Thursday, 21 August 2014

Coming Out


A poem about my experience of 'Coming Out' as trans. It's still a work in progress, but I think it has some energy & is worth sharing.

A quick note: I say, 'On this day when I'm talking about 'coming out and Zacchaeus' in my opening spiel. I was asked to offer some thoughts on Luke 19 for Diverse Church, which I did in a longer post before I put this together! I shall probably link that here at some point.

Sunday, 17 August 2014

'Shared Conversations' and the place of LGBTI people in the C of E

‘When are the shared conversations starting and who’s going to be involved?’

I’ve heard and been asked these two questions in various settings over the months since The Pilling Report came out. 

The Pilling Report commended a process of ‘facilitated conversation’ as a way of moving forward discussion and relationships within the Church of England on all things LGBT. In light of the House of Bishops’ meeting earlier this year, the notion of ‘facilitated conversation’ shifted towards ‘shared conversations’ between various interested parties, leading up to a discussion in General Synod in 2016. (One assumes that the term ‘facilitated’ was troublesome because it held the implication that healing and mediation might be necessary.)

As I understand it, this formal process of shared conversation begins after a meeting of the College of Bishops this coming autumn. Diocesan bishops will then nominate representatives for regional discussions, including LGBT reps and a mix of lay and ordained.

I’ve been thinking an awful lot about this (by church standards!) imminent process in the past couple of weeks. While this fact is no doubt a symptom of my need to get out more, my rumination is also unsurprising. Like pretty much every LGBT person who has chosen to stick around within the church I am profoundly conscious of the extent to which ‘we’ have been treated as something to be talked about, as an issue. So there’s a part of me that’s intrigued by the possibility that we might be talked to. Really talked to.

And, yet, the Pilling Report was also, supposedly, part of a process of being talked to and with. As someone who conversed at length with members of the Pilling Committee I’m not especially convinced I was listened to. It would not be beyond the possibility that I might the kind of person who was asked to participate in the upcoming conversations.  (And I suspect there will be a goodly number of people who – as much out of a desire to know what this process will involve – will be keen to participate.) And yet that previous experience has made me suspicious of the whole process.

In some respects it feels like the world is changing fast. The number of ‘coming outs’ recently, including Vicky Beeching, has hopefully left some church people thinking, ‘are there actually any straight people in the church?’ (;-D). However, the treatment of Jeremy Pemberton and the patchy nature of support for LGBT people in the C of E should give pause. As someone said to me recently, ‘We live in a bubble in Manchester diocese.’ It is a place where – more or less – LGBT lay and ordained can thrive and feel supported. You don’t have to travel too far outside the bounds of the city to experience a quite different reality.

Why am I suspicious about the ‘shared conversation’ process? Partly because ‘conversations’ have been going on in one form or another since at least the Consultations of the ‘70s. And yet it’s not clear that the C of E institution qua institution has shifted that much.


However, I am more concerned about whether the conversations will truly be conversations. The notion of ‘conversation’ includes the meanings of a ‘turning together’ or a ‘changing together’ as well as a living amongst or dwelling together. It is a mesmerizing possibility, but given things like the House of Bishops’ Pastoral Statement (aka The Valentine’s Day Massacre) it’s difficult for those of us who have been traditionally excluded from welcome in the church to trust that those with power, privilege and authority will genuinely place their privilege at risk of conversion, of conversation.

I believe that, in conversation, a mutual conversion to one other is certainly possible and I guess many of us would still be willing to give it a go. But we’d better hope God is around to give all participants a reality check, a regular kick in the shins.

Monday, 4 August 2014

Two 'War' Poems

Grandfather 1978

he is sitting in a high-backed chair watching fat wrestlers on TV
the screen thicker than a cartoon character’s glasses

his shirt grimy collared fraying around the cuffs     his trousers
great clown-worthy trousers imprisoned in braces
and a belt surely made from the side of a cow

the liver-spotted arms    the muscles thin as his hair   
that finger    the third on his left hand knuckled short
as if a knife has been taken to it as vicious as the one he uses
to de-string sausages for tea

and the sigh he gives when
I ask how the finger was lost

the words he speaks

Mametz    Neuve Chappelle    Wipers and finally

Passchendaele    said as if his mouth is clotted with mud


Flags

Some days we receive them as gift,
held above us like snow falling,
yet seeming to rise, threads packed thickly,
heavy with names. Threatening to wipe away
the familiar paths beneath our feet.

Down here there is nothing,
but waiting, trying to remember
the lessons that would make us safe,
forgetting how when the storm comes we shall
find nothing to cling to, the night
slick with ice; how it is possible for frost to be made

in summer, how there can be emblems waved,
celebrations at which no one is found.

Friday, 11 July 2014

Jeremy Pemberton, 'Gay Marriage' & a Messed Up Church

‘The Church of England recommends civil partnerships for gay clergy…the Church of England has ALWAYS recommended civil partnerships for gay clergy…’

Ok, so perhaps it’s a wee bit naughty to suggest there's something Orwellian in the House of Bishops' thinking around civil partnerships and equal marriage. I’ve been involved in the C of E long enough to presume my senior colleagues adopt a hand-wringing bimbling through issues rather than an overthought Soviet-diktat approach.

However, the emergent events surrounding Canon Jeremy Pemberton (see Church Times story here) should give all of us cause to pause and think. When I say ‘all of us’ I don’t just mean church people, but that wider group of people, of faith and none, who hold an interest in civil society and the pursuit of a compassionate, intelligent and generous society and public square.

Earlier this week Jeremy’s husband, Lawrence, signaled that Jeremy’s promotion to a new NHS Chaplaincy job had been de facto blocked by the acting Bishop of Southwell & Nottingham, the Rt Revd Richard Inwood. Lawrence asked that people write to the bishop and Archbishop John Sentamu indicating support for Jeremy. (Further info here.)

For those not on the inside of the machinations of the C of E – which frankly is basically most people – Pemberton’s role as a chaplain/Head of Spiritual Care in a hospital is a job paid for and contracted under the auspices of NHS, an organization committed to equal opportunities. However, it is standard practice for the NHS to request a Bishop’s Licence for that chaplain. This enables the chaplain to serve specifically as an Anglican priest in the Diocese in which a hospital is set. Licensing is something which is part of the habitus or warp and weft of being a serving Anglican priest in any setting in England.

Bishop Inwood has denied this license. This means that Pemberton cannot take up his new job.

It is the prerogative of the bishop to issue or withhold licences. The withholding of licenses is - as I understand it - a practice which happens under circumstances in which a priest has been disciplined, or has broken Canon Law in specific ways.

What particular transgression of discipline or behaviour has Pemberton committed in the estimation of the bishop? He has legally married.

That’s right. He has married. He has exercised his legal right, contracted using laws signed under the assent of the Head of State, the Queen (who also happens to be the Supreme Governor of the Church of England).

The point of contention for the bishop is that Pemberton has married a man. From the point of view of law, that matter is incidental; that is, the gender of the person is no longer of any significance as a bar to the contracting of a marriage. Yet, despite Pemberton exercising his legal right and entering into a relationship which (whether undertaken in a church or not ) the Church has considered a social and human good, Pemberton has had his capacity to work as a cleric in a secular setting effectively denied.

In the eyes of the acting Bishop of Southwell and Nottingham Pemberton has seemingly – in getting married – engaged in conduct unbecoming to a (gay) Clerk in Holy Orders. What he should have done is contract a Civil Partnership (or remain in one if already contracted.)

Let’s be clear here. If I understand the House of Bishops’ advice and Inwood's reading of it aright, the ethically correct behavior for those gay clergy who wish to place their committed, faithful and stable monogamous relationships on a legal footing is to contract a civil partnership rather than get married. That is, there is a moral imperative on gay people not to engage in the kind of relationships which the church has said is the right kind of relationship for those who wish to make a lifelong commitment to each other.

What will bewilder non-religious people who read this blog is how on earth the State church of England has got itself into such a horrible mess. The mess runs as follows: when an ordained person exercises their legal right to commit to another human being in love and faithfulness, and this person happens to be of the same gender, this leads to them being denied work in a setting subject to the Equalities Act 2010. It rather bewilders me and I’m ‘of the church.’

I have no idea what the future holds. I already sense that the overwhelming majority of people in England have already switched off the internecine machinations of its State Church. We’re not even a laughing stock. People have to acknowledge your existence for you to be a laughing stock (trust me – as someone who’s experienced mockery and bullying for being trans – I know).

I am gutted for Jeremy (and Lawrence) at a human level. However I am also gutted that the prospects for an institution that can offer so much seem so bleak. I want people to know God. I also still dream that people switched off by an institution that has worse LGBT policies than an organisation as crummy as McDonalds might come to recognise the C of E as a beacon of hope. That seems a pretty forlorn prospect.

Friday, 23 May 2014

'There & Back Again' - A Month of Adventures & Discoveries

At the end of Lord of the Rings, Samwise Gamgee returns home to The Shire and says, ‘Well, I’m back.' This afternoon, as my train pulled into Piccadilly Sam's words was running through my head. It’s been an absurdly busy few weeks and getting back home to Manchester from Norwich felt (despite all the fun I’ve been involved in) like a complete relief.

If getting home felt great, I still feel like I’ve got loads to process. In the absence of Albus Dumbledore’s device to dump thoughts, the Pensieve, I’ve decided to write a short blog post. So here are some thoughts about some of the things I've had the privilege of being involved in over the past month.

Hull & East Riding LGBT Fellowship

At the tail end of April, Lucy Gorman invited me over to Hull to speak to a meeting of the LGBT Fellowship she helps run. Quite apart from taking the opportunity to stay with my lovely friends James & Louise & their family, ‘ull was full of delights. While it was a privilege to be asked to speak at the Fellowship's post-Easter meeting as well as talk with Lucy on’t radio, the real highlight was witnessing what committed, out LGBT Christians can do when they put their minds to it. The work and energy Lucy and others have put into getting this ace fellowship going is inspiring and humbling. This is a group I really hope goes from strength to strength. Sometimes people get the feeling that if you live outside of places like London, Manchester or Brighton, there’s little on offer for LGBT people. The Hull group, and the work of the likes of Andy Train & Hull Pride, proves the lie in that claim.

Iona

I’d never actually made it to this ‘thin place’ before and, by the time I got up there on Saturday 3rd May, I was so knackered I wasn’t sure I’d ever want to go again. Yet, all I can say is that it was a mind-blowing week. I’m not sure I’ll ever be quite the same again. It was a week of vulnerability, tears, laughter, challenge and grace. Given the confidential nature of the week I can’t go into details, but that week on Iona reminded me that it’s the simple, human things that really matter. Anyone who knows me well knows I’m a show-pony, but all of that – fun as it is – is pretty brittle. It’s the God who’s shown in human relationships that really matters. I may have been leading that week up on Iona, but, in the quality of love and commitment shown by those who came to the programme, I received far more than I could ever give.

Hertford College, Oxford

I really don’t get to the dreaming spires enough. As ever, it was fun, charming and energizing. As chapel worship goes, it has to be said that Hertford is about as relaxed and welcoming as it gets. While only a fool would claim that Oxford doesn’t have privilege inscribed in the very walls of its colleges, behind the money and the facade are still people. The conversations both at (a relatively low-key) High Table, over drinks after chapel and with Gareth, the chaplain, were intelligent, honest and humane. I particularly enjoyed chatting to Eden (who I’ve got to know via twitter) and Anna about LGBT stuff, equality and faith, among other things. It was cool and inspiring to listen to what they’ve been trying to model in sometimes quite conservative Christian settings.

Asylum Magazine Event, Manchester

I mentioned this event, ‘Transgender in the Time of Psychiatry’ in my last blog post. The testimonies and stories shared by attendees were, by turns, moving, shocking and humbling. The ordinand who’s on placement with me at the mo’ said words to the effect, ‘I didn’t realize it was so tough. I had no idea.’ Like many people I guess he thought that if your trans* in the UK, you go tell your GP and the NHS supports you. But, alas, that’s rarely how it works. I found the evening challenging to my own categories about the relationship/s between trans identity and the medical profession. I was struck by how easy it is for institutions and organizations to mistreat and misunderstand real human stories.

Youth Work Summit (YWS), Manchester

Being a show-pony I will always love a crowd, even one that – it might be argued – is potentially pretty hostile. At a purely personal level it’s probably no surprise that I enjoyed standing up in front of over 800 Youth Workers in order to ramble on about the connections between LGBT identity, theology and the Bible. But while speaking at the event was a privilege, that was nothing compared to sharing a stage with Dan and Alex, two young LGBT Christians, sharing their testimonies. They had me in tears and left me gobsmacked. I know I wasn’t the only one. They had genuine presence on stage and did more to change Christian minds about LGBT stuff than a hundred learned books. They reminded me of how tough it can still be to be LGBT and Christian (especially if you are in an evangelical setting), but also showed how much the world is moving and how much hope there is. The Spirit is doing a new thing. Thanks Dan and Alex for doing something remarkable by being your selves.

An Evening With Amazing People, Norwich

Having been nervous about getting pilloried by conservative evangelicals at the YWS, I was equally worried that secular LGBT people would give me a hard time at this event sponsored by Norwich & Norfolk Hospital Trust’s LGBT group. However, I shouldn’t have worried. I forget how generous people are. A hospital trust is a diverse organization and, even if stories of faith are not at the centre of what they do, people recognize that ‘faith’ can be a central part of human identity. The real treat for me was hearing Future Radio presenter Di Cunningham talk about some amazing LGBT musicians including a new discovery for me, the extraordinary Gladys Bentley. Having half expected a tough time for being a vicar (& therefore a representative of ‘the dark side’) I had a great time and was warmly received. It’s time I stopped making assumptions about how Christians and vicars will be seen by the LGBT community.


It’s great to be home, but I’ve had some amazing adventures over the past month. Thanks to everyone who’s blown my mind, borne with my long-winded pontifications and who’s shared the love.