built with extraordinary creative imagination, but also with the desire for power for personal and political ends.   A lot of what we have inherited is glorious for people who like that sort of thing, but a wise friend of mine has a strategy: ‘enjoy but don’t inhale.’


Posted in Human Sexuality, Rosie Harper | 9 Comments

Are Christians Guilty of Exerting Peer Pressure to Make People “Fit In”?

by the Very Revd Dr David Ison, Dean of St Paul’s and Vice-Chair of the Ozanne Foundation

David ison 2

All of us want to ‘fit in’, to be part of a human group where we feel at home.

It’s programmed into our minds and our genes. From early childhood we copy others. We shape our actions, our thinking, our statements, and ourselves around our family and our friends, and in relation to wider society. We take on the views of those around us, and as we get older we choose carefully when and where to be different. We wear particular fashions, or not. We build an identity, which as we get older and more confident may become more varied through our own conscious choice. Football fan, catholic, political party supporter, goth, liberal, lover of classical or rock music, rebel, parent, conservative evangelical, intellectual…. we discover who we are, and we adapt who we are, to try to have a physical, emotional and spiritual space which will nurture us and where we will fit in.

Because not to fit in is uncomfortable – for you, and for the group around you who find it threatening. If the group rejects you, it threatens your physical, mental or emotional survival. So you try hard to conform enough to be accepted, even when it doesn’t feel like the truth of who you are. Whether it’s your family or your peer group or your church. Even when you get bullied and pressurised not to be different, while knowing inside that you probably are.

But how would you feel if someone in the group went as far as saying to you, ‘You don’t fit with our view of the world, and so we’re going to make you change your body and your mind so that you’ll fit in with what we think’?

That’s been the experience of many intersex people, and the historical experience of many gay people. Castration, whether physical or chemical, and unwanted ‘reconstructive’ surgery for the body; conversion or aversion ‘therapy’ for the mind.  ‘Fitting in’ has meant ‘forcing into’. And even if it doesn’t go that far, people have felt emotionally pressurised into being what they truly are not, in order to fit in. And they suffer because of it.

At a day conference on 8th December on Faith, Science and Sexuality, delegates heard the experience of what it was like to be gay, trans and intersex; and how mental as well as physical health is impacted by the stress of not being able to fit in, yet not being able to be yourself. One of the many fascinating things I learned was just how much ignorance and hostility focuses on trans people, those who don’t conform to gender stereotypes and so unsettle and disturb others.

One of the psychological factors at play in this is that those who feel insecure in their own sexual identity will feel threatened by others who deviate from it. If you’re afraid you’re gay and that others might notice, then in self-defence you may bully non-conforming people – gay, trans, intersex – to show yourself or your peer group how you’re definitely not ‘queer’ and therefore you really do fit in with them.

And yet one of the very positive messages of the conference was that to be who we truly are, to accept the reality of ourselves and others, sets us free to find wholeness and peace in ourselves and with the wider world. Whether it’s gay people coming out, or trans people discovering their inner identity (whether or not they have surgery), or intersex people asserting who they really are against the expectations of others about what is ‘normal’ – breaking out of the tyranny of a binary male/female, black or white, view of the world enables people to fit in with one another on the basis of realism and generosity, not insecurity and rejection.

And the same is true with regard to religious belief. When I began to speak up publicly in support of gay people in same-sex relationships, I was accused by conservatives of betraying those who wanted to be faithful Christians and also struggled with their sexuality, because entertaining the possibility that same-sex relationships might be positive could undermine their resolve to be faithful to Christ. Which not only assumed that there were no faithfully Christian gay people in committed same-sex partnerships, but also that people trying to fit in with the conservative view of sexuality were not fitting in well with the narrative of being committed to celibacy – there was a discontinuity between what they felt and what they believed, and they felt insecure about it.

I wholeheartedly support those who choose and feel called to celibacy, because it’s such an important witness against the sexualisation of relationships in all human societies. But I don’t support people doing it to fit in with what others require, rather than what they choose and are.  That’s because that can damage and even destroy them, as so many non-conforming people are damaged by the imperative to fit in with the views of others on faith, gender, sexuality or anything else.

Professor Robert Song of Durham University concluded the conference with a vision of a Christ-centred ethic where we are seeking as Christians to be one in Christ, with all our differences and non-conformity, and where procreation is through baptism not sexuality. Our identity is in Jesus Christ; not an identity mediated, defined and confined by the church’s power structures and local communities, not living in a particular way because of pressure from others to conform to one world-view or another, but living out the reality of how God has made us to be and become.

We’re not called to fit in with the expectations of others, but to come to fit beautifully and in wholeness with who we are and who God calls us to be in Jesus Christ.

Posted in Dean of St Pauls, Human Sexuality | 4 Comments