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...
If the horrors of violence towards females across the world were not enough, this week's flurry of Australian sexism (Briggs, Dutton, Gayle et al), coupled with the serious New Year outrages in Germany, has rightly re-focused attention on the continuing need for feminist activity in the western, as well as wider, world. In that light, it is good to see the current film Suffragette. For anything which informs for the first time, reminds, or deepens, our awareness of the long feminist struggle is to be welcomed. Seeing Suffragette myself this week was thus duly encouraging. I have to say that I had been nervous about doing so. For the film's subject matter was core to my doctoral thesis Combating the 'sin of self-sacrifice': Christian feminism in the women's suffrage struggle 1903-1918 (available on-line here I recently discovered). Like most historians, a modern media portrayal is sometimes trying, even when directors have been assiduous in context and detail. With inevitable allowances for dramatic space and effect, and with some small but important qualifications, Suffragette however has done a very good job. Its lessons are certainly most valuable for today...
It ill behoves an Englishman, and an Australian citizen, to advise Scots how to vote on their future. How exciting it is however that this debate is happening, both for the future of England (and Wales and Northern Ireland) as well as that of Scotland. Which ever way the vote goes, Britain as a whole will never be quite the same - thank God - as the Scots reflect on what it means to look to a post-Imperial future, and, hopefully, encourage the rest of the British to do likewise. For it is good that the British PM David Cameron tells us that he has a heart, at least for some things which have been good about the United Kingdom's structure. Even better though if he were to have a real heart for those things which are at the core of this debate: the longing of people everywhere to be taken seriously for who they truly are; to claim freedom and full responsibility for their lives, their land, and all that lives within it; and to seek a people's vision based on values of genuine democracy, justice and care for all, including free and fair partnership with the rest of the world. Generations of heartlessness by the English elites towards the poor and marginalised throughout Britain (not least to the Celtic so-called 'fringe'), have led us to this pass. A 'United Kingdom' which is still essentially a Union of ancient Crowns can never be enough. With the Scots, the English (the Welsh and maybe many Irish too) also deserve a forward-looking 'Community of Peoples'. My own Scottish friends remain divided on how that may best be immediately furthered: is full independence a help or a hindrance? I sympathise with them in their dilemma. Yet whatever the outcome, they agree that it at least begins to engage Britain's contemporary, post-imperial, identity. So may the spirit of my greatest Scottish hero, James Keir Hardie, thus prevail...
In its remarkably unhelpful article on the Church of England's belated decision to move for female bishops, Catholic Online (15/7/14) makes one of those knee-jerk denominational reactions which do little credit to the wisdom of its own tradition, never mind the complex truth and relationships of ecumenical life. As a leading Roman Catholic communication channel, it is a disappointing response and one which must, at the very least, make many Catholics cringe. Whilst the article rightly raises the ecumenical challenge contained in the emergence of female bishops in the Anglican Communion, it vastly overstates the continuing divisions, ignores the nuances and other positive dynamics of Roman Catholic ecumenism, and, above all, fails to understand that the journey of Christian unity is not a one-way street. Perhaps, like other instinctive Christian reactionaries, the author feels a sense of betrayal as the Church of England stumblingly implements a very Catholic principle of doctrinal development to help ensure historic Christianity remains credible and alive in the changed context of the contemporary world...
Last Sunday it was both moving and a delight to celebrate the 20 years anniversary of the ordinations to the priesthood of my wife and colleague Penny Jones and our Glennie School chaplain Kate Powell. Both were part of the historic wave of female ordinations in England in 1994. As part of the gathering they shared something of their own journeys, including the pain and struggle to ordination (and, in Kate's case, the opposition of her own bishop, in Chichester, which led to her ordination by another bishop in a parish church at East Grinstead). The choice of songs, readings and poetry was telling and uplifting and it was a huge pleasure to be joined by people from the wider community as well as Glennie School and the Anglican parish of St Luke. We were reminded how this is but one more step on the journey of God's liberation of women and men: a 'teacup in a storm', offering comfort and encouragement. A particular joy was also the presence of other women from other denominations and religious faiths (including Venerable Wu Chin, from the Pure Land Buddhists, who brought a lovely gift of typical hospitality).
Rejoicing today with the consecration of our first Australian female diocesan bishop (Dr Sarah McNeil as the 11th Bishop of Grafton) - and giving thanks for those who (as Olive Schreiner put it) 'made the track': thus finally getting round (as a Lenten discipline) to sharing some of the stories of my inspirational and heroic first-wave Christian feminist sisters and brothers, with accompanying prayers for those still struggling for peace & justice today.
My Making the Track blog can be found here
One of the most shocking aspects of many true mystics is the use of erotic imagery in accounts of their spiritual experience. Neither Reformation Protestantism and Tridentine Catholicism found this comfortable and their legacy of repressive suspicion continues within much of Western culture today. In recent times however there has rightly been a gradual rediscovery of this vital tradition.
Within Christianity this has been aided by the rise of Christian feminism which has sought to honour the long despised lives and experiences of women. This has brought about a slow but significant re-evaluation of the place of the body, touch, tenderness, desire and the sensual in spiritual expression and symbolism. In the process, the very earthy nature of most biblical experience has been highlighted, including the typically sensate character of most of Jesus' encounters with women and men, even/notably in the accounts of the Resurrection. Female mystics such as Julian of Norwich, Hildegard of Bingen, Hadewijch of Brabant and Mechtild of Magdeburg have also been happily 'rediscovered' and acclaimed.
What is often less prominent, perhaps because it is arguably even more subversive to patriarchal religion, is the acknowledgement of similar experience and tradition among men. This has been greatly aided by gay men's experience but is no mere contemporary novelty or confined to sexual orientation. Admittedly somewhat corralled by Neo-Platonist and ascetic concerns, it was after all Origen (the greatest of the earliest church theologians) who was the great founder of Christian erotic spiritual symbolism and it was Bernard of Clairvaux, the great medieval monastic reformer, who was its greatest champion. More widely however it is also found, often in unacknowledged and awkward silences, in the experience of otherwise 'ordinary', heterosexual men. For me, this has always been powerfully expressed in Billy Bragg's song Tender Comrade, speaking evocatively of the anguish, vulnerability and bonds of love of otherwise very masculine men in the face of adversity. In St Luke's Toowoomba, it is similarly poignantly seen in the Warriors Chapel side window, where a struggling soldier reaches out to touch the feet of the crucified Christ. This is no denial of the toughness of God and of human conflict. It is however a pointer to the deeply intimate nature of love at the heart of all our being. For Christians, male and female, gay and straight, are called to be both lovers and transforming soldiers of Christ: tender comrades of deep intimacy.
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.