Saturday, 26 April 2014

Happy, Hopeful and Rejoicing about LGBT Spiritual Growth

Over the last couple of months there have been a few things which have occurred which have made me pause, reflect and rejoice about the way the church in the UK in the widest sense is developing with regard to LGBandT Christians and the Spirit seems to be moving. It has been like seeing the buds emerge on the trees at the beginning of Spring.

One of those things was the announcement of Diverse Church which is a sister organisation to the Two:23 Network. This is a supportive organisation for young people aged 18-30 who are within evangelical churches. It has a closed Facebook page and as I understand it has a focus on discipleship and mission as well as support. Seeing the welcome this new group received on Twitter this week, from people with differing positions with regards to LGBandT issues, was heart warming.

Another bud of hope was the announcement of the Two:23 network they are having an extra meeting in June. In May they have respected Sociologist Dr. Kristin Aune, co-author of Reclaiming the F Word and Christianity and the University Experience: Understanding Student Faith amongst other books. The development of this network over the last couple of years into a space for Christians to come together to worship together and grow in understanding and discipleship has been important. Aune is speaking in an earlier meeting than planned as Bishop Alan Wilson has had to reschedule. Bishop Alan has recently spoken at the Changing Attitude Unadulterated Love event.

Additionally this week I read on Twitter that two figures who have had a significant role in helping try to move the dialogue on LGBandT issues forward in evangelical circles met together for the first time. This may seem like a small step forward but I regard the way in which people with particular giftings seem to be coming together as another sign of hope. One of these figures was Vicky Beeching who also tweeted this week she will be speaking on the topic of LGBT Theology at Greenbelt this year.

The announcement by Accepting Evangelicals that they have now launched a YouTube channel is another small but significant step forward. Amongst the videos is one with a couple who have also been involved in leading Affirming Baptists, a network which has been going for over a decade and which appears to have a new, much more visually attractive website.

As I decide to take a look around the websites of various organisations to assess what the current situation is I was pleased to see on the Inclusive Church website that Dartman, Longman and Todd are publishing a series of books on inclusion; the first two being one on Disability by John Hull and the second on Mental Health by Jean Vanier. The series also includes one on Sexuality by Susannah Cornwell. The Quest site for Catholic LGBT Christians in the UK had an interesting review of Faithful to the Truth: How to be an orthodox gay Christian on their site.

On the subject of books Queering Religion; Religious Queers edited by Yvette Taylor and Ria Snowden is launched in June. Linked to some of the material referred to in this book The Weeks Centre based at Southbank University is putting some of the material collected during their Making Space for Queer Identifying Religious Youth project together for an art exhibition.

With regard to Outcome the organisation which exists to support LGBT people (but primarily has it's focus on L and G) within the Methodist Church it is good to see that they have the President of Conference joining them to lead worship at their forthcoming Annual Public Meeting.

It has also been good to see the growth of the recognition of the T within many of these groups and so the support for that group is available more widely. It has also been good to see the start of a wider recognition of the B (bisexuals). One of the key figures who has helped the recognition and integration of the T is Rachel Mann a trans, lesbian, Anglican priest who is also an author and speaker. Her book Dazzling Darkness has helped take recognition and understanding forward in a significant way. Mann has been one of the first speakers for LGBT Christian Fellowship Hull and East Riding, one of a number of new regional groups emerging. Another aspect, highlighted on the Quaker Lesbian and Gay Fellowship (QLGF) site is the openness the new head of Stonewall has shown to working with the Trans community. 

With regards to other established groups MCC continues to grow as a denomination. LGCM I note has Prof Robin Gill speaking at their forthcoming Annual General Conference. The blurb on the LGCM website quotes Gill as saying, "From my study of the Synoptic Jesus I have concluded that four virtues are especially important and distinctive, namely: compassion, care, faith and humility (together with a strong condemnation of hypocrisy). I would plan to talk at some length about these four virtues and one condemnation which I believe are crucial for all interpersonal relationships, including sexuality".

One of the things I find so exciting about all this is the way in which LGBT Christian events are now not ghettos where the politics or pain are exclusively focused upon. It's not about sharing sad stories and getting angry now, although support is still there and the fight for equal rights and recognition does continue. What has happened is a shift to worship, theological reflection and discipleship building as the core themes. There is also a greater support from straight allies and blurring of the lines between who is gay, straight, bi or trans. Speakers are speakers who are good and relevant their orientation is no longer an issue, the focus is now on the content of their message.
*Note in preview the last paragraph is showing up in a different font, no idea why it is doing this and can't seem to fix it so apologies.

Monday, 14 April 2014

Responding to the CofE response

The Church of England has submitted its response to the government consultation on the future of Civil Partnership, (which closes on Friday), and this post is my response to that. I have to be clear that I am writing this full of the anger and pain of my initial reading, rather than waiting to calm down.
Before I get into dealing with content of the response which represents the Archbishops Council and House of Bishops I want to clarify my own situation, which is more fully detailed in this post I wrote responding to the House of Bishops Pastoral Response to Same Sex Marriage. I am a cis gendered person who is in a civil partnership with a transitioning male. In order for him to get his Gender Recognition Certificate (GRC) we will need to transfer our civil partnership to a marriage. If civil partnerships are revisited it may provide us with the opportunity to stay in our civil partnership thus allowing me to retain my identity. If it is not altered we will have to transfer to a marriage before the GRC is granted (whilst my partner still has the same sex birth certificate). The other choice we have is to dissolve our  relationship totally before the GRC is granted and then get married afterwards losing a range of legal rights. We would like to retain our civil partnership but are not allowed to. Married couples where one is trans are no longer required to transfer their marital status in this way for a GRC to be granted.

I am not a Church of England adherent, rather I am a member of the Methodist Church. However, I am living in an ecumenical area and the denomination is on a journey of working more closely with the Church of England.
The response is calling for retention of Civil Partnerships but asks for them not to be made open to opposite sex couples. It also explicitly refers to people in the situation myself and my husband are in but without apparent understanding of the GRC process and the order in which things work.

With regard to the importance of keeping civil partnerships it makes an argument based upon the view that marriage and civil partnerships are inherently different. It also says "If civil partnership was to be abolished, such couples would be faced with the unjust  choice of either marrying (which might conflict with their religious beliefs about the nature of  marriage) or losing all public and legal recognition of their relationship." What this last sentence fails to mention is that based on the most recent Church of England guidance clergy from that denomination who are in civil partnerships would face the choice between losing the public and legal recognition or losing their jobs. Thus, the retention of civil partnerships is vital if the Church of England is to maintain its current position.
The next part of the response asks that new civil partnerships also continue to be granted. This part of the response is focused around having respect for those who have beliefs about the nature of marriage being between a man and a woman being respected.

With regard to civil partnerships being opened up to opposite sex couples the opposition given relates to their argument that the need for civil partnerships comes from marriage being distinctly different from other forms of partnership and being specifically between a man and a woman.
With regards to the potential costs of getting rid of civil partnerships the issues relating specifically to Church of England clergy are not mentioned.

Then comes the part of the response which refers to the situation of couples such as me and my husband. I am going to copy this in full so people are clear on what is said before I unpack it.
"Paragraph 3.19 notes the question of couples in a civil partnership where one member undertakes gender reassignment. They would currently have to dissolve their civil partnership and then marry. We agree that it should be made as straightforward as possible for such couples to translate their civil partnership into a marriage, just as same sex couples currently in civil partnerships will be able to make the transition into marriage once the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act is implemented. Such a couple would have made the transition from being, in law, a same sex couple to being an opposite sex couple, and we see no reason why the category of civil partnership should be  extended to opposite sex couples who currently have the option of marriage. However, we believe that, because the relationship remains one between the same two individuals, and where their bonds of affection and commitment are untouched by the gender reassignment of one party, the transition to marriage should be made in such a way as to emphasise the continuity of the relationship."

The current legislation in fact allows for us to transfer our relationship to marriage and then to remain married. The situation will be that it will be regarded as a "same sex" marriage by those who seek to make a distinction on the basis of a gender from the point at which is transferred to the point at which the GRC is granted. It would only be dissolved if we sought to avoid falling for a short while into that category which the church will not recognise as legitimate. The writers of this response have gotten hold of part of the issues involved but not the full picture. In seeking to respond sensitively and compassionately they have created another contradictory mess.
They give no idea of what alternative transitional arrangements should be and or when they should be made. One can only assume they are advocating the idea that when a GRC is granted that is the point that a switch in relationship status should occur. This would require a significant amendment to both the Same Sex Marriage Act and the Gender Recognition Act, although to be honest if I have to transfer I would prefer it to take this form. 

I find what they are saying regarding the "transition from being, in law, a same sex couple to being an opposite sex couple" and not seeing any "reason why the category of civil partnership should be extended to opposite sex couples" interesting. The central thrust of their arguments for keeping civil partnerships and the difference between marriage and other forms of relationship seems to be based around biological understandings of what it means to be male and female and around understandings of sexual behaviour in same sex and opposite sex relationships. In the case of female to male transition a significant number of people choose not to have phalloplasty  (genital surgery) due to the level of risk involved. Thus in such relationships the sexual behaviour is exactly the same as between lesbians, whom they won't allow marriage to.
There is a clear recognition of the correct gender status of the trans person in this statement, but if this understanding is followed through it invalidates many of their previous arguments against marriage being legitimately between people of a same sex. This part of their response appears to be a position of convenience rather than a well thought out response. It seems to me that the CofE are wanting to have it both ways. They clearly want to hold on to the position already stated that they feel same sex couples should be in a civil partnership rather than marriage and that civil partnerships should not be open to opposite sex couples. However, gender is not as clearly defined as they would seek to claim it is and the existence of trans couples such as ourselves gives a real problem to the arguments they are making.

The problem with the law and this response to the consultation is it seeks to work on binary categories and understandings of gender and relationships which we are increasingly seeing as inadequate. Couples such as myself and my partner in many ways go beyond the existing categories or the traditional understandings they are based upon.
An additional note is that by using the binaries and seeking to promote categories of relationship based upon them the CofE is totally ignoring the reality of gender queer people whose gender identity goes beyond being male or female.  
In terms of a Methodist response to the Civil Partnership consultation it doesn't seem one has been published, which makes sense as the report from the same sex marriage consultation is not available yet.

Monday, 7 April 2014

Being Led into the Wilderness

Ric Stott has been exploring Lent and talking about the freedom which comes from getting lost. He is an artist who is also one of the Venture FX pioneers. Within his post he talks about the way in which getting lost is a terrifying experience which goes against our natural instincts yet can give some new and interesting results.

I largely agree with what Ric says but I want to take issue with a tiny part of it. Within his post he talks of Jesus getting lost in the desert but omits to mention that Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert.

It might seem like a small thing but I think it's really important because getting lost implies an accident or mistake of some kind, but this was a place Jesus was intentionally led into, there was no accident about it.

At the beginning of Lent Jesus being led into the wilderness was a theme I found myself exploring within a sermon and part of the conclusion I came to was that Jesus was led out into the wilderness because he needed some serious thinking space. The Spirit led him into this wilderness because he needed to be alone to work out what he was going to do. He needed to be away from everybody else's advice to be able to hear God and to come to his own conclusions about the future without all the outside voices crushing in.

This being alone is something in our modern society we can find difficult. There are many people now who feel uncomfortable with silence or with the thought of not having access to the latest information at the tip of their fingertips.  But there are times when we need to give ourselves a chance to be alone with God and times we need to allow ourselves to be led into the wilderness.

I would say moving into the wilderness is difficult in part because being or feeling alone isn't easy. Being disconnected from the centre of things can make us feel uncomfortable. Spending time being rather than doing is challenging because we can't hide from our thoughts in the same way as we can when we are in the middle of activity.

Recently I read Digital Vertigo: how today's online social revolution is dividing, diminishing and disorienting us . It's an interesting book which discusses the reasons for the rise of social media and highlights the dangers of it. One of the things it makes clear early on is that it is getting increasingly difficult to get lost. Whilst we may think we are embracing increasing freedom via digital and mobile technology Andrew Keen, the book's author, argues that we are becoming increasingly constrained by rules and understandings of identity. I would argue we are also being put in a position where it is increasingly difficult to have the time to think without others influencing our thoughts.

I believe the Spirit does still seek to lead us into the wilderness so, as Stott says, we can encounter God, each other and ourselves. What we need is the courage not to get lost but rather to be led into this place and that may mean turning off our technology in order to be able to hear ourselves think.  

As I've written this Rachael Held Evans has come to mind. In the mist of debates around evangelicalism and the debates around same sex marriage and the World Vision flip flop (mess) she has posted about needing some time out. In the mist of all the current debates too many people seem to have become entrenched in identity labelled positions. Too many seem to be feeling wounded and hurt by a debate which is pitting friend against friend and losing sight of what we have in common. Perhaps there is a call for us to get out of those trenches and start be led into the wilderness but as Ric has made clear "it's an experience which is as terrifying as it is liberating".