The more I grow older, and hopefully a little deeper in understanding, the more I am aware of how religious traditions have wrestled with sexuality and gender in all kinds of extraordinary ways. For sexuality and gender have always been such powerful aspects of human lives and spirituality has therefore necessarily engaged with them as vital features of revelation and relationship, as well as repression and resistance. Sadly. so many 'sanitised' and narrowed readings of the Bible and religious traditions have significantly contributed to human distancing from intimate, celebratory and mature sexuality and gender identities. These are typically those which have much airplay today in wider media as well as conservative and fundamentalist circles. When however we look afresh at scripture and tradition, particularly through lenses of 'queer' experience, we find something very different. Some features can be quite confronting, even profoundly disturbing, full of extraordinary violence and subjugation. Some aspects can also be very different from our our contemporary contexts. Yet there are others, rightly viewed, which can help us face up to our own opportunities for growth towards richer sexual and gendered lives. They can be quite challenging but offer considerable liberative potential. Among these is the story (in Genesis 32.22-31) of Jacob's wresting with the divine, their wounding and blessing...
I’m increasingly questioning even terms such as ‘affirming’, as well as ‘inclusive’ and ‘welcoming’ for the kind of faith communities of which I want to be a part. Celebrating - and Transforming - seem much nearer the mark right now. For just seeking 'a place at the table' (a popular phrase among many LGBTIQA+ activists and in other progressive causes) is not enough. Of course it is better than simply crawling around picking up crumbs from the table, which is what we are often condemned to do! Personally however that seems a timid image for communities centred on the eucharist of the subversive Christ. For the problem with churches just ‘welcoming’ or including’ or ‘affirming’ sexually and gender diverse people is that it still leaves hetero-cis folk in control, many theological assumptions unquestioned, and 'straight privilege' untransformed. The reality is that LGBTIQA+ people are as much hosts as guests in God’s work of love, and, like other ‘outsiders’/Gospel ‘little ones’ are more obviously loci of potential spiritual transformation. So it is time to let us, with other ‘little ones’, fully celebrate and actively share, not merely receive, God’s welcome for all.
In contrast, the photo above comes from the first occasion when I presided at the eucharist. It symbolises the transformation. which God is seeking - where LGBTIQA+ people our/themselves also preside in a celebrating faith community, as a sacrament and foretaste of the celebratory divine party where everyone's gifts and identities give and share. For me it was a profoundly moving occasion, where different aspects of my self were at last reconciled and enlivened - including my hitherto publicly hidden gender and priestly vocation; my body and spirit; my past, present, and future. I have come to realise however how important my eucharistic presidency also is for others, as we all journey together through the changes of life into the fullness of God's transformative love and celebratory joy. That love and joy needs embodying and sharing more widely. It will not happen however unless the agency of LGBTIQA+ people our/themselves is central.
for more of my reflections on this theme,
click on this link - Why even 'affirmation' can be part of the problem
One of the most profound things about being a priest is sharing in great transition times in all kinds of people’s lives. Sometimes these are also marked in special ways at special times and/or places. Sadly, whilst they were much better at this in former ages (including adapting ‘pagan’ practices), Christians recently have often narrowed, and even exclusified, our human ‘rites of passage’ - with beautiful exceptions, like Dorothy McRae-McMahon, who have actively explored words and symbols for a much greater range of vital human experiences. In one sense ‘holy holding’ of transgender experiences is part of this, though particularly gorgeous! 😻🧚
I've shared in other similar occasions in recent times, but I’m really looking forward to this coming Sunday - partly as a contribution to the renewed unfolding of divine presence and naming, encouraging others to the same (seriously its not hard to do!), but above all for the opportunity to lead our parish in celebrating a beautiful person (and increasingly beloved friend) in our Milton Anglican community. The eye shadow may or may not be on show - and glitter is sadly out due to COVID-19 - but there will certainly be dancing in the heart of God. 💃🙏🦋
As my wife Penny and I approach our 35th wedding anniversary next month, we are increasingly aware of how our marriage has become one of God's delightful little prophetic jokes to prompt deeper loving awareness. The other day, for instance, we went to a shop in Brisbane to see if we could buy some dresses for our upcoming renewal of vows event. I found a splendid one I liked quite quickly and the shop assistant asked me if it was for a special occasion. 'Yes', I said, 'Penny and I are renewing our vows in a few weeks time. It will be our 35th wedding anniversary'. The assistant was very professional and just murmured 'how lovely'. For the next few minutes however it was very evident that the cogs were whirring in her brain. Clearly I 'passed' more than well enough for her to be considerably puzzled how two women could be marking 35 years of official marriage. Maybe she wondered if we came from some country she hadn't heard of which had quietly adopted marriage equality decades before others. Perhaps she pondered if there was some special lesbian rite she had never imagined. Whatever the case, as for others in society, and certainly within church circles, our fully sanctioned and richly flourishing marriage had stirred the pot. Once again Penny and I were a gentle loving challenge to preconceptions and an invitation to more expansive relationships and celebration of life...
I've written about J.K.Rowling's work before (see here), and, in a little booklet - 'Defence Against the Dark Arts' (free to download here)- used some of it to help dispel trans (and wider 'queer') phobia and enlarging the mental health and life of others. So it is highly disappointing to see her write an essay recently in which she develops her anti-transgender views. Tragically, she both conflates her own personal history of earlier life mental health struggles with young people's quite distinct gender dysphoria and uses her own awful experiences of abuse to justify exclusion of many trans female people from women's spaces. Such arguments coming from such an influential person are disturbing and only add petrol to the destructive fires of renewed attacks on transgender people in cultural and legal-political arenas. Thankfully this week's judgement by the US Supreme Court re-points us to the way forward for all. For J.K.Rowling seems sadly to be currently trapped by the too pernicious, and too common, notion that the safety and freedom of one oppressed group depends on curtailing that of one or more other oppressed group. What however is so badly needed today is not simply fighting for our sectional interests, but also a coming together of all who have been oppressed, abused, or silenced, So, whilst they disagree profoundly with her views on gender, it is so good to see leading trans activists this week 'standing alongside J.K.Rowling' against the latest misogynistic attacks by the UK tabloid newspaper The Sun (see, for example, articles here and here). For as Nim Ralph, the coordinator of the open letter says:
“I was as hurt as the next trans person by her essay. But our struggles are connected.. We have always been here in the fight against misogyny and gender-based violence; we will always speak up against it and fight back where we see it. Patriarchy is our shared oppressor.”
Shocked by the media exposure of details of the writer's past experience of abuse, the letter is a call on all who suffer from oppression of various kinds to rise beyond our differences to support one another in each of our struggles and to create a society which fully values every person. To do so, means recognising that none of us are truly free until all of us are free. We will all remain vulnerable, and worse, unless we let go of the idea that freedom is a competition, or a limited good rather than a source of growth for us all. Billy Bragg expressed this powerfully in his song 'Never Buy The Sun' - You Tube recording here - reflecting on the way in which Rupert Murdoch and powerful empires exploit and create misery in all kinds of people's lives. Instead, we need the human solidarity which the people of Liverpool (the 'Scousers' of the song) displayed after the terrible Hillsborough football stadium tragedy. Instead of turning the blame on victims and survivors of abuse, as The Sun did then and have done again this week with J.K.Rowling, we must together reject the purveyors of fear and hate, challenging their destructive power and enlarging our own. As Billy Bragg put it:
Tabloids make their millions betting bullshit baffles brains
And they cynically hold up their hands if anyone complains
And they say: "All we're doing is giving people what they want"
Well, they're crying out for justice, people crying out for justice
In the corridors of power they all sit down to sup
With the devil and his minions, and they ask for his opinions
And the politicians wring their hands and cry: "What's to be done?"
But the Scousers never buy the Sun...
I'm hugely grateful to Dr John Wallace, film-maker Rachel Lane and her wonderful team, for bringing to fruition the short documentary Faithfully Me, sharing part of the stories of myself and Rhett Pearson as transgender people of faith living into our authentic selves. This was shown on ABC Compass on 24 May, and is available on iView here until 23 June, and afterwards will be shared by Equal Voices and others on YouTube and through other channels. We hope it will be a blessing to many, sharing further light and understanding, and affirming gender diverse people in churches and wider society. In this project I am particularly grateful as ever for the support of my wife, the Revd Penny Jones (who also shares some of her journey with me in the film), and friends and colleagues from St Francis College & St John's Cathedral in Brisbane (both of which, by kind permission respectively of the College Principal and Dean, were part of the locations filmed).
This photo was taken, earlier this year, from my bed of healing in a delightful unit in St Kilda (Melbourne), I had just had genital reconstruction surgery, thanks to the excellent skills of Andy Ives and his wonderful team at the nearby Masada Hospital, and I was in my first stages of recovery 'at home'. When the night's darkness began to lift, the new light of day brought this beautiful dawn. My eyes opened to the glorious gift of nature's renewal, and, with it, to the wonder of human participation in the joy of existence and work of re-creation. For across the sky, just above the treeline, floated a series of hot air balloons, beautiful expressions of fresh lightness and delight (you may just be able to spot two of them in the photo - as small circles to the left of the centre of the light, adjacent to the word alleluia).. At the same time, the sunrise further gorgeously illuminated the cranes working on the building of the exciting development of the Victorian Pride Centre, visible a couple of streets away across the rooftops.
This experience was, as might be imagined, for me, a vision and harbinger of resurrection. It did not take away the struggles I was going through. The surgery itself was very successful, and there was not a subsequent shred of regret (so much the reverse), the days to come also saw pain and discomfort, particularly with an awkward infection and slow completion of healing due to sensitive skin (part of the joy of being a particular kind of natural redhead?!). The struggles of gender & sexually diverse people are also hardly over, despite such welcome living symbols of resurrection as the Pride Centre. Yet that dawn was not only a moment of special grace, but also a deep sign of hope and loving transformation, not simply for myself but for so much else about which I care. For resurrection, at least in this life and time space, is always betwixt and between...
A short video reflection for the Trans Day of Visibility (31 March)
Hi, I’m Josephine - an Anglican priest in Brisbane and a transgender woman.
Visibility for me is a sacrament of transformation, with three particular aspects to it.
First of all, it’s about displaying the glorious diversity of life and creation, particularly in trans people: that we are fearfully and wonderfully made - just like me.
Secondly, it’s about dispelling the fear and the shame and the pain that often gender diverse people experience, and that’s through the power of love, beginning with loving ourselves.
And thirdly, it’s about dispersing that love, dispersing, giving that light to others so that the darkness of others can dissipate.
So may that power of visibility create and redeem and enlighten all people this day, and in the future - a blessing for all.
Recently I created a 're-membering' blessing ritual for a transgender female who was approaching genital reconstruction surgery. It was custom-made, reflecting aspects of her character and spirituality, not least her commitment to feminist transformation and Celtic spirituality Not all of it may therefore suit others. With her agreement, I offer it however - download a PDF copy here, or see the liturgy below - as a contribution to the development and encouragement of others. I also warmly invite constructive correspondence on this subject. For it is right and proper to mark vital thresholds in our lives as times of spiritual transformation - a point beautifully expressed by John O'Donohue in one quotation used in this liturgy. It is to the great shame of most received institutional spiritual forms that they have been so slow, or actively unwilling, to respond to such needs and joys. Such spiritual intentionality is a gift and invitation to fuller life, both for the person at the centre and for everyone else involved (as our group of friends who were involved in this liturgy experienced)
This particular ritual employs Christian themes and language in a contemporary framework, using and adapting other helpful resources. Such readings are examples and may of course be replaced by others more suitable. A key element is re-membering: the re-membering involved in the honouring of time and change (past, present and future), relationships, and the body (personal, communal and ecclesial), As such, as on the particular occasion of its use, an eucharistic celebration is also appropriate. This ritual also owes considerable inspiration to Jewish transgender ritual, particularly in the use of water - for whilst the mikveh, as a feature of significant Jewish transgender reflection, cannot be simply adopted by others, it points us towards depths of mystery and meaning. Other readings, such as those which speak of the transformative powers and thresholds of water within Christian scripture, might also be creatively employed.. A further element to be considered are appropriate colours, fabrics and symbols, including those which reflect the senses, In this case, reflecting Celtic connections, it was helpful to use candle lights and (en)circling. The ritual thus took place with friends gathered in a circle, later around a table for the eucharist, and, for the main part, around a deliberately placed rug. As the photo here shows, this represented a form of mandala, the different layers of a person's past and continuing journey, and ripples or waves of life and love surrounding and enfolding them. At the centre, as a focal point and for the washing, was an 'imperfect' bowl, deliberated shaped as such, representing the nature of creation and the transgender (and every human) life and body. For, like the work of creation, salvation and resurrection as a whole, we are sculptured by grace, which seeks not false ideals of perfection but ever new flourishing through love and healing. With my particular thanks to those who shared in this ceremony and every blessing to others on re-membering pathways. The liturgy follows below (click on Read More below the photo), or is downloadable here...
As we begin a new year, the need for a renewing transforming spirituality is ever more evident, particularly in the face of much 'traditional' religion which continues to choose death over life. One expressive icon is that of the dragonfly, which, literally and metaphorically, I have personally encountered richly recently. For dragonflies are extraordinary creatures. No wonder they have become powerful symbols for transgender people. The picture above is thus a little creation of mine from a silent retreat I took in December, pointing to some expressive elements for everyone.. For whilst these have particular resonance for transgender people, they can also speak helpfully to others, as and when we open ourselves to more life-giving spiritual pathways for our communities and planet...
The Revd Dr Jo Inkpin: