Some days we can glimpse why we were put on this earth. Yesterday was one such moving moment for me, as I led a short rite for a soul friend preparing for gender affirmation surgery. We made no extra special great fuss about this. Nor should we have to, for such signs of grace for LGBTI+ people are really very natural, if our world would but allow itself to know it. Yet it was profoundly significant in the journeys we are making at this time. For today's sea-change of understanding gender and sexuality not only brings healing and hope to specific individuals. It also offers vital hope and healing to tired aspects of our society, not least to religious groups and their members. In a profound sense it is thus sacramental: helping to reveal what has been hidden, opening up and helping to sustain fresh pathways of life and transformation. Our short rite yesterday was like that. It publicly honoured deep movements of life and spiritual wrestling which have not only been unacknowledged and unsupported, but often tragically dismissed and disastrously resisted. It also proclaimed that new life for all of us is to be found in the tender solidarity of us all, in the mystery of God's extraordinary and abundant grace and diversity. Our 'transgender' rite was just a small part of our usual Milton Anglicans Sunday parish eucharist. As such however, it was no 'hole in the wall' secret ceremony, but a truly grounded and open affirmation both of a remarkable sacred particular person and of our growing sense of what it means to re-create community and 'church' today. It felt like a renewing movement of spirit for our community, certainly for my own sense of priesthood, and a re-presentation of what it means to be differently ordered bodies together in the body of Christ. It also made us wonder why such things are not expected in the life of all spiritual communities...
Mary Magdalene and I go back a long way. She was my sister, my model, my soul-partner through the anguish of puberty and adolescence - see further my reflection on our Jesus Christ Superstar dance of delight, shame and longing here. She was my friend, my comforter, my support through the vital stages and all the key changes of my life - helping me cast off 'the Norman yoke' (see here). She remains my strong inspiration in following Jesus, in allowing my demons and fear to be transformed, and in speaking the truth. Mary travels with me to wherever and whatever it is I am now called. For she is the first and supreme witness to Resurrection. Silenced, suppressed, and staggeringly (sexually) stigmatised, over centuries, she survives to speak of the power of female strength, spirituality and compassion. And, though I had not planned it ahead, her feast day (22 July) became the day of my public coming out as transgender. Like Mary, despite my fear, when I heard my name truly spoken, I could not but take faith and believe, receiving and sharing the hope of new life for myself and others. On her feast day this year, with the assistance of some my wonderful friends and colleagues, I am thankful to preach, preside, and be blessed by the Revd Dr Steven Ogden and the loving, affirming community, at Holy Trinity, Fortitude Valley, and then to be able, in the Milton Anglican parish, to renew my baptism vows in my now legal authentic name and to share in a joyful 'Re-Birth Day' party. This is both a celebration of what has been and also a re-commitment to the journey we have shared. As a child, I was given the role of the third 'king' among the Magi in the nativity play. Literally and metaphorically, like Mary of Magdala, I may therefore have once felt that myrrh bearing was my best and only duty. Proclaiming and living new life is so much better.
In times to come it will be extraordinary to imagine that some Christians insisted on married transgender people divorcing if they wished to claim their full identity. How scandalous a betrayal of God's love and Christ's teaching this is! It has been a long journey to address this in secular law in Australia and, sadly, the battle is not over in some religious quarters as well as in many parts of the world. Queensland, in which I now live, thankfully finally changed its law last night (with only four votes against, from the fringe Katter and One Nation parties). Hitherto, married transgender people have had to divorce if they changed their birth certificate to their true gender. I rejoice for friends and others who will directly benefit from this. For I know the pain this law has caused and have personally therefore lobbied hard for change. It will also be an encouragement for other necessary steps forward and for more religious people to come to their senses and renew their understanding both of marriage and of people of gender diversity.
I write this with feeling, as well as after deep reflection on these subjects. For the status of my own marriage is under question in some slowly moving and blinkered parts of the Church, even in Australia itself. A leading member of the Anglican Diocese of Sydney for example has even gone so far as to challenge both my marriage and the ministry of my wife and I as 'living contrary' to the doctrine of Christ - see further transgender and the doctrine of marriage in Brisbane. Of course, in that instance, the aim is a distinctly political one: to attack my archbishop, my diocese and the mainstream pastoral approach and unfolding theology of the Anglican Communion as a whole. Yet such 'stop the world, we want to get off' thinking will not work. The ground is shifting in religious spheres too, as the actual lived experience of transgender people and their loved ones is gradually being revealed. Anglicans and other Christians across the world are responding, if sometimes hesitatingly, burdened as we are too much by our often exacting processes and the frenzied reactions of some. The Church of England for example, the church of my birth, has declared that it fully welcomes me and other transgender people, at every level of its life. As its leadership have expressed it (with my emphasis):
The House of Bishops welcomes and encourages the unconditional affirmation of trans people, equally with all people,within the Church, the body of Christ,and rejoices in the diversity of that one body, into which all Christians have been baptized by one Spirit.
My concern however is not with politics but with the love of God in people's lives. For, in some ways, in the face of such great odds, transgender people are still 'living miracles' even to exist at all - and some of us, tragically, do not make it. Our relationships are also always challenged, and sometimes shattered, by becoming more fully the people God has created and called us to be. The misery of rejection some of my gender diverse friends endure cuts me to the heart. So why would we not seek to strengthen those relationships which have not only worked through demanding change but have emerged stronger? In my case, and in others I know, my marriage is so much deeper for the full truth we live together. My wife could long see that we were suffering unnecessarily for years: 'where has Josephine gone?' she would say when I struggled to come to terms with myself. She knew, better than I, what I, and we together, needed. No marriage is 100% perfect, and I do not pretend to be a moral paragon in my relationships in the past or present, but it is insulting, as well as disappointing, when fellow Christians cannot recognise that my marriage, of 33 years to date, is not a rich example of God's sacramental love to the world (nb. that is my wife and I above in case such a picture is needed).
In transitioning, I and others have not chosen (as has been alleged) 'to challenge the Biblical view of marriage' or to place my archbishop, or any one, 'in a difficult position'. Rather, we have simply sought to respond more fully, faithfully, with the whole of our being (as human beings, Christians, and priests), to the love of God for us. Of course, this means that we need to renew some aspects of received understanding. That however is the history of Christianity, as well as that of humanity as a whole, as we have developed our theology of marriage over 2000 years: working through inherited patriarchy and polygamy, rejecting women's subordination (and, for most of Christian history, lack of legal rights), developing compassion and legal recourse for those trapped in violent or unhealthy marriages, and embracing what is good in companionate relationship. Moving beyond the pressing past survival and scarcity preoccupations which informed obsessions with procreation and cis and hetero-normativity, our liturgies today increasingly reflect the wisdom we have gained and the love to which we aspire. There is a desperate resort of late to seeking proof-texts, such as Genesis 1.27 and Matthew 19.5, which may turn back the waters. However, apart from the inability of such texts to be bear the strain (even when isolated from their context and the weight of scholarship), this only confirms such Christianity as a latter day Canute, fruitlessly resisting a sea-change of love and affirmation.
I therefore urge all people of faith similarly to affirm unconditionally the lives, marriages and loving relationships of transgender people. Rather than be anxious, never mind put stumbling blocks in our lives (or worst still 'conversion' therapies), why not work with us at providing appropriate pastoral resources to strengthen our relationships? We certainly need them. Listen, educate, and above all hear and affirm the love and faith we have to share. It is astonishing to me that Christians would not want to see healing and the renewal of such love for others. Marriage, like the sabbath, as Jesus might have said, is not made to subjugate the wondrous diversity of human life into a constricting bed of pain. Marriage, at least for Christians, is made for God's renewing of humanity.
I am writing as a member of a group of people who are often hidden and ignored in conversations about the relationship between LGBTI+ rights and ‘religious freedom’. For I am an openly transgender female Anglican priest, in duly regarded paid and active service in my religious community. Like other LGBTI+ people I experience the same needs for freedom and opportunity to love and serve. Yet I, and others like me (some whom have to hide publicly), also have to cope with being caught in the crossfire between certain types of LGBTI+ activism and reactionary Christian calls for greater ‘religious protection’. Often this debate is conducted without any reference to people like myself and measures are proposed which do not help our freedom or livelihoods. In writing, it is therefore my hope that the current Religious Freedom Review may pay proper attention to us and ensure that nothing is proposed which makes our often marginalised situation more problematic...
They say it is the hope that kills you. Every so often a Christian body does something to lift your heart and make you truly proud. A statement is made, a commitment displayed, a sign of genuine understanding revealed about the lives, faith, needs and gifts of LGBTI+ people. You begin to believe it is possible that we will move forward, together. Then you look around and what was written is qualified or changed, what was committed to is downgraded, what you thought was understanding is shown to be so partial and obscured. It happens again and again, as it just has, so clumsily, with the Church of England bishops' backflip on transgender Christian liturgical affirmation. Back in rushes the anger, the frustration, and the deep soul-seeking about whether it is worth persisting: all coupled with a renewed sense of betrayal and lack of integrity. How long O Lord?..
"So how do you cope with your enemies?', asked my spiritual director recently. I laughed, with a mixture of emotions. 'Well, I certainly realise I have plenty now', I replied! For you don't have to be paranoid to recognise when some people are out to get you. It is particularly sad however when they are part of your own faith tradition...
The Revd Dr Jo Inkpin: