Monday, 29 June 2015

Jesus the Feminist

Women in the Catholic Church

Ordaining women priests would be a way for the Catholic church to tackle the crisis of recruitment to the priesthood.  Women are often strong advocates of the values of church life; women are active agents in the organisation of church community events; women often lead the way in the Catholic education system (especially mothers in supporting school events) and what do the gospels show about the women in the early church?

Women were THERE

Women were present in key events throughout Jesus’s life, including being selected to be the first witnesses to the Resurrection. Given historical, community or spiritual perspectives, there are surely no sensible reasons for the Catholic authorities to put restrictions on what women are capable of.

It has happened and it happens anyway

In extremis, women have had priestly powers in the past: during times of plague, women were allowed to baptise, give the last rites and bury people (especially when the male priests were too afraid to enter a village.) “Emergency baptisms” by midwives were encouraged by the medieval church when a priest could not get to a dying baby in time. The Anglican church in the present time has fully embraced female vicars. Many other religions throughout human history have given women prominent roles in sacred rites: from Ancient Egyptian priestesses to modern day female rabbis.

Jesus was a feminist

Jesus’s treatment of women was radical: 

  • He ignored ritual impurity laws about menstruation (Mark Chapter 5 Verse 25)
  • He stated men and women should be treated equally in divorce (Mark Chapter 10 Verse 11)
  • He expressed compassionate concern for widows (Luke has six positive references to widows)
  • parables often have parallel male/female stories (see the stories starting at Luke 2:25, Luke 4:25, Luke 4:31, Luke 7:36, Luke 17:34)
  • He interacts with “sinful women” (Luke Chapter 7 Verse 37)
  • He accepted women in His inner circle (Luke Chapter 8, Verse 1)
  • He taught women contrary to the restrictions on female education (Luke Chapter 10 Verse 38)
  • He used equalizing language like “daughters of Abraham” (Luke Chapter 13 Verse 16)
  • He talked to foreign women (John Chapter 4 Verse 7)
  • and, to cap it all, the key event of Christianity shows the men running away from the Crucifixion (apart from John) or disbelieving the Resurrection but
  • the women are fully present at the death of Jesus and given the first sightings of the Risen Christ.

Paul at his worst

Much of what we have inherited of restrictive Christianity comes from the letters of Paul or the Old Testament. The words of Jesus are far more subversive and simple. And therefore challenging with their focus on love, forgiveness and mercy, traditionally feminine qualities. In Colm Tóibín’s Testament of Mary, Tóibín presents an authentic woman insisting on the truth, even though the gospel writers caring for her have “outstayed their welcome.” Mary confides that “Words matter” and she resists the attempts of her carers (interrogators? jailors?) to remember events in Jesus’s life that suit their own narrative. One of her minders, she complains, “is ready to scowl impatiently when the story I tell him does not stretch to whatever limits he has ordained.” Mary wants to tell the real story, “or else everything that happened will become a sweet story that will grow poisonous as bright berries that hang low on trees.” Paul, rabidly egotistical after his conversion on the Road to Damascus, I think, has been the seed-source of the poisonous berries in terms of the Catholic Church’s attitudes to women. Paul’s misogyny is so yesterday….
Hans Speckaert's Conversion of St Paul on the Road to Damascus

Paul at his best – 1 Corinthians Chapter 13

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; love does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when that which is perfect comes, the partial will come to an end.

When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; but when I became an adult, I put away childish things. For now we see through a glass darkly, but we will then see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.

And now abideth faith, hope, and love, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

Sunday, 21 June 2015

Tatau and Terrific TV


I just finished watching Tatau with the family. Tatau was/is the BBC3 series filmed on the Cook islands with plenty of directorial verve. (Directors Wayne Yip, Josh Frizzell and Michael Hurst.) On my blog profile I say how loyal I feel towards the BBC and it is this kind of series that makes me want to support them wholeheartedly. It felt like an independent production and had plenty of dazzle in the performances, the direction, the design features and the overall idea. It wasn’t a homogenous committee-drama, that’s for sure, and all the better for that.


I hope the decision to put BBC3 online does not backfire. Several of their shows have been big successes: Being Human, In the Flesh, Gavin and Stacey, Torchwood – and there have been excellent documentaries too – one I remember vividly, My Brother the Islamist, could do with monthly repeats. I don’t know how expensive it was to send the crew and cast to the Cook islands for Tatau but it was FANTASTIC to see uncommon locations and less-familiar actors (including a good number from Commonwealth countries) in a weird and wild drama.

Brave commissioning

Some shows are victims of the commissioning channel’s lack of support, for example, the sudden cancelling of Atlantis which grew into a greater show with each episode. I imagine Tatau will not get a second series so we will never know whether it would have matured over another set of episodes. But I for one would tune in if the series was re-commissioned. Bravo to the BBC for giving viewers something out of the ordinary.

Tatau’s strengths

It made an eye-pleasing change to see sun-kissed locations different from drab urban offices and bucolic green villages favoured by typical home-grown TV series. The actors were uniformly good with the double act of Joe Layton as Kyle and Theo Barklem-Biggs as Budgie managing to convey the reality of buddies who had been travelling and who had a shared history. Joe’s intensity and Theo’s buoyancy motored the plot. Theo’s story contained an imaginative twist (no spoilers) and the hints at Maori culture were intriguing.

New faces to British TV

Shushila Takau, Alex Tarrant and Rawiri Jobe as Aumea, Maui and Koringo were convincing and unsettling in their portrayals of ambiguous characters – should Kyle and Budgie trust them or not? Cian Elyse White as Lara Morgan, I thought, was an attractive and charismatic performer and character; she probably had the best-written part in terms of variety of tone and emotion.

Tatau’s weakness

Sadly I think the show’s weakness was in some aspects of the writing, where, although the set-ups and the complications all had massive potential, there were underwritten characters and scenes that seemed either missing or rushed. I want to applaud Richard Zajdlic on the one hand for creating a complex show with some fine scenes and character moments but I wonder whether the pressures of budget and/or time and/or location meant he would have produced a more satisfying total narrative if circumstances had allowed. I noticed he was producing too. I know he is an experienced writer and one of the (many) past shows to which he contributed, This Life, is a major classic, in my opinion.

I wanted to see more depth to particular characters

Aumea’s father and her brother both had much more potential than the script allowed.  Temuera Morrison as the father had a powerful screen presence and his role in the climax could have been much more developed. Budgie’s mum (and Budgie’s whole back story prior to arriving on the island) proved functional rather than integrated and thematic. It struck me that Tyler and Dries (Tai Berdinner-Blades and Barry Atsma) had a lot more mileage and were fascinating in their vignettes but it struck me they were potentially more complex than the screen time given; the relationship between Kyle and Tyler seemed to have resonance but we weren’t shown how or why. Ditto Maui and Dries.

Future Stars

All the actors were engaging and I hope to see them again in the future. The series was ambitious and I hope the BBC does not shy away from promoting material like this again. Overall my family and I enjoyed this series a great deal – and relished shouting at the characters’ decisions – always a good sign of an engaging drama.

Daring to be different – are we in a Golden Age of TV?

Tatau didn’t fall into the category of total predictability. Many TV drama shows follow a formula these days so you can anticipate how each character will behave and even what the director is wanting you to think with predictable camera moves and angles.  Notable exceptions in recent times have been, in my opinion, (in alphabetical order): Arrested Development, Breaking Bad, The Bridge, Deadwood, Fargo, Game of Thrones, Happy Valley, House of Cards, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, Last Tango in Halifax, Orange is the New Black, Peaky Blinders.

Past Glories

From the past I would cite as Great and Golden TV: Band of Brothers, Battlestar Galactica, The Beiderbecke Tapes, Bleak House, Boys from the Blackstuff, Brideshead Revisited, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Cracker, The Crow Road, Damages, Edge of Darkness, Firefly, I Claudius, The Jewel in the Crown, The Killing, Life on Mars, Oranges are Not the Only Fruit, Our Friends in the North, Martin Chuzzlewit, Middlemarch, Pennies from Heaven, Prime Suspect, The Prisoner, Shameless, The Singing Detective, The Sopranos, Takin’ Over the Asylum, This Life, Tutti Frutti, The West Wing, Twin Peaks.

Not yet seen….

(I’ve had reliably recommended, but not yet seen, Boardwalk Empire, Dexter, Freaks and Geeks, The Game, Generation War (Our Fathers, Our Mothers), The Hour, Line of Duty, Lonesome Dove, Pushing Daisies, Ripper Street, Six Feet Under, Spiral, Veronica Mars, The Wire.)  I’m happy to receive further recommendations or to be reminded of anything I’ve missed from my list.

Tatau is one of those “Guilty-Pleasure” shows

The following list are TV series that I have watched with huge pleasure, but even at the time knew they were not for all tastes : 24, The 100, American Horror Story, Atlantis, The Avengers, Being Human, Call the Midwife, The Champions,
Doctor Who, Dynasty, The Flash, Glue, Heroes, The House of Eliott, In the Flesh, Land of the Giants, Merlin, Misfits, My Mad Fat Diary, North and South, The Returned, The Tripods, Spartacus, Star Trek, The Three Musketeers, Timeslip, The X Files – all entertaining and, for different reasons, shows that absorbed my imagination. But I wouldn’t put them in the “Past Glories” paragraph above. Tatau fits into this category, I think.

Perfect entertainment but something amiss

In all these guilty-pleasure shows, the concept is bigger than the final execution. The actors are usually brilliant, scenes are regularly stunning, all the design elements could not be bettered. But somehow the totality of the script misses a satisfying arc; often the conclusion is contrived, rushed or flawed; sometimes a formula kicks in and writers start repeating successful tropes. Alan Garner once wrote that “originality is the colouring of existing themes” and, in my book, Tatau’s colours were vibrant.

Sunday, 14 June 2015

Virgins and Whores, Feminist Men and the Dangers of Custard

Am I a feminist?

I started life as a son to a mother, a nephew to nine aunties and a grandson to a grandma. Soon I became a brother to a sister, an uncle to eight nieces and a friend to many female friends. In adult life I line-managed professional women and looked up myself to a great number of female bosses. Before long I became a husband to a wife and a father to daughters. You betcha I’m a feminist.


How could I not be? I’m a “masculinist” too, or whatever the word might be, and I’ll write about that in future. But equal opportunities starts with the greatest divide on the planet – the gender divide. In my retired dotage I can’t help but reflect that religion bears a massively significant responsibility for fostering unhealthy attitudes to women.

The Two Mary Syndrome

I grew up with the saintly image of a blue-clad Virgin Mary (the apotheosis of other scriptural heroines like Esther, Ruth, Abigail and Hannah) and a second image of a biblical not-so-virginal temptress (Jezebel, Delilah, Potiphar’s Wife, Bathsheba and Herodias – “bad girls” all – that reached their culmination in the New Testament’s Mary Magdalene.)
Abigail, Hannah, Mary, Mary M, Esther, Ruth, Jezebel, Potiphar's Wife and Delilah
During my feverish adolescent hormonal years, I therefore bounced between competing notions of Catholic femininity:
  • the ideal woman who was soft-focus, virginal, motherly and nurturing (Virgin Mary, Perfect “Mother”)  
  • the temptress woman who was alluring, sexy, mysterious and dangerous (Mary Magdalene, Forbidden Fruit)

Even as a child I knew it wasn’t so straightforward.  After all, bad-ass Virgin Mary squished snakes with her pretty feet on those otherwise demure statues – not an action I imagined I could do even now.  And Mary Magdalene got a starring role in the key event of the Resurrection – so she must have been exceptional for God to pick her to be the first witness to the Risen Christ.

Real Women

But the Two Mary Syndrome persisted in the way the media portrayed women: good girl or bad girl, virgin or whore – these ideas were planted long before I even knew what “virgin” or “whore” meant. Yet my own mother fulfilled neither stereotype and my younger sister seemed to be as complicated as the girls at school: brainy, ambitious, dynamic, sporty, courageous, funny, adaptable, independent, quirky, persistent, philosophical, witty, determined, tough, rational, emotional, modest, brash – I could keep going with the adjectives. In real life women and girls seemed to be more multi-faceted than the archetypes offered by the Two Mary Syndrome.


Wrestling with Original Sin has really messed up the Church’s ethos – not bad for a creation myth. How can we blame Eve for losing Paradise? Shouldn’t Adam’s spinelessness be equally condemned? And what about the initial blame being attached to sneaky Satan for offering the fruit in the first place? And God is hardly blameless for setting such a stupid test on the Seventh Day…. Why does Eve get the bad reputation when there were four protagonists in Eden – and three of them were ostensibly men?

Stupid boys, stupid girls

As a teacher I am proud I never let sexist comments from pupils go by. My usual line was to ask a teenage boy spouting offensive language to imagine how they would feel if someone was saying what they were saying about their own mother, sister or daughter. Girls of course can be equally culpable of attaching negative name-calling to other girls who transgress a conservative view of what a girl is allowed to say or do.

The Media

The Media (more than ever it seems to me) sells a very judgmental and discriminatory view of women: physical appearance, clothes and fashion accessories, wealth and style, education and opinion – all are used to mock, abuse and belittle women regularly in print, online, in the music industry, in advertising and marketing, on TV and in Film. Comparisons are often invidious (“before/after” shots, arrows pointing at cellulite and even Woman’s Own (OWN?) screaming on 11th May “Vanessa 2 STONE BIGGER Friends fear she’s drinking CUSTARD again.”)

Erotic Dancer, Supermum, Rescue Victim or Bestial Killer

The pressure can be horribly subtle: features by women aimed at women to “help” improve the quality of life tend to focus on how to look better, do better, be better – all geared up to produce hybrid Two Mary clones – the qualities of a saint but the attractiveness of a (classy?) sex worker. Sexualised dance routines in pop videos, capable Supermums in food advertising, movie characters that fall over and need rescuing. Why were Rudy Guede and Raffaele Sollecito allowed to “keep” their names in news coverage of the Meredith Kercher murder, but the female suspect had to be nicknamed “Foxy Knoxy”?

Where next for Feminism?

Being a feminist in the 1970s and 1980s was a badge of honour among young people but there seems to be an incomprehensible backlash against the word today. Luckily there are high-profile advocates reminding us of what is important. I thoroughly recommend clicking on this link to see Emma Watson’s full speech at the United Nations. As she says: “It is time that we all see gender as a spectrum instead of two sets of opposing ideals.” There are not “Two Marys” – there are millions of Marys, just as there are millions of “Marks.”

Sunday, 7 June 2015

Good Priests, Bad Priests and Celibacy

St Jerome, St Thomas Aquinas, St Francis of Assisi

Good priests

A good priest is a wonderful human being. The minister of spiritual rituals, the mediator between God and mankind, the community figure who heals and balms, who inspires and unites. A good priest is courageous, wise, thoughtful, studious, respectful, loving, generous and collaborative. Not much to ask! But they exist!

Great priests

Monsignor Thompson was the benevolent parish leader at St Austin’s parish in Wakefield through my childhood. I’m not aware he did anything other than act for the good of parishioners. The scholarly St Jerome worked for over 40 years in the 1st Century to produce the first translation of the Bible into Latin; by all accounts he was a dedicated and kind man. St Thomas Aquinas defied his rich family in the 13th Century to become a leading open-minded philosopher. Another rich young man who abandoned wealth and had a world impact was St Francis of Assisi with his love of the environment and respect for poverty.
Troubled priests in literature - the Unnamed 'whisky priest', Father Ralph and Frollo

Literary priests who are not so good....

Literature has its fair share of troubled and corrupt priests (think the Unnamed protagonist in Grahame Greene’s The Power and the Glory or Father Ralph in Colleen McCullough’s The Thorn Birds not to mention the lascivious Archdeacon Frollo in Victor Hugo’s Notre-Dame de Paris.)  As far back as Chaucer’s marvellous Canterbury Tales, the Pardoner and the Summoner are portrayed as despicable and evil religious figures (and plenty of historical sources suggest that many priests in those roles in medieval times were indeed duplicitous and open to bribes.)
Medieval monsters: the Pardoner and the Summoner from The Canterbury Tales

But my friend you left so early….

But there are also some exemplary religious figures in literature: Victor Hugo created one of the most moving portraits of a church figure in the Bishop of Digne (Charles-François-Bienvenu Myriel.) In the prologue of the musical Les Misérables my first tears always spring up when Jean Valjean is arrested and returned to the Bishop’s house for stealing his silver and the Bishop surprises the arresting officers and his housekeeper by singing:
But my friend you left so early
Surely something slipped your mind
You forgot I gave these also;
Would you leave the best behind?
And Bishop Myriel hands over his precious candlesticks, inherited from a great-aunt.  But in Victor Hugo’s astonishing (and angry) novel the descriptions of him chime with my own view of social responsibility:
(The Bishop) “was indulgent towards women and poor people, on whom the burden of human society rest. He said, “The faults of women, of children, of the feeble, the indigent, and the ignorant, are the fault of the husbands, the fathers, the masters, the strong, the rich, and the wise.” He said, moreover, “Teach those who are ignorant as many things as possible; society is culpable, in that it does not afford instruction gratis; it is responsible for the night which it produces. This soul is full of shadow; sin is therein committed. The guilty one is not the person who has committed the sin, but the one who has created the shadow.”
Les Misérables 

Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín

I have recently finished reading the exquisite Colm Tóibín novel Brooklyn and in that novel I expected the character of Father Flood to eventually display some faults but he acts in a benign and generous manner throughout.  Jim Broadbent is playing him in the forthcoming film and that, for me, bodes well. Despite Colm Tóibín’s public criticisms of the Catholic church, he has created a character in Father Flood that can only be described as charitable and compassionate. (I thoroughly recommend Brooklyn along with Nora Webster, a companion novel, as believable depictions of repressed feelings and hopeful yearnings in a small Irish community.)
Forthcoming film of Brooklyn

Bad priests

How do you identify bad priests in real life?
Hypocritical words and actions
Uncharitable deeds and impulses
Sermons that instill fear and shame
I have encountered examples of bad priests in my life who have demonstrated the above bullet points: the priest who led a double life, the priest who would not forgive someone who acted with the best of intentions but made a mistake, the priest whose words WOUNDED members of the congregation. I have even had a conversation with one priest that led me to believe he had evil thoughts.

“Their hearts are far from me….”

I have never (knowingly) encountered a sexually abusive priest. The media has been throwing light on the blight of abuse in the priesthood (and, for that matter, in other areas of the establishment.) I surmise that each case of abuse is complicated by circumstance, opportunity, nature and nurture – but that each case has in common the hypocritical misuse of power.  How can religious people preach one set of morals and perpetrate another? In Matthew’s gospel (Chapter 15, verse 8) Jesus is clear that “these people honour me by what they say, but their hearts are far from me.” This dichotomy is what makes the modern church seem so out-of-touch with modern responses to Christianity – it is no longer possible for post-Enlightenment people to be submissive to an organisation rife with corruption and cover-ups.


By no means do I think celibacy is the only root of moral hypocrisy in the Catholic church but it is interesting to note that celibacy is by no means a fixed doctrine.  (Just like circumcision, mixing meat with dairy and wearing mixed fabrics – all Biblical “laws” that are now ignored.)

Celibacy in history

For the first thousand years after the death of Jesus, priests were often married – and not in a church (see my previous blog.) It was only in 1139 that celibacy was forced on the clergy and that was largely because of inheritance rights. Prior to that it is thought clergy sometimes chose to be celibate and there were indeed encouragements to be free of the ties of family life. But it is interesting that Pope Francis in his book On Heaven and Earth acknowledges that celibacy has only been enforced for ten centuries.  Further he also wrote that celibacy “is a matter of discipline, not of faith.  It can change.” Admittedly these words were written when he was Archbishop of Buenos Aries – but his views are highly significant.

Asexuality and Abstinence

I do believe (and have known) asexual men and women – people for whom sex is not a driving force. I also think abstinence as a choice is a legitimate stance. Asexuality and abstinence seem to me to be natural human states, though not if the sexual instinct is perverting your life. And it is the perversion of instinct that worries me about celibacy. The definition of a pervert is a person whose sexual behaviour is regarded as abnormal and unacceptable. I think enforced celibacy is abnormal. The sexual impulse is surely a natural instinct. If a creator God exists, then God created the sexual instinct. To deny the sexual impulse for religious reasons seems to be a pathway towards self-oppression, something that risks destructive eruption at a later stage.

Pressures to drop celibacy   

Enforced celibacy will, I think, eventually end, especially for priests who work in the community (parish priests.) The day will come (again) when priests will be encouraged to marry. The Protestant Reformation faced the reality of human nature and encouraged vicars to be family men; and of course any Anglicans who are already married and convert to Catholicism remain married, often with children. Priests in the Eastern Catholic Church can be ordained even if they are married. The signposts to positive change are already in place. The future will have definitely arrived when gay married priests are fully integrated members of the church.

From where will all the future Catholic priests be recruited?

A shortage of priests is on the horizon. The path to priesthood will be a more welcoming road if married people could walk on it. By writing “people” I mean, of course, that women priests should be on that road too. If not sooner, then later. If not later, then eventually. Women and the church?…. a whole other topic!