Speaking before this weekend's Sydney Mardi Gras, the performer Courtney Act went to the heart of today's political and cultural struggles:
People having the opportunity to … picture themselves in someone else’s experience – [It] fosters a sense of empathy. Empathy is what is missing right now in the world. We’re yelling from opposite sides of the room and nothing’s getting done.
(Guardian interview 23 February 2020)
Sadly, but probably accurately, Courtney's view is also that whilst “the world has become more respectful of diversity in general … Australia is still definitely behind the eight ball.”
How do we move beyond this?
love of empathy
Courtney reflects partly on their own gender and sexuality journey but this is applicable to so much in our wider world today. So much of our 'common' life is taken up by narrow 'tribal' or territorial battles, fought by groups or individuals shouting from different bunkers. As is now a truism, this is facilitated by limited use of new communications technologies such as social media, and exploited by the rise of new populist leaders and movements across the world. Empathy however has the power of transformation (see for example Brene Brown's reflections here, and the delightful video cartoon below).
What vision however do we need to accompany and enlarge empathy? For me, one contribution remains oikoumene. This term has been at the heart of the Christian ecumenical movement. This, in its traditional form, has been in retreat in recent decades, like similar international developments, including the United Nations and other 20th century shaped institutional and ideological aspirations for human and planetary peace, justice and mutual flourishing. The weaknesses of these, including their embedded modernist assumptions, have been amply demonstrated. Many thus turn from them in desperation at the failures to achieve greater equality of value for all, and harmony in diversity. My own view is that this is to understate what has been achieved, and, as with Brexit, at great risk, to cast away some of the building blocks for an undoubtedly needed better future.
I reflect on this today, for this Sunday, 1 March (St David's Day), is the 13th anniversary of my taking up the position of General Secretary of the NSW Ecumenical Council. The three and a half years I worked in that position were challenging but deeply enriching, particularly in enabling engagement with the still central contemporary issues of cross-cultural relationships (not least Australian Reconciliation), caring for creation, and communicating spiritual 'good news, lovingly and intelligently, in today's varied contexts. Much water has flowed under the bridge since then. Due mainly to family issues, my own personal gender struggle, and to internal conflicts which developed within the wider Australian ecumenical institutional framework, I needed to move on in the second half of 2010. Today, the institutional ecumenical movement is weaker than ever. Yet the ideal of oikoumene still remains vital to me. Viewed simply as an in-house or cross-denominational churchy exercise, it has rightly run to ground, captured by renewed religious conflict and the rise of new reactionary forms. Yet, in the eyes and hearts of its great prophets. it always meant a vision of the healing and harmony of all things. For oikoumene means 'the whole inhabited world',. It is not even really about Christian unity except (as Jesus put in the central ecumencal text of John 17) in the sense of this being a sign and strength for the dynamic unity and flourishing of all. It is about the big picture, of the big God/source of love, beyond all our imaginations, empowering the marginalised but also rising above all interests, seeking to embody an universal empathy, which people of faith call the love of the compassionate God. In that sense, I was, am, and always will be, an ecumenist. I pray that the tide will turn and we will re-open our hearts and politics to empathy and to the vision of beauty, truth and love in, between, and for 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.