We are Created By God – a Mothers' Union Discussion Booklet

I’m grateful to Sheila Redwood of the Mothers’ Union for sending me this discussion booklet as a response to my earlier posts (here and here)) about the MU attitude to those who are gay.

It is a nicely produced book. A shiny cover has friendly stones piled on one another. It is clear that a lot has been put into its production. The booklet aims to discuss four particular issues, Marriage and Cohabitation, Divorce and Further Marriage, Being Single or Widowed and Lesbian and Gay Sexuality. It is the last of these which I will concentrate on in this review as that was the main purpose in my being sent a copy.

Here is what I think.

As I said earlier, I do have a number of criteria against which I judge attempts to engage in this current discussion. There are some limited areas in which this document is not too bad though I’d have to say that generally I find it quite disappointing.

Firstly, how do the authors fare when it comes to language? Well, quite positively really. The language used is not pejorative in the main text and there is quite a good glossary at the end. This is one area in which I give a hearty thumbs-up.

Secondly, are there positive role models of gay people? Here the booklet is very disappointing. All the role models are negative ones. There is no positive portrayal of any gay person in it. Everyone is presented as a problem case. A comparison with other sections of the book is quite instructive here. There is in the Divorce section a case study of someone who says that divorce has been the best thing for her. (Here I would acknowledge that I’m delighted to have been shown that I did not have the full picture on the MU attitude to divoce when I first posted my comments).

In the Lesbian and Gay Sexuality section we are offered a long anguished story from someone (“Susan”) who seems completely miserable and three further case studies. Firstly Sally and Rebecca who can’t find a church to provide spiritual resources to help them live out their faith. (Problem people!) Then there is Mary who has a gay son and a belligerent husband. (Problem gay child!). Then there is Sylvia’s son who is causing problems for her because the vicar won’t let him hold hands with his partner in church. (Another problem gay child upsetting the local vicar!). These stereotypes may provide starting points for conversation, but they are not fully representative of gay people. Very unhelpful all round.

Are people allowed to speak with their own voices? Not really. The stories are presented in an “objective” voice. Gay people are mostly talked about, not listened to nor engaged with.

Are gay writers acknowledged? Well there is some limited success in that, for example, Jeffrey John’s booklet Permanent, Faithful, Stable is mentioned in the reading list alongside anti-gay authors. However, there are no gay biblical commentators mentioned. (Indeed, the two recommended bible commentaries are by Tom Wright and J Motyer & John Stott). This is very poor.

Have gay people been included in the discussion from the beginning? Well, the representative from Mary Sumner House, MU HQ in London who called me to discuss all this when I made my first post, was unable to confirm that any gay person had been involved at any stage of the process. She was, however, keen to reassure me that the [straight] compiler of the Anglican Communion’s Listening Process document had been involved. Much as I liked Phil Groves when I met him a while ago, I have to say that I was probably not as impressed by this claim as it was hoped I would be.

There is no indication in the document that the process of its production has been an inclusive one.

There are a number of suggestions for how to use the material. At no point does the booklet suggest talking to a gay or lesbian member of the church or inviting someone like that to come to a meeting. That is an appalling omission. This is yet another example of Anglicans claiming to be involved in listening to gay people whilst actually silencing them and refusing to hear their voices.

Instead of presenting the voices of gay people for MU members to react to, we are presented with two columns “Understanding of the Bible A” and “Understanding of the Bible B”. This may seem reasonable. However, it isn’t. There are two reasons why I don’t think this is helpful. Firstly, it promulgates and therefore legitimizes homophobic readings from the Bible. Secondly it is listening to the voices of schism, not gay and lesbian voices.

The Bible passages suggested for study are Leviticus 18:22, 20: 13, Romans 1: 18-32 and 1 Corinthians 6:9-11. (Commentaries suggested noted above). It is quite shocking that three passages known to be used out of context against gay people have been chosen and no passages which might challenge an anti-gay reading of the bible are mentioned. There is no mention of gay readings of the book of Exodus. Nothing said, either with irony or with a “straight” face about Jesus commanding Lazarus to come out. There is no mention of any of the bibilical characters whose lives might resonate with gay people (and there are many). This is a shoddy abuse of the Bible by the Mothers’ Union.

Is the MU dealing with its history in this area? Well, no. This was the area which originally caused me to make my original post. The MU has moved from being broadly supportive of gay people to its current position which is not.

The MU once produced materials which were supportive of families where a younger member of the family was coming out. Those materials were banned withdrawn in order not to upset MU members in other countries. I still believe that is a shameful episode for an organisation which claims to support family life. One of the case studies in the booklet asks what an MU branch can do to support the mother of a young gay man whose father cannot cope with his sexuality. The answer used to be clear – give them the video to watch. Now the MU have no such material to offer.

I still believe that the MU is made up of good hearted people who contribute a great deal to the church and society. However, in this area, I’m not impressed.

A number of questions remain:

If the MU in Scotland is going to conduct discussions about gay people in the Anglican Communion, will it actually involve such people in those conversations?

Does the MU in Scotland support the homophobic policy of the MU world-wide? (This follows Lambeth 1.10 which has never been accepted by either the General Synod or the College of Bishops in Scotland).

Does the MU in Scotland support the College of Bishops’ Statement of March 2005 or doesn’t it?

Will the MU produce (or even recommend and distribute) up to date materials to support families with gay children, recognizing that homophobic bullying is one of the chief causes of adolescent suicide?

I’d like to think that the MU was an organization which any local church could be proud of. Whilst these questions remain unanswered, I struggle to feel that pride. I’m aware that MU members are troubled by my raising these questions.

My original challenge remains:

Prove me wrong.

I could not be more pleased if you do so.

Comments

  1. If the MU was indeed trying to present a fair document, it’s a shame that they couldn’t have had this conversation about process before starting. Your list is simple enough to achieve.

    Did you read the other chapters? I’m just wondering how the ‘single and widowed’ chapter was presented since the two situations of life can be very far away from each other in terms of emotional landscape and relational structures.

    • Selina Nisbett says:

      I came across this by accident really. I was interested to see that there was a chapter entitled single & widowed. I can see how this would have come about…….when I was 29 in 1994 I was widowed very unexpectedly with two girls of 6 & 10 months. I was looking for things to do as I was on my own but I was barred by my church mothers union because I was a single parent!!!! This seems unbelievable now but it really DID happen & my life emploded & I became increasingly isolated & a breakdown ensued. Needless to say I left the c of e!!!!

  2. Kelvin says:

    I agree that being single and being widowed are very different. The booklet does see quite a distinction.

    There is some pejorative language in that section though. For example, “…in Sweden for example, 40% of households contain just one person”. What does that ‘just’ convey?

    One of the case studies has someone say, “Churches seem to be so family orientated….” yet the questions presume that family is automatically an appropriate metaphor for church life. Thus: “Do churches also need to consider whether they are predominantly institutions for families? Or are they Christian communities that operate as a family, but with all kinds of members?”

    I for one have no wish to belong to any congregation that thinks of itself as operating as a family. Churches which advertise themselves as family churches are advertising to people like me that I’m unlikely to be happy there and I would tend to stay away. There does not seem to be much consciousness of this in the MU.

    Trying to avoid divisive language is one of the reasons that St Mary’s is growing at the moment. We are trying as much as we can to be an inclusive church where the maximum number of people would feel welcomed. For that reason, the “F” word (family) is one which we try not to use to describe ourselves.

    Did I mention that we have grown in the number of communicants on a Sunday morning by 16% this year? I don’t think I did, but I suspect it will not be the last time that I point it out.

  3. Ah yes, the family church.

    I will always remember the Christmas Eve spent at the church I considered the most welcoming congregation I’d ever seen — the church was packed, with the notable exception of my pew, which I had to myself because no one could cope with me being there alone.

    I was perfectly happy to be there alone, and laughed at all the space they gave me, but for someone else it would have been terrible.

  4. Elizabeth says:

    I fully agree, I have no desire to be part of a church that considers itself a family: either *for* families or structurally a family itself. Now community – a gathering of diverse peoples, in different generations, some of whom participate as families, some not – that’s a kind of structural identity (that’s a terrible phrase but I can’t think of another one for working out what I mean) I want to be a part of.

  5. ryan says:

    I agree with you about the “family” idea , Kelvin, and liked the comment you made elsewhere about the ugly subtext to Family / All Age Services.

  6. David bayne says:

    Well, that’s two decades of my ministry comprehensively rubbished! In my foolishness, I had thought that a family was a complex of relationships of absolute inclusiveness, in which all were loved as themselves, whatever their situation in life, whatever frictions there may be among them; and I have always sought to encourage congregations to care for each other in the same way, as the family of God. Should I resign now, or wait to be defrocked for being too-inclusive and insufficiently judgemental?

  7. Thanks for your comment David – a helpful reminder that we don’t always speak the same language even when we use the same words. The complex of relationships of absolute inclusiveness are exactly what I think we all hope for.

    I don’t find the metaphor of the family does speak to me of that and it would seem that I’m not alone. It doesn’t make me feel included at all, as it happens.

    “Family” as a way of describing the church does seem to be language which divides rather than unites these days. I guess that Christians usually fight different battles in the culture wars and the family one doesn’t get explored much these days.

    I think language matters a lot and I think about it a great deal. I’ve also no doubt that the sense of inclusion and acceptance that we all long for and all long the church to communicate is expressed in things which go beyond the language that we use too.

  8. Part of the problem is that ‘family’ is surrounded with ambiguous connotations, depending on one’s experience. When I was teaching in university, staff were forbidden to give parents who called to enquire after their sons or daughters details of the students’ addresses or telephone numbers. Instead, we had to offer to pass on messages to the student concerned.This reflected an understanding that while the family can be a structure of love and support which enables one to flourish, it can equally be destructive and tyrannical. Clergy are in a good position to know that families can be dysfunctional.

    Either of these sets of qualities, or both, can be present in any Church community, so I find myself agreeing with both David and Kelvin. But with society evolving (one hopes) towards greater equality and inclusiveness, the traditional metaphors are less expressive of the new and complex possibilities of human flourishing that we now have.

  9. John Penman says:

    Yes, the family concept is a tricky one. A good family is diverse and can be both accepting and nurturing to LGBT people but it can also be the diametric opposite. I personally favour the concept of community but confess to having stuck with the title Family Eucharist once a month as it is aimed at younger families with children. Maybe I need to examine my use of language a bit more carefully!

  10. I’ve no objection at all to things being aimed at families being designated with the F word. What I find difficult is when people think I’ll want to go to such an event and will feel included by that language.

    I wouldn’t want to go to a service labeled as a Family Eucharist because, as you hint, John, it is not really aimed at me.

    I just want church to be for everyone.

  11. It might be helpful to post here the words that we use to describe St Mary’s. They were quite carefully thought about.

    ————————————–

    St Mary’s aspires to being a community which is open, inclusive and welcoming.

    Open

    The congregation here is a gathered community, each person attracted by different things. Some are attracted by the excellence in music, some by the practical spirituality that is taught, and some by the open community of folk who meet week by week for varied services. The hope is that St Mary’s is becoming an ever more open group of people. A distinctive feature of the life of the congregation is an openness to new ideas and an enjoyment of being challenged spiritually in fresh ways.

    Inclusive

    We are young, we are old. We are straight, we are gay. Some are single, some are married, some are partnered, some are single again. We are men and we are women. Some live alone, some live with others. We have different abilities. We have different understandings of the truth. We have all kinds of different reasons for choosing to make this our spiritual home.

    Welcoming

    This church is a vibrant and diverse group of people who have found a welcome in this place. All the rich resources of the Christian tradition are shared here by modern people who enjoy being together.

    St Mary’s Cathedral has become a welcoming place for many, whether it is being caught up in the richness of worshipping with hundreds of others or meeting God in a quiet corner of a peaceful church.

  12. I suspect ‘family’ depends whether one envisions a nuclear family with young children or an extended family that includes aunts, uncles, first cousins, second cousins, close friends, etc. Both families and communities can be nasty to the outsider (who might even be a member or former member).

    So if Richard Dawkins or Archbishop Akinola showed up at the cathedral what would be the reaction? What about Rowan Williams?

  13. Richard Dawkins would find himself amongst many friends but also find himself engaged with by lots of Christians of a type whom he seldom addresses. Archbishop Akinola would find himself amongst other Africans and would have many interesting conversations with them. (We had a bishop from the Church of Nigeria preach just last year). And I had a very calm lunch with RW just a couple of weeks ago. He certainly brought out the crowds when he spoke at the university up the road. The large numbers of the cathedral congregation who turned out to hear him suggests that they would be delighted to see him on a Sunday.

    All would be very welcome and all would add something to the experience. I would offer communion to all of them, of course.

    That, is the deal.

    That, is what is at stake.

  14. Rosemary says:

    I see the problem, of course. I have friends whose families have been a continuing source of hurt and horror.

    I would just like to think that there was a recognition that for some of us family had been the best source of support and healing.

    My marriage was little but damage to me – but I am part of a large family which even now is growing out to a new generation. No it does not get everything right, but I watch my children support each other, and and exasperate each other, and learn to rub along – and its good.

    Family is not very Biblical at all – I acknowledge that, but the Biblical values, the true ones, can live in it.

  15. Absolutely Rosemary. There are all kinds of positive organic relationships in the world and family life is often one of them. When it is that network of inclusive connectedness I think that’s wonderful.

    The issue that I’m highlighting is with the familyolatry that is so very common in church life. It is no coincidence that this comes within the context of a discussion about the MU.

  16. Robin says:

    This has been a fascinating and valuable exchange of views because it shows how the same word can convey different – even opposing – images to different people. To some, ‘family’ is a warm and welcoming word that conveys inclusiveness and acceptance. To others, it conveys exclusivity and – dare I say it? – smugness.

    Among my friends are a wide range of people with different reactions to the word. One couple who’ve been unable to have children are very keen on a ‘family’ atmosphere in church because it makes them feel part of a ‘norm’ which, to their regret, has not been possible for them; another friend, however, who is single, straight and would have like to have married and had children, feels excluded to the point of unhappiness. To some, ‘family’ suggests ‘family values’, Sarah Palin, the Christian Institute and right-wing campaigning. To others, it suggests unconditional acceptance, total inclusion and an absence of any kind of judgementalism.

    Words are a problem for Christians. Similar difficulties arise with such words as ‘Father’ (your kindly sustainer, or the drunkard who beats and abuses you?), ‘King’ (a revered monarch or a cruel tyrant?) or ‘Lord’ (for some, the word most associated with Jesus Himself, for others suggesting an arrogant, exploitative landlord or a snobbish, braying toff). I know one priest who has a real difficulty with ‘sheep’ and ‘shepherd’ – to some, among the most beloved of Christian metaphors, but to him belittling, anachronistic and, in an urban context, meaningless.

    No, I have no solution to this, I’m afraid!

  17. John Penman says:

    Yes there is a familyolatry in the Church, much I, think, of it driven by a fear for the future (“if we don’t get the young people in…”). The concept of family or community as a closed group is the real problem. Or if not closed, then at least self selecting. Even the most self-proclaiming “liberal” group can be exclusive in as much as it operates an unconscious vetting procedure.

  18. Johan Hari writes in yesterday’s Independent something relevant to the current thread: http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/commentators/johann-hari/johann-hari-navratilova-leads-the-way-for-lesbians-1032218.html

  19. First, my apologies for being a bit snappish in my earlier reply. I live in California and feelings towards some organized religions are running a bit high (yes, I know that the Episcopal hierarchy in California for the most part did come out against prop 8 and so are not directly complicit in causing a lot of heartache to a lot of people).

    I’m glad to see that people who disagree sometimes vehemently would be welcome. I suspect that Dawkins has had exposure to your type of Christians though, as you said, he seldom addresses them. One exception might be “Snake Oil and Holy Water” http://www.simonyi.ox.ac.uk/dawkins/WorldOfDawkins-archive/Dawkins/Work/Articles/1999-10-04snakeoil.shtml

    Admittedly I’m still trying to comprehend your version(s) of Christianity which is why I’m reading this blog.

  20. Rosemary says:

    I can’t answer for others, Erp, but I believe that what God values in human relationships are the qualities that the majority of the Bible outlines: commitment, loving kindness, and forgiveness. That taken together these mean growth of the person. The fact that a very few isolated passages addressed to totally different cultural norms are against homosexuality has to be balanced against the overwhelming weight of the Bible in favour of other values as likely to be demonstrated in same sex relationships as opposite sex ones.

    I would like to think my family is a healthy healing one, and among its valued members are my son and his male partner.

    I can’t seriously imagine that there is any statistical relationship between happy families and the sexual orientation of their members.

  21. I’m actually atheistic myself though I agree that what one should value in a relationship is commitment, compassion, and forgiveness (I would also add mutual support). I’m inclined to judge by the fruits and if the fruits are joy, peace, kindness what does it matter the sex of the two participants.

    As for welcoming congregations, the Mississippi Atheist has been visiting several of his local churches and blogging about them. His experiences have varied though they did include one Episcopal church (he was a bit lost) http://www.msatheists.org/search/label/Church

  22. David |Dah • veed| says:

    Erp, thanks for the point to the Mississippi Atheist’s website. That was a very humorous description of an Anglican service from an outsider; including the part about the priest swinging that smoking metal ball!

    He is a very respectful atheist. He tries not to offend.

  23. Ann G says:

    I’ve come to the discussion a bit late, but offer a few thoughts….
    As a Christian in the SEC tradition I embrace the College of Bishops Statement of 2005. As a member of the MU I was under the mistaken impression that the MU in Scotland was in line with the SEC view and I thank you again, Kelvin for bringing this issue to public attention. I hope and pray that the leaders of the MU in Scotland resolve this anomaly speedily.
    In the meantime the MU at a local level must continue to do what it does best to be welcoming to all who wish to be members or wish to attend meetings. The MU on behalf of the church takes the gospel message to many peope living on the margins and provides valuable social support.
    I don’t find the image of ‘taking on the MU’ helpful in the discussions. I thank ‘challenging’ members for making it a bit easier for me to reach my potential as a Christian woman. Women know the meaning of oppression. I don’t know if being a member of the MU would bar me from caring for children. As far as I know this has not been tested, so it is unknown.
    The MU has been rightly challenged, it needs to put its house in order, to be open and transparent, but we all need to go forward in a spirit of cooperation, love and tolerance.

  24. Thanks Ann (and others leaving comments).

    It is the thoughtfulness of those leaving comments in threads like this which keeps me blogging.

  25. serena says:

    I’ve been enjoying your MU posts, lots to think about. I don’t like the concept of “family” much either and I am finding my new church very hard at times with so much emphasis on family and children and so on – or maybe I’m just occasionally a bit bitter or sensitive about my lot in life?!

    On a broader note though, I’ve always been concnerned about our “father” in heaven for similar reasons – for some people this could be worse than hell.

    I suspect I try too hard to please everyone all the time however.

  26. Sheila Redwood says:

    As Mothers’ Union President in Scotland I can say that in line with the Scottish Episcopal Church we do support the College of Bishops Statement in 2005.

    I did ask you to review the MU discussion book ‘We are Created by God’ so I expected some adverse comment as well as some good and have taken on board all that you have said. I know that the authors of the book also value your comments.

    We are all anxious to know more about the video which you mentioned was so helpful to the young gay man. The problem is that no one at our headquarters at Mary Sumner House can remember anything about it. What was it called? Obviously you thought it was very good and we need to revise and update it if we can locate it. Maybe you could help us to produce some up-to-date material? I think we are in need of something new on the subject.

    I am fascinated by the way this discussion has developed into one about family and the various interpretations of the word and, more generally, the whole subject of the way we use language in church. The basic structure of life is the family whether it is a good or bad experience and MU knows very well about the bad family experience that some people have. Our members work to reach out to those who feel isolated but we also need help to get this right.

    I am glad to hear all the different views that have been expressed and I can understand how ‘Family Eucharist’ can be off-putting for some. I’ve learned a new word – familyolatry; thank you.

  27. Many thanks for this comment Sheila.

    I’m afraid that I have not got a copy of the video in question. I never did have my own copy. However, I will ask around again and see whether I can lay my hands on it.

    In any case, it is probably out of date now – it was a long time ago that it was produced.

    I’d be very happy to help produce some up to date material and will be in contact with you about this off-blog. Perhaps this is something that we could get off the ground in the new year.

    I’m glad you asked me to review the book. It made me think a bit about where we are in this debate at the moment and what I think the criteria are for making progress. I’m also aware that the book was prepared a little earlier than I had assumed.

    One of the good things about this conversation is that it has put me back in touch with Phil Groves, and I’m pleased that this has happened too.

    This has been an interesting discussion, hasn’t it? I’d like to thank all those who continue to contribute to this blog so thoughtfully.

  28. Thank you for this discussion. I’ve recently gained a new follower on twitter, @CathButcher, editor of the MU magazine, Families First, and I wanted to find out about the MU attitude to the LGBT community. There doesn’t seem to be any info on the Families First website, nor any clear info on the main MU site apart from pointers to this booklet, so your review and the discussion have been most helpful.

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