Sunday, 30 December 2012

Mrs Butler & the Prostitutes

The ASB (1980) used to celebrate on this day Josephine Butler (1828-1906) "social reformer, wife, and mother". The Common Worship (2000) lectionary has moved her to May. But I am slow to change things, and I quite happy to leave her where she was. Let us leave to one side the "wife and mother" side of her write-up - Archbishop Cranmer, and John Donne, are not listed as "husband and father", and it seems to me astonishing that these were dots that as recently as 1980 the C of E was unable to join. Oh no, hang on a moment, given this last year's fiascos, I might suspend astonishment for a bit. I know very little of her own biography, and for me she was only a name in the Kalendar until I read a book by Richard Davenport-Hines, called "Sex, Death, and Punishment". It is a fascinating study in British hypocrisy, looking at attitudes to sex, sexually transmitted disease, and sexuality over the last few centuries. His study of the Victorian era fascinated me most because one of my great-great-grandfathers died of syphilis in 1915 (don't be too smug - how many of you can even name your great-great-grandfathers, still less what they died of?). The death certificate said "general paralysis", and it was quite a time before I managed to fathom (no internet then) that this was the gentle euphemism that was used for the tertiary, and fatal, phase of that disease; in full "general paralysis of the insane" - he died in the London County Lunatic Asylum. To put it into a sort of perspective, over 60% of the British Army in India in the 1890s had a venereal disease of some sort. So, that's how I met Mrs Butler. The Victorians were rather obsessive about prostitution - Prime Minister William Gladstone, for instance, was noted for his interest in "fallen women". Most of them seem to have taken the view that prostitutes were a menace to men, and that picking up the fallen (not like that!) would ensure that men would not be led into temptation and could have nice family lives and lots of healthy children. At the beginning of Victoria's reign, the age of consent for boys was 14, for girls 12, so, one can well imagine those menacing 12-year-olds luring grown men astray (never mind those dodgy boys). Opposition to raising the age of consent was partly inspired by a fear that interfering with the prostitution market would mean men would have to make do with their wives, and put a lot of pimps out of business. Mrs Butler took a very different view, and in particular she led the campaign against the "Contagious Diseases Acts". At their worst, these permitted the constabulary to assume that any woman walking alone at night was necessarily touting for trade, and could force her - on threat of imprisonment if she refused - to undergo physical examination for venereal disease (followed by three months of incarceration and compulsory treatment if she wasn't given a clean bill of health). It's hard, a century and a half later, to believe that such things could be considered desirable, or even make sense, to people at the time. The law was enforced with particular brutality within walking distances of naval dockyards and army barracks, but when the powers of piety and self-righteousness tried to extend the same brutality to the whole country, Mrs Butler's coalition - consisting of many avowedly Christian people - triumphed, and had the whole lot repealed, in 1886. Josephine Butler has been described as a "vehement feminist". Was she? Wasn't she just a decent Christian with a zeal for justice and human dignity for all people? I'm sure she regarded prostitution as deeply morally repugnant - but not just on the women's side - and might she perhaps have taken the view that the demand was the cause of the supply? And wondered how the lives of women could be improved so that there would be alternatives to supplying this particular trade? Hers is a model of intervention based not on judgement, but of justice. Our rulers seem ever-keener on punishing people for drinking, smoking, or eating too much, for being fat, or ill, or unhappy, or poor, or criminal, or ill-educated, or old. This is a rich country, there is plenty for everyone, but, responsibility where it is due - those who claim those riches for themselves, and do not share them, will one day face justice from a higher court than this world's, and a far scarier judge than Mrs Butler.

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

A letter to the Telegraph, 12.12.02

Dear Editor, For generations the Anglican clergy of this country have conducted the marriages of divorcees, against the expressed wishes of Synods and bishops. They did so for pastoral reasons, and within the law, as civil registrars. What possesses the government to think that ministers of "the established church" should be exempt from the same liberty when the law changes to allow same-sex couples to be legally married? Forget the Synods and the bishops; the clergy know their people, and they should be trusted to do what is right. Yours sincerely,

Sunday, 9 December 2012

Submission from "An (un)Common Book of Hours", compiled by Peter Watkins PhD ASH WEDNESDAY Readings: Joel 2:1-2, 12-17 & Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21 JUDGEMENT It is human nature to judge. We judge a person’s looks, their clothes, their voice and accent, their education and background. And we think “oh, you must be this-or-that sort of person” and decide whether, in principle we will like them or not. But a person who to me looks cute, may to you look dull; to me seem bright, to you seem cocky; to me seem refined, to you seem snooty. Not all of your friends can be my friends, nor mine yours. We judge, but we come to different verdicts. The Bible is full of anxiety about judgement. There is even an Old Testament book called “Judges”, in which the people of Israel do well under a good judge, and badly under a bad one. The prophets constantly pronounce God’s judgement on the people of Israel and their behaviour. But every so often we see a glimmer of something much more interesting. Our reading from Joel shows us that judgement by God is something to look forward to – “for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love”. We’re not expecting this. Joel is telling us that being judged by God is infinitely better than being judged by the caprice and expediencies of human judges. As we look forward to the season of Lent – and let’s look forward to it – our readings point us towards that merciful God, the God to whom we can confess our sins in penitence and faith, because all that we have done “through negligence, through weakness, through our own deliberate fault”, he knows already and has forgiven. But we in turn must forgive. That is Lent’s greatest challenge – not to give things up, but to grow into the most characteristic aspect of the God in whose image and likeness we are made – to forgive, as we are forgiven. For God’s sake. Amen. God our Father, hear our prayer of penitence for all that we have done amiss; for the wrongs we have done; for the times we have cheated others; for the anger and fury we have carried in our hearts; for the indolence and indifference that has soured the good times you have offered us, and the friendships we might have made; guide us by your grace to make amends for what we have done amiss, and to strive towards that glorious day, when we too might rise to the fullness of the stature of Christ, your Son, our Lord. Amen. Almighty God, the Prophets called, your Son bore witness, and in every generation you send your saints and seers with the challenge of Good News; give us ears to hear, and eyes to see, what our work must be in this broken world; give us courage and confidence to work for the peace of the world, to hold out the hand of friendship to neighbours we know, and neighbours far off; to share what we can of our plenty with those without; that these small sacrifices might be pleasing in your sight. Through Jesus Christ, your Son, our Lord. In this season of Lent, give us your grace to grow in faithfulness, to show forth your love in the world, by word, and deed, and prayer, and to know your promise to be with us always, as a light in our lives, and the inspiration of our souls. Amen. God our

Sunday, 2 December 2012

You Brood of Vipers - A Parish Newsletter

Parish Church of Saint Mary and Saint Nicholas, Littlemore

The Window, Sunday, 9th of December 2012

“You Brood of Vipers”

Those are the words with which Saint John the Baptist, of whom we think on this Second Sunday of Advent, greeted the crowds that came out to be baptised by him. You can’t help thinking that for all his holiness, austerity, and prophetic vision, Saint John wasn’t much of a salesman. And yet they came, in great numbers, including Jesus himself, in search of salvation and the washing away of sins. John was that uncomfortably attractive figure – the person who says deeply unpleasant things in a way you just can’t help listening to. His message was stark, and frightening – there’s trouble ahead, and unless you mend your ways, you’re going to be in it. Those first “vipers” must have thought they were on to a quick-fix, but John doesn’t offer that. His baptism is for those who repent, a word which means “change”. Most of us have had encounters with people who’ve suggested – with varying degrees of gentleness – that to move onto the next stage of our journey, we’re going to have to change. We often don’t want to hear, but their words ring in our ears, for days, or months, or even years. That’s a part of what prophecy is about – saying the words that we cannot help hearing, even though we’d rather not, and pretend we haven’t. John’s is a difficult – and dangerous – example to follow. Sometimes we can think we are telling people home truths, when in reality, we are just being spiteful. This sort of prophetic ministry needs to be rooted in deep prayer and holiness, and the occasional spell of locusts and wild honey in the desert. God give us courage to speak when we must, grace to speak kindly when we do, and if the Spirit is not with us, not to speak at all.

Richard Haggis
Littlemore, Oxford
December 2012