Thursday, 30 November 2017

#KindAdvent - A Modest Proposal

I suspect Im not the only person who has grown increasingly frustrated by the tone of much of social media. I think I understand some of the causes of this situation: frustration, collapse of social and human context, deep cultural and social divisions, etc. 

I have come close to disconnecting on many occasions and, during times like Lent, have often found it helpful to take a social media fast (controversial though some have found that idea).

Almost everyone experiences social media space as, by turns, informative, witty, anger-inducing and depressing. Thats because its a human space; it does rather reflect us.

This Advent I want to try something. Advent is one of two seasons (along with Lent) when Christians have traditionally fasted, reflected and prepared for a great feast. Obviously, Advent precedes Christmas.

In addition to my usual practices studying, reflecting, praying Im going to try something new (for me at least!) on social media.

With every tweet and post I want to offer something positive and hopeful. I want to build someone or something up. I shall be using the hashtag #KindAdvent to focus this.

Im not doing this because Im some sort of Panglossian fool or natural optimist. Its just that rather than instinctively do what I normally do point out the negative, complain about a situation, sound off, be an eeyore I want to make a small, tiny offering. A gift of kindness.

I cant tell you how counter-intuitive this is for me. I instinctively recoil at cheesy positivity; Id rather be ironic or clever-clever.

However, in the crappy world we find ourselves in, I sense that a discipline of kindness might not be too ridiculous.

It wont address deep injustice or stop a narcissistic president from retweeting fascists, but it may change the tenor of a conversation. It may help us look in a different direction not so much that we ignore the deep issues, but we meet them with a different kind of solidarity.

#KindAdvent is, in the first instance, something that I hope helps me focus on some richer seams of life than the usual warzones and fractures that drive us.

It might be something you want to have a go at too, whether youre a person of faith or not. I'd welcome fellow fools to share the journey!

Monday, 20 November 2017

Why Transgender Day of Remembrance Matters

(UPDATE: Content Warning - references to suicide, hate crime, murder and assault, verbal & physical abuse)

Its Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDOR) and I want to say a little about why all of us should treat it with the seriousness it deserves.

While its true that, in broad terms, our society has made leaps and bounds in its understanding and acceptance of trans people in recent decades, recent headlines and columns indicate weve a long way to go.

Repeated trans-negative and mocking headlines and think-pieces indicate that discourse about gender is a fault-line that reaches far beyond politics and theologies into visceral bile and fear.

Ive witnessed Christians (who, in faith, I still want to claim as kin), radical feminists (they are kin too), and terrified conservative-reactionaries want to make trans people and their allies the vanguard of a monstrous deconstruction of society and culture. (It would be funny to ponder what these powers of destruction look like, if only these claims werent so damaging.)

Why does TDOR matter? Well, lets start with some startling truths.

This year looks like becoming the deadliest year for trans people on record. Around the world over three hundred trans people have been murdered (go to the GLAAD website if you wish to see the list).

Furthermore, over half of trans and gender-questioning students in UK schools have been bullied.

Many trans people around the world have been assaulted and attacked.

Suicide attempt rates among the trans community in the UK are fearfully high and our identities are consistently traduced, questioned and mocked. These rates reflect a lack of support and understanding from within our society.

But if youre reading this, you probably knew that already.

Perhaps you want to say, Well, thats all very well, but what makes you lot so special? Why have a special day of remembrance? Lots of people non-trans women, people of colour, disabled people are traduced, violated and murdered simply in virtue of being themselves. Are they remembered?

In response I want to say, this isnt about special pleading or victim-signalling.

I stand in solidarity with those whom our prejudiced, patriarchally-ordered and violent world kills, damages and injures.

I am furious about the crap faced by anyone who does not fit religio-kyriarchal representations of the human and am determined to change a world that still privileges white, patriarchal, heteronormative ways of going on.

If trans people represent a tiny percentage of the population, the murder stats worldwide are mind-blowing. Three-hundred-plus of us have been murdered this year alone simply for being trans. Its a horrifying statistic. Three hundred deaths among a minuscule minority is terrifying. It signals deep fault-lines of violence and terror.

I am an exceptionally privileged person in many different respects. I am able to be trans and be out about it, and (within the limits of these things) respected. I have a fine job. I have lots of shiny-sounding titles and styles. I can make myself sound grand. My voice is heard.

Yet I too have received hate and threats, including a death threat, simply because I am trans.

I have been called nasty, nasty things.

I know people who are polite to my face but have claimed simply in virtue that I am trans that I am unfit to be a priest or hold a bishops licence.

I have received many professional slights, dis-invitations and exclusions simply because I will not apologise for being me. These slights add up and present challenges to the most resilient.

Why am I telling you this? Not to stir up pity for me. I dont need it. Im doing well and am alright.

The point is this: if this is what it looks like for someone who is a so-called successful or privileged trans person, what the hell is it like for trans people facing the full-on nexus of mockery, aggression and violence, without my privileges?

The fact is that trans people, young and old, simply would like to get on and live and flourish. We want to have our stories and lives cherished and respected as we define them. We want our stories to be honoured as anyone would like their story honoured.

In case you were wondering, trans people are no more engaged in self-indulgent narcissism than anyone else. We just want to live.

Our need to ask questions of gender, explore gender possibilities, transition and so on come not from capricious self-obsession, but deep, passionate wrestling. Its bone deep.

Most trans people I know have thought more deeply and carefully about the possibilities and aporia of identity than most non-trans people. We are not screwy, damaged or nut-jobs any more than non-trans people are. Wed like a little respect.

So, woe to you, woe to me, woe to us, when we seek to erase trans lives erase their dignity, seriousness and ordinarinesswoe to us when we seek to erase and control trans bodies through violent speech or gesture.

Let us remember the dead because we are them and they are us: people longing to live, people with dreams, people bewildered and foolish and loving, by turns.

Let us commit ourselves to changing the world.

For the love of God, let trans people live! Let us flourish. You might discover the world is richer and more full of grace than you thought.

Saturday, 18 November 2017

In Praise of 'Church': the Parish as a Place of Glory & Grace

Yesterday, on Twitter, I noted a fascinating conversation between Madeleine Davies of The Church Times, Paul Bayes, Bishop of Liverpool, and Andrew Graystone, broadcaster and theologian. It was a fascinating exchange, made all the more interesting because I respect and am fond of all of them.

Madeleine was with good reason exhausted with the endless negative press and attitudes about the Church. She wrote, Starting to get bit frustrated with v negative commentary about state of CofE - if you actually look at what ordinary people are up to in parishes, it's really heartening, & I worry it goes uncelebrated. Encouragement is such an important gift.

Paul then tweeted, I agree with Madeleine. Critiquing "the Church" has become a bit of a blood sport. Meanwhile (thank God) hundreds of thousands of Christians continue to follow Jesus effectively and prayerfully in their local contexts.

Andrews response was, Isn’t it the case that when people criticise “the church” they are usually speaking about the Hierarchy? When they praise the church they are usually speaking about the laity in the parish. I find that the further the @c_of_e gets from power, the more effective it is.

I cannot pretend I'm always one of the positive voices about the Church, though I do attempt to frame most of my critical comments in terms of hope, based on a belief in grace and a wider mercy.

Yet, I felt challenged. So, for Madeleine, Paul, and Andrew, and perhaps all of us who want a reminder of the glory in the midst of dust

Let me sing-out in joy for St Nicks, Burnage. Not because (or just because) it's the parish where I happen to serve, but because it like hundreds of other parishes around England simply gets on with service and worship and finds wonders in the rubble.

St Nicks Burnage is not some super-parish or uber-glamorous church plant or resource church. It is simply a parish church in a small part of south Manchester.

It reminds me again and again what people who are committed to Christ in their locale can model and achieve. It reminds me of the centrality of confident and passionate lay people working in partnership with clergy. We are not a huge congregation. We face many of the challenges faced by the majority of C of E parishes limited financial resources, an ageing congregation etc. - but I don't think we want to let those challenges hold us back. We simply want to get on with loving and caring for people and inviting them into deeper relationships with Christ.

That may sound rather banal or cheesy, but oh what wonders! Today was our Christmas Fair. Lay and ordained rallied around to serve up a festive feast: a place of welcome and joy and friendship, where all were met with kindness and respect. It was a delight to see people smile, chat and laugh, or witness children ask, When is Santa coming? I am no sucker for the tinsel of Christmas but I, like others, came away tired yet happy. It was a huge amount of work for Wardens and people to prepare, but in miniature it captures many of the rewards of parish life.

And there is so much else that this little church models that moves and inspires me. We have an amazing cohort of volunteers exploring ministry through Foundations for Ministry, others involved in testing their vocation to priesthood, and a willingness to have a go at almost anything. Can we put on a musical? Well, lets have a go! Can we be involved in running a food bank? Lets have a go. Can we host events for the wider community that build confidence and trust? Lets have a go.

Members of this modest parish church volunteer to run a food bank, run a community choir, are involved in a dozen different ways of showing God alive in our community. They are friends, neighbours and pastoral visitors. They make time.

As an inclusive church we set ourselves the challenge to be a place of celebration for people from every part of our community; its not always easy, but we choose not to follow the easy way, but the challenging one. We want to follow the path which says that all, whether LGBT, disabled, etc., are people of Gods delight and have a central place in worship and fellowship.

As I said, that's not always easy. And I appreciate we have it easier than some other parishes. But we try to discover God in what is here rather than in presumed ideal conditions.

We struggle and we pray; we become tired and scared and worn down, but we are also refreshed by the community we seek to be, in God. God provides. We seek God as he seeks us. And in hope, despite very stretched resources, we make our response in service and love.

We are just one parish among thousands; so many others must be up to so much more than us, often with fewer resources. So don’t tell me God is done with the C of E just yet. In partnership with sister parishes in deaneries, dioceses, even bishops (!), I reckon modest little parishes like ours will continue to make the wonderfully radical and generous God known.