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...
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...
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...
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...
The Revd Dr Jo Inkpin: