What is an 'indecent' body to you? Marcella Althaus-Reid, one of the most stimulating of modern theologians, posed this question vibrantly. Her best known book, entitled Indecent Theology, challenged us to reconsider how we see and talk about bodies - especially female, sexually and gender diverse, poor and colonised bodies - all which have been treated as ‘indecent’. This, for me, is certainly at the heart of a healthy understanding of gender identity, and, crucially, affirms the gifts which gender diverse people have for the whole body of Christ and the whole body of society and our planet. It also takes us to the heart of 1 Corinthians chapter 12, where St Paul specifically commends us to honour the ‘weaker’, ‘less honourable’, ‘less respectable’ members of the Body of Christ. For, as Paul affirms, these ‘indecent’ members are ‘indispensable’, requiring ‘greater’ honour and respect...
Kaleidoscopic faith - where trans matters matter
The flesh alone, orthodox Christian theology affirms, is not enough. It is a dead end. Bodies however are vital. God in Jesus Christ is not a disembodied spirit. The divine Incarnation – the divine ‘making flesh’ – means that matter matters. So if we are created with different kinds of bodies, this matters, and honouring our bodily differences is crucial to God’s transforming purpose. For, as trans, and non-binary people above all embody, divine transfiguration is the pathway to which we are all called. Thereby God’s light may shine in the infinite gendered variety of our human rainbow – in kaleidoscopic love and faith, as I like to call it.
I understand my own gender identity as part of that kaleidoscopic outpouring of divine light and love. That is also how I rid myself of, or rather help to transform, unhelpful stereotypes and mores. Maybe I’m unusual, but my gender identity has been profoundly spiritual at its core. For it enfolded bodily, as I grew spiritually, though not without struggle – indeed out of spiritual crisis. To put it very simply, I could not honour the Great Commandment – loving God with all that I am, and my neighbor as myself – unless I fully offered my gender identity to God and loved my gendered self as well as I sought to love other selves. All of us have gendered identities and all of them, where authentic, are gifts of love to our own selves and others.
transformation begins with honouring the 'weaker' members
Maybe it helps to turn on its head the idea of our spirits, or souls, living somewhere, as subjugated possibilities, within our fleshly bodies. For I’ve learned that we are not really fleshly bodies who might just happen to have souls. No. Actually, we are, first and foremost, eternal souls. who happen, at least for this world’s lifetime, to have fleshly bodies. The eternal souls we have are so much bigger than our bodies of flesh, and they are intimately related to the greatest soul of all, God. So, ultimately, we really don’t need to worry about the flesh. However, our bodies, as part of our selves, do matter and need transformation in line with our true spiritual nature.
Opponents of trans people regularly have these things upside down. They sometimes allege that trans people ignore our bodily realities. Those ‘realities’ however are only obsessions with human created ideas of what is ‘decent’ about a body – namely conformity to certain limited ideas of the flesh. Controlling ‘indecent’ bodies is what matters to them, not allowing them to be lovingly transformed as part of the loving transformation of all things by God. Instead, trans people are particularly concerned for healthy bodies which reflect ever more closely the living spirits and eternal souls they are.
I’ll be honest. Recently I’ve been struggling with the wider Church as a Body of which I am a part. For so often it seems unwilling to do what St Paul asks for in I Corinthians 12. As my body has been transformed more closely in line with my gender identity, the more I have found aspects of the Christian Body to be increasingly difficult to live with. For my personal gender dysphoria has been transformed into gender euphoria. However the visible Body of Christ seems stuck with its bodily dysmorphia. Only when it does what St Paul asks will this bodily dysmorphia begin to be transformed – when, that is, it starts honouring its ‘weaker’, ‘less respectable’, ‘indecent’ members. Trans people are living witnesses to the fruits of this. When we stop repressing so-called ‘indecent’ parts of ourselves, we start becoming healthier bodies, more connected to the larger spiritual life within and beyond us.
three 'Rs' of transgender spiritual gifting
So, in a nutshell, the best ways in which we communicate Christian faith through our gender identities, is by truly honouring them, as gifts of God for loving transformation. That is what queer theologians are always trying to tell the wider Body of Christ As my fellow Episcopalian/Anglican priests, Liz Edman and Patrick Cheng put it, this is about valuing our sexual and gender identities as pathways of ‘queer virtues’ (for us, and others). Let me therefore offer three of these ‘queer virtues’ which I find in transgender experience – three ‘Rs’, if you will, of transgender spiritual gifting…
The first trans ‘queer virtue’ is Resilience. Now what a gift that is to the wider Body, you would think, not least in this Covid-19 year! Trans people are such outstanding examples of the Holy Spirit’s tougher gifts – patience, forbearance, and the like. It is so hard to live in a body which doesn’t fit, and transformation is often very slow, very painful, and very costly (in all kinds of ways). What a difference it makes however, if trans people can flourish through such trials. What a witness, and strength to others, if our ‘indecent’ bodies are truly embraced by others!
The second trans ‘queer virtue’ is Resurrection. Literally and metaphorically, we trans people embody dynamic new life in our own bodies. We have had to die to our old selves in order to be reborn to the new - and, literally, like the resurrected body of Jesus, we bear the scars of that experience. In many ways, we are ‘living miracles’, the so-called ‘impossible’ made real. We speak afresh – in spirit and in flesh – of our ‘trans-ing’ God, the power of love which trans-figures our world. We are uncomfortable witnesses in this, for we call everyone to be transformed into more authentic people, whatever gender identity we have. As such however, we are bearers of divine hope, which we invite others to share - again, a wonderful gift to the wider Body of Christ, and to our world, if our ‘indecent’ bodies are truly honoured!
Flowing from Resilience and Resurrection, my third trans ‘queer virtue’ is Reconciliation. For, through our life journeys, trans people often have the potential to enable everyone to see things from different perspectives and to cross and heal other seemingly ‘impossible’ conflicts. We challenge others not to use gender to control one another. We show that none of us are defined or predestined by our fleshly appearances. We embody change and reconnecting. No wonder perhaps we are then so often attacked!. Do we, as a nation, as a planet, like the wider Body of Christ, really seek peace and reconciliation? If we are to do so, as St Paul tells us, we must learn from our ever ‘trans-ing’ God, who shines among us in our gloriously diverse gendered bodies.
Jo Inkpin, contribution to ‘God and Gender’ reflections, for MCC Brisbane, 1 November 2020
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The Revd Dr Jo Inkpin: