Among the several fine contributions to last Saturday’s ‘Voice and the Church’ gathering was that by the Revd Dr Rangi Nicholson, Assistant Priest of Rangiatea Church, the oldest Māori Anglican Church in Aotearoa, and author of ‘Treaty, Church and Nation’, reminding us that though our own struggles are specific they are also common and enriched by solidarity with others across the globe. He spoke powerfully of what needs doing from Māori and Anglican experience in Aotearoa New Zealand - including how, without meaningful resources empowerment is limited, and how the Church needs to be held accountable for benefitting from oppression. There is so much, he rightly identified, that the Church needs to do in terms of recognition, repentance, restitution and reparation.
His three future hopes are pertinent to struggles in Australia too, and beyond:
1. More commitment by the Church to truth telling and ‘the whole story’ - with repentance and reparations
2. the Church needs to put its own house in order re authentic partnership whilst offering constructive critique of Government’s commitment to the UN rights of Indigenous People, reimagining a more just Church and nation.
3. the need for the Church to contribute boldly and with love to a new constitution - to visioning and values clarification for the future of the country - as part of restorative justice
As he says:
Whilst Treaty, in the experience of Aotearoa, can be a ‘sacred covenant’ allowing new life and renewed attention, there needs to be much more - for:
‘Restorative justice needs to become a priority’ - led with young people...
One interesting contemporary term I’ve found helpful recently is ‘onlyness’ - in both its negative and positive aspects. ‘Onlyness’ certainly speaks to my experience both practically (in negotiating the deafening demands of ‘sameness’ and ‘togetherness’ in world and church) and spiritually (in seeking sources, connections and pathways to flourish).
Negatively, as this week’s inaugural LGBTIQ+ Leadership Summit in Sydney highlights in its introduction, despite significant advances (especially for L & G folk - T & I have a little more to see) queer ‘onlyness’ continues to be an issue in business and public life (even without including church spaces) and it is still hard for so many of us in simply pursuing our careers and vocations:
‘A 2020 McKinsey report identified that LGBTIQ+ staff are more likely to encounter microaggressions, experience sexual harassment (especially women), and become disengaged within their organisation due to “onlyness”.
Despite the overwhelming ethical and financial business case for LGBTIQ+ inclusion, it simply hasn’t happened. It is reported too often that LGBTIQ+ staff are excluded from promotion, are overlooked by superiors, and concerns regarding their gender and sexual orientation are dismissed.’
Being queer in the Church (even more tolerating and passively ‘inclusive’ spaces) sometimes feels like such ‘onlyness’ with bells on (sometimes the sort of bells tolled perhaps to warn people of the plague?). In the best of our mainstream Churches the obsessions with institutional ‘unity’, limited ‘brand’ identity, and not ‘rocking the boat’ also militate against receiving the gifts of ‘onlyness’ - even though they are an essential part not only of the continuing features of spiritual health in Churches but are also pathways forward if they were fully received.
The reality is that ‘onlyness’, spiritually speaking and in many manifestations, has always been essential to positive life and change in secular and faith spaces. A key saving grace of both my native C of E (Anglican), Reformed ‘liberty of conscience’ and wider Christian tradition has always been those who have lived into and out of their ‘onlyness’ - for it is from the depths of spirit, inner truth, our authentic dreams and stirrings, that true flourishing comes.
We are most certainly created to be social creatures, and our onlyness bears fruit and is enriched in mutual relationship with others, especially where they seek to honour and share their own ‘onlyness’. Yet so much remains, and rises afresh, to work against this - not least sadly in so many Church spaces - as organisations, communities and individuals settle for conformity and complacency (as well as coercion at times), resting on outdated assumptions and harmful stereotypes, unchanging inherited or ‘functional’ structures, and suspicion, or worse, of ‘onlyness’ (even in some faith traditions which speak of ‘conscience’ and being ‘prophetic’).
The LGBTIQ+ Leadership Summit puts it clearly:
‘LGBTIQ+ leaders have a strong legacy of driving positive change – even in the most difficult circumstances. In the 2020s, an era of the socially aware and responsible consumer, large organisations cannot afford to merely provide lip service to LGBTIQ+ inclusion.’
The same might be said of other leaders among us who lead from out of their ‘onlyness’ - not least the extraordinary First Nations leaders who have walked with, inspired, and strengthened me in singing new life in faith spaces (and without whom I’d have given up long ago) Like ‘onlyness’ however, such people not only need honouring, but supporting and releasing into greater life.
I continue to be flabbergasted (that’s the polite way of putting it) by the attempts of Churches to ‘apologise’ to LGBTIQ+ people whilst continuing to ignore our voices, maintaining shame, and hurting us afresh. The latest astonishing ‘apology’ is by the General Synod of the Anglican Church in Australia - actually ’deploring’ activity which it had itself just demonstrated.
NO - this kind of ‘apology’ is not acceptable and represents a mockery of the deep understanding of costly repentance and reconciliation in the Christian tradition.
Meanwhile, the Uniting Church - with more credibility but with significant holes in its LGBTIQ+ ‘inclusion’, including a current low level of trans awareness and engagement - has also been pursuing an apology process. This is a much better concept but one in which no transgender people have been included in the ‘apology’ group! (so there’s a first apology to make)
A few obvious starters therefore for such ventures:
* ‘Nothing about us without us’
* Cheap grace betrays the Gospel
* Reparations matter
Should any green ordinands (aka ministry formation students) ‘fall’, where do they go? I sent thankful video greetings across the globe this weekend to my best man, at my wedding, celebrating a significant birthday landmark - cheers Chris - and it set me reflecting on what has happened to my immediate generation of would-be clergy…
It was a deeply poignant yet beautiful Midnight Mass tonight in St Thomas' Church in Market Rasen. I had indeed had a yearning for one more such communion in the cold and dark and the depths of the symbolism and mystery it reflects - but not for years to come and not like this. The nave altar stood precisely where my parents’ coffins had been just two days before, the mood and singing was subdued by masks and the pandemic, numbers reduced and the liturgy unexuberant. Yet the magic, the miracle, persists - light in the very darkness, glory in the mire and sorrow, enfleshed spirit in our mixed up midst - and eucharistic participation on this, of all occasions, remains so truly special.
It was hard to move away into the night, for the last time to leave the church of my childhood and early formation, to step along the pathway into the marketplace one more time. The main street seemed even more deserted than ever as I made my return - even the wandering drunk had been spirited away. Walking the last part in silent darkness between the two cemeteries for the final time brought back the fullness of so many memories as well as profound emptiness and grief. For in the depths of our factual and metaphorical winters love can be reborn - just as a new dawn broke after the winter solstice on the morning of my parents’ funeral.
T.S.Eliot was partly right. ‘A cold coming’ it has indeed been - ‘just the worst time of year for a journey… the very dead of winter’, even without the Omicron wave and renewed distance and desolation - but we do not need to be ‘glad of another death.’ Birth, life and love happens always - divinity in the vulnerability of our flesh: Incarnation in our dark.
This is probably my favourite view of St Thomas' Church - where I grew up, was confirmed, sang in the choir and was an altar server. Some 800 years old, it has offered sacred community, celebration and comfort through good times and bad (including many plagues, political horrors and upheavals, Reformation, revolutions and renewals, and contemporary changes). It was probably originally named not for the early disciple but after the martyr Thomas a Becket - politically murdered for standing up for (genuine) religious freedom against tyranny. So it knows how to adapt, survive and still provide space for divine flourishing. It will see out COVID-19 and maybe even the latest convulsions of the Church of England - some things are so much deeper than viruses and institutional failings. It has also held and helped grace so many personal family joys and sorrows - for what it ultimately stands for will always prevail 🙂 #ourlittletown
an introductory reflection offered to a recent NSW Ecumenical Council discussion by Josephine Inkpin
Firstly let me acknowledge country – in particular the land of the Gadigal people of the Eora nation on which I live: their elders past, present and emerging. I also acknowledge all First Nations people here. I do so as right and proper. I also do so as this immediately focuses our discussions. For I live in a suburb (Forest Lodge) named after the house of Ambrose Foss, one of Pitt Street Uniting Church’s distinguished early founders. Next door is the suburb of Glebe: a name also witnessing to Christianity’s role in the dispossession of First Nations peoples. Such naming highlights how so many of our conventional expectations and faith stories are tied up with power. This lies at the heart of many divisions, embedded in our ways of thinking and being. Thanks be for God’s grace, these things are not intractable. Yet, without at least naming them, we will not go far in addressing the polarisation they help cause...
a reflection on the journey to genuine 'inclusion' for the Diversity & Inclusion Council of Uniting NSW/ACT
Thank you so much for the opportunity of sharing with you today. Let me first acknowledge the Gadigal peoples of the land from which I speak, and their elders past, present and emerging. I would also like to express my thanks for the work Uniting is already doing in terms of diversity and inclusion, including the vital encouragement this is to myself personally. For genuine visibility of our human diversity is so critical and enriching, as I know from my own experience and the huge number of people who contact me, from all kinds of places.
joyfully receiving gifts
One of the things I have learned from First Nations peoples is the importance of genuineness of spirit and intent. Back in 1986 in Alice Springs, Pope John Paul II put this well in sharing with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. ‘Until your gifts have been offered’, he said, ‘and joyfully received, the Church in Australia will not be that which Jesus Christ wants to see.’ That challenging truth remains central not only to the Church, but to all parts of Australian life. Until First Nations’ gifts have been fully offered, and joyfully received, with justice, then we will never be the country we can be. That must be the underlying theme of all we do in terms of diversity and inclusion. Yet those words apply more broadly, don’t they? Until the gifts of Asian, Pacific Islander, Middle Eastern, African, LGBTQ+ people, and all kinds of Australians have been offered, and – crucially - ‘joyfully received’, then we will not be what we can be. ‘Joyfully’ is a key adjective. What spirit and intent do we really have? If we approach inclusion mainly as an obligation (politically correct or otherwise), we will have missed the point. For one thing, anyone feels more likely to offer their gifts if there is likely to be a joyful reception. We will never maximise the capacity of any organisation, whether a church, a nation, or Uniting, if we do not joyfully embrace the gifts we are offered.
What an opportunity we have as we emerge from, hopefully, the worst of what COVID-19 has done to expose the divisions and distinctions of wealth and power among us in Australia! To build back best, fully, and joyfully, enabling diversity and inclusion is vital. The character of our intent and its spirit is crucial.
weak inclusion - as a noun
In my experience, ‘inclusion’ can be a very weasel word, covering many continuing sins and PR appearances. Organisations have at least three approaches. The first is what I would call ‘weak’ inclusion. It is better than obvious exclusion but essentially about degrees of permission to belong. It is like a noun: it is somewhat fixed, concerned with quotas and boundaries, but really still involving social distancing rather than engagement. At times and in places, the Uniting Church exercises this kind of inclusion. You can belong as a minority, but are you really honoured, engaged, and joyfully received? That too is where many First Nations people were in Anglican circles in Southern Queensland, including in Anglicare, until we began our Reconciliation Action Plan a few years ago.
medium inclusion - as an adjective
Secondly, there are ‘medium’ approaches to inclusion. This is what I have experienced in moving into Uniting Church ministry. It involves a genuine welcome, with some affirmation, openness to involvement, and certainly much kindness. Whereas ‘weak’ inclusion is mainly being allowed to the table, this might even include being at the head of the table. Other than Anglo ethnicities, and LGTBQ+ and other networks are also taken with some seriousness. Inclusion becomes more like an adjective than a noun – it is about being inclusive, more dynamic than simply inclusion. It is where the Reconciliation Action Plan was in the Anglican Church Southern Queensland when I left, and maybe, where Uniting is right now. It is, however, only a happier, but not yet fully joyful stage.
strong inclusion - as a verb
A third stage of inclusion has a deeper spirit and intent. This ’strong’ stage is not about even genuine welcome, but about revealing the gifts of all. It includes affirmation but is really about celebration, led by everyone in our diversity when we are all truly empowered. It is about inclusion as a verb: about active practice day by day; including like Uniting, as a dynamic community of living and belonging. It is also wonderful for any organisation. For we no longer have to work hard at showing we are diverse and inclusive. We demonstrably are. It is our very DNA. Others see it, which also saves many promotional expenses! The Uniting Church aspires to this, and at times manages it. The most visible sign is the Covenant with Uniting Aboriginal & Islander Congress - although, even there, questions remain, including about resourcing and how voices are actually heard and make a difference. Yet the Uniting Church as a whole is not there yet. I sense however that Uniting can move into at least some kind of ‘stronger’ inclusion, where all levels of staff and operations see it as their own work. That is another major shift, but ultimately, as it becomes more natural, it in fact requires less work from advocates and leadership than ‘weak’ and ‘medium’ inclusion – for it belongs to everyone, when everyone truly belongs. True including thus also leads on to expansiveness.
We live in the tag end of some frankly rubbish times, when the very dignity of some human beings has been under question. We have major policies of exclusion in Australia, including towards First Nations claims for justice, towards refugees, some migrants and the poor. Currently, we also have hurtful bills of religious discrimination in federal and state parliaments. Yet my belief is that these are rotten but passing times. I see the journey towards Australian diversity and inclusion as like a sea-change. The waves come in at different speeds. Sometimes they rise high: as with the 1967 Referendum, the Apology to the Stolen Generations, Marriage Equality, and so forth. At times they fade away and we think the tide has gone. Yet it will assuredly return. The key thing is to hold faith and make ready for the next big wave of Australian diversity and inclusion. It will come, and those who are prepared can surf it. Others who do not prepare will flounder. For there is, let’s face it, no vibrant and really sustainable future for Australia without renewing our multicultural identity. Uniting is well placed to seize that time when it comes, if it continues to move more deeply into diversity and inclusion. So, May God bless us all in this exciting journey!
After marriage equality law passed, I was delighted, but cut ever deeper to the heart every time someone excluded from Australian Anglican rules asked if I’d preside at their wedding. It is one significant reason I now rejoice in sharing in Uniting Church ministry . It’s three decades since, as a priest, I first blessed a same gender relationship (a gorgeous couple in a former coal mining village on the top of England) so even blessings (aka ‘crumbs from the hetero/cis table’) are really just not enough anymore. So I was hugely delighted today to talk with a wonderful gay couple about their forthcoming wedding at which I’ve been asked to preside - so good to meet their needs for a priest in Sydney.
Our queer God will find a way
(With love and prayers for those continuing to work for change in every faith community)
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.