I HAVE had a rather Miltonian time of it recently — Sing, heavenly muse! — attempting to justify the ways of Synod to outsiders. Most of them tend to view the C of E through the keyhole of headlines, which doesn’t give a very accurate sense of how it feels to be inside. Admittedly, it’s possible to see some very interesting and instructive things through a keyhole, but you’re never going to get a 360-degree sweep of the room.
I need to accept that, to the outsider, the C of E appears as niche as Star Trek does to me. That comparison was not plucked at random: I’ve been comparing notes with a colleague who is an ardent Trekkie. It emerged that an equally fierce controversy is raging in the Star Trek community over issues in human sexuality. There’s a long history of hurt and anger here, judging by a website from 2003 “devoted to the thousands of gay, lesbian and bisexual Star Trek fans [who are] still waiting to be included in Gene Roddenberry’s great vision of the future”.
One faction in the debate holds firm to “canon Trek”, and points out that homosexuality is absent from the original Trek universe. Some of the ultra-conservatives go as far as to argue that, by the 24th century, homosexuality will have become extinct (either by “healing” or “re-education”).
On the other side are the fans deeply committed to the belief that the underlying values of the Federation are tolerance and diversity; so of course there should be gay characters in their beloved fictional universe.
How will this be resolved? My colleague doesn’t know. Both sides are equally convinced that they are right, and appalled by the views of the opposition.
OBVIOUSLY, the C of E is not a fictional universe (unless we’re talking about Lindchester), but hearing all this made me feel less alone. There are days when not just the Church and the Star Trek community but our whole world feel riven with tribal feuds and impossible-to-reconcile differences: Remainer/Brexiteer, trans rights/gender critical, pro-life/pro-choice — the list goes on. There is no middle ground where we can safely set a nervous foot. What divides us seems greater than what unites us.
The quick fix, obviously, is to stop looking at Twitter. I find that much of the anguish surrounding public debate can be resolved by taking this simple step. But can we imagine a long-term solution? Could the Church model that? A recent Sunday Times article suggested just that: “Church debate on gay marriage showed how the Commons could have conducted Brexit”.
I have come to believe that the only way to navigate our differences is by putting our bodies physically into the same space, and hearing one another’s stories. I saw this at the Lambeth Conference. In my own small way, I do this each week by worshipping in a church alongside people whose views I don’t fully share. Are we all baptised into Christ or not? Do we all eat at the same table or not?
I cannot find it in my heart to believe in impaired communion. It strikes me as a doctrinal luxury: the kind of thing that should be top of the list of things to jettison if we find ourselves in a small boat in a big storm.
Not waving but drowning
A VERY big storm has been rocking another beloved institution: the NHS. A perfect storm of funding challenges. People are living longer, often with multiple complicated medical conditions. Earlier this year, I was looking after a relative who fell into that category. One noon, at the end of a long week of deterioration in their health, I ended up dialling 999.
All through that January afternoon, I sat by the sickbed, repeating: “They’re coming. The ambulance is coming. It’s all right.” I watched the dust motes flashing in the sunbeams as the afternoon wore on. The town clock chimed the quarters away. Jackdaws flew home to their roost as darkness fell. Then, at last, in the distance, I heard the siren. They were coming. It would be all right. I went and stood on the pavement, weeping with relief as the ambulance made its way up the narrow road.
And it was all right. You will know how my heart brimmed with gratitude for the paramedics, the GPs and receptionists, the district nurses, the careline staff, the hospital nurses, doctors, cleaners, porters — for every human part of the vast, caring network that is the NHS; for everyone who goes above and beyond.
And yet it’s true to say that, when I was a (rosehip-syrup-fed) child in the 1960s, it was unimaginable that I might one day consider myself fortunate that it was only a six-hour wait for an ambulance.
Penny for them
REMEMBER Clap for Carers? What if we could harness that impulse again? I found myself wondering this during that long afternoon. I remembered how, in many European countries, a church tax is levied on taxpayers.
What if there was an opt-in voluntary penny in the pound for the NHS, collectable via our tax code — would you sign up for that? Money ring-fenced for the NHS, for training GPs, funding research, paying staff salaries — maybe administered by a non-government agency. That would feel like a financial equivalent of banging my saucepan every Thursday evening.
Let’s sidestep the question whether this would let the Government off the hook. The storm is very big, and the good old NHS is shipping green water. Those grandiose bus-slogan claims about NHS funding came to nothing. The controversial Health and Social Care Levy was walked back. Is there something that we can we do? #PennyfortheNHS is a campaign that I could get behind.
Catherine Fox is an author, senior lecturer, and academic director of the Manchester Writing School, at Manchester Metropolitan University.