Power, equality and faith: how to erase female authority – the case of the disappearing women. Part 1: The women around Jesus.

Last night I sat down with some Sicilian biscotti to watch some catch up TV.  And boy oh boy did I do some catching up.  About sixteen centuries worth of cultural catch up.

Profs Helen Bond and Joan Taylor Jesus' Female Disciples The New Evidence,

Here’s the thing.  Professors Joan Taylor and Helen Bond,  seen here exploring an underground chapel to ‘Holy Salome’ deeply off road somewhere in the Israeli desert,  have sold into Channel 4, a ‘road journey’ to the high places of New Testament and Christian political epicentres, to reveal the role of women in the early formation of the  communities which  followed Jesus.  Joan and Helen have journeyed where few, four by four driving female academics with accompanying film crew have  ventured, and have brought in this new series  Jesus’ Female Disciples: The New Evidence, some surprising  ‘post resurrection’ realities of  the early churches.  Realities emerging from the buried stonework, graffiti and artwork which their Channel 4 expenses paid quest uncovers, across the Near Eastern and North African world in the first centuries following the ‘good Friday’ debacle and the ‘Easter resurrection/ Pentecostal’ commissioning of the church.  What they uncover  by way of tantalizing pub quiz factoids to be stowed away for future deployment by classics buffs,  is matched by the potential impact of the  powerful revelations of former glimpses of gender equality in the practices of the ancient church, which upends the comfortable male supremacist/ headship dispensation of many traditionalists.


He Qi :  the Women come to dress Jesus’ body for burial

The significant presence of women in the life of the early community of faith has long been understood though still inadequately populating the art work, preaching, teaching, and organisational practice of churches world wide.  This presence painstakingly and against the grain of mainstream theological positions and attention has been articulated by theologians inspired by Suffragette and feminist movements of the turn of the nineteenth and mid twentieth centuries.  Outstanding western  pioneers of feminist theology working in Germany, the United States and Britain include Rosemary Radford Reuther, Mary Daly, Elisabeth Schussler FiorenzaElisabeth Moltmann-WendelAnn Loades.   Their writings, classes and discourse, drew the attention of Southern theologians including members of the Circle of Concerned Women Theologians in Africa, and a growing phalanx of South American, Indian and first Nation voices, adding their own post- colonial concerns around the patriarchal domination of western theologies in their work.

One hundred years before their efforts, the pioneering impaler of malesplained religion Elizabeth Cady Stanton and her ‘outing’ rageous Woman’s Bible which suggested prayers to the ‘Heavenly Mother, Son and Holy Spirit’ had argued that the ‘degrading ideas of woman’ which Biblical Scholars and Church authorities articulated the subordinate place of women, thus undermining efforts towards full emancipation of women politically and within Christian churches –  ‘emanated from the brain of man, while the church says that they came from God’.

Female disciples were present and named, however  fleetingly in the gospels.  The second wave of feminist inspired theologians started to build their back-stories. So here, though unadorned, they come in number.


Jesus at the House of Martha and Mary – He Qi

‘Mary the Magdala’, Salome, Joanna, Susanna, Mary the mother of Jesus, Mary and Martha (whose brother Lazarus was ‘raised from the dead’ by Jesus, the mother in law of Peter, the unnamed woman at the well who became the first apostle ‘announcing the arrival of the Messiah’ to the churches formed in Samaria, and the un-named but extraordinarily influential woman from Syro- Phoenicia who challenged Jesus theologically, redefining his mission remit, beyond ‘the house of Israel’ out into the gentile world,  which pre-empted the work of Saul of Tarsus and his revelation as he fell off his horse, just outside of modern day Damascus in Syria.  The woman who suffered from haemorrhaging – who would undoubtedly be remembered in hope,  by any peri-menopausal women suffering from this debilitating impact of hormonal changes in their menstrual cycle.  The woman who was ‘bent double’ – manifesting the signs of  early menopausal impact, osteoporosis for 18 years – healed by Jesus on the sabbath, and in whose defence to that healing is uniquely called ‘a daughter of Abraham’ , equal in stature to all the ‘sons of Abraham’ holding sway and criticising his mission of healing in  synagogue and temple.  The young teenager who had ‘passed out’ and whose body was being prepared for burial – who was touched by Jesus and raised with the Aramaic words ‘Talyetha’ qumi – literally young girl, little maid, damsel arise.

crucifixion He Qi

The Resurrection  Easter Sunday  He Qi

Twelve women. Twelve women of varied backgrounds, and varied ages. Teenagers, fecund women, menstruating women, women with children, women post-menopause, women with no children, women working to maintain their households, women with one husband, women with many former husbands, women with no husbands.  All with strong narratives associated with their encounters with Jesus.  Twelve women,  amongst the many ‘women followers’ recorded who ‘ministered’ to Jesus, who were authenticated and commissioned by Jesus, and who ‘bank rolled’ according to Bond and Taylor building on texts buried in the gospel of St Luke,  where Joanna, who is the ‘elite’ wife of Chuza King Herod’s steward, and Susanna (whose background remains obscure, except that she seems to have been by association with Joanna a woman of some means), and a host of other unidentified women, support the work of Jesus and his male and female followers  ‘out of their substance’ (Luke 8:3)

Samaritan woman at the well

The Woman at the Well  He Qi

And this evidence survives in the gold standard  Bible, ‘authenticated’  ‘sealed’ and finally delivered for all in 367 AD courtesy of  Church Father Athanasius – (Bishop of North African church Alexandria in the fourth Century CE).

Meantime the wheels of history grind through their own socio-political power requirements, and within the larger geo-political mandate of Roman Imperial exigencies,  the  religious freedom and explosive incursion of gender equality in the  praxis of the early church,  is subsumed.  Order,  uniformity,  control and ultimately the reassertion of patriarchal power structures come into play.

The Emperor Constantine, had converted to Christianity in 312 CE after a spectacular victory in his campaign to enforce his power as Caesar across Italy, critically defeats the general Maxentius  at the battle of Milvian Bridge.

220px-Rome-Capitole-StatueConstantine the Great

Emperor Constantine the Great – part of the monumental capitol head – in Rome.

Here at a strategic cross roads, a heavenly portent inspires Constantine to have his army of 40,000 men mark the sign of the cross on their shields.  The famous victory which occurs, opens up the Via Flaminia  for his army to march over the River Tiber and proceed in fabulous victory to the Imperial city of Rome.  It  was a seismic turning point in the alignment of Imperial power with what before had been an irritant minority religion marked for classical thinkers and polemecists with the underlying ‘death wish’ of martyrdom rather than reneging on their faith. It was the inception point for the emergence of an orthodoxy which would pervade wherever the Imperial control of Rome reached until it in turn collapsed, but by then the damage to the alternative model of community making had been done.

the risen lord

The Risen Lord       He Qi  contemporary Chinese Artist.

Text and praxis for the mother of all  ‘Imperial religious projects’  where Divine  underpinning of Imperial rule  mediated through  religious supremacy of the classically educated male, the lexicon of patriarchy,  would run out across Constantine’s and his successor’s expanding Empire – embracing Eurasia, North Africa, and Western Europe at its hey day in its Imperial dispensation. And if Professors Taylor and Bond’s revelation in Naples is to be taken at its ‘wall painted’ value,  would have a devastating effect on the gender equity being operated by some of the early churches in the Southern region of contemporary Italy.

And for that Neapolitan moment, and the fifteen hundred year truly outrageous, dis-empowering,  and air brushing obfuscation it entails,  I will leave you dear reader in momentary blogging suspense. For that second part of the revelation, the one which left me biscotti spluttering, with minor palpitations on the sheer Chutzpah of an ongoing ‘forgotten’  ‘Imperial cover up’  awaits for part 2, of this  blog on ‘erasing the female’, coming tomorrow.


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Congratulations to Revd Canon Mpho Tutu and Professor Marceline Van Furth


Professor Van Furth and Canon Mpho Tutu

Revd Canon Mpho Tutu and Professor Marceline Van Furth Celebrating their marriage in the final days of 2015.

A wonderful breath of fresh air sweeps across the channel to the isles of Albion this New Year’s day 2016, with news of the marriage of Canon Revd Mpho Tutu and Professor Marceline Van Furth in a small civil ceremony in Oegstgeest in the Netherlands on Thursday

For more on the significance of this privately wonderful celebration of their marriage, in the public sphere of the Anglican Church, soon to be hosting a Primate’s conference at Lambeth – with 37 Archbishops from the Global Communion coming together to talk about the challenges and opportunities now facing Anglicanism world wide – read more here


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Bishop Libby Lane – some prayers for a new era

Tomorrow Monday is going to see a truly historic event for the Church of England as it sees a woman made Bishop for the first time within the Provinces of York and Canterbury  since its foundation as the Anglican Church in these Isles under the jurisdiction of Henry VIII.

The event has seen a range of interesting comments on twitter, including requests for live streaming of the event from the Minster, to mark a historic moment which would seem to warrant such attention and input of IT resources to render it possible.  I simply don’t know what the outcome of such late stage requests will be, but they do indicate a range of interest and  requests to open up the processes of these paradigm shifting moments, which the Church’s establishment needs to attend to.  For a Church whose star is presently in public decline,  this installation, and the laying on of many Bishops hands on the head of the Revd Libby Lane represents at least some recovery of direction, if somewhat late in the day.

tea vicar libby lane

Many of the collects in the Book of Common Prayer were written by Cranmer the launching Archbishop of the new Church of England as it clambered its way out of Papal injunctions, and into the freedom of permitting a divorce for Henry VIII from Catherine of Aragon, and creating the way for marriage to Anne Boleyn and the subsequent births of Princess Mary and Princess Elizabeth.  They have been much loved, prayed over and considered by church men and women across the centuries.

College Chaplain and fellow of Trinity College Oxford Revd Dr Emma Percy, has written a collect for churches which has been used by some on this Sunday before the consecration of Revd Libby  in York Minster and subsequent installation as 8th Bishop of Stockton in the Diocese of Chester.  In thinking about some of the ongoing challenges which the Church of England faces in the light of realising truly inclusive processes and diversity in its leadership I have penned another in the tradition of Orthodox Christian piety, which I also offer to those who would like to find a way forward in celebrating this historic breakthrough.

2014-05-03 16.10.38

on the steps of St Pauls London on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the ordination of women as Priests in the Church of England – an occasion which was marked for the first time with a standing ovation from the congregation and lengthy applause and some ulalation. It was a time when the self restraint asked for by the Archbishops 20 years ago for limiting celebration in the churches, in case of triggering hurt and division, was lifted. In the sermon marking this occassion Archbishop Justin Welby apologised for the short sightedness and limited appreciation of the Church’s hierarchy, in receiving the ministry of women. It was good to be alive and present to hear. Many of those whom I had been ordained alongside, unfortunately were not.

Twenty years ago I was amongst the hundreds of other women, including a younger Emma Percy (author of the collect which follows),  who went through a ‘mass distributed ordination’ into  the priesthood undertaken across the dioceses of England and started the momentum for change which tomorrow shall publicly move another step forwards.

I hope that these prayers may assist your reflection and serve to inspire you to assist in whatever way you feel moved, to encourage the next steps of the Church of England’s long walk to equality and making an authentic contribution into the wider life of our multicultural and multi faith civil society.

Gracious God,
in whose image we are made, male and female.
We thank you for the consecration of Bishop Libby.
May her ministry and that of the whole church,
bear witness to the reconciling love of your kingdom,
through which divisions are healed,
and in which women and men are one in Christ,
in whose name we pray. Amen

(Emma Percy  2015)

Holy Christ, our servant Leader
in whom there is no-one tainted,
male or female, straight or gay
in whose company race and ethnicity are riches to enjoy,
in whose hospitality all are seated, all are fed.
Old and young are inspired,
those whose faith has grown weary, refreshed
for all are included, all are welcomed, all are free
to eat and drink at the table set by Divine Love.
Infuse us with this festal heart
and liberate us from depleted vision
on this special day
through the power of resurrection hope

( Ford  2015)


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The Church of England and AA Home Start

The AA is frequently referred to as the fourth protective agency, and it is no surprise when the fourth arm of the Establishment – the Church of England –  gets into a spot of trouble the call goes out for some ropes and a recovery van to drag it back onto the road.

AA ewards-card

Such is the analysis published this week from the pen of the Professor Linda Woodhead, Professor of the Sociology in Religion at Lancaster University.  Published this week  in the  Church of England’s version of the  ‘thunderer’ ‘the Church Times’, Professor Linda points out that when cars fall into ditches it is sometimes useful to consider some of the wider reasons that the car dropped off the road in the first place.  Was it anything to do with driver error? How had the road conditions contributed to the slippage, and was there any particular challenge with the route taken which could have contributed to the disaster?

Professor Woodhouse committed herself last week to the Herculean task of analysing three new reports, Developing Discipleship, Simplification and Resourcing the Future,  emanating from the Church of England via various committees set up to address challenges in finances, organisational efficiency and customer outreach for this increasingly beleaguered institution. She writes:

The reports are resolutely practical and pragmatic. They want action, and they want it now. The report Simplification, for example, makes a plucky start in cutting ecclesiastical red tape. Along the way, it offers the delightful admission that “the culture of the Church of England in framing legislation over a number of years has been predicated on building in safeguards for all possible eventualities.”

Not surprisingly, a mild sense of panic leaks out of all the reports. I imagined Archbishops standing in the road shouting: “The car is stuck in a ditch! Quick! Grab the tools nearest to hand and get it out!” But, the more I read, the more I worried that the hard questions that needed to be asked had been sidelined: why the vehicle fell into the ditch; whether it needed a different engine and new running gear; and whether it was going in the right direction in the first place.

The failure to get to grips with the terrain is particularly apparent. It is said of the society of which the Church is part that it is a “secularised, materialistic culture, often experienced as a desert for the soul”, “built on the . . . presumption that I get to make my life up”. This is a troublingly paranoid and unevidenced projection, and it urgently needs to be married to the existing research on cultural values, social change, and the reasons for church decline which could inform it.

The words paranoid and unevidenced projection are strong meat for any critical review  and particularly for those who have found themselves in a long slow skid which has irrevocably landed them in a ditch, with their back wheels spinning.

Bentley on fire

A Bentley with an overheated engine, causing much consternation to onlookers and owners alike

As some online commentators have added – ‘its time to wake up and smell the coffee’ – but many of the chauffeurs responsible for driving this old Bentley of a thoroughly English institution are still in an apparent state of shock, and appear not to have absorbed the contemporary societal signs announcing full blooded inclusion pursuant to changes in legislation on sexuality and equal rights over the last fifteen years,  nor seemingly aware of the profound changes to the Highway ethical, civil society, variegated values and Human Rights code which have occurred during their watch.  As a result like the driver in the picture below they have driven straight into a flooded road, watching the signs for a low lying bridge, but ignoring the risks of rising water to cut their engine.

Bentley under a bridge

A Bentley left abandoned under a bridge as the flood waters rise.

The response of some Bishops on line have accussed Professor Woodhead of ‘perpetuating the sad old faded liberal vision’ in response to her concerns about the Church of England having been slipping down the hill towards congregationalism, away from the vision of societal engagement and vital interaction with civil society which has justified its ongoing incorporation in the State as an established church with 26 prelates  entitled to sit in the House of Lord.  A position which those of us who desire a vital engagement with the society in which it is set is well articulated by Archbishop William Temple in his 1942 series of lectures realised in the book Christianity and Social Order, which set out an Anglican social theology and a vision for what would constitute a just and more equality driven post-war society.

Professor Woodhead has been undertaking a series of conversations on the state of the Church of England over the last few months, which those preparing these reports would have done well to have taken some time to consider. Exploring issues in sexuality, religion and gender equality, the future of the church in a multi faith and multi cultural society, the Westminster Faith debates have roamed expansively, and opened up a host of possibilities to enable renewed accessibility to the Church of England, a potential widening of its employee and customer base and expanded clarity for its forward vision. They are worth dropping into the you tube feeds and taking a look.

This is the form of engagement, open debate, appreciative enquiry and intelligent research based contribution, which the squeezed middle in English society is yearning for.  It is essential for any church or faith organisation in this new era of rapid knowledge transfer, and open international highways, to engage intelligently with contemporary Britain’s faith context road conditions.  Driving on the highway has become fast and furious, conditions can turn somewhat treacherous for those ill prepared and change without much prior warning, and drivers and vehicles need to be appropriately kitted out and ready for precipitate alteration in the terrain.

Professor Woodhead counsels the Church of England to submit to a fuller diagnosis of just what has gone wrong. She says:

What is needed now is a more honest diagnosis of what went wrong; a greater openness to exist­ing wisdom; the participation of a broader range of Anglicans; a deeper respect for the Church’s past; and a more imaginative vision of its future. The reports are still a little too captive to the present, too pinched. They need to be expanded, not watered down. There is a bigger, better, and more exciting Church of England out there, waiting to be born.

I personally believe she is quite correct, and hope that her optimism for change is born out through a radical salvage operation and rebuild, yet to be undertaken.  The Old Bentley is still being revved by beleaguered chauffeurs attempting to floor the accelerator on a tired and overheated engine, with a holed gasket, its  wheels urgently requiring a refit with solid multisurface treads, currently staggering on without the currently bespoke #heforshe cruise control and customised interdenominational, interfaith and intercultural GPS, whilst carrying a somewhat dented and scraped chassis from its recent bumpy ride over the legislation for Women Bishops. There is a great deal to be done.

AA helps out the Bentley

The fourth protective service assisting in a rescue for a capsized Bentley

Here’s hoping that the fourth protective service can once the engine is dried out and the chassis pulled out of the mire, encourage the company to bring her for a thorough going refit – nothing less is required, but there are many available to assist, if a new spirit of inclusivity and humility is embraced – and the exclusivity of the club is truly broken open as the doors of the Cathedral in Stockport welcomes its first woman senior chauffeur bishop in the person of the Rt Revd Libby Lane later this week.

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Twelve days – half way house – Gold rings and a brace of pheasants

“What have I got in my pocket?” he said aloud. He was talking to himself, but Gollum thought it was a riddle, and he was frightfully upset.
“Not fair! not fair!” he hissed. “It isn’t fair, my precious, is it, to ask us what it’s got in it’s nassty little pocketsess?”
J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit

The fifth day of Christmas offers a welcome break to those singing the lyrics.  Breath and memory seize on it for a welcome break in the headlong rush towards the first day, arresting the unravelling of days, actors, wildfowl, lords and milking maids which threaten from about the seventh day.

Five go – o ld RINGS.

Deep breath and head on down to the partridge.

But what sort of rings are in the ‘nasty pocketsess’ of the package sent by my true love?

If they are indeed gold metallic rings, they would be a strange gift to receive.  Currently in these days of commitment phobia, or the concerning escalation of the costs of a conventional wedding,  one would be impressive enough. The fifth day’s package is the most economically valuable of the first seven days,  worth from a quick search on google from anything like the ring above times five, from £2,500 upwards to £15,000 depending on style and designer. This little number from Gucci caught my eye and has a clever somewhat instrumental branding design caught in its heart – but it probably wasn’t what the original intention of the ditty was.

gold ring

18 carat gold Gucci ring – on sale at £250 in stores in 2014

The first four days have all been water or woodland fowl, and the theme is continued through day five to day seven where the princely food of the swan swimming on water brings us to the end of a tour of the Seventeenth century table of delights.  So if not fool’s gold or the real McCoy what is being signed for on day five?

The riddling context of the song seems to suggest that the fifth day’s surprise package was a ringed pheasant – either one of the spectacular Chinese ring necks or the white collared pheasant which had been widely imported into Europeanised stock since Norman times.  Below is a couple of illustrations of the rather splendid  golden ringed pheasant which had been recently imported into England in the late 1760s.  This Chinese ringneck (Phasianus torquatus) – the “ring pheasant” – was imported from southern China by an English ambassador, in 1768 at a time when all things oriental was coming into vogue. The white collared pheasant (Phasianus colchicus) had been known across Europe and in England, through the years of importation of a variety of sub species following on from the sub globalisation of the market in fowl through Roman eco-imperialism, and continued in northern Europe through the Norman connection of culinary traditions north of the mediterranean, and finally reached its apex with the explorations of the seventeenth century re-connecting the feasting tables of China with those of Europe.

A brace of pheasant in happier times

A brace of pheasant in happier times

These Chinese golden ringed pheasants were introduced into Europe in the mid 1760's a present in England by 1768

These Chinese golden ringed pheasants were introduced into Europe in the mid 1760’s a present in England by 1768

Pheasants have been an important part of British culinary history and a mark of priveleged eating for many centuries however, with some historians of gastronomy marking the origin of this popular game bird to the presence of the Roman occupation of Britain – connecting food sources with Imperial Rome’s expansion into Asia under the colonising prowess of Alexander the Great (356 – 323 BC).  In Rochester – recently championing a UK independence ticket returning the former conservative MP Mark Reckless, had in former times a considerable debt to pay to the culinary tastes of the Norman cuisine where in 1089 the monks of Rochester received from Bishop Randulfus who sent them 16 pheasants, 30 geese, 300 hens, 1,000 lampreys, 1,000 eggs, four salmon and six sheaves of wheat.  The intention of everything would have been to enrich in either the short or long term the ability of the monks to entertain others, and feed themselves.  A veritable DHL delivery that day – from a thoroughly European ecclesial hierarch.

A record exists relating to the monks of Rochester who, in 1089, received from Bishop Randulfus
Read more at http://www.thefield.co.uk/features/the-history-of-the-pheasant-22364#wGxy6gPovUt7HXtb.99
pheasants 1995 hanging

Two male ringed pheasants, in a still life – reminding us all as to the main reason why pheasants have been farmed over the centuries in Abbeys, woodlands, and commons.

Intriguingly it is recorded that the last meal which Archbishop Thomas Becket (1120 -1170- AD) took before he died whilst celebrating mass at Canterbury Cathedral was that of pheasant – though it wasn’t food poisoning which took him and there is no record as to whether french fries were the side dish of choice, though he had recently returned from several years enforced holiday in France.  It was only a matter of months after his return that he was bladed down in an horrendous knife crime in the sanctuary at Canterbury Cathedral whilst he was facing down a conflict with Henry II over the ‘rights’ of the church to self governance – and separate jurisdiction.  A struggle which continues to this day over recent changes in national legislation on same-sex marriage, and has only recently concluded over the rights to equal employment of women into priesthood and the episcopacy – but I disgress.

2014-07-16 16.27.17

A sculpture in the grounds of St Paul’s London of the last moments of the Rt Revd Thomas a Becket – Archbishop of Canterbury and Chancellor of the Realm – sworded down by four emissaries from the King’s Court in 1170 –

But before I am brought back to the subject of gifts on the fifth day,  which brought us into the woodlands of pheasant trapping, netting, and cross bowing,  one final mention of some German import into this festal sport of killing pheasants, and sending the resultant brace of birds to one’s true love.  Traditionally the British have been somewhat controlled in the method of hunting the pheasant, with once the licence to start killing the birds had been granted by Henry I to the

Abbot of Amesbury near Stone-henge the right to kill pheasants in 1100, shortly after the abbey was founded, Abbeys across the country starting to take up farming and feasting on pheasant with some alacrity. In fact some of the clearest indications of feasting on pheasants seem to have been taken forward by ecclesial hierarchy with the inauguration banquet of Neville the Archbishop of York in 1465 bringing to table 200 pheasants, 12 porpoises and seals, 104 peacocks, 400 swans, 500 stags, 2,000 geese, 4,000 mallard and teal and six boar, and a range of other exotic culinary treats – but no pear tree in transcript to round off the explosion of wild life expunged for that particular feast on that day.

The process of enclosure in England  which took place from the fourteenth century but gathered formalised pace in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries brought the raising and shooting of pheasants to the landed gentry.  They developed a method of walking forward –   walking through the low cover in which the pheasant lay to  ‘flush’ the birds up into their typical low ‘escape’ flight with spaniels, or to walk over areas with their servants beating, or following where setters or pointers had marked the way to raise the birds in similar manner shotgun in hand.

A new method of pheasant shoot emerged in Britain in the mid nineteenth century. The pheasant ‘battue’,  shown to great effect in the Christmas 2014 Downton Abbey special, was a continental import from Germany, brought across along with the Christmas tree by Prince Albert in the 1840’s and embedded in the customs of the houses of Victoria.  Her latter day family adopted the new techniques with some gusto particularly in Sandringham where her heir Edward Albert, took driving pheasants into awaiting gunfire into the new culture of city bucks coming to cut their teeth at the shoot and to define themselves with the establishment.  It flourished with the new technology of the more efficient quick loading double barreled Breech loading shotgun,  which capitalised on ‘driven’ birds beaten towards an awaiting battery of invited or paid for guns under set covers in the field.
King James VI of Scotland later James I of England would have shuddered at the transformation of the sport into such killing fields. In 1594 he had legislated to protect pheasants and other species from being taken by the use of firearms in an attempt to protect the species.  By the end of the nineteenth century, young bloods of the new aristocracy of both land and industrial wealth, created their peer pecking order in status through how many pheasants they had bagged at the end of a country shoot.
With the male’s wonderful plumage a scarlet burst of beauty in the midst of a cold winters day,  its hung head over fencing, or in the back of a stacked land rover has always a sadness in the thud of another brace with their life interrupted.  Paradoxically, this beautiful bird raised for a  double bottom line, the highly lucrative gastronomic market and high-end leisure sport,  has resulted in the ring necked pheasant now being one of the few birds not on the RSPB endangered species lists;  however unsavoury the new means of semi- industrialised slaughter which awaits most chicks raised in pens across Europe might be.

And the meaning if we go down the catechetical route?  These are said to be the first Five Books of the Old Testament, known as the Torah or the Pentateuch – and the five golden rings as shown in the illustration of the riddles and rhymes for the Nursery where this wonderful song first emerges in 1780 in England might make one choose to head down this route rather than the golden rings of the pheasant heading one to a laden table.

golden rings original

Five golden rings from the illustration in the original published collection of the Twelve Days of Christmas 1780.

  The riddle continues.  And a fine day of feasting to you on this fifth day.  Ahead lies geese laying and swans swimming – until we get to maids a milking on the eighth day when we shall rejoin the ditty and consider the mortals mentioned as we meander up to the twelfth day.

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Twelve days of Christmas Part II – French hens and calling birds

Yesterday saw some Faverolles bundled up and sent through from my true love.  Faverolles for those not initiated in the ways of hens – are an excellent dual economy bird, being both slightly weightier than the lightweight hybrids from which the majority of us receive our eggs – free range or caged – and thus much favoured in earlier times as a good hedged bet between reliable egg production – about 4 a week – and if needs must a hen which will happily furnish a table of 5 with a healthy portion of meat protein.

three favorelles

Which brings me to the unexpected guests who rocked up to see me some time ago, announced by our nightwatchman at 3.00am – with a hearty  ‘kuwakaribisha Askofu’ accompanied by vigorous rattling of the ‘anti vol’ ironwork which was placed as a protective measure against ‘bandits’ on all our windows, and hammering on the door with his trusty ‘fimbo’.

Already I can hear some cultural curtains being ripped open – with google searches on swahili tapped into the pop up pane, and concern about the class warfare about to be announced with ‘nightwatchmen’ as part of the writer’s entourage. We are suddenly not in Bethlehem 2,000 years ago but a mere twenty years away from a chilly midnight hour in the north eastern reaches of D.R Congo – then Zaire under the infamous scoundrel and widely alleged American political henchman President Mobutu.

Outside in the compound a LandRover somewhat worse for wear, had spluttered to a halt, having survived the pot holed road from Boga to Bunia, exhaust pipe secured by string, gaffa tape and banana leaves.  From out of its darkened and poorly sprung interior emerged, a weary load of deacons, evangelists, a couple of wives, a sunday school teacher and an Archdeacon.  Their driver with the unlikely but widely baptised name ‘God given’ (Dieu Donne) was talking animatedly with our nightwatchman Rafeli, and the august Askofu heaved his frame out of the passenger seat, replete with huge sacks of peanuts, cassava and sweet potato, amechoka sana! (one very tired and indeed hungry Bishop).

I stumbled into my kikwembe, remembered that I was in Zaire and not Leeds, that the nearest Sainsburies was over a thousand miles away, fetched a couple of hens from the coop down by our matete fenced allotment in the garden, lit the charcoal cooker made out of a couple of upturned oil drums, and broke open a fresh plastic container replete with sticky dark orange palm oil.  Breakfast came early,  5.00 am when all was cooked and brought to table at some personal cost and effort from all the woken household, that post-Christmas morning.

So three favourelles on the third day of Christmas – either cockerells ready for table, or hens with their egg production well in flow – would have been very welcome gifts in at the stable at Bethlehem – without a doubt with the impromptu visitors rocking up over the days following Jesus’ birth.  And in the spirit of the catechism referenced in the introduction to this charming Ephiphanytide riddle the 3 favourelles – a quintessential French hen – represent the key virtues referenced by St Paul in 1 Corinthians of Faith Hope and Love (or Charity) which any young child learning her catechism would be required to know in preparation for her first communion.

And just before we move onto what appeared today in my post box – the fact that the rhyme references explicitly FRENCH hens means that this nursery rhyme, catechetical mnemonic and now wonderfully embedded popular carol in our national consciousness is most definitely of French origin – yet another timely reminder of how deeply intertwined  French and British cultural history  is, and what close neighbours all of us in the European Union are.


Now to the 4 calling birds.  The 1780 version had Colly birds – colly literally meaning black – which immediately brings to mind a culinary based nursery rhyme with four and twenty black – or ‘colly’ birds baked in a pie.  We are not told whether these four Colly birds were alive and kicking or as in sing a song of sixpence – temporarily silenced before the pie in which they were place ‘ was opened’ !

By the nineteenth century, yellow became the new black, for the fourth day’s  gift from the true love.  ‘Canary’, ‘coloured’ and even ‘curly’ feathered birds were introduced to liven up the quality and colour  of the understated fourth day  – and by the time that the current tune to which we sing the twelve days of Christmas, had been introduced by Frederic Austin in 1909 – ‘calling birds’ became the new acceptable, and apparently more enticing gift than some ruffled ravens or out of sorts blackbirds.

the four evangels

And the catechetical allusion?  Of course whether singing or clothed in priestly black attire – these four colly birds represent in the canon of the catechetical trope the four gospels of Matthew, Mark,  Luke and John –  simples.  Tomorrow – five golden rings may not be all that they seem!

If you are enjoying this saunter through the twelve days – do share with friends on FB or tweet –  and do let me know what thoughts and memories are triggered as you walk through these wonderful verses which have accompanied so many of our Christmases over the years.

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The twelve days of Christmas – the first two days

twelve days

I am writing this on Boxing day – which is in the calendar set up by the Twelve days of Christmas the second day – when ‘My True Love sends to me’ two turtle doves – and it got me thinking what on earth is the meaning behind all this gifting of small fowl – with tomorrow – the third day of Christmas all set for a gift of three french hens –  why not a replacement turkey for instance?

The Twelve days of Christmas start on Christmas day and move forward to the feast of Epiphany when the three wise men from the East rock up to the Stable in Bethlehem. It has been recorded as early as the Fathers of the Eastern Orthodox Church – with St Ephrem referencing it in the fourth century (306AD – 373AD).  However the song itself might not have begun life as a carol but some form of forfeit game suggested by its inclusion in the English book for children ‘Mirth without mischief’ circa 1780.  The general idea would have been if this was the case, of a form of said roundel where a forfeit would be paid if there was a mistake made in the cascading verses which built in complexity.

However the range of its origins, it emerged as a clear favouriteas a game to be enjoyed on the twelfth night before epiphany.  The partridge if it was perching in a pear tree suggests a french origin (as do the three french hens) as the red legged french partridge is regularly found perching in pear trees in a way that the ‘common’ british partridge would have had difficulty undertaking!  Otherwise the meaning of the pear tree, might be a mispronunciation of partridge in french – une Perdrix – which was corrupted by vernacularisation and poor understanding of the french origins into Pear Tree.  Whichever route one decides to venture down, there is clearly a french origin to the poem, which became transformed as it moved across the channel, entered into British parlour games  and morphed,  somewhere mid nineteenth century,  into a popular carol, offering a fabulous pastiche of wild game, farm yard flocks,  eccentric behaviour amongst musicians and the landed gentry, for artists young and old across the last one hundred and fifty years to try their interpretative hands at.

But why the  Partridge as the primary gift from the true love?  The partridge could be a metaphor for the protecting love of God in the gift of the vulnerable Christ child born in a manger over 2,000 years ago.  Picking up the theme of Jesus weeping over the upcoming destruction of Jerusalem, when he had become the itinerant prophet calling a radicalised group of followers to a messianic challenge to the Roman,  colonised state power of Herod’s court in Jerusalem and the established Jewish temple and its various theological protagonists (the Sadducees and Pharisees with their different reading on the afterlife amongst other key items) – Jesus states that he has often yearned to protect Israels citizens like a mother hen – gathering and folding her young under her protective wings.


The female patridge is known to protect her nest or her chicks from predators by luring them away through feigning a broken foot or wing thus protecting her offspring. However other allusions in the medieval bestiary also suggest the Partridge as a type of satan luring away sinners from God – as many partridges are known to steal the young from other’s nests.  The narrative also captures the importance of returning to our true sense and return to the loving heart of God – our true mother. Whichever reading one takes the Partridge in a pear tree, is the first gift of Christmas day, and has been taken to represent the gift of the Christ child alongside a more straight forward gift of a french red legged partridge perched in a potted pear tree.

Which sets up the second day nicely – because if what we now have as a firmly rooted carol in our British carolling tradition with music added into the mix at some point during the nineteenth century – the first recorded by James O Halliwell in 1842 ( and published in his Nursery Rhymes of England 1846) the background of the lyrics lies in the dark earth of Europe undergoing Reformation in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.  What we may well be singing our way through each Christmas season is an early children’s catechism, with the birds, and other gifts being brought by our true love – being the gifts given by God through the various revelations of the Old and New Testament, and decisively on the first day, the gift of Christ in a manger.

So if this is indeed is the background of this wonderfully bizarre and gloriously variegated Christmas gift list for the twelve days – the second day of two turtle doves immediately concentrate the mind not only on the two testaments which constitute the literary backdrop for Christianity, the Old and New Testament, but also remind us of the covenant which God makes to Abraham which is sealed by the gift of the turtle doves / pigeons in Genesis 15:9.

But this reading of the twelve days as a catechism for Catholic children in Britain  when the teaching of Catholic faith became challenging in Britain and some of the other protestant areas of Europe (1558 until 1829),  is a very recent interpretation, first floated in 1979, a Canadian hymnologist, Hugh D. McKellar, and subsequently picked up by other on line blogging Catholic priests.  The hard evidence for any of the etymology simply isn’t there – apart from its appearance in the 1780’s in a book of parlour/nursery games. We are left seeking to make sense of a wonderful set of riddling gifts, which are sent for table during the first seven days of Christmas when we move to ladies dancing and lords a leaping. But more of that in my next post.

A happy first two days of Christmas to you all, and pleasingly not a duck or turkey in sight.

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No neutrality in the fight for justice.

The title for this blog is taken from a line in a speech made by the former Prime Minister of Pakistan – Benazir Bhutto.  Bhutto close up

She delivered this speech at the opening day of the 1995 Beijing UN Women’s conference which marked a significant turning point for the global agenda for gender equality and you can read about it here http://www.unwomen.org/en/how-we-work/intergovernmental-support/world-conferences-on-women.95 Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing – and it deserves to be better known. 

The Beijing Declaration and the Platform for Action,  was adopted unanimously by 189 countries, is a key platform for women’s empowerment and considered as one of the foundational global policy documents on gender equality. It set strategic objectives and actions for the advancement of women and the achievement of gender equality in 12 critical areas of concern, which still inform Gender mainstreaming

beijinc conference SUDAN delegation

and equality measures for politicians, international development agencies

and women’s rights activists across the globe.

Here is what Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto had to say about the situation confronting women globally in the last decade of the twentieth century. Her perspective on social justice, equity, women’s right to access education, the true point of religion, law and economics to empower women to take their place alongside men in an equitable distribution of the world’s goods and resources holds power for today’s world seven years after her death (December 2007 whilst re-contesting elections in Pakistan) and 19 years after she first delivered it.

Benazir Bhutto Speech – Male Domination Of Women

Speech delivered by the Prime Minister of Pakistan
UN World Conference on Women
 Beijing, 4 September 1995

As the first woman ever elected to head an Islamic nation, I feel a special responsibility about issues that relate to women. In addressing the new exigencies of the new century, we must translate dynamic religion into a living reality. We must live by the true spirit of Islam, not only by its rituals. And for those of you who may be ignorant of Islam, cast aside your preconceptions about the role of women in our religion.

Contrary to what many of you may have come to believe, Islam embraces a rich variety of political, social and cultural traditions. The fundamental ethos of Islam is tolerance, dialogue, and democracy.

Just as in Christianity and Judaism, we must always be on guard for those who will exploit and manipulate the Holy Book for their own narrow political ends, who will distort the essence of pluralism and tolerance for their own extremist agendas.

To those who claim to speak for Islam but who would deny to women our place in society, I say:

The ethos of Islam is equality, equality between the sexes. There is no religion on earth that, in its writing and teachings, is more respectful of the role of women in society than Islam.

My presence here, as the elected woman prime minister of a great Muslim country, is testament to the commitment of Islam to the role of women in society. It is this tradition of Islam that has empowered me, has strengthened me, has emboldened me.

It was this heritage that sustained me during the most difficult points in my life, for Islam forbids injustice; injustice against people, against nations, against women.

It denounces inequality as the gravest form of injustice.

It enjoins its followers to combat oppression and tyranny.

It enshrines piety as the sole criteria for judging humankind.

It shuns race, colour, and gender as a basis of distinction amongst fellowmen.

When the human spirit was immersed in the darkness of the Middle Ages, Islam proclaimed equality between men and women. When women were viewed as inferior members of the human family, Islam gave them respect and dignity.

When women were treated as chattels, the Prophet of Islam (Peace Be Upon Him) accepted them as equal partners.

Islam codified the rights of women. The Koran elected their status to that of men. It guaranteed their civic, economic, and political rights. It recognised their participative role in nation building.

Sadly, the Islamic tenets regarding women were soon discarded. In Islamic society, as in other parts of the world, their rights were denied. Women were maltreated, discriminated against, and subjected to violence and oppression, their dignity injured and their role denied.

Women became the victims of a culture of exclusion and male dominance. Today more women than men suffer from poverty, deprivation, and discrimination. Half a billion women are illiterate. Seventy percent of the children who are denied elementary education are girls.

The plight of women in the developing countries is unspeakable. Hunger, disease, and unremitting toil is their fate. Weak economic growth and inadequate social support systems affect them most seriously and directly.

They are the primary victims of structural adjustment processes which necessitate reduced state funding for health, education, medical care, and nutrition. Curtailed resource flows to these vital areas impact most severely on the vulnerable groups, particularly women and children.

This, Madam Chairperson, is not acceptable. It offends my religion. It offends my sense of justice and equity. Above all, it offends common sense.

That is why Pakistan, the women of Pakistan, and I personally have been fully engaged in recent international efforts to uphold women’s rights. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights enjoins the elimination of discrimination against women.

Bhutto voting

The Nairobi Forward Looking Strategies provide a solid framework for advancing women’s rights around the world. But the goal of equality, development, and peace still eludes us.

Sporadic efforts in this direction have failed. We are satisfied that the Beijing Platform of Action encompasses a comprehensive approach toward the empowerment of women. This is the right approach and should be fully supported.

Women cannot be expected to struggle alone against the forces of discrimination and exploitation. I recall the words of Dante, who reminded us that “The hottest place in Hell is reserved for those who remain neutral in times of moral crisis.”

Today in this world, in the fight for the liberation of women, there can be no neutrality.

My spirit carries many a scar of a long and lonely battle against dictatorship and tyranny. I witnessed, at a young age, the overthrow of democracy, the assassination of an elected prime minister, and a systematic assault against the very foundations of a free society.

But our faith in democracy was not broken. The great Pakistani poet and philosopher Dr. Allama Iqbal says, “Tyranny cannot endure forever.” It did not. The will of our people prevailed against the forces of dictatorship

But, my dear sisters, we have learned that democracy alone is not enough.

Freedom of choice alone does not guarantee justice.

Equal rights are not defined only by political values.

Social justice is a triad of freedom, an equation of liberty:

Justice is political liberty.

Justice is economic independence.

Justice is social equality.

Delegated sisters, the child who is starving has no human rights.

The girl who is illiterate has no future.

The woman who cannot plan her life, plan her family, plan a career, is fundamentally not free….

I am determined to change the plight of women in my country. More than sixty million of our women are largely sidelined.
It is a personal tragedy for them. It is a national catastrophe for my nation. I am determined to harness their potential to the gigantic task of nation building….

I dream of a Pakistan in which women contribute to their full potential. I am conscious of the struggle that lies ahead. But, with your help, we shall persevere. Allah willing, we shall succeed.

Benazir Bhutto 1995 Beijin

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No Sex Please – we are Church of England Bishops

This was a post which I guest wrote for Ellee Seymour’s pages back in January 2013.http://elleeseymour.com/2013/01/05/no-sex-please-were-gay-british-bishops/ In the light of recent developments here in Britain and in Russia, which I have blogged on above – the posting of this piece here will enable the line of thinking which I am developing to have some coherence for those just coming to the debate – and the important issues of where Religion, Equality, Justice and the vision of Western Political Liberal Democracies now sit in relation to each another. Enjoy reading and creative just thinking.  June 2013.

Just when we thought that the Church of England had made its final assault on civil society’s sense of modernity and inclusion by failing to support women bishops, here comes another twist which is beyond belief.

The latest House of Bishops announcement made today http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-20914799 effectively ends the ban on an openly gay man becoming bishop – as long as he (an it still at time of writing is most definitely a he)  remains celibate, and repents of any gay sexual relationships which he might have engaged in before his appointment. This interrogation on sexual practice does not form part of the standard procedures for appointment for a ‘straight’ male bishop, and, as the Christian writer Symon Hill, also the associate director of the think-tank Ekklesia, noted in an interview with The Independent this week,  the Church of England is still in the position of enforcing discrimination against both homosexual and female clergy.

“Unfortunately this is being presented as progress,” he said, ”but it’s really another announcement of discrimination It’s saying straight bishops can have sex but gay bishops can’t. Celibacy is a gift from God. Some people are called to it, others are not. It’s not a second best option for second best clergy.”

The Rt Revd Graham James, Bishop of Norwich, said by way of explanation of the

The Bishop of Norwich Rt Revd Graham Jones - out straight with two children

The Bishop of Norwich Rt Revd Graham Jones – out straight married with two children

extraordinary announcement, that “The House (of Bishops) believed it would be unjust to exclude from consideration for the episcopate anyone seeking to live fully in conformity with the church’s teaching on sexual ethics or other areas of personal life and discipline.”

The challenge now is how the Church of England can engage in a mature manner and theological insight, rather than political expediency. It has engineered its own precipitous exclusion from the gay marriage legislation, with ‘religious freedom’ protected via a “quadruple lock” announced by Culture Secretary Maria Miller.  This lock was forged by the government as a response to the vociferous opposition religious leaders within the established and the Catholic churches, to the idea of offering the sacrament of marriage to same sex partners. The “quadruple lock” effectively closes out the liturgy of the Church of England, its premises and its clerics from the performance of a marriage service for gay couples. The Equality Act itself will be altered so that a discrimination claim cannot be brought where there is a refusal on the part of any organisation or individual to marry a same-sex couple.

Rt. Rev. Mary Douglas Glasspool Eighth bishop suffragan of the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles Out Gay and contributing into the life of the Church in America.

Rt. Rev. Mary Douglas Glasspool Eighth bishop suffragan of the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles Out Gay and contributing into the life of the Church in America.

‘Crime against nature’ was an old English euphemism for sexual transgression. It is presumably these ‘crimes’ which an aspirant bishop will have to confess to, or deny having partaken of, as part of their assessment process, before an appointment can be made. The theological and ecclesial angst surrounding homosexuality on the part of religious leaders, emerges explicitly or implicitly in statements with a feint towards either the ‘unnaturalness’ of homophilia itself or its realisation in explicit sexual acts.

That would-be bishops who are gay must promise to stay celibate whether in a civil partnership or not in order to secure their appointment is an extraordinary and thoroughly unhelpful fudge. The fact that sexual congress is congruent with professed fidelity, which is what ‘validates’ sex for their ‘straight’ ‘married’ colleagues, and forms an integral part of building a relationship of companionship and self-giving love for any human being in a relationship configured by desire, regardless of sexual orientation, is ignored.

A theologically tuned-in leadership could find in all the recent energy emerging from gay and lesbian communities across the world, seeking parity in religiously or state sanctioned relationships a wonderful source of fresh insights into the ministry and praxis of their founder. After all, Jesus was not the offspring of a conventional heterosexual marriage, and his teaching on the nature of familial relationships was thoroughly disruptive of any model of ‘nuclear patriarchal household’ we might care to erect.

When we consider the nature of relationships now being entered into by gay people seeking parity through marriage, civil partnership, adoption and IVF rights, we see a vibrant display of what is an irreversible diversity, transforming wider society’s understanding of the legitimate relations of gender, sexuality and family. It is a pity that the leadership of the Church of England is currently struggling to find a way to interpret and bring any theological insight to how this diversity and life force streaming out of communities for too long silenced, degraded, humiliated, and demonised, is part of the movement of God’s creative, life affirming and transformational presence in the twenty first century.

It is simply not good enough for the Church to continue to play out at any level the transcript of ‘loving the sinner but hating the sin’.  Any conception of homosexuality as some form of ‘abnormality’ chosen or inflicted, is embedded in an outmoded view of homosexual orientation fixed somewhere in the latter half of the nineteenth century, when Karl Maria Kertbeny first coined the phrase in 1868.

It is time that the Church of England, and all other religious organisations, took note of what a range of scientific disciplines ranging from anthropology, zoology, neurophysiology and psychiatry has disclosed over the last century. Homosexual desire which plays a central part in configuring a homophilic man or woman is part of the normal distribution of human society.

Eva Brunne - out gay, civil partnered, a mother and a Bishop - holding the Stolkholm Crozier after her consecration in 2009

Eva Brunne – out gay, civil partnered, a mother and a Bishop – holding the Stockholm Crozier after her consecration in 2009

It is time that the Church of England played straight with theology, science and its own demographic.  Some clergy, some laity, some theologians, some bishops, some churchwardens, some would be ordinands, and some archdeacons are gay. It is time to address the way we live now without having to provoke a fresh searing satire from the hands of a contemporary Trollope, or to enforce any further suffering, shadow living, early retirements, blocked participation, half-truths, inauthenticity or needless stress on those in our communities who are gay.  It is time to get over old shibboleths, surmount ignorance, acknowledge the Body’s grace, review the church’s position on gay marriage before it’s too late and ordain those to the Episcopacy whom God is calling from the splendid diversity of those created, male and female, straight and gay in God’s image, without further prejudice.

As the Stonewall poster campaign has been declaring for the last four years on billboards around the UK – some people are gay, get over it.

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