Penny and I are feeling very blessed after renewing our marriage vows this week in St John's (Anglican) Cathedral in Brisbane - on our 35th wedding anniversary. We had intended to mark this occasion by beginning several months long leave overseas. COVID-19 put an end to that. However we felt powerfully drawn to mark this point in our lives, particularly after this year completing the main elements of my gender affirmation journey. It also gave us an opportunity to celebrate a 'queer' marriage which some of our co-religionists say is impossible (!) but which we believe is a lovely gift for the renewal both of marriage and also of human relationships with our wider creation. For, as I have written elsewhere (see here for example), a deeper wrestling with Judaeo-Christian tradition leads us into a much more profound and life-giving understanding of marriage and God's shalom...
I was thrilled recently to meet with the amazing (Snaggletooth Productions) duo Erin McBean and Holly Zwalf (also, among other things, coordinator of Rainbow Families Queensland). They were interviewing me for the State Library of Queensland's Dangerous Women podcast project, which will highlight six women's stories. I am honoured to be one of these, recognising that for some I am 'dangerous', though I have never sought any such epithet, and I hope that something in my journey may help others in shining creatively. This is certainly the aim of the State Library. As has been shared with me:
'All of our Dangerous Women are compelling, bold, determined and dynamic and we hope that in sharing their stories they will empower listeners to share a deeper understanding of themselves and Queensland. We have selected stories of three women from our heritage collections, and two women with contemporary aspects, yourself included. We have employed the expertise of Snaggletooth Productions, an all female production company to produce and host the podcast'.
I hope to share more about the project as a whole as it unfolds. There are three key features however which have emerged for me which have strengthened my views (born of my life experience and my studies of women's history) of how 'dangerous women' who deliberately create positive change, or unwittingly represent positive change, come to flourish...
I'm hugely grateful to Dr John Wallace, film-maker Rachel Lane and her wonderful team, for bringing to fruition the short documentary Faithfully Me, sharing part of the stories of myself and Rhett Pearson as transgender people of faith living into our authentic selves. This was shown on ABC Compass on 24 May, and is available on iView here until 23 June, and afterwards will be shared by Equal Voices and others on YouTube and through other channels. We hope it will be a blessing to many, sharing further light and understanding, and affirming gender diverse people in churches and wider society. In this project I am particularly grateful as ever for the support of my wife, the Revd Penny Jones (who also shares some of her journey with me in the film), and friends and colleagues from St Francis College & St John's Cathedral in Brisbane (both of which, by kind permission respectively of the College Principal and Dean, were part of the locations filmed).
It was a huge delight to be part of the launch of the Reconciliation Action Plan of the Anglican Church Southern Queensland (diocese of Brisbane) in St John's Cathedral Brisbane last Thursday. Together with a Welcome to Country, didgeridoo music, food, and audio-visual display of Reconciliation activities across the diocese, a particular highlight was also the performance of the Malu Kiai Mura Baui dance troupe and speeches from Archbishop Phillip Aspinall and our National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Anglican Council diocesan leaders Canon Bruce Boase and Aunty Rose Elu. Almost 200 people attended the event, including the most prominent lay and ordained Anglican leaders in the diocese, local elders and representatives of leading organisations such as Reconciliation Queensland.
The RAP Launch was the culmination of four years work of awareness and relationship building across the diocese and represents a significant step forward. Indeed the ACSQ RAP is highly unusual for the sheer scale of its geographical and organisational extent, covering both such a large area of Australia with so many different Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander peoples and involving every section of the diocese, including finance and service departments, as well as parishes, schools, St Francis College and Anglicare. May God bless all involved in making this next stage of shared commitment real in the days ahead.
A few weeks ago we had an owl in St Luke’s church building. It appeared first for the memorial service of a beloved Aboriginal woman. It stayed to perch above a wedding couple as they took their vows. It shifted next day to the high altar where it seemed to speak directly to me: ‘it is time to move.’ For, spiritually speaking, in many cultures the owl is a symbol of mystery, the feminine, and, above all, change. It appears, as a herald or guardian, at times of various transitions in the lives of individuals and groups. So it has been, I believe, for myself and Penny.
Today I am announcing that Penny and I are relinquishing our appointments in the Anglican parish of St Luke Toowoomba, to take effect from Monday 16 January next year. At the invitation of the Anglican Archbishop of Brisbane, we do so to take up new roles in the life of the diocese and to enable the parish of St Luke Toowoomba to find new clergy leadership for the next steps in its journey. We do so with mixed feelings. For we have been richly blessed in Toowoomba and it is very hard to let go of the depth of relationships we have enjoyed with so many people here, both within church circles and in the wider city. Yet we would not be being faithful to our own sense of calling, or to the needs of the parish and wider church, if we did not do so...
It was a delight last Sunday evening to see again Brothers Ghislain, Matthew and Alois (the Prior) from the Taize Community and even more delightful to take some of our parishioners and boarders from The Glennie School to share in Taize Prayer in St Stephen's Cathedral in Brisbane. This followed on from our beautiful Taize-style Candlemas Prayer the previous Sunday in St Luke's Toowoomba.
This year is the 75th anniversary of the founding of the remarkable Community in the little village of Taize in Burgundy, 100 years on also from the birth of the founder Brother Roger. It continues to act as an inspiration to so many people in so many places and situations in our world. Above all, its Christ-centred spirit of simplicity, solidarity and celebration speaks to young people who continue to join in 'the Pilgrimage of Trust' in such great numbers. The special Letter in preparation for this year's anniversaries is again a beautiful distillation of the Taize spirit and an encouragement to us all to walk together 'Towards a New Solidarity' with people of all Christian, ethnic and other backgrounds, with people of all faiths and none. Check our the Letter here.
On behalf of Angligreen, it was a delight yesterday to share in the 'Debate the Preacher' series at St John's Cathedral in Brisbane, exploring environmental ethics. I found myself drawing on recent experience of Aboriginal approaches to land and the cosmos. These can be part, I believe, of ways of re-reading our world, ethics, bible and sacred traditions which enable a fresh and more fruitful Pentecostal understanding of life. Through this, we are challenged and inspired to eco-Living in the Spirit. For, to our loss, we have so confined our understanding of Pentecost to human, and often restricted personal and ecclesiastical, experience. Instead, Pentecost perhaps offers us vital ways in to more fruitful engagement with the heart of many of our contemporary challenges, not least ecological ones, as well as cross-cultural and inter-religious. Not for nothing is Pentecost understood theologically as a new creation. Check out my address here.
It was a great delight this last Sunday evening to share in the Archbishop of Brisbane's commissioning of our diocesan Angligreen committee for this year. This was the first time such a commissioning has occurred and, taking place in St John's Cathedral, was a beautiful and prayerful symbol of Anglican intent to place ecological concerns at the heart of our life, just as it is in the very centre and being of God. The Dean, Peter Catt, gave an excellent address to complement this meaning of the occasion (very much 'belonging with, belonging to, belonging in'): click here for a copy.
No wonder Jesus so enjoyed meeting and eating with those who shared different spiritual journeys and diverse moral and religious viewpoints. It is both great fun and enriching in many ways. A recent meal with friends from our local Toowoomba Baha'i community was a beautiful example of this. Not only was the food and company delightful but, among other things, I was given fresh perspectives on the often fraught distinction between evangelism and proselytism.
Unlike some 'progressive' Christians, I have never had a problem with evangelism as a core part of Christian life. Just as birds sing and dogs bark, what are Christians to do but share 'the faith that is in us'? Whilst I have met some people of other faiths who have had legitimate concerns about how some Christians seek to evangelise, they too tend not to have any real issues with evangelism as such. Instead they are supportive when they hear that many Christians have taken great pains to distinguish what is proselytism from what is (even very lively, energetic and challenging) evangelism. What I had not properly realised, until my Baha'i meal, was how others can help Christians with constructive approaches to evangelism through their own experiences.
My wonderful hostess not only cooked a gorgeous meal but also spoke briefly about her experience as a Baha'i 'pioneer'. Before she ever came to Australia, she had left her native Iran with her immediate family to settle in Liberia, sharing her life and faith there as a natural part of the local community. In doing so, she had responded to the Baha'i challenge to leave home to journey to another place (often another country) for the purpose of passing on the Baha'i Faith. Steering clear of words like 'evangelist' or 'missionary' (the latter because of its associations with narrow and more bigoted forms of communication), this is what is meant by 'pioneering'. Clara and Hyde Dunn were just such pioneers when they came to Australia from the USA in 1920 and began the Baha'i Faith here. Today, there are therefore Baha'is throughout the world, adding their loving energies to community, not least in Queensland (from where the logo above comes - a witness to the creativity of a Brisbane-based Baha'i creative artist).
What was magnificent to me was the way in which my dear friend spoke so movingly of the people and place to whom she had given her heart. It expressed so beautifully the joy as well as the challenge, and heartbreak (on leaving), of a true bearer of 'evangelion', good news. I was also struck by how much we all might learn from appreciation of such journeys and conversations across faiths and cultures. For at the heart of Baha'i pioneering is a deep respect for those whom they meet, reflecting the consideration and restraint that is lacking in proselytism (in whatever faith). As, the Baha'i Universal House of Justice expressed it in 1982:
It is true that Bahá'u'lláh lays on every Bahá'í the duty to teach His Faith. At the same time, however, we are forbidden to proselytise, so it is important for all the believers to understand the difference between teaching and proselytizing. It is a significant difference and, in some countries where teaching a religion is permitted, but proselytising is forbidden, the distinction is made in the law of the land. Proselytising implies bringing undue pressure to bear upon someone to change his Faith. It is also usually understood to imply the making of threats or the offering of material benefits as an inducement to conversion. In some countries mission schools or hospitals, for all the good they do, are regarded with suspicion and even aversion by the local authorities because they are considered to be material inducements to conversion and hence instruments of proselytisation.
This, and other reflections on pioneering by Baha'is may have value for Christians too, as we grow out of our history of deep lack of respect for even Christian difference and live in a world of continuing conflict of ideas. Of course it will not end the terrible persecution of Christians by others but it may add light to our own efforts to be bearers of light not heat. Jesus himself called Christians to be salt and yeast: qualities which enhance but destroy a good meal if they are not applied with care. In which regard, my fabulous hostess that evening showed the way with her marvelous Persian rice. 'What's the difference to ordinary rice', I asked. "Oh', she said, with a typically beautiful smile, 'its just a little thing I add': but no, I thought, not just a little dill, but a wonderful touch of love.
Yesterday it was encouraging to meet with Ryan Wiggins, from Reconciliation Australia, to hear of progress in providing Reconciliation tools for faith communities, not least in the Anglican Diocese of Brisbane. Ryan was going on to a meeting with our diocesan bishops, as the next step in the process of considering a diocesan RAP (Reconciliation Action Plan): an initiative I set going with a successful Synod motion, asking for diocesan-wide attention to the possibility of such a RAP as one tool to further Reconciliation as an essential integral part of our life together.
I have been partly inspired by the RAP (see cover to the left) created in Toowoomba by our local Catholic diocese, thanks to the leadership of the former bishop Bill Morris, my wonderful friends in the Catholic Social Justice Commission, and, above all, the gracious and wise guidance of local Indigenous people . Our Anglican Glennie School in Toowoomba, and the SAILS organisation in our diocese have also created other encouraging examples of RAPs, working closely with local Indigenous people. What a difference it would make however if we can find ways to 'mainstream' this work, so that it is not left to a few particularly enlightened or enthusiastic people!
I do not know exactly how our Anglican diocese will develop this process in detail. I do know though that it is being taken very seriously and that Reconciliation Australia are also inspired by the challenge of what would be (in Ryan Wiggins' words) a 'mega-RAP', providing real institutional weight, direction and inspiration to the whole breadth and depth of diocesan commissions, parishes, schools, welfare bodies, and other agencies. This would also, very importantly, be a major fillip for our Indigenous Christian leaders who work so hard, with so little resource and so many other responsibilities. For everyone can do their part in Reconciliation, not leaving this to those Indigenous Australians who often have enough on their plate just surviving, or to the 'usual suspects'. In this respect, what was particularly encouraging to hear from Ryan yesterday were the new tools coming online from Reconciliation Australia for local churches and schools. Recognising the difficulties of the original RAP frameworks for faith communities - designed, as they were, mainly for business organisatations - good work has been done (learning from the struggles of SAILS and other church groups) to produce more faith-community-friendly tools. With the assistance of World Vision, these will be trialled shortly and will hopefully represent further practical steps, with tangible outcomes for Indigenous people, on our crucial national journey of healing.
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.