It was a loving honour recently to share with other amazing 'trans* trailblazers' and Senator Janet Rice in an evening of story telling to celebrate the life of Janet's late wife, Dr Penny Whetton (among many other things a distinguished climate scientist). Below is a short reflection I shared - on the contribution of what I have called 'trans-ing' our world to the growth of ecological spirituality. For together, in our different callings, we can continue to share in the kind of joys and transformation which were so important to Penny, and which shine in the lives and voices of the other contributors to her memorial event - the remarkable Ricki Coughlan, Eddie Ayers, and Amao Leota Lu...
Let me acknowledge the Yuggera and Turrbal peoples of the land on which I speak, and their elders past, present and emerging.
I first heard of Penny’s death as my own wife Penny and I set out with our dog on our usual afternoon walk. I was quickly in tears, continuing for the rest of the journey.
Three particular things hit hard. Firstly, I could only begin to imagine the shattering impact on those closest to Penny. Just a day or so before, I had been with Janet in Canberra, rallying against destructive religious discrimination. The thought of how important my own Penny is to what I am resounded powerfully. Secondly, I felt tears of outrage. Why, in a world of so many damaging leaders, should we lose such a light at such a comparatively early age? Thirdly, I felt tears of thanksgiving: for a life well lived, not least for the liberation which Penny, with Janet, has enabled for others. For without such trailblazing, I, and my wife Penny, would not be who we are today. Whenever we blaze trails of love, we never know what difference it makes.
Now this, for me, is about ecological spirituality: how we intersect, in the great communion of being. It is part of what I call the ‘trans-ing’ of the world: a re-configuring of how we see, and act, in relation to everything. It is at the very heart of being human today: this call to transform ourselves, and our struggling planet. In this trans-formation, Penny Whetton and I have had different specific vocations, but they are part of this same calling. How do we live, with joy, and sustainability? Let me highlight three aspects.
Firstly, ‘trans-ing’ the world begins with ourselves. If we are truly to see and nurture truth, justice, and beauty, we have to see and nurture them in ourselves. That is not easy. It took me longer than many trans* folk today. For, like Penny, I grew up in a generation which simply did not have the language we needed. Other commitments may also have over-dominated: intellectual, social, and family concerns. In many ways, we poured ourselves out, yet risked losing ourselves for others.
For too long, I was caught in what a great first-wave Christian feminist called ‘the sin of self-sacrifice’. Women have been prone to this. There is always some reason to postpone our own realisation. I knew I was ‘different’ from my first day at school, when they blew a whistle and put us in assigned gendered lines - teaching us binary gender before we learned the three ‘Rs’. Being a ‘good’ child, I adapted. Time passed. Always there were reasons for ‘self-sacrifice’: family, school, marriage, work… and church. We had to move from England, for our children’s health, when I began to come out. It was set back as we rebuilt our lives. My wife often asked ‘but where has Josephine gone?’. She saw the cost in my growing anger, self-hatred, and work addictions. Significantly, my gender identity sacrifices ended when my children married.
Secondly, ‘trans-ing’ the world is about facing reality. Penny helped us do that as a truth-telling scientist. Facing reality is also about spiritual truth-telling. For transcendence, transformation, transfiguration – for good reason, all kinds of ‘trans’ words are central to the great wisdom traditions. They are healthy religion’s true purpose - with different names. Buddhists call it enlightenment, Hindus dispelling ‘maya’ (illusion), Muslims ‘submission’ to the deepest realities of our lives. Christians typically call it ‘salvation’, which really means ‘salving’: not ‘saving’, but healing and flourishing. In that way, my transition was about spirituality. It came from deep prayer and letting go my damaging false ‘ego’. When I truly saw that I am loved, eternally, just as I am, then nothing else mattered, even risking the loss of everything else. For, as Jesus said, how can we love others, if we do not love ourselves as God loves us? Whatever vocation we have – scientific, religious, or other - we honour the truth, or we are lost.
Thirdly, ‘trans-ing’ the world is part of embodying a deeper shared ecological spirituality. Our gender identities are crucial, expressing vital ecological diversity. But they are just a part. If we are fortunate, we may not have to dwell on them. Sadly, for many of us, this is currently not an option. Like Penny, there is much more to me than my gender identity. Personally, I would rather spend more time on other aspects of peace and justice. However sometimes we cannot choose. Sadly, to be a trans* person of faith is now to be a ‘dangerous‘, and endangered, person. For we are now in the main line of fire. This is typically from right-wing circles, but occasionally ‘friendly fire’ from other quarters. For we have yet to learn that being queer and being religious are not incompatible.
Are we then willing, together, to take up the call to trans-form our world, supporting each another in our distinctive vocations? We are faced, not just with an unprecedented literal climate crisis, but with a widespread climate of denial: denial of science - Penny’s calling; of healthy faith, which is my calling; denial of genuine participation for all. We need all kinds of trailblazers. For we are all called to be trailblazers – to embrace the deepest truths of all our lives, and live them lovingly, to the full. May we do so, like Penny, with courage, insight, and joy!
The Revd Dr Jo Inkpin: