Monday, 28 October 2013

People and Politics

Last night we braved 'the storm that thankfully never quite manifested' to head down to hear a guest speaker at church, one of the Oxford MPs, Nicola Blackwood. I've head Nicola speak before and always been hugely impressed by how eloquent and bright she is but more than that by her sincerity and clear desire to do right by the people in her constituency. That combined with her being that rare thing, a young woman in politics, finds me being quite a fan!

Hearing about the week she has ahead made my meagre workload of a couple of essays look like a walk in the park. Darting back and forth from the commons in London, debating hugely important bills on immigration, advising on Home Office committees, campaigning against exploitation of children in Oxford, not to mention dealing with a myriad of issues from the people here from pensions to childcare to transport to security to employment. Nicola was refreshingly honest that in this role where on election you suddenly have to be an expert in all aspects of human existence in Britain you have to work incredibly hard to get up to speed but you will also, inevitably, at times get it wrong. We all are human beings after all, and that includes our public representatives.

It really made me think about the way we speak about and treat those that represent us. Under everything Nicola said was the clear desire for public service that I found tremendously inspirational. She often mentioned wanting to do right by her constituents and her prayer requests were wisdom and energy to do just that. I know that feeling well as someone whose education is being paid for by the pounds in the church collection plate. I want to do right by those who have trusted me to be here and lead the church in the future.

Nicola's third prayer request, however, was for a change in public perception of politics and politicians. While working these manic weeks, and quite frankly she must be constantly battling exhaustion, she finds herself coming up against the perception that all politicians are all 'liars and thieves'. Of course we have a right to hold our representatives to account, and it is vitally important that we do so, but the common assumption that all politicians are motivated entirely by a quest for power and care little for the people they serve is plainly false. Don't get me wrong, there is a clear agenda of self promotion in politics and the behaviour of some politicians in the past has in part created this negativity in public perception. However that is one part of a much bigger picture of people sacrificing family, health and a huge amount of energy to try to improve the lot of ordinary people.

It's not holding politicians to account, then, that is to be critiqued but rather the failure to engage with politics because of assumptions that 'all politicians are the same' which, as Nicola rightly pointed out, damages democracy in this country. It also, I would argue, damages our relationships as human beings. If we disagree with a policy then we must and should speak out but the personal bashing of politicians is so common and so approved of and that worries me. Even more so when the stark reality of the time, effort and energy that our representatives put in is clearly examined and acknowledged. For them to do the best job for us and for our country they need our critique, yes, but also our support.

Friday, 18 October 2013

The Scandal of Difference

A lot of my reading at the moment is around the subject of difference. This week I've been looking at the concept of masculinity and femininity. Or rather concepts, I should say. Because the one thing that emerges from even a quick scan of history is that whether it is about race, gender or background we are constantly trying to create categories. To make a mould and stuff people in it. This partly comes from a natural desire to categorize and make sense of the world but the problem comes when our understanding of the world is far too small.
Masculinity and femininity is a great example. The idea that there is one way to be a man and one way to be a woman is, quite frankly, utter tosh. And yet the desire to force people to conform to an idea that we as a society have developed as ideals can easily be seen when you look at the labels for those who don't fit. Enter the tom boys and effeminates, the geeks and the goths, the power women and the under the thumb man.

All these are considered aberrations. Deviations from the norm and, on some level, from what is natural and right. But natural is a massively over stated idea. Studies in cultures around the world tell us that what we assume to be natural for men and women in our culture is by no means the case in all cultures. In some cultures men raise the children, in some women do the bulk of the manual labour.

Historically it is possible to trace ideas about men and women changing over time. Our modern idea of femininity seems to have emerged during the Victorian Era. Before that women were considered to be sexual predators who needed to be contained by marriage (quite like men are often depicted today) and by their very nature inferior, intellectually and morally. By the end of the Victorian era women were held up as sexually disinterested and the ultimate example of piety.

Unfortunately a lot of these boxes have been religiously sanctioned. In fact my dissertation is about one such concept of the ideal male and female and how the Victorian ideal has been seen, in recent decades, as God's design for humanity. You would probably have guessed that I am not a great fan of this idea already but this week I particularly found myself thinking about what my faith really does have to say positively about these issues. Is it just a modern, gut instinct in me that says we should accept people in all their difference or is there actually anything to back it up?

Well this is where I am thankful for the veritable feast of oddballs whose stories are recorded in the Bible. Women leading the battle, men weeping, prostitutes saving the day, women four times divorced, pregnant teenagers, they're all in there and all held up as examples. Battered by life, a bit of a mess sometimes, but utterly beloved by God.

I deeply believe that the gospel is, at its core, a great big yes to us in all our variety. Jesus has no problem associating with those society considered to be abnormal or outcasts. The Apostle Paul who wrote most of the letters of the New Testament makes the bold claim that, drop the labels, we are all one in God. Jew, Greek, Male, Female, Slave, Free, Rich or Poor.

So what do you say? Shall we smash up the boxes? I think that the world might just be so much more interesting than our boring old norms and stereotypes would have us believe.

Saturday, 5 October 2013

First Week Reflections

Gosh, can you believe it? I have just finished my first week of year two at Vicar School! It's been a fascinating and, just like last year, tiring week. Looking around I remember so clearly how I felt to be starting college. Not only are you meeting a bunch of new people who will become very important in your life for the next few years but also processing a mountain of information and, if you are like me, trying desperately to quell the sense of rising panic as you realise, yes, you did actually sign up for this and this is your life now.

All this is combined with being fairly sleep deprived what with prayer starting at 7.30am and spending most of the night with obscure rules for worship running through you mind. If I sound negative then please forgive me! The whole experience of being here is wonderful and exciting and the best decision I ever made but still, it is tiring, it is hard and, in my experience, you have to spend an awful lot of time getting over yourself and that is pretty tough going. But more than simply passing on the message 'it's going to be all right' to the new students I found myself much more saying 'you are meant to be here'.

Watching the dawning horror on people's faces as they are signed up to lead a service they have never even been to before took me right back to being there myself. As you, dear blog reader, know well I am some what of a late comer to the party when it comes to church. This can leave me bewildered, confused and not a little bemused at times. What is instinctive to many is a serious learning task for me. I led a service this week where my prayer book was absolutely full of yellow post its to keep me on track. I had a friend sit in the pew nearest to the front so no one else would see my scribbled red notes to myself saying 'SIT!' 'STAND!' 'PRAY!'
Here we go again!
This world is an academic one and I sometimes forget that I arrived here last year having read basically no Theology and am now approach finals at Oxford Uni, for goodness sake! My degree was in Biology, if you want to know the evolutionary history of amphibians then I am your girl, but Theology? It was all new, every bit of it. Of course I've come to realise that a lot of this is my greatest strength. Fresh eyes and new experiences are vital to the church in this age of change. I am part of that and that excites me. The rest? Well I always remember that what is natural to many doesn't come so easy for me and pat myself on the back for sticking in there in the areas I find tough.

That, more than anything, is what I have been trying to impart this week when I come across a, completely understandable, little wobble. To be a diverse bunch is a wonderful thing. What I can do others run from, what they can do naturally in half an hour takes me a day and thirty post it notes. I sincerely believe that there is no one who walks into any new task fully confident in their ability. If they do then quite frankly they will likely be the one to miss out. Admitting that there are things you don't know means you are ready to learn and grow. I am not ashamed to say 'I don't know' because it is the only way I will learn and that it is more important that my pride.

All in all, it takes all sorts, doesn't it? And this week I have realised again that we really are the richer for it.