A reflection on what is needed next, on the eve of the first Australian university course in Queer Theology, at Pilgrim College, UCA Centre for Ministry, Melbourne, at the invitation of the Australian Collaborators in Feminist Theologies.
Acknowledgement of Country
First let us acknowledge that the land on which we gather is the sovereign and unceded country of the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nations. We pay our respects to their Elders, past and present, who have cared for this country since its creation. May we have courage to work for a more just settlement between Indigenous peoples and later comers.
'aye oop dook'
Let me share a personal story. After coming out publicly as transgender woman, I’d gone back to England: mostly to see my ailing parents, but also to visit some old haunts, not least my beloved childhood football club. For, in addition to an abiding love of history, three ‘f’ words had particularly kept me alive growing up: faith, feminism, and football (the ‘beautiful game’ version). Stepping through the old gates was thus a coming home on several levels, but also a moving forward. I stopped for a second to view the stadium, so well known to me, yet seen quite afresh. The rough and ready steward caught me gazing and said kindly, in a broad local accent: ‘aye oop dook, do yer knor where yer gor-in?’ ‘Oh yes’, I said, blown away by his greeting, ‘but thank you so much. I’m just breathing it in again.’ It was a very powerful moment. The steward probably did not know what he had done. He had called me ‘dook’ – duck – a typically friendly local address for a female you don’t know personally. So I felt fully recognised in what, in some ways, remains my second home. I had been fully accepted, just as I was. Did I know where I was going? I sure did. I was returning to the old railway end of my formative years. This time however, not with accompanying fears of sexist, homophobic, and transphobic violence: made audible even, in the periodic chants of fellow ‘supporters’, and in very real, occasionally violent, skirmishes. Now, we, my club and I, were a community together: a place where we might greet one another by our true identities; where we might build a future. It was part of a wider welcome journey too: the rise of my little football club from near extinction into some of its best years: a rise reconnecting all kinds of people in revivified community.
sport and queerphobia
Certainly football has a long way to go in queer, and feminist, acceptance, even if the more loveable levels of my little club show the way forward. It is slightly different too in the women’s game, but the recent coming out of gay male players and referees in Australia and England has understandably made news. For homophobia, like sexism and racism, is still very much alive in the world of sport. We also hardly need to mention sporting transphobia right now, do we?! This year’s mega money World Cup will also take place in one of the world’s least queer friendly nations. Yet, uneven though progress is, we are moving. German football is at least being typically professional about transgender participation, even if Anglo sport may be recoiling into misplaced prejudice. What though of faith spaces for queer people? Do we ‘knor’ where we are ‘goor-in’?
We are marking a little historic landmark this week with the Queer Theology course, here at Pilgrim College, within the University of Divinity: probably the first such university level course in Australia. We would therefore like publicly to thank all those involved in enabling this to happen, and those, not least queer elders, who have paved the way. For these things do not usually happen without struggle. Each step of liberation also not only needs celebrating but typically means much more than we sometimes recognise. Each new light encourages other lights and helps darkness be further dispersed. As such, it is also a good moment to ‘breathe it in’, and to take stock of where, as fellow ‘dooks’, we might be ‘gor-in’…
It would be good to feel we might move on from some of the worst of spiritual violence towards queer people, on and off the field in Australia. One of the most powerful images of the last federal election was of the then Prime Minister ‘bulldozing’ a small child in a game of association football. It epitomised the misuse of power, lack of fairness and clumsy cruelty of the former Government’s handling of issues of religious freedom and LGBTIQ+ rights in schools and workplaces, aided and abetted by disproportionate noise and activity from the Christian Right, and the overly quiet murmurings of concern, at best, from most other Christian spaces. No wonder trans females feel so victimised at present. Why are such tiny, and already quite traumatised, numbers being picked on, when such little attention is being paid to the vast inequities of inherited power and privilege which enable such foul play? As in sport, fairness in faith is blatantly disregarded. Truly we seem to be straining at hypothetical gnats whilst happily still swallowing manifestly monstrous camels. This is the reality of much Australian Christianity, where some leaders also throw their weight dangerously upon the vulnerable.
Our hope is that the forthcoming Queer Theology course is a harbinger of many more substantial things to come, both in terms of theological and other outworkings. As a contribution to that process, we offer up five things for consideration tonight, combining them in a mnemonic: FLARE.
Firstly, F, for Flourish: what are we really seeking? To put it another way, can we stop talking about ‘inclusion’ and help queer people actually flourish? Part of me would frankly like a Christian moratorium on the word ‘inclusive’. I am not far off feeling the same about ‘affirming’ too. Both words are still better than ‘welcoming’. However, they are sometimes just as frustrating in addressing what we may call the ‘Russian Roulette’ of Church life that queer people experience. When my friend the steward called me ‘dook’, he was extending recognition and respect to a fellow, not ‘including’ me. For it was, is and will always be, my club, just as much as it belongs to him, or anyone. It is like that once popular song ‘For everyone a place at the table’. No. I don’t want a place at the table, at least as it is. It is my table, after all: in so far, as, being Christ’s table, it is anyone’s. As a trans person, I want a different kind of table, a different range of food, and a different range of conversation. Indeed, nor do I want gender neutral language, but rather gender expansive. It is not a safe place I want, but a space to flourish. I want a queer feast, not the same old fare. We need so much more than inclusion. We need flourishing. At the very least we need to shift inclusion from passive to active: from permission to belong to genuine empowerment; or, as I sometimes like to put it, from adjective to noun to verb. Deeds, not just words, as the old suffragette historian in me cries out. Marcella Althaus-Reid expressed it well:
Inclusion aims to absorb the abnormal into the normal, if it will agree to assimilate. Rather than actually change in the face of diversity, it tries to include and absorb.
There are parallels with First Nations’ experiences of Reconciliation, and why that word has become difficult for some. Terminology allowing mere accommodation by the privileged is problematic. That is one reason Marcella Althaus-Reid challenged theologians to embrace ‘indecent theology’. For, as she put it:
It is indecent to begin theology from the marginalized. It is indecent to unmask the ideologies that exist in our theologies.
If queer people of faith are ‘included’ in a good way, this only occurs when we, and our concerns, are truly visible, however ‘indecent’ that might seem to others. For the real theological issues here are not queer sexuality and gender expression. The ‘elephant in the room’, as Elizabeth Stuart identified long ago, is hetero-cis-normativity, especially, we might add, in colonialist forms. Vanilla heterosexuality and binary gender do not actually exist. Without addressing this we will continue to lack meaningful sexual ethics and perpetuate violence. For, as the queer feminist Grace Jantzen wrote 20 years ago, a feminist natal ethic of flourishing is essential for all, redeeming the death-bearing cultic tendencies of modern faith.
Secondly, L, for Lead: who is taking up the work? There are two parts to this. On the one hand, whilst thankful for many allies, queer faith leaders often find ourselves alone. Faced by the Christian Right’s money and media power, we have sometimes had to strain hard to hear the whispers of others. Like First Nations people who wonder where their supposed whitefella allies are, we know Martin Luther King’s words: ‘in the end we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.’ On the other hand, more importantly, most queer faith leaders often do not feel we are really being supported, and heard, even by some who regard themselves as ‘fully affirming’ allies. We have lost count of the number of high-level Church discussions which have taken place, and still do, without the presence of those who bear the cost, and who are the main source of transforming the issues. Sometimes we are told, by such allies themselves, that it is better that at least they are there ‘for us’, in flagrant disregard of the well-established principles of ‘nothing about us, without us.’ Meanwhile, the toll on queer faith leaders from this neglect of our leadership is huge, and reflected in our high turnover and burnout. So, again, let us give thanks for Pilgrim College, friends in the University of Divinity, and the Australian Collaborators in Feminist Theologies, for showing us another way.
Thirdly, after Flourishing and Lead, A is for Awaken: when, and how, will Christians together share the already substantial body of queer faith? Once more, this goes to the heart of the significance of the Queer Theology course. Just to name some landmarks: it is over 50 years since Troy Perry founded the Metropolitan Community Church; over 20 years since the first Anglican transgender priests in our native country and since the Centre for Lesbian and Gay Studies in Religion and Ministry was founded in the Pacific School of Religion; almost 20 years since Gene Robinson was consecrated as the first out gay bishop in a committed sexual relationship; together with so many more steps forward, scholarship, and resources. Yet, in Australia we typically live and converse as if queer faith was still a hypothetical question-mark. We thereby help perpetuate the horrendous false cultural binary of ‘God versus the gays (and the trans)’. Until now, where have been our university courses? Where are our well founded and funded agencies? Where are our leaders, not just permitted in some spaces, but truly celebrated, supported and promoted? For, as always, the transformation of faith into something worth believing and living will not come primarily from the centre but from the margins, from those who bear the gifts and cost of transformation themselves.
What is it that holds us back? Is it what Marcella Althaus-Reid called the exaggerated ‘ethics of patience’ in our Christian cultures? When a fine queer ally, Paul Bayes, retired as Anglican Bishop of Liverpool earlier this year, he spoke of being ‘an old man in a hurry’. ‘I’ve been radicalised by the oppression of LGBTI people’, he said, ‘not necessarily by the Church, but by the world’:
I’ve had it with the Church adding to the pain of this marginalised community by saying that we can’t even discuss (various possibilities)…
I know some are weary, and, in the Uniting Church for example, few if any of us want a repeat of painful controversy. Yet Paul is right, isn’t he, when he says:
questions need to be put sharply, so that people can disagree well rather than have another course on how we can agree better.
Paul Bayes’s words help us acknowledge that Penny and I are ‘old women in a hurry’. We just wish there were more of us. Across the Australian Christian communities, what seems to be poorly understood, at least in liberal, so-called ‘inclusive’ quarters, is that we are living on rapidly evaporating borrowed time. For queer people, and most of wider Australia, 2017 was surely a line in the sand. The marriage equality postal survey was an horrendous unnecessary strain on queer Australians but the outcome was clear. All theology is surely now theology after marriage equality, a key signifier of an established, if limited, shift of values. The sheer energy of the subsequent Right wing ‘religious freedom’ push is witness to this reality. The Christian Right grasps this in a way that liberals and ‘includers’ do not. There is no way back, only forward. Yet the Christian community, even in some of its better guises, continues to act as if queer identity is still up for debate and disagreement, or is a matter of gentle tolerance without intentional policy.
Fourthly, R, for Resource: when will ‘’inclusive’ Christians put their money and energies where they say their hearts are? We could say much on this, but, for now, raise just one issue: apologies. Queer people have gradually begun to hear Churches formulate these. Yet we have a number of questions. Above all, we want to ask: ‘what power and money is being exchanged?’ Where, just on transgender issues for example, do we see active and resourced formulation and sharing of gender diverse expansive liturgy, pastoral care, children and family resources, theological and ministry formation education and awareness, and information and resourcing for campaigns of justice – or even properly marked toilets? There have been small steps forward recently, but these have been hard-won and are still way behind some other Churches elsewhere in the world. The risk is that apologies are all too often simply more ‘cheap grace’. Once more, thank God this week for Pilgrim College, partners in the University of Divinity, and others who help open the way forward for queer faith to flourish. Yet, we might ask, what are the next steps in theology, as part of vitally needed reparation?
Fifthly, finally, but through all we have shared, E, for Express: how will queer people of faith continue to claim their/our power, and how will others share in genuine, active, partnerships? How do we move beyond the temptations to cheap grace? Jared Robinson-Brown, in his recent book Black Gay British Christian Queer talks powerfully about what he calls ‘the Famine of Grace’ experienced in the Church by so many black Christians and queer people. He speaks of our faith struggles:
I, perhaps like you, have been loved and hated by the church, healed and hurt by the Church, encouraged and confused by the church, enchanted and disillusioned by the church. This makes it both a hard and holy thing to tell the Church how I really feel about it – in part because the experience and the memories are neither wholly bad nor wholly good.
Just as the Black Lives Matter movement has called for the ‘abolition’ of the police in its current form, Jared calls for the ‘abolition of the Church’. For, as he says:
it is time the church made up its mind about how far the love of God can reach, because the ambivalence in our current life is costing precious lives, many of them Black and queer. It’s time for the church to be the church.
The Queer Theology course this week is a step in the right direction. It is however still a very small step, like other current steps. When will we end the ambivalence?
The word Express is also a call for more creative faith and theology, and a renewal of the wider dimensions of the word ‘queer’. That is part of our hope for the Queer Theology course. For we see it not as a contribution to queer people of faith’s advance as such, still less as a resource for apologetics. Rather it is an integral part of helping renew theology as a whole. Mark Jordan, the Richard Reinhold Niebuhr Research Professor of Divinity at Harvard, puts it well. Speaking in conjunction with his Harvard Divinity School Convocation address last year and his most recent book Transforming Fire, he reflects on how we may enable theological education to be ‘invigorating, inspiring and adaptive’, even as its traditional institutions shift, and, in some cases, disappear. In relation to sex and gender, Jordan rightly affirms that languages built closely around those categories have important uses. They are also treasured by many and we would not want to take that away from them. Yet, as Jordan puts it, ‘identity-languages are risky, misleading, flattening. They leave out large parts of queer experience, including spirituality and ritual.’ He therefore invites us to join him in revisiting other queer texts and ways of being, thereby re-animating, and articulating new, alternative languages. This also requires us to bring together the ‘visible’ and ‘invisible’ – our institutions and academies with queer life and networks; creating new ‘shelters’ for theology, not least contemplative; and, above all, engaging with those who are actually working it out, especially students and queer people in and beyond the Churches. As we might put it, if this forthcoming Queer Theology course is to be a positive expression, it also invites truly fresh expressions of other forms of faith, theology, and education.
Pain-love for change
Let me conclude with some final personal reflections. For today is the 35th anniversary of my ordination as priest. It was a day of ambiguous grace, with some joy, but also pain. For I was ordained, in London’s St Paul’s Cathedral, by one of the most adamant episcopal opponents of women’s ordination, who soon after joined the Roman Church. After a long struggle, I went forward to ordination, albeit torn by my sense of feminist solidarity, and the anguish of my wife and other women waiting for ordination. In the end, my deep sense of calling, and the gain, through it, of one more ‘yes’ vote in the house of clergy, held sway. It was hard however, surrounded as I was by male ordinands, so many of them so very obviously gay, even if they hadn’t been so ostentatiously clad in an extraordinary range of gorgeous robes. For, as one gay friend said so volubly, ‘it is like my wedding day’.
That pain-joy-love of my priesting remains, for queer people like myself. Indeed, for the gay men with whom I was ordained, things can even be tougher. Church authorities no longer ‘turn a blind eye’ to queerness, pressured by understandable demands for accountability and transparency, as well as Right-wing moral crusades and culture wars. We cannot go back to ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’. We either come out, as queer people of faith, and as the wider Church, for a future worth having, or we will now simply die in the closet. So when I chose to take up the call to Pitt Street Uniting Church, I did so partly in order to nurture queer faith liberation more fully, and do so right now, in a wholly unapologetic, beyond ‘inclusive’, congregation For to honour the great pioneers – like Dorothy McRae-McMahon, on whose shoulders I now stand – we have to act likewise: with a renewed ethics of divine ‘impatience’, with fresh theological imagination, and with new forms of intersectional solidarity.
Recently, in reflecting on my ministry, I’ve been drawn to the metaphor of the ‘limping priest’, in ecumenical form. It has a long and varied use, including in Uniting Church circles. It helps express my experience before and after coming out as transgender. In the past, I limped as a priest because I could not fully acknowledge my God-given identity as trans, as queer, as gloriously loveable in all that I am. Since transitioning however, I also limp, but differently. Previously, I carried my dysphoric body and an impaired soul and Gospel. Today however I spend too much time carrying another, larger, body, the dysmorphic Body of the Church: a body which hardly recognises its own dysmorphia and the damage it does to itself, its members, and so many with whom it relates. Like other queer folk, maybe the time will come to lay down this burden. For is there genuine breath, and fight, in the Body still? Is there real possibility of vaccinating the virus of ecclesial queerphobia? Can we transition into resurrection form? Will we have food, or will we die from famine? The Queer Theology course is one step in celebrating the feast, but - if we are truly to love one another as the beloved ‘dooks’ we are - we had better be clear where we might be ‘gor-in’.
In the words of a great gay religious poet, may we ‘flare’ like the ‘fire-folk’ we are called to be: ‘selving’, ‘acting in God’s eye what in God’s eye’ we are – ‘Christ – for Christ plays in a thousand places, lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not’ theirs.
by (the Revd Dr) Josephine Inkpin
 quoted in T.Cooper Queer and Indecent: an Introduction to Marcella Althaus-Reid, SCM, 2021, p.104
 E.Stuart Religion is a Queer Thing: A Guide to the Christian Faith for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Persons, Cassell, 1997, p.1
 A.Webster Found Out, DLT, 2017, p.45
  G.Jantzen ‘Flourishing: Towards an ethic of natality’ in Feminist Theory, Aug 2001, Volume2(Issue2) pp.219 -232
 In a speech of 1965
 in The Queer God, Routledge, 2003, pp.47-48
 published by SCM, London, 2021
 Harvard Divinity School interview, at https://hds.harvard.edu/news/2021/09/28/mark-jordan-future-christian-theology-and-queer-religious-thinking
Jo Inkpin is an Anglican priest serving as Minister of Pitt St Uniting Church in Sydney, a trans woman, theologian & justice activist. These are some of my reflections on life, spirit, and the search for peace, justice & sustainable creation.