Taken seriously, Christian spirituality really is extraordinarily queer. This is hidden by widespread modernist narratives and assumptions, both secularist and Christian 'mainstream', and also, still more, biblicist and fundamentalist, Sadly, such restrictive approaches try to squeeze the tremendous historical diversity of scripture, tradition and religious experience into various Procrustean beds of ordered, ideological, understanding. Yet the control of spiritual bodies, like queer bodies, always proves elusive, even to the most subtle and determined of subduers and butchers. History is indeed full of horrendous tortures and amputations inflicted upon such bodies. Ultimately however they can not be wholly suppressed. They break through in ways which are life-giving and surprising, if sometimes highly ambiguous and constrained. Certainly this is true of medieval bodies, not least those of female mystics: perhaps above all represented in Julian, or Juliana, of Norwich. For it is not an accident that the 14th century Julian has been 'rediscovered' in recent decades by those seeking fresh perspectives on spirituality, gender, God, and the renewal of being. In her we are drawn from our tombs of suffering and despair into subversive possibilities of new creation.. Not for nothing is she thus perhaps the greatest of all English spiritual teachers...
One of the refreshing characteristics of contemporary global Christianity is the recovery of balance in certain aspects of Christian life and thought. Features subjugated by the dominant Western Tradition re-appear to renew and transform. These include welcome affirmations of the God of life, women, children, 'ordinary people' and their lives and work, and the importance of the heart, creation and material existence, the body of Christ as all of us and the living Spirit of God. This is notably seen in many crosses fashioned in less powerful places which do not dwell lugubriously on death, pain and sin (like so much of Western tradition, not least that shaped by the Reformation era's obsession with mortality and finitude) Instead, in the colours and contours of different contexts, we find crosses becoming signs and places of resurrection: trees of life for and by the marginalised. This does not, of course, do away with what is valuable in such Western Tradition. Yet this shift towards an ethic of natality and flourishing is a great blessing for our world, recovering much that was lost. These few pictures in this slideshow (below) are just some: reflecting the dynamism, hope and down-to-earth realities of Latin America and Indigenous Australia: including a girl's cross; a women's cross; a family cross; the body of Christ today cross; and last supper of many nations.
Jim Thompson. our lovable bishop who ordained me deacon in London's East End, used to say that not a week went by without him wondering why he was still in the Church, and yet not a day or two without experiencing something of the amazing gifts which come with being a priest. I thought of this when I was reminded this week of the 25th anniversary of the passing of the ordination of women measure in the Church of England's General Synod. Writing in the Church of England Newsletter this week, Emma Percy, Chair of WATCH (Women and the Church) in the UK, commented pertinently about the joys then, and the achievements and frustrations since. As she reflects:
It is now 25 years later, almost half of my life, and the young people I work with have never known a Church of England without women priests... (now) part of culture appearing in TV, adverts, novels; both fictional and real examples. Yet, tensions over the role of women still continue in the church... The debates around women bishops meant that the church’s continuing uncertainty about really welcoming women into all orders of ministry was played out for the wider world to see. Sadly, this means that many younger people think the church is out of step with gender equality.
25 years on I rejoice that the church has benefited, and continues to benefit, from the priestly ministry of so many women. I rejoice in the ministry I have been able to have. I hope that we can continue to encourage women to serve in this way and that the Church of England will find ways to truly celebrate the momentous decision made 25 years ago.
Those are memories and reflections with which I concur. It is a mixed bag. Indeed, as my first grandchild comes to be baptised (in Christ Church Gosford) tomorrow, and in the wake of the Australian postal vote on marriage equality, it leaves me pondering: what will be the shape of the Church in another 25 years?...
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.
Isn't it amazing how, even though we may not knowingly prepared for it, we can often enter a space set aside for intentional spiritual growth and be caught up, affirmed and transformed by it? This was again my experience this week as I put the finishing touches to a new website I am creating - which will share something of the growing spiritual resources and reflections being produced by transgender Christians across the world, together with others of my own. Focused on thoughts of this, I made my way to the beautiful Chapel of the Holy Spirit here on our college site. What I encountered brought fresh joy to my soul, placing in greater profile and context the purpose of that work. For it was a powerful reminder to me, as a transgender person, not only that, in the words of Psalm 139, I am 'fearfully and wonderfully made', but that all of us, whoever and whatever we are, exist in a mystery which is both far beyond our understanding (certainly more than straightforward binary ideas of good and evil, male and female) and yet also closer to us than the identities we have or for which we struggle. Such is the gift of loving spiritual intention, in people, place and prayer...
Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall.
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
All the Pope’s horses and all the Pope’s men (and women),
couldn’t put Humpty together again.
For good and ill, the era we know as the Reformation has hugely shaped us. It involved immense fragmentation: both a breaking down and a breaking open. Like Humpty Dumpty, that which went before had ‘a great fall’ and could not be put together again as it had been. Especially within Christian life, it has thus bequeathed so many features we simply take for granted. Some have lasting value. Others are much more questionable. This includes the very existence of different Christian traditions, in what, from the 19th century, we have termed denominations. This was not, of course, an intended outcome. Indeed, it would have seemed anathema to any Reformer, as well as to the Church of Rome. Yet it is part of our Reformation inheritance. So what do we make of this, for God’s continuing mission? What is worth keeping? How might we move on together?
This reflection is not a traditional potted history. Nor does it seek to draw us into comparisons of our different Christian traditions, never mind reassemble past dynamics and rhetoric. Instead, it outlines briefly both vital differences and also important similarities between that age and our own. In doing so, it identifies a number of negative features which often mar our churches and world. It also suggests a number of positive features which can heal and take us forward. Hopefully, in the contemporary spirit of ‘receptive ecumenism’, these may then provide a basis for assessing which Reformation gifts we will own together and which we will leave behind. What else, we might then ask, do we need for our journey onwards today?...
This year is the bicentenary of the Bible Society in Australia and it was wonderful to be given a lovely gift by one of our students which marks the occasion - Our mob, God's story : Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists share their faith. (researched and edited by Louise Sherman and Christobel Mattingley ; art selection by Max Conlon, Gail Naden, Glenny Naden and Inawantji Scales ; with foreword by distinguished Aboriginal artist and educator Miriam-Rose Ungunmerr Baumann)
Winner of the 2017 Australian Christian Book of the Year, Our Mob, God’s Story features the work of 66 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Christian artists, well-known and unknown, from communities, towns and cities across Australia, from Tasmania to the Tiwi Islands, from Ceduna to Cairns, form Perth to Wonthaggi, sharing their faith in 115 paintings inspired by Bible verses and stories, many well loved, others not so well known, from Creation to the Crucifixion. All artists have generously given free use of their images, but retain copyright.
It is a powerful and beautiful witness to God’s love for the traditional custodians of this ancient continent which we now call Australia, and to the talent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists. Publication has been funded by a generous donor and all proceeds will go towards publication of Scripture in mother tongues of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander groups.
Better late than never? Today I am coming out fully as a transgender person. It has been a lifelong journey to this point and I am sure there are more struggles to come of a different nature. Tonight however I feel the deepest sense of joy and freedom - like that of Paul in his letter to the Galatians (more reflections about that and other wonderful trans affirming parts of the Bible and Christian Tradition in due course) - and I know that I now stand more clearly in the imperishable image of God in which I am created. I feel greatly blessed by this moment and all who have inspired, gone before, supported and/or stood by me. Thank you to anyone reading this who has been part of that :-) For my coming out has profound spiritual dimensions for me which I believe are sources of healing, strength and renewal for us all. Like my little grandchild cradled in my arms in the photograph (see left) I feel more intimately part of God's 'new creation', a little child cradled in the love of God.
Below is the letter sent (with the kind support of my archbishop) to my fellow clergy today in the Anglican Church Southern Queensland, together with just a few resources which may help our mutual understanding and growth. Together with the archbishop and my college principal, my loving partner and I pondered and prayed hard about the best way to share my news, aware both of the current contrasting levels of knowledge and care in our churches and also seeking a path of healthy transparency without causing unnecessary reactions in some quarters. I therefore hope and pray that this may be part of our continuing journeys into wholeness and joyful life for us all...
Occasionally I have a palpable sense of the communion of saints. This week it began in a second-hand bookshop in Sydney's Newtown. Looking up, a book seemed to spring out at me like a blessed shaft of light opening from above. It bore the author's name of Alan Webster, a beloved but sadly departed mentor on my life's journey. Reaching for Reality was a book written late in Alan's life and one of which I was not aware. Sketching people and events which have broken free from deadening routine and oppression, it speaks of vision and change, of the critical need and cost of risk-taking, and of the best of the Anglican spirit Alan embodied - warm, inviting, large hearted, open, culturally and intellectually intelligent, responsive and creative, down-to-earth, intimately concerned with every person and aspect of life, grounded in Julian of Norwich-like 'prayer in struggle', and discovering the transcendent in our earthly dust. As I and my immediate family make many transitions at this time, it is as though Alan again speaks directly to me - be encouraged; don't be afraid to be, bring and suffer change; the mystery of God calls us on...
One of the most misleading sayings in some Christian quarters is that Jesus was born to die. Indeed, so concerned are some to talk about Jesus’ death that they would really like us to put a cross in the nativity scene! Now, of course, the meaning Christians find in the death of Jesus is certainly very important. That is part of why the Easter story is central to Christian Faith. Yet even Good Friday is not ultimately about death. For, as the Bible Society’s lively 2009 campaign expressed it, Jesus. All About Life is the true reality. As Jesus says in John’s Gospel (10.10): ‘I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full’. Death is a part of life and life involves a series of little deaths (losses and griefs) as well as physical death. So Jesus showed us how dying well can be done. Yet this was in service of life, which is the real purpose and invitation of God’s creation of us. For God wants us to live! Christmas, the feast of the birth of Jesus, is therefore not merely a beginning and prelude to Easter. It also witnesses powerfully, in its own right, to the heart of the Christian message. In God in Jesus Christ, we find our fullest life, which is eternal love, right here, right now, and for evermore...
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.