I have been quite moved this week - with all kinds of trans pride, past trauma and hope rising up - as the reality sinks into my body and consciousness that the Uniting Church makes a vital little bit of history this Sunday. For we hold the first ever Induction in a mainstream Australian Church of an openly transgender ordained person (as distinct from allowing someone to continue in an existing role after coming out) - and without all the cruel insistence on justifying trans existence so often present around us. Trans people do not need churchy validation, but, my God, as I know from others, it makes such a difference for so many journeys of affirmation and empowerment when pathways are opened. It is a huge tribute to those who have made the way - to trans and other queer people ourselves, and not least to those in the Pitt Street story who've created the ground for this and other things (not least my distinguished predecessors). Of course, this placement is about much, much more, but it is one significant aspect. There's a long way to go, but I'm so proud of the Uniting Church in this, and pray that it may be a contribution to the much needed changes in law, health, and education required to support gender diverse people who are currently under such attack (not least in New South Wales right now. I'm also thrilled to have so many different people attending, and messages of encouragement, from right across the Christian and community spectrum, and I know that what we share on Sunday is part of the broader changes coming into being also. May all people and their/our gifts flourish!
It was a delight to share together with MCC Brisbane on our last Sunday evening in Brisbane - with special thanks to Pastor Alex Pittaway for leading a special blessing of Penny and I as we head south, to my dear friend Kevin Green for his sermon, and everyone involved. I am deeply grateful to MCC Brisbane for the love, encouragement, fun and divine glitter we’ve shared over the last five years. A truly, fully, affirming church is such a profound joy and gift to the world - may more and more flourish!
For (too) many years, with others, I've coaxed and cajoled. Sadly though, at this transition point, I’m going to have to say it clearly once more - many ‘affirming’ church leaders truly frustrate me and are major problematic parts of the continuing ‘issues’ that churches and wider society have with sexuality & gender Individually some church leaders can be quite kindly in disposition, as well as otherwise gifted, but as a body they are a key element of the (straight) problem we have, alongside the bigots they refuse to face down publicly. It also sometimes feels like they are stuck in a time warp. For two things stand out...
In the face of wider societal backlash, a fellow transgender Anglican priest in Australia (the Revd Sorèl Coward - pictured with my wife and I above) has been refused a license to officiate - this at a time when trans people need all the help we can get, and when we were explicitly excluded from national church ‘same sex marriage’ discussions (the ostensible reason for Sorèl’s rejection), This is such a confused decision by the Archbishop of Adelaide (who is also the Primate, i.e senior Australian bishop, of the Australian Anglican Church) that it is hard to know where to begin or end with the questions it raises. But now it is in the public sphere, I at least will ask some of them - and I hope as many people as possible will do so too. It is a direct consequence of official Church refusal to engage appropriately with the complexity of human gender and sexuality, and how little gender and sexually diverse people are even allowed to contribute our expert wisdom and experience. It is potentially another step to narrow sectarianism and such sad treatment of a lovely person who, ironically, has both the professional expertise and personal experience to help the Church grow in these matters. The affirming model of trans care is clearly vital to anyone with the eyes to see - and this certainly doesn’t involve using people’s long established loving marriages (blessed in Church for God’s sake!) against them. It is more than time for the Church and others to do all that is possible to address the deficit of transgender care and celebration.
Initial coverage of this novel problematising of transgender Anglicans can be found here and here. My wife and I, as married Anglican priest in good standing, have written today to the Archbishop of Adelaide - a letter which can be found below (or downloaded here).
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...
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...
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 wonder how many sermons you’ve heard about eunuchs? Not many I would guess. Yet is actually quite extraordinary how many eunuchs are mentioned in the Bible. Perhaps the story from Acts of the Apostles (chapter 8 verses 26-end) might be one we do recognise. Many others however are simply passed over. Jesus for example spoke positively about eunuchs and his words are recorded in Matthew chapter 19. Very little is ever said about that and some people do not even know those verses are there. Even the story we hear today is also usually interpreted without too much attention to the specifics of the person baptised. This is all very sad. For it misses out some very powerful messages for us, for the Church, and for the world, not least those, like the Ethiopian eunuch, who are quite different kinds of people to many expected norms. It is one of those very many ‘queer’ stories in the Bible which speak of a very ‘queer’ kind of God and mission…
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...
The Revd Dr Jo Inkpin: