I’ve just got back from three days at the very wonderful Gladstone’s Library, where I took part in a course called “Liquid Faith: exploring religious bi-dentity”. We looked at the role of water in various world faiths, we thought about water in scary oceans, in flowing rivers, in still pools: and we considered our own identities and affiliations in terms of how they change.
Context is everything, I was taught at college. In different contexts I introduce myself in different ways – “Hello, I’m Claire, one of the curates” is common in church, “Claire from church” is common in the parish, “Claire, Mum of..wife of….”, “Claire, interested in….”. When I am far from home, and when I am having “me time” I often introduce myself as “Claire from Southampton/Hampshire/the south coast” and don’t mention church at all – this is especially true when I am in a setting full of strangers. And given I don’t think of myself as from any of those geographic places at all, that last statement comes close to being a lie, in terms of identity, even if it is factually accurate. We present our identities in various, fluid ways. And our stated religious affiliations may change over time too – Church of England, Christian, spiritual not religious, religious not spiritual, seeking, out of church, into church, influenced by….. Part of the joy of this course was the reminder that change, personal and external, is normal, and we don’t have to be scared by it. We grow, we change.
We also looked at gender briefly – triggered by the reminder that Gladstone’s Library used to admit only men. Women were not allowed in. Our course leader looked around the room and commented that everyone was wearing trousers (except me in my summer skirt) and pointed out that in those days every woman wearing trousers would have been thought strange, and that only I, Claire, conformed to the ideal of femininity. The leader went on to point at hair styles as another example, and noted that only I , Claire, had long hair, thus once again conforming to the ideal of femininity from those far off days. Regular readers and friends will understand that for me to be held up as an example of the ideal woman is somewhere between highly amusing and utterly abhorrent. However, it made me consider that when I worked somewhere where gender was ostensibly irrelevant, I probably worked harder to fit into notions of what was acceptable in terms of appearance. Now that I work in a context where gender does matter, I am surprised to be viewed as someone who looks very female. And gender does matter in my context, both in terms of the wider Church of England (which I can only pray will finally sort out its own notions of gender and sexual identity, and calm down), and very specifically – “I couldn’t talk to a man about this”.
I’d like to share the conclusions I have drawn from the last few days, but I can’t, because I haven’t drawn any yet. But permission to revel in fluidity is a wonderful gift.