Thursday, 16 February 2017

What Now For the C of E and Sexuality? A Trans Perspective

So, GS2055 ‘fell’ in the House of Clergy. That document is gone and shall not determine the way ahead for the Church of England.

Many within the Church (for that, read: ‘a few geeks like me') will be wondering: What now? For we have been told that the only so-called ‘road map’ is gone.

No one quite knows what the future holds. People like me are hopeful that something richer, more radical and more celebratory shall be possible. Archbishop Justin’s words at the end of the GS2055 debate were heartening.

So far, a number of groups and individuals with whom I am in solidarity and sympathy have indicated various, possible ways forward. You can find various statements here:  OneBodyOneFaith, Alan Wilson, Modern Church.

As a trans person, I want to add my own small personal coda as we move forward.

Whatever happens, wherever we go, I ask this: Please do not ignore trans and intersex voices. The habit of imagining that we don’t problematize the church’s discourse on sex has to stop.

T & I voices really, really matter…not just to be listened to with a patronising ear (as many of us have experienced), but as critical resources to break open new joyous ground for our stale discourse on (what so often seems to comes down to) who can place their 'sex bits' where and when.

I say this not from an inclusion point of view (though that’s important), but a theological/philosophical one. For while I don’t want to underestimate the inclusion dimension, the importance of T & I (among other queer voices) lies in a theological matter that I’ve consistently suggested is absent from the C of E’s thinking:

We cannot hope to come to a theologically and philosophically sophisticated set of positions on sexuality until we, the Church, arrive at a sensitive and critically-informed account of terms like ‘gender’, ‘body’, and ‘embodiment’. (These terms need to be defined, but that is not my key point today: my key point is that, if they are complicated, problematized terms, they indicate how lazy much of our thinking about ‘sexuality’ typically is.)

We need to critically interrogate our theologies of gender if we are to begin to re-reflect hopefully around theologies of 'sexuality'.

The tragic fact is that most of the thinking I’ve come across in the Episcopal discourse on sexuality – i.e. its purposes, its place in the human and divine economy – is grounded in a lamentably uncritical ‘natural’ discourse around ‘men’, ‘women’, ‘male’, ‘female’ and gendered ‘bodies’. Too readily these notions have been treated in ‘naturalistic’ ways; or even (worse), as if Biblical discourse about ‘bodies’, ‘men’, ‘women’ relates uncritically to modernist ideas about ‘two sexes’ and so on.

Uncritical assumptions around so much discourse on ‘the body’ is hamstringing our capacity to think both clearly and imaginatively about what it means to bear the Image of God and grow into Christ’s likeness in the world.

Whatever else history, philosophy and critical theory might teach us, it is that representations of the body – the divine, sainted body as well as the so-called ‘fallen’ body and so on – cannot simply be ‘read out’ from the Bible or even from Church history. The serial violence done to the bodies of those coded as ‘female’ in Church and Biblical ‘imaginaries’ is signal enough of that.

Trans people etc may seem ‘oddities’ from the perspective of those in both episcopal authority as well as many in wider society. Yet, many of us trans people (and there are more of us than you think) have channelled our wits and guts into making critical space available for reflecting again and more critically about so-called ‘gender roles’ or ‘natural bodies’.

We attempt to make space available to question the na├»ve and stereotyped ideas about what a man or woman is, about what ‘sexuality’ is, and what it means to be bodies consecrated to God.

Please start taking us seriously.*

*Oh, and when I say 'us' that applies to others typically excluded from the sexuality conversation: lesbians, bisexual people etc.

Wednesday, 15 February 2017

Before the Sexuality Debate: A Final Thought

Ahead of today’s Take Note debate on the Bishops’ Report on Sexuality (GS2055) I’m reminded of something a colleague and friend said to me in the wake of the Jeffrey John debacle in 2003. It concerned the then archbishop Rowan Williams.

My friend said that Rowan – as Archbishop of Canterbury (ABC), as institutional self – would, on balance, say of his decision not to back Jeffrey, ‘I did the right thing.’

However, as Jeffrey’s friend, Rowan would have heard the cock-crow.

(I suspect Rowan wouldn’t be that simple, but you get the force of my friend’s point.)

Today, I think a whole load of people who are minded to take note of the Report are in danger of hearing the cock-crow. Yes, after the vote, they may feel they’ve done the right thing as ‘institution people’, as bishops, as ‘people loyal to their bishops and to Anglicanism’.

But let’s be clear. The anger and shock of LGBTI people about this Report isn’t us doing a Trump. It isn’t us wanting to throw the toys out of the pram. It’s not childish. It emerges from the marrow in all of us who want grace and celebration and love.

It’s an acknowledgement of just how bad we think this paper is. I’m as emotional as anyone else. But I’m also, at heart, moderate and eirenic. If someone like me has had enough, that signals something.

Another story...When Rowan went to see the then ABC George Carey in the ‘90s to speak about justice and the gays, the rumour was that he asked Carey, ‘Who pays the price?’

This story might be apocryphal, but the force of it holds good.

LGBTI people are bone-sick of paying the price.

I know none of us are people of clean hands. We are all compromised. But today I think the decision is clear: do not take note of this report. We are better and can do better than this report, even if it is to signal the fact of our disagreement. God is in the facts and sometimes those facts are unkind. But God is there.

And if the Report is ‘accepted’? Well, the cost comes back to humans. To my friends and colleagues who are already feeling either on the edge of church or – as priests – worn down by institutional double-think and dishonesty.

The cost is to people. And so many will hear the cock-crow.

Monday, 13 February 2017

'On not taking note': Open Letter to C of E Synod Representatives

Dear Synod Representatives,

I know you have a very busy week ahead of you. Many of you will not want talk about ‘sexuality’ to dominate your important work. However, I hope you might take a moment to read my letter to you.

I write specifically to invite you not to take note of the Bishops’ Report on Sexuality (GS 2055). I do so after considered thought, prayer, and conversations with laity, clergy and bishops.

You probably don’t know who I am, so a little about me. I am a parish priest in Manchester, trying to be faithful to the hope that’s in me, to share God’s good news and serve a diverse and complex parish community. I am also lesbian and a trans woman.

I took part in the regional Shared Conversations and – unlike some of my LGBTI friends and colleagues – found it a rich experience. I have sought to model an eirenic, generous respect for those who disagree with me.

However, GS 2055 has come as a profound shock to large swathes of people involved in the Shared Conversations as well as many who did not.

The Report is not simply flawed as all reports must be flawed, but reflects a far too limited range of those positions which emerged during the Shared Conversations process. Indeed, it over-emphasises positions which reflect minority views within the wider Church of England.

Signals of this include:
     1) The equal weight given in the report to voices who identity as ‘same-sex attracted’ as opposed to the self-description of the overwhelming majority of non-heterosexual people: lesbian, gay, and so on. The language of ‘same-sex attraction’ seems to have gained a traction in the mind of the House of Bishops completely out of proportion to its place in the lives of LGBT people and wider culture
      2)  The report is also marked by a complete absence of interest in the contributions of transgender and bisexual people. 
      3) The composition of the group writing the report lacked any out-LGBT voices. 
      4)  The group writing the report was over-loaded towards those identifying as ‘traditional’.

Equally, GS 2055 contains a lack of recognition of the theological intelligence and rich and deeply-considered strategies of reading Biblical texts represented within the wider church.

What is perhaps most shocking about the report from an inclusive perspective is its inability to speak of LGBT people’s faithful, committed and life-long relationships as honoured and celebrated by God. The text may talk of 'maximum (pastoral) freedom' with the Law, but I trust that - in a report that talks of new tones of address - this feels hardly rich and celebratory. It is the language of concession, not celebration and hope.

We - LGBTI people - continue to be treated as an issue to be solved and dealt with; despite the talk of a new tone in speaking of and relating to us, GS 2055 fails to model it. I trust that any of us would be shocked if many other groups of people, traditionally excluded from the normative position in church, were spoken of in this way.

We in the C of E can do much better than this report. All of us, gay and straight, deserve a richer, more honest and more graceful way forward than this Report represents. I welcome talk of a new teaching document, but how new can it be if it has already pre-determined what 'Marriage' and 'Holy Matrimony' is?

You will encounter a number of senior voices encouraging you to vote to take note, not least because the Report will be presented as a modest attempt to combine the best of Anglicanism (our desire to defend what has been revealed to us via scripture, reason and tradition balanced by a gentle shift towards better welcome and ‘maximum freedom’ for LGBTI people). It will be presented as a kindly increment - hopeful, spacious, offering succour to those who want to challenge their bishop on what they can do for LGBTI people. 

LGBTI people do not want to be given a bargaining chip for pastoral accommodation. We want to be recognised as people of equal dignity before God in our deepest richest selves - which must include our faithful, loving, committed relationships. We want to rejoice with you - all our sisters and brothers - in our Abundant God.

I suggest this Report represents a failure to model both the best of ‘us' as the C of E and is a misrepresentation of the Shared Conversations process. Equally, it departs embarrassingly from our rhetoric of ‘justice’ and – as recent news reports indicate – can only be greeted with incredulity by a nation we are called serve and call into hope, new life and worship.

I invite you not to take note of this Report.
Thank you for reading.