Ad Fontes

Politics, Theology and Christian Humanism


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Speaking at the Oxford Union marriage debate

On Thursday (26 November 2015) I was invited to speak at the Oxford Union marriage debate. Of our group of six ‘paper speakers’, the big hitters were Germaine Greer and Peter Hitchens. I have been asked to write my thoughts about the evening.

Jayne Ozanne and Gareth Hughes at the Oxford Union, celebrating victory.

Bait & switch

I am no celebrity, but was drafted in at the last minute to fill a space in the debate card. I had spent most of the Wednesday away from Oxford at a family funeral, and returned to a find a rather exasperated Union returning officer waiting to collar me before I said Mass. I’m sure he explained things perfectly, but I’m afraid I only registered the snippets “Germaine Greer”, “state recognition of marriage” and “oppose the motion”. My response was, “Well, I don’t have anything planned tomorrow evening, and, if you’re desperate, I’ll do it”. By e-mail later that evening, I was informed that the title of the debate was ‘This House Believes the State should not Recognise Marriage’, and I was an opposition speaker. I had not until then understood the double negative: I had agreed to speak in favour of state recognition of marriage.

Instinctively, my heart is against state recognition of marriage. I know people in other countries who have had to convert to another religion in order to marry. I believe tax breaks for married couples is a peculiar kind of social engineering, bribing couples to marry and remain married for lower tax code. Although I am a supporter of same-sex marriage, I found the UK government’s rush to implement it strained our already confused and complex marriage law (at least English marriage law), creating qualitatively different marriages in law and allowing the established church to barricade itself within a narrow limitation of the law of the land to which it ties itself (other-sex marriage only).

I took heart in the maxim that one is strongest in debate when one debates against one’s own beliefs. It would have been easy to divide the debate into a liberal proposition opposed by conservatives, so, if I were to be on the opposition bench, I wanted my liberal and progressive credentials to shine through unmistakably. This was especially true because I felt it only right to wear clericals, and, as the invitation requested ‘black tie’, that meant dusting off my frockcoat — I would look the image of a 19th-century Anglican arch-conservative.

The first draft of my argument was drawn from the preface of the Common Worship Marriage Service: “it enriches society and strengthens community”. The Church of England’s theology of marriage is that it is a social good, that stable, loving human relationships are the building blocks for a good society. I can immediately see a problem with this: it can be up-ended to bash single parents, divorcees and single people as antisocial. I had some good advice on academic papers to support this view from old friend and Oxford anthropologist Dr Jon Lanman. However, the more I thought through marriage as a social good, the greater the number of philosophical holes I saw in it.

On the day of debate I had lunch with Hertford College’s irrepressible feminist political theorist Dr Dana Mills, who tore my social-good argument apart and reckoned Germaine Greer would have no trouble in doing the same. She had the view that human rights law was the way to proceed: how states legislate to protect our individual rights to family and private life. We happen to have a shared appreciation of Eleanor Marx, socialist activist and daughter of Karl, and I loved Dana’s suggestion that I quote Tussy’s 1886 The Woman Question on the floor of the Union.

That describes the ingredients of my paper: my sympathy for the proposition, showing myself to be, in spite of appearance, liberal and progressive, some elements of social good, human rights law, and Eleanor Marx.

Drinks & dinner

For those who don’t know, the Oxford Union is the student debating society of the University of Oxford, but its establishment and prominence is much greater than any other student society. In all my time at Oxford, I have never been a member or darkened its rather elegant portal. Of late, this self-proclaimed trumpet of free speech has seemed more enamoured of celebrity and controversy. I confess to being prejudiced against the Union, believing it to be one of the remaining residual habitats for Oxford’s ‘Brideshead factor’ and a place where pretentious boys go to play parliament in bowties and clipped vowels. I met some lovely people who do not fit this description, but there was no attempt to disabuse me of my prejudice.

The evening began with drinks, at which I had the great delight to meet with my debating opponent Prof. Dean Spade. Dean is an associate professor of law at Seattle University School of Law, and founder of the Sylvia Rivera Law Project,  which provides free legal services to trans people.

At the following dinner, I was seated opposite my debating partner Jayne Ozanne and beside Germaine Greer. Jayne is a member of the Archbishops’ Council and director of Accepting Evangelicals, a network of evangelicals who accept the place of gay people in the church. I admit to being overawed by Germaine’s celebrity, telling her how an ex-girlfriend had given me The Female Eunuch to educate myself. I wanted to have a polite little dinner, too timid to bring up her recent statements on transwomen. The subject was brought up by others. Germaine’s response was that she had been continually, gratuitously misunderstood and misquoted, and that much of this can be traced back to a complex and difficult time at Newnham College.

The staff and food at the Union were very good. The dinner concluded with the pomposity of toasts, the last being the ‘loyal’ one. There are few places left that insist on this bizarre ritual (it is forbidden at my college), and I do not make the toast the monarch. My fellow republican beside me simply, wordlessly sipped at her drink.

Debate

The Union’s debating chamber was full. After some notices by various officers, we proceeded with the ‘paper speeches’ alternating between the proposition and the opposition. The proposition speakers were, in order, Tom Foxton, a student at St Peter’s College, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, the author of Kosher Sex, Germaine Greer, and Dean Spade. For the opposition we had Harrison Edmonds, a student at University College, me, Jayne Ozanne, and Peter Hitchens.

I followed Rabbi Shmuley’s speech, an energetic performance packed with humour. I felt the only way to go was to contrast some dry, English self-deprecatory wit after the Hollywood bombast. I was not particularly happy with my performance, beginning a little too slowly and rushing the end. I had not timed my text, but it would have been just right for the ten minutes if I had started more quickly.

As Germaine Greer was introduced the inevitable protest erupted in the chamber from supporters of trans rights. She stood and silently faced her accusers, resolute. The protesters mostly shouted across each other, making it impossible for their point to be heard. A silent walk out, the unfurling of a banner or some other act might have been more successful than simple disruption. It was a pity that no member of the protest group remained to deliver a ‘point of information’ during Germaine’s speech or to deliver their own floor speech. The protesters were removed by security, while the Union officers spoke in self-congratulatory terms of upholding free speech at their removal — the irony seemed completely lost on them; they will have glowing political careers. In terms of the speakers, three of us — Dean, Jayne and I — explicitly mentioned our support for trans rights (that’s 2:1 for the opposition!).

The most striking part of Germaine Greer’s speech was her angry emphasis on the number of women who are killed by their partners or ex-partners in the UK — a shocking two women every week. I don’t think it had much bearing on the debate at hand, but it was an important fact to underline, and I thank her for reminding us of it and challenging us to do something about it.

Jayne Ozanne’s speech was brought to us by the word ‘passion’, with a touching account of how she once proposed marriage (the full text of her speech is here, do read it). Speeches from the floor followed, with some very good speakers. Many of these focused on the legislation for same-sex marriage. After the floor speeches, Dean Spade brought us important insight from the historical demography of the United States. He spoke about how marriage and lack of state-recognised marriage has been used to control the lives of people of colour, and its effect continues to this day.

Lastly came Peter Hitchens with perhaps the most lacklustre of all the speeches. He told us how society, politicians and judges have conspired to undermine marriage, and that marriage is a contract and that anyone seeking divorce is a contract breaker. Of course, no lawyer would make such a wild claim. As the Danish lawyer I had dinner with the following night told me, contracts are time-limited, specific in the duties entailed and have clear mechanisms for their cancellation. If marriage be understood as a contract, it is a unique, unusual type of contract. In the same way that new students get sexual-consent workshops in college, telling them that consent must be enthusiastic and ongoing, the ‘I will’ (not the ‘I do’ of Hollywood) of marriage is not made once and forgotten, but remade each day (that’s the hard part). As Peter spoke, all I could do was imagine the woman in a loveless marriage or an abusive marriage being told to keep up her end of the contract, being delivered back ‘home’ by the police from the women’s refuge. The miserable absence of any compassion was telling. For a man who claims to uphold Christian morals, lacking such compassion undermines any claim to be speaking from the vicinity of Jesus.

As they do, they voted. We, the opposition, were narrowly victorious 117:102.

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The case for not attacking Syria

The news media are full of plans to attack Syria this evening. On Thursday, Parliament is to be recalled to debate such an attack. The Prime Minister, David Cameron, has returned early from holiday to ‘deal’ with the situation. At the same time, the US and France are making similar initial noises about an attack.

I believe these rumours of war are wrong, and urge politicians to think again.

On a personal note, I have been a regular visitor to Syria over the years, for research, study and leisure. I love Syria and its wonderful people. Over the last year, I have had quite a few terribly sad conversations with Syrian friends about the rapidly deteriorating situation.

A line has been crossed: chemical weapons have been used in Syria. Most likely they were deployed by forces loyal to Bashar al-Assad. Yet there is still just enough doubt, even with a visit from inspectors, to shade any certainty. The use of chemical weapons is a clearly defined war crime. Yet no war crime precipitates a licence to wage war under international law: committing a war crime does not give an automatic right to bomb a country. International law strictly requires a UN Security Council resolution to wage war, and, with Russian and Chinese vetoes, that is not going to happen anytime soon. It seems to be the new ‘white man’s burden’ to police the world, rounding up its tyrants, yet any civilised police forces needs to operate within predefined laws and with public goodwill and consensus.

Apart from the legal problem, there is a serious underestimation of the seriousness of the situation. Yes, I believe the situation is too serious for a military ‘solution’. The reasons for this seriousness are

  1. Bashar al-Assad is a desperate dictator at the head of a complex power network. Forcing him back further into a diplomatic corner will almost certainly make him and his network more desperate, and capable of lashing out with untold consequences.
  2. Syria has entered a civil war. What began as peaceful protest, turned into violent protest when met with government violence, and has since become a full-scale civil war. Gradually, the opposition has shifted from the control of community groups and exiled critics of Assad into the hands of violent, opportunistic gangs, and those importing a religious fundamentalism alien to over a millennium of Syrian multiculturalism. Any military action will change the current balance of the civil war. This is not to say status quo is desirable, but neither necessarily is any shift in balance between two equally undesirable sides.
  3. Not one pot of coffee is brewed in the Middle East without international repercussions. There are Syrian refugees living precariously in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey among other places. Iran and Hezbollah have a strategic interest in supporting Assad in their neighbourhood. As ever, if there is Western military intervention in Syria, however ‘surgical’, Israel will see what regional advantage it can make of the instability, which is likely to be an excuse to bomb sites in Syria, Lebanon and Iran. The West would be culpable for unleashing Israeli attacks.

There is much angst about sitting by and doing nothing. ‘Appeasement’ has a bad rap historically, but it is a logical fallacy to ‘do something’ just because it is felt that something must be done. Military action is always believed to be a last resort, and thus a sign of failure and weakness. Rather than asking if this plan of action will result in a measurable improvement of the situation, it is done for the sake of doing.

Of course, more diplomacy would be welcome, but the West has burnt so many of its diplomatic bridges already that it looks like careless arson. David Cameron should not look to his ‘success’ at bombing Libya, that had unseen consequences in Mali. Libya’s population is under 6 million, Syria’s is over 22 million.

Syria’s large Christian minority are beginning to suffer greatly, in the midst of the general suffering. It cuts me to the heart, but I deplore those Christians outside of Syria who call for military intervention. Standing by is not the weak option. It takes wisdom and courage, when provoked to lash out, to realise that it will only exacerbate the situation, and that the true course of action is to stand firm. To desperate, and weep, yes, but still to stand firm.


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Serenity by design in a Finnish wooden church

Kärsämäen Paanukirkko, the Wooden Church of Kärsämäki, Finland.

I have just returned from a little holiday, during which I visited the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art. The museum and its beautiful gardens overlook the Øresund from the village of Humlebæk, near Copenhagen, and is the most stunning setting for its world-class collection of modern art. One exhibition caught my imagination: New Nordic: architecture & identity. It grabbed me for three reasons: I was not expecting it, it explored identity through design and architecture, and underlined why design is so important to the various Nordic peoples. I could never imagine an exhibition on English or British identity — no flags or ‘history’, just our connection to the land, and we have transformed it and it has transformed us.

Interior of Paanukirkko.

The New Nordic exhibition contained many examples of new architecture, but I was surprised by a section on church architecture. I should have considered that the Nordic countries, each with their prominent national Lutheran churches, have an enhanced sense of public ownership of their churches. Some of the designs were too austere for my taste — whitewashed concrete, glass, steel and solid angles — but some revisited the tradition of building in wood. These warm, textured church buildings are architectural invitations to pray, to step into the light of the divine. I settled on Kärsämäen Paanukirkko — the Shingle Church of Kärsämäki — from among the modern wooden churches on display because of its simplicity.

Close-up of the tarred shingles that form the outer jacket of Paanukirkko.

Kärsämäki is a small town in northern Finland (Northern Ostrobothnia), in the Diocese of Oulu (Kalajoki Deanery). Paanukirkko was built in 2004 using 18th-century traditional techniques, an idea put forward by architect Panu Kaila (his book Talotohtori, ‘the House Doctor’, is a popular guide to traditional Finnish building techniques). As Professor of Architecture at Oulu University, he suggested a competition to build a new church for Kärsämäki using this principle of a modern design hand-built with traditional techniques. The competition was won by Anssi Lassila‘s design for a wooden core building fitted with a black-tarred shingle ‘jacket’. The black shingles contrast with the light pine interior, which adds to the thermal and optical effects of moving from dark, cold to light, warm with a spiritual dimension. The white lantern at the pinnacle of the roof bears a simple cross in its design to tell us this is a church, and lets cascades of Nordic light flood the interior of the church. This cross-lantern feels the exact opposite of the neon crosses that top out some churches. The latter are gaudy, artificial attempts to hit the passer-by with its message, while this lantern draws in light, as the cross draws believers and the church draws worshippers. The proclamation is the congregation, coming and going with the light of the cross; the proclamation is natural, human, two-way. That the church is hand-built — every black shingle, every pine beam selected, prepared and attached by human hand — also emphasizes its humanity.

Plan of Paanukirkko.

The shape of Kärsämäen Paanukirkko is not the simple rectangle or cruciform of most Finnish churches, but is a box topped out with a pyramidal rood. The focus is fairly central, the altar to one side with the congregation seated around (I would prefer to see an altar placed right in the centre). The pine pews set in the pine-clad interior reminds me of the more internationally renowned subject of Finnish building design, the sauna. The rest of the world has cheapened and debased the sauna, but this building is near sacred to Finns. The Finnish saying, saunassa ollaan kuin kirkossa, “One should be in the sauna as in the church”, perhaps says all we need to know about how highly the sauna is regarded. Families take saunas together naked, women used to give birth in the sauna, and the dead used to be prepared for burial in the sauna. It is a clean place, a place of purity, a place where all are equal in their nakedness, birth and death. Perhaps it is not so naive that my first thought when I saw a picture of the inside of Paanukirkko was that it looked like a very beautiful sauna, and it is not so surprising to know that Anssi Lassila and his partner have designed and built saunas as well. This church building represents cleansing even to a non-Finn, and that central lantern is both a baptism of light and a draw heavenward for the eyes. It is this fundamental reciprocity of movement — going in and coming out, descending light and drawing up of the gaze — that makes this church not just a dynamic building, but one that treasures human interaction with its space. Not many of our churches can enfold and awe, amaze without imposing barriers to progress.

View of Paanukirkko, its bell tower and approach, and the Pyhäjoki.

The setting for Paanukirkko is a wide grassy stretch, flanked by trees, beside the swiftly flowing Pyhäjoki (literally ‘sacred river’). Its approach is a long, raised boardwalk across the fields, with a mostly unimpeded view of Paanukirkko, and part way walking under the A-frame bell tower, which is roofed with the same black shingles as on the church. The path meets one corner of the church, and one enters along a passage between the shingle outer coat and the inner timber building to reach the inner door.

This passage runs all around inside the epidermis of the building, and also incorporates a vestry, storage and facilities. However, on entering, this passage makes a wonderful liminal space between the dark and the light, and it is kept dimly lit to contrast with the brightness of the inner church.

Looking back down the passage towards the door.

Kärsämäen Paanukirkko is a great example of built theology that speaks with a primal language of contrast, movement and simplicity, and it is stronger for that. Its hand-built tradition particularly echoes not just the wooden churches of Finland, but also the old cleansing ritual of the sauna. Its modern design reflects the ability of a good architect to build a story that enchants the lives of all who pass by or enter in. Its only failing is the lack of liturgical courage to build an altar — round or, even better, a cube, that says this is the place, the consummation of your journey here —  at the centre of the church, rather than a movable table to the side.


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A better jubilee

As a priest in the Established Church I believe it is important that the leadership of the church upholds Christian values. The monarch and government retain a leadership role in the church that can often conflict with Christian values. The recent visit of the King of Bahrain, accused of brutal repression, demonstrates affairs of state trumping the role of supreme governor. It is difficult for the church to speak truth to power when that power appoints its chief spokesmen.

The concept of ‘jubilee’ is an Ancient Near Eastern practice of restitution, including the forgiveness of debts. In the Hebrew Bible (Lev. 25), this ‘yovel’ is demanded of God’s people as a rebalancing of society. Whereas our society is crying out for this kind of jubilee, what we are given is an expensive personality cult. It does not take a Hebrew prophet to point out that this is a sinful inversion of how anointed leadership should be exercised.

Churches up and down Britain will be holding services and events to mark the ‘jubilee’, and, while these may serve some good in celebrating community, there is the danger that the focus will be on an earthly monarch and vague ideas of nation rather than on the King and Kingdom of Heaven.


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Why I’m supporting AV

Say Yes to AV!I am surprised that there is the whole spectrum of strong views about the Alternative Vote among my friends and colleagues. UK voters are being promised a referendum on whether or not to adopt AV for electing the House of Commons, and the party lines seem to be shaping up as Labour and Lib Dems for, and Tories against (with sizeable groups within parties campaigning against the leadership). I am for it, but am shocked that those I consider the most progressive and/or radical are set against it. I am a member of the Labour Representation Committee, but was knocked back when I found out that the National Committee had decided to support the No campaign.

To be honest — and, if you are of the No persuasion, I shall grant you this as a starter — AV is not a very attractive option. If we were being truly progressive, we would want a referendum on adopting a system of proportional representation. Neither AV nor our current system are designed to return seats in Parliament in proportion to votes cast. However, just because AV is not the best ever option, it is does not automatically follow that we should keep our current arrangement. When given a straight choice between AV and the current FPTP system, AV is far better as it allows voters to express their true preference and return their preferred candidate, without wasted votes or vote splitting, and reducing the need for tactical voting.

This referendum is a distraction from the real politics of the dismantling of the post-war consensus on the welfare state and public services, which are far more important. However, if we have to do this, let us do it right.

There are three lies that are being spread by the No Campaign about AV

  1. That we no longer have ‘one person, one vote’
  2. That it will mean that a ‘loser’ will win and a ‘winner’ will lose
  3. That it will cost a huge amount of money

Under AV everyone still has one and only one vote. The difference is that an FPTP vote can be wasted by voting for a candidate who does not stand a chance. With AV, instead of the vote being wasted, it is transferred to the next preference as ranked on the ballot paper. This does not mean you get two or more votes. It is still one vote, but it can now be recycled if the first preference polls badly. With FPTP the problem of wasted votes encourages voters to vote tactically rather than expressing their true preference. For example, many more people would probably vote for the Green Party, but they do not vote for them because they reckon that to do so would be a wasted vote. Thus, the Green Party’s electoral support is probably far lower than the true preference of voters.

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I marched, but the media reported wrongly

I joined the March for the Alternative on Saturday 26 March with around half-a-million others. It was an exciting day, and good to see people of all ages, including little children, and all backgrounds dancing and chanting along the Embankment and en route to Hyde Park. I got back to see BBC News coverage of the event, and was angry, albeit not that surprised, to see a very skewed view of what went on.  I have had around two-dozen friends say that they wished they had gone on the march, but were concerned about this or that. I have to say that this march was ultra-safe, and the babies and toddlers only cried when they saw Cameron or Clegg’s face on placards! If you stayed home and only know about the march from media reports, let me tell you something you have not yet heard: it was a great day out for all the family.

The main contingent of the march were the unions. There were lots of Unison, Unite and GMB banners there. There were firefighters marching in pristine uniforms. Teachers were marching, as were students. A huge Postman Pat was leading groups of posties. Plenty of Labour Party branches were there with banners, as were a few Green Party branches and the assorted other parties of the Left. Campaign groups were out, like Stop the War and UK Uncut. Many spent hours on coaches from Scotland and Northern England to get there. A group of carers for the elderly marched with placards, each bearing a photo of an older person and their message of support for the march — an old woman grasping her zimmer frame: “I would march if I could”. It took two hours for those at the back of the march to reach the starting point on the Embankment from which the front moved off. If each of us who marched has a handful of friends who stayed at home yet support us, the march represents many millions of Britons who refuse to accept the government’s rhetoric on necessary cuts. This is no minority, this is mainstream.

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Census awkwardness

Page from the Domesday Book for Warwickshire, ...

Domesday Book

Census day is almost upon us. Filling in the census form is not that difficult, and, seeing as it is used to direct government policy and funds, it is fairly important. Genealogists love those old censuses, like trainspotters anoraking for the Flying Scotsman, but as a statistical exercise the census is deeply flawed. Governments need information on their citizenry to function well, and we have been subjected to them since Mary and Joseph travelled to Bethlehem, and Will Conker got his hands on our Domesday Book. Fears about invasion of privacy, Big Brother and the database state are almost certainly overstated; of all the information held about citizens the census is probably the most secure and the most difficult to misuse. However, I am concerned that huge US arms manufacturer Lockheed Martin have been given the contract to process the census forms. We have been given assurances that the data will be safe, and I believe them (after all, I do not think the CIA would find our census returns that interesting, as they can already locate and profile each of us in a dozen different way).

So, what is to be done? I do not recommend doing anything illegal with census forms. Not returning the form, failing to answer a question (except an optional question like the religion one) or supplying incorrect information can land us with a £1000 fine. However, I do object to Lockheed Martin getting public funds for census work. Their plan is to process your census form in a few seconds flat, using computers that scan the pages, rip the information and add it to the database all at once. My suggestion is that we make them work for their money. After all, if I make a few innocent mistakes on my form and turn their few seconds into ten minutes of entering data by hand, that’s less profit going to the arms dealer, and more to the minimum-waged workers at the processing centre. If enough of us are awkward enough, the casual workers at the centres will get more work and pay, and Lockheed Martin will make less profit. After a bit of searching I found some nice tips on how to be census awkward — short version / long version. Here is a very short guide of how best to fill in the census form:

  1. The bar codes help Lockheed Martin process the form really quickly, to slow them down a bit
    1. It is always fun to fill in some of the white spaces in the bar codes on most of the pages.
    2. It is very easy to loose the envelope and then have to fold the form twice to fit another envelope and write the Freepost address on it. This might prevent the initial registering of the form as sent (so someone might call round and ask if you have sent it) and make it difficult to feed the crumpled pages into the machine.
  2. The machine uses optical character recognition to rip the information of the form. It is far too easy to write in joined-up or go outside of the boxes, which means the machine cannot read the form.
  3. A few mistakes and crossings out, especially with those tick boxes, is inevitable, and just makes it more difficult to figure out.

Remember to be nice to the poor people at the processing centres (write ‘sorry’ when you make mistakes), and remember not to miss a question out (unless you supply the missed information by letter later, which will really slow them down) or supply incorrect information. Stay legal, and reallocate our tax money away from a cluster-bomb multinational to the people so desperate they signed up for casual work in their processing centres.

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