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.
It is appropriate that this year's Transgender Day of Visibility is also Holy Saturday in the Western Christian tradition. For Holy Saturday is easily passed over, sitting awkwardly as it does between Good Friday and Easter Sunday, between pain and joy, shame and liberation, death and new life. Yet those themes are central to the experiences and journeys of so many gender diverse people, and of course others. Indeed, reading and experiencing the Passiontide narrative and Paschal mysteries 'with transgender eyes' can shed positive new light on the Christian Gospel, as well as strengthening and deepening life for many of us. Like Holy Saturday, gender diverse people are easily regarded as awkward and passed over. However our own border crossing, interstitial, and boundary transforming existences are essential parts of the whole and powerful reminders that profound transformation typically appears in the threshold times, parts and people of our lives and world. This involves much, even deep, pain, but also tremendous hope and vitality...
How often, I wonder, has a Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, or Transgender Christian been attacked as a religious, moral, or logical 'impossibility', 'a contradiction in terms', a living oxymoron? Pretence and deceit are certainly themes which hover around gender diverse people and discussion of our lives and sense of being. Spiritually speaking, such features are typically regarded as unhealthy. Whilst, for instance, there are some positive stories of trickery in the Bible (notably in the case of the patriarch Jacob), these are usually the sign of a wayward, scheming, selfish or misdirected person. Later transitioning religious people are thus frequently caught in certain traps as they become the more 'authentic' selves God calls them to be. On the one hand, we may be called people of pretence and deceit by those who refuse to accept the realities of our identity. On the other hand, we may be attacked for hitherto seemingly living lives that were not true or misleading. At the very same time, we may also be dealing with our own shame, guilt, and confusions about what we may have 'pretended' to be. Yet, as we are reminded in both the powerful scriptural text of 2 Corinthians 6, and a just published book Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Christians: Queer Christians, Authentic Selves (by Bronwyn Fielder & Douglas Ezzy, Bloomsbury Press 2018),, we may be 'treated as impostors but are true' (2 Cor 6.8b)...
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?..
Are meaningful contemporary Christian sexual ethics possible? It depends where you look and to what you listen. No doubt many might be surprised, but there is actually a wonderful growing mine of resources, including Found Out: Transgressive faith and sexuality: the incisive and illuminating recent book by Alison Webster. Unfortunately, in bleak contrast, many 'official' Church statements have been far too blind, narrowed or vacuous, even within circles which purport to take human experience and the best of science and reason seriously. Over twenty years ago for example, as a priest in rural England, I vividly remember receiving an official declaration to Church of England clergy from the then Archbishops of Canterbury and York on the subject of marriage. It was unhelpful, seemingly constituting only a bald 'gate-keeper' reaffirmation of a theoretical position which no longer pertained if it ever did. It failed to recognise, never mind address, the pastoral realities faced by clergy: where almost every couple coming for marriage was already cohabiting; (some form of) sex before marriage was essentially de rigeur; and partners who were divorced, in various circumstances, were extremely common. Like the hastily put together statements on LGBTI+ issues of the time (sadly often since enshrined as a kind of fresh holy writ), it seemed like blinkers were the order of the day. Regrettably, things have not improved greatly, leading an increasingly large chasm between the actual sexual lives of faithful Christians and the Church as an institution. The 'official' Church has thus frequently appeared to be a frightened rabbit, hypnotised by the glare of the lights of contemporary sexuality, even when its pastoral practice, and many contributions of its best theologians, has often been quite otherwise. Today, in the face of further developments, not least the profound societal shifts in LGBTI+ understanding, it is hard to see how these things can hold together much longer. Happily, Alison Webster, in Found Out, is one of those who offers fresh and vital pathways, grounded in women's lived experience and a performative faith which leads to flourishing rather than stagnation and spiritual death...
As I complete another full year of my own life, and in the wake of the celebrations of the nativity of Jesus, I have been pondering what it means to be born, spiritually speaking. For birth, like life itself, is easily taken for granted. Actually it is a great mystery, in the best sense of that word. Like gender, it is not simple or straightforward, as many assume. Rather, it is a continuing revelation and developmental process. Indeed I am currently very struck by how my baby grandchild is changing every moment, in response to every encounter and their growing awareness of self. It feels like they are being born afresh, in new ways, every second. Their 'birth' was clearly not finished at their literal entry into this life. Nor is it ever complete for any of us, at least in this life. Rather, each of us, as Bob Dylan once wrote in a notable lyric, is either 'busy being born or busy dying'. Perhaps this is also part of what transgender people have to share with the world in our own (re)birthing?...
How do you picture a new beginning - or. alternatively, offer a revelation of eternal (re)creation? As an epic year of many new beginnings in my family's life comes towards a close, it was terrific today to find this picture from the art exhibition we held in St Luke's Toowoomba a year ago. Entitled Mary walks with Eve (A New Dawn), it was painted (in oil) by Toowoomba artist Cindy Duncan. It was but one of many wonderful different views into the Advent and Christmas story which that exhibition encouraged us to explore. How does it then speak to you, I wonder? For me, it is a beautiful female expression of the new dawn, or new creation, which we find spiritually and symbolically in the Judaeo-Christian story. Of course Cindy is not the first to pick up on the idea of Mary as the New Eve (a theme which can be found in much Christian feminism from its first wave onwards). I love this particular portrayal however, especially for the tenderness of the exchange between Eve and Mary, and for the sparkle (of course!), stars and Spirit (symbolised by the dove) which speak of new creation (linking past, present and future, in a very humble and accessible, yet powerfully cosmological manner). The two trees offer a different kind of balance than some, often very harsh and crude, traditional 'male' portrayals of a very singular tree of life. Like the 'northern lights' (and their declaration/promise of eternal light), the colours of the (heavenly) background also dance into the (earthly) foreground as the two women connect. Above all perhaps, it is an image of fruitfulness, with Eve still holding the apple and adorned with a garland and her flowing locks, and Mary's pregnant form promising a rich new unfolding. Even the snake is a colourful green and Mary's foot upon it a less violent redemptive check than many others. In recapitulating, and transforming, the so-called theological "Fall', this is not therefore about judgement and destruction, but mercy and renewal. In Mary there is thus a gathered stillness as she meets the moving vulnerability of Eve, and there is a deep acceptance of one another and all they are: a mutual encounter of a very human but divinely healing and enriching kind. At the end of a year of great upheavals, in many of our personal lives and publicly (not least in relation to marriage equality and LGBTI+ affirmation), it is a delightful vision of both same sex/gender love and the divine feminine at work. It certainly speaks deeply and intimately to me about how God in Mary has met, and continues to meet, the Eve in me. May it therefore be a further blessing to others this Christmas and to all who need transformation.
When I worked in a hostel for ex-offenders, one of our residents was a young man whom his family routinely called 'rat boy'. Little wonder perhaps that he became a delinquent glue-sniffer and ended up in juvenile detention. Most of us know how great a lie the infamous saying is:'sticks and stones may break my bones, but cruel words can't hurt me.' How we are called, and the consequent image we have of ourselves, shapes us greatly. In contrast, the power of a name, and the process of renaming, can enable amazing flourishing. for individuals and communities. Such is part of the gift of transgender naming. It certainly is for me...
"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: