#MeToo: A Hard Freedom To Bear

I’ve been working out if or how to write about #metoo.  The hashtag was started over ten years ago by Tarana Burke to enable women in underprivileged communities who did not have access to rape crisis centers or counseling, to be able to share their stories of having been subjected to sexual assault.  In the wake of the New Yorker publishing details of Harvey Weinstein’s sexual harassment and assault of women across Hollywood (over a number of decades), actress Alyssa Milano encouraged women to tweet their stories of sexual harassment.  A million people have tweeted using the hashtag in the last few days, with many people also using it on Facebook.

 

The most wonderful Vicky Walker has written over at Premier “Harvey Weinstein isn’t just Hollywood. Men like him exist in our churches too”.  Vicky’s piece, which included her own personal experiences of having been subjected to harassment by Christian men, has been commented on by a number of men.  Peter tells us that, I am concerned that this article is actually approaching the whole issue from the wrong perspective.” (What wisdom Paul has…)  Whilst Paul tells us that, Plenty of conjecture and personal anecdote but nowhere near enough sources to properly level the claim with credibility.”  (I’m hoping Paul is going to commission a nationwide survey on harassment in churches to help us get the data he thinks is acceptable.)

 

Another Paul (not the apostle) tells us Vicky’s article is, “probably the worst article I’ve ever read on Premier Christianity – ever. A Hollywood mogul is unmasked as a serial sexual predator and for some random and completely mysterious reason, this is seen as an excuse to unleash a vitriolic ‘j’accuse’ tirade against an alleged culture of systemic, misogynistic abuse within the church. No facts, no statistics, no case studies not even a suggestion of a cogent or logically coherent argument, just a bunch of subjective generalisations, personal anecdotes, false equivalence, question begging and good old fashioned axe-grinding. Dreadful.” 

 

It would be easier to see these comments as the exception.  To believe that the men expressing their horror at #metoo and those writing about their horror are the majority.  But they’re not.  They are mainly Paul, Peter and of course there’s all the men who actually perpetrate abuse towards women and girls.

 

I’ve seen a couple of well-intentioned high profile Christian women tweeting about #metoo with the hope of change, that out of women’s pain we will see change and hope.  I wish I could agree with them, but I can’t.

 

When we see the pain pouring out of women, how women are opening themselves up, offering their pain, in solidarity, in strength and in vulnerability, we want to believe that change is coming.  That no one will be able to ignore 1 million tweets, or the many Facebook posts that are being shared.  We cannot bear pointless pain, we want it to have Meaning.  And for those who have found their shame diminish in sharing, it is not pointless, and for those who have found community, solidarity or sisterhood, it is not meaningless.

 

However, we must not be under any illusions that #metoo is going to change men’s violence and abuse.  It is not.  And that is why I am finding this week so difficult.  For some, this critical mass seems to be an opportunity to hope for change.  But not for me.

 

I was speaking at a Christian event a few months ago.  After giving the basics of gendered socialisation and statistics about male violence, I went on to share my story of how my ex-husband abused me.  Afterwards, one man approached me to tell me how wrong I was, that men are better than women at working, which is why men are paid more.  A few minutes later another man approached me, he was seething, “You’re harming people.”  He said this to me in a voice that sounded like he was trying not to shout.  “You’re harming people and you’re going to go on harming people whilst you keep doing this.”  He spoke at me for about five minutes before turning away and leaving the building, without giving me a chance to respond.  A woman approached me.  I burst into tears just as she began to thank me for my talk.  I hated that I was reinforcing the emotional weakness of women.  After I pulled myself together, I told the remaining few people about these two men.  They started suggesting ways I could have changed my talk to make it acceptable to such men.  The worship leader asked me, “So what exactly is the point of what you do?”  I told him I was doing it in obedience to God.  “Well you’ve certainly made us all think,” he mused.  “And that’s the point of what I do,” I said to him.

 

I’ve been doing this work for ten years.  I’d like to tell you that being an expert in domestic abuse, telling my story, providing robust data and offering theological analysis would be transforming things.  But I can’t tell you that.  Because it isn’t.  People are invested in keeping the status quo and it doesn’t matter how many women rip open their wounds and share the brutality that was done to them, it will not make the world listen. The world is invested in not listening.  People’s lives feel safer that way.  Feel easier.  As I see brave women bearing their all and telling us their truth, I cry.  Because I want to live in a world where their stories matter and where the critical mass of #metoo shakes the world.  But it won’t.  And that is the brutal truth.  Women’s pain doesn’t matter.

 

I continue to speak and bear my all, not because it will change the world, but because I can’t stop.  As a Christian, I do it with the assurance that there is more than just this.  I have so much admiration for my sisters who do this work without the belief in any greater power, most of the time it is my hope in God that keeps me going.  Occasionally transformation does come, in individual hearts and minds, and I keep going.  Because this is my call.  And it is terrible and awesome and holy.  But this week, it is almost unbearable.

 

I desperately want for there to be healing and wholeness and change.  I want for men to change and children to be raised differently.  I want the police to take sexual and domestic violence seriously.  I want every perpetrator brought to justice.  I want women’s services to be fully funded and I want every person who witnesses male entitlement to challenge it.  I want all girls to be in school and for female genitals to never be mutilated.  I want all girls to have the same chances in life as boys, and for boys to no longer be enculturated into violence and destruction.  I want governments to value the work women do and for men to share emotional labour.  I want women to be safe and for men to view women as their equals.

 

Women have been saying this for generations, and every generation we have to start saying it again.  I’m only 33, but I’m already tired.  How the foremothers have kept going for so long, I do not know.  But even though I know change is not coming in some big wave, I will continue, as hard as this week is to bear.  I can’t stop.  Once we know the truth, it sets us free, and we are free indeed.  But what a hard freedom it is to bear.

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Those Who Wait: A book worth reading

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Today is the launch of Tanya Marlow’s new book “Those Who Wait”.  I was grateful to Tanya for offering an early release copy to read in advance of the book being published today.  And so I thought I’d blog about the book and let you know why you might want to read it too.

 

Tanya’s story is one of challenge and waiting.  Having waited ten years to have her ill health diagnosed as ME, she has spent the subsequent years waiting to get better.  For seven years she has been housebound.  Within a Christian culture which often assumes suffering is something to be prayed away and delivered from, it can be extremely hard to cope with the ongoing reality of ill physical health, mental ill health or other difficulties which make life difficult.

 

As I write this I am dealing with having had a plethora of viruses which have reduced my capacity immensely over the last month, I am currently in therapy seeking to deal with the challenging parts of my history, whilst in my wider family there is stuff going on that is both upsetting and frustrating, we have one child with behavioural issues, an angsty teenager and are involved in a family court case regarding our third child.  Alongside this, the ongoing coverage of powerful men who have sexually abused women and girls has left me feeling rather despondent.  Their courage and the subsequent opportunity it has provided for other women to share their stories should be celebrated.  But to be honest, I just feel so despairing, knowing that nothing is going to structurally change, and as we’ve already seen, the women will be blamed, the men will be justified and the colluders will put out shiny PR statements to reframe their collusion as ignorance.  Given this context, the advance copy of “Those Who Wait” was a real gift, in this time of challenge.

 

Although Tanya’s story is one of waiting, “Those Who Wait” is not a personal memoir, but rather a Biblical study on the lives of four characters from the Bible; Sarah, Isaiah, John the Baptist and Mary (Jesus’ mother).  Approaching the text with an evangelical theological perspective, Tanya has reimagined the stories of each character, from a first-person perspective.  Sarah as the woman who waited on God’s promise, Isaiah the prophet who waited, John the prophet whose prophecy was fulfilled but not in the ways he wanted, and Mary who waited for the birth of the Messiah.

 

Each character’s story is split into four “scenes” with questions for reflection included.  The book has been designed to function for either an individual, or within a small group context.  Tanya suggests that given the season of Advent is one of waiting, it could be used over Advent with a church, small group or with a Christian book group.  She has included various prayers and other materials for reflecting on the stories.

 

Within the Biblical narrative, it is easy to forget that the stories that take up a few verses may have happened over decades.  The matter-of-factness of the text can prevent us recognising the human characters within it.  Yet Tanya’s retelling of the stories prompted me to see the Biblical characters in a new way.  Particularly with John the Baptist’s narrative, various things within the Biblical text clicked into place and made sense, whilst Isaiah’s narrative was hugely encouraging to me, as someone called to have a prophetic voice.

 

Overall, the book gave me a fresh experience of Biblical stories that are very familiar to me.  And even though it is not a book filled with answers for those who are waiting, the Biblical characters seem to become those who sit with us in our waiting, sharing their stories and encouraging us that we are not alone.  When life is hard (as it is for me at the minute), those who provide instructions on how to cope, or offer me well-meaning solutions are often less helpful than those who tell me their stories and show me that they made it through.

 

Tanya’s book offers a fresh perspective on the Biblical narratives of Sarah, Isaiah, John and Mary and provides opportunities to see God at work as we wait and when we face challenges in life.  I’m thankful to Tanya for writing this book and am hopeful it will help many of those who are waiting.

 

You can buy it here:

 

Amazon http://amzn.to/2gaik89*

Wordery https://wordery.com/those-who-wait-tanya-marlow-97819107868…

Waterstones https://www.waterstones.com/…/th…/tanya-marlow/9781910786864

 

*The RRP is £9.99. BUT until Oct 26th, it’s available from Amazon for £6.99 as a special introductory offer, with the ebook reduced to £3.99.  

Academia and Betraying Myself

The last year has seen me taking my first steps into academia.  I began a Masters with London School of Theology (LST) in September 2016 and next week I embark on the second year of what has now become a three-year project.  I have really struggled with the year and I thought perhaps writing a blog reflecting on my experiences might help me gain some clarity and who knows, someone else might benefit from my ponderings!

 

My route into academia has hardly been conventional.  In 2016 I won the Sermon of the Year competition and the prize was free study at LST.  In looking at the options, I concluded a Masters would both be the best value I could gain from the prize and also would be an exciting opportunity to gain an academic perspective.

 

I don’t have a first degree.  Whilst others my age were going off to university at 18, I had a small being growing in my uterus.  Even before that, the idea of university hadn’t appealed to me.  I am from a northern working class family with middle class aspirations (my parents liked Gilbert and Sullivan and were professional musicians), but no one in my family had ever been to university.  When I left secondary school I wanted to do performing arts but my parents insisted I needed to be able to get a proper job, and so as a female, who quite liked children, clearly the right option for me was a childcare qualification.  Though I didn’t dislike children, it turned out that working with them fulltime was VERY BORING.  My parents promised me that when I had the ability to get a Proper Job, then I could choose to do a performing arts course.

 

However, nobody foresaw that I would begin a relationship with a young man who would abuse me (let’s call him Alan).  They didn’t see that he would coerce me into sexual activity, damage me immeasurably and refuse to use contraception.  Nobody predicted I would be pregnant at 17 (at school I would have been voted Least Likely To Get Pregnant).  I found out my status would (according to the Daily Mail) become Scrounging Teen Mum the same week I finished the childcare course.

 

As a Scrounging Teen Mum it turned out I wanted to do everything I could to reject the stereotypes that I was sure were actually a true characterisation of every other teenage mother other than myself.  I didn’t go to the teen mum pre-natal courses because I knew that all the rest of them would be Scrounging Teen Mums and they would intimidate me with their blatantly low morals.  I wasn’t like them, I thought.  I was moral and good.  My moral goodness was evidenced by my engagement to Alan, the young man who was abusing me (an engagement heavily motivated by a desire to please God and become pure again).

 

I was due to get married two weeks before my due date.  Except two days before the wedding, I went into labour and the wedding was postponed, with me becoming a married woman two months before I turned 19.

 

At 21 my son was born 3 months prematurely after I was assaulted by Alan.  It was the practical implications of my son’s birth that enabled me to successfully separate from Alan, as he was treated in a hospital over an hour from where we lived.  There was a deep, abiding fear whilst we lived in hospital (my two and a half year old daughter lived in hospital with us).  This fear was that I had actually become a Scrounging Teen Mum, and worse still a Scrounging SINGLE Teenage Mum.  I no longer had a husband and stable relationship to point to which proved I wasn’t immoral and bad.  It didn’t matter that my husband had raped me, lied to me, cheated on me, became a registered sex offender for abusing teenage girls or that he pushed me to attempt suicide. The social capital I thought my marital status gave me made me feel able to counter the judgement I felt at being a teenage mother.  And as it turned out, maintaining that social capital resulted in my living in a hospital with a toddler and a tiny baby that kept nearly dying.

 

At first, when speaking to doctors who asked me where my baby’s father was, I would feel compelled to tell them he was currently my husband and that he was also a registered sex offender.  It felt this information would show them that I wasn’t a Scrounging Teenage Single Mum, but rather a person who had tried to make her marriage work, and that my husband was so awful that all my efforts weren’t enough.

 

However, I gradually discovered how much easier it is to live in a hospital with a toddler and a potentially dying baby, than to live with an abusive man.  It took over a year to become practically free from him (becoming emotionally and psychologically free is a much longer process).  In that year I reported him to the police for assaulting me and went through a full trial in which he was found not guilty.

 

I began to embrace being a single parent.  I began to see that other people’s views of me mattered a lot less than I had thought.  Rejecting the stereotypes and refusing to care if people judged me was hugely liberating.  By the time I remarried my son was two years old I became proud of my status as having been a teenage mother.  Proud of being married twice.  Because every time I refused to feel shame or judgement for being a Scrounging Teenage Single Mum, I was rejecting the social constructs that had kept me in a relationship with an abuser.  Over the years I’ve connected with loads of teenage mothers and unsurprisingly, the Daily Mail stereotype that took hold in the early noughties is not true.

 

You may be wondering how my experiences link with my Maters challenges.  My time as a single mother, rejecting the shame and judgement of society in relation to my status was hugely formative.  My identity is deeply rooted in being a working class, teenage single mother who defies anyone telling her she is not good enough.  And even though I remarried (unintentionally) and gradually fell into consultancy work (also unintentional) both of which moved me away from that status, I have been able to hold onto my roots and reject ideas that I needed to have an academic status or more than a childcare qualification to enable me to change the world (or the small bit of it that God has called me to).

 

When I deliver training or key note presentations, I will often finish by telling my story.  And the audience will be challenged by the seeming incongruity of a competent women who has a history of having been subjected to abuse.  This choice of vulnerability and a rejection of the professional veneer that we are often taught to have enables me to reveal people’s prejudices to them.  Their surprise that I have been subjected to abuse reveals that they have a category of people they imagine are victims, and competent professional is not within that category.

 

And yet, as I have been working on the Masters I have felt a constant resistance to the system, to the process and to the material.  Some of that is the dominance of white men who concluded ridiculous things (which my course tutor is open to addressing) and some of it is not having a background in theology.  Whilst it is also that I haven’t done a first degree and so feel like I am only hearing the second half of a conversation all the time.  But mostly, it is because I feel I am betraying a mindset that opened up liberation to me.  Every time I have to value an academic’s words over the words of someone uneducated I feel I am betraying the version of me that rejected societal prejudice.  And every male theologian I have to read leaves me feeling angry for all the women who had better ideas that nobody every listened to, and that my having to value him colludes with that system of ignoring women.  And every essay I write feels like stepping away from who I really am.

 

This week I spent 24 hours at a colloquium.  I applied to speak at it without knowing what a colloquium actually was, and then upon being accepted to speak I had to google it.  It’s basically an academic conference that’s not overly specialist.  It was great to be amongst people who had thought deeply about stuff and the discussions and content was really thought provoking.  However, it seemed that the difference between those attending who would define themselves as “academic” and me was that they all loved their subject, they loved learning, they loved thinking.  My experience of the Masters is more of endurance than love.

 

I love making a difference and challenging people and bringing about change.  I utilise any tools that will enable that to happen.  I have concluded that this Masters is likely to be a tool in what I do.  But I have yet work out how to love that tool.  Especially when it feels like a requirement of that tool is to betray myself and the way I assess something or someone as valuable.

 

It would be nice if this blog concluded in me working out how to love the tool, or how to move beyond a feeling of betraying myself, but I’m not there yet.  Perhaps I’ll write a follow up blog when I finally work out a way through!  But as for now, I hope my ponderings are thought provoking for others.

My News!

It’s been awhile since I wrote anything on here and it turns out this is actually my 100th post!  Life has been filled with study for a Masters, making space for a third child that we sort of inherited, working on various projects, publishing a Grove Booklet and a whole load of writing for Christian Today, and some other websites.  However, I have news to share and so a blog seemed a good way to share it!

You may or may not be aware of what I do when I’m not having Opinions on Twitter, but basically it involves being a specialist in addressing lots of different aspects of male violence towards women.  I write resources, deliver training, write training, speak at events and other such activities.  In just under a decade I have delivered programmes for women who have been subjected to abuse; written materials for youth practitioners about domestic abuse; delivered training to churches, multi-disciplinary groups; written multimedia resources on pornography and; worked with a national Christian charity addressing male violence against women.  I have also delivered a programme for men who are perpetrators of domestic abuse and have written a national resource on child sexual exploitation.

When I speak at Christian events or deliver training to Christian organisations about domestic abuse issues, I am asked about what resources are available for participants to learn more.  There are a couple of books I recommend, only one of which is Christian.  Although there are a few Christian books available, most were written in the 90s and don’t include anything on digital culture or recent developments in neuroscience and trauma.  As such they are helpful, but limited.

Which brings me to MY NEWS!  Over the next year I shall be writing my first ever BOOK!  It will be published by SPCK, with a planned release for March 2019.  I’m writing the book primarily for Christians who want to be better resourced in responding to abuse within relationships, but hopefully it will also be suitable for those who are realising their current partner (or ex-partner) is abusive.

I’m hoping to give occasional updates on how things are going, and I’m sure lovely Twitter people will help me on the worst days and the best days of writing.  I’ve decided to spread my MA out over three years in order to make writing a book this year more manageable.  Writing a dissertation and a proper book at the same time would have likely proved to be Quite A Challenge.

So it’s all very exciting!  Life generally continues to be quite challenging for us GLWs, with stable income seeming to elude us.  Yet God remains faithful and miracles occur on a seemingly daily basis.  If you’d like to pray for us, you can sign up for our semi-regular prayer update HERE and if the book I’m writing is something you’d like to financially support me with, you can contribute HERE either monthly or with a one off donation.

Father’s Day Resource

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In the UK, Father’s Day falls on Sunday 18th June.  Many Church Leaders I know have spoken of the challenge of doing church services on Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, as so many people in their churches are dealing with difficult and painful circumstances related to parenthood and having children.  Yet, this also gives us an opportunity to shine a light into the darkness people are dealing with, and to celebrate the fathers and father figures who cherished by those in our congregations.

 

To aid church leaders in their church service plans for Father’s Day, I have written a resource that could be used by church leaders across the UK.  I have done this in partnership with The Resource, an organisation which exists to equip, support, encourage, train and develop those working with children and young people.

 

You can download the pdf resource HERE and the PowerPoint for Activity 3 HERE.  It has guidance for sensitively running a service on the subject of fatherhood, includes videos that could be used with a service and activities to do with both adults and children during the service.  If you’d like any further information about the resource, you can email me on natalie@dayprogramme.org.

 

I hope the resource is useful!  Do feel free to leave feedback in the comments!

 

The resource is totally free, but if you would like to financially contribute to my work, you can do so through my Give account, which can be found HERE.

 

 

Guest Blog: Working with Young Men

I am hugely privileged to have a guest blog from Rev. Anne Bennett, who is an Anglican priest based in Kent.  I invited her to guest blog on her experiences of working with young men after I did a live-tweetathon whilst reading “Why Men Hate Going to Church”.  I love what she has to say about working with young men!  Anne is on Twitter: @VicarofBorstal and she blogs HERE.

 

I read with incredulity GLW’s tweeted review of the book ‘Why Men Hate Going to Church’ by Dave Murrow.   This book’s basic premise is that we need to develop a specific ministry to men, a ministry that plays to gender stereotypes and which separates boys and girls. The author works from the premise that men like action movies while women like romantic comedies, and church should be themed thus[1].   Jesus is to be presented as a superhero, not a suffering servant.

 

I would like to humbly offer an alternative approach to ministry to men, based on my four years of working in a youth offending institution. I have never needed to use the stereotypes and methods of ‘men’s ministry’, nor do I think they would be helpful.  If there has been a book which has influenced me, it is ‘Contemplative Youth Ministry’, by Mark Yaconelli, which offers a gentler, holier way to minister with young people.

 

I work with young men who have been accused or convicted of crime. In our environment there is so much testosterone in the air you could bottle it as aftershave. There is nothing ‘sissy’ about this group, and sometimes they can be intimidating and aggressive.  Yet, in the five years I have worked with these young people, I have only three times had an empty chapel for worship. I have consistently found that some young people are called to come to worship, even to the point of being baptised, confirmed and publicly committing their lives to Christ.  I work as part of a diverse multifaith team that offers faith and pastoral care. It is stressful but rewarding work.

 

Our young people are surrounded by stereotypes and expectations.  As young men, especially as gang members, they are expected to be loud, strong and dominant.  They are fiercely loyal to their gang and hostile to strangers.  The atmosphere is often charged.

Yet something calls these young people into chapel.  Many have good memories of being taken to church when younger, often by their grandmothers.  Those older women, the ‘little old ladies’ so despised by some ministers, have sown good seed.  Some young people are looking for a less chaotic lifestyle.  Some are in despair and grasping at any straw.  Some are just looking for love, and we offer love without strings, unconditional, beautiful, divine love.

 

As they come into chapel these young men visibly relax.  The door is locked behind them, but the sense is that prison is locked out, rather than them being locked in.  The noise dies down and they know that they are in a sacred and a safe place.  I greet them and we have a few minutes of chat before God’s peace is allowed to fall on us in silence.  We participate in the ancient ritual of Holy Communion respectfully and reverently. At the start of our prayer time, each young person lights a candle.

 

After worship we sometimes have a discussion, but often we make art together. Creating a collaborative artwork brings young people together and avoids any sense of competition.  Our chapel is decorated with these works – a representation of the pillars of cloud and fire, a bright candle in a dark room, a burning bush, a tree of life.

 

I have learned much from working with this most demanding of groups.  I find these boys respond best to ministry which meets them where they are, but which then offers them a new hope.  They do not want the superhero narrative – every young person I have worked with has said that he wants to get away from violence.  They seek and struggle with forgiveness. Touchingly, for young people who have often had very disrupted lives, they often say they just want to ‘settle down’.

 

So what are the keys to working with young people, especially young men?  I find them to be the same keys as to working with anyone else.  Firstly, and most importantly, the gospel needs to be central to what we do.  This is not a social group, though we offer fellowship and safety.  We are there to worship, to pray and to open our hearts to the divine. It is our very difference which calls young people in. Church must always be there, waiting for those who one day will need to walk through the doors.

 

Secondly, young people can spot pretence from ten miles away.  I am far from being a male role model.  I am a middle-aged woman priest with liberal views and a fondness for rich liturgy and poetry.  Any attempt on my part to ‘speak street’ or to pretend to be part of their culture will produce instant alienation. Teen culture has exquisitely detailed rules and it belongs to teenagers.  I can only be myself, trusting in my vocation and my faith.  I offer what wisdom I can from my different vantage point.

 

Thirdly, we must listen to young people, and understand something of what is going on for them.  I always ask them what they would like to pray for.  I look at their body language: are they withdrawn, wrapped in their own arms, hiding in their hoodies?  Teenagers will tell you a great deal, but often without many words.

 

And finally, it may seem trivial, but for young men whose voices are breaking corporate singing is agonising.  I never ask young people to sing in an environment where their voice will be heard individually.  I also take care who I ask to read – both boys and girls can have reading difficulties.  I do not pressure young people to do anything – just being there is enough for God, and it must be enough for me.  Too many churches like their young people to perform, rather than participate.

 

I have never offered ‘men’s ministry’, just ministry.  I have never offered bacon rolls and paintball, just quiet worship and an atmosphere of positive change, forgiveness and hope.  Sometimes, by God’s grace, it bears great fruit.

 

[1] ‘The Danish Girl’ made $64m dollars at the box office, but films which do not fit action or romance stereotypes are not considered worthy of analysis.