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

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