I remember vividly the day Elton John came to my little town. It was like a breath of life from another planet. For, let's face it, in Market Rasen, it was akin to a hundred big events in one, but with unprecedented glitter. Indeed, in the 19th century, Charles Dickens said that you could fire a cannon down the main street at 10 pm on a Saturday evening and you wouldn't hit anyone. Not much has changed, even now. Sadly Elton didn't stop to say hello to the little kid I was. He still left an impact though, just as his songs were an integral part of the soundtrack of my youth. For Elton was in Rasen for a wedding of Bernie Taupin, his close friend and lyricist. Bernie was, in part, 'one of us' - born a Lincolnshire 'yella belly', spending part of his own upbringing locally, and attending Market Rasen Secondary Modern School. Some of Bernie's lyrics reflect this, including the song 'Saturday NIght's Alright for Fighting' (partly an anthem to the experience of the Aston Arms and other places of Market Rasen 'entertainment'). Linking up with Elton was Bernie's way out, and maybe, somewhere in my consciousness, their story was a promise of an alternative pathway for myself and my childhood friends. Was stepping on 'the Yellow Brick Road' possible for us too? The concluding tour of Elton's career, and the release of the film Rocketman brings this back. There's much I owe to this influence - particularly in learning, so slowly and painfully, to sing 'Your Song' as my own song...
Who would have thought, in Australia in 2019, that, thanks to the insistent Tweets of a rugby player, hell would gain such attention? Hellish is certainly the result for those of us in the rainbow community. Particularly since the recent Federal election, we have been subjected to a deliberate right-wing campaign of aggression and hate, with fresh destructive impacts on our mental health and well being. This is a powerful expression of the vicious distortions of so much of today's media, and the apparent eagerness of some 'religious' groups to promote, or be used by, repulsive reaction in the name of religion. It is also a vivid reminder, both of how theological concepts can have real life consequences, including in the political sphere, and also of the need for a religious, as well as much broader, response by LGBTIQA+ people of faith. For religious-inflicted pain is indeed rife and horrendous among LGBTIQA+ people. Anger at religion as a whole is therefore, as a huge understatement, more than understandable. More moderate 'straight' religious people urgently need to recognise this and join the rainbow community as much more effective allies, with a commitment to genuine listening, deep repentance for religious-based shaming and violence, and powerful commitments to assisting in change. Yet, as it uses religion, we are also unlikely to defeat the hideous distortion that is right-wing 'religious freedom' without better theological scrutiny and the use of religious resources by LGBTIQA+ people of faith, affirmed by other parts of the rainbow community. In this, one key feature is indeed to reclaim the very idea of hell as a theological impulse towards justice for the oppressed, connected with the vision of 'a new heaven and earth' of peace and love, not as punishment of 'the other' by the rich and powerful. For God, if that world is to have reality at all, needs proclaiming as the ultimate source of transforming love in generous diversity, not as a mean tyrant picking on the marginalised. If hell is to have any real meaning, other than as a description of actual lived pain today, then it must be as a reminder that, in some ultimate sense (to use Billy Bragg's words):
'there will be a reckoning for the peddlers of hate... and a reckoning too for the politicians who left us to this fate'...
Where do you find feminist religious inspiration when you need it? Sometimes the answer is hidden in plain sight. So it was for me at school. For I was involved with a number of social transformations at my local secondary school, including being part of the first year of the historic admission of females. This not only seemed a self-evident justice to me, but it was also a personal saving grace. Indeed, in my final two years, I was part of otherwise all-female classes for most of my subjects, bar one other male assigned student (in religious studies). Also, to the initial chagrin of some, our 19th century grammar school (founded in 1863 out of the medieval charity created by Thomas De Aston, a 13th century monk) two years later finally fully joined the modern world as a 'comprehensive' school: merging with the local 'secondary modern' school, whose pupils were traditionally divided from us by the selective examination known as the '11 plus'. At which point school 'houses' suddenly appeared, under the names of the well-known local Lincolnshire worthies Tennyson and Wesley; the explorers (Joseph) Banks and (Matthew) Flinders (actually much better known in Australia than in their homeland); the fearsome Hereward (famed indigenous resistance fighter against the Normans), and, more mysteriously, (Anne) Askew. Happily I was placed in her house, but who was this, to us, unknown woman? Sadly, I never really found out then. On asking, apart from guessing that she was the 'token' woman in the list, we were told she was martyred at the Reformation. 'Great', said most of the boys: 'not only do we not get to be associated with a fighter like Hereward, or at least an intrepid explorer like Flinders, but we get landed with a woman, and one whose claim to fame is being slaughtered.' Even the girls had sympathy with the latter affirmation. Yet, had we been given a richer explanation, we might have had a very different viewpoint. For, of all the Lincolnshire icons, it is arguable that Anne Askew was the greatest of all. She was not just a type of freedom fighter (like Hereward), an intrepid adventurer of the new (like Flinders and Banks), a poet (like Tennyson), or a model of renewing spirituality and freedom (like (the) Wesley(s)). She was all these in one, and she did it all as a woman to boot...
In Monty Python’s Life of Brian, there is a powerful scene where a revolutionary sect asks, “What did the Romans ever do for us?” Recognition slowly dawns that the answer is actually “quite a bit!” When we truthfully explore the origins of the Ecclesia Anglicana we face similar acknowledgement for there are several influential strands which typically sit in paradoxical tension with one another. In our understanding of Anglican history, we do well therefore to be open to ‘both/and’, rather than ‘either/or’ perspectives. This is certainly apposite to the enduring influence of both ‘Roman‘ and ‘Celtic’ forms of early Christianity. Sometimes juxtaposed as two competing elements, each continues to shape the nature and dynamics of Anglican spirituality in distinct, but also complementary, ways. Indeed, recent scholarship even questions the terms ‘Roman’ and ‘Celtic’ (some preferring ‘Insular’ to ‘Celtic’) as a designator. It points out that the various early British and Irish Christian traditions were closely linked, rather than a simple, coherent, entity. Nor were ‘Celtic’ Christians isolated from others, as if in a form of spiritual Brexit (a problem with the alternative designation ‘Insular’). For, as Patrick Wormald put it: “One of the common misconceptions is that there was a Roman Church to which the Celtic Church was nationally opposed” in some rigid sense. Nonetheless, if we are generally wise to use inverted commas, historically they reflect enduring creative tensions between the local and universal, between Christ and culture, and between different emphases in mission, prayer and order. Appreciating this rich mosaic more fully enables greater depth in our vocation and spiritual life today..
Taken seriously, Christian spirituality really is extraordinarily queer. This is hidden by widespread modernist narratives and assumptions, both secularist and Christian 'mainstream', and also, still more, biblicist and fundamentalist, Sadly, such restrictive approaches try to squeeze the tremendous historical diversity of scripture, tradition and religious experience into various Procrustean beds of ordered, ideological, understanding. Yet the control of spiritual bodies, like queer bodies, always proves elusive, even to the most subtle and determined of subduers and butchers. History is indeed full of horrendous tortures and amputations inflicted upon such bodies. Ultimately however they can not be wholly suppressed. They break through in ways which are life-giving and surprising, if sometimes highly ambiguous and constrained. Certainly this is true of medieval bodies, not least those of female mystics: perhaps above all represented in Julian, or Juliana, of Norwich. For it is not an accident that the 14th century Julian has been 'rediscovered' in recent decades by those seeking fresh perspectives on spirituality, gender, God, and the renewal of being. In her we are drawn from our tombs of suffering and despair into subversive possibilities of new creation.. Not for nothing is she thus perhaps the greatest of all English spiritual teachers...
Much has been said and written recently, much more so in Western Europe than in Australia, about the 100th anniversary of Armistice after 'the Great War'. What however about the 'ordinary' people who lived through and beyond it and what they might have to say to us today? Surely , their realities call us, above all, to work for a much better world, not simply to hold military-flavoured commemorations? A striking poster (see left), of the brilliant German artist Kathe Kollwitz, was certainly created for that purpose. This, one of Kollwitz' most famous works, was born of her own powerful and maternal pain and love for peace and justice. Indeed she created it in 1924 for the Never Again War movement which, for a brief period on the 10th anniversary of the First World War, brought together socialist, republican and pacifist organisations in Germany in vital commitment to avoid another war. This message however comes to me most directly from my own flesh and blood...
It is puzzling occasionally to hear the idea that ‘Henry VIII created the Anglican Church’ (albeit far more outside England than within it). It Like much else that is Anglican, the reality is both less dramatic and also far more complex. Henry VIII did indeed have a significant role in one stage in the development of what, much later, became known as Anglicanism. However the formative factors are so much broader: some much older and some much later. No one figure or aspect has ever been wholly dominant in the origins and character of Anglicanism. It is rather a particular way in which many different people have shared the love of God as Christians, at different times and in different places. Like all healthy Christian traditions, it is also always ‘a work in progress’: an invitation by God to become more fully the Body of Christ on earth.
Here are a few key thoughts on Anglican historical development which may place Henry VIII and the Anglican Church in context...
Of all the chapels in all the world, the Mary Magdalene or Morning Chapel in Lincoln Cathedral lies deepest in my heart. At every key stage in my life, and before every major decision, I have prayed there, asking for support, affirmation, guidance, reassurance, or simply the receiving of joy or holding of pain. It is more than that Lincoln is a spiritual home, born of years of growing up nearby, and of participation in important events in the cathedral and of all kinds of things in the city (including, of course, of its special little football club at Sincil Bank, the other Lincoln 'spiritual' centre inscribed in my heart). Mary Magdalene and I go way back, as I have reflected elsewhere. She has been my sister, model, and inspiration in struggle, faith and new life, helping me to be transformed from silence, suppression and stigma (see further here, and here). Yet now I discover something I should have known long ago: that her name and spirit is attached not only to that special cathedral chapel, but it lies also beneath the cathedral itself. As such, she symbolises for me the foundational love beneath the types of 'Norman yoke' we have forced, or placed, upon ourselves...
One more step along the road we go. For it is 6 years, almost to the day, since I successfully proposed a diocesan Synod motion for the Anglican Church Southern Queensland to explore a Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP), inspired by the work done by the Toowoomba Catholic diocese. I was reminded of this this afternoon as I took part in filming Reconciliation stories with Anglicare Southern Queensland and other diocesan colleagues as part of a new and developing Anglicare Reconciliation project. It has certainly been a sometimes frustrating, but also, above all, deeply enriching journey for me personally. For - from Cunnamulla to Buderim, through Toowoomba, the Gold Coast, and Brisbane - I have walked, yarned and worked with all kinds of people, from all kinds of different spaces and with all kinds of different stories. So it was lovely to share today in bringing some of this together, in immediate advance of NAIDOC Week, in order to enable fresh steps ahead with many more people. The RAP, is, and always was and will be, an ambitious project - seeking to work together over such a large and diverse area, with all sections of the diocesan family - and there is so much more to do, but today was an example of how rewarding this can be.
Jesus may have come that we ‘may have life and life in all its fullness’ (John 10.10b) but Christians frequently do a good job of seeking scarcity and restriction instead! Contemplating the sorry state of religion in many places it is not hard to see some common threads of resistance to Christ’s gospel of Abundance. It is a major reason for the rejection of Christianity among many. For the Church as a whole often clings so powerfully to prioritising reflection on death and sin above life and empowerment. This is particularly disastrous and objectionable for those, like LGBTI+ people, who have been held captive for so long by deathly categories of thought and sinful oppression. Rightly they seek life, and life in all its fullness. Asking for bread from churches however all too often results only in gifts of stone. In some ways individual Christians, and the Church in general, can often therefore appear like Ophelia in Bob Dylan’s famous ‘Desolation Row’:
Ophelia, she's 'neath the window for her I feel so afraid
On her twenty-second birthday she already is an old maid
To her, death is quite romantic she wears an iron vest
Her profession's her religion, her sin is her lifelessness
And though her eyes are fixed upon Noah's great rainbow
She spends her time peeking into Desolation Row...
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.