Monday, 15 October 2018

Please respond to GRA

A short post to say please get involved in the response to the current government consultation on the Gender Reassignment Act if you haven't already. The Act as it stands at the moment is costly and time consuming, as well as taking agency away from trans people. The consultation ends on Friday and so this is now urgent.

Stonewall have done a guide to what's wrong with the current legislation and how people might want to respond. 

There has been scaremongering in the media and a sustained campaign which has seen a coalition between trans excluding feminists and conservative Christians. This has had an impact on all trans people. The level of vitriol that has been unleashed is scary. I have seen the toll it is taking on trans people and it is not good. I am scared for my husband in a way I haven't been since he started transitioning.

A few points, the risk of people committing suicide as a result of being trans and not being recognised as who they are is a much higher risk than those who may abuse the law.

The view that it increases the risk of pedophilia is one that was used against gay men having legal rights and is now being used to raise a moral panic against trans people.

If the voices who oppose trans rights were really being silenced in this debate they wouldn't have been able to take out news paper ads and so on spreading their views.

I could go on but I want to say please support this legislation to support people like my husband who is f to m trans and my sibling who is gender queer. I also want the spousal veto removing because I should not have any power or say, legally, in whether he gets an interim or full gender recognition certificate.

I know that some people will disagree with this because of their biblical interpretation. I would say if that is you and you have really thought  and prayed it through please still respond with your views. Involvement in the debate is important but please remember that we are not talking about "an issue" we are talking about people . And alot of those people are scared and hurting right now as a result of the hate which they have seen directed at them in the media and elsewhere over the last few weeks particularly.

Sunday, 17 June 2018

Undivided by Vicky Beeching - A Review

Reading through Vicky Beeching's memoir Undivided is an emotional experience. It cannot be read from a neutral position because none of us are robots and all of us have opinions on faith, LGBT+ issues and mental illness. Many of us also have our own experiences of these things. The thing about Vicky's book is it makes clear that whilst some feel free to be vocal about these things for others they are subjects of fear. To state my position from the start I am a progressive evangelical queer woman married to a f to m transman who is also a Methodist Probationer Minister. I work in a church too. So I'm sympathetic to the view she is espousing in the book.

Now I've got all that out of the way we can look at the book. It's an honest looking back on her journey and the way she wrestled not only with her own identity but also with the demands of being a successful Christian musician.

It's a book which shows that whatever one's view of the "celebrity LGBT+ Oxbridge elite" her journey has been very costly in both emotional and financial terms. Yes, she is part of that elite but it provided her with a support network which she needed around her coming out. I'm noting it but not knocking it in her case.

What I found interesting about the first parts of the book, including her time in Oxford were the way she used institutionalisation for safety. I was struck by the choice of Oxford College she describes, and am aware that it was a similar choice that she made when she went to Durham an experience briefly mentioned later in the book. (Aside here one of the most embarrassing moments of my life was realising what a twat I'd been when I'd been chatting to her and others in a bar in Durham on the day of my viva (one of the very few times I've met her by the way). I don't have a great gaydar and that day I had a total failure, which resulted in me giving a version of "the only gay in the village" spiel when the exact opposite was true). Anyway I digress back to the review.

This institutionalisation which many Christian young people get caught up in and which many of those of us in churches actually collude with in ways intended to be helpful and can lead to great opportunities, but which may also be deeply damaging is something which challenged me in reading the book.

In Vicky's case it was this which enabled her to have her song writing and performing career. Something which has to be applauded, but it was at a cost of conforming to a damaging Christian stereotype.

The LGBT+ narrative which is a central theme to the book is important because it is a story which needs to be told and shared widely. I believe that this book quite honestly has the power to save lives and that cannot be underestimated. There will still be young Vicky's who may at times feel the same suicidal pressures that are talked about in this book and to have a role model is important.

More than that though this is probably the easiest to read discussion of the scriptural arguments I've come across. It's a book I'd be happy to recommend to people as a key resource.

The discussion of chronic pain and illness is also important because it is through the sharing of these stories that progress is made.

I referred earlier to the Oxbridge elite and that is something I find interesting about this book and about some recent developments in both the Christian and secular LGBT+ worlds in this country. There is an elite and make no mistake they are doing a great job in pushing for equality but they are also clearly there and integrated into the institutions of this country. This book along with other developments I'm not going into here show that there is a change happening which is not primarily grass roots but taking place in the wood panelled or glass clad rooms of this country. This book is here because it fits into that world, but it is also here because as I've indicated it's a valuable resource.

So I recommend giving it a read and then giving time yourself time to reflect on it. I think for many it raises as many questions as it answers but thank you Vicky for writing it and for your bravery. This is a book that as I've said will help others but has clearly come at cost.

Just as a help if you've happened upon the book or this blog and you are looking for support as a LGBT+ Christian who is not out or who is not connected to other LGBT+ Christians can I recommend Diverse Church which has sections to support different age groups and parents of LGBT+ people.

Saturday, 5 May 2018

Christian LGBT+ Seasons Change Again

Every so often on this blog I used to do updates on where I saw the land lying with regard to the LGBT+ Christian world. It was something I stopped doing because it no longer seemed relevant. LGBT+ Christianity has become much more visible and “mainstream”. I realise that perhaps I had gotten tired with it all, but I am aware we seem to be going into a change of season again, where things which have been growing over time are now coming into bloom. We are also at a time when that new fruit is leading to hard decisions about should some stuff be pruned.

Firstly the stuff coming into bloom. Peterson Toscano is a performance artist many of you will be aware of. He is a Quaker queer environmentalist. Over the years many of his shows have dealt with issues related to sexuality and gender but he has always been a strong environmentalist and increasingly that has influenced his work. This summer and autumn he is coming back to the UK. In addition to being at Greenbelt and he and Ruth Wilde of Christian Peacemaker Teams are going on tour with Everything Is Connected.

Then there are a couple of new autobiographical books coming out from Vicky Beeching and Jane Ozanne. Beeching’s Undivided is out on June 14th and Ozanne’s Just Love 2nd July. These women are ones who have expert knowledge on how to engage with the media and so I won’t be at all surprised if they make a splash outside the usual circles. Vicky will also be appearing at Greenbelt alongside acts including Pussy Riot, Carol Ann Duffy, We Are Scientists, Michael Eavis, Broderick Geer and Jack Monroe.

Another area of bloom are texts looking to support churches engaging with Trans Christians. The first of these is an excellent book Transfaith: A Transgender Pastoral Resource by Christina Beardsley, Chris Dowd and Justin Tanis. This is the one I would most strongly recommend if you want to get hold of a resource to support you. It is based on many years experience, research and work in this area. A shorter resource which may also be useful is The Gender Agenda from Steve Chalke and Oasis.

With regard to the campaigning and pastoral care side of things there seems to be a much broader base of support - which is excellent. But the fact is there are still lots of LGBT+ people, particularly young LGBT+ people struggling with the fact they are being told/ or are getting the impression through silence on the subject it’s wrong to be who they are.

The reasons for this include the fact that beyond the new blooming and apparent openness, many of the old battles continue and new ones emerge. Since last time I wrote on this topic, almost a year ago trans people become more visible and that brings with it both positives and negatives for these groups to engage in. The positives the recognition of their existence and the need for specific liturgies and policies and resources such as those mentioned above. The negatives, once apparent invisibility disappears, the amount of vitriol being directed by those who previously ignored increases and this demands these groups respond.

Those giving the alternative interpretations of the bible, which they usually argue is “the truth” and “the word of God” rather than one interpretation of bible, which is the word of God are getting more professional and organised. Ironically their campaigning against trans inclusion bringing them into informal coalition with trans excluding radical feminists in lobbying against changes to the Gender Recognition Act.

This increased professionalization is leading to the need for an equally professional response from the LGBT+ organisations as in the ongoing debates within the church continue. In the Methodist Church this has led to the formation of Dignity and Worth, an excellent membership based organisation which is seeking to change the dialogue from being adversarial to being something which will enable the church to move forward in a way which will allow and celebrate affirmation but also not seek to exclude those of differing opinion.

This new environment is drawing many of the older organisations to a point of asking hard questions, as with Outcome the older Methodist LGBT+ group. The key question they will be addressing at their Day by Day annual public meeting in Coventry on 19th May is what is their future. Are they, as with Affirm the Baptist LGBT+ group and One Body One Faith going to be able to draw in new life and move forward in a fresh way or is it time to say we hand over the batten to others? * Note: It appears the Outcome general meeting is not now happening on that date, but the question still remains to be addressed.

Whatever happens though we must not forget the debt we owe to those who have led and supported Outcome and other LGBT+ Christian organisations over the years. These are the people who often lived before the decriminalisation of homosexuality and fought the hard battles that mean life is so different for many of us now. These are the people who in the Methodist Church took the motions to conference and argued the case for affirmation and inclusion.

Thursday, 5 April 2018

Allies and Shared Struggles

Westminster Cathedral was full of people “Rediscovering Justice” and participating in “A Service of Hope on the 50th anniversary of the death of The Reverend Dr Martin Luther King Jr” yesterday. The service was a moving one which called us to continuing action. According the the Ekklesia article about it the service was recorded and will be on Radio Four this Sunday.

 I was acutely aware throughout the service of the way in which race and gender identity are separate issues yet their intersectionality is a crucial factor when we look at those murdered around the world for being trans – trans BAME people are most at risk. I was also struck between the similarities of this service and Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDOR)  events in terms of tone and at points content, (the last time I heard Something Inside So Strong used in the way it was yesterday was at a TDOR event).

The Confession had the response “Forgive us and make us strong to raise our voices in hope” and the words throughout could be equally related to a range of issues. This is important because yesterday was a day for all who believe in justice and want to build what MLK described as the beloved community as Dr. R. David Muir reminded us in his testimony.

Amanda Khozi Mukwashi is the new chief executive of Christian Aid and within her testimony she talked of MLK as “inspiration from the past and energy for the future”. This is how I think his legacy should be taken. She, as others yesterday, remind us that he fought against the scandals of both poverty and injustice. A speaker on the Channel Four News last night, reflecting on the anniversary and his legacy reminded us of the need to tackle these at both a structural and personal level, engaging with both policy makers in meetings and the public on the street. Using both as a means of influencing decision makers and changing attitudes.

The address was given by the bishop of Woolwich, The Right Reverend Dr. Karowei Dorgu and throughout he used MLKs words “when there is injustice to one there is injustice to all” as a refrain. He asked “how many more young people die before stabbing and gun crime is declared as a national emergency?” I would echo this sentiment but add how many more trans people have to die before we act. I ask this in the same spirit because those young people and those trans people are both more likely to be from BAME backgrounds. Naomi Hersi, a trans woman of Somali origin, was one of those murdered in London this year….another one of those who was part of both communities.

In his address the bishop made the point that “the challenge is to make a difference on a national scale, we focus on the small things and miss the big picture”. I can’t help that this is the case with the debates around trans at the moment. There is so much focus around the issue of who can and should use which toilets – linked to the issue of self-identification we are losing sight of the much bigger justice issues, of which that is one part of the jigsaw. The fact is that trans people are dying, both through suicide (made worse by the time they are currently having to wait for assessment) and murder. Self-identification will be great but if the waiting list to be able to get the medical support needed to safely access hormones and then further life changing surgery, if desired, continues to grow people will continue to die.

A focus on stopping young people dying is something that should be treated as a national emergency but so must the fight against the murder of trans people and against domestic violence, which also contribute to the scarily high numbers of those murdered in London this year. As the bishop made clear in his speech, “killings are our problem” and “we can’t afford to stand by as bystanders”. He also made clear “we don’t have the option to do nothing” and “It is all of us who must overcome the crippling disease of injustice”. As he said after referring to Pastor Niomeller’s First they came for … poem “We need to act with courage – inaction is not an option”.

These words struck me, as did the words in the act of commitment which began “Will you keep the dream alive, of justice for all peoples, without prejudice or favour?” That means that the LGBT+ community need to support the BAME community and put an end to the racism which has seen Stonewall pull out of Pride in London this year.  Other people too, including many churches, should be supporting the LGBT+ community – and putting an end to using BAME issues as a reason not too -an attitude which is in it’s own way racist too as it assumes that LGBT+ people will be white and all BAME people will oppose LGBT+ rights - which we know is a myth. It should mean that BAME diversity networks in companies should join as allies to the LGBT+ community and vice versa. 

The truth is that LGBT+ BAME people are the group most at risk and the current attitudes are contributing to the death of these family members here and abroad. If MLK’s justice means anything today…50 years and 1 day after he was murdered for speaking truth against injustice it means we must stand together against injustice and bigotry and the words we speak in his name must be more than words from history or service sheets.

Monday, 5 March 2018

Invisible Functions

Recently Methodist Presbyter Sam McBratney posted a provocative piece on his blog, "Ministry or Midden" about the way in which Presbyteral Ministry in the Church had become more burdened than other forms of ministry. Six months in to my probationer husband being let out into the real world I can understand that, even though his experience has been very good. However, far more important to me -as somebody who has been a lay employee in a different church for those six months and has also had a great experience - is the way he also talks of the way that "lay employees" have been looked at in a more functional way and how the vocational aspect has been chiseled away. 

Alongside this changing of the language used I want to argue there has also over the last decade been a fog of invisibility building up around lay employees who don't fit into any of the pathways that he refers to in his post.
According to last years Statistics for Mission report, “the Connexional database records 3,226 lay employee posts, many of them relating to premises and administrative support.” What we don't know is how many of these are full or part time, or any of the other statistics which might help us get the full picture of what the paid lay vocations in the British Methodist Church currently are, who is doing them and what the good and bad practice going on is. There is the argument that, ah but lay workers are employed by churches, circuits or districts on the whole - not the whole Connexion. But that is like McDonalds or Starbucks saying they don't know how many staff are working in their franchises, they only know about the head office staff and store managers.

The last report to explicitly look at lay ministry was in The Lay Workers Terms and Conditions report in 2007. Whilst lay employees' terms and conditions have changed in line with the law and equality and employment law updated regularly this does mean the basis of our understanding of lay employees is now over a decade old.

I know that there may be change in the air as having inquired with head office the Faith and Order Committee is bringing a report to the 2018 Methodist Conference on Ministry in the Methodist Church. However, I fear, especially in light of the wording erosion Sam has highlighted that this will relate more to the role and training of local lay pastors (who will have pastoral care for churches where a minister cannot be placed, often) than to the wider field of lay workers/ employees/ ministers within the Methodist Church. At the least the findings will need careful scrutiny by both Conference reps and lay employees to make sure amendments are tabled where necessary. 

I attended the Reimagine Circuits Conference in London this week and there was a real appetite apparent for developing lay roles more. However, for this to be effective we will need to be aware of and give proper recognition to the wider range of lay roles already being fulfilled by those with vocational callings to them. This again means, I would argue, we need to have an updated report into what lay employment in the Methodist Church actually looks like. 

So what can we do? Well, as I head off to Connecting Disciples with an activist handout on this topic, I have produced I have these ideas:

1. Put together Notices of Motion to go to our Spring District Synods. If passed these will go to Conference. 

2. To look at the report on Ministry in the Methodist Church when it is published online within the agenda for Conference and to talk to your Conference reps about any concerns you have. Work with them on amendments to submit and ensure they look at this report from the lay employee's perspective. 

3. Think about becoming a Conference rep yourself in future years to make sure the voice of lay employees is heard more loudly within Connexional decision making. 

4. Ask questions to the Connexional Team. They are not allowed to lobby on our behalf, but if we ask specific and targeted questions they have to answer them as they are able.

5. Share our stories - the greatest body of evidence for the need of a review will come from our experience.

6. Think about joining a union. Unite has a specific faith workers branch and a Methodist sub group within it. If lay employee in the union increases, so will our voice.

Friday, 24 November 2017

For Good: The Church and the Future of Welfare by Samuel Wells et al Reviewed

There are various stories around the decline in the significance of the Church in the UK. Some start in the mid to late 1800’s, others focus on the first world war, some look at the changes in British society in the late ‘60’s whilst more argue it is to do with the introduction of the welfare state in the mid 1940’s. In truth it’s probably most appropriate to draw a timeline which marks all of these as significant stages in a process, which have differing significance to different denominations and churches. For Good: The Church and the Future of Welfare by Samuel Wells with Russell Rook and David Barclay lay out an argument which focuses on the argument that the introduction of the Welfare State was the key point of significance. Hence this book engages with a re-evaluation of how the Church can engage with the review of welfare occurring 75 years after the Beveridge Report.

The significance of the date they choose to effectively link secularisation to matters, because it underlines a narrative which can be used to argue that the state has come in and replaced some of the functions of the church in providing care, education of the young and support those in distress. To argue that these were the “right functions” for a church in a society one has to buy into the argument, to some extent at least, that Christianity should have a privileged position in society where it is the recognised provider of essential services. Therein lies my problem with what is excellent a really good book which has some excellent arguments which I will go on to talk about.

There is a catch 22 situation which was excellently illustrated by Steve Chalke, of the Oasis Foundation, at the launch event for this book, which took place at Lamberth Palace. At the conference Chalke, one of the speakers, spoke about the need for infrastructure and governance to be in place for effective engagement at a national level in the provision of goods and services. He identified why, certainly regarding infrastructure, the Church of England was able to do this in ways others aren’t because they are a state church with a parish system. Yet, he was the only speaker that day to talk of spirituality rather than the Church/ Christianity or occasionally faith. The Oasis hub project in Birmingham which is one of the case studies in the book is also the only one which stems from the values we associate with spirituality and Christianity rather than from a congregation looking at how they can help the community, and seeks to work in a truly collaborative way where people are done “with” rather than “to”. Whilst the others reflect these values this hub has this as it's primary purpose rather than an additional one, which a congregation has. His organisation is also the only one to have actively, and I use this word advisedly, seek to oppose institutional homophobia and trans-phobia rather than seeking to protect privilege by continuing to give people the right to discriminate. (see their about section on their website).

I underline these points at the start of my review because they are important in understanding the unease as well as feelings of joy and hope this book unleashed in me as I read it.

The book is essentially as is recognised a report, and as such is too short to be truly nuanced. At 90 pages it can only ever be an overview. Hence, I think having a set of underlying assumptions which are not properly argued.

However, as I said it is a valuable text which provides much hope and gives a useful tool for thinking through social engagement in the contemporary society.

The biggest contribution I think this book makes is seeking to move from a deficit approach (which is what Beveridge took) to an asset based approach. Where as Beveridge said there were five great giants to be slayed (and if you’re not familiar I would point you to You Tube and a rather useful revision guide from History Helper) Wells et al argue there are five great goods society should be aspiring to: relationship, creativity, partnership, compassion and joy.

We have to be careful when talking about these things because focusing on the assets can detract from identifying the reasons these are lacking in our society and dealing with the root causes. This is avoided by the approach of dealing with some of the root causes by focusing on the assets as active verbs rather than simply ends to be achieved. It is an approach which can be seen in the case studies given.

Another strength of the book is it’s recognition of the need for flexibility and fluidity in approaches of social action looking across the spectrum from contradiction to co-operation. This is talked about in a real way which recognises what might start as a protest can end up in active collaboration with those who were at some point in the process “the opposition”.
There are also practical warnings in the book regarding making sure a project is fit for purpose and time sensitive.

So would I recommend it, yes but with the caveats referred to earlier. I’d also recommend some useful supplementary reading to go alongside it though, in order to develop it into the most useful text it might be.

The first text is Sherry Turkle’s Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age. My reason for suggesting this as accompanying reading is that it looks at the way modern developments in technology are acting as barriers to the assets being discussed and diminishing these assets in our modern society. It is not a Luddite text, but rather it articulately discusses how our technology is a tool which we need to use well. Churches and Christians need to be as aware of their use of technology as other sectors.

The second text which I would suggest the reader engage with is Michael Volland’s The Minister as Entrepreneur: Leading and Growing the Church in an Age of Rapid Change. This book both provides a theological exploration of the approaches being advocated in the Wells text as well as some practical pointers on how to go about this. It also deals with some of the criticisms that might internally be leveled against congregations and ministers taking the type of approach advocated in the book.

A third text, for those wanting to see some different case studies and to examine how spirituality and supporting social action can come together would be The Pioneer Gift: Explorations in Mission edited by Jonny Baker and Cathy Ross. (Which I have also reviewed in the past on this blog)

My final piece of accompanying reading would be Prophetic Dialogue: Reflections on Christian Mission Today by Stephen Bevans and Roger P. Schroeder. This enables one to reflect on how context matters and how to shape this type of work as Christian but in a society which is more pluralistic than the Wells text might acknowledge. 

Friday, 27 October 2017

Found Out by Alison Webster Reviewed

I was sitting in GBK and had, Found Out: Transgressivefaith and sexuality, the new book by Alison Webster on the table, ready to read whilst I was waiting for my burger. The waiter came over, took a look at the cover, and asked if he could have a look. I said of course, he picked it up and said, “oh, I thought it was a yoga book from the picture”. I smiled and said no, but as he continued to read the blurb he asked “what is it then?” I was part way through and replied, “it’s a book about different women’s experiences of life and sexuality and a book which explains even though life gets messy God loves them as they are.” He smiled and said, “I understand”.

In truth this book is far more than how I described it to the waiter and the description I gave does not give justice to what this book is. It’s an exercise in practical theology which takes things forward and gives voice. The opening chapter seeks to give the reader an introduction to this form.

It begins as a history book, where through the use of autobiography she gives voice to the experience of women of Alison’s generation – those now in their 50’s. As somebody just those few years younger I found this useful. I am old enough to have grown up through much of what she was talking about, but too young to have truly “lived” through it. There is a relevance in this because the book comes 20 years after Found Wanting, which looked at the experience of women in the church in what might now be described as a different time.

It then moves on to putting together a collage of participants voices and experiences. Looking at the topics of what Webster calls “resistance” and “reclaiming spirit”. The rich variety of people sharing - some heterosexual, some bi or gay, some black, some white, some Christian, some of other faiths, some cis, some trans, some intersex, some the partners of trans people, some single, some ordained, some lay, some abused, some loved – means that it gives a wider spectrum of books.

The participants are all anonymised yet all their stories are real, raw and powerful.
However, as I say this is not a sociological study seeking to unpack the stories and find the correlations between them and the reasons for those. Rather it is an exercise in practical theology which seeks to look at the overall pattern of what is being said through the lens of theological reflection.

The chapters start with a reflection on a part of the gospel story and then jump to the present having given a tool for the reader to think about how the narrative of the gospels and example of Jesus might relate to what is being spoken about.

Chapter five “Recreating Faith” looks at how a nuanced and slightly queered use of queer theory might enable us to develop a way of looking at faith which can deal with the dissonance and apparent contradiction which is apparent in the real, lived experience of many people.

Finally in “Remaking Love” Webster looks at the way in which we might live out our relationships (both with partners and more widely). In this chapter much of what was being said was not new but it was more concrete and wide-ranging than in other books (such as Robert Song’s Covenantand Calling). The reason for this gets to the root of this book. Whilst others are often looking at these issues from a theoretical point of view, Alison Webster looks at them from the point of view of current, real, lived experience. 

She is looking not to “solve the problem” of what to do about the churches engagement with those who don’t fit into the hetero-normative worldview that the institutions are working from. Rather she is looking at how those who don’t fit into that worldview are currently living and engaging with spirituality and what that might teach us as we move into the future.

The book also differs from many of the positive books relating to LGBT+ people and spirituality.  The use of the contributors voices is not to focus on victim-hood and injustice in a way which seeks to demand justice through rhetoric which refers back to the contributions. Rather this shows the reality of what is happening and how power, when misused is problematic, but how power can also be and is being reclaimed by those who may appear marginalised in creative and hopeful ways.

Do I recommend this book, of course I do for all the reasons given above. 

Oh and finally, must mention the publishers are Darton, Longman and Todd, who are producing a lot of the cutting edge, affordable practical theology at the moment.