I begin with two pieces of rather mundane news about CSCS itself. The first is to apologise or the late and out-of-order appearance of issues of the journal Theology and Sexuality; this is beyond our control but we are working with the publishers to improve the situation. The second is to say that we are still negotiating with a rather outstanding possible speaker for our next Annual Conference, which, to suit the convenience of that speaker, might well be a Saturday in March rather than in February; we will let members know the outcome as soon as possible, but meanwhile please keep diaries as clear as you can.
This issue of the newsletter is largely devoted to a single theme: the Churches’ attitudes to civil partnerships including the possibility of their being solemnized in religious buildings. The government’s proposals, earlier this year, to allow that caused some fluttering in ecclesiastical dovecotes – not least those of the Established Church, as Bishop Tom Butler explains in his Thought for the Dayon BBC Radio 4, reproduced below, and as our patron John Gladwin, still fairly newly retired from the bishops’ bench, also admits. CSCS responded to the consultation and Martin Pendergast has summarized that response.
We are in a rather strange place here, and it has been made all the stranger by the lawyers’ suggestion that the Equalities Act prohibits a church from ruling out a candidate for office, even a major leadership role, purely on the ground of sexual orientation, though apparently it is still OK to cite “scandalous” sexual practice (presumably including any kind of homosexual practice) as a bar to appointment.
After all the horrors of Section 28, the State seems to have thrown its weight behind genuine equality for people of all sexual orientations, including the possibility of legally sanctioned non-heterosexual relationships which have most of the features of marriage. This may be seen – and was certainly seen by many in the Churches – as an exclusively secular turn, from which many Christian groupings claimed exemption on grounds of faith, and which was to be kept firmly in its place in the secular sphere, with not even the slightest reference to religion permitted in civil partnership ceremonies. But the boundaries between faith and the secular world are too permeable to permit such a neat distinction. Faith – not just Anglicanism or indeed Christianity – is a real factor in society, as it is in the lives of many individuals not all of whom are heterosexual. Now the new, more open social culture is spilling over into the Churches and other faith groups.
Some may fear the implications of this; but they are not to be compelled to give religious blessing to gay relationships, nor to accept “practising” gays into leadership positions (despite the fact that, as we all know, practice makes perfect!) For others it will be seen as an opportunity to bring a deeper dimension into human relationships through acts of acceptance and blessing. It is common enough for clergy to bless everything from pet dogs to nuclear submarines. The latter (and, a few dog-haters or anti-pet militants might argue, the former) raise considerable theological and moral issues, yet a great many Christians would feel that prayer and blessing on human endeavours are appropriate even where thereis scope for debate about the rights and wrongs of those endeavours. Perhaps there are lines to be drawn; most clergy would not, I think, be happy to bless a brothel. But it does seem odd that in most denominations they should be unable to bless two people in love, if those two people happen to be of the same sex. .
What about the distinction between the “legal” and the “spiritual/sacramental” dimensions of civil partnerships? Some would argue that the former is strictly the business of the State, and the latter that of faith groups. But within Anglicanism the two are firmly fused by both civil and canon law. Martin’s response to the consultation raises an interesting issue within Roman Catholicism, where heterosexual marriage as seen as a sacrament (and hence under the jurisdiction of the bishop of each diocese, whether it occurs in churches under his direct control or otherwise) whereas civil partnership, not being seen as a sacrament, may escape that jurisdiction in the churches of religious Orders and the like which are outwith full diocesan control.. That may or may not offer an interesting opportunity for flexibility. The situation in other denominations and faith groups will obviously be very different. Yet in the end of the day, a public commitment between two people has both a legal framework and also deeper dimensions which might be seen by many as sacramental (whether marriage is considered as technically a sacrament or not).
In another journal which I edit, a lively debate has been going on about whether (heterosexual) marriage in church is being forced by the Anglican authorities too far down a “churchy” road when it might be better seen as a “sacrament of creation” and not the possession of the Church in any sense. All one can say here is that public commitment will mean different things to different couples. An exchange of specifically Christian vows, perhaps even within the context of a Christian Eucharist, might be right for some (gay or straight), whilst something else on the spectrum between “explicitly Christian” and “fully secular” is right for others. Where the Church, the clergy, and the use of religious language, symbol or ritual fits in will differ according to theologies and traditions. And all that is of course made even more complicated when the beliefs and practices of other faith groups are brought into play.
Meanwhile, in the USA, an interesting situation is arising in those States where full gay marriage has been legalized. Some bishops in the Episcopal Church, that hotbed of liberalism, are suggesting that those clergy in civil partnerships (which that Church of course recognizes) should convert their partnerships into marriage as soon as possible because marriage is the proper Christian exemplar of a sexual relationship. Are they right? There is no doubt that Scripture and tradition hold out marriage as an ideal. There is equally no doubt that human relationships are infinitely complicated; that the concept of marriage has acquired over the millennia a great deal of baggage which some good Christian people – no doubt including clergy – find alienating; and that it is a pastoral priority to show that the Church recognizes this, at the same time as being ready to encourage and celebrate committed relationships in all their forms. I have written before of the campaign of Sharon Ferguson of LGCM and her partner, with others, to give both straight and gay people a choice between marriage and civil partnership. Are they right, or is this insistence on choice just another example of postmodern consumerism which Christians should resist? I should be very interested in readers’ views on this.
But the US dilemma is one which I suspect many Christians in this country would be quite happy to face. At the moment, the only choice officially open to them, and open to blessing by most of the Churches, is the stark one of heterosexual marriage or celibacy.
Recent weeks have seen activity in another area where “choice” is much debated: that of abortion, where certain conservative Christian groups have been seeking changes which could have the effect of restricting that choice. Jane Fraser’s article below offers one reaction from a Christian practitioner in the field of sexual health. There are, of course, at least as many sensitivities in the area of abortion as in any other with which CSCS has had to deal, but it may be a topic with which we should wrestle more and on which we should speak out more boldly.
Where, then, do all these developments in social policy leave CSCS? We are not a campaigning organisation but a body devoted to study. We continue to work with theological educators, in the hope that a new generation of clergy may be formed who will be able to deal with the diversities of human relationships with a greater subtlety than has so often characterized the Churches hitherto. We continue, too, to support the efforts by Jim Cotter and others to develop liturgies which will reflect that more subtle approach. We continue to ask the awkward questions about just why a narrow understanding of human sexuality should be a shibboleth of Christian orthodoxy, when even the fundamentalists recognise (and Hadley Freeman in the Guardian is aware) that there are many other purity laws within the Judaeo-Christian tradition, right down to the wearing of garments with mixed fibre, which passed their sell-by date centuries ago. And above all we continue to remind others asking similar questions, and struggling existentially with the conflicts that arise within their churches and within themselves, that they are not alone. We may pray that from these efforts there may arise a new generosity of spirit in the Churches, which does not uncritically accept the obsession with sexual self-fulfilment which characterizes parts of our society, but acknowledges the struggle of those who seek to be true both to themselves and to the essence of the Gospel, and, in that struggle, to find a blessing.
Thought for the Day, 15 February 2011 The Rt Rev. Tom Butler
Sexuality and the Church John Gladwin
A Christian response to the abortion dilemma Jane Fraser
Book Review: James Alison, Broken Hearts, New Creations: Intimations of a Great Reversal, (Reviewed by Martin Pendergast)
Thought for the Day, 15 February 2011
The Rt Rev. Tom Butler
People are getting very exercised about the rumours that the regulations concerning civil partnerships are to be changed to allow religious readings to be included in the ceremonies, and indeed to allow the ceremonies to take place in churches. The reason, of course, why religious input was excluded in the present legislation was because the then government was insisting that civil partnership ceremonies must not look like weddings because they are different. In fact in the popular media and more generally they are now usually referred to as gay weddings, and so it’s not very surprising that it’s now being proposed to lift the restrictions. Some denominations are welcoming this, The Church of England at the moment is not amongst them.
The issue raises an important question as to the nature of the Church of England as the Established Church of the land. For many centuries now, it seems to me, the Church of England has acted as a bridge between the contemporary beliefs and attitudes of the people of England, and the traditional beliefs and values of the Christian Church. At times, such as over the question of the abolition of slavery, this has meant that the Church, or at least parts of it, has been ahead of public opinion, at other times, such as over the question of the remarriage of divorced people in church, the Church, or most of it, has been behind public opinion. The role of bridge has been important, however, because it has helped Church and nation to eventually come to a, more or less, common mind, and then move on. To do that effectively, particularly over divisive issues, a church bridge must be both flexible and firm.
Over a decade ago I gave the sermon at the service in St Paul’s Cathedral marking the opening of the new Millennium Bridge, a wonderful construction bridging the river Thames and drawing the more traditional City of London to its exciting, dangerous and entertaining shadow, the South bank of the river. Given the civil engineering conditions it had to be a flexible bridge, but it proved to be a little too flexible, because as the first people began to cross, it began to sway rather alarmingly, and a week later it had to be closed. The designers got to work damping down some of the flexibility and the bridge reopened, bringing pleasure to millions, and over the years through their passage, changing the nature of both North and South of the river.
An inflexible Millennium Bridge would have fractured; a too flexible bridge would have shaken itself to pieces. I believe that the same is true for our national bridge church. The Church of England has learned to accommodate those who wish to remarry divorced people in church and those who don’t. In this it has bridged the gap between public opinion and traditional belief and practice, given time I believe it will do the same with civil partnerships.
Copyright 2011 BBC
Sexuality and the Church
‘I have learnt to watch my back when there are Bishops around’. That came from the lips of an outstanding priest who is in a Civil Partnership. Whatever our view about the issues raised by same sex partnerships in our time the remark is disturbing. Sadly, it is not the first such remark that has come my way over recent years. The fear and anxiety which these comments reveal is shared by the church’s leadership who similarly and paradoxically do not know what to do and how to respond. In an atmosphere of mutual anxiety pastoral care disappears and a distance is created where there ought to be deepening bonds of love and support.
Yet among the community of the baptised there is much to celebrate. I have listened to lay people in churches with a strong conservative tradition speak in the same breath of their own spiritual awakening and of their support and affection for gay members of their family and circle of friends. ‘We have learnt more about what love really means from James and Phil than from many of the married couples within our circle of friends’. So in the day to day experience of Christian women and men we find a desire and capacity to recognise goodness when it stares you in the face. The leadership of all our churches needs to work hard to develop that relaxed and appreciative attitude towards sisters and brothers whose life experience may be different from their own or even from what they might consider to be appropriate.
Providing space for the other and creating a culture of respect for the integrity and for the conscience of others is basic to a wholesome and mature community and so for the life of the Christian church. Both inside and outside the church our culture is making huge strides in this direction. Studies, for example, in the USA reveal that the cultural attitudes of people under 45 and even more so people under 25 are completely bypassing the inherited attitudes of the conservative Bible belt churches. Whatever is held in the pulpit as ‘Christian’ for our culture is not believed in the pews by the emerging generation of Christians let alone others.
In our own society this goes hand in hand with a commitment to human rights and to a proper respect for human equality across the diversity of contemporary social experience. People are much less willing to accept discriminatory attitudes and practices than was the case 15 or 20 years ago. So when the churches appear to want to distance themselves from the provisions which protect against discrimination they distance themselves from the expectations of a growing generation of people today. People hear the stories of the poor treatment of gay and lesbian friends in some religious contexts and come to the conclusion that this is all about institutional protection and unwillingness to help this generation find help and support in living out a faithful Christian commitment.
The basic challenge is not theological – we have learnt to live with plurality of life within the Gospel community – it is attitudinal. When we look positively upon one another across the rich diversity of human experience we will be able to find the language of faith to interpret the tradition in our own time and for people today.
Watching our backs when the Bishop is around is not a happy picture of how church is received by those who are our brothers and sisters in Christ.
CSCS Submission to the Government Equalities Office Consultation on the Registration of Civil Partnerships in Religious Buildings, June 2011.
The following submission responds to a series of pro-forma questions in the Government’s Consultation documents. These may be seen at:
The Centre for the Study of Christianity & Sexuality (CSCS) is a national and international membership organisation, interdenominational in character, and unique in providing opportunities for all Christians, and others in sympathy with its objective, to consider the wide range of theological and pastoral issues in human sexuality. A registered charity, its formal objective is: To advance the Christian religion by promoting objective debate within the Christian churches on matters concerning human sexuality, with a view to developing the spiritual teaching and doctrines of such Christian churches.
CSCS pursues this through promoting academic activity by means of the journal, Theology & Sexuality, and by means of more popular and informal means – newsletters, seminars, conferences, and specific projects such as its Theological Educators’ Project which is exploring how human sexuality issues are dealt with both in the recruitment, ordination or appointment of clergy and lay pastoral workers, including ongoing support, as well as in curriculum development within theological colleges, seminaries and other ministerial training schemes. CSCS works in partnership with a range of other religious and secular groups sharing similar concerns.
In all its responses to this consultation CSCS seeks to identify, if not formally or officially reflect, the various issues which arise in different faith-settings regarding the proposal to allow civil partnerships to take place in religious buildings. We affirm our fundamental support for the amendment to the Equality Act 2010 which allows for such a development. We also wholeheartedly support the permissive nature of this legislation and the right of those who control any particular church premises to decide not to allow their premises to be so used.
CSCS is concerned, that while necessarily focused on religious organisations and institutions owning or exercising authority over the premises for which they are responsible, this consultation insufficiently takes regard of the rights of LGB people of faith and of other beliefs, religious or not, to be able to register their civil partnerships in their places ofworship or meeting. There may be an unforeseen bias in the structure of this document which allows faith-based organisations, particularly, to find ways of avoiding provision for such registrations, without specifically articulating their right not to allow their premises to be used for such purposes.
CSCS questions the legal power of any national religious body, e.g. the General Synod of the Church of England or Archbishop’s Council, the Church in Wales, or the Roman Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England & Wales, to make a decision at national level to withhold consent to the registration of civil partnerships in buildings belonging to those denominations. The decision should, we believe, remain the prerogative of each individual incumbent, and/or owner of the church building, the parish council or similar congregational body, or body of responsible Trustees.
As an ecumenical organisation, CSCS is not aware of any consultation on this matter having taken place within the wider membership of those churches who form Churches Together in Britain & Ireland, Churches Together in England, or Churches Together in Wales. There is an immense variety of belief and pastoral practice, official and unofficial, operating across Christian churches in England and Wales on the matter of same-sex unions, and official denominational responses to this consultation may not sufficiently register such diversity.
CSCS believes that any central or regional (i.e. Archbishops’ Council, Bishops’ Conference, diocesan, or district) church body that seeks to impose a restrictive policy on individual churches within its territory should be required to demonstrate that it has the legal authority to impose that policy. Moreover, it should be required to demonstrate that it has undertaken appropriate consultation with its membership, including with recognised associations of LGB people of faith.
Current civil partnerships legislation makes it very clear that such registrations are not the same as civil marriage, let alone marriage, religiously understood. In some denominations, the Bishop may have a canonical right and duty to oversee the conduct of the church’s liturgy and sacramental practice. However, since civil partnerships do not fall into this category, and are not therefore recognised as marriage, whether sacramental or not, it is questionable what role religious leadership might legally exercise in this regard.
For example, in the Roman Catholic context, if a religious community of men and women, canonically exempt from the jurisdiction of the local Bishop except in matters pertaining to the conduct of formal liturgy and sacramental practice, decided to offer their premises for the registration of civil partnerships, it must be questioned whether the local Bishop, or Bishops’ Conference could exercise any veto over such a development.
CSCS understands that some faith communities have the practice of celebrating such events in private homes, e.g. some Jewish and Quaker communities. There is also an issue regarding those parts of the wider Christian community who describe themselves as ‘house-churches’ or who meet for regular worship outside the conventional institutional denominational structures.
CSCS believes it would be easier for local authorities to have a standard procedure to follow across all Christian denominations and other faith groups, although we recognise that not all groups, particularly those of non-religious belief, will have relevant structures of decision-making.
The principle of subsidiarity should be employed so that the decision should be made at the local level, i.e. diocesan, district, or congregational level. It should also be recognised that some religious premises such as university or college chapels may fall under other ownership/patronage structures, and so relevant personnel in those contexts would need to be identified.
The consultation document (paras. 3.7,3.8) is unclear whether a faith group, at whatever level, may at any time reverse a previous decision in either direction. An initial decision not to register premises may later be revoked in favour of allowing them, either by a general decision, or by a local change of preference, or vice versa. CSCS assumes that the intention is to allow such changes to occur at any time following the initial decision.
The wording of paragraph 3.15 is unclear as to whether this includes all customary places of worship. There are many premises which are not parish churches, or main congregational buildings, such as university and college chapels, Royal Peculiars, hospital and school chapels, and those belonging to monastic or religious communities. Many of these may not be currently certified by the Registrar General as places of meeting, or for religious worship. Some of these may well wish to register them for civil partnership purposes. Many of the venues used by the Metropolitan Community Church are not in their own ownership, but hired, and some may not necessarily be designated as religious buildings, being community halls, etc.
There are also premises shared by various denominations, where the governance may be under a group of local Trustees, rather than clearly identified denominational structures. An issue could arise if one or some denominations sharing such premises wished to register civil partnerships, and others were not so inclined. Any decision, should not be allowed to constrain the freedom, either way, of other churches sharing the use of the particular building.
The proposal in para. 3.18, that ‘faith groups should have discretion about who may seek to register civil partnerships on their premises’ is unclear. Will this discretion be exercised only at the local level or reserved to central authorities? Some faith groups might wish to limit such a service to members of their own faith. Such discretion also runs the risk of abuse by introducing additional conditions on the couples concerned that would otherwise be illegal under existing equality, or other legislation.
Any discretional policies that a faith group seeks to impose should be required to be a matter of public record, so that they are known in advance by any couples who might consider applying.
As with marriage the essence of making a lifelong commitment is that it is made in public so that all can support the couple in their decision, and their relationship is publicly acknowledged and celebrated. They should have the same access requirements as any approved secular premises where a civil partnership is registered. If the partnership is to be registered on religious premises, the same conditions should apply as in the marriage of opposite sex partners in registered religious premises.
It is unrealistic to propose the removal of all religious symbols, particularly when these are permanent fixtures within the architecture or created environment of the space to be used. Nevertheless, it should be recognised that while some will wish to keep the religious ceremony completely distinct, separate, and following the actual registration of the civil partnership, others may well wish for this to be incorporated into an act of formal worship. The legal act of a civil partnership is the signing of the register and its being witnessed, not the verbal exchange of vows or any other action. Could not either option be recognised without compromising the CIVIL nature of the partnership?
There is no reference to the arrangements for marriages in churches where the religious celebrant is not an ‘authorised person’ and the registrar attends, registering the marriage legally in a procedure held typically in a vestry, rather than the body of the church. This could provide one possible model for civil partnership registrations in religious premises.
CSCS suggests that some areas of legislation from which religious premises are normally exempt, e.g. certain Health & Safety requirements, may be required for civil partnership registration purposes. Registering authorities should be allowed some discretion to allow exemptions in line with this.
There is concern at the level of fees that might be charged. Access to rights under the Equality Act should not be obstructed by imposing high levels of fee-costs on providers of these services who will inevitably have to pass on such costs to service users. There is likely to be a relatively small number of registrations taking place in any one location. Those controlling religious premises aim to provide a pastoral opportunity for couples wishing to register their partnerships, rather than primarily acting from financial motives. Guidance to local authorities should make it clear that this legal change and associated charges are not intended to provide them with a new revenue stream.
Many LGB couples are sensitive about openly approaching a particular denomination or church with a request to register their partnerships in this way, if they think they will be refused. If there is a record of approved religious premises this may well add to the speed of social and religious change on this matter.
Religious bodies should be consulted on any guidance to be provided for registrars (para. 3.32). There should equally be guidance offered to faith communities. Sensitivity to the particular needs of LGB couples and an understanding and acceptance of their sexuality should be an essential part of any training. While training should recognise that the civil partnership registration itself remains CIVIL in character, registrars should be encouraged to reflect the culture and traditions of the couple concerned in formulating the type of ceremony to take place, whether in secular or religious premises. It is unclear if there will be guidance to local authorities as employers of civil registrars. Some registrars may not wish to conduct registrations in religious premises as a matter of conscience, a position which CSCS would not necessarily support.
The consultation focuses predominantly on the needs of faith groups rather than registrars or service users. The Government Equality Office should undertake further work on the wider issues that the implementation of the legislation will raise, so as to avoid conflicts similar to those which have already arisen in the cases of some civil registrars who are people of faith resisting, without real foundation, their duty to register such partnerships.
Para. 3.34 recognises that some individual ministers of religion may wish to become designated civil partnership registrars. It would be helpful if clear guidance was given to local authorities to ensure that a consistent approach to this issue is taken across the whole of England & Wales. There is a risk that. if such designated registrars operated beyond their religious structures, inadvertent religious styles/actions might creep into the conduct of essentially civil ceremonies, thus failing to respect the diversity of beliefs, including non-religious beliefs which exist in a pluralist society.
It is important to recognise that the permissive nature of this legislation protects both faith groups and individual ministers of religion from any risk of litigation as a result of a refusal to allow a civil partnership registration to take place on premises for which they are responsible.
Mainstream Christian denominations in the UK do not keep records of requests for same-sex unions to take place on religious premises, nevertheless there is anecdotal evidence in most denominations of such ceremonies taking place, and these may give an indication of the small number of civil partnership requests on religious premises likely to occur.
Certain churches and other places of worship or meetings for those of shared belief may well develop a reputation for being LGB-friendly, so the number of requests in those places will be more significant. Particular denominations such as Liberal Judaism, the Quakers, General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches, and the Metropolitan Community Church will also be more popular having already identified their willingness to be involved.
Various denominations/particular churches and religious locations have established fee charges when conducting marriage which presumably would be the same for the conduct of civil partnership ceremonies.
Although primarily a Christian-based organisation we also recognise that other belief systems operate in our society. The consultation document barely recognises this factor. If civil partnerships are, just as marriage, to be seen as important social developments contributing to the common good, then it is important that religious views of marriage and civil partnership are not pitted, even inadvertently, against the views of our humanist and secular fellow-citizens.
There is a risk, as stated previously in our responses, that this document is more tightly geared to the needs and concerns of religious organisations than to those of LGB people who wish to exercise their rights, let aloneother belief organisations who do not operate within these recognised structures, e.g. humanist and secularist groups and individuals, as well as pagans and those of similar beliefs.
A Christian response to the abortion dilemma
Despite the availability and use of reliable contraception, unintended pregnancies happen outside of marriage as, indeed they happen within it. One in three women in the UK will experience an abortion during their reproductive life. This is not, therefore, a ‘fringe’ issue, either within our churches or outside its doors. Even if it only affects a small number within our Christian communities, it will have touched the lives of many of our families – a sister, cousin, aunt, mother or grandmother, perhaps. It is not surprising, therefore, that since the passing of the Abortion Act in 1967 there have been repeated attempts to repeal or amend the legislation, most of the initiative coming from individuals or groups with a Christian background.
The most recent of these initiatives sought to amend the health and social care bill to guarantee that all counselling of women seeking an abortion would be ‘independent’ of abortion providers. It was based on the premise that providers such as the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) and Marie Stopes’ clinics have a financial incentive to pressure women into choosing a termination, leaving women feeling rushed and unable to control the process. We may leave aside the most misleading of these assumptions, as they are ‘not-for-profit’ organisations. On the other hand, should Christians be concerned that women facing an unplanned and problem pregnancy might feel rushed or pressurised into a procedure that terminates a life or the potential for life?
As someone who has counselled hundreds of young women attending a young people’s clinic who were facing a problem pregnancy, this is an issue that I have faced with them and alongside them. As a professional social worker and counsellor working in a secular setting and as a Christian, my focus was on the need for this young woman to explore what, for her (and, as far as is possible, the father of the child) was the ‘right’ solution, in the sense of having the greater potential for good. She was also encouraged to grieve for the ideal that she could not realise in her situation and in this way she had the opportunity to learn from and grow within the process of following her decision through. Roughly half of the young women we counselled chose to continue with their problem pregnancy and the rest chose to seek a termination of the pregnancy. Even when this latter group were referred to a clinic providing an abortion service, they would be given further opportunities to review their decision. This ‘non-directive’ approach to counselling is followed by any professionally qualified counsellors working in the private or ‘not-for-profit’ agencies offering abortions.
So what really lies behind the amendment debated by Parliament? And why should we, as Christians, be concerned? If this amendment was passed, it would have opened up the provision of counselling women seeking an abortion to separate, ‘independent’ agencies, adding a further hurdle for such women to seek out and overcome at a time of stress. Bids for such work would come from the network of crisis pregnancy centres closely linked to religious organisations or founded by those various faith groups, whose basic assumption is that abortion is a sin and should be avoided at all costs. Women who are ambivalent about having an abortion receive support and guidance to continue with the pregnancy from those agencies. Those who feel they cannot do so, for whatever reason, are given advice, rather than non-directive counselling. They invariably report that they felt intimidated and were made to feel guilty for their decision, leaving them distressed and no further forward as such agencies would not refer them on to a clinic providing abortions.
There are, however, some church-based agencies in the Midlands and in London that offer non-directive, professional counselling and evidence-based information on all the options available to women facing a problem pregnancy, but these agencies are rare. There are, of course, individual Christians working on a professional basis within secular organisations such as BPAS, Brook and Marie Stopes. Again, they are rare. A woman looking for such help may have the good fortune to encounter them and even find a sympathetic and informed response to any faith based concerns they may have.
Should we not, as Christians, speak openly of the dilemma faced by women coping with a problem pregnancy, rather than deny her the freedom to explore all the options open to her? How might we express the compassion and understanding that Jesus demonstrated, for example, in his conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well or the woman caught in adultery? As in those cases, there was also a man involved who needed to be considered. I can only offer my own thoughts that have been developed in dialogue with other Christians working in this field and those who have looked to me for a Christian perspective on their situation.
If the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is the basis for our understanding of how good can come from evil and nothing is too evil that it cannot be redeemed it has a very powerful message for a woman facing a problem pregnancy when, in effect, she ‘cannot do right for doing wrong’. There is no ideal solution, for each solution to the problem falls short of the ideal. Hence she needs to be encouraged to seek what for her seems to have the greater potential for good. I believe she should then be supported by her church community in realising that potential for good.
Freedom of choice lies at the root of this approach and is based in the freedom to choose good or evil that God gave to humanity at our creation as embodied in the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. It is also based on the supreme example of humanity’s freedom of choice in the risk God faced in allowing his people to choose to accept their Messiah or reject him. Christians should not be involved in strategies that misinform those who come to them for guidance or support when facing a potentially life changing situation. Nor should we impose our own beliefs on other people, especially those who are vulnerable because of their need or distress. Rather, we are called to respond with compassion to their dilemma, travel alongside them as they consider options that may challenge our own beliefs and encourage them to seek, with honesty, what for them is a solution to their problem.
James Alison, Broken Hearts, New Creations: Intimations of a Great Reversal, Darton Longman & Todd Ltd, 2011, ISBN 978-0-232-52796-4
The Dominican itinerant preacher spirit still imbues James Alison as he wanders the globe doing theology, reflecting on fundamental issues of faith from a gay perspective. Ever at pains to point out that he does not aim to be a ‘gay theologian’, Alison’s theological vision is therefore attractive to gay and straight Christians alike bringing fresh interpretations of scripture and doctrine to many of those on the edge of fully embracing faith.
James Alison’s way with words is richly creative, sometimes to the point of idiosyncrasy. While readers might often be seduced by such word-craft, in whatever translated language they read his books or website content – www.jamesalison.co.uk – most are agreed that it takes about three readings to begin to understand his points. This is far from an accusation that he is ‘too clever by half ’, but rather that here is a theologian whose prophetic message is to challenge those ‘who have ears, but cannot hear, or eyes but cannot see’.
Alison’s freshness of approach, often ‘deploying tradition against itself – or rather against traditionalism’, as Rowan Williams commented, calls to mind that great Jesuit theologian, Bernard Lonergan’s book, Insight. Here too were traditional categories of language being used to bring faith understanding. It is easy to see why Williams, another great craftsman with theological words, can praise Alison’s ‘very rare gift in making the New Testament really new to the reader’. Reviewing James’ Faith Beyond Resentment, Williams wrote, ‘the very best theological books leave you with a feeling that perhaps it’s time you became a Christian; this is emphatically such a book.’ The same can be said of this latest collection of Alison’s lectures and writings.
Alison remarks in the Introduction to Broken Hearts & New Creations, thatits chapters are culled from four years working out ‘ever more fully the fecundity of what Rene Girard describes as his two ideas: the mimetic nature of desire, and the discovery of the implications form hominisation and cultural foundations of the scapegoat mechanism’.
Girard’s mimetic theory has huge implications for psychology and anthropology, but also for theology, and it is Alison’s application of this to the latter which has prompted Girard to describe James as ‘the best exponent of my thought in the English language’. James notes that in this theory ‘the other, the social other, always precedes us, moves us, and gives us to be. In other words, while I may think I have made an independent rational choice to act on my own impulse … there is in fact a huge social powerhouse, a weight of gravity moving one from within to develop that desire, follow that impulse and “find” myself within the experience’.
Theology is not concerned primarily with the social other, but with the ‘Other other’, not part of the social order, but who has brought it into being and maintains it. The self-disclosure of the ‘Other other’ is not simply passing information about itself, but rather communicating a desire which neither rivals nor oppresses us, and which imparts an awareness that not only are we loved, but, as in the title of another of Alison’s books, we are actually ‘liked’.
The ‘Other other,’ named as the Creator God, is at the heart of what James describes as ‘a great reversal’ in the process of creation. His contention is that if we own the true insights of the Council of Trent in expounding creation theology, many of the arguments around human sexuality which paralyse global Christianity, might be avoided. If concupiscence is a condition we all share as a disordered desire, doesn’t this challenge the way in which some speak of disordered desires only in the context of variant sexual orientations or gender identity? Whatever happened to the foundational belief in creation theology that ‘God saw that it was good’ and that all is grace, conditional on human subjectivity embracing the gift?
Creation, sin, redemption, grace, sacrament and sacrifice, discipleship, eucharist, priesthood, violence, reconciliation, forgiveness, are themes which form a theological litany in Broken Hearts & New Creations. Some chapters speak for themselves: Is it ethical to be Catholic? Queer perspectives, Discipleship & Belonging, Is secularity really the enemy?, Living the Magnificat, Letter to a Young Gay Catholic. Intriguing as are titles such as Befriending the Vacuum – not a theology of household chores, but receiving responsibility for an ecclesial spirituality – or Brokeheart Mountain, not a film review, but reflections on monotheism, idolatry and the Kingdom – Alison points to further reflection in some challenging subtitles: On being afraid and its ecclesial shape, Reflections on a whimper, The changes in tone of the voice of God.
Some chapters draw from the participatory reflections which James has developed in a 12-part programme, The Forgiving Victim, an introduction to Christian faith for critical adults. Using audio visual tools for reflection, he hopes to make this available in 2012. Other elements will be found in On Being Liked and Undergoing God. Those who have taken part in ‘trial runs’ of this course testify to the radical way in which James Alison enables individuals and communities to ‘inhabit the text’ of scripture, and likewise ‘inhabit the text’ of faith, moving us on beyond our prized but maybe too cosily secure possessions of religious belief.
If Broken Hearts & New Creations wets your appetite for James Alison’s theology, don’t delay in getting the simpler Knowing Jesus, his reflections on creation and original sin through Easter eyes in The Joy of Being Wrong, or the challenges of eschatology, Living in the End Times – the last things re-imagined (also published as Raising Abel). Don’t be put off by hints of hard graft, understanding Alison’s quick turn of phrase. Rejoice at his wild, occasionally camp, injection of humour in doing theology, but above all take the risk of growing up in faith.
This book review first appeared in The Way – the Jesuit review of Christian spirituality.
How to offend at least three constituencies at once!
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