One of the most life-giving parts of my ministry in Toowoomba was the installation of the Reconciliation Cross in St Luke's Anglican Church. Created by renowned Aboriginal artist Uncle Colin Isaacs, as a gift from Heather Johnston (a descendant of one of the original European settlers), this commemorates the great Aboriginal leader Multuggerah, the Battle of One Tree Hill, and Aboriginal resistance to invasion and dispossession. It was overseen with the guidance and leadership of the late Uncle Darby McCarthy and other local elders, with particularly notable support from Mark Copland (from the Social Justice Unit of the Catholic diocese of Toowoomba). It represents a vital visible step in Australian Reconciliation, affirming a continuing journey for recognition and justice. For, in these days of #BlackLIvesMatter and questions about 'white' history and memorials, it offers a tangible example of what can be done to renew our histories and nurture new symbolism and focal points for a better future together. In my view, as both an historian and a priest, it is undoubtedly appropriate that some, more offensive, statues and other historical artefacts are replaced and/or re-used in new ways. Others might have constructive adaptations or additions made. Both of these courses have indeed been employed, on church owned sites, as part of Church practice in addressing the legacy of, and memorials, to child abusers, and those who have colluded with them. Much much more important however is addressing living injustices and forging new pathways. Reclaiming Australia's 'black history' is a crucial aspect of this and Toowoomba's Reconciliation Cross is a living symbol.. It is therefore a cause of thanksgiving that it is placed in the centre of Toowoomba, in one of its oldest and most significant spiritual buildings, available for anyone to visit, to ponder and to encourage the next urgent steps in the journey of justice and healing...
Among other things, the killing of George Floyd in the USA has raised big issues about racism, in Australia as well as the USA, and elsewhere. Here are just three reflections by Aboriginal Christian leaders which raise the profound challenges to those of us who are white and continue to benefit from the systemic violence of our society. At the end of this Reconciliation Week they are particularly important to hear, and act upon...
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.
One more step along the road we go. For it is 6 years, almost to the day, since I successfully proposed a diocesan Synod motion for the Anglican Church Southern Queensland to explore a Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP), inspired by the work done by the Toowoomba Catholic diocese. I was reminded of this this afternoon as I took part in filming Reconciliation stories with Anglicare Southern Queensland and other diocesan colleagues as part of a new and developing Anglicare Reconciliation project. It has certainly been a sometimes frustrating, but also, above all, deeply enriching journey for me personally. For - from Cunnamulla to Buderim, through Toowoomba, the Gold Coast, and Brisbane - I have walked, yarned and worked with all kinds of people, from all kinds of different spaces and with all kinds of different stories. So it was lovely to share today in bringing some of this together, in immediate advance of NAIDOC Week, in order to enable fresh steps ahead with many more people. The RAP, is, and always was and will be, an ambitious project - seeking to work together over such a large and diverse area, with all sections of the diocesan family - and there is so much more to do, but today was an example of how rewarding this can be.
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.
The theme for this year's Reconciliation Week has been particularly fruitful for those of us who are practising Christians. It has provided another positive link between our faith and the journey of healing and justice in our land. For each element of the threefold heading has meaning for both the Christian pathway and that of Australia's many peoples. Indeed it was a delight to preside at baptisms this week in this dual context. For 'Our History' calls us to reflect, and act, upon, the question 'where do we come from?' Neither an individual, nor a nation, can go far without acknowledging and being in proper touch with the bedrock of our lives, whether our historical memory or spiritual 'dreaming' and relationship to God. 'Our Story' similarly calls us to reflect, and act, upon, the question 'what do we belong to?'. This is vital for both individuals and communities. In the Christian case, this involves participation in the 'Jesus Christ', or biblical 'God' Story: in a sense, our Christian 'Dreaming'. Meanwhile, 'Our Future' calls us to reflect, and act, upon the question 'where are we going?' This is vital for purpose and meaning, new life and the realisation of our individual and shared gifts and potential. For Christians, this involves living further into the promise of shalom which God has for us and all his/her children. May all we have thus shared this week strengthen our ancient foundations, our walking together, and life in the Spirit of renewal.
This Saturday, at 10 am in St Luke’s, a special event will mark the anniversary of the Battle of One Tree Hill (Table Top Mountain) between local Aboriginal people and early European settlers. The organisers hope it will enable us to learn more of our shared history and thus move forward with greater understanding and a stronger commitment to a better future. For at the heart of Reconciliation of all kinds is a recognition of the truth of our past and present and a transformation of hurtful memories into purposeful new life.
An Anglican bishop once termed the dispossession of Indigenous people ‘Australia’s Original Sin’. He was saying that unless deep uncomfortable truths are faced we can never fully receive the grace of new beginnings. For this works on social as well as personal levels. Whether as individuals, communities or nations, all of us fall short of the glory of God. When we acknowledge our brokenness however, healing can come. For, as the great El Salvadorean Oscar Romero put it, the task of the church in every generation involves helping to make the history of every nation a history of salvation. May God continue to bless us in this journey.
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).
A few days ago I was approached by meditation friends to lead a flag washing ceremony this Australia Day. I am happy to do so. The concept is deeply peaceful and nonviolent. Washing is a natural, soothing and renewing process and has spiritual resonance with all kinds of faiths and cultures. As a response to the challenge of celebrating Australia on the day of dispossession of its first peoples and ancient cultures, it is also a creative one. Surely that is a conflictual and offensive anachronism which one day will be replaced by another date for a genuinely whole community affirmation of Australia's amazing nation? In the meantime, washing the flag is one way in which we can together ask for healing and renewal for us and the wider world. Whereas burning a flag is a furiously aggressive and destructive act on various levels, washing can be both an appropriate act of repentance and reconnection.
Within Australia, the inspiration for our Toowoomba flag washing comes from Western Australia, where, on 27 January last year, a group of Christian leaders led a public ceremony of repentance outside the Perth Immigration Detention Centre (see story here). The liturgy used was drafted by the Revd Elizabeth Smith and is the basis for the one I have drafted for our own gathering here.
Our flag washing ceremony is open to all and will take place towards sunset at 5.30 pm this Monday, 26 January 2015 in the Tom Doherty Park in Acland. Such a venue, built and maintained by volunteers over decades, was suggested by those who approached me as appropriate because it is a symbol of community life and hope. For Acland, today radically changed due to mining developments, has been a place of contention over a number of years and a place which thereby symbolises many Australians' longing for healing and reconciliation. As the friends who will join me have expressed it:
The Australian flag is a powerful symbol. It has the strength to unite. The act of washing is tender and compassionate. It symbolises a desire to be a nation that is kinder, more gracious, more generous and inclusive of all who live here and of our natural treasures.
As we join together in this symbolic act of purification, we cast aside despair and argument and celebrate our shared values and the decency of ordinary people.
We understand how very blessed we are living in this amazing country.
We believe that if we are all people, we are all equal.
We believe that good will prevail and that light will flourish.
Great to see - and hear - work beginning on the first stage of our labyrinth on the St Luke's Toowoomba site today. The project will place a petite Chartres design labyrinth in the grounds of the church building, beneath the wonderful east end window (a copy of the oldest window - the 'Blue Virgin' - in Chartres Cathedral, one of the great European medieval cathedrals associated with Christian labyrinths). We hope that this will further develop the 'sacred tourism' and 'spiritual garden' potential of the St Luke's site (the 'Chartres of the South'?), offering a valuable extra tool for contemplative prayer, experiential spirituality, healing and reconciliation. My wife and colleague, the Revd. Penny Jones (seen left pretending to actually dig out the foundations) is a fully trained and accredited labyrinth facilitator with the Veriditas international labyrinth movement. She has already run workshops in Toowoomba, as well as elsewhere, and we look forward to this being a beautiful addition to life in Toowoomba. More information about our project can be found on the Toowoomba City Labyrinth site.
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.