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.
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: