My introduction to Oxford community thinking came last November when I attended a meeting at the University Church, to discuss the future of the church of England. Some of the great and the good were there including Diarmaid MacCulloch, Kt, FBA, FSA, FRHistS, Oxford Professor of the History of the Church. He was once ordained as a deacon in the Church of England, but declined the priesthood because of what he saw as the church’s equivocal attitude towards homosexuality.
As the speeches and discussions went on it became clear that everyone else shared his view and the future of the C of E was almost entirely to do with homosexuality, the further empowerment of, and bitter wrath about persecution of gay brothers and sisters in the past. The ‘transgendered’ were also added to this list of victims.
Despite being baffled by this world view, on Tuesday 28th April, I decided to try another symposium, this time with the Diocese of Oxford Department of Mission, to discuss, ‘Loneliness: Accident or Injustice?’
The ‘indicative timetable’ handed out provided some quotes from the Church Urban Fund, which stated that loneliness is now seen as a significant social problem, ‘cited by 64% of church leaders.’ That sounded interesting and there was also a paragraph from a pastoral letter from the House of Bishops in preparation for the General Election, asking whether we are now a ‘society of strangers, or a community of communities?’
Good questions for anyone who cares about the mental health of the nation, from young children emotionally neglected by parents, to those in extreme old age, the sort of people I often saw when I was a hospital visitor for three years at Hammersmith Hospital, usually termed ‘bed blockers.’
‘What is loneliness, who gets it?’ Asked the evangelical vicar chairing the event. I was surprised to hear that the most isolated people in our society are in the ethnic minorities and among gay and transgendered people. Various worthy people around me, in floral blouses, Dirndl skirts and Hotter shoes, and that was only the men, if I may use that wildly outdated narrative, also found this puzzling and admitted that it was a surprise.
Our first speaker was a female poet who told us she’d been male until the age of twenty two, then opted to become a woman. Her voice had sadly remained in the lower register, bringing to mind that old comedian Arthur Mullard. She said she was going to talk about ‘Loneliness as resurrection.’
Before that and reading us her first poem she recited her CV; she told us she was ‘highly educated,’ ‘a trained philosopher,’ which was a relief as the untrained ones are the devil, making messes everywhere, ‘transsexual and disabled.’
All good calling cards, she said her disability had ‘torn her life apart,’ although by the way she was throwing herself about, making powerfully expansive gestures it was obviously not a affecting her mobility. She was also a minor canon at a northern cathedral, ‘concerned with gender, sexuality and singleness.’
Highly educated or not, her use of English bothered me a little. In her first poem about first thoughts on waking up, she said, ‘Not remembering for a second what has happened to you,’ when the meaning was clearly, ‘For a second, not remembering what has happened to you.’ But I wasn’t really there to edit her poetry.
Like many poets she was keen to describe her vicissitudes. She told us, ‘My sense of vocation became profoundly questioned,’ when I think it might have been much less pompous and more realistic for her to say, ‘I questioned my vocation.’ She described this much debated vocation, as ‘Othering,’ before continuing with her lengthy description of herself: ‘Priest, poet, queer, Lesbian and trans,’ finally she got to her main theme, not loneliness as resurrection, but, ‘As Melvin C Lane puts it, (Who he? Many of us wondered) ‘examining the discourses we use in our institutions to exclude others, particularly gay people.’
She called for the creation of a language without gender, ‘God as trans, God as lesbian, God as black.’ ‘We must have normative discourses blessing queers,’ she said, and after one last poem about the pains of being single her time was up. The vicar reappeared applauding wildly then calling for ‘total silence so we can fully absorb her words in our hearts and minds.’
As the worthy grey heads around me all bowed obediently, I wondered if I alone resented, purely in rejection of outdated narratives, being told what to do by this overly enthusiastic male cleric.
Next we had ‘a sharing’ while he wrote points on a flip-board, and for the first time, after an hour, returned to the topic of loneliness. Various people began to describe their good works among the lonesome. The vicar wrote: ‘Start where the person is, involve them as a partnership.’ None of your patronising tea and sympathy. That was the old paradigm, when many unthinking people attributed much social unhappiness to Narcissism.
But that topic quickly fell away again in a group discussion, when the ladies on a table behind mine, called for the creation of a new language, ‘inclusive to include new communities,’ and there were several speeches about the damage done by government cuts. I felt we drifting inevitably towards the description of some kind of future socialist Utopia, where isolation, and possibly solitude would be banned.
The next speaker was a young woman working for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. She also had a good CV; ‘poverty, anxiety and loneliness.’ That was about all I could catch, as her accent from somewhere on an Oxfordshire council estate was impenetrable and garbled. She enhanced her talk with a power-point presentation, showing photos of local pockets of social isolation with pie-charts and graphs. Unfortunately they were blurred and unfathomable. It was like listening with a glass pressed to a wall. She ended by talking about the coming together of a community in Bradford, but it might have been Bicester, Belfast or Belize. She became much clearer as she ended, when she said she had felt like an outsider when she got a job in Oxford and discovered she was pronouncing Magdalen incorrectly, which made her feel ‘excluded’. She sat down to a massive round of applause. It was not suggested by anyone around me that she could change her way of speaking to include us. This new language requested in the room came only from levellers.
Some kind of rather furtive subtext was also emerging; vote Labour, end isolation. One speaker said she knew someone who’d had their benefits cut for doing voluntary work. A man stood up and said that it had been proved that in societies with more economic equality there was less loneliness.The vicar reminded us all to think carefully when we go to vote.
Voting is a lonely experience of course, in that you have to do it by yourself, alone, unless you live in Tower Hamlets. But two hours had gone by and little had been said about loneliness, its cause, effects, or possible cure. We were asked to consider two questions about the condition, what role is played by accident, and what by injustice. The questions on the sheet were all interesting, we just didn’t address them.
Only one speaker, the Revd. Dr.Joanne Collicutt, Adviser on the Spiritual Care of Older people, spoke with real eloquence and concern about the topic we were supposed to be considering. She even began her talk with a quote from the Bible, psalm 71, which begins with the poignant plea: ‘Do not cast me off in the time of old age.’
She offered some answers to the problem of ‘existential loneliness,’ which she saw originating in natural human needs. She recognised that the condition affects the old and grey and the young and blonde equally, suggesting that people should try to build habits and resources throughout their lives to keep them connected with each other. She recommended better use of technology for the old, and a new emphasis on encouraging the creation of intimacy, mainly by people learning to listen to each other.
She didn’t mention gender once but her talk was short and we ended with people standing up and giving accounts or rather confessions, AA style, of their own experiences of loneliness. The vicar encouraged us to applaud them heartily, as if we were at some kind of revival meeting. I left with a feeling that in the main I had witnessed an exhibition of Narcissism on the part of most speakers and many in the audience. I felt the need to get away as soon as possible, and just be by myself. It might not be much fun wandering lonely as a cloud, but some kinds of company are worse.