We are not Delilahs

In Christian circles, there is a debate over whether it’s ok to meet one-to-one with a member of the opposite sex when one is in a position of responsibility within the church. Last week, the topic came up ten minutes before the end of our second lecture on gender and theology.

As the discussion progressed, it was clear that there was a strong opinion from some in the room that a male church leader meeting alone with a woman was really not a good idea at all. It wasn’t a unanimous opinion by any means – one woman spoke of feeling completely ignored after her vicar insisted her husband attended a meeting between the two of them, and then proceeded to only address the husband.

As she spoke, I became more and more frustrated. What would I do in such a situation, given that I don’t have a husband to take to such meetings? Married male voices in the room spoke of needing to be particularly cautious around single women, and quite honestly, I felt terrible. I am a single woman, training to be a church leader. I am not a Delilah, seeking to corrupt every married man that I meet (or any married man for that matter!). But that’s how single women were seemingly being painted.

Now, I’m not naive. I realise that we need to be wise in how we deal with our relationships with other people – especially when holding positions of responsibility, and especially in the church. Here are some thoughts/wisdom I have on the subject:

  1. Do not assume anyone’s sexuality. Potential issues may just as well arise with those of your own gender, as well as the opposite one. Obviously, this cannot mean a blanket “Do not meet 1:1 with anyone at all!” because nothing would actually get done. Therefore, we need…
  2. Wisdom. Be wise! If you sense that a meeting may be misconstrued or that you realise that for your own safety, extra people need to be around, then make it happen. Obviously, with children, young people/students and vulnerable adults there are legal safeguarding measures to be taken into account.
  3. Trust people. I’d like to think that I can be trusted not form an unhealthy attachment to a married man. I trust myself and those with whom I agree to meet. If I don’t trust a situation, I use wisdom. (See above.) If you don’t trust yourself to ever meet with someone of the opposite sex alone, I think there may be questions you need to ask of yourself.

When I spoke up in the lecture, aside from defending the honour of single women, I also pointed out the reality of parish ministry – there is a high chance I’ll end up as an incumbent in a church that isn’t able to provide a large staff team, and as a result there will be situations in which I have to have 1:1 meetings with members of the opposite sex. I cannot say to someone: “I’m terribly sorry, I can’t sit with you and plan your mother’s funeral until I find someone who can chaperone us.”

Right now, I do have some specific boundaries. For example, I don’t meet with the guys in my student group outside of the context of a church service or our home group. If they want to have a deep & meaningful, they can (& do) chat with the church’s male clergy. [Would I prefer to be doing student work in tandem with a male volunteer? Yes please!] But on the other hand, have I met 1:1 with my church’s male Rector, Curate, Worship Leader and Operations Manager? Yes. I couldn’t do my job if I didn’t.

These ideas have far-reaching consequences. There are individuals who feel slighted, not listened to, or marginalised. Is that a good thing for the church to be doing? I don’t think so. It also has a huge impact upon the raising up of women in leadership – an issue that Jenny Baker wrote about brilliantly [do read the comments] and that I touched upon last summer in a post about women speakers at Christian festivals. In churches where there is a culture that men and women can’t meet alone, women lose out on mentoring experience from the men leading these churches.

One to One's tweet

Before writing this post (which took over a week to actually publish, thanks to deadlines and life), I asked Twitter for some opinions. What followed was one of the best Twitter discussions I’ve seen – especially given that it involved the church. (Twitter debates amongst churchy people can get horrid, it’s a terrible reflection upon Christians.) No one got angry, but instead answered my simple question with honesty, integrity and respect. The whole thing has been Storifyed, but here are some particular highlights, including the article by Jenny Baker mentioned above:

Jo S tweet Matthew Currey tweet Elizabeth Harrison tweetMark Scarlata tweetSean Doherty tweet

Sean, as befits an Ethics lecturer, had quite a lot to say on the subject, including the following (which was spread across three tweets, condensed for the sake of space!):

“I was lucky to have @Janie_Mo as my training incumbent, she wanted male curate to balance leadership of church but not many male clergy would deliberately pick a woman for same reasons – ‘woman as temptress’ stereotype to which the correct response is ‘don’t flatter yourself’!”

There is no straight answer to this debate. There can’t be hard and fast rules. But I’d love for people to stop and think about the impact and implications of their actions and decisions. If it’s never crossed your mind that it could be an issue, perhaps it’s worth taking time to think about it. If you’ve created rules for yourself, imagine what those rules feel like to those it affects. And most of all, don’t presume that anyone is out to ‘corrupt’ those they meet with!

The Eternal Problem…part five

As is so often the way, the immediate aftermath of the most recent post on this topic spawned a great deal of further thought – so much thought that another post was clearly necessary…

First off, I’ve been really touched by the number of positive comments this series has received. It’s a subject that’s very close to my heart, so I’m glad that it’s provided food for thought and sometimes a comfort for others that have pondered this question. I even discovered the other day that my mother was distributing it amongst her friends! (Interestingly, her opinion is that men and women can’t be friends – I need to do some more digging as to why.) And thanks too to Danny – quoted in Part 4 – who linked to my posts in his recent article on the subject on Threads. (It’s essentially a condensed version of his own blogpost, but still well worth a read.)

Secondly, less than 24 hours after Part 4 was published, I found myself discussing the question with two male friends who had very different views on how to answer it. One was 24 and has been in a relationship for 5 years; the other is my age and single. When I proposed the question: “Can men and women be friends without it getting complicated?” The younger man answered “Yes!” at the precise moment my contemporary answered “No!”. [Which does beg the question, in what capacity was I having dinner with this guy if we couldn’t be friends? Casual acquaintances? Colleagues? I jest…]

Basically, the younger guy was coming at it from the perspective of being in a relationship and having grown up with lots of female friends – but he did acknowledge that if he now acquired a best friend who was female, his girlfriend might have quite a lot to say about the matter. The older guy was speaking from many years experience in the Christian world and from a position of having to have awkward conversations with several female friends. He now has (an extremely sensible and admirable) set of boundaries he puts in place to try and ensure that he doesn’t hurt girls inadvertently. I was really encouraged to hear him talk about his experiences as it gave me a certain amount of hope in the remaining single Christian men in London…

What was particularly great about this conversation is that provided a perfect basis to clear up a slightly embarrassing situation that emerged the following day. The three of us were having dinner prior to going to a party that the older guy had persuaded us to go to. We ended up staying out far later than planned (particularly as I had an 8.30am start at Vicar School the following morning) and I tweeted something to the effect (at 2am) that the older guy was entirely responsible for this state of affairs – which he admitted to. This tweet – its mention of a single guy and no one else – prompted no fewer than 3 people to ask me the following morning if we were now seeing each other. Because clearly, men and women can’t mention each other in tweets without it meaning something! Happily, both of us found this a totally ridiculous state of affairs and were able to laugh it off and I did not look like a crazy stalker lady (which I am not).

People, I know you mean well, but something that would massively help the complicated nature of male-female friendships is if you would stop jumping to conclusions; making unhelpful comments; or generally teasing people. It creates false hope, anxiety and even more complication which is never helpful!

******

If you look back at Part 4, you’ll notice that there’s not one but three comments on it from the same author (apparently Blogger now limits the amount of text that can be written in a comment – another brilliant move from the increasingly irritating platform). This particular writer is one of my main sparring partners on this issue, it’s cropped up on his blog a few times, and it’s a bugbear for both of us – but for different reasons. Like Danny, Andy sees huge value in the time you spend getting to know someone of the opposite sex, regardless of whether the attraction you’re exploring is a sexual one or a purely platonic one. On this point, I agree with both of them.

Particularly in Christian circles, society has a terrible fixation upon sex, relationships and marriage. If a girl meets a single guy, the general beliefs are:

1. She’ll be checking him out as potential husband.
2. He’s assuming she’s checking him out as a potential husband.
3. She knows he’s assuming she’s checking him out and doesn’t want him to think that she is.

It’s bizarre. You know what? We can meet members of the opposite sex and not be thinking this way! In fact, Andy (many, many years ago) wrote what I consider one of his best blog posts on the issue of singleness and church. It’s well worth reading, saving and using it whenever you have to deal with such situations. (I work in student ministry – I quote from it all the time.)

We don’t do ourselves any favours.

We need to get better a platonic relationships, of not reading too much into things, of putting boundaries in place to guard our hearts, and most of all, we need to get better at being honest. I know I’m repeating things I’ve said before, but that’s what it boils down to. Different people will have different opinions on how and what to do, but the bottom line is that we need to try and enjoy friendships without getting hurt.

******

Harry Sally NYE

Finally, something that brings us right back to the original source of the question: When Harry Met Sally. [Ok, yes, I’m sure men and women were having this debate before that film was made, but it’s what prompted the original conversation that resulted in this blog series.] Last week I discovered an article about the film and this question that rocked my world…

‘When Harry Met Sally’ Is Bad For Ladies revealed that the ending of the movie had been changed. ‘Before the question is even asked, we know whether Harry and Sally can be friends; they can’t. They inhabit a rom-com, and so they ultimately have to end up together romantically.’ In fact, Nora Ephron had intended to end the film with Harry & Sally remaining friends, thus demonstrating the reality that she herself had friendships with men where sex hadn’t become an issue, just like many women across the world.

All of a sudden, the basis of my romantic tendencies had been shattered! That scene, right at the end, on New Year’s Eve, when Harry races to find Sally before midnight and utters that speech – that is the reason why I am almost certainly going to disappointed every single year as the clock strikes midnight – and that scene should never have been in the film! Every time I watch it, it moves me to tears (embarrassingly, the last time this happened was on a flight home from Texas – weirdly, the very night Ephron died), it gives me unrealistic expectations and is ridiculously far-fetched.

The article outlines all the ways in which changing the ending has minimised Sally’s side of the argument and makes Harry look like he was right all along – it has something of a feminist rant, which I can sympathise with a bit. However, it concludes brilliantly that:

Its necessarily romantic ending guarantees a massive audience for its thematic question. By simply posing that question, When Harry Met Sally allows the viewer to have the debate in her own life, where the answer is not predetermined.

So here we are, right back where we began, having a debate that will stretch on into eternity…

The Eternal Problem…part four

Ah, the Eternal Problem. It’s been a while. Over two and a half years in fact. As usual, I’m re-visiting it in response to some things that have come up recently – specifically via Threads, a new website that’s effectively an online magazine with a cracking Twitter account. [I’ll admit I may be a bit biased, I did get commissioned to write something for their launch this summer.]

Anyway, they tweeted two articles, both by guys, both regarding the issue of male/female friendships. My attention was caught by both of them, given my prior interest in the topic, and it got me thinking – a lot. Then, to top it off, on Thursday I was tweeted by Threads asking if I had any advice to give in response to their first ever Agony Aunt/Uncle letter – in which a woman in her late 20’s bemoaned the fact that what seemed to be a blossoming relationship with a guy had turned out to be nothing more than a guy who was an idiot and had led her on. Oh dear… [And oh, the irony. No, I didn’t write the letter myself.]

xkcd 'Friends!'Another bit of xkcd genius – check out the rest of this cartoon.

The first article was interesting, in that its writer in some ways shared a similar opinion of the Eternal Problem as the male friend with whom I have argued for several years. It was also fascinating because the thoughts stemmed out of the Theos lecture the Archbishop of Canterbury gave on Monday, in which he reportedly said: “I am neither a machine of a self-contained soul, I am a person, spoken to, seen, loved into existence” As Danny, the author of the blogpost reflected:
“So whether the relationships are clarified, confused, distorted or direct, it is the patchwork quilt which we inhabit that makes up much of what defines as a person rather than any anatomical structure.”

In other words, relationships are important – full stop.

Danny goes on to talk about his own friendships with women and how they might have been mis-interpreted by those involved, leaving the conundrum of how to approach things in the future:

“I could seek clarity from every friendship I form with a girl. We could have a contract, it could be laid out whether or not we were pursuing anything other than friendship. There could be defined steps and processes, it could be recorded and audited, inspected and refined. It would remove the confusion that haunts as you lie in bed at night and wonder the precise meaning of the final words, or intent behind the body language you thought might convey something approaching affection.

It would also destroy the beauty that forms as you approach someone else, hesitant, faltering, nervous. If I knew all the answers I would ask no questions, and if I did not question the nature of the other I would not know just how different it is yet how alike we are. If I am only affirmed in my personhood by relationships with others, that relationship, whatever form it might take has to come before any determination of where it might end.

Ambiguity is part of the fun. Let’s enjoy it, and not run away scared.”

Let’s not run away scared. Like I’ve said before, having friendships with the opposite sex has got to be possible, otherwise we’re denying ourselves of the pleasure and right of engaging with half the world’s population. But what about when ‘the sex thing’ gets in the way? As someone who has been haunted at night by the confusion of a male/female friendship that seems as though it ought to be something more, I would love more clarity. I’d love men to realise the impact their actions have. I’d love women (ok, me) to be able to guard their hearts more. I would love men who are interested in something more to be intentional in their actions and I’d love those who just want to be friends to think about what they say or do before they do it.

But it isn’t easy. Boundaries are hard and often seem unreasonable. There can’t be set rules for everyone, because different situations need to be dealt with in different ways. But you have to know yourself, to know how you respond in such situations and try and work out what you need.

Which is what made the second article, earlier this week, all the more interesting. It was all about boundaries – specifically, the ones a male, married, pastor puts into place when meeting with women that are not his wife. Sammy Adibiyi has a set of rules he’s put in place to ensure that there are clear boundaries between him and other women – including never eating or riding a car alone with a woman who he is not married to. He also copies his wife into emails with other women.

I totally understand why he’s doing this – he wants to be clear, accountable and removed from even the slightest temptation. He’s not the first Christian guy I’ve come across who works in that way and I know of some churches (even in the UK) where similar (though slightly less extreme) rules are enforced. But really, do we seriously live in a society where such behaviour is necessary? I’m not sure that I’d want my husband to behave in such a way – I’d want to be able to trust him to make wise decisions on his own, knowing what the consequences of his actions would be. Yes, I have my own rules about meeting with single men in my work with the church, but as a single female vicar-to-be, that’s essential.

[Now might be an appropriate moment to share a distressing/amusing exchange during one of my BAP interviews:
Pastoral Adviser: “So, you’re single. How will you deal with being single in a parish and potentially wanting to date one of your parishioners?’
Me: “Well, I’m hoping I might not still be single by the time I’m ordained…”
Pastoral Adviser: “Let’s assume you will be.”
Ouch.]

Sammy and Danny are both writing about rules. Sammy has them; Danny thinks that they would destroy ‘ambiguity’. Neither is wrong and neither is right. We need a combination of rules, sense and ambiguity – but it’s seemingly almost impossible to find the right balance.

When I read the letter this person had sent in to Threads’s problem page, I could have cried. She wanted to know, at the end of her letter, “How will I know another time if a guy really does like me or he thinks we’re ‘just friends’?” If only I/we knew, the world would be a much happier place! I don’t know, but I have learnt things I can apply to future situations, bits of advice I can (and do) give friends in similar situations, and I pray that I won’t make the same mistakes again.

Right at this moment, the idea of ambiguity makes me angry. I don’t want yet another woman to lose months or even years waiting for clarity on a friendship that could be something. Nor do I want what could be amazing friendships lost because of the risk of what might be construed. But it’s hard. Really hard. The problem really is an eternal one…

Friday Fun with Christian men, non-Christian men and Tube drivers

Apologies for the lack of bloggage this week – I’ve been spending far too much time with prostitutes, in a writing about them in a report for Vicar School sense. This has left little time for much else, including being in the audience for QI on Wednesday (a fellow trainee vicar and his wife benefitted from this though, so I at least feel generous). However, it has not prevented me from finding a smorgasboard of fun for this week…

Segue-ing nicely from Vicar School are two Christian comedy things that will probably only make sense if you exist in that particular bubble. For the last week and a half I’ve been entertained by a Twitter account in the name of Mr Christian Mann (yes, that is a joke – however, the Mr Christian Guy that spoke at a conference I was at last week was using his baptismal name – the hilarity). Mr Mann isn’t real (thankfully) but he does present the world with a unique take on church life:

I may know who’s responsible for this wit, but I’m sworn to secrecy.
In a similar vein comes the Hey Christian Girl Tumblr. Attractive men telling Christian girls what they (apparently) need to hear. Genius. 

Moving away from the church and Christian men, one of my other favourite things is obviously TfL geekery. For your end of week amusement I offer you Funny Announcements by Tube Drivers. All real, and for this reason, utterly fabulous. 

“Ladies and gentlemen, we apologise for the delay, but there is a security alert at Victoria station and we are therefore stuck here for the foreseeable future, so let’s take our minds off it and pass some time together. All together now…. ‘Ten green bottles, hanging on a wall…..’.”

“Ladies and Gentlemen, I do apologise for the delay to your service. I know you’re all dying to get home, unless, of course, you happen to be married to my ex-wife, in which case you’ll want to cross over to the Westbound and go in the opposite direction”.

Returning to the hot men question, do you remember Dawson’s Creek? Stupid question surely, of course you remember the classic teen drama of the late 90s/early 00s! Like me, you probably have all six seasons sat on a shelf – no? Just me? Oh well… Inspired by a new sitcom on E4 last night, featuring Jason Van Der Beek (aka Dawson) I headed over to his Wikipedia page to discover exactly what he’d been up to since Dawson hung up his flannel shirt and right at the bottom of the page, discovered a link to an utter gem. James Van Der Memes is basically a Tumblr consisting of gifs featuring JVDB expressing various emotions. Sounds ridiculous, but it’s inspired. Witness:

‘Dramatic Dawson’

‘Eyebrow String Dancer’

‘Na Na Boo Boo’

Adore it. Also, blatantly going to be getting those DVDs out after this. Have hope boys, Dawson was never the hottest in DC (that honour went to Pacey/Joshua Jackson), but he has aged very, very well. 
Have a fun Friday! 

For Christmas I would like…

…some hot librarians please.

You know how much I adore books? You know how my Oyster card wallet contains a veritable top trumps of library cards? [I see your 1 year Bodleian card and raise you a 3 year British Library ticket…] You know how much I long for an intellectual, bookish, beardy yet hot man? You know how much I love utterly inappropriate calendars? [Perhaps not, but wait & check my archives.]

Christmas came early with the discovery of Men of the Stacks – a 2012 hot librarian’s calendar.
Be. Still. My. Beating. Heart.

Actually, don’t get your hopes up, they’re not all that promising. Personally, I’d buy the calendar and leave it on Mr January for the rest of the year:

At my office farewell in the summer, the Strategic Leader designated to give a speech decided to highlight the appropriate-yet-inappropriate calendars that C and I had had for two years running (it’s lucky that I’ve known him longer than I’ve worked with him, else I could have felt very convicted by the speech). Much amusement was derived from the Calendario Romano, aka ‘the hot priests calendar’ – I’m just sorry we never  acquired the Mormon version (see above link too)… You can only buy the hot priests in Rome and my mother was mortified when requested to acquire the 2010 version on a trip there – I’m sensing that she wouldn’t be up for purchasing the librarian version for me. 
Anyway, it’s for charity – obviously – so much good should come out of it, plus the fact that it shows librarians not to be the old lady with cats stereotype that’s been perpetuated for decades.