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.


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.

Friday, 16 May 2014

Oasis 'Open Church', LGBT voices & privilege

Last night I attended and spoke at an Asylum Magazine sponsored event called ‘Trans* people in the time of Psychiatry.’ It was a striking opportunity for a number of trans* voices to be heard ahead of a special Asylum Magazine edition focusing on critiques of the psychiatric profession’s treatment and understanding of trans* identity. It was a lively, conscientized meeting which led to a heated and potent discussion. It revealed the range of views present among trans* people about the concepts of ‘treatment’ and even the place of psychiatry in trans* people lives. One of the striking points raised by both trans* and cis people was about how ‘psychiatry’ talks about trans* people. It has now slowly begun to ‘talk to’ trans* people, but this is still framed in a discourse which privileges the normative, clinical and non-trans* voice. (For anyone who is interested in the shattering experience many trans* people have had in the midst of both psychiatrists and the wider medical profession check out #TransDocFail on twitter.)

Given last night’s experience – in which trans* voices were prioritized, foregrounded and cis people were invited to be part of our conversation, but were not privileged – perhaps I wasn’t in the best place to read a tweet from my friend Vicky Beeching which read (I want to flag up here that I’m not trying to ‘shoot the messenger’ for a tweet!):

Myself, @SteveChalke @alantlwilson & @Andrew_Marin will be speaking at this conference on LGBT theology, April 2015: 

Checking out the list of headline speakers I was a bit concerned that there were seemingly no out LGBT on the list. Consequently I tweeted:

@vickybeeching @SteveChalke @alantlwilson @Andrew_Marin at the risk of sounding typically LGBT - where are the out LGBT folk on this list?

This led to an interesting exchange of tweets (see my timeline @revrachelmann) which included Vicky pointing out that there are some gay speakers on this initial list.
So is my reaction a wee bit ‘touchy’? Possibly. I am always conscious that I am quite capable of being a grumpy get, especially first thing in the morning. I am also conscious of how the language of ‘touchy’ and ‘chippy’ can be an internalized expression of homophobia and transphobia – that is, the result of an internalized belief that us LGBT people should just be thankful that straight (-presenting) people are being nice to us.

However, while acknowledging that it is still a year till this conference, I remain anxious about the set-up of the conference. Why? Because as far as I can see it is predicated on the deployment of ‘straight privilege’ and the conservative credibility that depends upon ‘straight’ (presenting) people talking about us. What do I mean?

For all I know, all of the headline speakers are gay. (It perhaps seems unlikely!) However, in terms of the set-up of this conference, there is silence about who they are as sexual beings. In a society that still privileges ‘straightness’ it seems not unreasonable to read those people as either: a) actually straight (which they all might be) or b) presenting as ‘straight’ and making use of the privilege which comes from being perceived as straight.

My point is this: even if those speakers have a proven track record of speaking up for LGBT people (and I know many have, at real personal cost) there is the constant risk  in any conference of a variant of the ‘trans psych scenario’ outlined at the start of the blog – people who are not LGBT (or don’t want to be seen as LGBT/’too’(!) LGBT) speaking on behalf of and about LGBT people. In an extraordinarily homo- and trans-phobic institution like the church I will always be anxious about headline narratives that begin by deploying straight-privilege to create credibility.

One of the headline speakers Andrew Marin tweeted me off the back of my tweet to say:
@RevRachelMann @dave42w @vickybeeching @alantlwilson 1 can’t hv LGBT conf w/o LGBTs. Give @SteveChalke more credit. Still 1yr away/1st promo

He’s right that it is a year away and it’s the first promo. And I'm sure Vicky is right that there are gay speakers. But you know what? Like all people who are hungry for change, I still want more. If you read the profiles of the people currently signed up to speak, even the queer people’s status as LGBT people is not foregrounded. ‘But it doesn’t matter,’ I hear some of you shout in frustration. (Or, ‘We don’t want that fact to get in the way’ or even ‘That’s a private matter’.) And those reactions are the heart of the issue. Because it does matter - the visible presence of people who are out and proud and will not apologise for who they are, not even for the sake of being credible, is crucial. It has always been at the heart of cultural change.

And what about Andrew’s point? Yes, it is a year out and I know conferences need to sell – it’s good to have some big, well-respected hitters to promote your event. But the way that conference looked to me this morning is less about LGBT scholars, activists and voices being foregrounded and more like nice, liberal people talking about them. And, so, maybe my problem is a matter of perception rather than reality. As I said, perhaps all of the headliners are LGBT and will use this conference to come out. (It would almost be worth the straight speakers doing it just for the ‘lols’! Go on, Alan!) But I wish the way the conference ‘looks’ feels more like a place where LGBT voices were foregrounded. Imagine how that set up might look if a one of the headliners from the start was a noted queer scholar like Elizabeth Stuart or Nicola Slee. Imagine if priority was given to young LGBT voices who have been serially marginalized by the church. (Again, I acknowledged that I don’t know what’s been happening behind the scenes. Perhaps these are things to be sorted at a later date.)

Andrew says, ‘Give Steve Chalke more credit.’ I hear this. (Though I do feel a wee bit ‘told-off’; I’m sure that wasn’t Andrew’s intention! This morning I’m overly sensitized to straight-privileged voices knocking against my out-trans one!) I also hear the force of Vicky’s tweets. (See my timeline.) I am a loose cannon who often needs to be corrected, especially on that blunt instrument ‘Twitter’. I always want to work with allies, straight or gay (hell, even those in the closet who use straight privilege to do stuff. (I think!!)), but given my experience of being part of groups of people who get talked about rather than talked to, I will keep asking the questions.