One interesting contemporary term I’ve found helpful recently is ‘onlyness’ - in both its negative and positive aspects. ‘Onlyness’ certainly speaks to my experience both practically (in negotiating the deafening demands of ‘sameness’ and ‘togetherness’ in world and church) and spiritually (in seeking sources, connections and pathways to flourish).
Negatively, as this week’s inaugural LGBTIQ+ Leadership Summit in Sydney highlights in its introduction, despite significant advances (especially for L & G folk - T & I have a little more to see) queer ‘onlyness’ continues to be an issue in business and public life (even without including church spaces) and it is still hard for so many of us in simply pursuing our careers and vocations:
‘A 2020 McKinsey report identified that LGBTIQ+ staff are more likely to encounter microaggressions, experience sexual harassment (especially women), and become disengaged within their organisation due to “onlyness”.
Despite the overwhelming ethical and financial business case for LGBTIQ+ inclusion, it simply hasn’t happened. It is reported too often that LGBTIQ+ staff are excluded from promotion, are overlooked by superiors, and concerns regarding their gender and sexual orientation are dismissed.’
Being queer in the Church (even more tolerating and passively ‘inclusive’ spaces) sometimes feels like such ‘onlyness’ with bells on (sometimes the sort of bells tolled perhaps to warn people of the plague?). In the best of our mainstream Churches the obsessions with institutional ‘unity’, limited ‘brand’ identity, and not ‘rocking the boat’ also militate against receiving the gifts of ‘onlyness’ - even though they are an essential part not only of the continuing features of spiritual health in Churches but are also pathways forward if they were fully received.
The reality is that ‘onlyness’, spiritually speaking and in many manifestations, has always been essential to positive life and change in secular and faith spaces. A key saving grace of both my native C of E (Anglican), Reformed ‘liberty of conscience’ and wider Christian tradition has always been those who have lived into and out of their ‘onlyness’ - for it is from the depths of spirit, inner truth, our authentic dreams and stirrings, that true flourishing comes.
We are most certainly created to be social creatures, and our onlyness bears fruit and is enriched in mutual relationship with others, especially where they seek to honour and share their own ‘onlyness’. Yet so much remains, and rises afresh, to work against this - not least sadly in so many Church spaces - as organisations, communities and individuals settle for conformity and complacency (as well as coercion at times), resting on outdated assumptions and harmful stereotypes, unchanging inherited or ‘functional’ structures, and suspicion, or worse, of ‘onlyness’ (even in some faith traditions which speak of ‘conscience’ and being ‘prophetic’).
The LGBTIQ+ Leadership Summit puts it clearly:
‘LGBTIQ+ leaders have a strong legacy of driving positive change – even in the most difficult circumstances. In the 2020s, an era of the socially aware and responsible consumer, large organisations cannot afford to merely provide lip service to LGBTIQ+ inclusion.’
The same might be said of other leaders among us who lead from out of their ‘onlyness’ - not least the extraordinary First Nations leaders who have walked with, inspired, and strengthened me in singing new life in faith spaces (and without whom I’d have given up long ago) Like ‘onlyness’ however, such people not only need honouring, but supporting and releasing into greater life.
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.
Jo Inkpin is an Anglican priest serving as Minister of Pitt St Uniting Church in Sydney, a trans woman, theologian & justice activist. These are some of my reflections on life, spirit, and the search for peace, justice & sustainable creation.