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.