BOOK REVIEW / For ever and ever until we split up, Amen: 'Daring to Speak Love's Name' - Elizabeth Stuart: Hamish Hamilton, 7.99 pounds

Click to follow
The Independent Online
ELIZABETH STUART, a theology lecturer from Plymouth, is a member of that exclusive club of women who have earned the Archbishop of Canterbury's wrath by flaunting their sexuality. Diana Dors was slammed by Lambeth Palace back in 1955 for her mink-bikini-clad progress up Venice's Grand Canal. In more recent times, Madonna, who prefers support garments shaped like traffic cones, has managed by her calculated blasphemies to do what no one else has been able to in 400 years, and unite in condemnation the Pope and the Anglican Primate.

Dr Stuart earned George Carey's public disapproval earlier this year by compiling Daring to Speak Love's Name, a prayer book for gay and lesbian Christians. When the publishers, SPCK, described by the Bishop of Durham as 'at least a quasi-official institution of the Church of England', decided to take on the manuscript, the Anglican Primate put his foot down. He threatened to resign as president of SPCK unless it withdrew the book. The editorial board succumbed, prompting a rush of newspaper headlines.

Daring to Speak Love's Name was overnight transformed into a cause celebre. It united both the anti-censorship lobby and those liberal forces within the churches who see the clergy, from the Pope and Archbishop down, as all too ready to sit in judgement on people's sexuality.

Six months on, the book has been launched in a cloud of secrecy. Anyone wanting advance copies or a chat with Dr Stuart, who makes no secret of the fact she is a lesbian, was either turned down or asked for written undertakings not to break the publisher's embargo. There were press conferences, demonstrations and a public debate in central London, with a view to creating a stink before the forthcoming General Synod.

But when I finally got my hands on this much-hyped book, it was, inevitably, a disappointment. Dr Stuart writes in her preface that the events of the past months have taught her that 'liturgy is dangerous'. Reading through the various services that she has put together from across the denominations, it is not entirely clear why. The tone is calculated to keep all church-goers happy, everyone from Victoria Gillick to Don Cupitt. The section that shows how to conduct a Christian blessing of a gay or lesbian couple, for example, labours the point that these services are not marriages, with the author fully in accord with the rules of the Church of England in declining to put same-sex partnerships on an equal footing with heterosexual ones.

There are moments elsewhere when Dr Stuart makes observations that traditional Christians do their best to overlook. For instance, she includes services for individuals coming out, noting that the seven sacraments of the churches - like the hatching, matching and dispatching of the personal columns - are in fact rites of passage, but leave little space for what is probably the most significant moment in a gay person's life.

Such pleas for a new understanding are, however, few and far between. There are times when the book takes on an air of the absurd. The liturgies for the ending of a relationship envisage a couple coming to the altar to take back all those promises of lifelong fidelity that they had previously made before God, and to return any rings or gifts. In my experience a polite and cleansing parting with God's blessing seems to be the last thing on anyone's mind when it comes to divorce.

If the liturgy in Daring to Speak Love's Name is dangerous, Dr Carey's problem can have been only that he didn't want the whole issue raised at all. The depth of homophobia in the Christian churches, where sex is still regarded almost exclusively as a way of making babies, is not one of their more attractive contemporary features. Indeed, Dr Stuart shows that church history contains many more tolerant eras.

If the Archbishop was aiming at avoiding bad publicity by his initial banning order, however, his strategy has backfired badly. Daring to Speak Love's Name, a title borrowed from Lord Alfred Douglas's poem 'Two Loves', is set to achieve an almost legendary status quite unjustified by its contents.

Comments