In our increasingly multi-faith and multi-cultural society, one challenge is how we find both meaningful and inclusive ways to celebrate, commemorate, lament and strengthen bonds of peace and harmony. On the one hand, erasing spiritual expression in the name of secular unity impoverishes and leaves us short of the depth and connections which community ritual can bring. On the other, it is not enough today simply to settle regularly for one expression of faith leadership, however well tried, nor just to include several such expressions (at the risk of length, tedium, and exclusion of other 'minority' voices). In Toowoomba, we have employed various approaches in recent years for important community gatherings and recognition of disaster and tragedy. Depending on circumstances, through the Toowoomba Goodwill Committee, we have both used traditional means and venues and multi-faith representation, and have also begun to create new pathways.
One of the most moving explorative community rituals was at Acland on Australia Day 2015 - see further here - but we have also developed a number of 'community affirmations' for special occasions, including Harmony Day - see here for a well-established example. Last Sunday was another wonderful step forward. Together with Toowoomba Regional Council, it was a delight, as chair of the Toowoomba Goodwill Committee, to work with the Nepalese Association of Toowoomba on a commemorative event to mark the Nepal earthquake last year. Using the lovely new Civic Square space at the new Toowoomba Library, we shared stories, music, video clips from Nepal, and a moving candlelight vigil - first lighting and circling the area with candles and then placing them by the water. It was a powerful expression of lament and commitment to renewal and of the binding of our different lives and backgrounds together to celebrate, support and heal our shared city and world.
My own contribution to the event is below - a new community affirmation for such occasions I hope we can develop further with other elements in the future:
TOOWOOMBA STANDING TOGETHER
Community Affirmation in the face of disaster and emergency
We meet today to affirm and support each other.
We acknowledge the first peoples of this land and their continued gifts among us.
We welcome all who join us in our shared journey of peace and harmony.
May we always celebrate our diversity as central to our common life and fruitfulness.
We stand with one another – Toowoomba Together
We meet today to share and honour our pain and sadness.
We hold with tenderness all that is hurting among us and in our broken world.
We offer up our sorrow, heartache and compassion.
May our tears and grief be transformed into healing and renewal.
We stand with one another – Toowoomba Together
We meet today to strengthen hope and solidarity.
We pledge ourselves to rebuild with love and courage.
We seek to do all we can to rejuvenate what has been destroyed.
May our hearts and hands always reach out to those in need, wherever they may be.
We stand with one another – Toowoomba Together:
many outlooks, many cultures – one community.
'When someone starts talking about principles, watch your back!' This was one of many 'bon mots' I learned from Geoff Garner, my delightful supervising vicar when I was a curate in the East End of London. Partly what he was saying was that when human beings become agitated, for or against a controversial proposal, humanity and genuine love go out the window. So called 'principles' and 'values' become used as weapons: at best providing insulation from genuine engagement, or, often, simply being used to harm others. Geoff himself knew well to his cost how this worked. As a founding member of LGCM (originally the Gay Christian Movement), as an inter-faith adviser to the Bishop of London, and in the open and humane way he ministered with others, he was frequently a target of others' internal difficulties and defensiveness. For Geoff, and for me, this is far from how Jesus lived, taught and acted.
Last weekend I spoke at the Toowoomba Marriage Equality event, sharing my own, positive, perspectives on what is too often an area of Christian 'principled' resistance and denial (click here for my address on that occasion). At the meeting, I was once more struck by the qualities of love, joy, and kindness so many LGBTI+ people have for one another and others. Since then, I have once more been overwhelmed by the generosity and warmth of fellow marriage equality supporters with whom I have corresponded. This, I believe, reflects the immense wellspring of love within the LGBTI+ community which still longs for full release. It is a powerful contrast with the spirit of some Christian circles which persist in turning their backs on this wonderful source of renewal for us all.
Most certainly, there is also Christian discomfort about marriage equality which is neither bigoted nor defensively armed with principles. One of my close Anglican colleagues for example is wary of marriage equality legislation because they feel some advocates are themselves equipped with principles (such as exaggerated 'rights' discourses) which they can wield like aggressive weapons. Perhaps, but I saw none of this last weekend in the keynote addresses of Marriage Equality leaders such as Shelley Argent and Rodney Croome. Instead they spoke with humour and humility about those things which touch all our lives: love and family, pain and joy, being valued, recognition and relationships. These are not abstract principles but the realities of life which bind us together.
One Christian leader who has upbraided me since last weekend accuses me, among other things, of being infected by humanism. It is one accusation - unlike many others - which, with qualifications, I am happy to own. For a healthy Christian humanism is surely an antidote to picking up the weapons of principle. Like my mentor Geoff Garner, I see in Jesus the embodiment of the humane as well as the the holy, someone who stood not on principle but in the power of love: in that sense being both fully human as well as fully revealing of the mystery of divine love which transcends all our human differences (male and female, Jew and Gentile, and all the rest - including queer and straight).
Julia Baird, in a recent article, reflects, in a typically incisive and balanced manner, on the challenges of discerning what is 'free' speech and what is 'hate' speech in the marriage equality debate. My sense is that part of the answer is in returning with prayerful discernment to the Christian injunction about 'speaking the truth in love' (Ephesians 4.15). Too often this can mean Christian justification for simply being mean, aggressive, demeaning, or worse. When I hear or read the words 'I just want to say this to you in Christian love', I am also instinctively tempted to duck for cover, just like Geoff Garner. It is hardly that I do not care about truth and truth-speaking. Part of my problem is that parts of the Church do not really want to explore truth and sometimes actively seek to silence the truths of others. No, the heart of the matter is what we mean by love. Is it truly an openness to genuine truth-seeking and the fresh insights of the Holy Spirit, or is it only a cover for ego and group fear and defensiveness? Whatever our views on marriage equality - and, sadly, the debate is likely to go on in the Church as a whole for ages after it is settled in Australia in law - when we come to 'speaking the truth in love', perhaps we need to spend more time on that last word love. It is too easy to leap to principle without love. For those of us who share in pastoral care, the ability to share a prophetic word is also important. Yet we need to be kind and compassionate in how, as well as what we say. For me, much maligned 'political correctness' often seems really to amount to no more than being polite and respectful to others - precisely the opposite of the Pharisaism, wielding principles like weapons, which Jesus so abhorred and transcended. We are not all agreed, not will we be, with or without a plebiscite. Most Christians however, for and against, genuinely seek to honour God and our conscience. So let us seek the truth indeed, but let us be gentle with it.
Forget the UPF anti-Muslim banner stunt at the MCG. Australians are generally much more civilised than most in dealing with religious and cultural diversity. This afternoon in Toowoomba was a case in point. Our Toowoomba Garden City Mosque is in serious need of re-building, following the fire almost a year ago. What to do? Why not, said our local Muslim community, ask the neighbours round for a cup of tea to talk it through? - and not with the slick presentation and glossy leaflet plans some groups might effect. So it was that, as chair of the Toowoomba Goodwill Committee, I also joined a goodly gathering of people from the immediate vicinity of the mosque for a meet and greet and disperse any heat. After all, I am an ethnically English Australian, and what is more English than a cup of tea (especially when you can be the vicar popping round)?
This kind of holy humdrum action is typical of community life in Toowoomba and further afield. Sadly, such widespread generous connections rarely get the attention the hotheads do. It is certainly very much representative of Muslim-wider community relationships in our city here. In one sense, it is simply just another step in the journey. Yet every stage matters, not least when there may be concerns about new local construction and the footprint it may provide. In this case, the plan is to remove the old de-mountable and extend the mosque (previously an old church building), widen the roof space but retaining the existing height limits, add three metres to the front to provide space for genuinely appropriate toliets and washing facilities, and put in a mezzanine level to enable women's space.
It was a delight to see and be part of the warm and genial conversations (even over parking), and to hear of the generosity of other locals, like one of our (other than Muslim) city lawyers who has provided legal advice towards the rebuilding for free. All of us enjoyed our time together and look forward to the next steps which will bring fresh community as well as physical environment pride to us all.
For several years Toowoomba hosted the major Christian gathering called Easterfest. This brought great life to the city and many people, especially young people, from far and near. St Luke's happily hosted part of the 'Gospel in the Chapel' program in recent years, with some magnificent Christian bands, individual musicians and dance perfomers. The closure of Easterfest last year therefore left a major gap in the Toowoomba city, as well as local Christian, calendar. As a response, many in the Christian community collaborated this year with the Regional Council in something new - the Streets and Lanes Festival - bringing new life to the city centre on Holy Saturday with various music performers and other activities in the streets and lanes. St Luke's was a key site. Here is a brief report:
All day people came to St. Luke's to enjoy the friendly atmosphere, share food and fabulous coffee, and wander among the various stalls. Children particularly enjoyed the three stations of activities prepared for them, around the themes of suffering, rising and walking to Emmaus. Their green and yellow footsteps painted on calico formed a wonderful addition to our worship on The Sunday after Easter. The range and skill of the performers, dancers and musicians who graced the afternoon was tremendous and certainly added to the beauty of the afternoon, and the rain held off until the last note was played and the last two walkers completed their meditative walk around the labyrinth. Meanwhile in church dozens of people enjoyed the quiet atmosphere and the chance to reflect upon the visual meditation on the passion and resurrection ably curated by Sharon Roberts. All in all a blessed afternoon that we hope to repeat in years to come.
Jo Inkpin an Anglican priest, trans woman, theologian and justice activist. These are some of my reflections on life, spirit, and the search for peace, justice and sustainable creation.