Sunday, 23 December 2012

A Christmas Poem

Mappa Mundi
‘What rough beast...slouches towards Bethlehem...?’

Elsewhere a king is fed grapes,
fat as globes, wondering how
it would feel to swallow
the world in a single gulp.

An emperor savours the scent
of honeysuckle, studies his elegant
hands, marvels at their power to condemn,
compel, free. Indulges his greatest truth:
I am a god.

Men and women kiss, curse, cry, and spit,
dream of riding eagle’s wings.
Somewhere a child lifts his head
watches wild horses run, certain
his legs would carry him
to the birthplace of the moon.

Here a mouth opens,
thirsty to receive.
The girl stares down at it,
as if at a puzzle, shocked if this is the answer,
stares in terror and wonder at what she has done.

Sunday, 16 December 2012

Mendacity & Equal Marriage -Time to Grow Up

‘The Church of England has come a long way in the past twenty years,’...said almost no one.

I know. That’s more than a little harsh. Clearly one of the joyous changes in the past twenty years is women active in ordained ministry in a huge variety of contexts. Equally, LGBT people are a little more visible within the church and – even if I am a living in a little South Manchester metropolitan bubble – in many parishes lay and ordained queer folk are loved and affirmed. However...
Oh, yes, recent weeks have left us with a huge however...

Other people have already made more sophisticated and theologically nuanced comments on the women as bishops situation. On matters of equal marriage, gender and sexuality, I’ve previously offered reflections in this blog & in print. One reason for holding my blogging tongue on both matters in the past couple of weeks has been my almost overwhelming anger, confusion and disappointment. In addition, in the midst of the busyness of Advent and preparing for Christmas I’ve struggled to still my mind sufficiently to write anything even vaguely cogent.

I like to think I'm quite capable of standing back, taking the long view and not buying into the devices and desires of the Zeitgeist. Today, however, I want simply to speak from the heart about equal marriage. I also recognize that what I say may just be the ‘ravings’ of someone who is already marginal on matters of gender and sexuality in church and wider society. My narrative – trans, lesbian, feminist etc – is hardly grounded in either the dominant or the authorized voices of the church. I speak only for myself. However, I sense there are lots of LGBT people out there in the pews who are troubled about the presumed standardized narrative of the church but may be scared of saying anything publicly. This especially applies to LGBT ordained people who fear for their jobs and prospects. In an institution that – whatever the internal politics and reality – has appeared less than committed to human equality and dignity recently, one should not forget that long-term unpleasant  and unjust elephant in the room of C of E polity: if you are queer and (the formula is vile – forgive me) ‘in an active gay relationship’ one cannot be ordained.

I am still reeling from the most recent ‘Church of England’ statement on marriage. Much attention has rightly been focused on exactly who ‘the Church of England’ is in this statement and who thought this was a sensible statement to utter. The ‘we’ referred to again and again in this statement may haunt all parts of the C of E for years to come. Even if it is the case that the government proposals for equal marriage are ill-conceived and no one in the C of E was consulted about the so-called ‘quadruple lock’, the Church House statement does little to affirm people like me – seeking to be faithful to Christ, to serve the church, but who are frankly tired being given the impression of having a place in the church on sufferance. Consider the following regrettable (and perhaps already notorious) passage:

‘...the uniqueness of marriage is that it embodies the underlying, objective, distinctiveness of men and women. This distinctiveness and complementarity are seen most explicitly in the biological union of man and woman which potentially brings to the relationship the fruitfulness of procreation. To remove from the definition of marriage this essential complementarity is to lose any social institution in which sexual difference is explicitly acknowledged. To argue that this is of no social value is to assert that men and women are simply interchangeable individuals. To change the nature of marriage for everyone will be divisive and deliver no obvious legal gains given the rights already conferred by civil partnerships.’

Consider the opening couple of sentences:
‘The uniqueness of marriage is that it embodies the underlying, objective, distinctiveness of men and women. This distinctiveness and complementarity are seen most explicitly in the biological union of man and woman which potentially brings to the relationship the fruitfulness of procreation.’

‘Underlying, objective, distinctiveness’ & ’complementarity ...seen most explicitly in the biological union of men & women...’ are two statements that have troubled me this week. As a trans woman I am more conscious than most about the power and attraction of essentialist conceptions of gender. As someone who, from a very early age, felt like I should have been a girl, I suspect I am more susceptible than most to gender stereotypes about what ‘real’ men or women look like. However, those of you who know me well or have read my book will know I am rather playful around stereotypes. My ‘adventures’ in gender have revealed the nuances and performative dimensions of so much that we call ‘gender’ and how that plays out in our sexualities. The concept of gender, folks – with the profound nuances revealed by chromosomal complexities, intersex & transgender – is a hell of a lot more interesting than our casual use of words like ‘man’ or ‘woman’ suggests.

And here we come to the rub. In 2005 the Gender Recognition Act 2004 (GRA) became law. Until that time, even though I was a post-operative transsexual etc, I was still legally a man. Since that law was enacted and I received my gender recognition certificate and new birth certificate I am legally a woman. Let’s just go over what that means.

I can – should I wish – get married to a man. (For some trans people one of the reasons the GRA mattered so much was that it meant they could marry their partners.) However, it is highly unlikely that I’m going to marry a man. Intriguingly, I am biologically XY, but because of the GRA I can marry someone else who is XY or someone who is XX chromosomally but who is legally, under the GRA, male. I could not – as it stands – marry either an XX chromosomal person who is legally female or a fellow trans woman. I could, of course, contract a civil partnership with either of the latter people.

Now some folk will say, ‘Well, Rachel, you can’t have it both ways.’ In the words of a character in Robert Altman’s film Gosford Park, ‘You can’t be on both teams at the same time.’ And, frankly, I hear the force of this. But this is not really my point.

My point is this. The last time I checked, the Church of England – whatever that term denotes – had not rejected, challenged or sought complete exemption from the Gender Recognition Act. If I understand the Act correctly, Church of England clergy can decline to marry trans folk on grounds of conscience, as they might decline to marry a divorcee. This is to say, the C of E does not contest my legal status or my right to marry; it simply allows individual ministers to exercise conscience. (While this presents pastoral issues in and of itself, I’m not hugely concerned with that right now.) I have not had my birth certificate – which states that I am female - treated as invalid or questioned. I am qua trans person – conscience clause aside - allowed to marry in the Church of England.

Insofar as that is the case, then, clearly the ‘C of E’ has already abandoned the statements I have highlighted above. Let me underline this: I - someone who is chromosomally male (which many will claim is the biological grounding of gender) but legally female – can, in principle, marry in church. The C of E statement claims that marriage embodies the underlying, OBJECTIVE, distinctiveness of men & women. But surely people like me give the lie to the unthinking crassness of that statement.

I make this point not for the sake of causing embarrassment or discomfort. I simply want us to be honest and real. I know some who might read this will say, ‘We cannot legislate on marriage on the basis of freaks/anomalies/blah like you.’ But freaks like me expose the opacity in lazy formulas like ‘objective distinctiveness of men and women’ grounded in biologically defined fecundity; legally we reveal that already, before equal marriage legislation is formulated, we are in a brave new world and the C of E is already fully involved in it.

Sunday, 18 November 2012

Women as Bishops - Waiting to Begin

As something of a professional peddler of bombast and barely disguised foolishness, I'm rarely lost for words. And yet I've spent a fair proportion of this Sunday evening trying to write something sensible, irenic and smart about the forthcoming General Synod vote on women as bishops. Perhaps something will yet emerge in the next twenty four hours. However, for now, I'm conscious that I can barely find words for what I want to say.

Perhaps this just reflects my general tiredness. It has been a busy couple of months and, truth is, I've been really quite ill this weekend. However, I suspect the 'famine of word and sense' reflects something deeper - that the time for smart words and cunning arguments may be done. I know that, over the next thirty six hours, speeches will be made for and against and there will be lobbying up until the moment of the vote. However, at a deep level I feel like the time for horsetrading and talking is done. Now is the time to act and vote. We all know, deep down, where we stand by now. We all know that people are going to be hurt, one way or the other. We all know that there are no magic solutions to be had. Jesus is not going to descend from  heaven in a fiery crown, like a second-rate superhero, to make it all alright.

I am not going to pretend that I don't have a particular voting outcome in mind. It's time for women as bishops. It's time for this piece of Synodical work to be passed. There is no other intelligent option to be pursued that reflects the overwhelming desire of the dioceses. Let's not pretend there is some dazzling piece of legislative alchemy that is yet to be wrought. Let's get it done and move forward, hoping and praying that - through grace - the very many differing groups within the C of E may yet be converted to each other. I still have enough faith to think it's possible.

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Dazzling Darkness - Launch Night Reflections

‘Only three copies left!’

As the bookseller shouted this twenty minutes into the launch, I realized it was going to be a surprising and extraordinary night. For in truth, I’d expected this event to attract two or three dozen people at most. I’d feared there might even be one or two protesters outside the Cathedral claiming I was unfit to be a priest. Instead, Manchester Cathedral was humming with over one hundred folk. And, to my surprise, they all seemed to be there to take a closer look at Dazzling Darkness.

The vain part of me was thrilled, of course. Authors, inevitably, like to sell books and welcome a crowd. However, this evening was remarkable for me in deeper ways. I am conscious that Dazzling Darkness, as spiritual autobiography, does tell an unusual story.  There are, after all, relatively few lesbian-identified, transsexual, disabled priests active in the Church of England or elsewhere! However, having survived prejudice and fear from both within and without the church I had never imagined that there might be an occasion like this – a celebratory launch in a cathedral attended by so many well-wishers and friends.

Since I embarked on the sometimes bewildering process of changing sex twenty odd years ago, the world has, of course, changed. Nonetheless, in making my story public in the pages of a book, I’ve expected a lot of negativity. That negativity may yet come, but for one night there was grace. Friends like Nicola Slee, a Wild Goose author herself, spoke movingly about the creative 'wound' which runs through the story of Dazzling Darkness. Others suggested that it was the kind of book that might have something challenging and powerful to say to people of all hues of faith and none. I enjoyed the opportunity to share some of the more humorous sections of the book – for, as I suggest in the book’s introduction, it aspires ‘to be a kind of Pilgrim’s Progress with all the juicy bits left in’ – as well as to read some of the poems and talk about the devastating, but revelatory effects of illness. The Bishop of Manchester, Nigel McCulloch, closed proceedings by speaking wittily and generously about having someone like me serving as a vicar in Manchester Diocese.

I am – as the author – not in a position to think especially objectively about the evening or, indeed, the book. I am aware that given the story it tells and the unflinching way it tells it, it is a very risky book. Because of the things it says I may yet be invited to leave the church. However, the launch itself was a night for laughter and tears. I was humbled and stunned by strangers saying to me how moving and powerful they’d found the book and it was wonderful to share this evening with family and friends. I want to say a massive thanks to all of you who came along. At a time when the church seems divided about so many things, there was a remarkable sense of unity in the Cathedral. As one friend later said of the evening on Twitter, ‘I loved it. Honestly felt like I’d been to church too but had enjoyed it!’  

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

New Book - Dazzling Darkness

I am thrilled to announce the publication of Dazzling Darkness. It is the most personal thing I've ever written or am likely to write. At one level this is hardly surprising - it is essentially a work of autobiography and memoir. However, the book feels especially personal because it explores familiar themes - gender,sexuality& illness - in ways I've never quite dared before. While drawing on my ongoing fascination with poetry, modern and classical philosophy, queer theology and desert spirituality, I am conscious that Dazzling Darkness contains reflections and ideas many Christians will struggle with. I hope that folk read it with kindness. (Scrub that - I just hope a few people read, full stop!!)

Dazzling Darkness is published on Oct 29th 2012. Available from decent bookstores,, Book Depository & Amazon ( )

The blurb on the back of the book reads:

Dazzling Darkness is a true story about searching for one's authentic self in the company of the Living God. Rachel Mann has died many 'deaths' in the process, not the least of which was a change of sex, as well as coming to terms with chronic illness and disability.

Through these experiences she has discovered that darkness is as much a positive place as a negative one, inhabited by the Living God – the Dark God, the Hidden God. This is the God many of us, because we try to make our lives safe and comfortable, are too afraid to meet. This is the God who is most alive in those things we commonly associate with the Dark – failure, loss and brokenness.

The Christian church has legitimated certain ways of talking about God – male, fatherly, monarchical and so on. Many believe these descriptors tell the exhaustive truth about God. In accepting the complexity of her sexuality and identity, Rachel Mann has been able to explore with a greater freedom what God might look like to an 'unconventional creature' like her.
This passionate and nuanced book brings together poetry, feminist theology, and philosophy and explores them through one person’s hunger for wholeness, self-knowledge and God.

Saturday, 8 September 2012

Blind Long Jumping

I've been enthralled by the Paralympics. As a disabled person myself I've felt inspired - an over-used word admittedly - to seek to offer more and be more. I was stunned, however, watching the women athletes participating in the Long Jump for the blind. Not least by the way 80000 hushed themselves and the athletes gave themselves over to the beat. This poem is a tribute to the athletes and the crowd.

Blind Long Jumping

So this is how a world might
become small, coming down
to a clap, a beat, a voice.

She’s heard it growing for years,
exploring where it goes, learning
its lead. Now she knows it well
enough. Who cares what has been
lost or found? There is only the beat
of clapping hands, a private rhythm
everyone understands.

If there was nothing else, it would
still be enough. She has it all.
The silence, the breath,
the sound. She steps, she runs,
leaping into dark, into light.
Into orbit at last.

(London Paralympics 2012)

Monday, 9 July 2012

Women & Bishops - A Poetic Response

On the day General Synod debates whether women can be bishops in the Church of England, I want to offer something a little different: some poetry. Poetry can open up different space than traditional rhetoric or argument. That's one reason many philosophers have often been suspicious of it.
While it is possible that a vote could actually take place for or against, it now seems more likely that an adjournment will be sought - .
The poems I offer today have not been specially written for the Synod debate, as if I were some low-rent, remotely-engaged 'poet in residence' at Synod. At one level they are tangentially related to the debates. On another I hope some of the themes embedded in the poems resonate.

‘From: The Broken Middle’ is taken from a series of liturgical poems published in ‘Presiding Like A Woman’ (SPCK 2010)
‘Silence’ was originally published in Third Way Magazine.
I am somewhat nervous about offering 'Divine Service'. As a poem set in the context of Nazi persecution it is open to misunderstanding when placed in this context. I offer it as a kind of reminder of what lies at the heart of our faith, not by way of crass comparison between the hand-wringing of the C of E and the choices of the likes of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

From: Presiding From the Broken Middle

And we shall speak a song God gave us
And we shall find bread in the stones we found
And we shall receive blessing when rejection is given
And we shall arise when we’ve been beaten down.

And we shall sing a song God gave us
And we shall break bread on holy ground
And we shall proclaim a blessing in a world that is riven
And we shall stand and know we are found

And we shall roar a song God gave us
And we shall share bread among the lost and found
And God will heal from the broken middle
And with grace and hope and love astound.

(For D.S.)

As when Eadfrith crunched onto the holy shore
kicked the sting of the sea from between his toes
quaked beneath the impossible vault of heaven
and understood.

How he traced the shapes of Alpha and Omega
on the palms of his unpromising hands
asked to bear the blessing
prayed the ink would stir the Word uncurl
blink itself awake.

We too have known that startling silence of the heart
the world’s refusal to speak.
We too have come to that wide unyielding desert
the wilderness which steals.

Too late we ask to receive. Too easily we hide.
Too late we understand: no pilgrim may be given more.

Divine Service, Flossenburg, April 9th 1945

One last time
they herd us
our flesh mere meat
connective tissue
waiting for the cut

But we have come for news

And if today
it is too slick
for us to hold
jittery and quick
as a fish

there are words
which can move the bulk
of a man

there is bread
which thunders and roars

there is blood
thick and hot
which falls like rain
on dying land.