Self-isolation: Some non-medical predictions

I’m not qualified to make any medical or epidemiological predictions, but here are some linguistic predictions:

1. When the Oxford English Dictionary choose their Word of the Year for 2020, it will be “self-isolate”.

2. In the next few weeks, there will be lots and lots of online articles with titles such as “10 top tips for self-isolating” and “15 great Netflix choices when self-isolating” and “How self-isolating taught me more about self-care /silence /friendship /cooking /prayer /sleep /relaxation /insert-something-else-relevant-to-particular-publication”.

3. In future years, the phrase “self-isolate” will evolve to mean “giving yourself a bit of space away from other people because you need to look after yourself”. In 20 years time, young people will say they’re “self-isolating” and we’ll say to them, “That word used to mean something a lot more serious. Do you know it derives from the Great Coronavirus Outbreak of 2020?”. They’ll say, “Yes, we do, because you keep telling us.”

My trial: prosecution backs down at the last minute

I was due to stand trial last week, nearly six months after being arrested while taking part in the resistance to the DSEI arms fair in London.

After months of confusion – and a massive waste of taxpayers’ money – the Crown Prosecution Service decided at the last moment to drop the charge. This followed a written submission by my barrister pointing out that the footage (which the prosecution had had from the beginning) disproved the charge of which I was accused.

I owe many, many thanks to everyone who has supported me and sent me encouraging messages, as well as to my lawyers and my comrades in the Peace Pledge Union. Thank you!

If you’d like to read my reflections on this absurd situation, you can find them here in an article I’ve written for Left Foot Forward.

Christians don’t need bishops’ permission to have sex

The Church of England bishops have once again alienated large numbers of people with a predictable, prejudiced, ill-informed and unbiblical statement about sexuality and relationships.

The Church of England bishops rarely produce collective statements of their position on anything. Issues of marriage and sex seem to be almost the only exception, as if the Gospel proclaimed by Jesus is somehow less relevant to all other areas of life.

Some of the people most upset by the statement are themselves members of the Church of England. By now, however, I suspect they are less surprised.

The statement is a response to the introduction of mixed-gender civil partnerships. Its basic point is that sex should take place only between mixed-gender couples in monogamous and state-sanctioned marriages, and no-one else.

As is usual, the CofE bishops have failed to define “sexual intercourse” and “sexual activity”, making it extremely unclear what sort of behaviour they believe to be allowed in contexts other than mixed-sex marriage.

Their discussion of the meaning of marriage is brief and unclear. Their define marriage as “a faithful, committed, permanent and legally sanctioned relationship between a man and a woman making a public commitment to each other”. The phrase “legally sanctioned” implies that sexual relationships are valid only if approved by the state. In effect, the bishops are saying that you need the state’s permission to have sex.

And unsurprisingly, the document does not discuss definitions of “man” or “woman”.

Despite varied views on these issues within the Church of England, and even among the bishops, they have once again gone along with the homophobic “family values” lobby.

As a Christian, I am all in favour of standing against the dominant position in society when that position goes against Jesus’ teaching. I oppose “traditional family values” not because I want to accept common practices in secular society, but because I want to uphold the Gospel. So-called family values are utterly unbiblical.

I have searched the Bible in vain for any promotion of nuclear families based solely around sexually exclusive mixed-gender marriages. Nuclear families are a modern invention. Responsibility for raising children has differed considerably across times and cultures. Understandings of marriage and divorce have varied so widely that we need to be careful even about using these words to apply to different contexts.

Of course, there are a few lines in the Bible that the homophobes and supposed traditionalists like to quote, but they are ripped from their context. By focussing on individual lines to the exclusion of wider themes, the “traditionalists” miss the wood for the trees. The Gospels show Jesus defying social norms by being unmarried and wondering around with a more-or-less egalitarian group of followers who were accused of failing in their family responsibilities. Jesus redefined family, saying that whoever did the will of God was his brother, sister or mother. The tradition of the virgin birth undermines biological notions of family, with Jesus brought up by a man who was not his father.

The anti-family tradition in the Gospels has long been recognised by New Testament scholars, although of course scholars differ from each other in how they interpret it and how radical they regard it as being. This is one of the biggest contrasts between academic New Testament studies and the way the New Testament is preached in many churches. Academics recognise the Gospels’ problems with families; clergy more often ignore them.

This is not to say that the New Testament is unconcerned with sexual ethics. Jesus spoke about marriage and sexuality many times. Jesus challenged men who blamed women for their own lustful thoughts, telling them to take responsibility for sexual immorality in their own hearts. Jesus rejected easy divorce, which in his society allowed a man to throw a woman into poverty on a whim. Jesus allowed women to make physical contact with him in a society that found it shocking (although he never initiated the contact). Jesus was criticised for socialising with sex workers and saying they would enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Jesus challenged all people to love their neighbours as themselves, a dauntingly demanding ethic.

This is very far from an “anything goes” approach to sexual ethics. It is equally far from a legalistic approach that seeks to privilege some people over others because of their gender or because their relationships have been recognised by the state. Both legalism and hedonism are contrary to the Gospel.

The CofE bishops’ latest statement has triggered comments on social media from pro-LGBT Christians who are disappointed because of all the supposedly inclusive conversations that have gone on about these issues within the Church of England. While I am saddened to see so many people disappointed, I find it hard to see how anyone can still find these sort of statements surprising. Over the last decade, the Church of England has run a bewildering number of consultation processes about sexuality, at least two of which produced recommendations that involved yet another long consultation process.

If anything good comes from the fallout of the bishops’ statement, it may be that more pro-LGBT Christians refuse to go along with more of these absurd consultation processes. I am more than happy to engage in genuine dialogue with people who have different views to me, including those who have problems with same-sex relationships, as long as we are all willing to listen to each other. What I will not do, and what I strongly discourage others from doing, is to help the bishops to give the appearance of inclusion and dialogue by holding endless discussions before producing statements that merely repeat what they said last time – and the many, many times before that.

As Christians, let us listen to each other and learn from each other. Let us act as communities and not only as individuals. Let us pray that God will show us when we are wrong as well as when we are right. But don’t let any of this be an excuse to think we cannot act or change without permission from church leaders. The CofE’s leaders (and, to varying extents, the leaders of most other denominations) have made clear that they cannot lead us in responding to the liberating Gospel of Christ when it comes to issues of sexuality.

They will not give us permission to respond to the Gospel as we understand it. Fortunately, we don’t need their permission. We need to stop acting as if we did.

The Jonathan Fletcher case: sex, power and abuse

Note: I wrote this blog post about two weeks ago. Due to personal and family circumstances since then, I have been taking some time off work. Therefore, there has been a gap between the writing and the posting. Apologies for the delay. 

There are times when I don’t want to be right. True, there are other times when I make a prediction and feel a bit smug when it turns out to be accurate. But in this case, I can’t help wishing I had been wrong.

It’s nearly ten years ago now since I was invited onto BBC Breakfast to talk about the sexual abuse scandal then engulfing the Roman Catholic Church. I predicted that it was only a matter of time before revelations emerged about levels of sexual abuse in other churches. I said to several people that there would soon be a major sexual abuse scandal in Protestant churches, including the Church of England, and that I was inclined to think that in many cases this would involve the abuse of adults rather than children.

Sexual abuse allegations in the Church of England have trickled out since then, but have now reached a critical level. In 2015, the Methodist Church announced an investigation into sexual abuse (to be fair to the Methodists, they did this pro-actively, before they were under much pressure to do so). In late December, the Daily Telegraph published the results of an investigation into leading evangelical Anglican priest Jonathan Fletcher, formerly of Emmanuel Church, Waterloo.

The Fletcher allegations have some unique aspects as well other features that are depressingly familiar. They are a reminder of how the abuse scandals in the Church of England are both the same and different to those that have become so familiar in the Roman Catholic Church.

Fletcher has been accused by five men who were members of his church in the 1980s and 1990s. They were adults at the time. Fletcher has admitted to much (but not all) of the alleged behaviour, though claims that it was neither abusive nor sexual, and that the men in question consented.

It seems that Fletcher ran small groups for church members to pray, talk and read the Bible together. Such an idea will be familiar to anyone who has belonged to a church house group or cell group. But these do not appear to have your average prayer-and-a-cup-of-tea set-ups. For one thing, the groups in question were single-sex, with all members being male. Secondly, they were designed to offer mutual accountability, with members confessing to each other if they had behaved in sinful or unhealthy ways.

Such an arrangement is not necessarily abusive in itself. Mutual accountability can be helpful and effective, if it is entered into freely and carefully by people who treat each other as equals. It is not likely to work if one member of the group is a charismatic leader, who chooses punishments for others (and himself) to undergo if they fail to keep to their commitments. Fletcher is alleged to have beaten the men across their naked bottoms and pressurised them into taking ice baths. Fletcher has admitted to the bare-bottom beatings but describes them as “light-hearted forfeits”. He also accepts that he proscribed cold baths as a punishment, but insists that this was only very occasional and that they did not involve ice.

In short, Fletcher has admitted to most of the behaviour. He has apologised for any hurt he caused, while insisting that the actions were consensual. It might well be that on some level be genuinely believed at the time that what he was doing was OK. But his argument about consent undermines his apology. How far is something consensual when one party is much more powerful than the other?

The definition of consent in this context is much debated. That makes it sound like an academic exercise, but of course this is a very real and practical case about behaviour that, according to the five men interviewed by the Telegraph, had lasting and deeply harmful effects on them.

Of course, bare-bottom beatings and such like can be meaningfully consensual in other contexts. There is nothing wrong, for example, with a loving couple spanking each other’s bottoms because they both enjoy it and when they enter into the action as equals with genuine freedom to say no or to change their mind at any point. Consensual kinky sexual behaviour can be an expression of love and affection. This is not what we are talking about in the case of Fletcher.

The issue is not whether Fletcher’s beatings and cold baths were “sexual” or not, but to what extent they were consensual and healthy. The five interviewees, alongside other former members of Emmanuel Church, talk of Fletcher as a larger-than-life figure who was treated as some sort of hero or saint and whose goodness and wisdom were difficult to question. If you belong to a church led by such a person, you may not be inclined to say when he tells you that a particular act will help you to move on from a sin about which you’re already feeling really bad.

Most (but by no means all) of the abuse scandals associated with the Catholic Church have involved children, as have many of those in other churches. The Fletcher case may seem different. But the child abuse in the Catholic Church continued in part because of priests who could hardly be questioned, and was sustained by a cover-up culture that refused to see priests as accountable for their crimes. As with Jonathan Fletcher, the priests in question operated in a situation of vastly unequal power.

Abuse in both cases is about power. It always is.

This is not to deny that there are differences, nor that there are other issues present. I am not for a moment trying to downplay the sexual nature of much abuse, nor the particular revulsion associated with the abuse of children. Among the differences, unequal power remains a commonality.

I am glad that there is an inquiry going on into Emmanuel Church. However, identifying the abuse in one particular church will not in itself lead to major change if there is not also a change of culture. And this can come about only with changes to church structures and theologies, so that the church functions as a community of equals, with no-one whose ideas or actions are beyond question, and no-one whose ideas and actions are ignored or marginalised.

Several times in his writings, the apostle Paul wrote of the Christian Church as being like a body. The head, the foot, the hand and all the other parts cannot function alone. Indeed, the parts are equally important. These passages are often read in church to emphasise that every person’s contribution should be valued. But this is not the only point that such passages seem to be making. At the time that Paul wrote, the Roman Empire was often compared to a body: the emperor was the head, with the ranks of society identified with other parts of the body, going downwards until reaching the feet, representing the poorest and supposedly least important people in the empire. Paul’s original readers undoubtedly knew this. They would have recognised his analogy as a subversion of the imperial myth. For Paul, and for Christianity, all the parts of the body, all the members of the church, are equals. This is a challenge to social, political and economic ideas that set some people above others.

At times, churches seem to function more like the body as viewed by the Roman Empire than the body as viewed by Paul. If everyone is equal, nobody should occupy a position of unquestioned power and authority. Of course, it is very hard for a church to function as a community of equals, especially in such an unequal society. But at the moment, most churches are not even trying. Equality involves hard work.

Until we do that work, until we ditch the theologies and political myths that uphold hierarchy and inequality, churches are likely to remain oppressive and abusive for many. Of course, abuse can happen even in a church striving to be a community of equals. But such abuse, are attempts to cover it up, are less likely. The nature of equality, consent, abuse and power would be discussed, with everyone helping each other to develop their understanding of such things.

There are many things we need to do to defeat abuse in the church. But if we don’t commit ourselves to building equality, many of them will be futile.

Churches Together in England: Wrong, homophobic and theologically absurd

A decision by a major Christian organisation last week marks a major setback in the ongoing struggle for LGBT inclusion in churches in Britain. A body that exists to promote unity between Christians of strongly different views has prevented their duly appointed co-president from taking up her post – because she is married to a woman.

Churches Together in England (CTE) brings together churches that used to persecute each other, to sit down together and strive for common ground. Catholics whose predecessors burnt Protestants at the stake emphasise their unity with them as fellow Christians. Evangelicals who in the past broke into bitter rivalries with each other over their view of infant baptism now regard the issue as of relatively minor importance. CTE, which is far from being an especially conservative organisation, is by its nature a grouping that invites Christians to seek for unity amidst difference and to promote dialogue even when it is uncomfortable and challenging.

Yet last week CTE undermined its own mission and abandoned any reasonable claim to be a serious voice for Christian unity and dialogue. They blocked their duly appointed co-president from taking up her position, because she is in a same-sex marriage.

CTE structures are complicated. It is not necessary to understand every detail of them to grasp what is going on here. There are six presidents of CTE at any one time. Some hold the role because of their position in their own denomination, such as the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Westminster. Others are appointed by groups of churches. The Fourth President, for example, represents a number of Christian denominations, including the Religious Society of Friends, better known as Quakers. This year, it was the turn of the Quakers to nominate the Fourth President. After an internal process of prayerful discernment, the Quakers nominated Hannah Brock Womack, a prominent peace campaigner and former employee of War Resisters’ International.

After months of faffing about, CTE announced on Friday that they had blocked Hannah from taking up her position because she is married to a woman. The Fourth President will be replaced at meetings by an “empty chair”.

My reaction to this news is affected by the fact that I have been honoured to call Hannah a friend for several years, and to have campaigned alongside her many times. I have a lot of admiration and respect for her. But I would be almost as angry and upset about this decision even if I had never met, and knew nothing about, the person concerned.

The nature of CTE is that people who strongly disagree, who may not even trust each other, who feel uncomfortable around each other, are invited to sit down together and engage in dialogue. I am more than happy to engage in dialogue with people who oppose same-sex marriage. I know that many (though far from all) such people are open to genuine dialogue with LGBT Christians and other supporters of same-sex marriage.

But CTE’s decision is a kick in the teeth for attempts to promote dialogue on this issue. The decision implies that same-sex marriage is a more important issue than all the other issues that CTE presidents, and members, disagree about. Some of these are issues that their predecessors literally killed each other over.

CTE presidents may be Protestant, Catholic or Orthodox. They may be liberal or conservative. They may believe in transubstantiation, consubstantiation, the Literal Presence, the Virtual Presence, papal infallibility, biblical infallibility, biblical fallibility, evolution, creationism, capitalism, socialism, pacifism, just war, holy war, substitutionary atonement, Christus Victor atonement, salvation by grace, salvation by works, infant baptism, believers’ baptism, baptism in the spirit, the authority of priests, the priesthood of all believers, purgatory, no purgatory, literal hell, metaphorical hell, annihilationism, universalism, premillenialism, postmillenialism or amillenialism. All these things are acceptable for CTE presidents. The one thing that is not acceptable is marrying the person you love, if they happen to be the same gender as you.

There are a few beliefs that are not acceptable within CTE, such as rejection of the Trinity or disbelief in the divinity of Christ. Excluding a president because she is in a same-sex marriage puts attitudes to marriage and sexuality on a level with these basic Christian doctrines. This is not only homophobic. It is theologically ludicrous.

Anti-LGBT attitudes within Christian churches are not confined to small numbers or even to the most conservative churches. They are present within mainstream, even liberal, church structures, defended by those who don’t want to rock the boat or who want to sweep controversy under the carpet. The news from CTE is a reminder that we cannot defeat homophobia within Christianity by quietly waiting for change or by playing down the importance of the issues. LGBT Christians and their allies, and all who believe in genuine dialogue, must speak out.

CTE’s vile decision is accompanied by the usual hateful words that are supposed to soften the blow while only making it harder. Their statement declared that they recognise the “hurt” that has been caused to Hannah, and to Quakers. I’ve got used to church leaders saying they recognise the hurt that has been caused to LGBT Christians, even while they continue to hurt us. This is rather like being repeatedly punched in the face by someone who tells you that he knows his punches are hurting – while he’s still punching you.

Churches Together in England have said that for the duration of Hannah Brock Womack’s term of office, she will be replaced in meetings by an empty chair. They have unintentionally created a very accurate image of the role that LGBT Christians are allowed to have in Christian churches: a chair, with nobody sitting in the bloody thing.

Liz Truss and the violence they call ‘peace’

Who would have thought I had so much in common with Liz Truss? It turns out that we are both facing questions about the law in relation to our actions concerning the arms trade.

Today, Liz Truss, the International Trade Secretary, admitted that her department had committed even more breaches of a court ruling against arms exports to Saudi Arabia. I say “even more” because she had already admitted to breaches a couple of weeks ago.

My own situation is a bit different. I will be in court on 7th October charged with “willful obstruction of the highway”. I was one of hundreds of people who took nonviolent direct action earlier this month to resist the London arms fair, known euphemistically as Defence Systems & Equipment International, or DSEI. Other peaceful campaigners are due in court on the same day.

Breaking the Highways Act is a relatively minor offence. If convicted, I face a maximum penalty of a fine. Even this, however, is more punishment than Liz Truss can expect. She will not have to face a court in person. She has merely written an apologetic letter to the court. She is unlikely even to lose her ministerial job.

Truss apologised to MPs for “inadvertent breaches of the undertaking given to the Court”. She “apologised to the Court unreservedly”.

How do you inadvertently sell weapons? Has loyalty to the arms industry become so central to the government’s way of working that it trumps not only the most basic principles of humanity and compassion but also the rulings of British courts? I am reminded of the former Foreign Secretary Robin Cook’s comment that the chairman of BAE Systems had “the key to the garden door at Number Ten”.

This is not simply an issue about legal technicalities. It is about the double standards that allow the rich and powerful to engage in violence.

The revelation about the “inadvertent” arms sales to Saudi Arabia came the day after Boris Johnson called for tougher sentences for people who kill children. According to the United Nations and Amnesty International, Saudi-led forces are responsible for the majority of civilian deaths in Yemen, including thousands of children. But while Johnson wants to lock up British child-killers, he will happily supply weapons to Saudi child-killers. While the Saudi air force bombs civilians in Yemen, Saudi pilots are trained by the UK’s Royal Air Force in North Wales.

This hypocrisy was on display in the roads leading to the DSEI arms fair at the Excel Centre. At one point, police trying to remove peaceful protesters from the road said that they feared there might be “unlawful violence”. The only violence was in the setting up of an arms fair. The protesters had been entirely nonviolent all week, as the police surely knew.

When police accused us of threatening a “breach of the peace”, the word “peace” seemed to lose all meaning. It is the arms dealers and their customers who threaten peace. We were trying to contribute to peace by stopping the arms fair.

Standing in the road outside the Excel Centre as the police said this, I found my head spinning with the unreality of it all. Violence is “peace” when it is sanctioned by powerful people. Working for peace constitutes “violence” if it is done by people who resist the powerful.

Peace is confused with order and morality with conformity. As Martin Luther King said, those who criticise nonviolent direct action seem to prefer “a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice”.

There will be little justice or peace in evidence as Liz Truss continues her work promoting arms exports. She has apologised to the court and to the House of Commons. The people of Yemen, however, facing the worst humanitarian crisis in the world, have received no apology from the UK government. Perhaps Liz Truss inadvertently forgot to send it.

 

Nuclear idols at Westminster Abbey

Trident On Friday 3rd May, people will gather in a religious building to thank God for weapons. Not any weapons, but weapons designed to kill thousands of innocent people.

The building in question is not, as some might imagine, a fundamentalist mosque. It is not a way-out church in the USA calling on its members to bomb abortion clinics. It is Westminster Abbey, a prominent Christian church in the centre of London and at the heart of the British establishment. It is one of London’s most prominent landmarks and a leading tourist attraction.

The Abbey is holding “a service to recognise fifty years of continuous at-sea deterrent”. In this context, “deterrent” is a euphemism for nuclear submarines. 

Each warhead on the Trident nuclear submarines owned by the UK government has about eight times as much destructive power as the atomic bomb that flattened Hiroshima in 1945. There are five warheads on each Trident missile, and each submarine carries up to eight missiles. There are four Trident submarines.

In other words, the UK’s Trident nuclear weapons system is about 1,280 times as destructive as the Hiroshima bomb. The Hiroshima bomb killed at least 140,000 people.

This is the weapons system that Westminster Abbey will be thanking God for on Friday.

The Abbey’s spokespeople have insisted that this is not a service of “thanksgiving”, although it has been alleged that invitations for the service originally used this word. Instead, the Abbey describes the service as:

A service to recognise the commitment of the Royal Navy to effective peace-keeping through the deterrent over the past fifty years and to pray for peace throughout the world.”

With this statement, the Abbey has adopted a clear political position in favour of Trident. The use of the word “deterrent” implies a belief in the dubious claims made by apologists for Trident. The Abbey claims not only that the Royal Navy is committed to peacekeeping but that this peacekeeping has been “effective”. 

I recognise that there are arguments in favour of Trident, unconvincing though I find them to be. But these arguments make no sense in Christian contexts. As Christians, we can all too easily fall back on the habit of reaching conclusions on the basis of the principles that dominate in the secular world. I admit I have fallen for this trap at times, as have many other Christians. However, surely our aim is to begin with a different starting-point, to seek to base our decisions and choices on Jesus – his teachings, actions, life, death and resurrection.

Fundamental to such a faith – and shared with many other religions – is the notion that our ultimate trust is in God, not in earthly institutions and inventions that promise to protect us if we submit ourselves to their power. Such submission is the essence of idolatry: putting our ultimate trust in things that we have made, rather than in the God who made us. As Jesus said, no-one can serve two masters. We can either trust in God or in the powers of weapons, money and nation-states. We cannot worship both.

Jesus’ practice of active nonviolence is, I suggest, linked to this principle. I accept that in the Hebrew Bible (which Christians tend to call the Old Testament) there are several examples of God endorsing violence. But Jesus taught something different. Furthermore, even in the Old Testament, the Israelite armies are instructed to trust God, not their own might. Gideon was even told to reduce the size of his army so that they would not think they had won through their own strength. I am guessing that passage won’t be read in Westminster Abbey on Friday.

The service is “by invitation only”. The idea of an invitation-only act of worship angers me almost as much as the fact that the service is celebrating nuclear weapons. The Christian Gospel is fundamentally at odds with “invitation only”. Jesus did not preach to people by “invitation only”. The Kingdom of God is not open only to the rich, powerful and important people who attend by “invitation only”. It s difficult to imagine anything more contrary to the essence of Christian worship than “invitation only”.

I respect many people, including many Christians, who reach different conclusions to mine on a variety of subjects. I appreciate that many Christian churches differ from my own outlook and preferences, and I am glad that such churches are worshipping God and proclaiming the good news of Jesus.

This service at Westminster Abbey is different. By promoting weapons of mass destruction, by encouraging trust in military might, by proclaiming loyalty to a nation-state ahead of the Gospel and by excluding those who are not invited from an act of worship, Westminster Abbey will be championing outright blasphemy and idolatry on Friday 3rd May.

I am glad that there will be many protests going on near the Abbey, as well as alternative acts of worship and genuine prayers for peace. As a supposedly Christian church champions military idolatry, I cannot help but conclude that to nonviolently challenge, prevent, delay or disrupt this service could be a profoundly moral and Christian act.

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