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Help us spread the real meaning of Christmas to as many people as possible by tweeting what Christmas means using images, video and text

SHAN’T.

I am stretching the definition of ‘prompt’ a little bit here, since, while the Church of England has certainly prompted people to write about what #ChristmasMeans, I think I’m meant to do this on Twitter, and, you know, take it seriously.

I started on Twitter, but it ended up spread across several increasingly irritated and unintelligible tweets about why I dislike being told to do things on Twitter.

So I thought I’d write about that on here, instead.

I have never been able to take the Church of England’s hashtags seriously since their #EverythingChanges campaign a few Easters ago; anyone who’d watched five minutes of Torchwood must have been sniggering. (Not that Torchwood was without its clunky paschal imagery, I must admit. But still. The twenty-first century is when #everythingchanges, and you gotta be ready.)

Twitter encourages triteness. The tweets currently gathering on the hashtag are no doubt very sincere, but they are mostly making me want to vomit. I am a terrible Christian (but a very British one). There is not much room for deep theological debate in 140 characters – 115, once you include the hashtag – and simplistic religious messages, however pithy, set my teeth on edge. I am the sort of Christian who smiles at, and, yea, retweets, things like ‘Actually, axial tilt is the reason for the season’. (And this is the reason that I will never be invited to tweet from @OurCofE.)

And then I think I am just hopelessly contrary. Even things that I like doing, that I would go out of my way to do, can be soured for me by a Twitter instruction to do them. Go to this! Do this! Why not...? I growl, ‘I already do this, you patronising tosser’ or, ‘Sod off’. I very rarely retweet things that tell me to retweet if I agree, even if I wholeheartedly do agree – because I don’t want to place that same burden upon my followers. This is, I think, just my stuff about being told what to do, and I don’t know where I picked it up from, but it’s a thing.

On top of that, there’s that instruction to proselytise, in the superficial ‘ask a friend to church’ way, that I have never, ever, felt comfortable doing, that has never felt authentic. I will write some other time about my profound discomfort with the idea of ‘mission’, about getting free of that, about the liberating revelation that I don’t have to try to convert everybody. #ChristmasMeans is a ghost that haunts my past self, that tells me that I am an insufficient Christian, even though the harder I try the more diminished my faith feels. I didn't actually have this in mind yesterday, when I added "I do not pressure or guilt other people into doing things they don’t want to, dammit" to my dammit list, but in fact it's one of the oldest hurts I have, and no better for being partly self-inflicted.

#ChristmasMeans is also setting my teeth on edge, particularly coupled as it is with that old guiltbag 'the real meaning of Christmas', because I can’t help feeling that the subtext is ‘and you, whatever you are doing, are failing to understand what Christmas really means. You are celebrating the wrong thing, you are too selfish, too impatient, too taken up with worldly matters.’

And there are enough expectations placed upon people at this time of year as it is. I say this as a comfortably-off middle class person with no children who isn’t going to have to do any cooking until the 29th. I feel bowed down with the expectations that people – good, faithful, Christian people, in many cases – are putting on me, and it is exhausting to hand those expectations back to them graciously.

Insisting that we focus on the Real Meaning of Christmas just adds another expectation, unless we are also given permission to not take part in the Unreal Meaning. It has been a real struggle for me this year to write Christmas cards. I don’t know why; I know they ought to be simple for an administrative genius like me, and God knows I feel like a pathetic excuse for a human being for not even being able to write a simple Christmas card, but there it is.

I know that I can choose not to write Christmas cards. I know that some of the consequences of this will be: that some people will not hear of my new address; that I will go on some people’s Stinge Lists; that some people will not even notice; that some people will notice and wonder if we are still friends; that some people will notice and wonder if I’m all right. And so, because the thought of all that is daunting, I have written the damn things, and sent them.
I would like to know that #ChristmasMeans that I am not, actually, a pathetic excuse for a human being even if I do fail to write a single Christmas card. Somewhere, deep down, I do know that. But it doesn’t fit into 140 characters.

Do not get me wrong. For me, the Incarnation is the most important thing in the history of this planet. (Yes, for me, even more so than the Resurrection.) And yet #ChristmasMeans feels at once like an invitation to troll and like a burden that I cannot bear.

#ChristmasMeans turkey and mince pies

#ChristmasMeans new Doctor Who

#ChristmasMeans the most beautiful music ever written

#ChristmasMeans the most awful music ever written

#ChristmasMeans hard work

#ChristmasMeans I am, as ever, a social failure

#ChristmasMeans feeling horrible for rolling my eyes at the hashtag

#ChristmasMeans I am, yet again, failing to be a good Christian

#ChristmasMeans pretending I’m coping

I will tweet one single, serious response. It will not convey everything I am trying to convey. But it is the best I can do, and it will say this:

#ChristmasMeans you are OK exactly as you are.
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I see that yet another wannabe Dan Brown has dug up an obscure but by no means lost ‘gospel’ that ‘proves’ that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene. I have still not forgiven Rev Arun Arora for ‘we are all broken’ (subtext: ‘but some are more broken than others’) but I have to admit that this smackdown-cum-summary is rather pleasing. I note with some amusement that this particular WDB has plumbed new depths of desperation by going for a text that has nothing to do with Jesus at all, but this isn’t really my point.

I would like to say first that I understand that the insistence on Jesus’ presumed celibacy has done a huge amount of damage. I blame Paul’s short-term thinking, and Augustine. Mostly Augustine, really. I can understand the attraction of a married Jesus for that reason alone. If we’d had a married Jesus, perhaps the Church would have grown up a little more sex-positive and a little less misogynistic. But perhaps it would have been even more difficult for a woman who did not feel herself called to marriage to carve out her own path. I don’t know.

Personally, I find it very useful indeed that there is not much about Jesus’ personal life in the Gospels. In the not-knowingness I find room for my late-twenties-married self, and for my late-teen-seriously-considering-celibacy self. I find room for my trying-to-be-out-bisexual self and for my boringly-conventional-het-married self. I find room for the self who doesn’t have children and for the self who might have children one day. There are hints in the Gospels of Jesus who knew about family life, and Jesus who occasionally had to get away from it all. And, if it comes to that, Jesus who created his own family from the waifs and strays he found along the way.

Anyway, I don’t want to talk about Jesus so much as I want to talk about Mary Magdalene. Why, if we are going to write ‘Jesus’ wife’ into the script, do we have to cast Mary Magdalene in the part? The Gospel of Thomas? The Gospel of Thomas would not be my first stop for sex-positivity or feminism. The Gnostics were a misogynistic bunch who thought that the physical world in general and the body in particular were irredeemably sinful. Marrying Jesus off to Mary Magdalene does not make the Gospel of Thomas any better than Matthew, Mark, Luke or John, look:

Simon Peter said to them: Let Mary go forth from among us, for women are not worthy of the life. Jesus said: Behold, I shall lead her, that I may make her male, in order that she also may become a living spirit like you males. For every woman who makes herself male shall enter into the kingdom of heaven. (Thomas-114)

To be fair, I could see Peter saying that. I could also see Jesus hitting him very hard with the cluebat. The Jesus we see in the Gospels doesn’t need Mary to be a man. Equally, he doesn’t need her to be his wife. He accepts her exactly the way she is.

The wonderful thing about the relationship between Mary and Jesus as we see it in the four generally accepted Gospels is that it has very little to do with the fact that they are of different sexes. Other people try to make it about that (what about Martha, a classic example of woman-policing-woman?) but Jesus, in flagrant disregard of the conventions of the culture, sees her as fully human. Her place isn’t in the kitchen. I’m not trying to say that Jesus just sees her as ‘one of the lads’. One of the disciples, yes – but the point is that ‘disciple’ isn’t a ‘man’s job’. In Mary we see that everyone can be a disciple.

Mary shares the good news, she doesn’t cut cucumber sandwiches. She’s defined by her relationship to Jesus, yes, but in the same way that Peter is, or John or James. She greets Jesus as ‘Teacher’. She loves him deeply, but how constricting, to assume that it must be romantic love, that this is all women are capable of! (And then we have John, probably ‘the disciple whom Jesus loved’ – how very quick we are to assume that ‘love’ means something different here.)

If you accept the traditional identification of Mary with the woman taken in adultery (I don’t, personally) it becomes even more striking. If you accept that, then we see Jesus as perhaps the first person in her life (and, it sometimes seems, the last in recorded history) who isn’t interested in who she’s slept with.

I find the thoughtless attempt to force her into this extra-canonical role as ‘Jesus’ wife’ offensive beyond belief. We have in Mary a woman who exists in her own right, and whose existence in her own right Jesus recognises. We have a woman who loves and suffers deeply and visibly, who is brave, who is steadfast. We have a woman who defies convention. Why must we shoehorn her into one?

People have been obsessed with Mary Magdalene’s sex life for centuries. I don’t find this new take on the story any more feminist than the old one. A married Jesus? Fine by me. But as for Mary Magdalene, leave her alone. She has chosen the better part.
kafj: headshot of KAFJ looking over right shoulder (Default)
Here I stand. I can do no other. Except, you know, I can. I have always promised myself that, if it came to it, I would. That, if the Church of England did something so egregious that I could no longer countenance belonging to it, I would leave. That if it came to a choice between the Church and the Kingdom, I would choose the Kingdom.

And yet here I stand.

It is not that the Church has failed to do anything egregious enough. On the contrary; it feels as if it has been doing it every day of this year. Today's news alone (assuming for the moment that there was more to the whole thing than vicious rumour) was more than enough to make me wonder. The worst of it? I wasn't surprised - just very, very disappointed.

Why do I not go down the steps and cross two streets to the Friends' Meeting House? I have thought about it, believe me. Have I become one of those people who only goes to church for the music? (No. I'm married to one, so I can tell the difference. He keeps saying he will post about this.) Here I stand. But it's not as if I can do no other. There are plenty of other options.

Why don't I?

First things first. My church - the one that displays this sign ) on a more or less regular basis (its place is currently occupied by WATCH, but it will be back sooner or later) - isn't going anywhere. It would be cutting off my nose to spite my face to leave such a fabulous, supportive, spiritual community simply because of a real or perceived shortage of vertebrae in Lambeth or real or perceived shit-stirring in Gafconville.

So here we stand. Why don't we move? Because we don't see why we should have to. We believe in a Church that asks people in, not one that turns them away. Because we don't see why the party that wants to turn people away should have the casting vote in a faith that welcomes strangers. Because we are not prepared to move over to accommodate people who will then spread their knees out to occupy the entire bench, and allow only those who are Like Them to sit down.

But it is more than that: we believe that we should not. We believe in one holy, catholic and apostolic Church - and we, who believe that all should be invited in, are going to be neither the ones who leave it nor the ones who hold it to ransom by threatening to leave it. We will not leave, because we believe that we are welcome as we are.

And then there is this: for as long as I remain in the Church of England, I know that there is one person in the Church of England who will welcome LGBTQ people into it. For as long as my church remains in the Church of England, I know that there is one parish in the Anglican Communion that will display the message that ends 'WELCOME TO ALL!'. And if we leave, who will do that? Or, rather, if we leave, why should others stay?

There are people who do not like the way I think, the way I love, the way my faith is. They are pushing me, and those who think like me, and love like me, and whose faith works the way that mine does; they are pushing us to leave. But, so far as I can discern, no one is calling me to leave, and that makes all the difference.

Here I stand.

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Kathleen Jowitt

April 2015

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