Tuesday, July 29, 2008

In a Rising Storm, African Voices

It's been an intense last thirty-six hours here at the Lambeth Conference in Canterbury, England. Monday afternoon the bishops held a press conference in which they announced that the Windsor Continuation Group, a committee appointed by the Archbishop of Canterbury to recommend a way to hold together the various fractured provinces of the Anglican Communion. For more on the specifics of this report, see this report from Episcopal Life Online. The basic proposal was for a moratorium on consecrating any more gay bishops and on blessing same sex unions, on the one hand, and for a cessation of progressive diocesan boundary violations by conservative parts of the Communion. This report is now being discussed by the bishops as they meet daily in their small, relationally oriented Indaba groups.

What the bishops seek to do with this report remains to be seen, but whatever they do, it is important to remember that the power of the Lambeth Conference, while persuasive and significant, is not finally juridical. In other words, this Conference does not declare church law for the whole Communion, regardless of how much leaders in various parts of the world may wish it were so. We are an autonomous collective of churches around the world, descended from the Church of England, who value our common heritage and prayer as well as the variety of our contextual experiences and identities, very highly.

Nevertheless, Monday's report was very angering for the LGBT coalition here-- and galvanizing. That night, this coalition, including TransEpiscopal, released a response which you can find here. Printing it out and interpolating it within our already completed daily paper, the Lambeth Witness, made for a late night. By the end of the evening it had started to rain, marking a break in the warm, humid weather pattern that has added to the increase in tensions here over the last few days.

But yesterday morning I awoke to a fresh, cool breeze, and a feeling that the tide could turn yet again. That feeling increased at an amazing event Tuesday afternoon called "African Voices." Like "Listening to Trans People," this was a panel, officially accepted by the organizers of the Lambeth Conference as a "Fringe Event" to which bishops could come. The event drew seven bishops as well as several episcopal spouses, not to mention numerous members of the media and other supporters. Prior to the panel, several LGBT people from Africa gathered on the lawn outside Eliot College where, accompanied by drummers, they danced exuberantly for about an hour. Several of us stood behind them holding a huge rainbow flag and a large yellow sign that read, "We're Here! lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender Anglicans."

One of the dancers and panelists was also one of our panelists on Friday, Mia Nikasimo. Mia, who identifies as a trans lesbian, is a woman of quiet, razor-sharp insight whom I have enjoyed getting to talk with over the last few days. In today's panel, as in our panel Friday, Mia talked of how transgender people particularly in Nigeria, but also in other countries on the African continent, struggle with extreme oppression. Because of a technical problem, the filming by Integrity on Friday did not capture Mia's presentation, but she has agreed to write something that I can post here, speaking particularly to her spirituality as a Buddhist as well as the group she has founded called Trans Afro.

Davis Mac-Iyalla (pictured between me and Christina Beardsley, below) was another participant in both the dancing and the panel. Davis, a gay man who heads Changing Attitude Nigeria, made news earlier this week when he was granted asylum in the UK because of death threats and attacks leveled against him in recent months. Davis's major point, which he says and lives with great power, is that he and his comrades are living proof against the claim often made by conservative bishops from Africa, that there are no LGBT people in their countries.

After Davis, another panelist, Sokari, added a crucial contribution to the conversation concerning critique of African bishops. LGBT-positive Anglicans need to be careful not to racialize homophobia, as if homophobia is somehow simply an African issue, which it clearly is not.

Later in the evening yesterday I heard from Mia again, along with Sexual Minorities Uganda leader Viktor Juliet Mukasa. They were interviewed as part of a film called Voices of Witness Africa, by Katie Sherrod and Cynthia Black, a preview of which was shown here last night (and can be seen at the Walking With Integrity Blog here-- definitely watch it). Bishop Mark Andrus of the diocese of California showed the preview to a packed room. I was so moved by the stories of strength and courage shared by all the incredible people in this film and on the panel yesterday. I thank God for their life-giving witness as the mood here continues to cycle between hope and anxiety.


Monday, July 28, 2008

Trans Panel Surrounded By Prayer

by the Revd Dr Christina Beardsley

Thank you for your prayers for Friday’s Lambeth Conference Fringe event ‘Listening to Trans People’ which Cam has already reported here. These are some of my impressions:

Once we’d set up the seminar room in Darwin College (at the University of Kent at Canterbury, where the Lambeth Conference is happening) the panellists – Cameron of TransEpiscopal; Mia, a Nigerian now based in England; and Stephen, Stephanie and myself from Sibyls (UK) – spent time together in prayer as we awaited the bishops.

Grateful that people were praying for us, we wanted the event to be surrounded by prayer so that we could find the courage to ‘speak the truth in love’ - to banish, not just the usual nervousness prior to public speaking, but the fear that we might be condemned for opening our hearts in this way. Some of us still recall the unhappy image from the last Lambeth Conference of a bishop attempting to exorcise ‘the demon of homosexuality’ from Richard Kirker of the UK Lesbian & Gay Christian Movement, which fed our anxiety that this conference too might be unsafe for LGBT people; especially for us as Trans people, since our journeys are not always understood by LGB people, let alone the Church community.

These apprehensions were completely unfounded, and both the seminar and the conference (during the two days that I was there) felt relatively safe. Presumably we had been included in the Fringe programme because we represented experience that had not been heard much during the Listening Process. Only four bishops attended, but this was the highest number to participate in an Inclusive Network seminar thus far. One of them told me afterwards that he and his wife were both committed to the listening process, and how deeply moved he had been by what he heard.

With room to spare, we took advice and opened the seminar to journalists, including conservative blogger Hans Zeiger, who posts for David Virtue. Although most of the comments on his post condemn us, his posting is mainly factual (there are just one or two errors), and my own conversations with conservative bishops whom I met around the campus, and the representatives of conservative organisations I spoke to in the marketplace, left me feeling hopeful that the faith which unites us is bigger and stronger than the issues that currently divide us.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Open Us, God

(Photo Credit: John Clinton Bradley)

It’s the end of my second full day here in England, and what a day it was: this afternoon I participated on the panel "Listening to Trans People." I was one of five people total: two transmen (female-to-male), three transwomen (male-to-female); one woman from Nigeria, one American, three British people; one Methodist, one Buddhist, three Anglicans. As I mentioned in my previous entry, the panel was organized by Rev. Christina Beardsley and sponsored by the Sibyls, a group that fosters Christian spirituality for trans people.

As it turned out, the bishops had a time conflict with our session, which curtailed their attendance. Nevertheless, we did have at least four bishops along with several other interested people, including some reporters. We only had an hour, a challenging limitation with four different panelists.

Christina, who served as M.C., began by introducing herself. She had been ordained in the Church of England for twenty-three years prior to her transition in 2001. She now serves as a hospital chaplain in London, but in the first years after transition, she felt as though her bishops were being cautious with her, leaving her with the feeling of having to prove herself to them. Working in a hospital has gone smoothly because equal opportunity policies must simply be followed and gender is not an issue, which makes it easy for her to get on with her job. Christina also reported that although the Anglican Communion Listening Process has officially focused upon homosexuality, it has included a few interviews with transgender people, including herself (I also participated in a Listening Process event with Canon Phil Groves in New York City last June).

Stephen then did a half-hour long presentation that emphasized how sex, gender and sexuality each exist on a continuum and interact with one another. By the end of his presentation, I sensed that people in the audience might have been reeling with information overload. But then the second half-hour emphasized stories, placing Stephen’s framework in context and humanizing what might otherwise seemed abstract and overwhelming.

Stephanie spoke movingly about her experience growing up and coming into her own as an evangelical Christian and transwoman in England. She spoke of how God has lifted her up through a number of challenges, being, as she put it, “a compulsive gambler who no longer gambles, and a stammerer who no longer stammers.” God’s uplifting has carried her through her transition, “to come into my gender identity, to live in truth, and be a true disciple of Jesus.”

Mia Nikasimo, who was born in England but grew up in Nigeria, spoke of how horrifically oppressive living in Nigeria is for trans people. She left twenty years ago, and returned to England where she has lived ever since, when she realized that not only her own life but also that of her family, might be in danger if she stayed. She spoke of "trans women and men who have to live underground," lest they loose their lives.

I spoke last. John Clinton Bradley of Integrity was able to video my comments and shared them with me (see below, and also his post on the Walking With Integrity blog). I ended by saying that I could understand if those listening to us were overwhelmed at the thought of adding transgenderism to a Listening Process that has, as I discussed in my last post, revolved around the issue of human sexuality in general and homosexuality in particular. But if adding transgender into the mix turns our attention to how varied and complex both gender and sexuality are, in an array of contexts around the world, that could actually help deepen a conversation that has gotten stuck in an overly black-and-white loop.

After all the presentations were finished, Christina asked if one of the bishops would end our meeting with a blessing. This was an unexpected request—the inspiration for it came to her in a flash, she later told me. There was a slight pause. And then my heart soared as my bishop, Tom Shaw, stood up and prayed (in words I'm grateful to have taped),

“Gracious God, we praise you and we bless you for the gift of life. Thank you, God, for all life. Especially we thank you for the lives of the people that we’ve listened to this afternoon. Open us, God. Open us to the whole of your creation. And the blessing of God Almighty, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit be with you this day and always. Amen.”

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

"Listening to Trans People" at the Lambeth Conference

I'm sitting here in Massachusetts, ready to head out the door to Logan airport, where I'm catching a flight to England to go to the Lambeth Conference.

A couple of weeks ago in Integrity Witness, Rev. Susan Russell posed a question to those of us heading to the Conference: Why are you going?

First, for readers not steeped in Anglican politics, the Lambeth Conference is a meeting of bishops from around the Anglican Communion which takes place once every ten years. As this May press conference underlined, the meeting is not a parliamentary proceeding but a chance for bishops from around the Anglican Communion to gather for counsel and relationship-building. And Integrity, of which Susan is the president, is the national LGBT coalition within the Episcopal Church.

As is well known, there are Anglicans around the globe who want to curtail the participation of LGBT people in sacramental life. When Gene Robinson became bishop of New Hampshire, a decades-old conflict flared with new intensity. Meanwhile, beginning with the 1978 Lambeth Conference, the Anglican Communion has declared its need to listen to the experience of LGBT people. The most recent manifestation of that desire is an official "listening process." Despite this process, and the existence of things like study guides for bishops and other church leaders, Bishop Robinson himself was deliberately not invited to this Conference. Lest LGBT people simply be talked about or around and not actually heard ourselves, groups like Integrity and Changing Attitude have planned a number of events to make certain that our voices will be present.

And that's why I'm going: to be among those voices as a transgender person. More specifically, a transgender man who is also an Episcopal priest and representative of transgender Episcopalians across the United States (though I am also quite clear that I cannot speak for all of them).

On Friday, July 25th, I along with three others will be on a panel entitled "Listening to Trans People." The panel is part of a series of official Lambeth "Fringe" (a term that has a less pejorative meaning in England than in the United States) events, whose schedule you can view here. While bishops are not required to come to this panel, I hope that those who do come will listen with open hearts, carrying with them the spirit of learning and relationality that is the keystone of this Conference. As far as I know, this panel represents the first time that a transgender-specific event has ever taken place at a worldwide Anglican Communion meeting, and I'm proud to be part of it.

The panel was organized by Rev. Christina Beardsley of Changing Attitude UK, who has written a substantial resource for Clergy and Congregations re: transgenderism. The panel is officially sponsored by the UK-based Christian Transgender group called the Sibyls.

Jumping In

As I sit here, about to leave, listening to the rain fall out the window, I'm excited about the new possibilities, the people I will meet and the stories I will hear. And at the same time I can't help but feel overwhelmed as I ponder the challenge of trying to include transgenderism within the context of conversations that have been revolving around sexuality-- human sexuality in general and homosexuality in particular. In a way, I feel like someone standing next to one of those huge jump ropes-- the kind where two people stand turning the rope and you have to jump in. It's a lot easier when you get to turn your own rope-- there's no mistaking the rhythm-- you can slow down, speed up, or stop when you need to. With a rope not of your own turning, you have to time your jump. You stand there for a moment, kind of swaying as you figure out the pace, and then jump in, hoping you don't snag the ropes.

Perhaps this anticipatory experience is common to anyone poised on the threshold of this conversation, regardless of demographic particulars. But as I prepare to bring a trans perspective, it sometimes feels like I and my other trans comrades are bringing another rope. A single jump rope, turning and turning around the topic of sexuality does not give us tools to talk about transgenderism; we need another rope for gender. Double Dutch, anyone?

But wait, we already have a gender rope. It entered the Anglican fray most famously in the mid-1970s debates about women priests, and in the late '80s with the consecration of the Rt. Rev. Barbara C. Harris in my home diocese of Massachusetts. In 2006 the gender jump rope got renewed attention with the election of the Rt. Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori as the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, and within the last month the Church of England has voted that women can become bishops in England. Over the years, this gender rope has continued to turn in our debate, but in the last two decades, as sexuality has become an increasingly dominant theme, the role of the gender in our discussions has become obscured. In the wake of the Church of England's recent vote, I have hope that the gender rope will regain its crucial place in the collective Anglican conversation with more clarity and emphasis than it has recently received.

Only, as gender comes back into our collective conversation, I believe we need to think about it differently. Gender should not simply refer to women. Nor, for that matter, should gender simply equal transgender. Our "gender rubric" should be more complex, more flexible. As Bishop Gene Robinson and numerous others have argued, gender needs to be understood in the complicated ways that it interacts with race, class, ability, and sexuality, particularly in the wake of Anglican colonial legacies. What's more, our rubric should understand that gender is neither rigidly binary (male and female only) nor static (always experienced, expressed and embodied in the same way). Gender has so many forms in so many different cultural contexts that categories don't always overlap. What it means to be gendered-- to be labeled, for instance, as a man, as a woman, as another category of gender, of which there are a number around the world-- is highly contextual. Even within the same geographical region, the rules for how genders are to be enacted -- how to "be a man," for instance-- may change depending on one's other demographic features. As is true with sexuality-- indeed, as is true of God-- no language can finally express or contain the idiosyncratic gender vernacular of a fellow human being.

And so a new facet of our journey as Anglicans, it seems to me, is to truly recognize that our conversation is not simply a matter of gay or straight, black or white, male or female. There isn't just one jump rope, nor should there simply be two. I'm not convinced we could ever add enough ropes to account for the myriad dimensions of humanity, and I also worry about the challenge of who turns the ropes and who jumps. Much as I like the image, jumping rope might not be the best way to attend to our distinct but interlocking differences and our common goal of empowering the full dignity of our humanity.

The image that pops into my head -- an imperfect, nascent analogy, to be sure -- is of a game I remember playing in P.E. that involved a parachute. All the kids would stand in a circle -- many of them -- and would hold onto the outside of the chute. What we did with the parachute varied. Sometimes we'd wave the parachute rapidly and watch the fabric ripple toward us. Sometimes an object of some sort would be placed in the middle-- we would all lift up the chute and watch the object bounce. I even remember the object sometimes being a person who got quite a ride (perhaps that's what's happening to Bishop Gene?!). But my favorite part was when we'd all, suddenly, lift our hands upward, holding tight to the chute edge, watching the fabric puff up into a huge balloon. Then, quickly, we'd all duck inside and sit on the edge, chute fabric behind our backs. Suddenly the fringe had created a new center. All had access to it, and it belonged to no one in particular; in fact, if anyone left the edge for the center, the air current might change and the balloon might quickly deflate. And so we'd sit there, laughing with delight as we spied one another inside this new, collectively created dome, seeing people suddenly a bit more clearly, reveling in this strangely sacred space. Slowly and steadily, the dome would deflate. Eventually, when our views were obscured, the parachute exercise would end and P.E. would be over. But not before, together, we'd done something somehow quite magical.

As I prepare to embark on this journey, my prayer is that the fringes of the Lambeth Conference might witness to the Anglican Communion a renewed, clarified vision of human complexity. I pray that the God who is always doing a new thing might re-empower us in the ongoing task of creating church anew, that somehow, amidst ongoing conflict, we might be able to delight in the unique incarnation that each of us was created to become.

Rev. Dr. Cameron Partridge