Category Archives: Relationships

Time for a re-think?

I spent the weekend on retreat with a group from GCN at Buckfast Abbey, which is near Totnes in Devon. It’s only the third GCN event I’d been to, and I was nervous that I would be stuck spending my weekend with deeply irritating camp blokes or people all too like some folks I’ve known in Durham who aren’t very comfortable with their sexuality and act like jerks to hide the fact. Thankfully, I couldn’t have been more wrong about it!

The first evening we had a lovely meal, much wine and a talk about 1 Peter from the priest leading the weekend. On the Saturday, TractorGirl and I led a session looking at the prologue to St John’s Gospel in the morning. As a couple of people requested it, I’ve added the text of my talks. We had a nice lunch at the Abbey’s cafe, which does extremely tasty-but-bad-for-you puddings. In the afternoon, one of our members talked about his experience of the ex-gay movement and we had a good discussion about being gay in the church. That evening saw us decant to the pub for a lovely meal (or at least it was when my food finally got there!) and I spent the Sunday morning chilling while TractorGirl went to mass.

For the most part, the weekend gave me much-needed space to relax, to catch up with people (though some all too briefly – methinks some travel might be in order) and make new friends. It did me good to get out of Durham for a while, and I got to spend some quality time with TractorGirl which I really appreciated and was lovely.

So far, so good. However, God was also doing his thing of unsettling things. One of the people on the retreat was an Anglican priest and after hearing me preach, told me he thinks I am a natural preacher, teacher and pastor and that in his belief, I am called to some sort of ministry within the church. This wasn’t the first time someone has told me that – it has happened several times after preaching and when getting to know people in the church – but what scared me a bit was his certainty.

Now, since I left the ordination process in Durham Diocese, for what I think was a sensible and principled reason, I’ve been doing a certain amount of re-assessment of my faith and place within the church. I had initially concluded that Anglican ordained ministry was not for me and that I would be better giving up altogether or looking at switching denominations. However, in the last couple of months, I’ve been wrestling with all of this and the jolt over the weekend confirms my initial thoughts:

  • Within my remaining time in Durham, I would like to keep worshipping at the Methodist Church that has become ‘church family’ and who have loved and accepted me unconditionally. The Cathedral is lovely and I will still go there sometimes, but I’ve had enough.
  • Joint Anglican-Methodist membership is something I would like to do purely for its own sake, because it does express my journey and theological roots. However, I don’t think I’d pursue local preaching unless after the move I end up in a Methodist church. First and foremost, I am an Anglican. The Church of England, despite its many faults, is my home and I love it very much. I feel deep down that it’s where God wants me to be, and after all, it won’t change if everyone who struggles in it flees.
  • Leaving the process hasn’t lessened my desire to serve God in the church as well as the world of work. I don’t think full-time parish ministry is for me, but NSM or reader training do appeal, and I need to stop running away and look at them.

In short, the conclusion I’ve come to is that God doesn’t seem to want to give up on me in ministry in the church of some form. The task now is to discern the right expression for that. This means dealing once again with the thorny issue of sexuality and after the weekend and sharing my story and, far more interestingly, hearing from others, I just about feel in a position to do that. I will have to get better at ‘playing the game’, but I think stepping back for a while and talking to so many encouraging people has helped me see how that might work.

I think, through all the ‘ifs, buts and maybes’ of the last few weeks, what has emerged through much prayer, thought, wrestling and tears, is a sense of the need to step out, take risks and use my gifts to serve God. I can’t really talk about the other part of my life where the need to take a leap of faith and just live with the uncertainties has become apparent and I hope I’m responding appropriately, but in both cases, I’ve realised that I can either carry on running away, or take the risk of love. It’s very scary, but I honestly believe I’m doing the right thing in both cases.

There’s a clip from one of the best films of all time, in my humble opinion, ‘Good Will Hunting’, about taking risks. I couldn’t find the specific clip I wanted, but the end of this illustrates my point about safety nets and the need to risk getting hurt to find love:

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VAF8zRUdp18&feature=related[/youtube]

It’s what I do!

I see there is much discussion about who will be the next person to take up the now-infamous See of Southwark, following the retirement of Dr Tom Butler, who I met with my banana after a rather bizarre lecture on science and faith. These rows about homosexuality in the Church of England make me very sad. Jeffrey John (pray for him – it cannot be easy being a political football. I ‘ve met him briefly and he seemed lovely) is celibate but in a committed, loving relationship. Why should gay people have to be lonely and miserable, Mr Sugdon? It makes me glad I am not in the ordination process, if even abiding by the rules of  ‘Issues in Human Sexuality’ is not enough for some people, but living a lie and the subsequent damage to one’s mental health is perfectly fine. Sigh! I don’t want to get on my soapbox today, mostly because I feel slightly fragile and need a hug, not a row, but it has done me a great deal of good to be honest about my sexual orientation, both to myself and those I care about, and being with TractorGirl makes me feel alive, whole, complete in a way that being with a man, however lovely, could never do. Being told this is wrong hurts – it feels to me like this life in all its fullness that Jesus talked about…

Anyway, on a lighter note, the weekend was somewhat interesting, as TractorGirl’s post explains. I was actually really glad to be able to be there for both TG and Third Party, and hope it goes some way to demonstrating to the latter that I do care and am going to be a trustworthy and reliable presence in her life, and not there to take mum away. I’ve found the ‘compartmentalisation’ very hard, because I really do care about TP, and want to build a good relationship, so I hope this can be the start of that 🙂

Self-Made Man – Mind the Gap!

I’m currently reading ‘Self-Made Man’  by Norah Vincent. It’s about her experience, when using some clever make-up and body-building techniques, she figures out how to disguise herself as a man, ‘Ned’, and goes undercover in various contexts to try to understand the world from a male perspective. I’m about half-way through the book now, and it’s been a very thought-provoking read thus far, in large part because of s0me of the connections with hers and my stories.

Norah took the name for her alter ego from her childhood nickname, as she was always, from a very young age, somewhat of a tomboy. In later life, she is a lesbian and muses upon how the signs of this were there at an early stage. Her desire to write the book was not, apparently, about being a transvestite or transsexual, but follows an experience of going out in New York in drag one night with a friend for a laugh, and noticing the very different reactions she got from men when they thought she was a man.

When I was young, I was always very much a tomboy. Apparently, when my uncle tried to give me a ‘very nice’ doll to play with when I was about three, I threw it back at him in disgust. I never wanted to do the girly stuff at school, and would much rather have been playing football with the boys. I did frequently pinch my ickle brother’s toys, and would never have been into dressing up and make up and that sort of thing. In fact, as long as I’ve remember, I’ve hated ‘girly’, ‘frilly’ things and thought of myself in a very male way, if you see what I mean.

As an adult, I’ve become aware of my sexual orientation and am very comfortable with it.  It was odd yesterday, though, bumping into my old form teacher and head of year from high school, now a married couple, in the middle of M&S (only in Durham!) and thinking about my teenage self. With those kind of conversations, it’s like being in an odd time-wrap. I was aware of my orientation back then, but social conditioning and fear of being bullied and of parental disapproval meant I did my best to bury it, so successfully at times that I wondered if there was something wrong with me because I didn’t fancy boys.  It’s one of the reasons I ended up going out with a man although I never fancied him, certainly never felt the kind of ‘butterflies in the stomach’ I do when I look at TractorGirl. I did love him in a way, but I was honestly never ‘in love’.

I guess the point of all these musings is to wonder about the extent to which sexual orientation and gender are a given and how much is to do with social conditioning. I posted a little while ago about liking to wear shirts and ties. I always have been attracted to dressing in a male way and actually used to do this both as a child when it was ‘cute’ and as a teenager in secret in case anyone found out and thought I was weird. Since it’s become an everyday part of my waredrobe it no longer has an overtly sexual dimension, but it does feel very natural, expressing something of who I am. Simultaneously, aspects of my femininity, such as my hair, are also important to me, and so doing ‘feminine butch’ seems  a good way of capturing both parts. I am not a man trapped in a woman’s body, but more like a mixture of a man and a woman jostling for expression.

Reading Norah Vincent’s experiences of taking ‘Ned’ to a men-only bowling league, on dates with various women and to strip clubs has been intriguing. There is clearly a sense in which what is considered ‘appropriate’ behaviour for men (and by extension women) is socially defined and passed on from one generation to another. The father-and-son in the bowling alley show this only too well. The sense of needing to hide deep pain and make a joke of it, only being able to express feelings to a limited depth to another man, was there in Jim’s story, with his much-loved wife dying of cancer. Once he knew Ned was Norah, he felt able to open up in a way he couldn’t to a man. A fear of being thought homosexual was quite strong, and there was a sense that the sexual needs of a man can never be fully met within marriage, that ‘baser’ desires that don’t fit with the model of civilised man and therefore would be shameful to tell one’s partner about, need to be satisfied in strip clubs, with much physical but absolutely no emotional intimacy at all, as if physical satisfaction is everything.

That chapter was by far the saddest, as I realised that it is not only the women who are degraded by all this, but very much the men too. The chapter on dating pulled me up short. Ned encountered a lot of hostility from women who lumped all the faults of their exes onto him just for being a man, and the women often wanted someone both sensitive and delicate and also macho and ‘traditionally’ strong, something that seemed to require multiple personalities… It made me think about the extent to which I have been unfair to men as a result of the way my ex was, and also what my expectations are of a partner. It’s so easy to not communicate these properly, or to be unaware that our expectations maybe can’t be met by the other and that we need to deal with past pains.

I have always felt things very deeply and been an extremely emotional person, for whom that emotional depth and its expression, particularly by touch and sexuality as a way of articulating that which is too deep for words, is very important. I know I haven’t always expressed this very well to TractorGirl and sometimes it can be a lonely place to be. It’s this thing of being with a crowd of friends or even in bed with a partner you love and being so close, yet feeling totally alone. This can be hard as a woman, with expression of emotion being more ‘acceptable’; how much harder must it be for men? I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the book to see how it pans out for ‘Ned’ and those he encounters.