Category Archives: LGBTI+

MP, Mayor and Intersex advocate choose favourite hymns

Jeremy Hunt, MP; the Mayor of Farnham; a prominent advocate for those born with intersex traits; and other key members of the local community, are all taking part in an online service of their favourite hymns, which will be online here on Wednesday, June 10, from 6pm.

Each person has chosen a hymn and will introduce it online explaining why they like it and what their Christian faith means to them. The hymns are a mix of old and new, and range from the 17th century My Song is Love Unknown, chosen by Janet Martin, one of the key organisers of the Farnham Flash Festival, to the 1980s’ one The Servant King, chosen by Sara Gillingham. Sara, an accountant by profession, also works with the church, universities and the media to raise awareness of people born with intersex traits, which is her own story.

Each speaks about what the hymn and their faith means to them – for Sara Gillingham it is a faith in a God full of grace, in whose image we are made, and Christ there beside us; while Jeremy Hunt speaks of the stillness which his faith gives him and how it is reflected in his choice of hymn Dear Lord and Father of Mankind. Among the other hymns you can hear are Father I Place into Your Hands, chosen by Bob Skinner, whom many will know from Farnham Foodbank, and Faithful One so Unchanging, the choice of Cathy Burroughs, manager of Hale Community Centre. You will also hear the rousing God is our Strength and Refuge, chosen by Pat Evans, the Mayor of Farnham, and sung to The Dam Busters March.

Lesley Crawley explains the thinking behind the service: “Favourite hymns can speak to us on a deep level, through the music and the words, and help us understand more about God and our faith. It has been a privilege and a pleasure to hear the choices of those who have so kindly contributed and understand more about what their faith means to them.”

Join us here on Wednesday, June 10, from 6pm, or on Facebook or on the parish YouTube channel. You may even want to sing along!

Guest post: Thank God for my trans Friends

Recently Mark Russ, a Quaker theologian who is also a tutor at Woodbrooke, Europe’s only Quaker study centre, posted his thoughts on transgenderism on his blog Jolly Quaker. Transgender people continue to be among the most vulnerable and marginalised in society and many of us in the church, even in an inclusive parish such as Badshot Lea and Hale, have not had the opportunity to consider how being transgender might fit with theology. Obviously, Mark writes from the perspective of being a ‘Quaker-shaped Christian’ as he describes himself, but his thoughts are relevant far beyond the Quakers. Here then, with Mark’s permission, is his post.

Within the British Quaker community, a painful conversation/debate/conflict (depending on your viewpoint) centred on the inclusion of trans and non-binary people is increasingly rising to the surface. As I see it, a big part of the disagreement is where we start from. I have recently heard some Quakers speak from a starting point of the safety of cis women, the safety of children, and the safety of lesbians. I want everyone to be safe – this is something all Quakers can agree on – but I think this is an extremely problematic starting point, as it treats trans and non-binary people (particularly trans women) as an inherent threat to the safety of others.

The Quaker tradition as practised in Britain is built on the valuing of individual religious experience. It has always valued the inner life at least as much as the outward life. It involves trusting that when Friends share their inward lives, they are speaking the truth. The starting point for any discussion referring to trans Friends should be an affirmation and celebration of their identity, saying ‘we believe you, you are who you say you are, and we love you’. I am open to then discussing ‘so what implications does this have for x y z’, but a starting point that involves implicitly saying to trans Friends ‘you are lying/deluded/wrong about who you are’ and ‘you are a threat’ undermines the theological bedrock of liberal Quakerism.

Sadly, this conversation/conflict is not going to go away any time soon. For me, this means it’s important to start thinking theologically about trans inclusion. As I see it, the future of Quakerism involves the full, affirming and loving inclusion of trans and non-binary people, or it doesn’t have much of a future at all.

(I should add two things: 1) it’s not as if trans and non-binary Friends have yet to experience being included and loved by others in the Quaker community. Trans and non-binary Friends have been around for a long time (such as the Public Universal Friend). This conflict appears to be a recent phenomenon. As such, I don’t think it compares to previous conflicts within the Quaker community, or that such comparisons are helpful; 2) that the inclusion of trans Friends needs to be defended in the first place must be very painful for trans Friends. No one’s identity should be up for debate.)

Towards a Quaker theology of trans inclusion

So I’ve already noted two things that go towards a Quaker theology of trans inclusion: 1) the valuing of that which is inwards at least as much as that which is outward; 2) and the trusting of Friends to speak of their inward experiences truthfully.

I’d like to add a third: in faithfully expressing who they know themselves to be, trans Friends enflesh the truth that a Spirit-led life leads to a reorientation, renewal or discovery of identity.

I was struck by the words of poet Jamie Hale in The Friend (27 September 2019):

The trans body is explicitly queer. It’s visually different. It becomes a statement. It challenges the simplicity of sex categorisation. You look at my body and there isn’t really anywhere to put it.

I recently wrote about how our whole lives testify to something. Jamie’s comment made me think about the powerful testimony of simply being who you are, and how this testimony may be particularly visible in the lives of trans people. Trans Friends let their lives preach simply by being themselves. In the changing of names and the changing of bodies, they incarnate an important perspective on identity that can be found in both the Bible and the Quaker tradition, that who we are born as is not necessarily who we are or who we will be.

(Of course it is not incumbent upon trans people to be ‘explicitly queer’. I wouldn’t want to suggest that trans people who choose to keep their gender history private should do otherwise, or have a less valuable testimony for doing so.)

We are not who we were, or who we will be

Changing names is not so unusual. Many people change their surname after marriage, and I’ve known several couples who’ve chosen an entirely new surname to mark their partnership. I known both cis and trans people who have changed their forename/s. In each case, a change of name says ‘this new name better reflects who I am’. This is something we see in the Bible too. In the Bible, a name is rarely arbitrarily given. A name describes who a person is. If a person’s life changes significantly, their name might change too. After the death of her husband and sons, Naomi (whose name means ‘pleasant’) chooses a new name – Mara (meaning ‘bitter’) (Ruth 1:20). After Jacob wrestles with an angel, he is given the name Israel, meaning ‘the one who strives with God’ (Gen 32:28). Sarai and Abram, upon receiving God’s promise to be the God of their offspring, are renamed Sarah and Abraham, Abraham meaning ‘ancestor of a multitude’ (Gen 17:5).

The name we are given at first, may not be the right name for us in the long run. New experiences and new discoveries may prompt a change of name. There’s a significant passage about names in the book of Revelation:

Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches. To everyone who conquers I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give a white stone, and on the white stone is written a new name that no one knows except the one who receives it. (Rev 2:17)

This white stone is an invitation to the marriage supper of the Lamb, the great feast of all those who faithfully persevere through persecution for the sake of Jesus. This is saying that only when we are in intimate communion with God can we know ourselves fully. As we journey deeper with and into God, we continue to learn more about ourselves:

For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. (1 Cor 13:12)

As well as a change of name, the Jesus-story also points towards a change in our bodies, specifically at the resurrection of the dead. This is a mysterious and weird (and perhaps embarrassing or absurd to Liberal Quakers) aspect of the Jesus story, and should be handled with care. I see it as an affirmation of the body. The body isn’t something to be escaped. But it also points to some kind of future change – we are not what we will be:

Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. (1 Cor. 15:51-53)

This isn’t about replacing one body with a different one. There is some kind of continuity. The resurrected Jesus is still recognised by his friends (although not initially). He still bears the wounds of the crucifixion. And yet he is also changed. The mystery of the resurrection says that the future involves our bodies, and perhaps in a way we may not expect.

A taste of what’s to come

You may find this talk of a future resurrection hard to swallow. Thankfully, the first Quakers emphasised that such ideas about the future weren’t to remain abstract. They believed that this hoped-for future was to be anticipated in the present. The way they were living, the intimacy with God they were experiencing, would one day be experienced by all. The marriage supper of the lamb, the rebirth to new life in Christ, were things that could be tasted now. For example, Early Quaker leader James Nayler referred to himself in his writings as ‘whose Name in the Flesh is “James Nayler”‘ or ‘Written by one whom the world knows by the name of JAMES NAYLER’. He had inwardly received the white stone, and new that the name ‘James Nayler’ did not capture who he now was.

In their journey of discovering who they really are, in faithfully living who they are on the inside and out, in being ‘explicitly queer’, in their changing of names and bodies, trans Friends could be seen as enfleshing the journey we are all on. In incarnating the hoped-for future, they are inhabiting the important Quaker tradition of living the future now. So I want to go beyond saying to my trans Friends ‘I believe you, you are who you say you are, and I love you’, and add ‘I thank God for your testimony. By simply being who you are, God’s glory is revealed and the Religious Society of Friends is blessed.’

Few of us are who our parents expected us to be. All of us have much to learn about who we are. One day we will all see one another face to face, and I expect many of us will be surprised.

In keeping with this being a positive, celebratory post, the comments sections will be a trans-positive space. No comments expressing anti-trans or trans-exclusionary sentiments will be permitted. There are plenty of spaces elsewhere to do that.

Read more from Mark Russ here: https://jollyquaker.com/

 

Picture: Trans flag. Picture by Kat Love from Pixabay.

Everyone is welcome

This is just a reminder that EVERYONE is welcome to the churches in our parish. God does not discriminate. God loves and welcomes all of us, whoever we are. Sometimes the church doesn’t appear to offer that welcome, particularly to those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, non-binary or intersex, but all are welcome in this parish, and we work to challenge discrimination and exclusion.

Our inclusive values mean that we extend this challenge to all areas of discrimination and we belong to Inclusive Church, a network of churches, groups and individuals uniting around a shared vision:

We believe in inclusive Church – a church which celebrates and affirms every person and does not discriminate. We will continue to challenge the church where it continues to discriminate against people on grounds of disability, economic power, ethnicity, gender, gender identity, learning disability, mental health, neurodiversity, or sexuality. We believe in a Church which welcomes and serves all people in the name of Jesus Christ; which is scripturally faithful; which seeks to proclaim the Gospel afresh for each generation; and which, in the power of the Holy Spirit, allows all people to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Jesus Christ.”

We will get it wrong. If you feel excluded or discriminated against, tell us. But let’s work together to offer God’s welcome.

 

Picture by Cecilie Johnsen on Unsplash.

Division and peacemaking

A sermon preached at St Mark’s on August 18 on the text Luke 12: 49-56.

The text from the Gospel today is a tough one. It is about Jesus saying he came to bring division to the world. (You can read it here). I gather that far more learned people than I am have decided today to preach on one of the other readings in the lectionary but at St Mark’s we don’t read these, so I have to deal with the Gospel.

Mind you, the other readings (Isaiah 5: 1-7; Hebrews 11: 29-12: 2) aren’t that easy, because they talk of some of the less pleasant things God is portrayed as doing – eg drowning the Egyptians – and this is something that we have to deal with.

And here in this passage, what is going on? Is Jesus talking about his death, about the end times, about strife within the community? Fire is something that is used in the Bible to purify and is painful and associated with a vengeful God.

And what about saying that he had come to bring division? I thought he was the Prince of Peace. After all he said ‘Blessed are the peacemakers’.

Or was he talking about what inevitably happened because of the radical, anti-establishment nature of the Gospel? Jesus was a divisive character then and continues to be. Those following him at the time would have been seen as radicals and no doubt this divided families, as it still does in some places. And a gospel which said that the outcast was worthy, that the poor should inherit the earth – was this upturning of values the fire he was talking about? It was obviously going to divide people.

And if Jesus inevitably divides people, what are we meant to do about it? Do we just say, oh, that is OK, Jesus said there would be division so I am right to be divided against my friend, neighbour etc? That seems like a lazy, literal interpretation of the text.

I’ve been reading various interpretations of the text and they have been useful but also exposed something at the root of why we have the problem of division –  ie there are lots of interpretations and I, like most of us, have leaned generally towards the ones I agree with and have discounted the others. That interpretation suits me, that one doesn’t so I will go with the first and not the second. Or I can’t fit that one into my narrative so I will ignore it. It doesn’t fit with the conclusions I have already reached.

The issue of my liking some interpretations and not others, the issue of not even considering some interpretations, is fundamental to the issue of division which he talks about and is horribly resonant with society today. I don’t know when there was last such a divided country. The same goes for America. And as I look at people who support opposite views to mine I find myself thinking – how could you? How can you be so: ignorant, selfish, blind etc etc? And they no doubt look at me and say much the same. That sort of attitude and division is not going to bring healing to the world.

Think for a moment about something you are convinced you are right about. What do you feel about the people who disagree with you?

The same goes for church. This was really underlined recently for me when I went to the first Surrey Pride and spent some of my time arguing against a group of men and women from an organisation whose main aim appears to be to challenge LGBTI+ people, and persuade them to turn away from their sexual identities. I believe passionately in a God who accepts people just as they are. This group were made to leave the Pride event – one of the ambulance staff there said that one young person had had a panic attack after they had spoken to this group – but stood outside to talk to people there with the police keeping a watchful eye. The police were fantastic and stood close while I spoke, ready to intervene if they were concerned for anyone’s safety.

Neither the group nor I was going to persuade or even listen to the other. We both knew we were right. But where did that leave us? Probably both sides feeling self-righteous and cross.

So what do we do about these divisions?

My personal response to division has usually been to try to pour oil on troubled water, try to keep everyone happy. Division is bad, right? OK I didn’t try that at Pride but that was unusual. Usually I have tried to be a peacekeeper.

But maybe peacekeeping isn’t the way forward. If we just try to keep the peace then we are less likely to deal with the issues that are causing the division in the first place. We will ignore those issues and they will fester and cause greater issues and greater divisions. Maybe that is one of the things we have been doing in this country which has led to such division now. If one lot of people have felt left behind and another happy with the status quo, maybe that was inevitably going to lead to the divisions we have over Brexit, or inevitably going to lead to Donald Trump.

I think there has been another factor which has been at play here too, encouraging the rise of the right wing, something which has exacerbated the divisions. As a more liberal society has emerged there has been a push back by those whose position and power is threatened – chiefly the mainly white patriarchy.

So we have divisions and if peacekeeping isn’t the way to solve them, what is? Maybe looking at what causes division would help us grow and change for the better. Maybe this is one of the things Jesus meant when he talked about division and about reading the signs. He was saying that there will be division because his way is challenging to the status quo, challenging to the powerful, challenging to the haves, and it is right that it is challenging and divisive, because if it isn’t society will never grow and change and follow his way.

So maybe we shouldn’t be peacekeepers but something more proactive – peacemakers. Jesus said ‘blessed are the peacemakers’ not blessed are the peacekeepers. Peacemakers are those who look at both sides, see both sides as having rights and responsibilities, offer both sides a way forward. Peacemakers at their best are those who try to look at the world through the eyes of both sides.

But, says the follower of Jesus, my side is obviously right. I am obviously right. My understanding of what Jesus wants is obviously right.

How do we know our interpretation is right? Maybe a little humility would be good here, and maybe a little bit of trying to listen, to each other and to God. I have become more and more convinced that prayer is a way forward (even though I am not good at practising what I preach!). If we pray, try to listen to God as well as each other, then maybe we will change within. Maybe that is the fire that Jesus meant – a fire within us which changes us.

Stella Wiseman

Picture by Sunyu.

 

Taking Pride in inclusion

The first Surrey Pride took place on Saturday, August 10, and we were proud to support it and to join in the parade in Woking town centre and the event in the park afterwards.

For too long churches have treated the LGBTI+ community appallingly, at best offering a half-hearted welcome, at worst supporting, even leading, persecution. This is changing, but slowly, and even at Pride in Woking there were people from a group who preached that it is possible to  ‘leave’ LGBT identities and sexual practices as these are ‘in conflict with the Christian scriptures’. Their preaching caused at least one young Pride-goer to have a panic attack in what should have been a safe space. The group was asked to leave but stood outside the main area with the police keeping a watchful eye on them as they continued to approach people.

Thankfully, those at the Christians at Pride stand were welcoming everyone just as they were and offering blessings and assurance that God loves us all, including our sexual identities. To be celebrated and loved like this is a powerful message and one that the church needs to shout out loudly. We try to do so in this parish which is why St Mark’s is sporting a rainbow flag at the moment and why we support the Rainbow Church services elsewhere in the diocese. It is also one of the reasons we belong to Inclusive Church, an organisation that is committed to celebrating and affirming every person and to challenging the church “where it continues to discriminate against people on grounds of disability, economic power, ethnicity, gender, gender identity, learning disability, mental health, neurodiversity, or sexuality”.

There will be people in the parish whom this affects personally and there will be people who disagree with this stance. We welcome debate but we ask for respect and humility on all sides. Above all, we ask that we try at all times to listen to God and to seek God in each other.

“By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13, v 35)

egg and sid at Pride

Pride is a colourful event!

Inclusive-church-logo

A celebration of gifts

The Epiphany story tells us that the three kings brought three gifts to the infant Jesus: gold, frankincense and myrrh.

Gold is an obvious one and very useful to a poor family; frankincense seems a little odd but could be used as a perfume; but myrrh? What sort of a gift was that for a tiny child? Perhaps it foretold his death – a bitter gift which yet was a gift for us all.

What are your gifts – your gold, your frankincense, your myrrh? That is what we were all challenged at the start of the Rainbow Epiphany service held at St Mary’s, Quarry Street, Guildford, last week (January 10). We each had to write three gifts on slips of paper and put them in envelopes designed by Dave and Helena Walker from St Mark’s. Then we were asked to decorate the envelopes in whatever way we fancied, and keep them until it was time to offer them to God on the altar.

The gold gift was not so hard – talents such as art, music, being a great cook, a good administrator, a listening ear, you can think of plenty more. Frankincense was the gift of relationship, with God and others, the gift that gives fragrance to our lives.

Then myrrh. The bitter gift, the one we didn’t want. What that gift is for each of us differs. It could be a health problem; it could be a fallow period of life; it could be living conditions; it could be one’s sexuality, in a family or church which is not accepting; it could be being transgender. These are gifts which can cause pain and yet which may  turn out to be gifts of extraordinary power and worth. Such a gift is, in the words of one of the speakers there, “a strange, confusing, awkward, uncomfortable and very un-obvious gift”.

In the service we gave thanks for and celebrated the many gifts of the LGBTI+ community; gifts which enrich the church and the wider world, gifts given by God. It was a moving service and an affirming one, with uplifting music led by Julie Shaw, and one of both great joy and vulnerability, particularly when we heard from several individuals who spoke about their ‘myrrh’ gifts.

For many LGBTI+ people accepting themselves has been hard, and acceptance has been made harder still by the attitude of the church.  “After so many years of making myself unhappy trying to be a straight woman and suppressing many other aspects of my identity, it’s taken me a long time to figure out my identity and to realise that God made me to be the way I am,” said one person, one of the leaders of Kairos, a group which provides a safe space for LGBTI+ people, especially those who are Christian or seeking God.

They concluded: “It’s time to heal from the shame and become confident to love and worship and serve God as whole people, with everything he’s given us, not just bits of ourselves.” The gift of leading others to love, worship and serve God as whole people is a real gift to the church and world.

For Sara, who spoke at St Mark’s last summer, being intersex has been a myrrh gift. She said that the arrival of an intersex child may be treated as something unwanted, but such a child can also be a healing gift. “Our birth reminds all those who feel different, be it our ethnicity, mental health, social status, physical ability…..that we are all wonderfully made in the image of God. Our difference is our gift, like myrrh our presence can heal others, reminding all that being different is not a barrier to living to our full potential, or a barrier to love or to being loved.”

Brian spoke of the importance of us being God’s representatives of righteousness and truth, partnered with God’s love, which offers us that most radical message of all – that we don’t have to try to be loved and acceptable, we simply are: “In a culture which constantly harasses people that they need to ‘get things right’, it is hard for us to believe or accept that (God’s) love for us might not be at all conditional on us firstly having met all requirements of being an acceptably changed person.”

Rebecca, a transgender woman, said her trans journey, despite the difficulties it presents to her, “has also been an enormous blessing and a profoundly spiritual experience… Being a trans-woman is something you wouldn’t rush to choose; it is not a bandwagon you’d jump on because it’s apparently fashionable.  We, and many other groups, still have a loooooong way to go to achieve full acceptance and inclusion.

“But like all things in the Lord’s kingdom, it also comes with insight and blessing that you might not otherwise experience.  And whilst perhaps it is a two-edged gift, there are times when I am very grateful for what it brings.”

The message throughout the service was that God has created us just as we are and loves us just as we are, and there is nothing we can do to stop that love. Accepting ourselves as we are will allow us to thrive and be who we were born to be, and the joy and security that this brings will spread out to other people.  This will be a gift to the world.

There will be another Rainbow service in the summer. You can email us to find out more: news@badshotleaandhale.org

 

 

Picture by Chris Barbalis. Unsplash.

 

 

The Story that Matters Most

We are still early in the new year, still at the time when any new year’s resolutions are at least not a distant memory (the second Friday in January is said to be the one when most of us have given up on resolutions). What if one of our resolutions this year could be to follow Jesus more truly? What if we were able to respond to the question “is this the year we’ll walk in Your ways?” with a promise to do all we can?

That question is one asked in a carol which was sung at St Mark’s last month. It was in fact a world premiere of a carol by author, songworker and artist Ash Brockwell. The carol was ‘The Story that Matters Most’.

Just before we sang it, I told the congregation how I had come across it. Ash had shared it on Facebook because of his concern and compassion for a 17-year-old transgender boy, Eli, who had already attempted suicide twice, who had then been asked to leave his church. Ash asked: ‘How is it possible that we still have church leaders who can reject and hurt such a vulnerable young person and yet convince themselves they’re doing God’s work?’. I don’t know the answer to that, but the God I put my faith in is one who welcomes all and loves all and who asks us to walk in his ways and do the same. We dedicated the song to Eli and others like him.

The carol, sung to the tune of William Parry’s Jerusalem, is going to be part of our canon. The story of how Ash came to write it is recorded here.

And here are the words:

The Story that Matters Most

Two thousand years this story’s been told,
Two thousand years and still we sing:
The Magi came with spices and gold
To glorify the new-born king;
The stable bare, the angels there,
the humble shepherds gathered around…
To tell the story that mattered most,
The love and hope their hearts had found.

Two thousand years and still we’re the same,
Watching the flames of hatred burn,
The grief and fear still spread in Your name…
Beloved, will we ever learn?
I know Your only law is Love,
I’ll hold to what I know to be true,
Perhaps the story that matters most
Is one that starts with me and You?

I won’t let hatred tear me apart,
I will not yield to doubt and fear;
I’ll look within the core of my heart,
And find You always waiting here.
You know the truth of who I am:
Open my eyes and help me to see,
Until the story that matters most
Begins again with You and me.

Is this the year we’ll walk in Your ways?
Is this the year we’ll learn to lead,
And share Your truth through worship and praise,
But also thought and word and deed?
What leads to fear is never right,
what leads to Love can never be wrong;
We know the story that matters most
Is one in which we ALL belong.

 

 

Stella Wiseman

 

 

 

The 25-year story behind The Story that Matters Most

By Ash Brockwell

The song that evolved into ‘The Story that Matters Most’, which had its world premiere at St Mark’s, Hale, in December 2018, started life in Southampton a quarter of a century ago.  That makes me feel old!

At secondary school, I was well known as a poet, composing odes on everything from Bonfire Night to homelessness.  So when the music teacher, Duncan Bradley, decided that he was bored with teaching the choir the same old carols every year, and wanted to write some new ones, I was the student that he approached for help with the lyrics.  It was the early 1990s, and at the time, a lot of people were convinced that Jesus would return in the year 2000 – so several of the carols that we collaborated on, as well as a short poem that never made it into song form, had a bit of a millennial flavour,

This particular song, then called ‘Peace and Goodwill’, examined how, 2,000 years after the message of peace and goodwill came to earth in the shape of a child, there was still war and oppression. It ended with a call to action to bring that peace and the challenge ‘Could it begin with me and you?’

The original carol was performed two or three times in school carol services, before Mr Bradley retired and the choir went back to a more traditional repertoire.  A few years ago I tried to track down a copy in the hope of getting it arranged for a four-part choir – but to no avail and with more immediate concerns like work, money and parenting, I forgot all about the song.

Fast forward to November 2017, when I was figuring out how to admit – to myself, to my church, and to the world at large – that I wasn’t the straight cisgender woman I’d always assumed myself to be.  I’d tried coming out as a lesbian in 2011, and again in 2016 to a bigger audience, but the word never quite felt right to me.  After discovering the term ‘non-binary transgender’ (neither fully female nor fully male), I’d embraced it enthusiastically as my new label – at least to myself and a few close friends.  My conservative rural Baptist church was less than impressed with my declaration that I was a lesbian, coming out with some version of ‘well, gay sex is a sin so you’ll have to take a vow of lifelong chastity if you want to become a member’ – so I didn’t even try to go there with my newly discovered non-binary identity.  But then a friend of a friend introduced me to Inclusive Church, and I somehow found myself signing up for their free Faith Leaders’ Gathering in London.

At the gathering however I found myself freaking out with social anxiety and unable to say anything at all, other than my name (which I hated anyway).  I knew I couldn’t possibly fit in. My non-binary identity was difficult to explain, my theology felt much too ‘out there’ and heretical to be discussed in front of bona fide vicars, and I wasn’t even a proper faith leader.  Most people had a congregation of some sort, and wanted to talk about practical things like how to get them to participate in Pride marches:  I didn’t even lead a prayer group.  I couldn’t understand what I was meant to be doing there, or why the ‘calling’ to attend had felt so strong.

But then there was a labyrinth walk, and everything suddenly clicked into place.  After everyone had walked the labyrinth, the conversation took on a very different tone.  It wasn’t about the practicalities of Pride any more: it was a deep sense of love, commitment, and passion to do something that would make things better for the thousands of LGBT+ people hurt by the Church.  On the train home, I was inspired to write two brand new sets of inclusive Christian song lyrics.

That gathering was a new beginning for me, in amazing ways.  One of the other participants introduced me to a private Facebook group for LGBT+ Christians, in which I later met my wonderful fiancée.  After the group chats helped me accept that it isn’t ‘wrong’ or ‘sinful’ to dress in a masculine style and accept myself as non-female, I started describing myself as transmasculine – and eventually came to realise that I’m actually a transgender man.  Coming out as male, changing my name and switching to ‘he/him’ pronouns has helped me to feel much more comfortable and confident in myself, and to experience moments of joy that trans people refer to as ‘gender euphoria’ – that feeling of finally being seen for who you really are.  I’m now registered with the NHS Gender Identity Clinic in London, and hoping to have HRT and chest surgery in the future, although there’s still a long road ahead (the usual waiting time for a first appointment is 18-24 months).

Being in the group also inspired me to collect up all the Christian songs I’d written over time, both traditional ones and more controversial ones, and compile them into a book.  It was in the process of doing this that I remembered the carols I’d written as a teenager, and decided to update them for a post-millennial age; and after trying out some songs with a women’s group on the Isle of Wight and receiving the feedback that they were too difficult to learn, I came up with the idea of setting some of my lyrics to well-known hymn tunes.  I needed music that would be out of copyright, and of the old Victorian hymns, ‘Jerusalem’ has always been a favourite of mine.  And so ‘The Story That Matters Most’ was born, focusing not on war this time, but on the exclusivity and holier-than-thou attitude of so many churches – the ‘grief and fear still spread’ in Jesus’ name, especially among LGBT+ people!   I was sorry to miss the premiere because I was travelling overseas in December 2018, but I’m looking forward to hearing it sung in the future.

A Rainbow Epiphany

Everyone is invited to a Rainbow Epiphany Eucharist at St Mary’s Church, Quarry Street, Guildford, this Thursday (January 10).

The service, which begins at 7.30pm, will be an ecumenical Eucharist to celebrate and give thanks for the gifts and talents of and offered by the LGBTI+ community. Everyone is welcome, including friends and allies.

This is the second Rainbow Eucharist to be held at St Mary’s specifically to welcome and celebrate LGBTI+ people, and here in Badshot Lea and Hale we have been instrumental in setting up the series. On Thursday, Dave and Helena Walker, who worship at St Mark’s, will be leading an artistic element in the service with the help of Stella Wiseman who is on the Rainbow services steering group.

We are part of this, not just because the Rainbow services are uplifiting, celebratory and welcoming, but because of our commitment to inclusion. The parish belongs to Inclusive Church and seeks to include everyone whatever our economic status, gender, mental health, physical ability, race or sexuality.

The service will begin at 7.30pm and will end with refreshments, including rather good cake!

To find out more, email Stella Wiseman: news@badshotleaandhale.org, or contact Holy Trinity, Guildford:  office@holytrinityguildford.org or 01483 567716.

Picture: Enfolded by Gillaine Holland

Reflections on a rainbow

 

Last Wednesday (July 18) I and several others from the parish, had the privilege of being part of a ‘Rainbow Service’ at St Mary’s Church in Guildford, a communion service which celebrated diversity and in particular welcomed people from the LGBTI+ community, along with family, friends and allies.

The word ‘privilege’ is often used to describe people’s feelings when they have attended an event, so often used that it has become a cliché and I thought carefully before using it, but it really did feel a privilege to be part of a warm, joyful, colourful service which not only celebrated diversity but was also ground-breaking. There have been other such services in other places but this was, I believe, the first in this part of the Diocese of Guildford. It was also packed, and not just with Anglicans, for it was an ecumenical service. I don’t know who came from which church but among those I was particularly pleased to welcome were three from the Godalming Unitarian Chapel including the minister Sheena.

The word privilege is important here for another reason too. Those who identify as straight and cisgendered have been privileged in society, and LGBTI+ people have been at best marginalised and discriminated against. More than that they have often been persecuted, attacked, forced to hide themselves. In some places they are imprisoned, killed. Though in many countries society is much more welcoming now – we have equal marriage after all, though ceremonies cannot be conducted in the Anglican Church – discrimination remains and the church is in large part responsible. There were those I knew there who had experienced direct discrimination and humiliation from both church and society, and I knew just a few of the congregation.

During the service there were references to the wounds that have been and continue to be inflicted, but there was no sense of bitterness, simply an offering of ourselves to God and a joy that God welcomes us all here, now, as we are, and loves and celebrates us. The Confession included the words: ‘Forgive us when we don’t believe such love is true or possible, when we wonder how you could love us just as we are, when we forget our intricate construction, fearfully, wonderfully made, in your image! You know our hearts – and you love us still.’

There was joy, there was wonderful music, and there was colour, not least in the ribbons that we all wore and then tied to a huge circle of wool which we all held, before placing it on the altar, in the rainbow cloth in front of the altar, in the rainbow banner which until the night before had adorned St Mark’s in Hale, in the amazing rainbow cupcakes which a lady called Liz had made, in the installation celebrating and challenging us on inclusion which Lesley Shatwell had prepared, in the rainbow collages which Dave and Helena Walker encouraged us to make.

There was also talk, lots of it, with people lingering over nibbles, wine and those cupcakes, making friends, just feeling welcome. It was, as I said, a privilege and the first, I am certain, of many such occasions.

Stella Wiseman