Both Sides, Now: Scotland and England

Reading Pádraig Ó Tuama’s In the Shelter: finding a home in the world, about telling stories in the shelter of the Corrymeela community, in the place he problematises in a poem’s title as ‘[the] north[ern] [of] ireland’, I think of an undergraduate essay I wrote for a course of Practical Theology, in St Andrews University in the late 1980s (a decade or so before the Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998). In it, I identified the phenomenon of what is now commonly known in critical theory (and may have been then, but not to me) as ‘multiple selves’.

I wrote of categories of identity, of Us and Them, which were problematic because historically, culturally, linguistically and/ or ecclesiastically, they included the identity of the Other they attempted to exclude:

‘Protestant’ being rooted in the Pre-Reformation Church, which ‘(Roman) Catholic’ claims also to be in unbroken continuity with and which also, at Vatican II, accepted much of the protest of Martin Luther, 400 years on; ‘Scot’ coming from and returning to ‘Ulster’, territory which does (not) include Donegal and which is (not) ‘Irish’ and is also (not) ‘British’ – another humdinger of a category that can designate anything from ‘Brythonic Celt’, through a successful ‘Welsh’ (Tudor) exercise in propaganda, to ‘English’ and ‘Commonwealth’ and ‘United Kingdom’.

Each phrase that I have written in the above paragraph is so problematic that it would be quite reasonable to argue that it is a downright lie. And yet it tells a truth. I have not attempted to draw out all instances of contradiction and connection, overlap and oversight that are possibilities among all these categories of identity.

My point in the essay was that the only way to peace is to accept the reality of this blurring of identities and to tell our stories. Argument of the ‘you’re wrong so I’m right’ variety can’t do that. Mostly because it depends on asserting and maintaining rigid categories of ‘you’ and ‘I’, of ‘us’ and ‘them’. (Of course I’m thinking of David Hare’s wonderful play, Us and Them, and if you haven’t in your life yet seen a youth theatre group perform it then do so.)

The pain of the Referendum on Scottish Independence this year, before, during and after, was one which is not supposed to exist. We don’t have a word for that which, ‘over there’, (another quote from Hare) has been called Trioblóid/ Troubles, which Ó Tuama explains means ‘Bereavements’. Of course it really has meant that in both languages.

We don’t have a word in English, or in Scots, or in Scots Gaelic, or in any of the other indigenous languages of these islands for the Troubles between ‘English’ and ‘Scot’. We have had no way to express this pain – and because we can’t express it, the pain has nowhere to go. The attempts of ‘No’ voters to come to reconciliation have met with inchoate rage from those who are ‘Still Yes’, a rage that cannot find adequate words to express itself as there is no common ground to argue over; the decision to vote ‘Yes’ in the first place was met with some of the same feeling, mostly on the internet and over the border, but here in Scotland this decision, when not shared, was met with much sorrow, with hurt and with incomprehension.

A good friend of mine, a good friend and a good man, said to me, in a pub on Great Western Road, in Glasgow, at the height of it all, when I was full of the disenfranchised of Maryhill waving banners and having the hope of making a difference, and frustrated with him for not getting it: ‘it really pains me when you talk about Scottishness as a club, of which I am not a member’.

I was simultaneously ashamed, and annoyed with him for being awkward. He’s like Màiri Mhòr nan Oran, Big Mary of the Song, who was banned by her dour minister from singing inside the house and outside the house. Màiri Mhòr stood in the doorway of her house and sang. My friend is like that, awkward, and I want to trace his genealogy and add up the years he’s spent ‘here’ or ‘there’ and come to a decision: is he or is he not Scottish? But then I’d have to do that for myself, and that would be unnerving.

During the year I spent in California 1990-1991, while not marching with banners proclaiming NO BLOOD FOR OIL! (if the protestors kept them, they’ll have been well used since) I participated in groupwork on prejudice and liberation. Focussing especially on the negative media portrayal of Islamic/ Middle Eastern men (watch Sex in the City 2 for an instance) I discovered my deepest racial prejudice. I was anti-English. Which was awkward, since my mother grew up (when not evacuated to her mother’s people in the West Highlands) in a village that Miss Marple would have felt at home in, my grandfather was born within sound of Bow Bells and – though his father came from Germany and, perhaps, generation upon generation, from Israel – his mother was from East Anglia and her surname means ‘home’.

We need to listen to each other, both sides, now, in Scotland. Not rush to hug each other in a false reconciliation which only continues to ignore the pain which is unspoken since officially it doesn’t exist.

‘(Still) Yes’ voters need to hear how it feels to have the door of this exclusive club called ‘Scottish’ shut in your face, the shock and hurt of your dearest friends and neighbours and indeed family wanting you and yours politically over the border like Jock O’Hazeldean and the lady that was(n’t) his. Sometimes very aggressively. Sometimes violently. Sometimes thoughtlessly. I was shocked, then ashamed, when an old friend from Barbados was chipping in with his hopes and fears (for ‘No’) over the internet. ‘What’s it got to do with you?’ I asked him. He told me. I’m middle-aged, with more degrees than sense, and had ignored the fact (fiction) that Barbados is ‘British’.

‘No’ voters need to hear how it feels to constantly correct not just ‘foreigners’ but our southern neighbours, even living amongst us, when they conflate ‘England’ and ‘Britain’, again and again and again. Still. How it feels to be tongue-tied in yer ain tongue, which no teacher, correcting you, again, ever told you contained words footnoted in Shakespeare (for monoglot English speakers) incomprehensible in Oxford but instantly recognisable from Friesland to Scandinavia. How our myth of oppressed national identity that draws a clear line from the Clearances by anglicised lairds to the closure of the steelworks at Ravenscraig in the wake of the Thatcher years is so problematic that it would be quite reasonable to argue that it is a downright lie. And yet it tells a truth.

In Hare’s play, it gradually becomes reasonable to draw a line of separation, to mark it with a string, a fence, ever higher, finally, of course, with a wall. In Ó Tuama’s book, he quotes the Irish saying: Ar scáth a cheile a mhaireas na daoine/ It is in the shelter (shadow) of each other that the people live. He draws out the ambiguities of scáth among which, in English, are the idea of living in someone’s shadow, and of the shadow self. Embracing, accepting and celebrating my Englishness, overlapping and intermingling with my Scottishness, has been a great joy, a great challenge and a great liberation. I feel more whole, I also feel far more confident in asserting the Scots language. One does not preclude the other. I don’t assert the English language as there’s been too much of that already.

If we are to heal, if we are to live together in 2016 and beyond, in harmony, in whatever political constellation we democratically decide on, we need to come out from under each other’s shadow, and enter into our own. We need to shelter each other’s stories because even if they contain lies they tell truths. We need to stop arguing, stop denying our troubles and start sharing our heartfelt pain through telling our stories. Both sides, now.  uk-splat-flag

Thanks to Dawn Hudson for releasing her image ‘UK Splat Flag’ into the Public Domain.

 

 

Advertisements

Categorical mistakes

Coming across an RC priest-bashing piece of journalism the other day (while reading something worth reading from the same source – not from the same writer) I was struck by how much we still haven’t learned the main lesson of Aristotle: things tend to fall into different categories. In this piece of lazy reportage, one adult makes multiple attempts to invite another adult out socially. Apparently the newsworthiness stems from their gender (both male), their age gap (50 and 29), and the vow of celibacy of one of them. The writer in his profile describes himself as pan-sexual, so readers would not expect the presumed homosexuality of the presumed romantic intent of the invitations to be considered deviant and therefore newsworthy. We have the word of the recipient that he’s been textually ‘bombarded’ and a quoted text, which the writer and recipient apparently take as the depths of depravity: “don’t be shy”. I’m already bored.

So why was this unnewsworthy reportage written? Is it, for all the professed liberalism of the writer, playing on the presumed homophobia and ageism of the reader? The 29 year old (who has previously accepted social invitations from the 50 year old) describes the older man as “creepy”. Would this 29 year old male describe unwanted (presumed) romantic attention from either a female (of any age) or from his own generation (of any gender) with this term? The writer does not challenge this judgment.

Although ageism is growing in popularity among young White men and is especially endemic to the gay White male milieu, the end of the piece presents the real hook: clerical child abuse. Now that’s newsworthy! It’s just not relevant and necessitates the mention of some other Scottish RC priest entirely unconnected to this non-story. What’s the attempt at connection? That the priest, in his first and successful attempt at inviting the younger guy out, said he remembered him as an altar boy. No, it’s not the best line but he was maybe out of practice. Does the 29 year old say that, when he was a boy, the priest bombarded him with social invitations or in any other way harassed him? No. Is the writer therefore covertly collating adult (presumed) homosexuality and paedophilia? Yes.

What the writer is practicing is covertly homophobic, ageist and sectarian. What he professes to be practicing is moral panic over child protection; when the media-savvy ‘victim’ is 29.

This instance of a lazy categorical mistake (that conflates homosexuality and paedophilia, or an adult age gap with paedophilia, or multiple unwanted social invitations with sexual harassment – I admit it may be considered harassment) has repercussions. A middle-aged man, struggling with his vows, is publically embarrassed and his livelihood endangered. Do such journalists care? Riding on the wave of the moral panic over the O’Brien scandal some years ago (which did not concern children, yet child abuse was always mentioned) the Herald ran a similar story (there were a few cosy dinners before and after the adult male layman felt harassed by the priest in that particular story) and accused a priest of hypocrisy – without checking their facts. Held in high esteem by his parishioners, his RC parish church is one of the few in Scotland in which homosexuality is not condemned from the pulpit and remarried couples find a warm welcome.

This week in the news we’ve seen the categorical confusion of a bright boy with a terrorist – because of White Christian prejudice over his religion and the colour of his skin.

A few years ago categorical confusion led to the chilling murder of a man on the London Underground, because police couldn’t tell the difference between someone coming from a hot country and a suicide bomber.

It is an evil thing that we do when we confuse categories and choose to believe the thing worst possible about someone. This is not what the presumption of innocence is about, it forms no part of the social contract, it’s cheap thrill journalism and it has nothing to do with true religion.

For a reminder of what good we can do, when we refuse to confuse categories, read this account of what happened when a young, bearded, Arabic man in a scarf and khaki camouflage clothes, walked into a liberal Christian church, wearing a backpack, a few days after the terrorist attack at Glasgow Airport.

clock-1373644964Hyl

Thanks to George Hodan for releasing his image “Clock” into the Public Domain

Lily and Steve

A light-hearted look back at the hierarchical hysteria over equal marriage in Scotland while we wait for the result of Celtic cousins over the water making up their minds.

“God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve!” is a late 70s ‘Moral Majority’ gloss on Genesis 2–4 popularised by US evangelist Jerry Falwell (Sr). It’s funny, in the campy way that just about everything from the US popular media in the late 70s is (just think of cardigans and Starksy and Hutch) and is much better known than feminist thealogian Mary Daly’s queer midrash on Lilith and Eve. It’s also, if one pauses for thought, not true.

If (in line with more recent RC Magisterial biblical exegesis) we accept the compatibility of creation and evolution, and are informed about the ubiquity of homosexuality in the animal kingdom, then the fact of homosexual behaviour among early homo sapiens sapiens is incontrovertible. God made Adam. God made Eve. And God also made Steve. We’ll come back to Lily. As the gloss both includes and excludes, leaving Steve to haunt the text as ‘the other man’, Adam becomes bi, Steve gay and Eve either bi or betrayed or abandoned or (as is the lot of many lesbians in patriarchal literature) invisible. Except in feminist midrash, where she and her helpmeet leap over the wall and have other ideas.

All this marriage of fact and fancy about pre-lapsarian, pre-fraticidal, pre-civic, ante-diluvian (or even just prehistoric) partnering may seem a far cry from the hysteria going on in Scotland just now where Catholic bishops have been trumpeting the virtues of supporting exclusively heterosexual marriage (as both a civic duty and a human right) in the national press and on 100,000 pre-printed campy parish postcards. The Scottish hierarchy ignores both the repeated assurances of the Scottish Government in the Civil Partnership and Same-Sex Marriage Consultation Document that this change in civil law will not interfere with the regulations of religious bodies (‘weasel words’ says Archbishop Conti in The Herald) and the fact that even the Rev. Falwell (Sr) supported LGBT civil rights, including marriage.

The creation story that supposedly promotes exclusively heterosexual marriage doesn’t only leave out Steve (and Lily) but also the wife of Cain (Mabel?). In order for the inventor of homicide (and politics, as he founded a polis) not to marry his mum, even an American televangelist would write her into the script. And the wives of Enoch (Enid?), Irad (Iris?), Mehujael (Jael?), Methushael (Martha?) and also Seth (Beth?). With Lamech, wives finally get a mention: Adah and Zillah. The Voices Off are silent, cut out of the script. With all the glosses and biblical exegesis written since whatever committee comprising Moses (all of them unknown) first set reed to papyrus, one would expect a bit more about the unfeasibly small cast of Genesis 2–4 than the wee gloss: “…not Adam and Steve”. One would feel that Mabel and Beth (daughters-in-law to the ‘mother of all who live’) deserve more mention. And then there’s Lilith, who does get into patriarchal midrash (Daly wasn’t her creator) but only to get bad press: objecting to the missionary position she is demonised. So let’s rename her Lily.

The hierarchical hysteria in The Herald ignores the awareness of the people of Scotland that church pressure on matters of civil law is highly selective and self-interested. The Scottish RC hierarchy actively promoted ‘Section 28’ and said nothing about the recent UN decision to include homosexuality in their exceptions to a blanket ban of death penalty legislation of member states. Change on sexuality involves change on gender and that terrifies a celibate male hierarchy by threatening the status quo. Their entrenched opposition to homosexuality, despite the years of compassionate and liberating biblical and ethical investigation to the contrary, must be seen in the light of their entrenched opposition to the possibility of generalised clergy marriage and inclusive ordination.

Genesis 2–4 can only be read in the context of Genesis 1, where the Word of God repeatedly states that the original creation is good. And that means Adam and Eve and Lily and Steve.

Only Say The Word CA

all things to all – women priests and closeted clergy

Watching a certain very reverend Episcopal priest focus and transfer attention adroitly from parishioner to parishioner at the cathedral door, I recalled the corporate American studies on time: while people in top manager mode spend on average less than 9 minutes on each task, those in front line mode spend less than 2. This kind of wisdom also brings us the warning that good customer service is now reported to an average of 15 friends whereas bad reports reach 24.

As a proofreader and as a life coach, in quite different ways, I am often confronted by mess. Clients often have the painful but empowering realisation that their chaos is self-caused and part of my work is to invent or inspire strategies to clear up the mess. However I am sometimes confronted by my own low threshold for disorder. The other day I was berating someone about the ergonomic nightmare of his office (I could hardly move the mouse for coffee cups) only to be later struck by the thought that the thesis produced in that disorder was one of the best I’d seen in years.

At that particular cathedral service, all sorts of irruptions of humanity were occurring. There was the little cherub determined to sit up on the ledge of the front pew and lean over backwards during the first hymn; the crash, the wail and the voices off during the sermon; the two friends absorbed in chat about a pair of (rather lovely) crimson shalwar trousers one was holding up during the final blessing; the stampede for the pail of rhubarb on the fair trade stall; the sight of someone currently experiencing a surfeit of boyfriends chatting to one of them; little hands wanting to help give out hot coffee, while clutching biscuits; a doggie or two – just to add to the fun.

I was just attending the service and wandering around chatting afterwards, I wasn’t working or rather fulfilling my vocation. I don’t know the topics that filled those barely 2 minute windows at the cathedral door but I can bet on an average Sunday they include birth, death, illness, humour, planning, gossip, tact, patience, hope.

I’ve recently acted the part of a hostage in a play inspired by the experiences of the 1980’s hostages in Beirut. My new novel, which has just reached 40,000 words, features a WW1 heritage tour of Flanders and Picardy. It struck me on Sunday that another name for all this jolly disorder is ‘life’ and that it is exactly this kind of life, in all its fullness, that those in danger of losing it long for so much. It also struck me that the person at the door is required not only to be a good manager but also to be ‘all things to all’ (‘men’ is a sexist interpolation; it’s not in the Greek).

I find the demise in Scotland of my mother church quite poignant. Closeted clergy and bishops determined to foist their frumpy Catholicism on an increasingly disloyal and an increasingly elderly flock who may not feel it seemly to challenge ‘Father’ but are quite capable of thinking for themselves – despite their portrayal as fawning laity in the RC press. The insult, Sunday after Sunday, service after service, of lamenting the lack of vocations and praying for more while good talented women sit in the pews and are expected to stay there.

I get annoyed by the smug essentialism of the praise of women’s diffuse awareness in multi-tasking and criticism of men’s ‘further-along-the-spectrum’ focus of attention. I find the very frequent juxtaposition of ‘women’ vs ‘male’ (human vs bestial) insulting. I have little patience with the malevolent stupidity of those who insist that the men’s movement is, was and ever shall be intrinsically evil in its every aspect and is only ever in reaction to feminism and never inspired to undertake a similar journey – not the same, we do not start from the same place, and if all our journeying is to be policed by those who insist that we do then we will never get anywhere.

However, after a period of theological study and soul-searching in the 1908s, what finally changed my very conservative RC mentality about women’s vocation to the priesthood was the experience of a woman presiding at the altar. The natural grace, the natural place of a woman presiding at table was just so obvious that all the objections were revealed to be the sham of sexism. Thank God, the Scottish Episcopal Church has many good women, having the patience, the tact, the sense of humour, the compassion and the good cheer to be all things to all at the church door. I hope and pray and work for the day when the RC church will open its eyes to the underused potential in the pews. Of course, if those eyes open, so might the doors of all those clerical closets. That might be very messy indeed. Life often is.

Creative Commons Door

Cross Words and the (Roman) Catholic Press

I’ve won the crossword competition of a certain Scottish Catholic newspaper twice. I started doing crosswords when I returned from years teaching around the Northern Mediterranean and in Latin America, observing that my English spelling and grammar were getting distinctly dodgy. In the Ratzinger years (I never experienced him as the blessing his papal name pretended to be) the crossword was the only thing I liked about that publication. I dislike personality cults and their ubiquity amongst the Scottish RC clergy is not lessened by the constant reference to ‘how much the laity love their priests’ by the staff writers who appear to update their photographs only as frequently as their ecclesiology. My favourite of the bylines is: ‘Celtic supporter and married father of two’. Answers on a postcard.

Perhaps it’s unfair of me to pick faults with a periodical cherished by people of the third age who lived through times when sectarianism, i.e. anti-Irish racism and anti-(Roman) Catholicism, was indeed Scotland’s shame. It’s not now. Yes we still have The Walk which reformed Christians fail year after year to denounce but the boot’s on the other foot in terms of shame now. New Ways Ministry report that RC is synonymous with prejudice in the USA amongst the majority of young people and even the RC press in Scotland notes that out of 113 RC parishes around Edinburgh only 30 are not threatened with closure for want of attendance.

The Revd Jim Wallis wrote a book in 2005 subtitled, “Why the American Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It”. I don’t agree with all of his conclusions but it reveals the roots of the secular struggle for liberation in the Biblical prophetic tradition – a tradition that the Church is using all its might to quash. So the RC press sees no irony in calling for African clergy to ‘re-evangelise Europe’. Slavery was definitively opposed by the RC Magisterium only in 1965 (so those expecting a change on women/married priests or equal/second marriage can expect to wait a bit longer) and even now the idea that enforcing European culture globally is wrong is only voiced in the RC press by colonised clergy and bishops – and only in reference to ‘militant secularism’. Scan any example of the RC press and the majority of images of Jesus are White, blond-haired and blue-eyed. Scan again for instances of inclusive (non-sexist) language. It’s not just that they get it wrong, they just don’t get it.

When the Revd Dr Martin Luther King opposed racism he was opposing the ‘moral majority’ of his day. It’s all there in chapter 9 of Genesis. The Church, the State, Tradition, the Bible. All agreed. All but a small still voice that became a hurricane. The frustration, the hurt, the passivity I observe amongst my co-religionists is rooted in a co-dependent mentality that has rendered us as yet unable to emancipate ourselves from mental slavery. We are house dogs rejoicing that a crumb of comfort has dropped from the table – from which we are officially banned.

Turn to the promise in Isaiah 51:12 “I am the one who comforts you. How can you be afraid?” Turn to the Beatitudes (Matt 5:3-12) and read those assurances to you. The Church is ein fest Burg that can withstand militant secularism but the people of God are pilgrims and, often, only in desert places can we hear the call, the Spirit of the ekklesia.

Cross and Altar   ( Small Cross and Altar by Petr Kratochvil: Public Domain )

Best for Baby

Outed and unjustly branded ‘hypocrite’ by a certain Scottish newspaper some years ago, the well-loved RC parish priest preached a heartfelt but sombre sermon to the Midnight Mass congregation at my home church. Tragic events this last month, a year and a century ago cast a pall over the usual joy of the weans awaiting their presents and of the old glad to see another Christmas and hoping to see in another new year. Having mostly shot the craw from my cradle Roman Catholicism some years ago, with the arrival of Ratzinger, I have always felt at home in my home parish – although not at ease. Struggles with celibacy are nothing new in the RC community and only became newsworthy when blended cleverly with both homophobia and anti-Catholicism disguised as outrage at RC episcopal ‘whitewash’. The ‘production values’ of the liturgy, and the heating systems, may never rival those of the Episcopalian cathedral where I feel at ease – although not at home – but the parish of my infancy and youth still holds warmth for me. I participated in the music ministry, the Charismatic prayer group, the Justice & Peace group, I sold (awful) Campaign Coffee, met with Focolare and went on parish retreats and on pilgrimage, served at the altar and returned there from my sojourn with the Franciscans. This year, at my mother’s house, I constricted a crib with her handpainted icon of St Francis as backdrop and Sisters from the local FMDM house have promised my mother to pop in to see it.

So all was pretty cosy, if not exactly warm, until the end of Mass when the parish priest approached the subject of the crib – which I had helped build when it first arrived. This year the proceeds, ‘I have been told to announce’, he was careful to say, will go to the St Margaret’s Adoption Society, ‘for a legal battle they are involved in’.

Oh. The one against ‘the gays’. Like plucky little Belgium against the invading Hun, like St Joan against the English, like Christ outfacing Pilate (the former manifestly representing the Scottish RC hierarchy and the latter ‘aggressive secularism’) and not at all like a Hebrew mother entrusting her babe to a reed basket, praying for someone to care for him, even someone unlike her.

The only thing nuclear families do with consistency is explode. If it takes a village to bring up a child, why are ‘pro-life’ Roman Catholics worried about the gender of the couple who have volunteered to provide for a needy child’s primary care? This is one I’ve changed my mind on. I used to think it was about freedom of conscience, like the legal battle of midwives not to supervise abortion, or about democracy, like state-supported faith schools. Now I realise it’s about limitation of options due to prejudice: it’s not about what adoption should always be about – whatever is best for Baby.

johnny_automatic_Moses_in_the_bulrushes