Wonderful to have Sorèl Coward, my dear friend and fellow Anglican priest, sharing some of her story as a keynote contribution to this year’s Sydney Mardi Gras - another beautiful expression of the rich diversity, generosity and developing life of our fabulous Australian queer community.
I speak today as both a proud member of our LGBTIQA+ community, and also as a dedicated person of faith, indeed as an Anglican priest. I do so, because people like me are typically erased, our lives and voices ignored. Yet we queer people of faith do exist! - and we are increasingly seeking to be visible. For our very existence gives lie to the monstrous misuse of religion for political ends. We suffer particularly profoundly from religious discrimination. We do not want religious exemptions which hurt us and others, and betray the heart of who we are. We also know that the majority of our fellow Australians of faith agree with us, as we saw in that dreadful postal survey. So we’ve tried to lobby, spoken to Government inquiries, sought to be part of desperately needed change. Yet, as queer people of faith, our rights to religious expression are seldom recognised...
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?...
A great deal of my life has been spent as a border crosser, on so many levels A number of factors have no doubt given rise to this, including life contexts and personality. It is also however a key element in being both a priest and a transgender person. Much has been written about this from the point of view of priesthood. Whether lay or ordained, all Christians also share in the ministry of reconciliation (see 2 Corinthians 5.17-20 and elsewhere). Yet perhaps one of the under-recognised gifts of transgender people is the capacity many of us have to work across the borders of identity and difference. After all, we have to negotiate this more than most in our very selves. No wonder that, across the world's cultures, gender variant people have therefore always exercised sacred roles as priests, mediators, go-betweens, and other reconciling figures, in so many aspects of human existence. No wonder too that some like myself have been drawn into Christian priesthood and border crossing work as a means of finding life for ourselves and others, even when our own transgender identities have been outwardly submerged or suppressed. As transgender people become more visible and accepted as equal and positive contributors to human life, it will be lovely to see such ministries increasingly more explicitly affirmed, celebrated and nurtured. To be a border crosser, whatever your gender identity, is typically both an uncomfortable but wonderfully rewarding vocation. So if you are, or know, a border crosser, say a prayer and raise a glass of cheer and comfort! We are vital, for ourselves and for others. As Kathy Galloway put it, in a favourite poem of mine (entitled 'Cross-border peace talks'), it is a holy place to be:
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...
Tomorrow is the 30th anniversary of my ordination as priest, so it seems appropriate to break what has been a (initially unintentional) five month blog fast. For as I look back and around today, reflecting on my life and vocational journey, it seems new beginnings are certainly in the air. For some time I have felt myself in a watershed period and this is certainly true of 2017 so far.
Today I fly back from Vancouver, at the end of a short stay in Canada en route back from the UK. For at the beginning of June my parents marked their 60th wedding anniversary. My wife and I therefore coupled being there with a series of different work and research engagements which will hopefully bear much fruit for us and others in the next few months and years to come. As we stood awaiting our suitcases at Heathrow at the very end of May, we also received news of the birth of our first grandchild. Symbolically it was a powerful expression of new phases of life into which we, and many people and interests we share, have entered.
In the next few weeks I hope to share some important aspects of changes which have opened up for us, pondering a little on the significant shifts which have taken place for us so far this year (new city, new house, new jobs, new work roles, new family roles, new relationships, new understandings of ourselves etc) and those to come. However, on the eve of my priestly ordination anniversary, it is enough to reflect briefly on a visit to the St Brigid's Community gathering at Christ Church Anglican cathedral in Vancouver last Sunday. St Brigid's is a three year old emerging church initiative, with a particular affirmation of diversity (not least of LGBTI+ people) and is apart of the cathedral's developing ministry and mission. It marked the feast of St Peter and St Paul (my ordination festival) on Sunday and I was greatly moved by the shifts of 30 years. At that time, in St Paul's cathedral in London, all was done in the style of high Anglican papalism, with a presiding bishop who shortly afterwards converted to Roman Catholicism - out of horror of female ordination - and who insisted on determined Anglo-Catholic clerical elements, including a concelebration of new priests which excluded some of different Anglican tradition. At St Brigid's, whilst surprisingly faithful to today's liturgical expectations, it was very different. The female priest presided engagingly, inviting all to reflect and contribute together on their response to the texts and themes of the day, and to gather as one around the eucharistic table. Transgender, as well as other LGBTI+ people, shared deep Christian insights, speaking from their own faith experience, embodying the new voice and confidence gradually being found even (slowly and sometimes agonisingly) in the churches. For me, it was a beautiful affirmation of so much that I have prayed and worked for over the past 30 years, and a wonderful timely encouragement to new steps into the future. Sometimes God seems particularly close, especially at times of threshold and transformation. Feeling renewed in my vocation, may the journey of grace continue for us all.
It is baffling and frustrating to hear some politicians, media and other leaders talk about a lack of Muslim response to terrorist and other Islamist-linked outrages. It seems as if sometimes people simply only want to see and hear what they want to see and hear. Earlier last week the following open letter from our Islamic community to our local Toowoomba Catholic bishop was received by myself and other faith and community leaders. It speaks of the continued revulsion of almost all Muslims to acts such as the recent killing of Father Jacques Hamel and the deep shared commitment to peace and humanity...
It was a delight yesterday to see the film Holding the Man with one of my most lovely, compassionate and Spirit-filled gay friends. Based on the poignant 1995 memoir of Tim Conigrave, Holding the Man (a resonant expression drawn from Australian Rules Football) tells the story of the love and life he shared from schooldays with John Caleo, including the struggles they faced with others and their tragic early deaths from AIDS-related illnesses. Adapted by Tommy Murphy in 2006, Holding the Man became one of the most successful of recent Australian stage productions. This film version will hopefully widen the audience much further, honouring Tim and John by increasing light and understanding and strengthening our human solidarity against all kinds of sexual and gendered oppressions.
The film is certainly also 'a story of a generation'. From a personal point of view, as an exact contemporary of Tim and John (albeit on the other side of the world), I was indeed touched by remembrances of my own school days, university experiences, and early adult life, especially of wonderful gay and lesbian friends who also endured much pain (including some even to shocking early deaths) whilst vibrantly helping to transform our inherited climate of fear and repression. I also recalled my days as a young priest in London in the 1980s as the horror of the AIDS crisis broke upon so many, together with the horribly fumbled, generally fear-filled and, occasionally, fabulous response of Christians, as church bodies and individuals.
How far have we come? In many ways, we have traveled a long way, even in Christian circles. Yet only a few days ago the New South Wales Government banned the showing in schools of the film Gayby Baby, which offers the opportunity to enter into the experiences of children growing up in lesbian and gay families. All credit therefore to Dendy Newtown for screening Gayby Baby at this time, to encourage others to enlarge understanding and provide public pressure upon uncertain authorities. Indeed, as we bought tickets for Holding the Man, my friend observed to the young cashier that he had had to travel from the Central Coast to find the nearest screening. 'How sad', in this day and age', she replied, 'that cinemas everywhere aren't showing it.' For all the gorgeous steps taken, we are still very much on the journey of compassion and solidarity, never mind of celebration. Indeed, alongside admiration for so many like Tim Conigrave and John Caleo, I was left yesterday with deep sadness, and renewed frustration and anger, at the slowness, and sometimes sheer reaction, of so many Christians fully to love their sexual selves, so many of their 'neighbours', and their God of infinite compassion and creative diversity. In the context of my generation, the negative responses of Church authorities and Christian parents to Tim and John's love was more understandable, though no less shocking and stabbing to the very heart. I rejoice in those, across the world and from so many Christian traditions, who are seeking to walk a different pathway, centred on a Christ of a very different yet authentically biblical hue. Compared to the wider western world however, and even the attitudes of the bulk of our own church membership, I fear the institutional church is still a very long way from where we should be. As Aussie Rules would have it, if we are not, in different ways, 'holding the man', then we are so often either not even on the paddock, or 'holding the ball' of a bygone generation. May we be kissed afresh with peace, joy and understanding.
my address to the Vesak Conference at UNESCO, Paris, 28 May 2015 as part of the Toowoomba 'Model City of Peace and Harmony' presentation
Let me begin with some words from a great poet and priest in my Anglican tradition:
No one is an island entire of itself; every one is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; … any one's death diminishes me, because I am involved in humankind. And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
This wisdom is still powerful today, even though John Donne himself lived through the violent crises of his own age 400 years ago. For they are words for us all. Whilst they embody Christian understanding about human-divine solidarity, they are also reflected in other wisdom traditions, not least Buddhism. For no one can be an island today: no person, no religion, no country. What happens, for example, here in Paris, affects the rest of the world. In response to their own trials, many French people have said Je suis Charlie Hebdo. At it its best, that is another way of saying what John Donne said long ago. For whatever bell tolls - in Sri Lanka, USA, Israel-Palestine, Syria, Iraq, Nigeria, the Congo, Toowoomba, or wherever – it tolls for us all...
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.