Noli me tangere

247f11754cd5847ddbc149fb2acdc2beA churchy one – sorry.

Archbishops have banned sharing the chalice at communion. The RC diocese of Rome has stopped all communion services for a month.

There will be panicking in the aisles. Mass demonstrations. People will wilt away, craving the sacrament.  Those who are so intrinsically wicked that they need communion several times a week must be inordinately distressed.

This is wonderfully illustrative of the knots into which people tie themselves in order to believe six impossible things before breakfast. I banned intinction years ago. My experience was that only respectable middle class women wanted it so that their lips didn’t have to tread where others had trod before. I pointed out that their hands were filthy from scratching faces, touching hankies, bibles, hymn books, leaflets and pews, and exchanging the peace (thank God that’s gone if only temporarily), the conclusion being that their hands that used to do dishes were actually cesspits of potential infection. They didn’t like that.

The advice and discussion make a mockery of transubstantiation (if anyone really and truly still believes that mediaeval nonsense), and even consubstantiation. Maybe the diocese of Rome has it right – the priest’s hands will be filthy enough, despite alcohol washes, that even the bread/wafer/Host is itself a danger to health – whatever that is.

When the current crisis is over it’ll be fun to see how the justification for banning the common cup is quietly forgotten as former practice is resumed – despite the fact that microorganisms live in us and on us by the billion, and that though they help to keep us in good working order, they can cause real problems if they get into places where they shouldn’t be?

This is the best entertainment the church has provided for a while. Laugh out loud stuff. Confusing an issue with facts is always problematic.

Sex

image

Lunar landing

As some of you will know, the church has its knickers in a twist about sex.

The church—be in no doubt about this—talks bollocks. One of the reasons it can’t recognize balls is that it’s stuck in the past (“surely not” I hear you say) and it ignores biology, the most fundamental thing of all.

So to get the juices flowing, and in preparation for things to come, I offer you this.

Structure

The gonads of the early embryo can develop into either testes or ovaries. It seems that the ovary develops unless hormonal conditions at a certain stage of development ‘switch’ on the testis, as it were. The female is the default setting. Very rarely (1 in over 80,000 births), an individual may have an ovary on one side and a testis on the other, or a gonad may contain both ovarian and testicular tissue.

The ovary stays more or less where it started, but the testis descends into the scrotum. Undescended testes, this descent having been arrested, are common: about 3 in 100 male births. In a sense, an undescended testis signifies incomplete male development.

The clitoris and penis both develop from the same embryonic precursor. The female, again, seems to be the default setting. Penile congenital anomalies such as hypospadias, where the opening is on the under surface of the penis, are surprisingly common (some say 1 in 300 male births). They can be regarded as varying degrees of reversion to the female anatomy. How small does a penis have to be before it is a clitoris? If you’re interested, there are websites (so I’m told) that show all sorts of penile anomalies and how some people have them modified.

The scrotum and the labia majora develop from the same structures: the scrotum is the two labia sewn together. You can see the ‘seam’: you’ll need a mirror unless you have a tolerant friend. How large do labia have to be before they become scrotum-like?

Every adult male prostate gland contains a vestige of the precursor of the uterus.

Every adult female has structures that in males develop into the tube conveying spermatozoa from testis to penis.

Some people are born with external genitalia of one sex and internal genitalia of another. Or a person may be born with genitals that seem to be neither one thing nor the other—a girl may be born with an abnormally large clitoris, or lacking a vaginal opening, or a boy may be born with a small penis, or with a divided scrotum, like labia.

Structural anomalies in the male are more common than in the female, though you may recall the fuss about the South African ‘female’ athlete who was reported to lack both ovaries and uterus.

Chromosomes

Normal male: XY chromosomes. Normal female: XX chromosomes. The incidence of newborns that are neither XX nor XY has been put at about 1 in 1700. Here are some examples:

    • XXX: 1 in 1000. Female, often no other manifestations.
    • XYY: 1 in 1000. Male, often no other manifestations.
    • XXY: Klinefelter’s syndrome. 1 in about 1000, often sterile, males with female fat distribution. May never be diagnosed, so may be commoner than we think.
    • XO: Turner’s syndrome. 1 in about 3000. Appear female, nearly always sterile.
    • Mosaic, some cells XX, some XY. Very uncommon.

Psychological sex – ‘what do I feel or experience?’

We know very little. It seems that a part of the brain may be switched on to ‘I think I’m a male’ at a certain stage of development. It seems, again, that the female is the default state. There are reports of people who feel as if they have been born into the body of the ‘wrong’ gender. There are reports of an area of the human brain that in homosexual men is more like that of heterosexual women than that of heterosexual men: male body, female brain perhaps.

  • If a man admires or envies the muscularity of a male athlete, does that mean he is homosexual? Do rugby players who grab their opponents’ bollocks in the scrum have something else on their minds?
  • If a woman admires a Rubens lady of generous proportion, does that mean she is lesbian?

My view is that we are all on a sliding scale of sexuality, and we move to and fro. But the unfashionable truth is that we don’t know much for certain.

Defining man/male and woman/female

We simplify sex categories into male, female, and sometimes intersex, for cultural purposes. This is unsubtle. There is much scope for naturally occurring structural and chromosomal anomaly, and a spectrum of psychological sex.

Pleasure

To what extent did ancient writers associate procreation with sexual intercourse? In Biblical times, the roles of ova and spermatozoa were not as we know them today. It was held at one stage that semen merely initiated the development of the embryo in the mother, and at another stage that a spermatozoon contained the miniature human and that it was ‘injected’ into the mother, who was merely the vessel (oven) in which the embryo grew. (As an aside, both these shed interesting light on notions of virgin births in Biblical times, even accepting that virgin as we understand the word is the correct translation – which it isn’t.) This matters to the same-sex debate, because it is relevant to whether or not the ancients recognised the importance of pleasure in sexual intercourse—what we might term the psychological “reward” effects that come from the flood of endorphins released in orgasm.

If we say that sexual pleasure is banned, and that intercourse is only for the purpose of procreation, then intercourse must be restricted only to those times in the menstrual cycle when conception is possible. This turns current Catholic teaching on its head, for using the safe period for the avoidance of conception should surely be just as much a ‘sin’ as using a condom. Catholic teaching logically should restrict intercourse to the unsafe period.

So, how do we define man and woman?

  • Inspecting genitalia mightn’t give a definite answer, and who would be daft enough to suggest it?
  • Chromosomal tests might not be a reliable indicator of what gender the person feels.
  • Assessing the ability to engage in vaginal intercourse might do the trick. Doubtless assessors could be appointed by the state – a job for voyeurs (what’s wrong with voyeurism?). If one or both partners were infertile, then intercourse would be only for pleasure, so there might have to be pleasure police.

Conclusion

If we say we are certain, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.

Tears and smiles like us he knew

VladimirIt’s easy for theology to engage with chemistry, physics, cosmology and the like. These topics are concerned with ideas, concepts, and theories, rather than with things you can see or touch or feel.

Like theology, these sciences are products of the human mind. Different people with different backgrounds, different brain wiring arrangements, will have different ways of looking at things. This is one reason why I don’t expect my theology, such as it is, to be the same as anyone else’s, certainly not that of Biblical authors who had an entirely different worldview and cultural milieu.

Engaging with zoology – human biology – is different.

Zoology concerns things we touch and feel and do. We ingest, we digest, we excrete, we screw, we fiddle with our own and each other’s genitals, we break, we wear out, we tear, we are vulnerable. It’s messy.

People of Biblical times are much more at home with this mess than we are. Scripture has blood, guts, bowels, murders, torture, wombs, circumcisions, hearts, body, eyes, ears, incest, and rape. These are not things prissy and prudish Christians talk about over sherry, let alone in church.

Church people seem unwilling to confront mess. Some are wilfully ignorant of biology. Human sexuality is a case in point: the churches’ attitudes to sexuality, masturbation and birth control are stuck in a bygone age that knows nothing of the embryology of the genital system or the role of ova and spermatozoa. The link between sexual intercourse and “love” is by no means clear in Scripture—nor even in the marriage service of the Book of Common Prayer—despite protestations to the contrary.

People blame Paul. Wrongly IMHO. In contrast to “spirit”, he used the Greek sarx that translators rendered as “flesh”. What Paul meant by sarx would more accurately be rendered in modern English as “ego”. That and its ramifications make complete sense to me. But—and this is not Paul’s fault—so began the church’s denial of biological flesh and therefore of human pleasure and delight.

The incarnation—carnes the Latin version of sarx—is messy.

The nativity is messy. Mary screams and shoves, amniotic fluid leaks, fetal membranes are shed, baby howls, placenta emerges, umbilical cord is severed, lots of blood, maybe urine and faeces and copious farts. And if we assume that Luke’s nativity tale has a smidgeon of historicity, there are the animals with all that that implies.

Western Christians have intellectualised their faith to minimise mess. They’ve lost touch with flesh. They’ve covered it up.

By ignoring or denying biology, western Christians ignore or deny the incarnation.

Body and blood

lastsupper.jpgHomily for Holy Thursday

People of the Book are much more at home with parts of the body and bodily functions than we are. They think nothing of talking at length about blood, guts, bowels, wombs, circumcision, hearts, body, eyes, ears. They are much less prissy and much more down to earth than respectable Anglicans.

Let’s start with blood.

The film Gandhi has Charlie Andrews on a crowded train, hauled up to sit on the roof. An Indian says to him ‘I have friends who are Christian: they eat flesh and drink blood every Sunday.’ It’s a friendly greeting, though with today’s flesh-eating zombie and vampire films and video games, people might think otherwise.

We can bleed to death. As the blood seeps away, so does the life-force. Lack of blood equals death, so blood equals life. Ritual preparation of meat to eat involves draining all the blood so that diners are not guilty of consuming the life force. (I like black pudding so am doomed.) The blood that marks the doorposts in the first Passover signifies that the house will be preserved: blood equals life. The blood of Jesus, the blood that flows from his crucified side, gives life to the world.

First biology.

  • Blood brings nutrient to the cells of the body. What more nutritious than the Sermon on the Mount?
  • Blood contains red cells that bring oxygen to the tissues. Get rid of the polluting smoke of duty and should, and instead take up the oxygen of freedom from worldly burdens. We are in the world, but not of the world.
  • Blood has white cells that fight disease and maintain health. Think about that.
  • Blood removes rubbish from tissues of the body, and contains platelets that plug holes in blood vessels. Think about that too.

When I hear of the ‘blood of the lamb’, I understand it as, quite simply, the life of the Divine. As St John’s Gospel has it: ‘Unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood, you shall not have life within you’ (John 6:53). And in the passion gospel we hear that when Christ’s body was pierced, blood and water flows out to sanctify the earth.

Now body, and specifically on Holy Thursday, feet.

For most people on the planet, feet are even more important than they are for us. Bad feet means no work. Feet need to be cared for. Washing feet is service. And I know that naked feet of the very rich look pretty much like naked feet of the very poor.

Imagine Jesus and the disciples’ feet. No stout brogues, and I doubt that they would have been so lacking in fashion sense as to wear socks with their sandals. Who knows what they trod in. So in washing their feet, Jesus was taking a bit of a risk.

This is a cleansing, like Baptism. A washing away of the dust on our feet, that is, washing away the past. It’s a confession. And as we wash each other’s feet we might confess our weaknesses to one another. In truth, we should be washing each other’s feet as a preparation for every mass.

Now bread.

Companion means [taking] bread together. That is a sermon in a sentence. Bethlehem, Bayt Lahm, means house of bread. Another sermon.

And finally, an invitation.

I could end with George Herbert’s invitation (Love III: Love bade me welcome …), but instead I opt for Bishop Lancelot Andrewes’ play on the word ‘come’ in his Christmas Sermon of 1620.

In the old Ritual of the Church we find that on the cover of the canister, wherein was the Sacrament of His Body, there was a star engrave, to show us that now the star leads us thither, to His body there. And what shall I say now, but according as St. John saith, and the star, and the wise men say, ‘Come.’ And He, Whose the star is, and to Whom the wise men came, saith, ‘Come.’ And let them who are disposed, ‘Come.’ And let whosoever will, take of the ‘Bread of Life, which camedown from Heaven’ this day into Bethlehem, the house of bread. Of which Bread the Church is this day the house, the true Bethlehem, and all the Bethlehem we have now left to come to for the Bread of life, – of that His life which we hope for in Heaven. And this our nearest coming that here we can come, till we shall by another venite come unto Him in His Heavenly Kingdom to which He grant we may come, That this day came to us in earth that we thereby might come to Him and remain with Him for ever, ‘Jesus Christ the Righteous.’

Renaissance

pupa-3978412_960_720Church Magazine, March 2019

Spring-cleaning brings to mind memories of carpets being draped over washing lines and beaten to within an inch of their lives. It’s a happy coincidence that for us in the northern hemisphere, spring means more hours of sunlight, animals and plants waking from hibernation, caterpillars becoming butterflies, and a general feeling of renaissance. A good time of year for an inward spring-clean—Lent.

Between caterpillar and butterfly there is the intermediate stage of pupa, chrysalis, cocoon. It looks from the outside as if nothing is happening. Such is far from the truth. Inside, all sorts of things are happening as some bits die, new bits develop, and things rearrange themselves before the adult form forces its way out with a great deal of effort.

In our lives we often reach a point where all that has gone before is cluttering up our heads to the extent that we are paralyzed, not knowing what to do next. We enter a kind of pupa. If we are willing, we can mirror the biological metamorphosis with a psychological metamorphosis as we let some bits die, new bits develop, and allow other things to rearrange themselves.

This is hard work. It’s painful. It takes a lot of energy to chip through the crust that develops around us so that the beautiful butterfly can emerge and take wing. You can easily extend these images into those of passion, crucifixion, and resurrection/ascension—and I leave you to ponder this.

In biology, the term for the adult form is imago. Image. Even the adult form is just an image, an illusion, a mask, a persona. So the question is: what is the adult an image of? How far do you have to delve into yourself in order to find the real you, if there is such a thing?

I doubt that there is such a thing. I find my own “self” so often at the mercy of events, emotions, sensations, and feelings. I’m certain that much of what we do is governed not by “free will” but by circulating chemicals in our bloodstream: testosterone, oestrogen, insulin, thyroxine, and countless more. There are the neurotransmitters – sometimes not enough of them, sometimes too much. All these substances affect our moods, our inclinations, our actions, and our perspective of life on the planet. And then there are things we shove into ourselves. Be in no doubt: food is a drug. Too much carbohydrate can make you sleepy. Too much caffeine makes you jittery. Too much booze makes some people aggressive, others stupid, others comatose.

Given all this, what room is there for any kind of “real” you? I suppose in order to find it you would need to deprive yourself of all food and drink and sit in an entirely stimulus-free environment in the hope that you would be able to find the real you. Trouble is, before you even began to get there, you’d be dead through boredom and inanition—like in Deanery Synod.

Nevertheless, Lent is a great opportunity to take stock of where you are, where you want to be, and what you might do to get there—in particular, what you need to get rid of in order to make the journey easier. To use an analogy I’ve often used before, what do you need to chuck out of the basket so that the balloon can ascend to the heights?

Ash Wednesday is one of the truly great festivals of the year. It reminds us that we’re human, that we are going to die, and that we need to get a grip on our lives before it’s too late.

Interregnum

A reassessment will be forced on the churches in a few months’ time. By the end of 2019 I shall have retired. It’s unreasonable to expect Phillip to become effectively the vicar as he did in the last interregnum: he is seven years older and neither his health nor I suspect his marriage would stand for it. It’s unreasonable to expect Robin to become effectively the vicar, for he is not paid and, like all unpaid clergy he will do only what he is willing to do—you must not impose on his good nature. It may not be too difficult to find cover for Sunday services but you need to give serious thought to the future of midweek masses. In my retirement I don’t want to be tied down to any particular midweek service schedule, even if I thought it worthwhile turning up for a mass with one other person present—which I don’t. I don’t know any retired cleric who would.

I wonder how long the interregnum will be. It’s difficult to attract clerics to apply for jobs in the Midlands and North of England. Burton is not viewed as particularly attractive. This job is odd in combining different churchmanships, different social profiles, and civic responsibilities. The latter would repel some clergy, though I enjoy them.

Whatever else you do, remember that you need to present yourself as attractive. The interview is as much about letting applicants vet you as it is about letting you vet applicants. The interview team needs to be pleasant, positive, and interested in the applicant. Such is often not the case. You must be sure that other people the applicants meet on the day are not subverting the process by trying to impose their view of what the church needs, as happened for me.

You also need to do some work together beforehand, and I don’t just mean one meeting, in which you come to a common view of what you want. I recall in my interview in 2014 a point when, after two interviewers had been rather curmudgeonly, I realized I wasn’t going to be offered the job, so I went on the attack and said “you lot need to decide what you want, because it’s clear to me that you all want different things. It just ain’t gonna happen.” It was the best thing I did.

It’s not too early to think about these things. You must be assertive when dealing with the diocese and the deanery. You must not assume that bishops, archdeacons, rural deans and deanery apparatchiks know better than you what you need. They don’t. But you must be realistic. You must be forward-looking. You must accept that returning to how things used to be will never happen.

There’s a lot of reassessment to be done. Happy Lent.

Addendum to complete the story of my appointment to Burton

When they did get round to offering me the job after Fr Young had turned it down, I said I would take it only if all six assessors promised me their total support. I was assured that this was so. Three of the six kept their word. I suppose 50% aint bad.

Things creeping innumerable

virus.jpgAn asthmatic child living in a farming village. Even thinking about being close to hay bales makes my lungs feel prickly. I never minded cow dung or sheep dottles, but grass and hay and corn were not my friends. Neither as it turned out was that poisonous substance cows’ milk, but that story can wait.

I learnt very young that the bedroom window should be left open, and I spent many happy hours in the dead of night with my arms pressing down on the windowsill to engage the accessory muscles of respiration so as to get a bit more air in.

A particularly unpleasant episode occurred when I was about 14 and had five weeks off school with what was diagnosed as pneumonia and pleurisy. When I returned to classes, I was told with some glee that they’d heard that they’d never see me again. Ha!

I don’t think I ever really recovered from missing so much work. I remember particularly the fourth form chemistry exam where some of the questions were complete gobbledegook, the material, I maintain, having been dealt with when I was ill. There was a good deal of whispering going on between me and a neighbour who, doubtless at risk to his immortal soul, helped me. Never let it be said that I don’t know to cheat.

I’m reminded of all this since for the last four weeks I’ve been out of action with a respiratory infection. It started on the throat, then the larynx, then the trachea making me feel as if a wire brush were plunging to and fro inside it. To the lungs next with painful cough, phlegm (grey, no blood, since you ask) and then back up again. I was reluctant to take antibiotics for what is almost certainly viral, but I wanted some prednisolone to reduce the inflammation.

Could I get a GP appointment? Reader, I could not.

I tried to get the steroids online, illegally. Couldn’t even see how to do that without going into bitcoin or the dark web, neither of which I’m ready for yet. If there’s anyone out there that can help me stash steroids for the future, please contact me privately. Seriously – I mean it. After three weeks I went to A&E and got some prednisolone. It’s finished now, but I don’t think the job is done properly.

I was musing on all things creeping innumerable, both small and great beasts, some of which—bacteria and viruses—are bothering me at the moment. Why don’t they go and find somewhere else to reproduce? Why does it have to be in my respiratory tract?

The urge to reproduce is clearly overwhelming in these little bastards. Is the urge to reproduce overwhelming in humans? I think it is, only we sublimate it into other things—a future blog.

As a clerk in holy orders I’m supposed to believe in things like free will, and choice, and discernment guided by the “holy spirit”. I don’t think I do. As creatures of this earth it seems to me that we are at the mercy of circulating chemicals, most of which are produced by the body itself—sex hormones, other hormones, enzymes, neurotransmitters, and many more. Some of them are produced by organisms that live with us such as bacteria on the skin and in the gut.

Some of the chemicals that influence us are voluntarily injected, absorbed, eaten, drunk or smoked. And don’t think just because you’re not injecting yourself that you are drug free. You’re not. Food is a drug. Coffee is a drug. Cheese is a drug. Water is a drug according to our Cambridge pharmacology lecturer. Nobody, nobody, is drug-free. If there were such a thing as free will then it’s not “free”.

We’re at the mercy of all these circulating chemicals. So relax.

Anyhoo, I digress. Back to the plot. These bacteria and viruses are clever little things. They perceive a weakness in my immune system and before I can say immunodeficient, wham! the little buggers are in there reproducing with gay abandon causing havoc and generally making me feel shite.

I’ve noted over the years that I tend to succumb to infections not when I’m stressed, but when I’m recovering from stress. Like the moment I leave on holiday. Or in this case, since I find November and December stressful, the moment January comes along. It was ever thus. Do you think I learn from my observations? I do not.

Do you think if I prayed hard enough the microorganisms would spare me a little, that I may recover my strength? Might they go hence, and be no more seen in me? Might they find someone else to infect?

No, I suppose not. But it’s becoming clear what I need to do.

Project Nokabolokoff

asdsa

With a snip snip here and a snip snip there

I heard a sermon yesterday telling us, as is right and proper, how our churches must be places of universal welcome for all, irrespective of appearance, wealth, intelligence, sexuality, and so on.

The speaker contrasted such a welcome with Deuteronomy 23:1 in which men who have had their bollocks and todger chopped off (respectively ‘stones’ and ‘privy member’ in the King James Bible) are forbidden from entering the assembly of the Lord. Look it up if you don’t believe me. I’m not for now exploring the issue of whether or not I, who had a vasectomy aeons ago, am therefore fit to celebrate the holy mysteries.

For someone such as me with a long-standing interest in the evolution of reproduction, all things genital, and possessed of a degree of intellectual mischief, this was stimulating. On the way home I hatched a plan for the salvation of at least one of my churches. Here it is.

In the summer months, when the church hall is not being used for the homeless shelter, it could become the centre for something that has a great future in the Church of England—one of the few things that have—namely, an emasculation clinic.

There would be space for operating table(s), appropriate restraints, and anaesthetic equipment, though most procedures could be done under local—even with appropriate soundproofing no anaesthetic at all. There is more than adequate storage for surgical instruments and other paraphernalia. The kitchen area, which we hope to overhaul in the foreseeable future, could with suitable modification serve as a scrub-up area.

The theological and biological bases of this proposal are, in brief:

  • the reversal of the somewhat restrictive anatomical purity requirements of the Pentateuch, e.g. Deuteronomy 23:1.
  • an acknowledgment of the salvific power of the shedding of blood, as may be inferred from one of the verses of Fr Faber’s fine hymn There’s a wideness in God’s mercy, viz ‘There is plentiful redemption in the blood that has been shed; There is joy for all the members in the sorrows of the head.’ The references to penile anatomy are quite explicit, as you can see.
  • a freeing, for those that request it, of the tyranny of testosterone that corrupts our human nature with horrid masculinity (I’m quite content with this tyranny myself, but I gather others are not).
  • an acknowledgement of the fact that there is no such thing as 100% male or 100% female and that we mammals are all on a spectrum of sexuality—pansexual I suppose. This is particularly so in males for reasons of biology that I’ll expound another time.

This modest proposal would be entirely congruent with the well-established tradition of the Church of England that results in the gradual, decades-long emasculation of any male who crosses the threshold of any of its churches. It would hasten the earnestly to be desired feminization of the church, and provide a public service for a society where boys and men are increasingly not allowed to be boys and men.

A winner all round, I think.

An interesting linguistic snippet. ‘Penis’ is a Latin word meaning little tail. The correct English word for privy member is cock, defined in OED as a short tube for the passage of liquid – as in stopcock, ballcock etc (again, look it up if you don’t believe me). I suppose matrons of ancient Rome were as squeamish as are matrons today: “now, now, Titus, stop playing with your little tail, supper’s nearly ready,”