Wednesday, 30 July 2008

Bruised hands rock the cradle

Rape and violence against women are not topics for polite conversation, but they are realisites of life all over the world. It’s especially shameful if the Church becomes part of the problem rather than the solution. Yesterday saw a challenging morning in the big top, sharing with spouses a Bible Study on II Samuel 13, the story of Tamar. Introducing the session, Jane Williams reminded us of the basic principle that “Violence done within the Body of Christ is violence done to the Body of Christ.” A performance by Riding Lights about Jesus’ dealings with women had two bishops near me blinking back tears. This was a straightforward, African Bible Study, lasting most of the morning, with men and women studying separately to provide safe space in which both could discern meaning from their gendered experience.

Leading an open Bible Study for 1200 people from 130 nations is not easy. There were inevitable clunkinesses about flow and content. Some points of view, especially from Portugueses speakers, were trenchant. It wasn’t to the taste of all bishops. Stewards reported that over 100 had slid off within an hour — all men! So this was raw, challenging stuff, but all the more worthwhile for that.

Only a dozen or so of the 1200 people there had ever heard II Samuel 13 read on a Sunday. It’s a powerful warning about the way a family can be ruined by civil war arising from politicking behind the scenes à la Jonadab. It tells of a brave and resourceful victim of rape, who refuses to stay silent. The passage unlocked fierce responses to issues of gender and power in the world church. We were reminded of violence by some women against men, too, but the heart of the problem was the other way round. One passionate North Indian contributor told of human trafficking and the abuse of women.
“There are serious issues we are not talking about that matter far more than homosexuality.”
This comment was followed by a spontaneous ovation from the floor, lasting almost half a minute. Another male contributor suggested
“talking about homosexuality may be a way of avoiding the greater problem of heterosexual males behaving badly.”
It was instructive to explore this Scripture, and various responses and to do some rigorous self-examination of the way the Church can become abusive in its handling of institutional and personal power. The voice of Tamar stands witness within our Scriptures of a need for self scrutiny. These things were written for our learning.

I also want to record that the blunt African way of prising open texts directly and drawing them alongside personal stories, which some English colleagues seem to find so basic and uncongenial, has actually been one of the great spiritual discoveries of this Lambeth for me.


Anonymous said...

At some stage, not necessarily now, could you say some more about the African style of Bible study. It would be good to have it unpacked a bit, maybe with examples if appropriate.

Susan said...

I find your blog one of the most frank and interesting coming out of the LC, so I have to ask you, what were the views of the Portuguese speakers?

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

Mary, our materials are orignated from a group led by a South African bible teacher. As a consumer, not expert, I'd say... the story is told communally, and taken seriously as narrative rather than simply quarry for soundbites or dogmatic "ideas". We are encouraged to enter into the story personally, and then share our resonances with the narrative as a whole — what is this saying to us? Personal response is valued more than academi input or output.

I may try and say more about how my group is reading the Bible, as the authority of the Bible has been seen as a major issue at stake in the communion.

Susan, there were two strong and passionate interventions by Portuguese speaking women, probably from Brazil. They urged us, as I remember, to make the problem of violence against women our problem not their problem, and to listen for "voices of Tamar" in our church as well as world contexts.

Vinaigrette girl said...

This comment comes late as I am trying to emphasise to a few fundie acquaintances that the rape culture is age-old and endemic... I am also trying to find some way in to talking with children about Mothering Sunday without being a complete jerk to all the women who (like me for many years) aren't "childed" in some way. It's hard to find biblical verses and/or commentary which doesn't polarise gender. {sigh}

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