It was a delight yesterday to see the film Holding the Man with one of my most lovely, compassionate and Spirit-filled gay friends. Based on the poignant 1995 memoir of Tim Conigrave, Holding the Man (a resonant expression drawn from Australian Rules Football) tells the story of the love and life he shared from schooldays with John Caleo, including the struggles they faced with others and their tragic early deaths from AIDS-related illnesses. Adapted by Tommy Murphy in 2006, Holding the Man became one of the most successful of recent Australian stage productions. This film version will hopefully widen the audience much further, honouring Tim and John by increasing light and understanding and strengthening our human solidarity against all kinds of sexual and gendered oppressions.
The film is certainly also 'a story of a generation'. From a personal point of view, as an exact contemporary of Tim and John (albeit on the other side of the world), I was indeed touched by remembrances of my own school days, university experiences, and early adult life, especially of wonderful gay and lesbian friends who also endured much pain (including some even to shocking early deaths) whilst vibrantly helping to transform our inherited climate of fear and repression. I also recalled my days as a young priest in London in the 1980s as the horror of the AIDS crisis broke upon so many, together with the horribly fumbled, generally fear-filled and, occasionally, fabulous response of Christians, as church bodies and individuals.
How far have we come? In many ways, we have traveled a long way, even in Christian circles. Yet only a few days ago the New South Wales Government banned the showing in schools of the film Gayby Baby, which offers the opportunity to enter into the experiences of children growing up in lesbian and gay families. All credit therefore to Dendy Newtown for screening Gayby Baby at this time, to encourage others to enlarge understanding and provide public pressure upon uncertain authorities. Indeed, as we bought tickets for Holding the Man, my friend observed to the young cashier that he had had to travel from the Central Coast to find the nearest screening. 'How sad', in this day and age', she replied, 'that cinemas everywhere aren't showing it.' For all the gorgeous steps taken, we are still very much on the journey of compassion and solidarity, never mind of celebration. Indeed, alongside admiration for so many like Tim Conigrave and John Caleo, I was left yesterday with deep sadness, and renewed frustration and anger, at the slowness, and sometimes sheer reaction, of so many Christians fully to love their sexual selves, so many of their 'neighbours', and their God of infinite compassion and creative diversity. In the context of my generation, the negative responses of Church authorities and Christian parents to Tim and John's love was more understandable, though no less shocking and stabbing to the very heart. I rejoice in those, across the world and from so many Christian traditions, who are seeking to walk a different pathway, centred on a Christ of a very different yet authentically biblical hue. Compared to the wider western world however, and even the attitudes of the bulk of our own church membership, I fear the institutional church is still a very long way from where we should be. As Aussie Rules would have it, if we are not, in different ways, 'holding the man', then we are so often either not even on the paddock, or 'holding the ball' of a bygone generation. May we be kissed afresh with peace, joy and understanding.
I am not a great fan of what is called 'the pathetic fallacy', particularly in films when the rain, for example, comes down when times turn sad and miserable. There are some special occasions however when these things do seem to come together. A few years ago, this happened before the first Five Lands Walk on the NSW Central Coast. Some of us gathered on the beach for a special dawn ceremony before the main event. As one of our Aboriginal elders finished singing the final song whales appeared off shore, seemingly beaching gloriously in the joy of that splendid morning of spiritual renewal. The flagwashing we shared on Australia Day was similar moving occasion. Earlier that afternoon, on a hot day, I attended the solidarity event after the fire at the Garden City mosque. As we drove out to Acland the clouds gathered and, as we arrived, rain began. In that place of so much political and environmental conflict, it felt as if creation itself was weeping with us for the failings of our nation and world and that, like gentle tears, it was washing and healing us as we prayed together. It was a beautiful event. The liturgy touched many hearts. It lifted the spirits, not least of the Aboriginal elders present and of Glenn Beutel (who so gracisously welcomed us and who so ably the practicalities of the flag washing).
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.