Sunday 11 September 2022

Reflections at this time of mourning

Gosh, it's been an age since I blogged! But I wanted to do so today, mainly because some people at church this morning asked if I could share again some of the quotes that were in my sermon, and some who weren't there asked for the text. So if you're not from St. Bart's you're obviously more than welcome to read on, but this is simply the text from my sermon, preached at both 9am and 11am today. It's worth saying that though it ends fairly abruptly when written, it was followed up with space and time for prayer.

What an extraordinary few days it has been. What extraordinary times we are living in. We're barely out of our covid lockdown. There's was in Europe for the first time in decades. Yet another Prime Minister has just taken charge of the country. We're on the cusp of an enormous cost of living crisis. And then on Thursday, in the end quite suddenly, in spite of her advanced age, Queen Elizabeth II sadly died.

That moment will become one of 'those' moments - those 'where were you when' moments. Some of you will remember when John F. Kennedy was assassinated, or Martin Luther King. Some of you will remember when Diana Princess of Wales died, or when the 9/11 attacks took place (which in fact was 21 years ago to this very day).

I was on holiday on Thursday, and I put on the BBC news because I could tell from social media that something was different, and not right. And so I remember the exact moment when Huw Edwards made the announcement - in fact I knew a moment before that, because I could literally see it in his face. I came home from my holiday early in order to support us here at church as we opened up to our community as a focal point for expressing grief and sorrow.

Like me, you'll remember forever where you were when you heard the news, and you'll remember too how you felt, how you reacted. Some people of course, are not big fans of the Royal Family - for her unstinting service and tireless work. For most of us, she's the only monarch we've ever known.

There are many weighty and worthy things that we can say about the Queen, and rightly so. But personally my very favourite story about her isn't especially weighty or worthy, it's just very funny! During the Platinum Jubilee celebrations, Richard Griffin, a former Royal Personal Protection Officer, told this story:

One day at Balmoral, he and the Queen were out for a walk, and they met two American hikers coming the other way. The Americans didn't recognise the Queen, but started up a conversation about their holiday, and the different places they'd visited. One of them asked the Queen where she lived. She replied that she lived in London, but that she had a holiday home nearby which she visited often. The tourists said well if she'd spent so much time in that area, surely she must have met the Queen. Apparently the Queen didn't miss a beat. She turned to her Protection Officer and replied "well I haven't, but he has." The tourists asked him what the Queen was life. He replied "well she can be very cantankerous, but she's got a lovely sense of humour." They all took selfies together, and the Queen walked away chuckling to herself about the reaction they would get when they showed off those selfied back home and realised who she was.

And for us who are Christians, we have lost not just our Queen, but a sister in Christ. I've heard her described as "the nation's greatest evangelist" because of the warm and easy way in which she spoke of her own personal faith - and of course she had the advantage that most evangelists can only dream of, in that she was able to speak into most people's living rooms for one day every year!

Here, for example, are just a few of the faith highlights from the Queen's Christmas speeches:

2000: To many of us are beliefs are of fundamental importance. For me the teachings of Christ and my own personal accountability before God provide a framework in which I try to lead my life. I, like so many of you, have drawn great comfort in difficult times from Christ's words and example.

2002: I know just how much I rely on my faith to guide me through the good times and the bad. Each day is a new beginning. I know that the only way to live my life is to try to do what is right, to take the long view, to give of my best in all that the day brings, and to put my trust in God.. I draw strength from the message of hope in the Christian gospel.

2013: For Christians, as for all people of faith, reflection, meditation and prayer help us to renew ourselves in God's love, as we strive daily to become better people. The Christmas message shows us that this love is for everyone. There is no one beyond its reach.

2017: Jesus Christ lived obscurely most of his life and never travelled far. He was maligned and rejected by many, though he had done no wrong. And yet, billions of people now follow his teaching and find in him the guiding light for their lives. I am one of them because Christ's example helps me see the value of doing small things with great love.

And most recently, in 2021: It is [the] simplicity of the Christmas story that makes it so universally appealing: simple happenings that formed the starting point of the life of Jesus, a man whose teachings have been handed down from generation to generation, and have been the bedrock of my faith.

I don't know, of course, what elements the Queen's funeral will involve - although I'm quite sure that she will have been clear about her wishes, and made plans to reflect her own preferences, as well as her deep faith. But I wonder whether you remember Prince Philip's funeral, just seventeen months ago? I'm sure that you do, because of course it took place at the height of the lockdown, and there was that moving and iconic image of the Queen sitting along, following the government's rules of the time, and therefore facing that moment of grief without the physical comfort of her family.

At that funeral, at the Prince's request, something happened which is unusual at a funeral - it is something we generally associate with Remembrance Sunday. But it was an explicit request of the Prince, for a very good reason. He asked that the Last Post and the Reveille be played. In the military, the Last Post is played at the end of a working day (and so sometimes is associated also with the finality of death), but the Reveille is played to awaken soldiers for the start of a new day. Prince Philip deliberately chose those two pieces to signify the end of one day, and the start of another - his entering into his new, eternal life.

You may also have watched the very moving first speech to the nation from King Charles, on Friday evening. I was particularly struck when he said of his mother "as you begin your last great journey." IT reminded me of a very beautiful quote from the Last Battle, the last book in C. S. Lewis's Narnia series. I have this quote on the wall in my study, as a reminder, quite simply, of what all this is for, what it's about, where it's heading, why it matters. At the end of the book, Aslan, the great Lion who represents Jesus, is talking to Lucy, one of the four children. She hasn't yet realised it, but their earthly adventures are over, and only eternity lies ahead. This is how he explains it to her:

"The term is over: the holidays have begin. The dream is ended: this is the morning. And as he spoke he no longer looked to them like a lion; but the things that began to happen after that were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them. And for us this is the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after,. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before."

This, indeed, was the hope in which the Queen lived and died. As we reflect on her death many of us will also reflect on the deaths of those closer to us, those in our own lives whom we have loved, but see no longer. For many, we will rejoice too that they are now living within that Great Story.

I saw someone had written the other day that the National Anthem is one of the most often-prayed prayers, but it is also surely one of the most comprehensively clearly answered prayers. For seventy years, people have sung "God save the Queen" - and he has surely saved her. We now turn to singing "God save the Kind" and we make that our prayer.

Our two Bible readings today both give us words of hope and comfort as we remember the Queen, and our own loves ones, and also as we navigate our journey through the struggles and complexities of the world at this current time.

Firstly, we heard Paul writing to the church in Corinth, and our reading began with six words which I imagine we could all do with holding onto tightly at the moment: "Therefore we do not lose heart."

What has gone before the 'therefore'? Well, Paul has been reminding the Corinthians of the treasure which is theirs in Christ, albeit held within fragile jars of clay. He has reminded them that they are "hard pressed but not crushed, perplexed but not despairing, persecuted but not abandoned, struck down but not destroyed." He has reminded them that "the one who raised Christ Jesus from the dead," God himself, "will also raise us with Jesus."

And so it is that in the light of these truths, Paul can say therefore - "therefore we do not lose heart." And then Paul makes this extraordinary statement, weighty with truth and promise, but not necessarily easy to absorb. He says that "our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an earthly glory that far outweighs them all."

This isn't easy to comprehend, and nor should it be. Because the truth is that life is often very hard. And that's rarely been more true for our nation and our world than it is at the moment. We struggle, we griev, we face pain and trials and suffering and sorrow. We want to ask Paul what on earth he's going on about, and how dare he call our troubles "light and momentary." And if Paul (or indeed Jesus) had led an easy life then maybe that would be a fair criticism. But Paul was beaten, mocked, shipwrecked and imprisoned for his faith. Jesus died in agony on a cross. They knew troubles. The Queen knew troubles too. In her own life she knew family breakdown, grief and tragedy.

And yet even so, in spite of all this, Paul is so confident that the life we are promised with God beyond this life will be so beautiful, so wonderful, so beyond our imagination or understanding, that he can refer to the agonies of this life as "light and momentary troubles" in comparison. He isn't saying that the things we face on earth are trivial or unimportant. Rather he's saying that eternity will be more glorious than we could ever dream of.

Fix your eyes, then, he tells us, not on what's around you in this world, but fix your eyes on the future, on what's eternal, on what's promised.

And then briefly, and secondly, we heard John with one of the seven well known 'I Am' statements of Jesus. Here Jesus refers to himself as "the bread of life" and he makes an extraordinary promise - that anyone who loves and follows him will never be hungry or thirsty. We know that he can't be referring to physical hunger or thirst, because we know that sadly there are many followers of Jesus around the world, and even quite close to home, who do suffer real bodily hunger and thirst, and so therefore he must be talking in a spiritual sense.

This is the promise made to all who believe - and the beauty of this promise, this invitation, is that it's made equally to everyone. Whether you're an ordinary person going about your everyday life in Roby, or whether you're the Queen of England, Jesus says the same words to you: "my Father's will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day."

The Queen believed and accepted that eternal life. It is offered freely and fully to each one of us, today and every day.

Tuesday 13 July 2021


This weekend at General Synod I had intended to try to speak in one of the debates, on the report of the Implementation and Dialogue Group. For various reasons, involving quite a lot of Life and a fair bit of Stuff, I wasn’t able to engage as fully in the prep for Synod as I usually would, and I was very late in writing my speech and putting in a request to speak. (In fact I raised my ‘blue hand’ slightly before the speech was finished, which could have led to an interesting outcome if I had been called!). In the end I wasn’t called, which is probably for the best, as I’m not sure I’d have made much sense. (Incidentally it happens also to be the only time in six years of Synod that I’ve tried to speak in a debate and not managed to do so – my normal strategy of ‘stand right in the eyeline of the chair, to my full 5.11 height, plus heels, and wear bright orange’ doesn’t work quite so well on Zoom! I was delighted that my friend Esther Prior was called to speak first – she made an excellent speech, said some similar things to what I would have said, only better, and set just the right tone for the rest of the debate.

I woke up this morning with my head full of all of the things that I would have liked to say if only I could have got the thoughts together more quickly and clearly. Therefore, I thought I would share those thoughts here. I won't focus so much on the IDG report (which you can read here), as on the whole concept of mutual flourishing and the 5 Guiding Principles. I won’t explain the background to them, but if you’re unsure you can read more here). 

Sometimes when I write a blog it is cheery and light and I press ‘post’ in the confident hope that people will receive it with enthusiasm and all will be well. At other times I press ‘post’ with fear and trepidation, knowing that it is quite possible that I’m about to upset everybody everywhere, from every possible point on every possible spectrum, all at the same time, and slightly holding my breath for the backlash. I’ll leave you to work out which is true on this occasion…

The thing is though, that I believe we need the 5 GPs, and I also believe that mutual flourishing really matters. For a start, the 5GPs state extremely clearly that the CofE has come to a decision on this issue. The matter has been decided. Women can be deacons, and priests, and bishops. This is important to me, and I am delighted that it is so. There are now, joyously, so many women ordained bishop that I cannot tell you the total number without googling it. If I tried to name them all, I would certainly forget some. I consider that to be rather wonderful, only 7 years since the vote that enabled it. But, secondly, and also very importantly, the 5GPs clearly recognise that not everyone is able to “receive the ministry of” ordained women. This is also important. People have the right not to believe in or agree with the ordained ministry of women (whether those objections relate to the issues of priesthood, or of leadership, or of preaching).

Very clearly, it is hard to hold those two things in tension. It can be painful and complex. It certainly requires huge amounts of grace and generosity from everyone involved. And in this area (as in literally every single other area of the life of the church and of the world) we could do with a huge amount more grace. Grace is just about my very favourite thing, but there can never be enough of it.

There are a few key moments in my own ministry when I’ve really experienced mutual flourishing and the 5GPs in action. Just a couple of weeks ago, for instance, I was privileged to lead the priests’ ordination retreat for the Edmonton Area of the Diocese of London (a Diocese which I think many others could learn from in terms of how they navigate this stuff, with the London Plan). There were six deacons on the retreat. Five of them were ordained priest on the Saturday, at a service at which I preached, and Bishop Sarah ordained (and also, joyfully, at which the female vicar of the church we were in sat opposite me). I found myself tearful on a couple of occasions, for all sorts of reasons to do with covid, and worshipping together with others, and ordinations simply being wonderful, but also for the privilege it was to preach at a service where a female Bishop was presiding and ordaining. However, I’ve mentioned six, and then five – the other candidate wasn’t ordained that same day, but two weeks later, by the Bishop of Maidstone. He was part of the retreat, we all spent that whole time journeying together, but his decision was that he couldn’t be ordained by Bishop Sarah. I obviously can’t pretend to know what that must feel like as a bishop. But in its practical outworking, during the retreat, it worked. I received nothing but respect and kindness from the candidate, and I hope he would say the same of me.

Several years ago, I was invited to give a seminar at the Word Alive conference, and I was delighted to do so. (I did spend much of the rest of the day explaining to people that I wasn’t the wife of any vicar, there or elsewhere, but that’s another story. Never before have I wished I’d worn a dog collar to a summer festival. Even more ironic when you consider that the seminar was on singleness!). 

More recently, I was invited to give the morning sermon in the chapel at Oak Hill College. What an extraordinary privilege that was. I don’t take such invitations for granted, but am honoured to receive them, and treasure them.

It so happens (unsurprisingly, given my own tradition) that all of those examples relate to the evangelical world. But just this morning I had a conversation with a friend, a traditionalist catholic priest, for whom I have nothing but respect and admiration. We discussed General Synod, and I was enthusiastic in my encouragement of him to stand. He will, if elected, bring much wisdom and grace to the chamber. He was also kind enough to express to me his thanks for my own ministry on General Synod, and his support of my campaign for re-election. We’re interested in each other’s flourishing, and it’s mutual.

I’m very pleased to be able to call the Bishop of Burnley a friend (it’s true – some of my best friends are bishops…). Together we’ve been part of an only averagely successful, but extremely entertaining, online lockdown quiz team. But even before we were friends, I had invited him to speak at a New Wine event that I was leading, because I’d heard him speak about urban mission and ministry, and it had moved me to tears. His passion and clarity and wisdom continue to inspire me. We’re interested in each other’s flourishing, and it’s mutual.

Now please understand me, I am not na├»ve. I realise that this stuff doesn’t always work out well. But I genuinely believe that isn’t enough of a reason to give up trying. I have had my fair share of rude, unkind and unhelpful comments. In fact I probably haven’t had my fair share – I know some women who have suffered with this far more than I have. In no way would I wish to downplay or minimise what they have been through. Sometimes those comments, or reactions, or behaviours, come from a place of ignorance and prejudice. Sometimes they come simply from a place of not having engaged the brain and the mouth at the same time. When I preached once at evening prayer in the chapel at Wycliffe Hall while I was training for ordination, someone told me that it was the best sermon they’d ever heard by a woman. The thing is, I genuinely think they meant it as a compliment! (For the avoidance of doubt, it is not!).

I understand – of course I understand – that these matters can be intensely hard. I have found the pain of knowing that someone has stayed sitting in their seat, rather than coming forward to receive communion, because I am the one who has presided, to be a moment of unique and deep pain. When someone belittles or dismisses our ministry it is hurtful, painful, difficult – deeply so.

It is my belief, though, that scrapping the 5GPs, ditching the concept of mutual flourishing, announcing that from now on everyone who is a candidate for ordination must assent that they are in favour of women’s ordination and ministry – these things wouldn’t (necessarily) help. Of course, where there is bad behaviour, it must be challenged. Online abuse, hate mail, nasty comments, ignoring/blanking female colleagues – these things are totally unacceptable, and they must not be allowed to continue. I know that many of my friends from traditionalist catholic and conservative evangelical backgrounds would challenge these behaviours if they witnessed them, and we need more of this. We need too to learn from examples of good practice, such as we see in the Dioceses of London, Blackburn, and Chichester, among others.

The Bishop of Rochester said during the debate yesterday that perhaps we needed some of this work to have been done on 2014, rather than now, and I think he is probably right. I hope that we can learn from some of the good practice around, as well as from some of the bad experiences people have had, so that we can all get better at this. 

I want to try hard to recognise and acknowledge that the need for grace isn’t only one sided, and nor is the potential for pain. It isn’t that I must summon all of my grace in order to cope with the views of these people who don’t accept my ministry, and the pain that may cause while they just merrily continue with their views. There is grace too in their interactions with me, with us. There will also sometimes be pain in the outworking of their ministries. I don’t know, maybe on the morning that I preached in the chapel at Oak Hill, some people stayed away. It’s pretty likely, I guess. But some didn’t. Some came, and listened, and received my teaching – and I recognise and give thanks for the grace that some of them will have needed to exercise in doing so.

The point at which I differ, I guess, from some of my colleagues, is that I don’t believe that for someone simply to hold the view that women can’t (or shouldn’t) be ordained, or lead, or preach, is in itself harmful. It is only the behaviours which sometimes arise out of that view that are harmful. The theological and ecclesiological opinion is, I believe, entirely valid, and what matters is how you then live with and behave towards your colleagues. We’re right back round to grace again.

Inevitably this blog has become very long. I don’t want it also to become waffly (you may consider that ship to have sailed…). I’m sure there will have been points at which I have expressed myself clumsily. If I have misrepresented anyone’s point of view, or offended anyone, I ask for their forgiveness. These are, of course, only my own views. I’d welcome further discussion on what I’ve written – but please, be kind!

Monday 22 February 2021

Extrovert musings...

So, you might not have noticed, because it's not obvious and I don't mention it much, but I'm a bit of an extrovert...

Ha! I am, in fact, quite literally 'off the scale.' (Seriously, I did some sort of test once and somehow my score was beyond the 100% line...)

When I first discovered, years ago now, the real difference between extroverts and introverts, I was fascinated - it all suddenly made sense! Before that, I think I'd just fallen into the trap (that you used to see perpetuated a lot, although less so now), of thinking that extrovert = outgoing and confident, and introvert = shy and withdrawn. That's not really the case at all, it's actually far more interesting and complex than that.

I learned then a method that I still use now if I'm explaining this to people who aren't sure which they are. 2 questions:

1) If you've been working all day and are tired, how would you most like to relax and wind down? a) by going out and meeting up with lots of friends; or b) by curling up on your own with a book.

2) If you have a big decision to make, or a problem to work through, what's the best way for you to do that? a) by chatting it through with other people; or b) by some time on your own to mull it over.

As = extrovert, Bs = introvert.

Obviously it's all a bit more nuanced than that in reality, and some people find themselves somewhere in the middle, or one side sometimes and the other side other times. 

For me though, I'm extrovert all day long! It sounds a bit mad to those people who aren't the same way, but those who are will totally understand:

  • I don't know what I think about something until I've said it out loud. Sometimes I hear myself speak and am quite surprised to find out what I think! This can be disconcerting for other people in meetings, especially ones I'm chairing - I have to make sure there's a disclaimer at the beginning about 'thinking out loud.'
  • I can't make a decision without talking about it. Often I don't even need the other person to say anything, but the process of saying it out loud helps me to decide. 
  • I can't process or work through any stuff unless I have someone to talk it through with. That's a bit of an issue in a year which has been packed full of All Of The Stuff. (Spare a thought for my Bubble Of Joy who are faced with an extreme amount of splurging every time I visit).
  • I don't really know how I'm doing unless I say it out loud. People will ask 'how are you?' and I invariably think 'hmm, how am I?' I then start to reply, and discover the answer at about the same time as they do.
  • I get my energy from other people. It took me really quite a long time into this whole pandemic thing to realise that was one of the reasons why I was so exhausted (I mean there are lots of other reasons too, who isn't exhausted?!). But I simply was not getting enough energy from other people to keep me going. (A good (introvert) friend of mine observed early on that Zoom is too much people for the introverts and not enough people for the extroverts!).
  • I prefer to do about 12 different things at the same time, because it genuinely helps me to concentrate better on each of them.
Writing can help a bit, as a sort of substitute for talking if that isn't possible. Talking to myself can also sometimes help, but not always (though I still do it. A lot). 

I've known all this about myself for some time, and I find it helpful to know, because it means that I'm better able to understand who I am and how I tick and what I need. I imagine it's helpful for my friends to know too - and I always know that a friend really 'gets' me when they say something like 'so shall we arrange a chat so that you can work out what you think?'

The thing that has been interesting lately is pondering what all this means during lockdown (and particularly as a single person who lives alone during lockdown). I guess I could have predicted all of the big stuff that I'd find hard - the process of making big decisions about worship in church, the working through my feelings and emotions about it all, the isolation of spending SO MUCH time on my own.

But what I don't think I would have expected or realised until it happened, was how much I've also missed every other small, everyday interaction that I probably barely noticed. That quick hello in the supermarket. That chat with the neighbour while walking down the street. That moment of bumping into someone by the shops. That car park chat at the end of a meeting. That conversation over coffee during the break in the meeting. 

Those things take only a few moments, but all of them give me energy and help my brain work better - and all of them have all but disappeared. When every meeting is on Zoom, we have 'Zoom fatigue' and eye strain, and understandably as soon as there's a coffee break we get up and walk away from our screen, and only come back when the meeting restarts. But then how am I supposed to find out what I think about how the meeting is going?! (That's the main reason why I'm always the person using the Zoom chat function nonstop - so sorry to those whom it distracts!). Without all of these things, I have lacked energy and focus and drive. Everything has taken longer and felt harder.

I realise that not all extroverts will recognise themselves in what I'm saying (and equally that not all introverts will find themselves at the opposite pole - in fact quite a few of my introvert friends have said "this was great to start with but even I am over it now").

I'm actually a little bit apprehensive, I've realised, about what happens as we come out of this weird year - as we follow the 'roadmap' that leads ahead. 'How long will it be before I can hug my friends?' is a question I've been asking for a long time, but now I realise I'm also wondering things like 'will I still be the same sort of extrovert as I was before?' and 'will the ways in which we interact with each other have changed forever and will that be ok?' and 'can my friends really handle the explosion of extroversion they're going to be faced with over the next few months?!'

I do realise that there's not really all that much that I can do about any of this. As you might expect, I'm mostly just writing this to help myself to work it out! But certainly it's helped me to get to know myself a bit better - and hopefully to understand others a bit better too ("some of my best friends are introverts...!")

Monday 15 February 2021

"You have kept a record of my tears..."

I've been thinking a bit lately about crying. I wonder what sort of a relationship you have with tears?! I'm a big fan of the Christmas film The Holiday, and in that Cameron Diaz's character Amanda tells Jude Law's character Graham that she hasn't cried since her parents split up when she was a child. She tries several times, squeezing up her eyes and willing the tears to come out, but they won't. The moment we know she's really serious about Graham is when she's leaving in a taxi and suddenly realises that tears are running down her cheeks.

Personally, I cry A LOT. I cry at sad films, and sometimes at happy ones too. I often cry when I'm reading books. I cry when I'm watching the news, and even occasionally when I'm watching adverts... I cry when little kids do something cute. I cry when I'm overwhelmed by beauty - looking at a glorious sunset, for instance. I cry when I hear sad news about somebody else. I cry when I'm lost in worship, singing praises to God, and I almost always cry when someone prays for me. Sometimes I've even made myself cry while I'm preaching, sharing the good news of Jesus' love. I also do that really annoying thing, that a number of other women have told me they do too, of crying when I'm angry! 

Many of the situations above cause me to well up, rather than to sob as such, although anyone who has sat near to me during the worship time at New Wine knows there are times when, to use the marvellous Liverpool phrase that I very much enjoy, I've 'cried my leg off.'

I cry when I'm upset too, of course. I cry when I'm sad, or lonely, or stressed, or overwhelmed, or frustrated. 

The one small flaw in this litany of tears is that I absolutely and completely cannot cry when I'm talking to people. I can be with my dearest, closest friends, or in a prayer group, or with wise spiritual advisers. I can be going through a really tough time, and want to talk about it, and know that the person is willing to listen. I can have been specifically asked how I'm doing, and I can be in the middle of describing the many ways in which I am really not doing well at all. But I cannot cry, because, well, PEOPLE. I only ever cry on my own (New Wine worship times notwithstanding - if my eyes are closed you can't see me, right?!).

(Oh, and another small caveat. A few years ago I did the incomparably superb Arrow Leadership Programme. I cried from the moment we started until the moment we finished. There's some kind of magic there, I can't explain it).

Over the past little while I've been beginning to figure out why it is that the presence of other humans (usually) means I can't cry, and what it's about, and I'm starting to understand it a bit more. I'm really hopeful that, over time, this will change, and I'll be able to be a bit more 'in the moment' with my emotions, so that if I'm telling someone about something really sad, I will be able to cry there and then. (One dear friend often (re)assures me that he's certain he'll be able to make me cry one day...!).

A few months into the first lockdown, someone asked me how I was doing. I said that I was up and down, that it depended on the day, or perhaps even on the hour - I guess that's pretty normal right?! Anyway I then said that I was fairly sure that I'd cried every single day of the lockdown. They looked at me in absolute horror! Maybe they were more on the Cameron Diaz/Amanda end of the tears spectrum! Now, almost a year into this whole pandemic thing, it wouldn't strictly be true to say that I've cried every single day since last March, but there are way more days when I've cried than when I haven't. Like, *way* more.

And so I've been thinking about tears. Specifically I've been thinking about what God thinks about our tears. I've been reflecting on those 2 extraordinary words that John writes in his description of the story of Lazarus. One of Jesus' closest friends has died, and his sisters, also dear friends of Jesus', are devastated. Jesus walks with them to the tomb where Lazarus is laid, and 2 short words tell us so much about the heart of our Lord: "Jesus wept." 

What beautiful words those are. That, and the time when he weeps over Jerusalem, are the only recorded instances in the gospels of Jesus crying, but I doubt very much that they are the only times that he cried. Interesting lines in Christmas carols notwithstanding, he definitely would have cried as a baby, and a child, because that's what babies and children do. But I wonder whether he also cried as a man. I wonder (and of course I can do no more than wonder) whether he cried when his cousin John was murdered. Or when his friends betrayed him. I think that perhaps he did. And I'm certain that he sees my tears, and that he understands.

I've also been thinking about that beautiful verse in Psalm 56, written by King David when he had been captured by the Philistines. It's a Psalm full of raw, real emotion, like so many of the Psalms. That's one of the reasons that so many people find such comfort in their words - because they remind us that we can come to God just as we are, with all of our messy emotions, and that he can take it.

Psalm 56:8 tells me that God has literally made a note of all of my tears. (It's worth reading the verse in a few different translations because there are some fascinating and beautiful different ways of saying that). What an extraordinary thought that is! All those moments when I've cried alone, when emotion has burst out of me, and when it's been buried within. God has seen my tears, he has understood my tears, he has even recorded my tears. (It may not surprise you, having read this far, to find that I am crying as I write these words!).

And then, my mind goes to the last book of the Bible, to the stunning vision of the world beyond this world, to the new heavens and the new earth, and I think of that verse which is sometimes read at funerals. John describes his vision of this future city, which God is preparing for his people. And then in Rev. 21:4 we read that "He will wipe every tear from (our) eyes."

One day, I will live forever with the Lord, and there will be no more crying. Who knows, maybe he'll show me the bottles (giant vats...) that he has collected of my tears over the years. Until then, I'll cry on (sometimes), knowing that he sees me. 

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.