I remember vividly the day Elton John came to my little town. It was like a breath of life from another planet. For, let's face it, in Market Rasen, it was akin to a hundred big events in one, but with unprecedented glitter. Indeed, in the 19th century, Charles Dickens said that you could fire a cannon down the main street at 10 pm on a Saturday evening and you wouldn't hit anyone. Not much has changed, even now. Sadly Elton didn't stop to say hello to the little kid I was. He still left an impact though, just as his songs were an integral part of the soundtrack of my youth. For Elton was in Rasen for a wedding of Bernie Taupin, his close friend and lyricist. Bernie was, in part, 'one of us' - born a Lincolnshire 'yella belly', spending part of his own upbringing locally, and attending Market Rasen Secondary Modern School. Some of Bernie's lyrics reflect this, including the song 'Saturday NIght's Alright for Fighting' (partly an anthem to the experience of the Aston Arms and other places of Market Rasen 'entertainment'). Linking up with Elton was Bernie's way out, and maybe, somewhere in my consciousness, their story was a promise of an alternative pathway for myself and my childhood friends. Was stepping on 'the Yellow Brick Road' possible for us too? The concluding tour of Elton's career, and the release of the film Rocketman brings this back. There's much I owe to this influence - particularly in learning, so slowly and painfully, to sing 'Your Song' as my own song...
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'...
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...
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.
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...
This year we will again be delighted to share in our parish the beautiful Advent booklet Prepare: An Advent Reflection (downloadable for free here) which is produced by Anglican Overseas Aid– find out more about its work here.
The focus on the traditional Advent themes of hope, love, joy and peace is reflected in the work of bodies such as Anglican Overseas Aid in Christian work with our sisters and brothers and partners overseas. Our shared aspiration is that poor communities experience these themes of Advent in their daily lives. The reflections, drawn considerably from Anglican partners overseas, also help us however to understand the Good News of Jesus Christ more fully. The following reflection, from Melanesia, is just one example to help us grow, rejoice and share more deeply in God’s love for us all…
One of the interesting features of criticism raised by some to aspects of 'progressive orthodox' Christian faith is the perceived relationship between love, God and Judaeo-Christian scripture. Progressives can certainly be guilty of simplistic and sentimental thinking, including syllogistic fallacies around such themes. Yet it appears to me that conservative theology sometimes runs the risk of driving a wedge between the God of scripture and healthy, life-giving, human love. In a recent local marriage equality discussion for example, it was somewhat extraordinary to hear a vigorous opponent assert a radical difference between God and human love. In responding to a particular interpretation of 1 John 4.16b - 'God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them' - they were right in drawing attention to the wider context of that verse, including the prevenient nature of God's love and primary focus in Christ. However such divine love was precisely embodied in the very human life and love of Jesus, expressing the presence of such love throughout creation, in all kinds of different ways. Part of the religious genius of historic Christian Faith has been the ability to hold these different elements in tension, understanding the creative paradox of i John 4.12 that 'No one has ever seen God; (yet) if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.' Both love, and sin, in my view, are far more complex and mysterious than many 'plain Christian' theologies allow for.
Perhaps part of the contrasting responses of Christians lies in how holy scripture is itself conceived. One young man for example said to me recently that the Bible and Christian Faith were not really about love but about salvation. He is on a genuine journey of exploration into these matters and we had a cordial and mutually illuminating conversation. Yet such a view reflects a very common but restricted framework which some Christians have imposed, and continue to impose, on the Bible. In reality of course such a lively and diverse set of scriptures have many contrasting themes. Salvation is a vital, and perhaps particularly distinctive Christian, one. Surely however salvation is but one way of approaching love, rather than the reverse? For all its misuse over the centuries, what has always 'saved' holy scripture is the longing for, and experience of, God which human beings have found in it. Rather than being the Procrustean structure of a salvation machine, the Bible is witness to the eternal love story of God, humanity and creation, embodied, for Christians, most fully in Jesus Christ.
'When someone starts talking about principles, watch your back!' This was one of many 'bon mots' I learned from Geoff Garner, my delightful supervising vicar when I was a curate in the East End of London. Partly what he was saying was that when human beings become agitated, for or against a controversial proposal, humanity and genuine love go out the window. So called 'principles' and 'values' become used as weapons: at best providing insulation from genuine engagement, or, often, simply being used to harm others. Geoff himself knew well to his cost how this worked. As a founding member of LGCM (originally the Gay Christian Movement), as an inter-faith adviser to the Bishop of London, and in the open and humane way he ministered with others, he was frequently a target of others' internal difficulties and defensiveness. For Geoff, and for me, this is far from how Jesus lived, taught and acted.
Last weekend I spoke at the Toowoomba Marriage Equality event, sharing my own, positive, perspectives on what is too often an area of Christian 'principled' resistance and denial (click here for my address on that occasion). At the meeting, I was once more struck by the qualities of love, joy, and kindness so many LGBTI+ people have for one another and others. Since then, I have once more been overwhelmed by the generosity and warmth of fellow marriage equality supporters with whom I have corresponded. This, I believe, reflects the immense wellspring of love within the LGBTI+ community which still longs for full release. It is a powerful contrast with the spirit of some Christian circles which persist in turning their backs on this wonderful source of renewal for us all.
Most certainly, there is also Christian discomfort about marriage equality which is neither bigoted nor defensively armed with principles. One of my close Anglican colleagues for example is wary of marriage equality legislation because they feel some advocates are themselves equipped with principles (such as exaggerated 'rights' discourses) which they can wield like aggressive weapons. Perhaps, but I saw none of this last weekend in the keynote addresses of Marriage Equality leaders such as Shelley Argent and Rodney Croome. Instead they spoke with humour and humility about those things which touch all our lives: love and family, pain and joy, being valued, recognition and relationships. These are not abstract principles but the realities of life which bind us together.
One Christian leader who has upbraided me since last weekend accuses me, among other things, of being infected by humanism. It is one accusation - unlike many others - which, with qualifications, I am happy to own. For a healthy Christian humanism is surely an antidote to picking up the weapons of principle. Like my mentor Geoff Garner, I see in Jesus the embodiment of the humane as well as the the holy, someone who stood not on principle but in the power of love: in that sense being both fully human as well as fully revealing of the mystery of divine love which transcends all our human differences (male and female, Jew and Gentile, and all the rest - including queer and straight).
Julia Baird, in a recent article, reflects, in a typically incisive and balanced manner, on the challenges of discerning what is 'free' speech and what is 'hate' speech in the marriage equality debate. My sense is that part of the answer is in returning with prayerful discernment to the Christian injunction about 'speaking the truth in love' (Ephesians 4.15). Too often this can mean Christian justification for simply being mean, aggressive, demeaning, or worse. When I hear or read the words 'I just want to say this to you in Christian love', I am also instinctively tempted to duck for cover, just like Geoff Garner. It is hardly that I do not care about truth and truth-speaking. Part of my problem is that parts of the Church do not really want to explore truth and sometimes actively seek to silence the truths of others. No, the heart of the matter is what we mean by love. Is it truly an openness to genuine truth-seeking and the fresh insights of the Holy Spirit, or is it only a cover for ego and group fear and defensiveness? Whatever our views on marriage equality - and, sadly, the debate is likely to go on in the Church as a whole for ages after it is settled in Australia in law - when we come to 'speaking the truth in love', perhaps we need to spend more time on that last word love. It is too easy to leap to principle without love. For those of us who share in pastoral care, the ability to share a prophetic word is also important. Yet we need to be kind and compassionate in how, as well as what we say. For me, much maligned 'political correctness' often seems really to amount to no more than being polite and respectful to others - precisely the opposite of the Pharisaism, wielding principles like weapons, which Jesus so abhorred and transcended. We are not all agreed, not will we be, with or without a plebiscite. Most Christians however, for and against, genuinely seek to honour God and our conscience. So let us seek the truth indeed, but let us be gentle with it.
Nei Neiwa Yi Yu Gali. I’m sorry, I don’t know many words of local language: especially the words used for celebrations just like this, in this place, for thousands of years. So those words will have to do. But imagine that. Imagine all who have gathered, like us, for thousands of years in this Darkinjung and Guringai country: meeting, binding in love, feasting, singing, and dancing, the joy of human relationship. Nei Neiwa Yi Yu Gali: we walk, or dance, together, with Mother Earth. Don’t we?! Isn’t that what we do today: aren’t we dancing a celebration, together, with this part of Mother Earth, and with these two remarkable people, Cathleen and James, who owe so much to this place.
Thank you everyone for gathering here and thank you, Cathleen and James, for choosing to bring us here - and not to Sydney. For this is a truly amazing area with fabulous people and places. Indeed, it is an area full of Indigenous birthing places: like the birth canal which runs out from Narara, James’ homeland; close to Gosford School, where James and Cathleen first met; out past the Gosford Anglican site where Cathleen first lived and where she and James have just been married; further out past our family home in wonderful Woy Woy, towards Sydney, where Cathleen and James now live; and to the sea, a living expression of the depth and open future to which they are now called, into a new birth together, in the mystery of love.
Today is James and Cathleen’s day. So let me just share three brief things. Unusually, for me, they are from three men and no women. For, throughout Cathleen’s life in Australia, I have been part of a female household: fabulous females indeed, but all females, even both our dogs. So it is a huge joy fully to welcome James into my closest family, as a fellow male. Maybe God - bless her - has finally started to readdress the balance?! At any rate, Beeny, today, just for once, I’m going to ditch my usual feminist desire for inclusivity, and offer you, with James, three pieces of masculine wisdom...
A great Christian (Hans Kung) once said ‘there will not be peace in the world until there is peace between the religions of the world, and there will not be peace between the religions until religious people meet, understand one another, and work together for peace.’ Recent events, especially in the Middle East, show how true this is. Perhaps in the past it was possible for different religions to ignore one another or to compete, sometimes violently. Today, when people of different faith live next door to each another, we need another way...
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.