Ad Fontes

Politics, Theology and Christian Humanism


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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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Why are films so sexist?

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

Image via Wikipedia

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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Our Lady of Walsingham, pray for us

The Holy House, Walsingham

The Holy House, Walsingham

I’ve just returned from pilgrimage to the Anglican Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham in Norfolk. It was my first visit, and I wasn’t sure how it would be, but am glad to say it was entirely positive.

I first had opportunity to go to Walsingham while at theological college in St Michael’s College, Llandaff. The organisers were a couple of fellow students of the all-too-common pompous and precious branch of Anglo-Catholicism, rank and file Forward in Faith. I didn’t go when offered, knowing these colleagues to be theologically shallow and unpleasant to be around. And that was that: Walsingham remained in my mind associated with an exclusive and unwelcoming sect.

That was thirteen years ago. This time I went to Walsingham with my parish: my vicar and nine parishioners. Walsingham remains a centre for Forward in Faith, a place where Anglicans opposed to the ordination of women can pilgrimage and feel at home. However, there is a substantial section of Anglican Catholics, who might also wish to be described as ‘traditionalists’, who not only fully support the ministry of women, but is led by women priests. It is important that this section of the church continue to be represented at the shrine, stopping it from becoming an exclusive gentlemen’s club.

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Getting Labour back to work

2010 Labour leadershipWednesday 9 June is the closing date for nominations for the Labour leadership. In the meantime, Harriet Harman has been doing a not-too-bad job as acting leader. Just like MLeadership 2010argaret Beckett before her, Harman’s stint in charge is merely a caretaking role, and the best a woman has ever got in the Labour Party.

Of the six candidates up for nomination, we have only one woman, and Diane Abbott is currently in last position with only eleven nominations (including Harriet Harman and Jon Cruddas). She is also the only black candidate: an unenviable intersectionality in the patriarchal den that still goes for parliament in this country.

The Labour Party faces the challenge of mounting a strong opposition to the Con Dem government and taking the lead when the public outcry against savage spending cuts comes. The Con Dems, however, can return these with interest using one simple play: it’s all New Labour’s fault. Of course, New Labour cannot be wholly blamed for our country’s financial situation, but The Current Bun and The Daily Hate don’t bother with those niceties. If Labour try to mount an opposition, the Con Dems will decry the record of the New Labour government. If Labour try to spearhead the campaign against cuts, the Con Dems merely have to suggest that the last government made such cuts neccessary.

As with the dying days of John Major’s government, Gordon Brown’s premiership was inhabited by ghosts: politicians lacking purpose or principle. It was only in the last few days of the general-election campaign that Cabinet ministers started to rediscover that they had some principles: like pearls, discovered after a very lengthy bothering over intense iritations.

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Seventeen years of women in the priesthood

Woman priestOn this day in 1992 the General Synod of the Church of England voted in favour of ordaining women to the priesthood. The vote was decisive, yet the decision did not put a stop to the infighting. This was no armistice, and like St Martin’s cloak we remain riven in twain.

Seventeen years on, the General Synod has taken the inevitable vote in favour of consecrating women bishops, yet the revision committee is in breach of the trust of the synod and the wider church by backtracking. Continue reading


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Book review: The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin

This article was first published by cycads.

Left Hand of Darkness

Left Hand of Darkness

A few months ago, Alicia asked me why science fiction was such a boy thing and what is the point of the genre. I cobbled together an answer about science fiction being used to create a narrative space removed from the here and now into which pertinent questions and ideas can be tried out. Science fiction might not be science, but it does have an experimental edge. As for the boyish enchantment of the genre, I imagine that it has something to do with love of grand ideas and machines rather than human relationships and emotions. Then I remembered reading somewhere about women’s science fiction, and yet still feminist science fiction. A quick web search led us to Feminist SF, and I recommend a browse.

I have long been a fan of Ursula Le Guin, since reading her Wizard of Earthsea at primary school. I was enrapt by her bringing imagined cultures and worlds to life through her writing: a skill, I later learned, was informed by her understanding of anthropology. Quite apart from EarthseaThe Left Hand of Darkness is considered a cornerstone of feminist science fiction: not only does Le Guin conjure up a fascinating world in which to immerse the reader, she also asks us to think deeply about sex and gender. Continue reading