Saturday, 25 January 2014

LGBT Clergy & 'Coming Out'

‘Coming out’, especially when one is ordained, can feel a fraught business. I will never forget the time a new ordinand at my theological college came and sat next to me in the common room and, without ceremony, asked, ‘So, Rachel, how long have you been in the closet?’ I was simultaneously amused by this person’s lack of social nouse and a bit annoyed at the implications of their question. For while this person was very clearly out and proud in the college context, and at some personal cost I think, I did not quite see myself as ‘in the closet’. Being ‘in’ or ‘out’ for LGBT Christian ministers in the UK is usually a matter of degree rather than an absolute.

The recent Pilling Report – a discussion document which, in many ways, represents some very small steps towards affirming LGBT* people in the Church of England – underlines how dangerous the church can still feel for those of us who are LGBT* and Christian, especially if we are ordained. On many occasions I’ve chatted with both gay and straight clergy about ‘safe’ places for LGBT folk to work within the Church of England. I am inclined to suggest that the metropolitan areas of England – notably Manchester and London - have a strong commitment to affirming gay clergy, partly because there are just a lot of us. And yet many of us remain discreet about who we are because of perceived threat to our jobs and prospects.

How this works out at a diocesan level is moot. Bishops can have a real impact on the mood of a diocese or episcopal area and one must accept that there are still many parishes in which a queer vicar would be well advised to keep the reality of their lives quiet. And, alas, there remain numerous dioceses and bishops for whom being gay is perceived as lesser, as embarrassing or dangerous.

From the point of view of gay clergy themselves, the situation remains complex. It remains the case that – given that the church seems to reward silence and ‘discretion’ – often LGBT people have chosen to remain quiet about who they are for the sake of their careers. At its most brutal this is simply a calculation about ‘keeping a job’. ‘Being discreet’ in such circumstances is surely one of the key signfiers of homo- and transphobia in the church. Yet this uncomfortable silence is also imposed on people who ‘want to get on’. Understandably – as human beings – we have ambitions. For the sake of having influence at a ‘higher’ level of the institution, some choose to keep quiet. I’m not sure what the cost of this incongruence must be on relationships and self-understanding.

All of us regularly involved in church have probably met that person – usually part of a largish more conservatively minded church – who says they’ve never met a gay Christian or that there are no gay people in their fellowship. I suppose that one has to accept that it is at least not logically impossible that this claim is true. Even if it is empirically possible, it is not especially plausible. What such a person means is that no one is ‘out’ with them or they have woefully underdeveloped gaydar. I suspect that there are still many more liberally minded congregations who might be surprised to discover that their priest is LGBT. I hardly need to outline the reasons why that is the case. The fact that it is the case is one way the church signifies how dangerous it is for gay clergy. ‘Being out’ is a metonym for ‘exposure’ and being exposed in an hostile environment is always going to be dangerous.

It has never struck me that it’s my business to out people. It’s their story, not mine. Anyone who is gay and ordained, especially those in relationships, are making constant calculations about what to say, disclose and how to negotiate the mess the church has got itself in about LGBT* people. Yet I wish more of us would take the risk of being out and proud. That probably reads as a forlorn statement (though, if it is, it is an indictment of where we are).

Some people tell me that ‘coming out’ shouldn’t matter – that we should be ‘beyond that’ now. I suspect that claim is grounded in – at best – a kind of British embarrassment about demonstrative behavior (though nobody bats an eyelid when folk make public declarations of hetero identity like getting engaged) and – at worst – in fear. The fact is that ‘coming out’ is one way those of us who have traditionally been seen as ‘other’ act on the world. Coming out is not about ‘self-expression’ (or not merely so) but an action. If events like ‘National Coming Out Day’ are signs, their significance is not merely symbolic.

One of my fantasies is a mass LGBT* clergy ‘Coming Out’ Day (I know…I have such second-rate fantasies…!). I am sufficiently plugged into the realities of the C of E and of the clergy mindset that I recognize that this is as remote a possibility as George Osborne being converted to State Socialism. Yet there is a sense in which the current culture of silence and denial and – at best – a grudging acknowledgement that LGBT* people are part of the church will only be changed if we speak together. One of the profound and embarrassing weaknesses of The Pilling Report is that no out LGBT* people were on the group charged with its creation. Again, we were being talked about and discussed without representation. This is not me being chippy about allies. We all need allies and friends. But it’s time the church realized how many of us there are. It’s time the church saw how many potentially and - in some cases – actually influential and significant LGBT* clergy there are in the church. It is time we united and genuinely stood together.

Saturday, 18 January 2014

The Risen Dust - Launch Night Thoughts

As I sat ‘playing the author’ and signing books at the launch of The Risen Dust last night a very dear friend noted his suspicion of the whole ‘queue up and get your book signed’ thing. I suspect he’s right to be a bit suspicious – there’s a whole lot of ego-gratification that goes on in such situations. It’s probably not what Christian vocation is about. Nonetheless, getting a book out there is a rare enough process that it’s probably worth commenting on. So, in the spirit of self-indulgence and by way of thanks to all those who’ve supported me over the years (including the many who couldn’t get along) I thought I’d blog about last night's launch.

In many ways the launch of The Risen Dust felt very different from the launch of Dazzling Darkness fifteen or so months ago. Yes, both events took place in the magnificent surrounds of Manchester Cathedral and both were brilliantly supported. However, the DD launch felt about as edgy and electric as a book launch can get – maybe publishing a book that might set off a whole lot of controversy always feels like that. I was so thankful for the love of friends and family that night and have remained so ever since.

The Risen Dust, on the other hand, feels – in many ways - a less explosive offering. In offering a book of poems and stories on the themes of passion and resurrection I’m conscious I’m walking a well-trodden path. My anxiety last night was that people would be disappointed. Many of the people at the launch were not – I suspect – massive poetry fans and I was conscious of constantly speaking a language that might feel alien and alienating. Equally, there is always a danger of offering cliché when talking about ‘the Easter Event’. It has been more extensively picked over than a baboon’s hairy shoulders.

Yet, I was moved by the response of the audience. Perhaps the poems were a little difficult for folk to absorb at times, but I was touched by the openness towards the monologues and stories. I’ve long felt and argued that the patriarchal picture of God – the Father whose power and authority has the doubled-edged offering of threat and protection – simply will not do. I was delighted by how strongly folk responded to the more tentative, relational and indwelling theological instincts especially embodied in the stories and monologues. I was blown away by the warm response to the story I shared based on my experience of being bullied for being trans.

I know God is not cool or fashionable and I’m not sure anyone should much worry about that. I sense God doesn’t. But last night it was a delight to share poems, stories and conversation with people from a variety of faiths and none about what on earth we mean when we try and talk about the God in Christ – the one who is Risen Dust. I hope The Risen Dust is a small contribution to the ongoing effort to articulate a god more interesting that that cheesy Aunt Sally (Uncle Sidney?), The Wise Guy in The Sky aka The Beardy Sky-Fairy.