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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How to have a feminist wedding in church

The feminist threshold

Laura Bates, the founder of Everyday Sexism Project, is getting married: congrats! She has written in the Guardian about how to have a feminist wedding. Basically, it is an example of the personal being political. Laura Bates writes about her personal choices, which she has every right to make, but many feminists would lament that she did not go far enough in demonstrating her feminist credentials. A close feminist friend showed me the article and described it as retrogressive and non-radical. I feel somewhat more forgiving, as the article is much more one woman’s very personal choices and wrestling with deeply ingrained sexism of this traditional rite of passage.

I have been celebrating weddings as a priest of the Church of England for the last fifteen years, in Darlington, West Wiltshire, London and Oxford. I’m a man priest and a feminist (not too common a combination, sorry!) and I believe that it is easily possible to have a feminist wedding in church. The Church of England will not be offering same-sex marriages any time soon, but will probably get round to it in time for your gay children to enjoy the grace of this sacramental union.

Here is my how-to guide to feminist weddings in the Church of England.

Know the difference between folk tradition and liturgy

When most people think of church weddings they think of white dresses, bridesmaids, bouquet, giving away and all that kind of stuff. Absolutely none of this is required in a wedding in the Church of England. Even Laura Bates agonized about having to say she would ‘obey’ her husband, only to find her local rector tell her that the requirement to promise obedience was long gone (actually for a few decades longer than her rector told her).

Here is the key thing: there are things that the church legally requires for weddings, and then there is a lot of folk tradition and unrealistic expectations that is heaped on top of it, like burying an expertly baked cake under a gallon of squirty cream!

Liturgy is the words and actions used in church services (and a whole lot deeper than that too). The Church of England’s most recent set of liturgies was published in the year 2000, and is called Common Worship. You can find the wedding liturgy from Common Worship on-line (you can also download a complete PDF with all the marriage texts). Anything that is not specified in that is optional. So no white dresses, bouquet, bridesmaids, obeying or giving away, unless, of course, you want it.

Put down the wedding books — that are just about keeping the charade going — and read the wedding liturgy. The church has designed it to be gender equal by default!

There is also a financial advantage to knowing this: the church’s fees for weddings are set nationally and are not really all that steep. The huge expense of church weddings lies with all the expected but non-mandatory trappings. The central act of joining hands before the altar comes with a price tag of a few hundred pounds paid to your local church.

Cutting back on the folk traditions surrounding and suffocating weddings with patriarchal symbolism is an exercise in managing expectation. If you are a feminist, yet, like Laura Bates, feel that you cannot marry without some of the traditional trappings, then that’s really OK. It is tough to go against the expectations of a society, your family, and even your own emotions. Just make your feminism clear in other ways, and demonstrate that no patriarchal symbolism is intended. Continue reading


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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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The way forward for women bishops

The Church of England has reached a small moment of uncertainty over moves to ordain women as bishops. It is not that the church is unsure whether women should be bishops: there is overwhelming support for sexual equality in the highest order of the church’s ministry. The debate is over how those who are opposed to the ordained ministry of women are best accommodated.

The current discussion revolves around Clause 5(1)(c), the second amendment inserted by the House of Bishops into the measure, making explicit the accommodation to be offered. It has been frustrating that this amendment was added (by an all-male body) after dioceses had discussed and voted on the measure, leaving the recent General Synod no choice but take or leave the amended measure. Thus, it was the most vocal supporters of having women bishops who led the vote for an adjournment so that accommodation could be properly debated. The talk was that we should take the time to get the legislation right.

For most of us in the Church of England, we talk compromise as if it is our mother language. However, there are real theological problems with any compromise on this issues, which is the nub of the problem. For conservative evangelicals, women may not teach or lead men, and biblical verses are beaded together to support this. For traditionalist anglo-catholics, women in sacramental ministry is a rupture from the sacramental fount of ecumenical church history and doctrine. These groups can outline their views far better than I, but there should be a theological insistence from those of us who variously use the labels ‘open’, ‘inclusive’ and ‘affirming’ that our views are strong, pure theology. I believe that the church should embody equality without discrimination, and this should insist that women have equal status throughout the church. Allowing any room for churches, groups or individuals to opt out of equality is to give acceptance to discrimination. We should make it known that the compassion in search of compromise with those who believe differently has long be lead by those in the progressive mainstream.

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Transgender and the church

Christina Beardsley

Christina Beardsley

This week has been declared Transgender Faith Action Week by the Interfaith Coalition for Transgender Equality, a fact to which I was drawn by Becky Garrison‘s article for Cif Belief. This comes after the wonderful 4thought.tv (which airs short personal statements on controversial subjects after the evening news on Channel 4) spent a week discussing “Is it wrong to change gender?

The week began with a video by Christina Beardsley, a Church of England priest, hospital chaplain and vice-chair of Changing Attitude. Beardsley transitioned a decade ago, after 23 years of ordained ministry, and gave a succinct and compelling 105 seconds on the church and transgender. After introducing herself, she loses no time in making the point: “There is no theological objection to someone changing gender”. No ifs, no buts, no cautious relative clauses, and it is a quote she takes from George Carey, former Archbishop of Canterbury, and one who in no way could be labelled as a liberal. If that were not shocking enough for many people ­Christian and non-Christian alike — she continues by lauding the Bible for being transgender friendly. I really enjoyed seeing her hard-hitting approach, made all the more necessary due to the inherent prejudice against transgender, despite strong theological arguments to the contrary.

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Why are films so sexist?

A 16 mm spring-wound Bolex "H16" Ref...

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Why are films so sexist? I do not have the answer, but they are. In spite of grumpy government ruminations that film studies is a ‘soft’ subject, the medium is a vital expression of our cultural values. Films are mesmerising propaganda tools too. The recent The King’s Speech (which I have not seen, and thus am not reviewing) makes use of the ‘personal triumph against adversity’ genre, which any filmgoer will know, and molds it around one of the richest and most powerful men of his time (he liked people to call him Emperor of India) overcoming a speech impediment. Thus, we have a film in which we hoi poloi and made to root for power and establishment, despite the fact that when applied to life it is against our best interests.

There are many who blithely will tell anyone who cares listen that feminism is no longer necessary as we have sexual equality. Such people will cite all sorts of anecdotes to say it is so, but refuse to listen to the evidence that every sphere of power and money in the UK is dominated by men, be it government, banking, board rooms, chief police officers. And film operates as an amplifying feed-back loop on our society: film reflects our values, intensifies them and dictates them back to us. That is why film studies are necessary, and how they gratuitously exacerbate inequality.

A few days ago, my friend Hannah introduced me to the Bechdel Test. It seems that everyone else knew about this but me. The Bechdel Test was created by Alison Bechdel in her comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For to demonstrate the overwhelming sexism of film medium. It is a very simple set of three criteria that any film should be able to pass easily, but almost all fail. The criteria are that a film must contain at least one scene in which

  1. There must be at least two women (usually interpreted to mean two named women characters)
  2. They must talk to each other
  3. They must talk about something other than men

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