Bi-lence in the Church

By Dr Carol Shepherd (From Seeds December 21 / January 22)

Back in February, Dr Carol Shepherd gave a presentation to Our Tribe about her research on bisexuality. Now she shares some of her findings with Seeds.

 LGBT and Christianity are not easy bedfellows, and bisexuality and Christianity even less so. Even the most affirming of LGBT Churches struggle to acknowledge, let alone address, the issue of bisexuality within teaching and pastoral resources. This is curious, since a 2015 study by GLAAD (originally the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) showed that over half (52%) of the LGB community identified as bi, three times as many as identified as lesbian (17%) and about a third more than identified as gay (31%).

What is it about bisexuality that makes it so difficult to talk about in a church that increasingly engages, however positively, with same sex marriage and transgender issues? It is almost as if there is a kind of conspiracy of silence around the orientation. And this silence can be deadly, as I have discovered in my body of research on the bisexual Christian intersectional identity.

There is a good reason for this ‘bi-lence’ – why bisexuality and Christianity remain almost invisible. As in the secular world, this silence is largely due to the twin aspects of ‘biphobia’ (fear of bisexual people) and ‘bi-erasure’ (ignoring bisexual experiences or conflating them with homosexuality). But there are other aspects peculiar to religious environments which exacerbate the silence on bisexuality, even when the church purports to be affirming.

Bi-erasure via cultural appropriation takes place in queer theology and church life, just as in the secular world. For example, a number of well-known works of gay theology promote King David and his close buddy Jonathan as gay icons. Yet David sees a naked woman sunbathing in 2 Samuel in the Old Testament and is overcome by lust – hardly the act of a gay man. David is either heterosexual with an intense friendship with Jonathan or, more likely, is bisexual, but certainly not homosexual.

In a similar way, Ruth in the Old Testament is either portrayed as loyal friend to Naomi or her lesbian lover, while the notion that she could be attracted to Boaz and Naomi is rarely entertained. And then there is Jesus and ‘the Beloved Disciple’ (commonly identified as John the Evangelist) and Jesus and his close friend Lazarus, yet also Jesus and Mary Magdalene.

Clearly, we don’t really know for sure about the sexual orientation of any of these figures from Scripture, and it is arguably anachronistic to attempt to do so. But if we are going to ascribe sexual orientations to such figures, let us at least do so with integrity and an open mind, and accept that David, Ruth and Jesus might just be bisexual!

Queer theologians are particularly guilty of bi-erasure, either through this kind of cultural appropriation of potentially bisexual role models, or by ignoring the subject altogether. Most affirming LGBT Christian books I have encountered usually do little more than include ‘B’ nominally in the title. There is almost never any content on bisexuality.

Sexual identity politics also play a role in the stigmatisation and erasure of bisexual Christians. Many gay and lesbian Christians have fought hard to have their rights recognised, culminating in the achievement of marriage equality in many countries of the world, including the UK. Bisexual people are seen to be flies in the ointment of sexual identity politics as they are perceived as diluting what I call the Lady Gaga argument, that ‘I was born that way’ i.e. born lesbian or gay. Bisexuality indicates an element of fluidity, which is not part of the lesbian and gay politic.

In addition, bisexuality carries the stigma of promiscuity, which is even more taboo within Church circles. Lesbian and gay Christians do not want their image tainted by ‘dirty bisexuals’ when they are trying to achieve moral parity with heterosexual Christians. As with their heterosexual counterparts, this is the result of ignorance of the bisexual orientation and the true lived experiences of bisexual Christians.

There are many more reasons why bisexuality is erased and stigmatised, and you may wish to read some of my own work on the subject to find out more. The sad reality, which I must highlight here though, is that bisexual people suffer from extremely poor mental health. This is magnified several times over in the Church, where attitudes are even more judgemental and less informed than in secular society.

A Canadian Health Survey from 2010 showed that bisexual people are six times more likely to attempt suicide than straight people, and twice as likely as their lesbian and gay counterparts. And these are ‘secular’ figures. In my own research in the UK and US, I found an 88% overall rate of depression and suicide ideation among bisexual Christians. This is hardly surprising, when bisexual people face prejudice from both the straight and LGBT communities.

These figures are horrifying and should alone galvanise pastors and supporters of LGBT folk into action.

Dr Carol Shepherd is a global expert on bisexual Christian identities and a Social Sciences Lecturer at University of Highlands & Islands. She is the author of The Damage of Silence: Bisexuality and the Western Christian Church (Palgrave, 2018) and Bi: the Way, Pastoring Bisexual Christians in Europe (EYP, 2020).

Saying no to cynicism

By Rev David Coleman (From Seeds December 21 / January 22)

COP26 is over. The work is not. What are we learning?

The Revd David Coleman, Environmental Chaplain for Eco Congregation Scotland (and a member of AUC), has reflected on the Glasgow gathering in his blog. Here are just a few of his thoughts.

In the midst of a Blue Zone session on the role of parliamentarians, things are happening, a surprising togetherness with those who are charged with holding governments to account. . .

The Blue Zone is an amazing place. . . so many disciplines, expertises, coming together.

I’m therefore coming down so far well outside any obligatory narrative that COP will ‘fail’. The cynicism which characterises the whole thing as a waste of time should be devoutly resisted.

There is a remarkably widespread recognition in what I’m hearing, that the job of government will be in engagement with the public. Ignorance is a liability; informed and functional democracy, like spirituality, assumes the role I perhaps always hoped it might.

The old mantra of ‘education, education, education’ has a continued or recycled place in every nation.

The UN is taking the empowerment and education of women and girls with an unprecedented seriousness, which does not allow for the separation of climate justice and gender justice.

All the undeniable scientific and statistical evidence was there in your face that the marginalisation, exclusion and condescension to women, children, and the indigenous peoples of the Earth who live close to God’s Creation, is a dire and manifest liability.

Injustice – as the prophets prayed and hoped – always does come back to bite the unjust in the bum. The well-meaning suspicion that the empowerment and education of women was a plus for climate action is now well-established.

To hound a species to extinction is, objectively, to hasten our own. The strongest terms in which I have ever expressed that treasure of our faith, have this week begun to look decidedly half-hearted.

And this chastening comes more often than not, not from elders and hoary old COP regulars, but young indigenous women who, without artifice, take your breath away.

‘We are not “part” of nature. We ARE nature.’

‘I was writing a job application, and spoke in it of my animal relatives. My father became terribly anxious and said “you must never dare tell that truth to the others: they will make you suffer for it”.’ I know our churches have come some distance in this time of crisis, which is also a time of spiritual healing. Great. That’s what we now need, with the greatest urgency, to build on.

Our friend James Baghwan, from the Pacific Council of Churches, has pointed out how the traditions and spirituality of his own people are not in conflict, but enhanced by Christianity.

Ours, can I suggest, have been cowed and manipulated by other forces, but – since you’re reading this – not wounded beyond healing.

Read more at: www.ecocongregationscotland.org/chaplain/.

Augustine Tartan Launch Planned

From Seeds December 21 / January 22

In the summer, AUC members voted on a range of designs and the winning tartan has now been forwarded for registration with the Scottish Register of Tartans.

AUC Tartan

Pat Tweedie, who has guided the process, says she hopes that registration will be complete by the end of the year and that the tartan can be launched at AUC’s Burns meal in January.

The colours of our new tartan were prompted by the church’s only stained glass windows, created by ‘the other’ Robert Burns, a noted glass designer and artist who lived from 1869 to 1941. These colours, which can be found in the windows at the front of the sanctuary, interweave over a rich green background, representing the congregation’s commitment to raising environmental concerns (we are an eco-congregation) and justice issues more broadly.

Our motto is ‘Growing seeds of justice and joy’, which we believe encapsulates the Christian task of establishing God’s Commonwealth on earth. It is no coincidence that Christian Aid Scotland has its offices at AUC and that the congregation has partnered with other justice organisations over the years.

The tartan has been created in a year when we have marked 160 years since our building on George IV Bridge was opened.

Because we are a congregation that has formed over the years from congregations and traditions worshipping in different parts of Edinburgh, some of us trace our roots to other buildings and religious experiences. We link our current building with the congregation that moved here from a chapel that stood where the National Museum of Scotland now dominates Chambers Street.

That congregation saw itself as part of the “radical” Scottish Reformation that extended across Scotland in the closing years of the 18th century, led by James and Robert Haldane. Their supporters included John Aikman, who built (with his own money) the chapel in North College Street.

When the site was bought up in order to build what is now the National Museum, the congregation moved to George IV Bridge, led by the Revd Lindsay Alexander, one of Edinburgh’s foremost preachers of the day. It was in his honour and that of his wife, Mary, that the two windows were gifted by their son, and it is the vivid colours and design of these windows that have inspired our new tartan.

Planting hope -tree by tree

By Rev Fiona Bennet (From Seeds December 21 / January 22)

Advent is a season of waiting, and the hymn “When out of poverty was born” by Kathy Galloway invites us to listen and to learn from people who really know what waiting in hope is all about.

When out of poverty is born a dream that will not die, and landless, weary folk find strength to stand with heads held high, it’s then we learn from those who wait to greet the promised day, ‘The Lord is coming; don’t lose heart. Be blest: prepare the way!’

Kathy Galloway

When the Youth Climate Change Network visited AUC on their walk to COP26 they invited us to watch the film Thank you for the Rain, a documentary about the Kenyan farmer, Kisilu.

Kisilu recognised that much of the arable land around him was turning to dust with too little rain and flash flooding. He recognised that planting trees helped to regulate the land more effectively and spent much energy encouraging all his neighbours to plant trees; but his efforts were not enough to overcome flash floods.

Kisilu went to COP21 in Paris, where he was very encouraged that people were moved to hear his story. However, when it came to significant decisions to lower carbon emissions and address the climate change destroying the food from his family’s table, he was despairing at the lack of willingness of powerful nations to act to help him and all his neighbours.

It seemed Kisilu’s hope in humanity’s willingness to stand by each other was misplaced. He felt that he and his community were condemned to suffer due to climate change, which they did not contribute to, nor had any control over. What would he do?

Kisilu left COP21 headed back to his farm and community in Kenya and increased his efforts to plant trees.

“When out of poverty is born a dream that will not die” speaks to me of Kisilu and all like him who teach us of Advent waiting: waiting that is actively working for the dream of wholeness and justice, even when it seems overwhelmingly difficult, trusting that “The Lord is coming; don’t lose heart. Be blest: prepare the way!”

St Andrew: rediscover a networker


By Laurence Waring
(From Seeds November 2021)

Of Great Britain’s patron saints, Scotland’s St Andrew is the only first-generation apostle. The gospel writers tell us he was a fisherman, but is there much else we can say about him?

Like Saint George, Andrew’s legacy is emphatically international. Not only is he the patron saint of Scotland, but also (out a long list) of Russia, Romania, Amalfi in Italy, Patras in Greece, and Barbados (where Saint Andrew’s Day is celebrated as the national day of independence).

In Scotland, 30 November is designated Andrew’s day because he is said to have died on that day, crucified on a Saltire-shaped cross rather than on the T-shaped cross of Jesus.

Legend has it that Saints Mirin and Relugas brought the bones of St Andrew to Scotland. (To St Andrew’s of course.) That’s an unlikely connection but, even though Andrew’s relics were certainly a European import, Scotland’s claim on him was formalised in one of the nation’s key historical documents, the 1320 Declaration of Arbroath. It argues that the Scots were a distinct people (from the English) who had long enjoyed the protection of “our patron or protector” Saint Andrew.

That protection was said to go back as far as the year 832 when the pictish King Óengus saw Andrew’s diagonal cross revealed in the sky (this in the days before criss-crossing jet trails): a portent of victory over King Athelstan’s Northumbrian army of Angles.

What else?

Andrew the traveller is said to have survived many acts of aggression – an arson attack, for example, in the city of Sinope (in modern day Turkey). Here, too, it is said that the devil incited a mob to drag him through the streets, tearing off pieces of his body and shedding his blood. But he contrived to escape and fruit trees later grew on the spot where his blood had been spilled.

He is a disciple, it seems, who not only networks but is prepared to ‘think out of the box’

We might also say that Andrew appears to have been someone who took the initiative. In the Gospel of John, it is Andrew, influenced by the preaching of John the Baptist, who introduces Simon (Peter) to Jesus.

It is also Andrew, faced with the prospect of feeding a huge and hungry crowd, who tells Jesus about a boy who has just a few loaves and fishes. Anna Briggs picks up on this in her hymn ‘The crowd has listened to your word’. She makes of Andrew a model of the Christian seeker who looks for ways to express God’s love even from the smallest opportunities:

Use us, your friends, to seek and trace

the gift that seems the smallest worth,

to shape the miracle of grace,

the love to feed a hungry earth.

St John, who thinks highly of Andrew (over and against St Peter, some would argue), appears to give Andrew a position authority amongst the disciples and it’s he who first introduces Gentiles to Jesus. He is a disciple, it seems, who not only networks but is prepared to ‘think out of the box’.

Doesn’t that make him an excellent choice for Scotland’s patron saint? And doesn’t that also make him an inspiration for AUC’s little Christian community here in Edinburgh?

Christmas Giving at AUC

From Seeds November 2021

Each year at AUC, between October and December, we make a number of collections to support organisations who are seeking to build justice and kindness in our world.

We then dedicate these as our offering at the December Gift Service. The Gift Service this year is on Sunday 12 December at 11am, online and in the building.

Fiona writes: “I am hoping that all of our gifts will have been made and distributed before the 12th and will NOT be brought to the building that day…”

Our 2021 gifts will be for:

CHRISTIAN AID

We would invite all AUC members to consider making a donation to Christian Aid this year in place of sending each other Christmas cards. Please donate to Christian Aid directly online (christianaid.org.uk). Christian Aid supports emergency relief across the world, including refugees.

FRESHSTART

If you have household items you would like to donate to Freshstart to support people moving from homelessness into their own home, please take them directly to the warehouse (22-24 Ferry Rd Drive, EH4 4BR: Mon—Thurs, 9-4pm). If you have challenges with transportation, contact Fiona (minister@augustine.org.uk) or Kathleen (Kathleen.ziffo@augustine.org.uk). Alternatively, you can make a financial donation through their website (freshstartweb.org.uk/donate).

ROYAL EDINBURGH HOSPITAL (REH)

We are collecting money to buy small Christmas presents which will be distributed by the chaplains to people who find themselves in the REH over Christmas. If you would like to make a donation please hand in a cheque / cash to the church office, or pay online to Augustine (www.augustine. org.uk) clearly marking that your donation is for the REH.

EDINBURGH DIRECT AID (EDA)

EDA supports Syrian refugees in Lebanon and the people of Lebanon. Along with some of the Syrian refugees, EDA is continuing to help rebuild parts of Beirut damaged in last year’s devastating explosion; they are working with a German NGO to do this and gain access for occasional lorry loads of supplies.

There is still difficulty accessing Lebanon, despite the government reducing tariffs on imported goods (including aid) and Beirut port partially functioning again. Lebanon has a refugee population (Syrian, Palestinian and others) of almost half of the existing ‘native’ population. (Imagine the UK taking in 25 million refugees!!)

EDA are looking for goods and financial support. We would encourage you to make donations of goods directly to their warehouse (29 Starbank Rd, Edinburgh, EH5 3BY. 11.30-2.30pm Wed & Sun) If you have challenges with transportation contact Fiona (minister@augustine.org.uk) or Kathleen (Kathleen.ziffo@augustine.org.uk)

FOOD BANKS

We would encourage everyone to consider putting some goods into the baskets at supermarkets that collect for local food banks, or to make a financial donation online (trusselltrust.org/make-a-donation/).

Beauty in Brokeness

By Maxwell Reay (From Seeds November 2021)

On Mental Health Sunday (17 October), Maxwell Reay was our preacher. He spoke about the impact of social inequality worldwide on the care (or lack of it) for those living with challenging mental health.

He also showed us an image of a broken and restored bowl, and explained to us about the Japanese art of kintsugi.

Kintsugi means something like ‘golden joinery’. It is the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery by mending the areas of breakage with lacquer dusted or mixed with powdered gold, silver, or platinum. For some, the restored item is found to be more beautiful than in its original form. The visible gold lines suggest the idea of breakage and repair as part of the history of an object, rather than something to disguise.

Maxwell suggested that we all have to deal with some kind of mental health difficulty in our lives, and that being able to share these experiences can be helpful for others as well as for ourselves.

It also turns out that, for some who have dealt with loss, sickness, trauma, and the disruption of daily life during the Covid pandemic, the ideas and practice of kintsugi have emerged as sources of comfort. There have even been articles written in newspapers and academic journals about this.

In a short piece in the online British Medical Journal, Dr Amy Price (a medical scientist at Stanford University who lost her own husband to Covid) suggests that grief is an opportunity to offer empathy by honouring brokenness to support healing.

She writes that “kintsugi represents healing, resilience, and restoration” and that our cracks and flaws help us see ourselves more fully.

(Amy Price’s article was published on the BMJ website on 10 August 2021: www.bmj.com/content/374/bmj.n1906)

Here comes COP

From Seeds November 2021

A quick reminder: the United Nations COP26 climate summit, which runs from 31 October to 12 November in Glasgow (‘the Dear Green Place’), has been described as a “turning point for humanity” and “the most consequential summit… ever”. ‘COP’ stands for ‘Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Agreement on Climate Change’.

Getting up to speed

Whether you believe the hype or have more grounded hopes and prayers for the gathering, take some time to get up to speed, if you haven’t already, with what COP26 is and what churches worldwide hope will happen there.

Got 3 minutes?

Watch a short video from the ecumenical Joint Public Issues Team (JPIT) on what COP26 is and why churches are getting involved. It’s on the JPIT website at www.jointpublicissues.org.uk/cop26.

Got 10 minutes?

Read the JPIT briefing on what is happening at COP26 and the key issues on which they think world leaders and the UK should take action. (Same web page as above.)

Global Day of Action

On Saturday 6 November, join people from around the world, marching through major cities, gathering in their local communities, and making their voices heard online for climate justice. In Glasgow, Christian Aid supporters will walk together with partner faith organisations, meeting at Kelvingrove Park from 11.30am. The demonstration will then march to Glasgow Green for a rally at 3pm. If you’re planning to join, click ‘going’ on the Christian Aid Facebook event.

A prayer for real partnership

The Revd David Coleman, Environmental Chaplain for Eco Congregation Scotland, has written a prayer we can all use, whether we’re marching or not.

Sustaining God:
as our species gathers

in your Dear Green Place,
constrained by the damage injustice has wrought:
so strengthen our hope;
our resilience to disappointment.
Move us on from ‘stewardship’ to partnership
with the Life of the world,
giving thanks for every small step;
stirring our impatience for more.
Show us your way of hospitality:
of warning and encouragement
for those who come and those left far behind:
Christ, in the stranger’s guise.
Amen.

What Next?

When all the politicians, negotiators, decision makers, NGOs, lobbyists, protestors, journalists, caterers, entertainers, hopers and prayers have gone home – whatever is decided, whatever is kicked into the long grass, whatever hopes are raised, whichever cynics are vindicated. . . there will be so much work still to do.

What will that work look like for us?

In his presentation on our own Climate Sunday, Alex Peden gathered suggestions from those participating in the discussion. Lest we forget, here they are!

Lest we forget, here they are!

Question: Can you think of one thing individuals can do to tackle climate change that you think more people should know about?

  • “Think about cooking equipment e.g. buy a steamer; keep the lid on the saucepan; a flask by the kettle would allow you to keep any unused boiled water hot (and only boil what you need!)“
  • “Switch your gas/electric account to a Green provider”
  • “Enjoy the journey when travelling on public transport”
  • “Turn down the thermostats”
  • “Have a kitchen garden”
  • “Cut your use of single-use plastics”
  • “Plant more trees”
  • “Use peat free compost”
  • “Instead of taking a plane to go on holiday, make the journey by train or ferry and enjoy that as part of the holiday”

It was also observed that –

  • “We should be aware of the numbers of children we have worldwide, particularly in developed countries – each child carries a carbon footprint”
  • “Tighter government regulation on house building would help, ensuring that all new homes are carbon neutral right from the start”
  • “Nuclear fusion may be a future option for heating”

Question: What action would you most want your church / council/ government to take in response to climate change?

Comments included –

  • “Government should value people’s lives over profit”
  • “Continuing meetings via Zoom will reduce travel”
  • “Issues/solutions can be different for individuals depending where they live, e.g. in a block of flats”
  • “Tidal energy is not given enough recognition”
  • “AUC may need to give serious consideration to the suitability of its building (though recognising the listing of buildings brings its own issues)”
  • “There is a case for much stronger regulation, particularly on business, for energy disclosure; and for a price on carbon usage that is high enough ‘to hurt’ e.g. charging a much higher price for fuel – £5/litre?”
  • “Governments should be held to account

Alex ended his presentation by asking us to:

  • Be educated on the subject
  • Remember that every little helps
  • Be aware things are happening
  • Never give up

In praise of letting go

By Rev Fiona Bennett (From Seeds November 2021)

 I feel very lucky to live in a country which experiences seasons so starkly. I am sure there could be bonuses living in a country which was always warm, but I do really appreciate our seasonal change.

The leaves turn and drop. The trees send their energy to the roots warmly buried under the soil. Geese fly south and other creatures prepare for hibernation. I have always seen autumn and winter as holding some form of welcome lockdown, though wonder if the Covid pandemic has perhaps soured that concept.

I find the changing of the seasons especially useful because they serve as a reminder that life has seasons. There are winters when we dream and prepare, or sometimes just survive; springs when new things start; summers when we feel productive; and autumns when we begin to let things go. We cannot live in a constant state of any one season; to be constantly only dreaming, or only starting new things.

Only producing or only letting go not only feels unhealthy but is unimaginable. Yet so often as humans, I wonder if in some ways we only really value the springs and summers?

I wonder if we value time to dream and prepare? If we honour the days we only survive? If we value the letting go as much as the productivity?

Perhaps it is human nature to aspire to be spring/summer active and productive beings, or perhaps there is a wisdom in learning to deeply appreciate each season of life as it sweeps us along: to savour the letting goes as well as the new beginnings, trusting that all the seasons are a perpetual movement of divine creation in which God is present and waiting to be encountered.

May the autumn of the earth and the autumns in our lives be a time of blessing and grace.

To everything there is a season,

A time for every purpose under heaven:

A time to be born, And a time to die;

A time to plant, And a time to pluck what is planted;

A time to kill, And a time to heal;

A time to break down, And a time to build up

(Ecclesiastes 3: 1-3,

New King James Version)

A case for tradition

By Denis Mallon (From Seeds October 2021)

Since the 18th century Age of Enlightenment, Western society has dreamt of unfettered libertarianism.

But with a mental health crisis, increasing inequality, and over-consumption – that drives debt and fuels the climate emergency – is a focus on individual freedom a blessing or a curse?

The Unbroken Thread sees Sohrab Ahmiri, opinions editor for the New York Post, making the case that our search for meaning should come from traditional ideals. An Iranian-American and recent convert from atheism to Catholicism, Ahmiri certainly has a unique perspective.

Ahmiri starts by focusing on his young son, and pictures the kind of world that he might grow into, complete with fears for him and his generation.

Taking 12 big questions, from ‘Can you be spiritual without being religious?’ to ‘Is sex a private matter?’, The Unbroken Thread explores areas where seekers from non-faith backgrounds are often looking for answers.

Each chapter features a deep dive into the life of a historical figure, and discusses the question in the context of that person’s life and work. As an example of ‘How do you justify your life?’, we hear the story of writer CS Lewis. ‘Does God need politics?’ is explored through a certain Augustine of Hippo (who our own church is named after).

Ahmiri has a flair for bringing these stories to life, and they are an effective way to frame the topics of discussion. The chapter ‘Is God reasonable?’, introducing us to the Italian philosopher Thomas Aquinas, made me examine my opinion of faith and reason in a whole new way.

Although the author offers a multicultural and metropolitan outlook, there are some areas where his traditional views will not connect with many liberal thinkers. To pick just one example, in the chapter ‘What do you owe your body?’, Ahmari takes aim at gender ideology in a way that reads as out-and-out transphobia.

This book is a well written, engaging read, helping to fill in gaps I have with theological heavyweights, as well as introducing me to new thinkers from history. A shame, then, that the author’s particular worldview will feel a little too traditional to many.