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...
sharing means of grace
Such spiritual accompaniment of gender and sexually diverse people is only really beginning to happen. Sadly, as is all too obvious in well-publicised struggles over marriage rites and 'conversion therapy', there is powerful ignorance, avoidance and resistance, Yet, in less obvious ways, there is a gathering groundswell of acts of recognition, prayers of support and symbols of transformation. Some of these are more visible, like the participation of a slowly growing number of people of faith in Pride and other 'queer' events, and in the support some give to vital changes in awareness, law and practical assistance. Some are more personal, like the quiet revolution happening in the sharing of pastoral and liturgical rites of transition. Each time I am part of such new steps, I am profoundly moved by how life-giving they are and by how slow we are to develop them. As someone who has been on the 'receiving end' of such means of grace, I know how they feel like wondrous drops of cooling and energising water in what have been desert places. As someone who has been on the 'providing end', I know how transforming they also are for the bearers of such means of grace. It was like that yesterday as I felt so renewed as a priest, and as a member of my congregation, in the gift which another transgender person offered to us as she offered her need, desire, and awesome vulnerability to God.
handling 'holy things' includes queer lives
One of my favourite descriptions of what it is to be a priest is 'handling holy things'. By this I understand not simply the official sacraments of the Church, and the extraordinary transforming blessings of such elements as water, bread, wine, and oil in sacred ceremony. Perhaps much more so, though strengthened and illuminated by the official sacraments, I mean the every moment 'sacraments' of our lives: the encounters with mystery in the joys, pains, connections and struggles of our world. It is truly humbling and wondrous, as well as sometimes demanding, to accompany such a glorious diversity of other human beings though such an immense range of human experience, Indeed, Jim Thompson, my first bishop in the East End of London, used to say that not a week went by without him wondering how on earth he remained a priest, never mind a bishop., Living with "churchy' life can have truly horrid effects. Yet, he would add, not a week goes by without some encounter reminding him of why he was a priest: in this meeting with the holy in the lives of others, and in his own response and personal journey. This is what I, and the little Christian community at Milton, rediscovered yesterday. How sad it is that so many Christians, including some of those who tell us they know about sacraments (!), not only fail to grasp, but even resist, the new invitations to holiness which gender and sexually diverse people offer!
deepening our spiritual and bodily connections
Our ceremony yesterday was particularly special for me, as the person at the centre of it is also an ordained priest who has been such a soul-friend and support in my own journey . Indeed, until the possibility of other forebears is revealed, they, not I, are actually 'Australia's first transgender priest' (and the first Australian born), though it seems I am indeed the first openly transgender priest to exercise a recognised and authorised position in Australia. Such curiosities of history remind us that the life and freedom each of us enjoy is connected to others, including some we will never know. Gender and sexually diverse people for example owe the possibilities of flourishing existence today to so many who have gone before, or live elsewhere, of whom we may not only never meet but never even be aware. How good it was therefore to draw yesterday on one of the liturgies in Transfaith: a transgender pastoral resource which was produced by a fellow trans priest, the Revd Dr Christina Beardsley, and the (Australian raised) Revd Chris Dowd. It bound us in 'apostolic succession' to the spiritual liberation and love which so many gender and sexually diverse people of faith not only now offer, but which have always offered, to one another, our religious communities and the world. For my spiritual siblings in our Milton Anglican community, it was also a way of reaffirming the holiness of all of our lives and all of our bodies and our participation together in the Body of Christ, broken open in vulnerable love for the world. All of us are in need of such solidarity. All of us are made holy in God's sight, not broken in our fundamental identity (as some cruelly distort the 'gospel'). All of us, in what life does to break us, are potential signs of victorious, vulnerable love. Wouldn't it be lovely if this were affirmed more often?
towards a more vibrant rainbow faith and world
I rejoice at the increasing range of queer faith resources emerging across the world - just a few of which I have sought to highlight on this website - but we are still so much at the beginning. Indeed, as Tina Beardsley and Chris Dowd say in the preface to the short series of rites they offer in their book, these are only invitations for use, adaptation and new creations. What matters is that they are available. The prayers, anointing. laying on of hands, and blessing we shared yesterday should be widely accessible, and made known, to all transgender people seeking surgery. Similarly, other rites, prayers and blessings for other moments of transformation (coming out, naming, relationship change, marital or other commitment) would be so healing and hopeful for queer and straight people alike if they were more actively nurtured and promoted. One of my goals for 2019 is therefore to work intentionally with others in the Australian Church (and beyond) in developing such resources as part of Rainbow faith ministry. Perhaps in this (frustrating though it is!), there is some good to be found in the extraordinary reluctance of so much official spiritual leadership to care for others, including some of the most faithful, by commissioning such rites and resources themselves. It can make it so hard, especially to publicise and share them, but those 'with skin in the game' may at least be able to ensure that our own distinctive spiritual needs and insights are honoured in what we are currently producing. My hope and deep prayer however is that more allies and fellow members of the Body of Christ will join us in this journey. What happens in Milton, and in one gorgeous soul-friend's pilgrimage of grace, might yet do something to change the world and colour it with fabulous new tints and textures of divine love.
The Revd Dr Jo Inkpin: