“In solidarity” – comforting or upsetting?

Do you find people talking about suffering “in solidarity” with some other group of people comforting, or does it upset you more?

One of the mainstays of the sympathy of the clergy in regard to the fact that many of us have been deprived partly or completely of our worship and/or normal sacramental practice by COVID-19 prevention policies is to explain that our suffering is “in solidarity with X group of people who have the same problem.”

For example, someone told me that our being deprived of the capacity to receive the Precious Blood put us in solidarity with poor Churches that can’t afford enough wine for the whole congregation to receive, and today I received a letter which talked about our loss of the Sacraments being “in solidarity” with persecuted Christians similarly deprived.

Like a lot of things, I do completely appreciate that those who say it mean to comfort, and also like a lot of these things, I am actually deeply upset by it.

When such disjoints between what is meant and what is heard happen, it is very important for people to talk about them and discuss why – otherwise we are heading for a state worse than that of those on the unfinished tower of Babel!

Part of the fact that I find the “in solidarity” convention upsetting is to do with perspective, for although the clergy are undoubtedly having an extremely hard time, they are not in quite the same position as the rest of us with regard to these things.  Which means that one group of people are saying to a second that they (the second group) are suffering something that first group is not suffering “in solidarity” with some different third party.  I feel that this is an inappropriate external imposition of a spiritual and emotional response which, while it may be very worthy, can only be a personal response coming from inside, not a response one group of people can assume will come from another.

This would perhaps suggest a more tentative phrasing would be better: “some people may find it helps to think of this suffering as being in solidarity with…” rather than an apparent expectation that we should respond like this and find it comforting or useful.

Moreover, I’d comment that I personally don’t usually find the insistence that other people are suffering the same, more, or worse, comforting when I am myself suffering intense grief.  Sometimes it may be necessary to hear it for practical reasons, but often people draw attention to others’ suffering as if they suppose it to be comforting – that it will somehow lessen the burden of my own grief.  But the notion that enduring not only my own grief, but that inevitably suffered in empathy with the others I am being reminded of, will cause me to suffer less rather than more, seems odd to me.  This doesn’t just apply to the solidarity comment, but to a lot of others.  (I suspect this difference is down to personality type and the manner in which any particular person processes things).

Finally, I think it is that “in solidarity” is straightforwardly not something that helps me with this type of intense spiritual confusion.  It is the very essence of Hell that solidarity is not a possible response.  It would not have the nature it has, if it did not cut off the possibility of relating to anyone else inside it or with regard to it.  In this particular type of confusion, to appeal to solidarity is a category mistake.  This reason for not appealing to “in solidarity” would only apply to things that elicit this response in others, and I have no idea how common it is as a spiritual response to the loss of worship or the sacraments*.  That it is possible, however, should be theoretically obvious**.

What do you think?  If you talk to others of solidarity, why do you feel it could be helpful?  If you hear people saying it, do you find it comforting or upsetting, and what do you think the reason for your response is?

Cherry Foster



*I am among those who would test the soundness of spiritual responses by asking if they are consistent with the Tradition, not by asking whether or not they are normal.  That is, if someone says “I felt God called me to commit a murder,” or that He told them to worship Ashtaroth, then I would think them almost certainly deceived.  And similarly there are things I really experience spiritually that I do regard as unsound because they are contrary to theological truth – I regard them as something to be acknowledged as there, but not accepted as right or true.  But that is different from assuming something incorrect merely because it is unusual, and it seems to me there is a tendency to do that.

**Assuming that Hell is properly understood as a state of exile from God, and that the things we do in worship are real, both of which statements I would contend are correct, and would seem to me to be what my branch of the Church (traditionalist Anglo-Catholic) generally teaches (yes, people are welcome to tell me I’m wrong about that :-P.  But some of us do actually listen to what is said in Church and think about it, however much of a shock this may be to those who are not used to people taking an interest!  I’ll expand on the whole question if anyone actually wants me to).

By the way, the one helpful thing someone did say to me – in case it is of use to anyone else – was to remind me of the vision of St. Silouan: “keep your mind in Hell – and despair not“.




Looking like a mother?

I am in general exceedingly reluctant to make statements about God’s judgement, between our inability to know the state of someone else’s soul and their real intentions, the fact that the mind of God is not the mind of man, and the injunctions against the usurping of the judgement of God in the New Testament.

However, allowing for all these caveats, in as far as things can be said on this matter by mere mortals, taking into account both the letter and tenor of Scripture and such elements of the Tradition with which I am familiar, I think I can say with reasonable confidence, and without too much fear of contradiction, that no-one will be held to account at the last judgement, for the inherent action of taking their toddler to a group at the library without their make-up on!

School Library Wikamedia commons no copyright
Photo Source: Wikimedia Commons


The ongoing emphasis on the appearance and presentation of women in our culture is strange.  In some ways we seem not to have shaken off the notion that a woman has nothing to offer humanity but being pretty or sexy, and that any other task or role in life isn’t really important compared to that*. Somehow, a frivolous view of femininity – of womanliness as nothing more than girly frills and exposed cleavage – still seems to have a surprising hold.

I don’t think it is a sin in and of itself to put make-up on. I am not criticising in any way the mother who leaves her children sometimes with her husband, their granny, or a competent babysitter, and takes appropriate time off to dress up and go to a party. It is part of the basic duties of some jobs to meet a certain standard of personal presentation and that is in a different category altogether. Nor would I in any way think anyone should criticise a mother who goes out immaculately presented due to her baby not needing extra attention that morning, or because she happens to find these things easy and doesn’t need much time or energy for them.

However, if a woman has gone out to a toddler group with her hair not done or her make-up not on, because baby was fractious this morning, or because her husband had had a bad night and was expecting a difficult day and she took the time to make lunch for him, or because the toddler went crash down the bottom three stairs and needed a lot of kissing better, this should not be a matter for sneering. On the contrary, those who put care for other people** before their personal appearance have their priorities right.


417px-MAC_pink_lipstick_(1) wikimedia commons, copyright to attribution
Source: Wikimedia commons



*I have no idea if or how similar attitudes affect men – I would be very interested to hear!

**In proportion – i.e. with a certain attention to equality of sacrifice when the relationships are between adults. If the husband is working a twelve-hour day six days a week, and the wife has a servant to help her, there probably is no inequality in her fetching his slippers when he is at home. But when the husband is working an eight-hour day five days and the woman can no longer get help, things may be starting to get skewed.

It seems to me that a tendency to run to extremes – to create either situations where the carer is regarded as selfish to have ordinary human needs of their own, or situations where a person is positively supposed to put their trivial desires before anything else – is one of the problems we tend to have as a society in creating and maintaining healthy serving and caring roles.


Cherry Foster

Six things parish priests can do to encourage religious vocations

Lead us, Lord, lead us in Thy righteousness, make Thy way plain before our face.

Vocations to the religious life (as to the priesthood, marriage, or anything else) are a gift to the whole church, and therefore are the concern of the whole church, particularly – as in the Anglican Church at present – when the religious life is in a conservation dependent state…

I’d like to offer the following practical suggestions as to what might be done to further support religious discerners by parish clergy, and to assist those who have this vocation to bring it to fruition (a).

Naturally, I have a particular perspective – that of an Anglican traditionalist young woman with a contemplative religious vocation – and I’d be delighted by any additions/further thoughts about what might help from people with other perspectives.

Nun_on_a_motor-bike_2_-_by_Francis_Hannaway copyright to attribution
Theresiennes Sister. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Nun_on_a_motor-bike_2_-_by_Francis_Hannaway.jpg

Pray for vocations to the religious life, and pray that the Church may have wisdom in responding to them. The work is God’s.

Aim to offer real encouragement and support to lay people in living an authentic Christian life. Learning about the faith, support and encouragement in making Christian counter-cultural lifestyle choices (such as simplicity and chastity), having opportunities to grow in depth of prayer and real commitment, having opportunities to serve the Church not contingent on having the right friends, all help. It is the depth of Christian formation that we acquire in our initial stage as lay people that will or will not carry us through the spiritual and practical turmoil of discernment to wherever God really wants us. In practice, people often seem so keen on being sensitive to those not yet ready for deeper commitment, that they talk in a way that implies that those who do want a real, challenging commitment to the Faith are non-existent or crazy!

Remember the value of silence. The silence and stillness and focus in worship in which God can be heard and responded to is particularly important for discerners to the religious life, indeed, for anyone of a contemplative disposition, and it is very hard to find in the modern world, even in Church. Looking for creative solutions to real pastoral needs (e.g. the importance of welcoming young children) instead of sacrificing silence and focus in worship is likely to make an immense difference to those whose spiritual development is in the direction of the religious life. Pastoral sympathy is also significant: avoid saying things to those who need silence and focus during worship that you wouldn’t say the equivalent of to those who have difficulty being quiet (b).

Mention the role of and need for the religious life in a sermon occasionally. It’s also worth being a bit cautious about saying things which, unqualified, would suggest that nothing is of value except a purely active apostolate.  I fear we have as a church (not just the clergy) got rather good at sending the message to everyone that we only want some other group of people!

Be conscious that religious life is a very different charism from the priesthood. I sympathise with the difficult position that the clergy are in, in having to try to guide and support those on a very different path – and to have to try to judge the authenticity of spiritual things they have no experience of. But it is important that the religious life shouldn’t be reduced to those things it has in common with the priestly charism. We – and other non-ordained people – bring different gifts and have a different experience. It helps if priests are open-minded about accepting the aspects of religious discerners’ relationship to God and response to worship that aren’t part of their experience – if they aim to discern authenticity against the standard of the whole faith tradition, not against the standard of the specific priestly charism (c).

Treat discerners, including contemplative discerners, as part of parish life until/unless a way opens up for them into something different. People (laity as well as priests) have a bit of a tendency to (unconsciously) assume that because a parish isn’t a suitable place for contemplatives, they should go somewhere else, therefore, a parish need make no effort to include them. This results in their needs being considered irrelevant when decisions are being made: as they should be somewhere else, it is their problem if they are finding it difficult, not ours. However, inclusion in the compromises, and the belonging that goes with that, is likely to make a lot of difference to capacity to persist. “This will help/hinder discerners to the religious life” can be taken into account when deciding whether to do or not do things in the same way as “this will help/hinder the MU/the schoolchildren/the food bank”. I have the impression it is often not realised that there may be no-where else to go – or not yet – and that it is necessary on both sides to try to make the best of an often difficult practical situation (d).





(a) The clergy do unbelievably well given their current difficulties, and I would like to particularly thank all who have helped me.

(b) For an example of what I mean by equivalents: to snap “it’s really important to welcome children” at a contemplative discerner who makes a comment about struggling with background noise is the equivalent of snapping “it is really important to have silence” at the mother of a toddler who makes a comment about the difficulties of keeping them quiet. Whatever is intended, and irrespective of the truth of the statement, what’s likely to be heard is: “we don’t want people like you”.

(c) The most significant example that I’m aware of, both in my own experience and in reading and listening to other people, is an immense difference in the way contemplative religious tend to engage with the Eucharist from that which usually belongs to the charism of the (parish) clergy. For instance, I greatly value receiving in both kinds, and tend to be very distressed by having to do otherwise. The clergy tend to respond that it can’t matter because Communion is valid in one kind. But this is missing the point. In as far as I can express it, I value and treasure the gift he gave us of the Precious Blood, and it matters to me to honour that gift and the love behind it by receiving it as well. Most of what we do in Church is devotionally important rather than necessary for validity. I have no desire to interfere with those who don’t experience Communion this way, for whatever different good purpose of God, but I feel that it is a matter of concern that value for His gifts and the desire to receive them fully and completely should be regarded as a negative thing, and not as part of a charism that is a gift to the Church. My experience on this point is not the result of a theological error, but of a different type of devotional engagement.  The fact this tends not to be on the map as a possibility seems to cause a lot of unnecessary tensions in a lot of different aspects of parish life.

(d) As an Anglo-Catholic traditionalist young woman, I am a solitary because all three of our communities turned me down on the basis of community demographics, and neither of the Bishops I have worked with was able to find any formal adjunct relationship for me. The number of discerners who end up in this particular plight may vary with denomination, age, sex, and theological affiliations. However, it does seem to me that in general, monasteries like people to take time over entering, while priests in the rest of the church assume that discerners to the religious life will be out from under their feet very quickly, and therefore that it is an issue which is not really their business. This is liable to create a gap of several years in which discerners don’t belong anywhere in the church, which it is an incredible struggle to get through.


N.B. I would like to note a confusion of language in this post between “religious discerners” and “contemplatives” and similar designations. This largely results from an awareness that I do not know how much of what I am saying is shared by those discerning active religious vocations or with those of a contemplative disposition who don’t have a vocation to the contemplative religious life. I’ve done my best – please enlighten me if I have got it wrong!


Cherry Foster

Fear the Smear

When I was sixteen, I received letters from my medical practice desiring that I should come for tests for Chlamydia.  They wouldn’t leave me alone on the subject when I came in for visits on other matters, either, though to do the doctors justice, I think they did put a stop to that after I protested.

It is true that I haven’t kept those letters, but as I remember it, nowhere did they acknowledge that it is actually possible not to have sex, and that if you do not have sex, the risk of sexually transmitted diseases is usually negligible, and certainly not worth either the unpleasantness of the medical tests or the use of NHS resources.

I requested an opt out several times, which was mostly ignored. Whether it was accepted in the end, or whether I simply “timed-out” on the screening programme, I have never been quite sure.

But my relief was short lived, because shortly afterwards I started receiving demands that I should come for smear testing for cervical cancer. There was no opt out with the form; on requesting an opt out, the surgery demanded that I sign papers saying I understand the risk.

Perfectly. There is none. I have never been sexually active.

In this case I think the relevance of that was just about acknowledged somewhere on the letter, but not sufficiently to alter the actual attitude encountered in a significant way.  The letter that came back from the opt-out request didn’t say, for example, “are you in one of these low risk categories?”. It assumed you must be high risk and must have this risk shoved blatantly in your face before you persisted in your ill-chosen course of declining screening!

I appreciate that the people pushing these screening programmes mean well. But it seems to me that there is a failure to consider the wider picture regarding the attitudes and norms they are actually promoting.

The medical system in the UK doesn’t regard telling people to eat fruit and vegetables as judgemental. They don’t assume that they should encourage people to go on smoking while putting lots of testing and early intervention programmes in place for the likely health risks. But instead of suggesting that people shouldn’t have promiscuous sex for the sake of their health*, they put resources into trying to support people in doing so – and talk as if saying “no” responsibly was not possible.

Could there be anything more disempowering and dehumanising to women (or to men) than treating sex as if it was something that just happened to you? Something over which you have no control or power of decision? Something you don’t have to take responsibility for the consequences of? Something you can’t say “no” to?

Yet how can we continuously talk about sexually transmitted diseases without acknowledging the possibility of sexual abstinence as the best way of not catching them, without sending exactly those messages?

I want to encourage other people for whom these tests for sexually transmitted diseases are not relevant to stand up against the “wrong to refuse” attitude, and to say “no” with confidence. In refusing these tests, we are rejecting a set of values which, however unconsciously advocated, is extremely sinister.




*It is true that I have a traditional Christian view of sexual ethics that goes beyond the single dimension of the risks to physical health, but what I’m interested in here is the inconsistency of the response of our medical system regarding the health risks of different types of physically unwise conduct. The English education system as it was when I came through it was doing exactly the same thing – sending the message that anyone who abstains from promiscuous sex is so peculiar it need not be acknowledged as a possibility – but that was more than 15 years ago and I don’t know how things have changed.

Edit (14/5/19) I should add, I think, a clarification: I don’t object to screening programmes for (primarily) sexually transmitted diseases being made available, at least not for the reasons stated here (probably not at all, but medical prevention issues are complex, and I reserve judgement in as far as I haven’t been into other issues).  What I am suggesting is wrong are various attitudes surrounding these tests and the way they are promoted.  (I hope they don’t refuse to check smokers for smoking related cancers: I see that as the closest equivalent).

I would also add that I think the whole question of how much pressure the medical profession can put on people to have or not have any sort of treatment/tests without compromising the principles of consent should probably be discussed more.

In Defence of Parental Automony

Parents, in normal circumstances, are the proper judges of what is in the child’s best interests, even where those decisions are made as a result of a non-mainstream world view and have serious consequences.


In the Middle Ages, the accepted view tended to be that infants that died without being baptised would either go to hell or fail to attain heaven and end up in limbo (1).

The intellectual background to this is interesting, but it is not a view that seems to be widely held now among Western Christians, probably for a variety of reasons both good and bad.

However mistaken we may now suppose the belief, many people at the time sincerely and rationally held that the infant’s welfare, and often its eternal destiny, rested on its being baptised.

A natural consequence of this belief was the desire to make sure all infants were baptised, including the children of Jewish parents. It makes complete sense, in that world view, to argue that for the sake of the children’s welfare, the children of “unbelievers” should be baptised against the will of their parents.

Aquinas insisted in the Summa Theologicae, that in fact non-Christian parents had the right to refuse baptism for their children. (2).

In modern thought, Aquinas emerges from this debate as the hero, the defender of human rights as we would see them, though his reasons for defending these rights are not the reasons a modern liberal would have.

But, thinking around this, I have come to think that the same argument, in modern times, ought to apply to the right of parents to choose what medical treatment a child has.

The easiest example is the controversial one of the Jehovah’s Witnesses and blood transfusions. I completely disagree with the Jehovah’s Witnesses on the point of blood transfusions: I believe it is bad theology in every way. But I don’t think the rest of us have the right to impose our world view on them – or on their children before their children are of an age to decide for themselves that they wish to consent to the mainstream world view and not that of their parents.

Just as the people of the middle ages believed that children’s welfare was best served by baptism, we think that their welfare is best served by having a blood transfusion when that is medically indicated. Just as it was wrong for the people of the Middle Ages to try to impose baptism on the children of those parents who did not think their children’s welfare best served by baptism, it is reasonable to argue that it is equally wrong to impose such medical treatment on the children of parents who do not think their welfare is best served by it.

It is an issue of world view. The parents do not believe this is ethical medical treatment, they believe it will compromise their child’s access to salvation, and they therefore do not believe their children will benefit from having it (3). This can only be challenged by demonstrating a different theology/world view, either that of the mainstream Christian churches (which would interpret those passages in scripture in a very different way) or that of the secular world, in putting the saving of earthly life before any other consideration (except a few issues regarding respecting other people’s rights (4)). The notion that a person’s biological life should be saved at almost any cost is a world view conviction. It is not a necessary or universally held belief; indeed, Christianity rejects it in theory in holding that one should die rather than deny Christ. To refuse to respect the ordinary medical decisions of parents because we don’t agree with their world view is difficult to justify within liberalism (5).

It is true that I don’t share much of the liberal understanding, as I have a world view which I believe to be incompatible with the individualism on which liberalism is based, and I hold that liberalism is rather deficient in explanatory power, but my theories give similar answers regarding personal freedom on matters of this sort (6). (In any case, it is possible to argue that a theory to which you don’t subscribe is being internally inconsistent according to its own principles).

Parents do a tough job, often under very difficult circumstances, practically and emotionally. Deciding what is in a child’s best interests, even in normal circumstances, is not easy. Courts and doctors are not infallible (7) any more than medieval theologians were, even within their own subject matter. They are certainly not infallible when it comes to questions of world view, which are not their expertise. To insist that children should be given medical treatment contrary to the parents’ wishes, where the parents have not forfeited their natural authority by deliberate abuse or malice towards the child, is to create a situation where children are regarded by society as detached from their families in a worrying way.

This is perhaps easier to illustrate in contexts other than medical autonomy. I remember an article in my council magazine that talked about wanting more children to have the chance to live with their families. Or people comment on the merits or otherwise of “giving parents more authority”. The assumption behind both those ways of thinking is that authority over the children does not primarily and automatically belong to the parents, but to representatives of the nation (local councillors, teachers, social workers), who have the authority to delegate it to parents if they so choose, and not if they don’t. Did anyone actually intend that, and if so, have they really thought through what it means?

While I have no precise answers as to when it is legitimate (8), I am not arguing that there is no situation in which a judge can overrule parents or a child be taken away from an abusive family. I do think there comes a point where the natural authority of the parents is forfeited by its misuse, and in that case, the child is a person in the wider community, and we have the duty to go to its aid, just as we would if their parents were absent through death or mentally incapacitated by illness. And I appreciate that the people involved in wanting to give medical treatment, or wanting to take a child away from a family, are desperately keen on looking after the child, and are not motivated by any ulterior motive.

However, I think that, among other things, we need to keep the stolen generation and the forced baptism of the children of non-Christian parents before our eyes as a society when considering what it is right to do and not do. The fact that the best interests of the child properly come first, over and above any individual rights of the parents in the child, does not in itself entitle us to appoint ourselves, or the nation state and its representatives, as the primary judges and defenders of what those best interests are. Parents are, under all normal circumstances, the proper judge of a minor child’s best interests. Believing we are right, or even actually being right in a particular case, does not entitle us to impose our decision on the child instead.

I don’t want to pretend the question is easy or simple; I have every respect for the fact that people come honestly to different conclusions on this matter for good reasons. However,  despite the fact that it is radical, I have come to think that parents having a different world view, and/or a different idea of what will best serve the child’s welfare, is not, on its own, something that entitles our society to overrule their normal autonomy to say yes or no to medical treatment for their child, and that we should, socially and legally, respect the medical autonomy of these parents unless there is some other reason not to do so.



1.This gives a very wide range of possibilities as to the actual unpleasantness of their fate, complicated by the fact that Heaven, Hell, and similar, are not final destinations in Christianity (at least, not in a disembodied state), though in some ages this slips out of the intellectual picture. See: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/09256a.htm for the history, note, however, that it is not up to date: https://www.britannica.com/topic/limbo-Roman-Catholic-theology. John Donne’s comments on the subject, interestingly, are very much in the “baptism is the normal means of grace but we can’t limit God’s power to it and claim he can’t save without it” line. (John Donne, 1572-1631 was an Anglican theologian; The Oxford Authors: John Donne, edited by John Carey, Oxford University Press 1990, page 328).

2.  http://www.newadvent.org/summa/4068.htm#article10 (Note about reading Aquinas: he writes in an argumentative form, starting with arguments for the view he doesn’t hold; his own position is stated under the subheadings: “on the contrary” and “I answer that”).

3. This mostly comes from my memories of a conversation I had with someone who knocked on my door some years ago. See also https://www.jw.org/en/medical-library/blood-transfusion-bioethics-medical-law/ and https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3934270/ The latter discusses the denial of the right of competent adults to refuse medical treatment in life-threatening cases, which I have not previously heard discussed; I have taken for granted in this post that the wish of an adult to refuse treatment would be accepted without question, the only difficulty being the sort of emergency situation where treatment is necessary instantly and the wishes of the patient cannot be determined.

I’d point out that the arguments used for forcing blood transfusions on adults there could equally be used to justify forced abortion in similar circumstances.

To the “nobody can be deprived of life by their own parents” argument, I would reply that the parents are not depriving the child of life, but that it is a case of double effect, as in any case of the refusal of a good consequence on the grounds that the means are illegitimate. If parents refused to accept an organ taken from a live donor against that donor’s consent, or even a traded organ, for their child on ethical grounds despite the fact that the child would die without the transplant, I do not think it would be held that they were depriving the child of life. Disagreeing with the principles does not mean we should refuse to respect integrity.

4. We had some interesting debates on this at university. In my experience, most people with a secular world view, whose summary position is that anything is permissible to save a life, do in fact draw the line at, for instance, an organ transplant taken from a live donor contrary to their consent.

5. To go into the whole problem of liberalism and minors – the fact that it is difficult to accommodate children logically in a theory which doesn’t allow for the development of rationality within a tradition – would be too far out of the subject, but I am well aware of it as an issue of difference. Parental authority is something that tends to be justified by natural law theories of a particular type, and that liberals could challenge me here regarding their view by saying that parental autonomy is not part of their ideas. My response would be that if it is not possible to justify parental autonomy in matters such as medical treatment, it is almost certainly even more difficult to justify the nation state as having that authority instead. It should also be remembered that sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander: the right of the thirteen-year-old daughter of Roman Catholic parents to be prescribed the contraceptive pill contrary to her parents’ wishes, on the grounds that she has adequate capacity to make her own decision, is the right of the Jehovah’s Witness teenager of similar maturity to take the risk of refusing a blood transfusion on the same grounds.

6. I am a communitarian rather than a liberal, however, I agree, with some qualifications, with MacIntyre’s position that a nation state is not a type of community which can have an extensive shared notion of the common good. This tends to produce similar answers to those that liberalism would give on this type of question, despite the fact that the chain of reasoning by which they are reached is fundamentally different. (Stephen Mulhall and Adam Swift; Liberals and Communitarians; second edition; Blackwell Publishing 1996; pages 98-101). As far as liberalism goes, I am arguing that the denial of parental autonomy in cases like those of the Jehovah’s Witnesses is not consistent with the liberal position, even though I do not share the liberal position except coincidentally.

7. See John Stuart Mill; On Liberty; Penguin Classics 1985; p. 77-83.

8. To have a precise answer to this question would require a theory regarding exactly what authority properly appertains to the individual, the family, local community, and nation state, in what circumstances, and why, and that is a very complicated question.


Cherry Foster

The Odd One Out

I came across the following – pulled, I think, from an agony aunt column – on another blog*, and it intrigued me enough to want to try to write my own response to it. I think it is interesting, and hopefully helpful, to try to look at it from both sides.

I wrote this with Portia’s dictum ringing in my ears: “I can easier teach twenty what were good to be done, than be one of the twenty to follow mine own teaching.”** And also with the awareness that one never really understands what someone else is experiencing from the outside: there could be a lot more to the original situation that I’m not really getting.



Every fall, my sister, cousins and a cousin’s sister-in-law have a weekend shopping excursion in our home city.
We stay in a hotel, treat ourselves, shop for our children and go out for lunches and dinners. It is a great time to reconnect.

I have a sister “Wendy,” who we do not invite. She is offended to the point of tears when she finds we have not invited her. My two sisters and I are very close in age, but Wendy hasn’t been as close to this set of cousins as my sister and I have been through the years.

We are all married stay-at-home moms. Wendy is a divorced, working mom with one young child.

There are several reasons we do not include her. We know she doesn’t have very much money for such an outing. She also does not have many of the same interests as we do. Her life is quite different from ours. We’re not interested in what she has to talk about. She complains too much about her aches and pains, and claims to have some kind of neurological disease that some of us feel is more psychosomatic than real and which she uses to avoid getting up for church on Sundays.

She also complains about her ex-husband who left her for another woman, but everyone knows it takes “two to tango” and she is not without fault.

We’re all very active churchgoers, while she only sporadically attends services. Plain and simple, she does not really fit in with us anymore.

She takes it very personally, and last year even came over to my home unannounced crying about it, which upset my children and caused my husband to threaten to call the police if she did not leave.

Now she barely speaks to me and has told our relatives that I am a horrible person (even though I’ve helped her).

How can we get her to understand that she should perhaps find another set of friends whose lives and interests align more closely with hers? — Sad Sister



I appreciate that this is a difficult situation for you, in that presumably you don’t get much time out, and it is hard not to be able to spend all that time with others whom you find are able to refresh you. However, your sister is your sister, and can reasonably expect to be invited to your shared outings if she wants to be.

Making room for others who have different interests and different lifestyles can require a lot of effort. It can also bring a lot of rewards.

With regard to her complaining, people often do complain a lot when they feel they are not being believed. It isn’t your problem to judge her health or how far she has a real reason for not going to Church – that is between her and God (and those advising her if she receives guidance). And as far as her husband goes, if it takes two to tango, it must follow that he was genuinely to blame as well! In which case what she is complaining about may be completely sound. People are more likely to be able to come to terms with their faults, and acknowledge and amend them, in a sympathetic, supportive, and loving environment, than in an environment where they are being criticised and condemned. Also, if she is being drawn away from attending Church, it would probably be good if people who do still attend are able to include her and keep her in touch with Church life: it is likely to be easier for her to return that way, than if she is being drawn further away by fully secular friends.

I suggest that the appropriate thing to do would be for you and your cousins and sister-in-law to have a frank discussion regarding why you find it difficult to have her with you. After which, perhaps one of you – whoever is the most likely negotiator – might try inviting her out for lunch (or whatever the family tends to do) in a friendly way, and try to see her side of it and her point of view, with a view to inviting her to join in with you in some mutually workable way. If it is impossible for you to get along if certain subjects are mentioned, try to negotiate rules such as that she doesn’t complain about her husband to you, while none of you criticise her for being divorced.

It might also be worth trying to rebuild your relationship with her independently. While she might refrain from criticising you in quite those terms, at least outside confidential conversations, I feel she probably does have a bit of a grievance. She obviously cares about you and about being part of the family and being included, and it does sound as if you are not really making as much room for her as you might. I don’t think charity involves denying other people’s faults or trying to pretend they are not there – that doesn’t do anyone any good – but it does involve trying to be gentle with them, in the knowledge that we are asking others to do that for our faults too.

If you are willing to compromise, it may be that she will in time spontaneously do so too, and, for example, come along on the outings but spend part of the time doing something else, or with other friends, giving you the space you need together to talk about your mutual interests and give each other mutual support, while enriching your friendship group the rest of the time with a different point of view. It will take work and input and some sacrifices on your part, but it may well also bring great rewards. Friendships and relationships which have involved sacrifices are often more solid than those which have always been easy.





**The Merchant of Venice, Act one, scene two

Simplicity or Accuracy – but not both…

Why I find it difficult to make simple requests about my extra needs

In the world of Ugg, dragon’s blood and eggs are part of the stable diet.

This particular alien, however, has something of an intolerance and has to be careful how much she eats.

On attending a conference, she finds the message hasn’t got through, and she has to explain to the catering staff at the counter, that she probably needs something else to eat.

“Well, I can’t eat very much dragon’s products,” she stammers out. “Less in the evening. Does this have more than a yiff or so in it?”

The staff don’t know. “Well, I would hazard it in the morning,” she hesitates, “But, well, a portion probably only has one egg in it? If you take the dragon’s blood batter off? That would probably be ok. I can take about five yiffs if I eat them early in the day, but not in the evening.”

The serving staff try to work it out, but they don’t do the cooking, and they aren’t clear what’s needed.

By this time the hungry queue is getting exasperated. Just make a decision. Just say you need something dragon-free. That’s simple. They should have dragon-free cook-chill meals in the freezer. That’s what they need to hear.

Yes. But if she says that she needs a dragon-free meal, when the staff or fellow attendees see her eating the dragon’s-blood cake for elevenses the next day, will they think, casually, “oh, she’s able to take moderate amounts sometimes, it was just simpler for everyone for her to ask for a dragon-free supper”? Or will they condemn her for malingering and being selfish and giving unnecessary trouble, and refuse in future to give her dragon-free food when she does need it, or do so resentfully and sullenly? Will they make her ill by saying spitefully that things are dragon-free when they aren’t, because they’ve decided that she must be lying about having a problem?

The other aliens are likely to jump the conclusion that she must be unable to eat any dragon products, on the strength of the fact that the easiest way for everyone of handling what she did need at that moment was for her to ask for a dragon-free meal, and that will cause her a lot of other difficulties.

As someone with an extremely complex disability, I don’t mind simplifying what I say about my needs to make it easier for people. What makes it difficult to simplify, and causes me to keep giving extremely complex descriptions which people couldn’t take in all at once even if they wanted to know, is that simple descriptions are inevitably inaccurate, and our cultural mind-set doesn’t allow for that. Simple descriptions and requests don’t and can’t represent the whole picture, but people usually suppose that they do.

As a result, when people with extra needs do simplify, the second the simple description doesn’t match the reality, there are generally people who instantly and angrily start accusing us of pretending. “I thought you said you needed… but you don’t, you wicked, horrible person, who doesn’t really have any extra needs, pretending in order to get sympathy/to the front of the queue/exam privileges”. Or – which is often worse – who respond to their assumption that we must be lying by clandestinely making sure we can’t get what we need.  People without special needs who don’t do this are probably not aware of how much it happens.

We can simplify when appropriate to make it easier for people: I think the discussion about how best to handle and communicate special requirements smoothly and efficiently is ongoing. But communication is necessarily mutual. Where people want simple, easy descriptions and requests, we need to ask in return that they accept that simple descriptions will be inaccurate, and that the automatic assumption, when we do or need things which don’t match what we’ve said to the letter, should be that our needs or difficulties are more complicated than we were initially able to convey in a few sentences.


Cherry Foster