Saturday, 13 June 2020

What if my support bubble bursts?

I am finding lockdown seriously tough. That's a huge understatement, and it's probably also a statement of the extremely obvious - certainly I know far more people struggling than loving it. There are ups and downs, of course, but in general this is really not fun. And I'm not even shielding (bless you all...). (I do recognise, of course, that my extremely, literally-off-the-scale extraversion may have something to do with my experience of lockdown).

Everything is different, everything is strange. None of us are doing the things that we thought we would be doing right now. Our diaries have been consigned to history. We have no idea what next week, next month, or next year will look like.

I've almost blogged so many times over the past few weeks. Instead, I've written a few long and rambling social media posts. Bless you if you've engaged with them in any way. Bless you particularly if you're married and you've resisted the urge to comment with "if I were single, this is what I would do..."

So many new words and phrases have been added to our vocabularies during this time, or at least, words we thought we knew have suddenly begun to mean something different. This weekend, we're all about the word 'bubble.' I have written and spoken the word 'bubble' more time than probably in the whole of my life up to this point. I've got to the point where I don't even know whether bubble is a noun or a verb.

Anyway, it's this bubble business that has finally prompted me to blog. I've already written a super long social media post about it, but these are some of my thoughts after a bit more time to think about it all.

I actually missed the announcement about it. I missed it specifically because I was talking on the phone at the time, but I would have missed it anyway because I've decided it's better for my mental health not to watch the daily briefings. As I finished the phone call, I noticed multiple notifications on my phone - numerous people had texted and messaged me and every message contained the word 'bubble.' I quickly caught up with the news, and it was immediately apparent to me that I had A Lot Of Thoughts about the whole thing. I had to eat tea and do a Zoom meeting, and then I posted a very unprocessed stream of thoughts.

It wasn't a surprise, in some ways. I had seen several hints over the past few weeks that we would get to the point where these bubbles would come into play. I'd had concerns from the start about what this would look like for single people. Admittedly, I didn't see the story twist coming - I thought the bubbles would just be between 2 different households, and I worried that would disadvantage single people, because families with kids would probably choose other families with kids to bubble with. But this was different - these bubbles were being presented specifically to benefit single people. That's a good thing, right?

To be fair, for some people, it is indeed a good thing. I have heard from numerous friends for whom this is a wonderful, joyous development. Finally, they can see those family members, those friends, who they have been desperate to see. They can touch another human being. They can spend time inside someone else's house. For some, it has been a straightforward process to work out what their bubble should look like. I am truly delighted for those people. I wish them all joy.

For others, though, it's fraught with difficulties. Some are facing huge dilemmas. Some people have no one at all with whom to form a bubble. Others are faced with what feels like an impossible choice - to choose *them*, or *them* - either way, someone loses, and someone is upset. Some feel pressured to make a choice they don't want to. I have heard from so many people for whom this is extremely painful.

And if you're not single, you're left out. No bubbles for you! Families, friends, siblings who can't meet because there are couples and groups involved and this particular innovation is only for single people.

Even as I write this, I imagine you all saying "honestly Kate, you're always saying that single people are left out and overlooked. Here's a plan that is specifically designed to benefit single people and you're still complaining!" I'm sorry... apparently I can't help it.

The thing is, there's so much about this that just doesn't sit well with me. I'm uncomfortable with the phrase 'support bubble,' implying that only single people (in contrast to anyone else) need support. There's something patronising about it, something of the "oh bless those poor dear singles." Also, many of the headlines I've seen about this have talked about grandparents being reunited with grandchildren, but that only works for single grandparents (and are only grandparent-age people single?)

It's a special sort of prejudice which simultaneously assumes that everyone in a certain category is elderly and lonely, and also that they have not yet grown up and learnt to function independently. Singles are cast here into the passive role - we must be invited into someone's bubble. The grown ups are out there, living their family lives, and if they wish, they can invite a single person to join them. 

It feels a little bit like no one who is in charge of any of these policy decisions has ever met a normally functioning, adult single person, with multiple friendships, and with gifts to offer all of their own. 

I haven't touched another person for 91 days. This theoretically gives me the opportunity to change that, but it's almost too overwhelming to contemplate. How on earth do I make this choice? When I wrote my social media post about this I likened it to being the last person chosen for the team in PE, and so many people got in touch saying they identified with this feeling. What if I'm the one left to last?

One of the most difficult things about being single as an adult is knowing that I am no one's 'most important person.' When people have spouses, and/or children, it is those people who take the number one spot in their lives. They would choose them first, of course. But who would choose me first? (Don't get out your tiny violins, it's fine, it is what it is, but we may as well be realistic).

This is nerve wracking in so many different ways. For a start, we have no idea what the next step is in the roadmap (*is* there a roadmap...?!) I'm nervous about joining a bubble and then finding, as the next step unfolds, that I have forced my friends to be stuck with me when they now have the chance to extend their bubble further. I guess ultimately we must take a leap of faith, a brave step into the unknown. Everything at this point is unknown. 

Some people will choose to remain bubble-less because it's all too scary. Some will remain bubble-less by default, because they have no options. Some will pick a bubble and hope for the best. It's scary. Maybe the word bubble does work in this context after all, because bubbles are beautiful, and they're fragile. They float for a moment, and shine, and let in the light. But after a while they pop. Dare I take the risk?

Here's a picture that has meant a lot to me during lockdown. It's by the splendid Charlie Mackesy (if you haven't read The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and The Horse, you simply must).

Sunday, 17 November 2019

Self-partnering and the interrogation of the single

I didn't think my last blog post was controversial enough (!) so I thought I'd try harder this time...

So... you can't have missed the whole 'self-partnered' hoohah that kicked off recently?! Emma Watson is approaching her 30th birthday. In an interview with British Vogue she said that she felt "stressed and anxious" about it, because of pressures that she felt about her personal life. "I realise it's because there's this bloody influx of subliminal messaging around. If you have not built a home, if you do not have a husband, if you do not have a baby, and you are turning 30, and you are not in some incredibly secure, stable place in your career, or you're still figuring things out... there's this incredible amount of anxiety."

She goes on to talk about how she feels about being single. "I never believed the whole 'I'm happy single' spiel. I was like 'this is totally spiel.' It took me a long time, but I'm very happy [being single]. I call it being self-partnered."

I mean, even the very fact that Emma feels the need to say that she isn't considered to have "built a home." Whatever age you are, and whatever your marital status, if you have a place in which you live, then you have built a home.

On Nov 7 there was a story about Phoebe Waller-Bridge in the Daily Mail (I know, and I am SO SORRY, but someone shared the article on Twitter. I'm not going to link to it here for reasons I hope are obvious). I think PWB is brilliant, and Fleabag is a work of actual genius. But the DM didn't want to discuss her talent, or her award winning TV shows, obvs (it takes until paragraph 12 before Killing Eve anmd James Bond are even mentioned). No, they wanted to report the shocking news that Phoebe "'thinks' she wants to have children" but hasn't yet made up her mind. It's the headline that really gets me though (I know, I know, clickbait, but honestly...). It says this "Fleabag star Phoebe Waller-Bridge, 34, admits she is debating having children... yet insists she's a 'see-what-life-throws-at-you kind of person.' Admits. ADMITS. And 'yet'. Those are the 2 words that really riled me. 'Admits' isn't a neutral word. It's loaded with expectation. You don't 'admit' something that you're proud of, or even something sort of middling. You only 'admit' something that is associated with shame, disappointment, unease. And then that sneaky 'yet,' as if the 'admits' part can't really be true, and they're determined to catch her out.

Why does this article need to exist? (I mean, why does the Daily Mail need to exist, but that's a far bigger question than I have the energy for right now). Why is this brilliant, funny, intelligent, articulate, independent woman being forced to 'admit' that she isn't sure whether or not she wants children? She's only 34 for goodness sake! And - I can't believe this even needs to be said, but we're in strange times - this has got LITERALLY NOTHING AT ALL to do with anyone else.

And I'm sure you don't need me to point out that there are approximately zero interviews taking place with men in their thirties asking them about when they plan to settle down and have kids.

I find the interviews and the reporting around all this stuff really disappointing, and I wish women weren't still being defined by who we are or aren't married to, and by whether we have or haven't given birth.

I find it depressing that it's still so hard for so many people to believe that somebody could feel happy and fulfilled while also single and childless. (Tomorrow is the 2nd anniversary of my beLOVED ceremony, about which you can read more here:

(Don't get me wrong, I know that there are many people who don't want to be single and childless, and they wrestle with that, and that's ok too. It is what it is).

So here's the thing. I wonder if maybe there could be some thinking about what we consider the norms to be, relationally speaking, and how we ask people about themselves. I've blogged in the past about 10 things single people wish married people wouldn't say ( and 10 things not to say to me when I'm holding a baby ( I really don't want to make people paranoid about what is and isn't ok to say, and I really don't want to be offendable. But sometimes the questions, and the expectations, and the raised eyebrows are just really hard.

I totally get Emma Watson's comments about her singleness. I also had a bit of a crisis as I approached 30. What was wrong with me? Why wasn't my life going to plan? I might not choose to use her phrase 'self-partnered' but I'll blooming well defend her right to use it. I've been a bit sad at some of the criticisms I've read about it from other Christians. (A friend of mine summed it up well - "she's just a millennial, speaking millennial"!) I don't think it necessarily means she's selfish, or self-obsessed. I don't think it necessarily means this needs to become a new category of relationship. I think she's just a young woman, trying to navigate life in the midst of a level of fame that we cannot begin to imagine. She's asking big questions, and trying to do the best she can - just like we all are.

So maybe let's be a bit kinder. Let's be careful what questions we ask. Let's strive for more empathy. Let's give one another the benefit of the doubt.

Here's a photo from my beLOVED ceremony. I'm not self partnered, but I have embraced a calling and a choice to stay single, and I'm doing it blessedly surrounded by some awesome people. (Photo credit: Mark Miller)

Saturday, 2 November 2019

The Billy Graham Rule

Hmm. I've been meaning for ages to blog about this, but never quite got round to it. I think today's the day, although I realise it'll not be without controversy!

That source of all true and accurate knowledge, Wikipedia, says: "The Billy Graham rule is a practice among some male evangelical Protestant leaders, in which they avoid spending time alone with women to whom they are not married. It is adopted as a display of integrity, a means of avoiding sexual temptation, to avoid any appearance of doing something considered morally objectionable, and to avoid being accused of sexual harassment or assault. The rule has been named after Billy Graham, who was one of the early proponents of the practice. More recently, it has also been called the Mike Pence rule, after a US Vice President who also supported the idea."

I guess right at the start, before I go on to criticise the Rule (because you better believe I'm going to criticise it!), I should say that I absolutely get where it's coming from, and what it's seeking to avoid, and the desire for honour and holiness which lies behind it.(I just don't think that it goes about it in the right way).

I understand how it came about, as part of a wider rule called the 'Modesto Manifesto,' since Billy Graham and others were seeking to hold one another to the highest standard, and to ensure that nothing about how they behaved could be misinterpreted or misunderstood.

(It's also worth saying of course that there may be times when a woman wishes to enforce her own version of this rule, because she needs to keep safe and to feel safe, and that's absolutely fine. I'm talking her about when this is enforced upon women.)

OF COURSE as Christians we need to live with the utmost integrity in our relationships. Of course we need not just to live that way, but also clearly to be seen by the outside world to be living that way. We're called to be chaste, to be pure, to be above reproach. The Bible calls married people to live faithfully within marriage, and single people to be celibate. I absolutely support, endorse and uphold that standard.

And equally, of course we have to be realistic about the world in which we live, about the temptations we all face, about the sinful behaviour to which we are all prone. We all need to be honourable in our relationships, to steer clear of temptation, and to make wise choices.

I'm not naive about this. I have witnessed far too many marriages, families and churches torn apart by sexual sin. This stuff really, really matters. The thing is, it actually matters *too much* to be neatly packaged away in a 'rule'. And not just any rule, but a rule which demeans and degrades everyone. A rule which casts the man in the role of weak willed robot, slave to his desires, incapable of withstanding temptation or resisting feminine wiles. A rule which casts the woman in the role of sultry temptress, who with one wink of her eye can draw the man into sin. It's like a cross between a low budget Channel 5 romance and a shampoo advert. Surely we can all do better?

Tish Harrison Warren has written an article about this in Christianity Today, where she says this: "This rule, in its most pristine form, renders male-female friendships impossible. However unintentionally, it communicates to women that they are fundamentally dangerous. And it bars men from meaningful mentorship or pastoral care of women and vice versa."

I have some great male friends. Some of them are married, some are not. If they are married, I always make sure that I get to know their spouse too. In most cases I know and am friends with both, and see both together. Sometimes though, I might spend time with just the man. There's my friend who I sometimes go out with for curry and beer. He's basically the big brother I never had. We have a laugh, and set the world to rights. He's got a brain the size of a planet, and is right an annoying amount of the time (but not as often as he thinks he is!). I adore his wife too, and his kids, but sometimes I just want to go for a curry with him.

It's right and proper, of course, to be careful about how this all works. With my big-brother friend mentioned above, I'd always want to make sure that his wife knew when we were going out. I also have a rule that I wouldn't ever stay overnight in a house where there was only a man, or have a man on his own come to stay here. That seems to me to just be sensible. Plus there's also something about what others see - I don't want the neighbours' curtains twitching! Recently I was due to see some good friends after a conference, have dinner with them, and stay overnight. At the last minute, the wife had to go away. So I still went to the conference, still had dinner with the husband, and then got the train home. Would it have been perfectly safe and chaste and above board if I'd stayed overnight? Absolutely. Was it the right decision to come home? I think so. Because it's important to have rules, and boundaries, and to be wise.

There have been numerous occasions in my life when I've had a one to one meeting or conversation with a man. Some of these have been about pastoral care (one way or another). Some have been about supervision (likewise). Some have been planning meetings. Some have been to do with mentoring/counselling/spiritual direction. Some have been social events. My life (and, dare I suggest, their lives) would have been much poorer had those meetings and conversations never taken place.

So I definitely think it's wise to have some boundaries, and to have thought them through in advance so that everyone's clear. But for me the problem with the BG/MP rule is that it says 'fire is bad' and so removes not just matches and lighters from the house, but also all paper, cardboard and wood. And then it douses the whole place in water.

Honestly, I find it offensive. I am offended that a man would think that half an hour alone with me in a car or a meeting room or a restaurant would mean he'd immediately be led astray. (Ha! Maybe I should be flattered instead!)

I'm offended on behalf of all of the women who have been denied access to meetings and conferences, left out of the old boys' network, and missed out on mentoring opportunities. That's where it leads, I think, at least today, in its modern incarnation. It leads to women being denied a place at the table because everyone else around the table is male.

I'm offended on behalf of single women, since I feel like we get the raw deal here. I need friendships with couples, and I need friendships with singles. I need friendships with women and I need friendships with men. As a single woman I'm not actually attracted to every man that I meet (sorry guys!). Please don't treat me like a threat.

But I'm also grateful, and I'm hopeful. I'm grateful for the extraordinary number of good, holy, Godly, honourable, wise, funny, kind men I know, men who are friends and colleagues and mentors to me.

And I'm hopeful that we might learn to live better together. To live lives which are pure and chaste, which honour one another and honour God. To show the world a model of loving friendship which knows that there's more to life than sex.

Saturday, 24 August 2019

"As a mother..."

"You'll never know true love until you have a child," people say.

"Of course, as a mother, I can identify so much more with this," people say.

"I have a very real stake in the future of this country," said (mother) Andrea Leadsom, standing to be leader of the Conservative party, thereby implicitly implying that her (childless) rival Theresa May didn't.

“As a mother, it is horrifying to hear the harrowing stories of the children I meet today,” said Samantha Cameron, visiting a Syrian refugee camp.

"If you've got kids you'll understand," say Calpol in their advert.

Politicians and celebrities respond to tragedies with words they intend to be comforting, but actually exclude so many "as a parent, I am so upset by this news..."

I was watching 'This Way Up' recently (Channel 4, it's great, watch it!). There's a couple in it who are sort of almost-engaged, and both families are together for a big birthday do, and the guy's mum starts asking about when they're going to have children. It's all horribly awkward, and doesn't get any better when the woman announces she doesn't want children! But in the middle of it all her prospective mother-in-law announces that you can only really know love when you have a child. The character, Shona, objects to this, saying that of course she understands what love is. But it's clear no one really believes her. 

On Twitter recently, I commented on a fairly sexist and ill-informed thing someone had written, and someone else replied saying "Bet he'd feel different if he had a daughter or two." My response was: "He shouldn't have to though, really. I understand that men are people without having any sons!" (By the way I mean no criticism of the person who wrote the first comment).

I googled "as a mother" and "as a father" to write this blog. One quote I came upon was from Michelle Obama. "Oh no," I thought, "not her too!" (I LOVE Mrs Obama). But wait. Although the headline read "as a mom..." when I read the full quote it said this: "It’s up to us, as mothers and mother-figures, to give the girls in our lives the kind of support that keeps their flame lit and lifts up their voices."

Can you spot the difference? "Mother-figures." God bless you Michelle! I can be a mother figure, for sure. I hope that's how my friends kids see me, how the kids at church see me. Aunty Kate, the extra adult, who's fun and silly and occasionally, from time to time, now and then, maybe even a little bit wise, and who you can talk to about Stuff and who has time to listen and will always be there. I have never given birth, and I never will. But I know love. I know grief. I know pain. I know hope. I know joy. These emotions aren't the preserve of those who have carried and birthed children. How could they be?

This year at New Wine United I heard a lot of really superb talks. Up there among my favourites were the brilliant morning Bible teaching sessions from Lucy Peppiatt, Principal of Westminster Theological College. One morning Lucy was talking about the call which is upon all of us to be spiritual parents. Each of us needs someone ahead of us, further down the road, who we can lean on and ask for help and look to for guidance. And each of us too needs to be that person for someone who's coming along behind. And what I totally loved about what Lucy said was that she talked about being a spiritual parent, and what it looked like, and how we could get better at it. And then, totally naturally, not as an awkward afterthought, not when she suddenly caught herself, but just brilliantly, in the mix, as one of her points, she said that anyone can be a spiritual parent, It doesn't matter whether or not you're married. It doesn't matter whether or not you have your own children. It doesn't matter whether or not you've known good parenting in your own life. This is something we can ALL do. So simple. But so freeing and wonderful to hear and remember. I could have cried! I thanked her for saying it, because so often it goes unsaid.

I've read a bit about this phrase lately. I think people are sort of just about beginning to cotton on to the fact that it's really very unhelpful! About time...!

The thing is, let's just think about it for a moment. Do we really want to say that someone who has never parented a child is incapable of unconditional love? Of empathising with a parent who has lost a child? Of caring when a child is harmed? Of being angry with those who do the harm?

(And, while we're at it, let's not pretend that the simple act of being a parent necessarily means that someone does have love, empathy, or any other positive quality. Newsflash: some people are parents, and also not very nice).

Let's be clear, we are horrified by the conditions of children in Syrian refugee camps because we are human. Because we are decent people.

There are some things I will never know about because I haven't carried or given birth to a child, obviously. You don't need me to list them! There are quite a number that I can happily live without! But let's not suggest that love is among those things that I haven't experienced. That suggestions diminishes me. It diminishes us all.

To end: a daft photo of a rather lovely teddy-rabbit, belonging to one of my Godchildren, that she left in my room recently when I went to stay, so that I would have some company.😍

Friday, 31 May 2019

Happy ending?

I've been pondering something for a while (that's usually a bad sign tbh...) It's something quite subtle, which you almost might not notice. The problem is, I have noticed, and now I can't stop. Writing this blog runs the risk of you, who may never have noticed before, now also noticing. I'm sorry. Read on at your own risk...!

Here it is. I've noticed a tendency in certain Christian testimonies, for the 'and then they lived happily ever after' part to include "and now they're married with 18 beautiful children" or similar.

Here's an example that I read today, in a magazine I really enjoy, which prompted me to finally write something (even though I've been thinking about doing so for ages). I'm not having a go here at the magazine, or the author, and it was a good article. It just happened to provide an example of this thing.

So in the article there's a story about a guy named Pedro (I would change his name, but the chances are they already changed it when they did the article, so there's no need to make things even more complicated!) Pedro was homeless and an alcoholic, until he found love and care and support and a Christian community which helped him to heal (that bits all great by the way, obvs!).

Here's the thing though. This is how the 'after' part of Pedro's story is described: "Pedro... found a community to support his journey towards sobriety and ultimately a faith of his own. Now, eight years sober, he helps at AA sessions, has married, and regularly cooks for his church's Alpha course."

It happens so often. Not long ago at a women's event I heard something similar: "Lucy (I am making that name up, I can't for the life of me remember what they called her!) has had her life turned around. She was in trouble because of X, Y and Z and her life was awful. And then she met Person A from Charity B and they helped her to sort her life out. Now she's doing this, this and this amazing thing, and she's married with a baby."

I've read it in books, and on social media. I've heard it in talks. OK, maybe I notice this stuff more than someone married would do, but nonetheless it is still actually happening!

Now, don't misunderstand me, I'm not just being a grump (I really hope I'm not anyway!) Obviously, if this person has happened to get married in this period of their life when things are going well, then that's part of their story, and of course it's right for them to tell that if they want to.

The issue for me is when we see the 'marriage and kids' thing as part of the happy ending. This person's life is better now BECAUSE they are married, BECAUSE they have children.

I'm all for celebrating the good stuff. I love to hear testimonies of God at work in people's lives, how their circumstances and their situation have been totally transformed. It's brilliant. But I think there's something about what 'we' (society? church?) see as typical traits of the 'before' and 'after' parts of the story.

BEFORE (BAD STUFF): homelessness, drugs, alcohol, addiction, crime...
AFTER (GOOD STUFF): marriage, kids (and what? 3 bedroom semi? volvo?)

I'm being facetious, of course, but actually the only thing that's got any business being in the AFTER column is: AND NOW THEY KNOW JESUS. (Yes, I know, no longer being addicted to stuff and having a roof over your head are pretty good too, but you get my point).

If I'm being hyper-sensitive about this, no doubt you'll all tell me. If I've made you aware of something that's now going to annoy you when it didn't before, I'm sorry. But if this is a Thing, and if you're single or don't have kids or whatever, and you've noticed it as a Thing too, let me know.

I guess what I'm saying is it feels weird when my life (which I'm happy with, and really quite like, at least the vast majority of the time) is seen as not good enough to feature in the AFTER column. Like when my life is some sort of pre-Good-Morning-makeover-style-reveal.

We must be careful about saying, or thinking, or even implying, that marriage and kids should be part of the 'happy ending' story (although they're great and brilliant when they happen well) - because if they're part of the 'happy ending' story, then where does that leave those of us who don't have them, and possibly never will?

My life is full of Jesus and friends and laughter and kids and chocolate and all sorts of good things. But it doesn't and never will involve marriage, or children of my own. And I'm ok with my own version of the happy ending.

Here's a picture of a sunset, just because they're one of my favourite things, and a pretty good 'ending' for each day, I'd say.

Sunday, 24 March 2019

Mean Bean Challenge

For the past 5 days I've been taking part in Tearfund's 'Mean Bean Challenge.' For 5 days you eat plain porridge made with water for breakfast, and plain rice and beans (no sauce, no seasoning) for lunch and dinner, and only drink water. I've thought about doing it for a few years, and have sponsored various friends who have taken part. This year I finally decided to go for it.

I knew it would be a challenge, but honestly I had no idea how much of one! I thought it would be fine to eat the meals as above. I thought the hardest part would be feeling hungry, and missing thinks like my morning cuppa.

Wow. It has been SO HARD. I mean, it's only 5 days, but gosh I've struggled! The first day wasn't too bad, as it was all novel and exciting. The second day I had a really bad headache all day (I don't drink caffeine so it can't have been that, but maybe it was having no sugar?). The third day I literally just couldn't face any more beans. Weirdly, I didn't feel hungry, so I actually skipped breakfast and lunch and had a massive bowl of porridge for dinner! I've felt tired and lacking in energy, thirsty even though I was drinking lots of water, and I'll leave you to imagine some of the other consequences of eating that many beans, but no fresh fruit or vegetables...

I couldn't believe how much of an effort it was to get the food down. I didn't always finish the meal, even though the recommended portion sizes were pretty small. It was just so bland and unappetising and stodgy. I mean, I have travelled to a lot of places and eaten a lot of random food, and there's pretty much nothing I can't eat, but this was hard work!

Fortunately I was in a position where I could get home for all my meals, as it would be impossible to eat out doing this, and if away from home you'd end up either reheating stuff or eating cold rice and beans - bleurgh!

Some things were particularly hard. I was due to see friends one evening (arranged before I'd signed up for the challenge). They went out for a meal which I skipped, but then I joined them for a drink. Sipping my glass of water while they were on the wine wasn't much fun! There was another pre-arranged event, a meeting in a coffee shop. I do love a decaf flat white, so again sitting there with water was hard! The hardest thing though was baking a cake for an event at church, and then going along and being surrounded by all the lovely home made cakes. I LOVE cake! And I love baking (and, let's be honest, licking out the bowl!). There was A LOT of willpower required that day. And then this morning I was leading Youth Church and there was toast. Oh, the smell...!

At our evening service we have cakes and pastries. Most weeks I try hard to resist them. But tonight I asked them to buy cinnamon buns, and warned everyone to stand clear as the clock turned 6pm!

Despite how hard it's been, I am SO glad to have done it. At the time of writing, adding up both online and offline donations, I've raised £615 (plus Gift Aid). That's fantastic, and will do such a lot of good. (Plus for any money raised before 17th May, the government will double it - yay!).

Tearfund is such an amazing charity, and very dear to my heart. I have travelled with them to Thailand, Nepal, Uganda and Rwanda, and seen first hand the incredible work that they do.

I've also travelled to Pakistan (although that was with Girlguiding, not Tearfund), and so the story of Nida, which is at the heart of the Mean Bean Challenge, really struck a chord with me. Nida lives in Pakistan. Her husband is unable to work due to illness, and so Nida and her 14 year old daughter must support the family. Nida leaves home at 6am, spends all day working at her job as a cleaner, and gets home at 5pm, whereupon she has to do all of the chores at home. Every day she eats a small breakfast and then a dinner of bread with lentils or vegetables.Tearfund, through their local partner Pak Mission Society, are aiming to try to change the story for Nida and her family.

While I was in Pakistan for the second time, 18 years ago, I caught some sort of bug which resulted in a post-tropical infectious bowel thing. Recently some new medication has helped a bit but it hasn't been the easiest thing to cope with over the years. It is possible therefore that I was a bit mad to do this challenge at all! The last day and a half I've not felt great but actually that in itself made me think of Pakistan and of Nida. Now I can eat 'normally' again, but her normal isn't going to change without help.

When I read Nida's story I feel embarrassed by how hard I've found these 5 days. She and her family would have welcomed the meals that I have pushed around my plate. It's because of all the Nidas that I have done the Mean Bean Challenge.

If you've sponsored me, THANK YOU SO MUCH! If you haven't, there's still time...

Tuesday, 12 March 2019

25 years on...

Well today marks 25 years since the first woman was ordained priest in the Church of England. 25 years. In some ways that seems like a long time. But also I kind of want to go "25? TWENTY FIVE?!" How is that all?!

I remember hearing on the news the day the vote had gone through General Synod. It's amazing now, being on General Synod myself, and sitting in the chamber imagining what it must have felt like on that day, as people literally got up and walked through marked doors to indicate the way they wanted to vote. (These days we have little handheld Blackberry-like devices, which is far less exciting and, as far as I can see, leaves far more opportunities for making a mistake!).

I also remember this day, the day when the first women were ordained. Women who had fought and campaigned and prayed and hoped and dreamed and just... waited. Because there was nothing else to do. Today I honour them for their gracious struggle.

I was 15 on that day, and just beginning to make big decisions about my own future. I wanted to be a speech and language therapist. I had become a Christian 3 years earlier, but I'd never seen a woman in any sort of church leadership role (I'd also never really met a Christian under the age of 50, but that's another story!). I remember the ordinations happening. I watched the coverage on the news. Today social media would have been alive with it all, but then we just waited for the 6 o'clock news to tell us what was happening in the world. I remember being excited, because this was A Good Thing For Women, but of course I couldn't have dreamt of what it would mean for my life. I also don't think I realised the struggle that lay ahead around the issue of women as Bishops.

Fast forward 5 years and I was indeed at Uni training to be a Speech and Language Therapist. I was part of St. George's Church Leeds, and I will forever be grateful to God for leading me there and for all the wonderful people who were such an important part of my journey. Suddenly I began to sense a call to ordained ministry. I was utterly bewildered by it! I couldn't possibly imagine myself as a priest, and yet at the same time I was utterly and completely sure that this was a call of God.

I did all the discernment things that you have to do. I completed my Uni course and qualified as an SLT. I worked for a year (and loved it, and was so sad to give it up). And then I spent a year as a pastoral assistant (an intern before church interns were a thing) at St. George's. I think I hoped I would hate it and be rubbish at it and I could just go quietly back to my normal life. But of course I loved it, and it was just 'right' and all the CofE bods miraculously, inexplicably, said yes. And off I went to college for the most amazing 3 years.

And here I am today. I went to college at 24, was ordained at 27, and started my first incumbency at 30. Now I'm 40, 18 months into my second incumbency, after almost 14 years of ordination. What a joy it has been. What a privilege it continues to be. How grateful I am to God for this calling and this journey.

I couldn't have imagined, at 15, or at 20, or at 24, or 27, or 30, where the CofE would find itself today. These days people rarely express surprise when they meet me. I don't hear as many "I've never met a woman priest before" comments as I used to. But then I've been fortunate to spend all of my ordained life in Liverpool, where they're a welcoming, friendly, hilarious people. I pretty much knew it would be ok when, a whole 3 days into being ordained deacon, I was walking down the road to church, wearing a pink clerical shirt, and someone called out (entirely sincerely) "morning Father!"

Today there are 18 Bishops-who-happen-to-be-women in the CofE (and the best part of that is that I had to google it to check - we're at the glorious stage where there are too many to easily keep count of!). It's slightly baffling that almost all of them seem to be married to male clergy, but that's an interesting conversation for another day...

In this past year alone I have been to the consecration of 2 dear women who are now superb Bishops. I had the joy of preaching at one, and a woman Bishop preached at the other. Gosh if my 15 year old self could have imagined the day when a woman would preach as women were consecrated Bishop!

Many women before me went through unimaginable pain and struggle to get to the point where we now are. I am fortunate to have not had to struggle. I've faced sexism, of course I have, and there have been tough times. As a young woman at a diocesan discernment interview I was asked whether I would be getting married and having children because "they all end up having time off, these women." I've been called a "dolly bird" and people have commented on my hair, my clothes, my make up, my weight, my shoes, my nail varnish. I've had countless men leer at me and say "cor, if all vicars looked like you I'd still go to church." I've experienced plenty of "that's a great point Miss Wharton, now I wonder whether one of the men would like to make it" meetings. I've been referred to as vicaress and priestess, and asked "are you that lady vicar" more times than I can count. But far more than that I've had people tell me how much they have appreciated the ministry of women, and how glad they are to have met women as priests.

For me this isn't about those who, in all conscience, cannot accept my ministry. I recognise their theological viewpoint and I honour and respect it, and hope that they too will honour and respect me and mine (as the vast majority of them do). I believe firmly in their right to hold that viewpoint, and I'm grateful for those I know and love who are doing great ministry.

On Thursday I will lead a seminar (at one of the New Wine Leadership Conferences), along with 2 fabulous women, Lizzy and Nikki, entitled "breaking the glass ceiling" where we'll look at some of the barriers that still exist for women in senior roles within the CofE. I'm excited to do that, and to see so many women around me flourish as they step out into being who God has called them to be. It's a particular joy for me that this seminar will take place in St. George's Leeds.

So today, on this anniversary, I rejoice for the 25 years that have passed and for the incredible kingdom work which has been done and continues to be done by priests-who-happen-to-be-women. I look forward to the day when the word 'woman' never appears before priest, not because we don't exist, but because it is so utterly unremarkable. For now, though, we carry on. We lead services, we preach the word, we baptise, we bury, we marry. We work with children and young people. We visit the sick and dying. We work in the community. We feed the hungry and care for the poor. We climb ladders and  hoover floors and move chairs and make tea. We preside at the holy table. We share the good news. We live our lives. We love Jesus. We go where he sends us.

And I long for the day when this is unremarkable. Because just a few weeks ago I was talking to someone whose church is currently in a vacancy. And they told me of a conversation (with a woman!) who had said "I hope we don't get a woman vicar this time, because you know, we had that woman before, and she wasn't any good." And I want to weep. Because until women vicars are allowed to just sometimes be bad, without it affecting the future of all other women, then we still have some way to go.

Here's a photo of me from my ordination as priest (main observation: being a vicar has given me grey hair!):