For (too) many years, with others, I've coaxed and cajoled. Sadly though, at this transition point, I’m going to have to say it clearly once more - many ‘affirming’ church leaders truly frustrate me and are major problematic parts of the continuing ‘issues’ that churches and wider society have with sexuality & gender Individually some church leaders can be quite kindly in disposition, as well as otherwise gifted, but as a body they are a key element of the (straight) problem we have, alongside the bigots they refuse to face down publicly. It also sometimes feels like they are stuck in a time warp. For two things stand out...
Whoops! In downsizing, I nearly discarded my Ph.D research notes - containing so many first-hand accounts of first wave Christian feminists - even now they bring tears of sorrow, admiration and joy at their amazing courage, resilience and achievements. The blue boxes too are full of the names, brief bios, and references to key speeches, articles and acts of so many different women, and some men (even clergy), from across faith and other backgrounds - I tend to call them my ‘cloud of witnesses’: part of the real ‘apostolic succession’ and historical genealogy of those who have passed the torch of love and liberation. #standingontheshouldersofgiants #shouldertoshoulder #passiton
It is funny how certain books jump out at you at particular times - and this one (Everyday Passions: A Conversation on Living) leapt at me today as I reflected on All Saints and the communion of the just/justified. For the author, Dorothy McRae-McMahon, has always been incredibly high on my list of Australian Christian heroes and this liturgy (the first page below) seems particularly appropriate right now. I’ve only met Dorothy in person once - sharing a platform in the Blue Mountains a number of years ago - and she seemed quite surprised then when I said she had been such an inspiration to me. She shared her wisdom in a NSW ecumenical project on prayer I once organised too (albeit she was then too ill to attend the key event in Sydney) and my involvement of her brought swift reaction from Sydney Anglican leadership - evidently they felt prayer was thereby made invalid, and ‘no Sydney Anglican will be part of the project if Dorothy McRae-McMahon is involved’ (as it happens, as on a number of other things, they proved wrong on that!). All of that kind of thing most certainly shouldn’t dent our courage for love and living truthfully. For as Dorothy wrote in this book (in the chapter ‘Living Life Under Attack’):
‘I would never choose to live under attack, but I will never regret living in ways which sometimes make it almost inevitable... To live in a way that produces attack in order to live more truly (as against choosing martyrdom) is to live with passion.’
The book ends with Marge Piercy’s poem ‘For Strong Women’ and Dorothy’s final words: ‘Living is, indeed, an everyday passion and “strong is what we make each other”’.
With blessings and solidarity to those saints who live into wholeness and inspire others this All Saints-tide.
Penny and I are feeling very blessed after renewing our marriage vows this week in St John's (Anglican) Cathedral in Brisbane - on our 35th wedding anniversary. We had intended to mark this occasion by beginning several months long leave overseas. COVID-19 put an end to that. However we felt powerfully drawn to mark this point in our lives, particularly after this year completing the main elements of my gender affirmation journey. It also gave us an opportunity to celebrate a 'queer' marriage which some of our co-religionists say is impossible (!) but which we believe is a lovely gift for the renewal both of marriage and also of human relationships with our wider creation. For, as I have written elsewhere (see here for example), a deeper wrestling with Judaeo-Christian tradition leads us into a much more profound and life-giving understanding of marriage and God's shalom...
Beyond Religious Privilege and Segregation: Becoming Good Neighbours as LGBTIQA+ and religious Australians together
Sometimes Parliament is seen as a soap opera. If only it were! For though it remains so white and suburban, even TV’s Neighbours has just included a transgender character. It is a positive sign of the times but makes recent political developments all the more incongruous. For whilst the wonderful Georgie Stone enlivens Erinsborough High, in politics a green light is being given to repression. Why are we rushing towards religious discrimination laws when we’ve not yet even sorted our schools issues? So the question I want to pose is this: what kind of neighbours do we want to be as Australians together?
Current parliamentary discussion is failing trans people - not least those of faith - in both process and specific proposals. Hence Equal Voices calls for postponement, into at least the middle of next year, to enable genuine consultation with those who will bear the greatest cost. The proposed Religious Discrimination Bill is a move towards enshrining disturbing forms of religious privilege and segregation which can only corrode our pluralist culture...
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...
Jo Inkpin an Anglican priest, trans woman, theologian & justice activist. These are some of my reflections on life, spirit, and the search for peace, justice & sustainable creation.