Anglican Fudge

I’ve received a number of queries from non-Anglican, non-church-type friends asking what the recent kerfuffle in Canterbury is all about.  Here’s my best shot at explaining a complex situation in simple terms….

There are about forty countries in the world that have church denominations with specific historical and cultural links to the national church of England.  Literally, the Church of England, established in law as the privileged state religion, some of whose top clergy have guaranteed seats in Britain’s House of Lords.  Well, the Grand Poobah of them all is the Archbishop of Canterbury and he (always a he, so far) is seen as the figurehead not only for English Anglicans, but also for the entire world-wide network of Anglican churches.  He’s not like a Pope – doesn’t have any legal church authority beyond his own country – but everyone respects his position anyway (but not like the Pope…).

Every now and again the Archbishop of Canterbury (ABC if you like) invites all the other national leaders (“primates”; go figure) to get together for a chin-wag about whatever issues may be of concern to their international network, or Communion.  For roughly twenty years the issue that has been uppermost in the minds of many of these men (always men, except recently one woman; USA! USA!) is this: “what are we going to do about all the gays and lesbians and queers coming out of the closet and claiming their place in the church, of late even openly becoming clergy (gasp!) and – USA! again – having their same-sex marriages blessed by the church (double gasp!).”

To be fair, you can imagine there are plenty of countries in the world where the idea of LGBTQ rights is still very much an alien thought.  And with modern communications being what they are, when Anglicans in one part of the world do something controversial then Anglicans in other parts of the world will invariably have some explaining to do to their neighbours.  National autonomy is recognized and appreciated but a consistent, shared voice is easiest to defend.  The various expressions of the Anglican church, from one nation to the next, have been increasingly and publicly out of step with one another.

But there’s more at play than just local understandings of homosexuality.  Another factor in all of this is the way the Bible is understood and how it informs the way we should live.  Some Anglicans insist on what they think is a literal reading of scripture: the words as they appear on the page are, they believe, clear and unambiguous.  Just do what the Bible says.  Lemon squeezy.

On the other hand, there are those who prefer a more nuanced approach: the words of scripture are not always plain and simple, they say, and in any case should be understood in the first place as a record of how people across many societies and centuries came to some knowledge of God.  Those ancient ideas certainly inform our own faith experience but we are not necessarily bound by them; we need to take their wisdom and adapt it to our own context.  Furthermore, the Bible is not the only way God speaks to us; we hear God’s voice in reason (science) and tradition (experience) as well.  If what we think the Bible says is at odds with science and experience then there’s a good chance the problem is that we’ve been reading scripture incorrectly, and that is dishonouring to God.

And so to the meeting in Canterbury:  As you might expect, the leaders of the various national expressions of Anglicanism are also varied in the way they view homosexuality in general, and in the way they read the Bible.  A minority of national churches, mostly of the northern hemisphere,  are increasingly fully inclusive of LGBTQ Christians and in the habit of reading scripture in the light of other evidences of God’s word.  But a majority, primarily “southern” Anglican churches, believe homosexuality is outright wrong, and back up their assertion with a handful of scripture texts which, in their view, plainly say so.

In the end, the American expression of Anglicanism, The Episcopal Church, which has been the most progressive of all in making room for LGBTQ Christians, got their wings clipped.  For three years they will still be allowed to come to the party but they won’t be making any speeches. They won’t be allowed to hold representative functions on the world stage on behalf of the Anglican Communion.

This makes the progressives sigh in frustration and the conservatives sigh in relief.  And it buys the ABC more time to figure out his next move.

It’s a typical Anglican fudge.

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Marching for Jesus in the Pride Parade

About a week ago, walking to Safeway to do a bit of grocery shopping, I passed Abbotsford City Hall and noticed a rainbow flag flying alongside those of British Columbia and Canada.

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“Oh yeah, when is that Pride event anyway?”  I had read something about it on the website of the local newspaper, but not taken proper note.

Google and a bit of searching led me to various online sources of general information about the Fraser Valley Pride Celebration 2015 but the little detail of date, time and starting point of the celebratory walk was another matter.  The event organizers – Fraser Valley Youth Society and Out in the Valley – had failed to mention it anywhere in their material, so I ended up sending an email.  The reply, thankfully, was swift: “Saturday, 1:30 p.m. at Tretheway House in Mill Lake Park.”

What I envisaged was a group of perhaps two hundred colourfully clad people of all ages and shapes, waving rainbow flags, making their way around Mill Lake accompanied by appropriately festive music.  Freddy Mercury belting out “Don’t Stop Me Now”, Elton John doing “Rocket Man”, or the stereotypical “YMCA” by the Village People.

Next year I’ll have to make the playlist and bring the boom box.

There was no music, no two hundred people, and no broad support of all ages and shapes from our city.  Renata and I were indisputably the oldest people in the group of nearly thirty participants (and one cop) who made the two kilometre trek around the lake.  But yes, our few fellow marchers where colourfully clad, waving flags, and appropriately proud to be “out” in the Fraser Valley.

We passed a wedding party setting up for a photo session.  A cheer went up and congratulations were exchanged back and forth.  We passed a large group of teens in a picnic hut who, eyeing the cop, seemed suddenly intent on holding their bottles and joints behind their backs.  Another cheer, more greetings, and onward we went.  We passed a larger area of picnic tables, families gathered for reunions, who watched us silently, saying their “Jesus, what has happened to Abbotsford?” prayers, and who did not return our well-wishes.

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Renata and I chatted as we walked, thinking back on the different times we have marched in parades and protests.  Had we ever done one of those “March for Jesus” parades?  Yes, we had, now that we thought about it.  In Randers, Denmark, in 1985 with crazy old Arthur Blessitt leading the way, towing the giant cross that he has carried around the world.

Today, I’m marching for Jesus too, I thought.  Marching for Jesus in a Pride Parade.

If you are among those Christians who believe homosexuals are living in sin then let me ask: Wasn’t the one you call Saviour known as a “friend of sinners”?   Didn’t he hang out with prostitutes and robbers, with the ostracized and the marginalized?  Why not consider joining with Jesus in showing yourself to be a friend of the LGBTQ community?

And if, like me, you don’t have a problem with the variety of sexual orientations within creation, then this is an opportunity for you.  Will you consider supporting this group of people as they celebrate who they are and pursue greater freedom from discrimination?

Next year: join in!

This I know: I went for a walk with Jesus around Mill Lake last Saturday, and we had fun.

Porn – 4 strategies for dealing with it.

Pornography is famously hard to define but, whatever it is (and we all know it when we see it), it is hardly something new or more prevalent today than it used to be.  If you believe that it is, you need to take a refresher course in art history or anthropology.  Go visit the Larco Herrera Museum in Lima, Peru where 3000 years of pre-Columbian art is on display. Take it from me, or from Qoheleth if you prefer: there’s nothing new under the sun.  Photography, film and the internet are new media being exploited by a new kind of entrepreneur, providing an almost instant accessibility, but people making a livelihood from intentionally explicit erotic representations with some form of media is behaviour that has been going on for as long as humans could draw or mould clay.

My title, above, presumes that porn is something that has the potential, at least, to be problematic.  Aside from my personal experiences, as a Christian clergyman I am most aware of a “problem with pornography” through other male coreligionists who confess to me a sense of shame and guilt for their use of porn in masturbation; married or not, most of them believe such behaviour is at odds with the sexual ethic presented in the Christian scriptures.  Apart from those who sense this dissonance there are others who, from a purely practical standpoint, have a problem with pornography: it is interfering in their relationship with their sexual partners.  They are either no longer able to satisfactorily perform sexually, or their partner doesn’t share the same level of tolerance for porn as they do, causing stress in the relationship.

There are men, allegedly, who never have an attraction to pornographic materials.  If you are one of them, bless you my son, you may stop reading.  For the rest of us, here are four strategies for dealing with it:

1) Indulge yourself.  Go on, throw off your inhibitions, your embarrassment and your inherited cramped views of sexuality, and enjoy.  Spare no thought for any greater issues of morality or ethics; this is about you, a few pixels on a screen and your pleasure, nothing more.

Shocked?  Well, yes, as a Christian clergyman I can’t say I endorse this strategy as the best one, even if  I recognize it as perhaps the most prevalent strategy out there.  (It’s certainly the one the porn purveyors would want us to embrace.)  I include it only because I have to be real: there are individuals whose personalities suffer far more greatly from the weight of false guilt and shame heaped on them by the Church than they would ever suffer from a habit of self-indulgence.

2) Be pragmatic.  This strategy acknowledges that there are more people in the world than just me, and more interests in the world than just mine.  I would summarize it as: keep it legal, don’t let it be obsessive, and don’t let it interfere in your relationship with your partner (if you have one).  “Okay, I’m going to have my little hobby but I’ll do my best to avoid any material that is potentially illegal or abusive, I’m going to do this in moderation, and above all I’m always going to be prepared to meet the needs of my partner.”

This is a step up from the first strategy, in the right direction, and – to be honest – the place where many Christian men settle.  It seeks to limit the potential social damage of pornography while still allowing it to have a place in one’s life.

3) Get Religion (but then, without all that stupid anti-sex baggage from the Church).  Religious ethics, whether drawn from Jesus’ teaching or that of many other religious teachers, is about living life on a higher plane than that of mere biological or “animal” instincts.  Religion teaches humankind’s elevated position in creation and provides tried and tested disciplines that foster a greater awareness and sense of connectedness with the Creator and with all of creation.  Many devout people have discovered that the attraction to pornography dissipates when the emotional needs it purports to meet – comfort, intimacy, satisfaction – are adequately met through finding a place in a faith community.  At it’s best a religion authentically embraced leads to a genuine transformation that has nothing to do with legalism.  “I live this way because it is who I am, not because I must.”

But then there’s that anti-sex baggage.  Sigh.  Let’s face it, the Church really does have a problem with Sex, and it isn’t Sex’s fault.  Lighten up, Church!  We love Sex too!

4) Become fully human.  Ultimately, a well-developed sense of empathy is a far better guide to ethics than is religion.  When we are able to de-objectify every other human being, including those posing for the pornographic photo-shoot, seeing them for who they really are, entering fully into their experience as people, not actors, we will not be able to participate in their degradation or humiliation.

And within the relationship with our partners, empathy draws us away from porn.  As one of my readers so perfectly put it: “develop the intimate deep emotional bond with your partner and understand such depth and satisfaction to be a gift of the divine…then pornography pales”.

It’s this final strategy that I’m trying to arrive and remain at, while admittedly having been through “all of the above”at various stages in my life.

This is a complicated subject of which I have only touched the surface.  Feel free to write me, publicly or privately, to share your wisdom.

Murse

Do you remember the one where Joey gets a Man Bag?  I do.  I was remembering it all the way to the check-out counter at the department store.  If Joey didn’t succeed in making his effeminate bag socially acceptable, what do I think I’m doing…?

Well, I now have my own.  A Man Bag with the dimensions of a slightly oversized, super-thick pocketbook novel, with a long, wide carrying strap.  Mine’s much smaller than Joey’s.  (Hmmm…)   Anyway, focus.  My bag has just enough room for wallet, keys, cellphone, and a couple of passports if I go traveling.  It’s part of Dockers’ “Urban Traffic” line of bags, and they call it U-Turn. My daughters call it a Murse.  A Male Purse.  Or Man Purse, I’m not sure.

Funny thing is, once I switched everything out of my pockets (wow, does that feel good!), hung the thing diagonally across my shoulders, and strolled boldly out into the mall, I noticed for the first time that a good number of other men carry similar bags.  Even some that are dangerously close to being real purses.  But never mind.  It was as if I had joined a new fraternity of the enlightened.  Or at least lightened.  The summertime curse of bulging, uncomfortable pockets – or of wearing a jacket when you don’t need one just to store your things  – these burdens were suddenly lifted and I immediately saw the obvious benefits of the Murse.  I winked and nodded knowingly at the other men: we’re not effeminate, we’re emancipated!  I know they got the message; they winked and nodded in return.

A Murse does take some getting used to though.  I’m quite sure every person in the mall was aware of my Murse, even if they were polite enough not to stare at it.  And I found myself a bit insecure about whether or not my stuff was really with me; I had never realized before how often I consciously “check” my pockets to ensure that everything is still there.  What a relief to go to the ATM and have an excuse to dig around endlessly in my Murse, checking that  “yes, everything is okay”.

Paying for groceries at the supermarket was a bit unsettling.  You know the automatism with which you switch on the bathroom light in the middle of a pitch dark night?  How your body knows exactly where the switch is and how far and how high you have to reach?  Well, I’m guessing the same thing is true about whipping your wallet out of a pocket.  It’s a movement you’ve done thousands of times and it can be done in one fluid motion without effort or thought.  But bring in a Murse and it’s a whole new ball game.  I was all thumbs – each and every movement needed to be deeply thought through before it could be engaged and accomplished.  It didn’t help that two guys in work overalls and steel-toed boots were impatiently looking on behind me in line.  Insensitive brutes.

I will persevere with my Murse.  I bought it with some birthday money someone sent me a month ago.  What a thoughtful present.  It goes so well with my summer-time clothes.  Thank you!

Caught

There we were, Evan – Sarah’s boyfriend visiting from Canada – and I, watching late night TV as we downed our Heinekens and vegged-out on the living-room sofas.  On the screen a young man sits in the male-only sauna reading the newspaper.  Soon he notices he is sitting next to a small air vent.  Out of curiosity he opens it up.  Peering through the vent he finds it provides him an unobstructed view of a common male fantasy: the women’s sauna, full of nude beauties.  Angelic music swells as he takes in the scene before him.

Gulp.  Silence.  Awkward moment for the Anglican priest and his young Canadian guest.  Evan and I contemplate the scene too, wondering how long it will last and pondering – at least a little bit – whether this unexpected situation is posing any threat to our Christian value system.

Suddenly, without warning the living room door bursts open and my mother – my mother! – pokes her head in and says ominously, “Howie? Can I talk to you for a minute?”

What?!  Am I dreaming?  Please tell me I’m dreaming!  Has she been peeping through the keyhole?  Listening at the door?  This can’t be happening – I’m 47 years old and she’s….well, she’s pretty old.  How does she do it?  She really must have eyes in the back of her head.  I feel like a 16-year-old.  Caught!

Actually, the story needs a bit of explanation.  It is true, all of it.  But along with Evan and me, the sofas were occupied by Renata and my teenage daughters.  Together we were watching a show about “the world’s funniest TV commercials” and somehow this Danish ad for a newspaper (! ?) made the cut.  (YouTube search “Danish ad sauna” and you’ll have it.)  We were just having a good laugh about the differences between Canadian and Dutch television ratings when my mom, who had gone to bed earlier, stumbled in on us with her urgent request to see me.  I jumped up to see what she wanted, pulling the door closed behind me.  It was about something else entirely, and she never even saw what we were watching, but the timing could not have been more perfect.

When I returned it was all giggles and smiles as my daughters enjoyed having their dad caught red-handed.  They were seeing me in an entirely new light, imagining me as someone of their own age group.  One of those moments in life that I’ll never live down.

Growing up, my parents were pretty sensitive to any media with explicit sexual content or nudity.  There are a good number of movies whose endings I still don’t know because half-way through the film the story got a bit passionate and my father decided it was time for the family to leave the cinema.  I don’t blame them; they meant well and they came from a different time and culture.  But having lived for over 25 years in Amsterdam, I’ve definitely overcome my automatic cringe at any and every scene involving nudity or sex.

Isn’t it odd that Christians of Anglo cultures (U.K., North America, etc.) – perhaps especially Evangelicals –  hold on so tightly to their aversion to sexual content?   Most of us will think nothing of going to a movie filled with scenes of violence; we’ll gladly spend two hours “lusting” after murder, intrigue, retribution, and the indiscriminate, graphic killing of human beings.  It’s hard to imagine a good thriller that doesn’t have a substantial dose of such stuff.  “It’s just part of the story.”  But woe unto us if lovers happen to climb into bed or someone sheds their clothes!  That is somehow inappropriate and unacceptable.  One of the cultural values I really like in the Netherlands is that violence in films is rated as being more harmful to young minds than is natural sexual content.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not saying “anything goes”.  I’ve seen enough on television and walking the streets of Amsterdam to appreciate there is a lot of sexual content out there that has nothing to do with love and dignity, or – as in the case of the Danish ad – with boyish locker-room humor.  We DO need to test what goes into our minds.  I only wish we could be more aware of the cultural biases which have informed the decisions we make about what is good and what is not.

Two dollar bill

In my first year after high school I lived in Corvallis, Oregon, attending a small Bible school and working part-time at Bob’s Burgers, a small Oregon-based fast-food chain, now defunct.  One day I was at the front taking orders and received as payment for a milkshake a 1928-issue two dollar bill in pristine condition.

Two dollar bills in the USA have something of a mythical status.  Though they have been in almost continuous circulation for many years, consumers rarely use them, preferring instead to collect them and store them away.  For that reason, the US Treasury prints very few new ones.  In fact, it is quite commonly believed they are no longer legal tender.  A cursory internet search turns up confirmed anecdotal evidence:  “A Taco Bell patron attempted to pay for a burrito with a two-dollar bill. The cashier and the store manager both refused to accept it as valid U.S. currency, believing that there was no such thing as a two-dollar bill. When the patron then said that the only other bill he had was a fifty-dollar bill, the manager said that since it was less than an hour to closing, he didn’t want to open the safe. When the patron insisted on paying with it, they called the security guard, who then explained that two-dollar bills are actually valid U.S. currency.”  Another man, a “patron of Best Buy, attempted to pay for an electronics installation with 57 $2 bills. The cashier refused to accept them and marked them as counterfeit. The cashier then called the police, and the patron was handcuffed until a U.S. Treasury Agent arrived to clear up the issue.”

In keeping with American tradition,  when that beautiful 1928-issue two dollar bill slid across the counter to me at Bob’s Burgers, I discreetly slipped it into my pocket.  Later I added two regular dollar notes to the till to make up the difference.  I took my trophy home, showed it off to my house-mates, and put it away for safe-keeping.  What a prize!

Almost three years later, in the summer of 1983,  Renata and I were finding our way as newlyweds.  As far as sexual ethics go, we could be exhibit “A” for the Roman Catholic church: abstinence before marriage really is possible, as is faithful monogamy in marriage.  We’re as straight as they come.  Only to say that, three weeks after our wedding, our new-found freedom had us jumping into bed on any and every occasion which presented itself.

Our candidacy for the annual Papal awards ceremony, however, was always going to be dashed on the rocks of another aspect of sexual ethics: birth control.  Sure, we wanted children eventually, but we absolutely did not want them right away!  As zealous as we were about sex, we were equally so about preserving our status as married, without children.   Indeed, upon surveying all the various paraphernalia filling our shopping basket after one of our first visits to the drugstore, I wondered if we shouldn’t add an Epi-pen to the purchase; one of us was bound to go into prophylactic shock.

One evening, on a hot July day, the amorous delirium infected our brains again and we headed for bed to sleep it off.  I reached for the box of condoms, but to my utter amazement it was empty.  How could this be?  It seemed just yesterday we had bounteously replenished our supply.  Enough for weeks to come, we had reckoned then.

We discussed our options, and decided (wisely, I’m still convinced) that we really shouldn’t proceed without a condom, no matter what else we were additionally relying on.  It was getting late, but the Fred Meyer’s One-Stop-Shopping was open 24-hours, so I would nip down there and be back in a jiffy.  I got on my clothes, grabbed the car keys, and started looking for some money.  We soon discovered, however, that not only were we condom-less, we were also cash-less. Money there was, in the bank; but these were the days (just) before the ATM established its ubiquitous presence.  What to do?

Well, I’m sure you can guess the rest of the story.  “Love,” St. Paul says, “always perseveres.”  Faint with passion, sure we would not make it through the night without satisfying our ravenous appetites, our thoughts turned presently to my precious two dollar bill, stowed away in a small box of personal treasures.  Renata can laugh now, as can I, but she has never forgiven herself for the fact that it was she who first dared speak what should not be spoken.

Disheveled and dejected, this uxorious young man slid a crisp 1928-issue two dollar bill across the counter at Fred Meyer’s, watching with deep envy and contempt as the eyes of the cashier lightened ever-so-slightly upon seeing the note, watched him as he suppressed any display of emotion that might jeopardize his unexpected windfall.  With disgust I witnessed how he set it aside as he fished-out my change and gave me the receipt for a box of three condoms.

That night I discovered, for the first time, that sex is not always what it’s cracked up to be.