Category Archives: Reviews

BOOK REVIEW: ‘Making Sense of Sex’, Adrian Thatcher

Jane Fraser

 Anyone who has ever felt they needed to leave behind their intellectual understanding and experience of sex on entering the Church’s portals will welcome this book which enables the Christian to do what the title says it does.

 As one would expect from Adrian Thatcher, he manages to present this thesis in a form that is both intellectually and theologically rigorous but which is so clearly written and presented that the intelligent lay person (or in my case, a not so academically minded cleric) can find it accessible and a pleasure to read. It also has the distinct advantage of being short (89 pages in all) and thus a boon to the busy.

 This is one of a series of ‘Making Sense of’ books produced by Modern Church in order to make available to Christians a liberal perspective on their faith. Thatcher very helpfully, therefore, starts by giving a brief discussion of theological sources and the character of Liberal Theology, outlining both what it is not as well as what it is and relating this to the theme of the book. This section is just one of what could almost be seen as stand-alone chapters for those with a specific, rather than a general, reason for picking up this book. For example, those engaged in marriage preparation – both the presenter and the participant – will find a feast of understanding of this sacrament in the chapter, ‘Making Sense of Marriage’.

Thatcher has managed to address the problem that many of us in CSCS are struggling with when he says,

The problem for Christian sexual ethics is that for many people on the fringe of or outside the Church, we have become besotted with sex, and the rows about homosexuality appear to be the final desperate attempts of a Church that has almost completely lost its influence to control what people choose to do with their lives.

He goes on to say that

Sexual desire can lead us away from God…. But (it) can lead us to God. It can drive us out of ourselves to seek connection with a beloved other, and in seeking and making this connection we may also connect with another beloved Other who infinitely desires us.

In this, he echoes much of what Jo Ind had to say in her lively discourse on sex in ‘Memories of Bliss: God, Sex, and Us’ (SCM Press, 2003). She, too, asserts that the core doctrine for Christians is one of love – of God, neighbour and self – and should lie at the heart of a Christian sexual ethic.

 Thatcher is also clear that

God has equipped us for joyful sex, not just reproductive sex.

This statement then becomes the key to his rejection of Christianity’s past repudiation of the body as sinful and thus needing to be controlled. On the contrary, he makes much of the act of sexual intercourse giving us an insight into the love of God. In particular, he examines the concept that the surrendering of the one to the other mirrors the communion of the three persons of the Trinity. Even more tellingly, when discussing the embodiment of love, he points us to Jesus’ establishment of the new covenant between God and humanity in the Eucharist where

Jesus holds nothing back. He gives us his body.

 There is also a feast of clear and unambiguous explanation of the origins of a great deal of the confused and erroneous statements made on the subject of sexual difference and homosexuality. He explains how the ancient world understood biological, gender and orientation difference and then leads us on to examine each of these in the light of modern understanding and thus to ‘good theology’ rather than ‘bad ideology’, concluding

“In the mystery of the Trinity, difference is not allowed to become distorted by allowing silly patterns of dominance and submission to ruin the Communion that God is.”

In making sense of homosexuality, he is likewise scathing of the traditionalist case that

is found to be theologically wanting, and a pastoral disaster.

He gives us a useful summary of the dialogue between two groups of theologians (traditionalists and liberal) on the topic of same-sex relations presented in the December 2011 edition of the journal Anglican Theological Review. Having found the liberal case a disappointment, (and the traditionalists’ case a disgrace!) he then enlightens us with an additional and illuminating critique from a liberal perspective.

 For me, the real ‘icing on the cake’ of this little gem of a book lies in Thatcher’s final section on the fruits of the Spirit, taking each – joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control to show how

Life in the Spirit elevates the bonding of shared love into a sacrament of mutual self-giving. It releases love (agape).

 We, as members of CSCS would echo his conclusion.

I long for the day when a robust faith in Christ and a joyful sex life are integrated together for all of God’s children who seek them, irrespective of their status, sex or orientation.”




“Living it out” by Rachel Hagger-Holt and Sarah Hagger-Holt (Book Review)

Daphne and John Cook

Living it outby Rachel Hagger-Holt and Sarah Hagger-Holt, Canterbury Press 2009. ISBN 978-1-85311-999-6.

This book was shared with Daphne by the mother of a friend of Rachel and Sarah’s who is referred to in their writing. A friend who is an evangelical heterosexual Christian. It was therefore a great delight and privilege to meet them both when they addressed a group in St. Martins-in-the-Fields in June.

Their book is filled with stories offering plenty of practical, positive help on managing relationships with God, the Church and other people. The authors state that the book bears witness to the many Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual people that they have met during the last ten years who hold an active faith, lived out in their daily lives. This journey alongside them and with thanks to them, has enabled the authors to build a renewed relationship with God and with the Bible, and negotiated their paths through church to a place where they continue to learn and grow in their Christian faith through good times and bad.

Each chapter offers a challenge to the reader’s faith journey under the title, ‘Action” and then it offers a prayer that may be spoken. So the suggestion to the reader at the end of the first chapter is to draw a map of their faith journey on a piece of paper. To then mark the times when God’s love has been especially known, and the people or experiences that have helped them. In addition to note the wrong turns taken and time spent in the wilderness. Then to reflect on what this shows about the past and what hope it gives for the future.

When growing up Rachel and Sarah had to come to terms with the fact that they were not heterosexual, they found girls attractive, and were not drawn to love boys. They also had to face the fact that many Christians condemned them for being lesbian. Many Churches did not welcome them.

After they met, they found themselves drawn to one another, and they wanted to enter into a life-long, faithful, loving, partnership. They were led to believe that God loved them as they were, and that God would bless them in their permanent faithful relationship.

Eventually a Christian Minister was found who would conduct a wedding ceremony for them. That was five years ago. A daughter was born to them two years ago.

In their book they quote (with permission) freely from the 54 contributors. Many are gay or lesbian or bisexual (LGB). Some are heterosexual (“straight”). Some are parents of LGB people. Some are Christian leaders who condemned LGB people but were led to change their minds. The Christian contributors are from a variety of denominations and traditions. They include practising Roman Catholics

The book offers help to LGB people and to their relatives and friends. It has a good list of books, organisations and websites including a website for Eastern Orthodox Gay and Lesbian Christians. It is a challenge to Churches and to all who call themselves Christians. Is our ignorance, our prejudice, causing us to condemn those whom God loves and accepts?

This is a book to be read and re-read. Colin Coward of Changing Attitude writes, “It is full of wisdom, a resource not only for survival in a confused church, but an inspiration to those longing to be true to themselves and to God who calls us unconditionally to love and transformation”.

Daphne and John Cook

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Jim Cotter, The Service of my Love (Book review)

Anthony Woollard

Jim Cotter, The Service of my Love, Cairns Publications 2009. ISBN 978 1 870652 45 2 Hardback, 114pp. £10.00.

This book arrived just as this edition of the Newsletter was about to go to press. In the time available, I am not sure that I can do it justice. But three facts speak for themselves. First, that it comes from Jim Cotter. Second, that it is about the celebration and blessing of civil partnerships – described as “a pastoral and liturgical handbook” and including a number of relevant liturgical forms as well as much wise pastoral thinking. And, third, that it has had to be privately sponsored and in effect privately published.

The saga of private sponsorship is itself worthy of mention. Jim approached a number of people and organizations looking for help. Even amongst organizations which were broadly supportive, not all felt able to sign up. Most of the signatories are individuals and a number of couples, both straight and gay. They include our own Martin Pendergast and his partner as well as myself and some other members of CSCS. Most of those who read the list are likely to recognise some names – and to be profoundly encouraged by their number and variety. If I may be permitted a very personal observation, I saw one name there of a woman in whom I was once rather interested; the fact that she now has a same-sex partner makes me realize that there may well have been nothing personal in her
negative response to my advances, and after 25 years that in itself is something of a revelation.

The liturgical material itself is what we have come to expect from this author: a rich and imaginative use of words – though perhaps at times a few too many of them. It is always good to follow Jim Cotter’s thought patterns, whether in prose or in poetry/liturgy, because they lead one constantly back to a re-evaluation of the body and sexuality, and of friendship and love. But to undergo one of his very rich liturgies without due pause for reflection would be rather like bolting a whole Christmas pudding. That aside, there are resources here which could be used, not just for the blessing of same-sex partnerships at different stages in their life-cycles, but also for use in worship and prayer more generally amongst those (no doubt including most of my readers) who share Jim’s underlying values.

The tragedy, of course, as the prose commentary points out, is that the likelihood of any tailor-made liturgies to bless same-sex relationships being authorized any time soon is remote. The theology behind this is teased out a little (perhaps just teased might be a better word!) and the inconsistencies made clear. As one good priest once said to me,“I’ll bless anyone or anything if it stands still long enough”, and it must seem exceedingly odd to outsiders that the Church has in the past (albeit maybe less readily nowadays) blessed nuclear submarines, manifestations of human fear, yet is unable to bless manifestations of human love. More work needs to be done on what “blessing” really means; Jim only starts this.

Finally, a marketing criticism! The book claims to be available via the Cairns website ( But when I checked the site it was not yet listed as an available publication! I hope it is by now, because there could, and should, be a heavy demand for it.

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Bishop Geoffrey Robinson, Confronting Power and Sex in the Catholic Church – Reclaiming the Spirit of Jesus (BOOK REVIEW)

Bishop Geoffrey Robinson, Confronting Power and Sex in the Catholic Church - Reclaiming the Spirit of Jesus. The Columba Press 2007, £12.99

Reviewed by Martin Penergast

If there is a phrase to sum up Bishop Geoffrey Robinson’s explosive book, it is this: “Confront power and sex in the Church; don’t manage it!” One of the major problems bedevilling the Roman Catholic Church in recent years has been that its management of matters sexual has been to sweep it all under the carpet, be it abuse crises, clergy celibacy, increasing social and theological dissent on issues of sexual orientation, or reproductive health.

Too ready to point the finger at other Christian Churches trying to struggle more honestly and openly with these matters, the Vatican appears increasingly to ignore not just ‘the elephant in the room’, but a whole herd of them!

Attempts to regulate human sexuality through prescriptive directives wrongly focus on individual behaviour, rather than the cultivation of healthy and holy relationships. They define people by their sexual characteristics rather than understanding human sexuality and its manifestations as integral to the development of human personality.

Geoffrey Robinson was an Auxiliary Bishop in the Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney from 1984 until his retirement in 2004. In 1994 he took responsibility, on behalf of the Australian Catholic bishops, for coordinating their response to growing sexual abuse allegations, and was co-chair of this committee from 1997 until 2003. It is said that a precipitating reason for his retirement was his inability to work with his conservative Archbishop, Cardinal George Pell, himself accused of cover-up allegations, as well as other unsubstantiated accusations. (1)

There were those who criticised Robinson for not speaking out as an active bishop, leaving publication of this book until after he had retired. It becomes clear to anyone bothering to read “Confronting Power & Sex …” that a fundamental reason for this was that he was only able to write the book after he had dealt therapeutically with the coming to terms of his own experience of sexual abuse, as a boy. That said, this is no raging victim, railing at either his abuser, or the social or ecclesiastical institutions that have protected them. This is a faithful and committed bishop who wishes to see the body of Christ, the people of God, as it is meant to be.

Robinson sees the sexual abuse crisis as the immediate challenge to be grasped but recognises that this is but a symptom of a pathologically dysfunctional system. In his analysis, echoed by others such as the American Jesuit clinical psychologist J.A Loftus (2), the sexual abuse crisis was a disaster waiting to happen for a Church where the exercise of centralised, hierarchical power and authority had failed to be “received” by people in the pews, including many of the Church’s bishops and priests. In such abuses of power, institutionalised in the Church’s ‘modernised’ corporate structures, the sin has to be “named”.

Robinson’s book is a work of popularisation at its best. He takes us back to the original vision behind Roman Catholic Church reforms envisaged by the 2nd Vatican Council, reaffirming the insights of critical biblical and theological scholarship, and the principles behind a pastoral ministry consistent with those foundations. This, of itself, is a valuable exercise in a Church which currently seems to be seeking pre-Vatican 2 forms of retrenchment. He questions calmly the basis of current teachings on sexual ethics within a framework of broader ethical principles with as much attention given to property as to purity ethics in scripture and tradition:

“If the Catholic Church is to regain some credibility after the many scandals of sexual abuse, it must first learn to speak with humility, intelligence, realism and compassion about all aspects of human sexuality.”

Rightly giving prominence to a person-centred ethic and the centrality of a fully-rounded, informed conscience, Robinson might disappoint many readers by giving only one answer to the huge number of questions he raises: a change of heart and mind. Nevertheless, at the end of each chapter, he offers a succinct meditation on key-points which might serve as useful material for small group discussion, reflection, and action.

“What is needed is an open and honest discussion of such matters by the whole church. When I see this … taking place, I will believe that the church is serious about confronting abuse. Until that happens, I cannot have this conviction. Change in external structures can help, but they cannot of themselves produce a new church.”

(1) ‘Bishop admits abuse money offer’, BBC News 3 June 2002; ‘Catholic Church in fresh abuse row’, BBC News, 20 August 2002.
(2) ‘Aftermath of Abuse’ in Opening Up – Speaking Out in the Church, ed. J. Filochowski & P. Stanford, reviewed in CSCS News 28, Winter 2005.

Martin Pendergast

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Sexual Surrogate Partner Therapy (BOOK REVIEW)

Sexual Surrogate Partner Therapy, JNB Publishing, ISBN 0-995-52390-7.

From Adam and Eve through to the swinging 60s and the modern-day debate over pornography, the subject of sex continues to be a taboo topic with the lines between love, lust, affection and eroticism blurred by modern day society. In this book David Brown demystifies the conjecture and controversy, and in doing so explains the power of Surrogate Partner Therapy as an effective way to resolve psychogenic sexual problems and dysfunctions; even the otherwise “untreatable” conditions created by fear of intimacy, performance anxiety and sexual insecurities and phobias.

By the author’s own admission Surrogate Partner Therapy is a subject that is much misunderstood by the general public, and, as a result, there has been great misconception and sensationalism, sometimes deliberate on the part of the tabloid press, towards it. David, as one of Europe’s leading experts and practitioners in the field, deconstructs those misconceptions and explains the benefits and sexual and spiritual wellbeing that nowledge can bring.

The strength of the book is its simplicity. A subject like Surrogate Partner Therapy is a daunting one for any uninitiated reader, but far from being an academic tome that is technical and lecturing, the chapters and prose are easy to understand and engage the reader in an almost conversational style — where the reader is provided with some answers but is also left challenged to ask more questions of the author, and perhaps more importantly, themselves too.

In discussing and detailing the concept and implication of Surrogate Partner Therapy, David strips the process into stages that do not overburden the reader with terminology. Noticeably the book does not contain many references to sex in its crudest and stereotypical form, a fact that will be an undoubted disappointment to any reader seeking some sort of titillation.

A chapter containing case studies of clients who have benefited from Surrogate Partner Therapy is respectfully written and necessary for the reader to appreciate the practical problems that can exist and the solutions that lie within. Another chapter chronicles frequently asked questions — and some perhaps rarely discussed — which gives the reader the opportunity to debate within its pages issues that David has explained throughout the book.

The first and final chapters are a personal journey for David; and an emotional one both for the author and the reader. David looks at the formative years of his work, the conflicts he faced with the passing of Jane Brown through breast cancer, and the strength gained from a new vision of the Happy Dream Project, which will offer hope to those struggling to come to terms with cancer and their own sexuality.

Sexual Surrogate Partner Therapy is an honest and genuine work that is clearly aimed not just to inform but also to inspire — and it succeeds through the sensitivity of the words written and the subject discussed, which embraces rather than confuses those reading it. In short, the book unpatronisingly treats the reader as an adult, in what is after all an adult subject to discuss.

Note: the above review was commissioned and provided by the School of ICASA, of which David Brown – who is a CSCS member – is Principal. The School invited the Editor to add his own comments.

Perhaps the greatest challenge of this book, and the enterprise to which it refers, is that it invites the reader to examine the presupposition that “sexual relationships” and “therapeutic relationships” are mutually exclusive. Of course many if not all healthy sexual relationships have a strong therapeutic element. But the conventional wisdom insists that therapeutic relationships, as such, should not be sexual. Brown does not believe this, and tends to dismiss the “safety-first” attitude of conventional therapy. I do not see in his writing any real discussion of the relationship between sex and power or the dangers of abuse. In fairness however it must be said that ICASA appears to exercise the most rigorous and intensive vetting, training and supervision of possible surrogate partners, and it is significant that there are only a tiny number of them – clearly outstanding and courageous people - and they are nearly all women. All the case studies refer to the work undertaken by these women with sexually dysfunctional men.

Those case studies make it clear that surrogate partnership can, and indeed must, involve intimacy in every possible sense (physical and emotional). Whether that would be seen as acceptable will depend on the underlying assumptions, for both parties, of the nature of sexual activity. Here Brown applies his own spirituality, based both on Jung (oddly misspelt “Yung”) and a lot of Goddess mysticism, tantrism, theosophy and other somewhat syncretistic approaches. Whilst there is much here on which to meditate, and some things which may ring true to the experiences of many, I found myself asking, as a Christian realist, whether he does enough justice to the incarnational insights of Christianity which take rather more seriously the hard realities of the human condition, its biological imperatives and drives, and its darker side.

Be that as it may, Brown makes a good argument that the understandings of sex prevalent in Western society – for which Western religions must in part be blamed – are at the root of many sexual dysfunctions because they approach the issue too much from the “outside in” and pay too little attention to the spiritual dimension. At this point many CSCS members would probably sympathise with him. Whether they can make the jump from there to the virtues of therapeutic polyamory, and in doing so seemingly dismiss entirely whatever insights the mainstream Western Christian tradition may have possessed, is perhaps another matter. Yet there seems little doubt from the case studies that a genuine and healing, if temporary, love relationship can occur within surrogate partnership.

Back in the 1960s Harry Williams became notorious through his assertion, as a Christian priest and theologian, that the prostitute-client relationship portrayed in the film Never on Sunday was therapeutic both sexually and spiritually. Brown rightly insists that surrogate partnership is in its intention quite different from prostitution; the latter offers physical relief from the “outside in”, the former spiritual/sexual healing from the “inside out”. But where Williams was right was in reminding us of the ambiguity and complexity of sexual relationships in a spiritual context. I cannot help feeling that, if Brown were to explore more deeply the resources of the Christian tradition in the way that Williams did, he might be able to do more justice to issues such as biological imperatives and the sheer dangerousness of sex, and possibly not dismiss the conventional wisdom quite so readily. But I am sure that Williams would have kept an open and sympathetic mind on what Brown and ICASA are seeking to do; and so should we.

Anthony Woollard

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“Richard is my boyfriend” (FILM REVIEW).

Review by Rev Jane Fraser

“Richard is my boyfriend”. Shown on Channel 4 TV on 7.8.2007 at 11.05 p.m.

Written by Zinnie Harris. Produced & directed by Ian Duncan and Oliver Morse.

This is a film about two young lovers, Anna and her boyfriend Richard, and their developing sexual relationship. The fact that they are not yet married is not seen as an issue. The key theme, however, is Anna’s capacity to give informed consent to sexual intercourse. Although Anna is 24, she is deemed to have a mental age of five. Richard also has a learning disability but is more able than Anna and helps in a local tea shop.

The story line is one that is familiar to those of us who, like me, have worked with and for young people with disabilities in a professional capacity with the aim of enabling them to develop relationships that bring them acceptance, love and pleasure1. Anna and Richard are clearly in love and take every opportunity to sneak off together for time alone with a kiss and a cuddle. Richard comes round to Anna’s house one evening when, just for once, Anna’s mother, Michelle, has left the sleeping Anna alone in bed so she can share a birthday drink with her friends. Anna wakes up and lets Richard in – not just to the house, but also to her bed, with the result that, some weeks later, it becomes evident that she is pregnant. In her desperation to avoid the possibility of becoming responsible for Anna’s baby as well as for Anna, Michelle obtains an abortion inducing pill via the web and persuades Anna to take it to ‘make her stomach upset better’. She also tricks her ex- husband, Steve, into paying for this via his credit card. Needless to say, when the statement comes through and he realises what he has unwittingly purchased, his views on the abortion and Anna’s relationship with Richard, are totally at variance with Michelle’s. From this point onwards, various professionals become involved in deciding Anna’s fate. Either she is to be sterilized so she can continue her relationship with Richard without fear of a further, unplanned and unwanted pregnancy, or she has to be kept at home and supervised at all times in order to prevent her meeting Richard again Although this film that was made for TV has no reference to religious belief, the ethical dilemmas acted out within the story-line are, none the less, ones that continue to tax the major faiths and, in particular, the Christian denominations. Free will and self-determination are examined within the context of a young woman with a learning disability’s capacity to give informed consent. The use and abuse of power is seen within the context of decisions made for Anna by her parents and the various professionals who make decisions that have a profound effect on the quality of her life and relationships. The issue of respect for the value we place on every life (or lack of it) is also seen throughout the film and even in the timing of its transmission (when most good folks have gone to bed).

I was also reminded of the importance of accurate, experience-based information in making decisions and how the use of distorted or incorrect information has such potential for harm in our lives and the lives of those to whom we relate. The reason Anna became pregnant despite their use of a condom was because Richard had been given insufficient information about how to use it. His teacher had demonstrated how to use a condom by rolling it onto a banana and failed to see that Richard did not have the capacity to transfer information from one context to another. The gynaecologist gave insufficient information on alternative methods of administering hormonal contraception other than the oral contraceptive, a method which would have required Michelle’s agreement and co-operation which was not forthcoming. The official solicitor, appointed to assess Anna’s ability to form a consenting relationship with Richard, failed to get any verbal response from Anna about her feelings whilst her mother was present. She also failed to see Anna with Richard, unlike the psychiatrist who observed Anna relating joyfully to Richard in a way that enhanced the capacity for friendship and mutuality in both, and demonstrated their love for each other in a way that words could not.Increasingly, professionals are coming to an understanding of consent as a concept that is not simply conveyed intellectually and verbally but also (and sometimes alternatively) demonstrated through our actions and body language. When someone’s language and intellectual skills are limited, we have to place greater emphasis on observation of the emotional and physical responses to a situation or relationship in order to assess their consent. It is, in my opinion, a mark of lack of respect for someone with a disability, when we fail to take this into consideration. One of the most profoundly disturbing images in this film was the extreme distress and overall deterioration in Anna at the end of the film when she was permanently deprived of her relationship with Richard

If we believe that all of us are equal in the eyes of God and that we are made to relate to him in love, as he relates to us in love, then this film should be deeply challenging to us. Jesus placed a child before his disciples2 and told them that ‘unless you … become like one of these, you will not enter into the kingdom of Heaven’3. He took the least powerful person in society – one with no social, economic, political or intellectual standing and confirmed their priority in the eyes of God over those who use and even abuse their social, economic, political or intellectual standing. As for those who abuse their vulnerability, some of his most outspoken warnings are directed towards them.

The Revd. Canon Jane Fraser August 2007
(Jane is a Minister in Secular Employment working as a trainer and consultant on  sexuality issues)

  1. See Bodysense website at
  2. Matthew 18:2
  3. Matthew 18:3
  4. Matthew 18:6; Mark 9:42; Luke 17:2

Undergoing God – dispatches from the scene of a break-in, James Alison (Book Review)

Undergoing God – dispatches from the scene of a break-in, James Alison, Darton, Longman & Todd, London 2006, £12.95 – ISBN 0–232–52676–1

Who was the only living English theologian referred to by the Archbishop of Canterbury in a lecture given during his recent formal visit to the Vatican? No prizes for guessing right – James Alison! Rowan Williams also had this to say about the first book by Alison, published in the UK following the latter’s return after many years lecturing in Latin America and the USA: “James Alison’s many admirers will find in this book (Faith Beyond Resentment – fragments catholic & gay) much that is new, but also all that they will be used to – wit, clarity, depth and surprises.”

Like its two immediately preceding volumes, Faith Beyond Resentment and On Being Liked, Darton, Longman & Todd have brought together in James Alison’s latest title more of his recent writings and lectures. The sub-title not only hints at James’ penchant for television crime thrillers, but also reveals something more profound about Alison’s theological reflections. The notion of ‘undergoing’ “is the corollary of the Christian claim that we are talking about a happening irrupting into and upon the world.” The Son of Man also comes like that of ‘a thief in the night’, not as a Deus ex machina but as the divine break-in which really is Good News.

Importantly for Alison, the sense of ‘undergoing’ has both personal and ecclesial implications, and these he explores in themes of Monotheism, Worship, Atonement, Transubstantiation, Evil and Reconciliation in the more systematic first part of Undergoing God. His treatment of these, and other themes, is biblically based, reflecting his early evangelical upbringing, while embracing the growth and development of his adult Catholic faith, not least from the perspective of a gay man. In common with many of his Dominican former confreres, he has an extraordinary knack of turning language, concepts, doctrinal understandings upside down, not in any glib or iconoclastic theological terrorism, but in ways that are “almost frighteningly profound.” (Stanley Hauerwas)

As always, Alison’s approach draws heavily on the methodology of Rene Girard. Given the Girardian key concept of scapegoating, how can you resist a chapter entitled,‘Reconciliation in the wink of a hippo’? James has always preferred to be known as
someone reflecting theologically on basic Christian doctrines from, amongst others, the perspective of a gay man, rather than as a ‘gay theologian’.

His much earlier works, ‘Knowing Jesus’, ‘Raising Abel’, and ‘The Joy of Being Wrong’, reveal his concern to do theology in a way that implies an undergoing of divine things. This transformation is not as if an object called ‘transformation’ falls from the sky like a badly targeted missile: “The very word ‘to undergo’ is an oddity, an active verb with a passive meaning. It is more active than ‘suffering’, more passive than ‘confronting’, more objective than ‘experiencing’, and more involving of subjectivity than ‘being handled’. This also shows just how literally adept James is in breaking open the Word/word.

Chapters 8–14, forming the book’s second part, show Alison dealing more specifically with LGBT issues insofar as they form the bases of current debates within the Roman Communion. These are welcome updated versions of previous lectures and essays, dealing with the use of scripture and tradition, same-sex unions, and the recruitment and ordination of gay men in the Roman Catholic Church. It is rumoured that Chapter 9, which first appeared in Opening Up (recently reviewed in this Newsletter), was photocopied and doing the rounds of various Vatican departments as an example of the best contemporary expression of the ‘status questionis’ regarding homosexuality and Catholic teaching. We have yet to see its full impact in those quarters

James Alison’s work is never a ‘doddle’. Some chapters are easier to read than others, but
be not deterred! While his many fans may not be holding their breaths that he will be appointed as a Consultor to the Vatican’s Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, all Christians ignore, at their peril, his attempts to flesh out a critical form for a more adult Christianity. He is undoubtedly one of the brightest younger stars in the British theological firmament.

Martin Pendergast

Note: James Alison’s latest work can be found on where links to
various Girardian sites may also be found.

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Fighting Fundamentalism: a spiritual autobiography, Douglas Bartles-Smith (Book Review)

Fighting Fundamentalism: a spiritual autobiography, Douglas Bartles-Smith. Saxty Press, Shrewsbury, p/b, pp129, £12.00. ISBN 978-0-9555021-0-1.

This artless little book is not quite what it says on the cover. It is not the “journey of a soul” in the same league as, say, Harry Williams’ Some Day I’ll Find You – though the author clearly owes a great debt to Williams. And it is not a guerrilla handbook for Christian liberals either – though they might well find some ammunition here. What it does do is to remind us of the “seven thousand who have not bowed the knee to Baal”.

When we feel most alone in the struggle for what we believe in, the life and ministry of Douglas Bartles-Smith is there to remind us of the good fight that others have fought. Bartles-Smith spent nearly all his ministry in the Anglican Diocese of Southwark, and a considerable part of that as Archdeacon, from which post he retired only in 2004. Thus he can tell a personal story leading from the days of “South Bank religion”, when the Diocese was seen in the 1960s as a haven of radicalism, up to more current struggles with the Thatcherite impact on the inner city and the emergence of issues about gender and sexuality as a focus for ecclesiastical conflict.

The most prominent theme in his life-story is actually nothing directly to do with fundamentalism or sexuality, but is about inner-city ministry, where he made some pioneering contributions as a parish priest, and on which he later contributed mightily to the Church’s challenge to Thatcherism in the Faith in the City report and its aftermath. There is a great and encouraging story to be told here, and one which must not be forgotten. But there is also material for theological reflection. Bartles-Smith rejects fundamentalism (especially on matters sexual) because it is “too counter-cultural” for an incarnational faith, and yet his opposition to Thatcherite social and economic philosophy was very counter-cultural indeed. Truly there are no simple answers in the Christ-and culture debate.

Issues of sexuality crop up from time to time in the book, but, until the final chapters, they do so in a very low-key way. Bartles-Smith paints a vivid picture of Anglo - Catholicism in the fifties and sixties when closet gayness was almost the norm, but there is no real analysis of that. Almost suddenly, in the last two or three chapters, the issue in the book’s title is seriously addressed, as our author witnesses Thatcher’s appointment of Archbishop Carey and the rise and rise of the Evangelical party, and in their wake the smuggling in of fundamentalist ideas, leading rapidly to a struggle in his own diocese over the treatment of gay clergy. But again this is quite properly anecdotal, not analytical. We know that the Thatcherite culture was laissez-faire in economic terms but largely authoritarian in social terms, and that is a long-established syndrome in the Evangelical tradition especially in the USA. A Thatcher could hardly have appointed anyone but a Carey to lead the Church of England. But why did Evangelicalism catch on so quickly? And above all why did the conflict focus so sharply around the gay issue? As Bartles- Smith reminds us, Christian fundamentalists – unlike their Muslim cousins with whom he also deals – tend not to take literally the condemnation of lending money on interest, or most of the other Levitical laws. So why the obsession with homosexuality?

Perhaps the Thatcherite emphasis on personal fulfillment,.in such apparent conflict with her social authoritarianism, inevitably lifted the lid off the pressure-cooker of sexuality, and hence also released others to express their fear of sexuality. In a “me” culture, is there inevitably going to be a faultline somewhere in the area of sexuality and specifically homosexuality? Bartles-Smith hints at this in quotations from notorious Christian homophobes such as Peter Akinola. If you leave out the condemnation of “unnatural” sex, Akinola’s protests against Western self-indulgence sometimes read remarkably like Bartles-Smith’s own protests against Thatcherite capitalism. A good illustration, perhaps, that this counter-culture business is not straightforward. We are also reminded, however, that the South African Church, which has never been backward in criticising cultures of social injustice, has taken a very different stand on the gay issue from those elsewhere in the African continent. The causes seem to be multi-dimensional, and perhaps our author (who certainly knows his theology) has in him the material for a more analytical approach to such questions.

Be all that as it may, Bartles-Smith’s story is a valuable one of realistic courage on the part of a liberal/catholic priest in a Church which became dominated by a very different spirit. Reading such a biography reminds me very much of A H Clough’s “Say not, the struggle naught availeth”. I write this review just as reports are coming through of debates in General Synod over aspects of the gay issue. I am informed that a number of delegates bravely and movingly came out during these debates. Perhaps the Church of England is again on the move, and this time to a healthier place. If so, the decades of faithful witness of those such as Douglas Bartles-Smith have contributed much to making that possible.

Anthony Woollard

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OTHER VOICES OTHER WORLDS: The Global Church speaks out on Homosexuality (BOOK REVIEW)

Darton Longman & Todd 2006, ISBN 0 232 52569 2.

John Cook

This much-needed book is edited by Terry Brown, Anglican Bishop of Malaita in the Pacific Islands Province of Melanesia. A few of the 28 contributors are from Europe, Australia or North America; most of them are not. The history and traditions of indigenous African, Asian, and other cultures make it clear that there has always existed a diversity of human sexualities, and that homosexuality is not a disease imported from the West. Homosexuality is a global phenomenon found in all cultures, all religions. Chapter 1 is written by Martin Brokenleg, the Director of the Native Ministries Programme and Professor of First Nations Theology at the Vancouver School of Theology. He invites us to imagine a reservation in the USA fifty years ago. Three hundred Sioux (who call themselves Lakota) gather for a feast followed by a social dance. The Lakota people have two forms of their language; one spoken by men, one spoken by women. Men and women understand both forms of their language. Men and women dress differently according to their gender.

One man sits with the women and speaks Lakota using the grammar and sentence structure appropriate for women. As the food is served to the men, children and women who are guests, this man helps with the serving. He performs all the tasks of a woman. During the dancing the man shuffles to the circle’s perimeter, stands side-by-side with the
women, and dances in the bended-knee style of Lakota women. He dances as an honoured member of the Lakota community. He is W’i’nkte – a man who speaks with women’s language (Women’s Lakota). Traditional Lakota people regard him as a sacred person who is understood to be powerful.

Native North American cultures are normally female-led cultures. In Navajo society one introduces oneself as being of the mother’s clan, ‘born for’ the father’s clan. Women own property, men own the weapons with which they defend the women and children. This much-needed book thus opens with a chapter revealing a far greater variety of sexuality and gender-roles than those who claim to speak for “orthodox” Christianity recognise or acknowledge. Other chapters written by indigenous people of Africa including Nigeria), Asia and New Zealand, reveal still more diversity. Ancient Chinese literature, such as classical novels, opera, songs and poems, show that homo-, bi- and trans-sexual practices were very common phenomena; they were not imported from the West. An unbiased person might suspect God our Creator of liking variety.Christian leaders such as Moses Tay, former Bishop of Singapore, claim to be following the teaching of the Bible when they condemn homosexuality. This is challenged by other Asian leaders such Bishop as Duleep de Chickera, of Colombo, Sir Lanka. He points out that at times biblical texts seem to give contradictory teaching or direction. A Cardinal responded to a criticism that one of his priests was outside God’s grace because in Romans 1:26–27 St. Paul condemns homosexuality as a sin. Acknowledging the sexual orientation of the priest concerned, the Cardinal described him as one of his finest and most caring, creative and sensitive priests. He was able to see in this priest, more than in most others, the qualities of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control: all fruit of the Holy Spirit enumerated by the same St. Paul (Galatians 5:22).

The over-riding biblical themes of grace, love, mercy, salvation, must impact upon isolated verses such as those quoted to condemn homosexuality. Jesus said that people shall be known by their fruits. One of the encouraging features of the book is the accounts of people who are not heterosexual and who maintain their Christian faith and practice despite being coldshouldered (or worse). Groups of such Christians are to be found in Hong Kong, Singapore and Sydney to name but three. The book mentions a number of websites from which further information can be gained.

The 28 chapters are well-written by sensitive people who know about the subjects upon which they write, and who know the love of God for themselves and for all the diverse people He has made. I shall continue to re-read this book, and I recommend it to bishops attending Lambeth 2008.

“Prayed Out: God in Dark Places”, John Michael Hanvey (Book Review)

Reviewed by Daphne Cook

Prayed Out: God in Dark Places, John Michael Hanvey, Columba Press 119p. ISBN 1-
85607-505-2. Paperback £6.99.

Everyone has a story to tell. Prayed Out is a story of a journey in the life of a man who responded to a call to train and serve as a Franciscan brother at the age of eighteen. He entered that calling and subsequently that to Priesthood with all the confidence of youth. It is an honest story of sharing when that confidence of youth, and the striving to be the perfect priest, was challenged by a journey of living in a gay relationship which was to be for both participants ecstatic and tragic. A relationship of feeling complete one moment,
incomplete and beyond redemption at the next.

It is an honest story of one who discovered his God again in the dark places of his humanity. Through art he has been reminded that his prayer as a young man was to enter the sufferings of Christ for the good of the world. It is his offering of a meditation on Rembrandt’s powerful picture of the Prodigal Son that the author refers to as his autobiography.From this place of being ‘prayed out’, of casting off excess baggage of the past, an unbinding process has come about through many people who have shown love and care.

Finding his place in creation and knowing that God not only loves him, but likes him just as
he is, has been sometimes a harsh, but exciting experience. The reading of this personal story could open a journey that contains similar experiences.

Everyone has a story to tell. This story could be the encouragement for others to travel through darkness to offer the incredible possibilities of God’s grace. The epilogue concludes,

‘All things are new every day, and grace is everywhere; and even if we don’t have the courage for this journey, the one who loves us will make it possible’.

Daphne Cook

Daphne Cook

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