I first formally joined the (UK) Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement in 1990, the year that the World Health Organisation removed homosexuality from the Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems, and IDAHOBIT - the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia, Interphobia & Transphobia - began. May 17 (IDAHOBIT) marks the anniversary of that significant WHO change, and since then considerable advances have been made by LGBTIQ people across the world and in many key sectors of life. The original gay and lesbian focus has also been widened and deepened to acknowledge the rich diversity of human sexuality and gender: IDAHOBIT thus started as IDAHO, without bisexual, intersex and transgender engagement, just as the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement, to which I still belong, has broadened as One Body One Faith. The need for IDAHOBIT is still nonetheless massively apparent, particularly in many countries of the world. Under the cover of the COVID-19 crisis, some, such as Hungary and Poland, are also moving backwards in respect and affirmation. In countries such as Australia, understanding and support of bisexual, intersex and transgender people still lags behind progress for gay and lesbian people. As the International Day reaches 30 years old however, it is also a time for appropriate celebration of remarkable positive developments in so many places and areas of life. When, and how, however will Churches, and other religious groups grow up to their own mature humanity, 'to the measure of the full stature of Christ' (as Ephesians 4.13 puts it)?...
One of the gifts I was given during my time as General Secretary of the NSW Ecumenical Council was a small seven branch candelabrum, from the Indian Orthodox community in Sydney. I love it for many reasons: not least as it helps me recall something of the wonderful life and faith of Indian Christianities and cultures; since it reminds me of the inheritance and shared values which Christianity owes to Judaism; and because it is such a beautiful item for life. for all For light is such a vital symbol for spirituality in so many different forms and context, and, In our current COVID-19 crisis, this is a particularly lovely thing to explore.
Within the Orthodox and Catholic (including many Anglican) traditions of Christianity lighting of candles is certainly a very life-giving established form of prayer. As the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America expresses it: 'Upon entering an Orthodox church, for example, it is customary to light candles and offer prayers for one’s personal needs or that of a family member or friend. Candles are lit before icons as a sign of one’s faith and hope in God’s help. .. By lighting a candle and offering a prayer, one enters into closer contact with the Church and her ministry to the faithful, invisibly warming the soul by the visible light of the candle.' See further, and for an opportunity to light a virtual candle here.
In my case, I often like to use my candelabrum to bless the classic seven directional dimensions of my life and world: north, south, east, west, beneath, above, and within. In doing so I can remember particular people or aspects of life. At this time for example, when I light one candle I hold in prayer, and offer intention, for those in the northern hemisphere, including those in Italy, Spain and the USA, who have been so badly affected by the coronavirus, and my family and native land in the UK. Praying for what is beneath me similarly enables me to recall the land of which I am a part, and the first nations of the place where I now live. Lighting a candle and praying for/with that which is above can also be a way of connecting with the greater universe and the powers which create, sustain and evolve within it. Working through the different directions thereby connects me more deeply with all that is, transforming my own little consciousness in the so much bigger and richer tapestry of all. Whether you, or those you know, draw on traditional pathways of spirituality or not, praying in similar ways with candles might be a helpful aid in our COVID-19 days?
Here, below, is my wife Penny Jones using our candelabrum in a brief prayerful reflection for her YouTube series for Milton Anglicans...
Although aspects of Christian tradition have been devastating for physical love and comfort, the Jesus' story resounds with affirmation of the goodness of life, materiality and the senses. Touch is central to so many Jesus, and other holy, encounters. The body is not at all to be shunned. Rather it is, literally and spiritually, to be fully embraced, as a place where God is 'incarnate' (made flesh) among us. Of course, as with other aspects of life, there can be issues with use of the body, and its abuse by others, but it is fundamentally a beautiful, good, and loving gift of God. This is expressed in the very embodied nature of so much Christian sacramentality and liturgical action, including the sharing of the Peace and laying on of hands.
One of the saddest things for many people right now, particularly those who are most isolated and/or lonely, is the further radical distancing of touch. The following prayer is thus partly a contribution to expressing this and finding other spiritual connection. It uses the practical tool, and embodying symbol, of the holding cross, which many people find helpful at times of stress, illness and loss. When we are unable even to speak due to pain, clasping such a spiritual aid can be life-giving and a means of receiving vital grace and strength. Even when others cannot hold us, we can ask for God's love to do so, and allow it to flow through us.
In writing this prayer, the word 'lingering' came particularly to mind. It is less conventional than other descriptors of the divine but maybe especially evocative for these times. Perhaps, not least when church buildings and traditional elements are closed or silent, God is often among us as a more lingering presence, more like a whisper than a roar? That is also to affirm a more enduring reality than the 'signs of wonders' of much conventional religiosity. I offer it anyway as part of my prayer, in solidarity with others from whom I am currently physically apart.
Do you have a holding cross? Could you perhaps make one, or more, for yourself and/or others? As I wrote this prayer I was particularly reminded of the late Sister Angela - the extraordinary Franciscan nun, mystic and sculptress/artist - whom I met years ago in Stroud in New South Wales. She taught me how to make my own wooden holding cross. I also give thanks for Les Rub, a beautiful friend and faith companion in Toowoomba, who has made so many holding crosses for others, distributed as a ministry to those in need in hospital, at home, or elsewhere. May such expressions of love, like this prayer, continue to hold and strengthen us and others, this day and always:
we struggle to hold on
amid fear and suffering.
Hold on to us
and help us
hold on to the cross.
we struggle to wait
amid stress and insecurity.
Wait on us
and help us
wait with lingering faith.
we struggle to live
amid death and despair.
Live in us
and help us live,
even in the vale of destruction,
in your eternal life.
Timing eh? If I were a comedian I’d be sacked! Sadly, I’m not able to be physically present, although this premiere is so much on my heart tonight. Unfortunately, this clashes with leave that Penny and I had planned over a year ago, with some special family commitments. However, this film is truly timely, speaking something of the 'word' that is transgender people of faith's gift to church and world...
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'...
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...
In the heat of current political issues, is it possible to find a healing ethic of religious freedom? Might a fresh look at Christian tradition help us with this? The ideological use of notions of 'religious freedom' is certainly hardly new. Judaeo-Christian history is riddled with it and their consequences. Jesus himself was famously condemned, according to John 's Gospel (11.50). since it was argued that it was better for one person to die than for the nation to be destroyed (allegedly). Other faith expressions and Christian 'heretics' have met comparable fates. Meanwhile, in many places, Jews and Christians have experienced, and continue to experience, harassment, persecution, and even outright destruction. Yet the Jewish and Christian traditions are also founded on expansive ideas of liberty, grounded in the very being of God in God-self, and on liberative myths and symbols such as Exodus from slavery, return from Exile, deliverance from sin and evil, and the in-breaking and embodiment of God's reign of justice, peace and love. These have empowered, and continue, to empower people to achieve freedom across the world. Not for nothing then did Martin Luther call his seminal work 'On Christian Freedom'. Its use highlights three typical trajectories western society has explored in relation to 'religious freedom'. Its central message however points us deeper...
If Samuel Johnson were around today he might well feel that religion, rather than patriotism, is the last refuge of the scoundrel. It certainly seems to be an excuse, or self-justification, for all kinds of bad behaviour, as well as a source of strength and inspiration to holiness in others. Not least this is the case in regard to some leading Christian approaches to LGBTI+ people and their vigorous intent on backlash. At times horribly distorting reality, they even hijack 'religious freedom' into its opposite - i.e religious privilege - thereby further diminishing religion's positive features and making life very difficult for those very many Christians who believe and act differently. Indeed, when it comes to the current contentious battle over 'religious freedom', as both a transgender person and a Christian, I consequently frequently find part of who I am dismissed by one contending group or another. When, instead, will we recognise that the real problem are the scoundrels? Just as Samuel Johnson was not attacking patriotism as such, only a false kind of patriotism, so we do well to call out those with 'bad faith', whilst finding a fresh consensus among those genuinely seeking balance of conscience and liberty, whether we are secular or not. ..
As western society, in a few places, begins to admit (and hopefully address) some aspects of our own male violence and abuse, will we learn to recover old, and create new, stories and images of what matters? Among other aspects of the Songlines exhibition in Canberra, this came home to me again strongly as I was once more struck by the power of the female in ancient storytelling. The powerful moral and cosmological (Seven) Sisters stories for example are told in many ways in different places, including with strong resonances outside Australia (from where the number seven among the sisters may partly have arisen). In the west of Australia the sisters are thus called Minyipuru. As they travel east however, out of Marlu country into the lands of the Ngaanyatjarra and the Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjarra, they become known as Kungkarrangkalpa and Kungkarangkalpa. The details profoundly matter of course, yet they also share so many common themes, not least those of women's survival, resilience and ingenuity in the face of male threat. For the sisters' journeys include pursuit by a male, also known in different places by different names. This man, to try to realise his lust and love, is a shape-shifter. So the story is partly a colourful battle of wits between the male and females, involving all kinds of subterfuges, adventures, and stratagems. Told as they have been for tens of thousands of years, these richly layered stories thus enable both men, and especially young women, to come to terms with our human needs and struggles: sharing a realistic portrayal of the interplay of desire and exploitation, power relationships and flexibility of action. Women are not idealised but their capabilities, and their weaknesses, are no longer buried. They, together with men, become active participants in their moral choices and aware nurturers of one another. As the Aboriginal women of the Songlines exhibition put it, in relation to the painting of Yaritji Young of Tjala Arts (above):
We are all kangaru pulka: big sisters to the young women. Like in the Seven Sisters story we must teach and protect our young sisters
This is so much more powerful when the story and its morality is enacted in so many different ways. For, as Tjunkara Ken, Yaritiji Young's sister, has said:
I hold my father's story. I hold my mothers' story... (it) doesn't come out of paper or out of a book. It's coming out of the ground here. (My way) is different. It comes from the inside out.
How will each of us make female dignity a grounded matter of 'inside out'? Such stories also of course have resonance in western traditions, not least in the Bible, where similar comparisons might be drawn to tricksters like Jacob and powerful women such as Deborah and Judith. Indeed, like any living and enduring spiritual stream, despite its deeply patriarchal traditional limitations, Christianity also has its own share of female stories of wisdom, resilience and empowerment. How often however do we hear, sing, dance and embody them, and create new ones? As, so painfully slowly, we come to terms with the damaged feminine in our culture - and above all with the brutal realities and 'hidden' denied abuse of so many women's lives - it is surely time, further prompted by the sisters and the ancient wisdom of the Songlines, to tell and live them.
Trans Spirit Flourishing is the name of a new website I have produced, which seeks to shed light on transgender life & spiritual understanding and to help develop support and encouragement for trans people in our varied journeys. For spirituality is essential to human beings but we have often used it ignorantly.
The unnecessary and deeply hurtful Australian postal survey on marriage equality has sadly demonstrated how many Christians are still not aware of the devastating damage which has been done and which continues to be inflicted on LGBTI+ people by ideas and practices which we desperately need to leave behind. As a result the deep spiritual life and insights of so many LGBTI+ people is often neglected. For transgender and gender nonconforming people this is a particular tragedy as our journeys are so much bound up with exploring and expressing our deepest identities. Things are changing however, even if some of us will no doubt continue to bear the pain of the struggle. Trans spiritual flourishing for some sections of religious faiths may never happen, but who knows - God is amazing in surprises! However trans spirit flourishing can begin, or develop further, right and here and now, for everyone .
My hope is that this resource can add, and point, to sources of light and encouragement - both, and above all, for those struggling with gender identity themselves, and for allies and those genuinely seeking understanding.
We are living through challenging times, with many demanding issues of ecology, reconciliation, peacemaking, poverty, and care for refugees and other vulnerable people. Gender diversity has so often been a battlefield. May we make of it a source of grace for the larger journey of healing and wholeness for all.
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.