More than one thing, actually.
It has a well, which for decades we've been blocking up with rubbish, but we're going to clear it and take away all the grot as an acted prophecy. That's special.
It has a tribe of wild, unruly children who are almost uncontainable because some of them have prominent neurological issues (ADHD and other things) but we have found ways to integrate them gracefully with the adults (well, I think we have), so they are loved and encouraged. That's special.
It has a philosophy and ambience of absolute kindness and acceptance; it's a place where people can be their true selves and come to worship just as they are. That's really special.
But the special thing I was thinking about today is that our chapel was started by the Bible Christians, and their last woman preacher came from there. If you don't know about the Bible Christians and their women preachers, it says all about them here. To cut a long story short, they were — before the Quakers even, I think (not sure) — the only Christian grouping that allowed women's ministry on a (more or less) equal basis to men. It's very special to me to worship in the same place as such a dauntless spirit and an upholding of gender equality.
But I was thinking about the Bible Christians and the rules they put in place for their women preachers. For one thing, they hadn't to be married. Well, in the 19th century, contraception being what it wasn't and the expectation of the domestic responsibilities of wives being what it was, I can see the logic of that. Equality can advance only as far as its cultural context permits. Another thing was they had to be very soberly dressed; they were not allowed to curl their hair or wear gold or pearls.
The fashion in hair styles at the time would have been this sort of thing.
So if you wanted to be a Bible Christian preacher, you had to "take down your curls" as they said, and adopt more the kind of hairdo Queen Victoria moved on to.
The other stipulation was that you could wear no gold or pearls, and no fine fabrics — though later, silk shawls were grudgingly permitted for warmth, provided they were of dark and sober hue.
The reason for this ban on gold, pearls and curls was of course the letter of St Peter, here, and St Paul, here.
And this morning in the bath I was thinking about it.
What if, I thought, your gold and pearls weren't gold and pearls at all? You could dress to the nines and say, "Well it isn't gold and it isn't pearls either," couldn't you? Like this.
When Peter was writing, and Paul, if you wore gold and pearls, you must have been wealthy. Not today. For four quid in Debenhams sale I can get the most opulent looking bling which is mere tat, just pretty.
Was the problem the bling — women dressing prettily — or was it the ostentation — the rich/poor divide spoiling the inherent inclusiveness of the early Christian community?
Whichever it was, or even if it was both, it occurred to me that this is a problem inherent in biblical literalism. If gold and pearls are under the ban, I can get round it by covering myself with bling that is neither gold nor pearls, can't I? In my household, some of the women do wear gold and pearls — real ones, made by crafts people who make an honest living that way, and also jewellery they themselves have made themselves from real gold and real pearls. But their taste is modest and quiet; no ostentation, no bling. I'd put money on it even St Peter wouldn't have his attention drawn to their earrings. Though maybe I'd lose the bet.
Anyway, it's always the spirit and not the letter you have to apply; and to do that advisedly, you have to undertake the soul work of digging down to uncover your own insecurities and prejudices and cultural influences — because the whole thing is highly interpretative. What is the spirit of the text? Where is it taking us? What are the implications? Why was it decided? With the gold and pearls, is it about wealth, or display, or sexuality, or all three? And how does it apply to men? And what about the opinion of the women? Which cultural phenomena is it addressing? You live always with the danger of interpreting the scripture according to what makes you feel comfortable; like the heterosexual homophobia that infests the church and grabs at proof texts in Romans and Leviticus, turning a blind eye to Jesus healing the centurion's pais, for example.
In the end, I think, the best rule of thumb is to live with a certain discipline of humility that makes rules for itself and not for everyone else. If you think gold and pearls are wrong, fine, don't wear them. If you think homosexual sex is wrong, fine, don't do it. If you think working and shopping on the Sabbath is wrong, fine, don't do that either. If you think it's wrong to curl your hair, keep it straight. But extend to other people the courtesy of developing their own moral framework, which may not be a perfect match for your own; and live alongside them in peace.
This means tending boundaries, of course. For example, if I think beating children is inadvisable but some particular school thinks beating children is fine, I'd be wise not to trust my child into their care. If I think intoxication is inadvisable, but I go to a church where wine and whisky and champagne are definitely on the community menu, I might steer clear of social events or change churches. As the Lao Tsu put it, the sage finds ways, like water, to flow around the blocks.
But a word of caution — one's boundaries should not extend to interfering with other people's moral choices, so far as those don't interfere with one's own. Take for example the recent furore created by Muslim people in the UK because at the school their children attended the curriculum allowed those children to discover that some families have same-sex parents. The Muslim parents in question considered the school had overrun Muslim boundaries by allowing the information that same-sex couples exist at all to reach their children. Making the people with whom one differs invisible is not, to my mind a fair boundary. Refusing to serve people in a hotel or cake shop because the morality of their personal relationships differs from one's own is not, to my mind a fair boundary. Fair boundaries mean the other person does not have the freedom to impose their preferences upon you, not that you cannot share the same space under any circumstances or only if you can force your moral framework upon them.
But as ever, I have no conclusions. I was just thinking about gold and pearls and when are they not gold and pearls, and why does it matter so much?