Religion and Spirituality


I wrote last week about the pigeon holes we assign to ourselves as readers and as writers and how these make it difficult to assign genre at times. Since then, I put out a new LGBT story I had been working on for some time. Coming Home for Christmas is a sweet lesbian romance on the surface but it is also story about wasted years, old attitudes and a time that is probably better consigned to history. Its heroine, Rebel, is ironically far from being a rebel in real life. I can see young women getting quite angry about her behaviour towards Laura and I am not sure how sympathetic she will be to anyone under a certain age. I thought the best thing to do is let Rebel speak for herself:

“Hi Rebel, or shall I call you Jill?”
“Jill is a pseudonym, only Laura calls me Rebel. Perhaps it might be better to call me Eleanor. It feels more relaxing.”
“Well, I am not sure I want you to relax too much, Eleanor. I have a few difficult questions to ask you.”
“I’ll survive!” She laughs. “Fire away!”
“OK! I’ll start with a tough one then. Why didn’t you pull the trigger?”
“What? I can’t believe you’d ask me that right off the bat.” She looks shocked.
“Well? Why didn’t you? You were obviously suicidal.”
“Because the gun only fired blanks of course. What would be the point, Lisa?”
“Sorry, Rebel, but I have to ask. I was told only yesterday by somebody in the know that Bruce Lee’s son was killed with a gun that fired blanks.”
“Really? Wow! You really do believe in putting a girl at ease, don’t you?”
“I’m a writer, it’s my job to get to the point quickly.”
“That’s not just quick. That’s brutal.” She is visibly shaking. “I always knew I was lucky to get through my teenage years but I didn’t know just how close I actually came…”
“Well, I am sure your readers will be glad you didn’t shoot yourself. What they would probably like to know is why you very nearly did.”
“That’s not hard. It was tough in the 1970s. Tougher than you might think. People always go on about the 1960s and the permissive society and all the new freedoms young people had but for people like me it wasn’t so rosy. Folks always talk about rock stars – glam rock, Queen and Bowie – being gay, lesbian or bisexual was a fashion with celebrities. There was a lot of parody on TV too, some of it quite cruel, but in ordinary life there was gay bashing, name calling, inequality under the law, you name it and then there was this whole thing of coming from a religious background.”
“Did you have many gay and lesbian friends back then?”
“Not that I knew of. It wasn’t something you shouted about. When I went to College I met a few students who were “out”. I thought they were incredibly brave at the time.There was discrimination going on in so many fields; the armed forces, teaching, anything with responsibility it seemed. It was tough to get a job. Despite the outrageous show biz stuff we were just ordinary kids.”
“Any element of being provincial in that?”
“Oh, I am sure you’re right. The more insignificant your hometown, the more likely these things are to be driven underground. It’s different if you live in a big city; sheer volume of numbers I suppose and with that comes bravery. I was never brave.”
“But you got through what was in effect a nervous breakdown…”
“Yes, and without treatment. I was in denial of course and I went through a phase where I would go with men just to convince myself I was straight.”
“I got that. You were married twice I see. But no kids?”
“It never happened although we did try. It’s just one of those things I suppose. I’m not too worried about being child-free though. I don’t think children should be compulsory you know.” She laughs again.
“So what brought you to tell your story now?”
“Meeting Laura again. The way I behaved towards her was cowardly and unforgivable. I am not proud of myself. I don’t know how she forgave me to be honest and all that is largely personal but I look around and see Christians, many of whom are otherwise lovely people, calling us every name under the sun and trying to take away our freedom. I wasn’t brave enough to fight for it but so many were. If I was sixteen now I don’t think anyone other than my parents would bat an eyelid. They loved me and I am sure they would have accepted me in time but the fact is that so many kids still need to be brave. They shouldn’t have to be. There are too many to this day who are thrown out or forced to conform and there are countries where love still carries the death penalty. To me, that is the real abomination in the sight of God.”
“Thank you for your time, Rebel, and thank you for your honesty.”
“No, thank you for giving me the chance to explain how it was for me back then and how it still is for some young people today.”
“So we might say you are now a Rebel with a cause?”
“Yes, I think I probably am,” she laughs.

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I was deliberately leaving this post for a week, post election, to allow for some clarity and time to think. In the course of that time things have changed and not for the better. A week is a long time in politics, and in that week I have come to terms rationally with my own disappointing result. It could have been worse of course but it wasn’t great. I will start there because emails and phone calls I received after showed that voters were more upset by the result than I was. You don’t fight an election to lose although you might fight it to “fly the flag” in a seat where you see little chance of success.

Bearing that in mind, when things go to plan there is always the chance of a political upset. Not so in the recent General Election. A few seats swung by a small margin between the first and second placed political parties last time round. One or two targeted seats were won by huge effort, others were lost despite it. On the wider front, analysis showed both main parties increased their share of the vote dramatically and squeezed third party, smaller parties and independents out –
resulting in hundreds, if not thousands, of lost deposits nationwide.

“Good,” say some (usually left-wing) activists. “They should shut up, or grow up and join one of the main two parties.”

“Good,” say some journalists. “It shows they are irrelevant.”

I say “Bad!” because democracy suffers the more we polarise party politics. There is no room for the Middle Way or for rational discussion. There is only “What can we do to win Murdoch’s readership?”

In Britain we have been brought up to believe consensus politics is bad and certainly coalitions have always been bad for one of the partners but many other countries cope really admirably with their hung parliaments. It filters out extreme policies and wild swings one way and then the other. It better represents democracy.

The trouble is that the system we have and the influence of hard-hitting political journalism on the results is actually polarising our nation at a time when it badly needs to be united. This takes many forms, but the most extreme example for me this time round was the treatment of Tim Farron on television. This man, a decent and honest working class liberal Christian, has effectively now been bullied out of his leadership position simply because he is decent and honest. He did not lie about his Christianity, nor did he allow his Christian beliefs to define him but he was castigated for those beliefs. Those of us within the Liberal Democrats who identify as LGBT or allies had no issue with Tim’s Christianity but the media did.

A defining moment of journalistic nastiness was Andrew Neil’s so-called “interview”. On the proposed referendum on BREXIT terms, Farron was constantly shouted down mid answer and then blamed for running out of time. That way, the party policies were kept under wraps and a whole political party made irrelevant to those who did not know the policies. It is easy to suggest after the event that he might actually have done better to walk out saying “I thought this was an interview, not a speech by you.” It might have got him press coverage for what he wasn’t allowed to say.

I would have been disgusted by Andrew Neil’s arrogant and rude interview technique whichever leader he had turned his venom on. His approach is often boorish and I have to say extremely narcissistic. I am really so sorry that Mr Farron feels he has to leave the political stage because of this bully. I am even more sorry that there will be political activists out there in the main two parties who think it is fair game to be intolerant of religious differences. Now the same blinkered journalists are trying to make out that the election was about BREXIT; it wasn’t, for vast swathes of people it was about social justice and the Labour Party were not the only proponents of that. They just cashed in on a lot of tactical votes.

Finally, I honestly believe it is time for the BBC to move away from pretty graphics, endlessly looping sound bytes and egotistical, bullying presenters and move back towards what the licence fee we all have to pay was intended for – public SERVICE and public INFORMATION. There should be no place for the cult of “The Great I Am” in an organisation that claims to be politically neutral and every place for informed comparison of policy differences. This is happening on the internet through new apps which will, in time, make main stream journalists superfluous unless they grow up and stop showing off. Democracy is not about THEM. It is about the people.

I identify online as Liberal, Christian and LGBT. I was brought up in a very loving, very traditional military family at a time when the British Empire had been all but dismantled. There were a few anomalies here and there, but for all intents and purposes the Empire was a thing of the past and the vast majority of people thought it was no bad thing. Nevertheless, school assemblies throughout my childhood were still graced by stories of brave missionaries bringing God and good manners to the Heathen, Gladys Aylward being one example. Another, whose name I have sadly forgotten, paddled the African rivers risking being eaten by ferocious cannibals, or catching her death by malaria, to make decent Christians of those wilder colonials under Queen Victoria’s reign.

Today we focus less on these tales of individual bravery and foolhardiness or the folks whose lives were turned upside down; sometimes for the better but always at the expense of their own culture. Instead we focus more on the development of those countries, now independent, who try to make their own way forward in the world without the yoke of European oppression. Nowadays, as episcopal Christians, we may even feel that the yoke has shifted.

I was dismayed at the Church of England’s decision not to go ahead with “gay marriage” because I see it symptomatic of something more sinister – a drift to the “right”. Over my lifetime I have seen more and more good people turned off Christianity because of the cognitive dissonance generated by a loving and gentle Jesus Christ who is willing to love everyone equally and a church bent on enforcing rules that come through to us from the Old Testament via St Paul. The drift of individual spiritual fulfilment away from organised churches into Paganism, Buddhism, Humanism, Hinduism and even Atheism has caused the Church I grew up in to clutch at the receding straws of a wider communion. To allow gay marriage would be to lose the affiliation of Christians in countries that maintain penalties of torture, imprisonment and death for those guilty of “the sin of Sodom.” I think this is far to high a price to pay for church unity. The Church of England had a chance to stand up for modern liberal values and bring its LGBT flock home like a good shepherd; instead it threw them to the wolves.

For many “Chapter and Verse Christians”, the chapter and verses they adhere to most vociferously are not the words of Jesus himself but usually those passages from the Old Testament and Acts that reinforce hatred and division. It is my feeling that very often the verses quoted condemn the “wickedness” of others and exhort them to change or be flung into the fire. I think we should be concerned not with the wickedness of others but with our own core faith and compassion. It may surprise some of my friends to know I do often read the Bible at night. In that time, I confess, I often find some comfort in reading the Gospels and revisiting stories of Jesus that were so familiar to me as a child. It resonates with me that Jesus emphasized faith and love; that he mixed with working people and forgave sinners; that he valued the widow’s two brass coins above all the pomp and show of the wealthy; that he valued the innocence of children above the esteemed religious leaders; that he healed the sick and raised the dead on the Sabbath when it was forbidden and risked life and freedom to do so. Jesus was a rebel, a liberal, a man who loved humanity and felt his own humanity deeply. He was one who knew the Law but was more interested in interpreting his Father’s will than observing traditions laid down by the Scribes, Pharisees and Sadducees. He could quote Chapter and Verse when he had to but gave free rein to his own words when he preached the Good News.

Now on the other hand, I wrestle with St Paul and find him contradictory and obsessed. It may be that I will go to Hell for it, but I really do believe that he was mentally ill. Time after time, he rambles incoherently about whether or not women should wear hats or men should be circumcized. He berates people for following the Law and berates them for NOT following the Law. To me, he reminds me of an ex-smoker having to deal with a room full of smokers lighting up. He is verbose and he has lost none of his zeal for condemnation on the road to Damascus – and yet in Paul we find some of the most quotable and common sense quotes in Christianity. It is this dichotomy I believe that has led Catholics to burn Protestants, Protestants to burn Witches, the inquisition to torture heretics, the faithful to murder and persecute both Jews and Muslims. Is this what Jesus really wanted? For us to condemn others, excuse ourselves and act like tyrants using the Bible as an excuse for the basest human behaviour?

It is for this reason that I personally cannot bring myself to quote chapter and verse; I find it to be a red flag that urges me to be cautious of those who do.