Rev Dr Josephine Inkpin offers a perspective on how developing faith-filled pathways with sexually and gender diverse people will support the discernment and celebration of the gifts of LGBTIQA+ lives.
How long O Lord? The age-old cry for justice is heard increasingly from LGBTIQA+ people of faith even as wider society gradually changes. Meanwhile, significant opposition comes from faith quarters, with concerns for Christian life and teaching. Harsh things have been said and done. Many relationships are strained and both internal dialogue and Christian mission disrupted. Such controversies are unlikely to abate soon. How then can we best respond?
As both an ordained Anglican priest and a transgender woman, married to another female (priest), I am caught in the maelstrom. LGBTIQA+ faith voices are also all too often ignored in the so-called ‘debates’ about us. This a loss for both Church and wider world. For my perception is of a great sea-change happening.
Understandably, Churches may struggle with this, particularly with the pace of cultural change. Yet simply willing the incoming tide to stop makes too many Christians appear as ignorant as King Canute who famously ordered waves to retreat. Instead of resisting Creation, we do best to receive what the Spirit is saying to us. For we are being called into fresh discerning relationships, and particularly into receiving the LGBTIQA+ gifts which have been long denied but which can enrich us all.
How we frame the relationship between faith and sexual and gender diversity is at the heart of positive growth. Catholic authorities have, for example, recently issued several documents to guide the faithful, not least Catholic schools at the forefront of responding to the challenges faced by sexually and gender diverse young people. These recognise the pressing need to engage and typically also express goodwill and concern for LGBTIQA+ people.
Yet too often they are constructed as ‘others looking in’ on the lives and bodies of people who are themselves experts on their own lives and have spiritual insights to share. In dis/ability and other circles, the principle of ‘nothing about us without us’ has long been recognised as crucial. Yet when Catholic leadership rightly commends openness and engagement, as the Congregation for Catholic Education did in Male and Female He Created Them (2019), it is typically honored in the breach.
That same document, for example, contains no transgender voices or the weight of gender affirming medical and other research, confining itself to the old restricted circles of Catholic insiders. Not only is the depth of queer people’s pain thus hidden but, even more importantly for fruitful development, queer gifts are not received either.
Five core elements in Catholic, and wider Christian, teaching are among the most significant.
Firstly, LGBTIQA+ people of faith need to be valued as family, not as outsiders. This is the direction Pope Francis has encouraged the Church to move, recognising the realities of contemporary family lives and the need for a fresh spirit.
Such affirming relational language sits very uncomfortably with more legalistic language, not least official negative designations of LGBT people as ‘intrinsically disordered’. It offers more human and relational ways to engage, beyond what the Catholic ethicist Margaret Farley RSM has termed ‘pelvic orthodoxy’.
Secondly, and linked to familial relationship in Christ, theology and ethics needs to return to Pauline understanding of the Body. For while, for example, misconceived attention is given to some people’s bodily dysphoria (typically rectified by following best practice transgender care), Churches seem unaware of their own bodily dysmorphia.
Instead of valuing LGBTIQA+ members of the Body (aka God’s family), suspicion, isolation, and even amputation, is commonly practised. St Paul, in contrast, is clear: “the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts we consider less honourable, we are to treat with greater honour.” (I Cor 12:22).
We need so much more than passive ‘inclusion’, the limited goal of even some of the better Christian approaches. The way forward is actively discerning and celebrating what is of God in LGBTIQA+ lives, just as the best Catholic theology has always actively discerned and celebrated God’s grace in all kinds of human contexts. Not doing so is to ignore the Catholic principle of ‘development’ and to follow conservative fideist and biblicist tendencies into narrow sectarianism against the world.
For, thirdly, to engage constructively with sexual and gender diversity today, means to develop approaches which use Natural Law properly. Too often those purporting to follow natural law have ignored the rich resources of both decades of mainstream medical and scientific consensus and also LGBTIQA+ lived experiences.
Doing so not only condemns sexually and gender diverse people to further unnecessary pain and dislocation but dishonours the Church itself and its claims to seek the truth of God. Thankfully, the Catholic Church widened its understanding when it finally received the insights of scientists like Galileo and Darwin. Today it needs to do so with other fruits of contemporary knowledge.
Fourthly, in listening to God in LGBTIQA+ people themselves, we can open ourselves to a deepening of our understanding of the imago dei in God’s creation of human diversity. Too much opposition to LGBTIQA+ people rests on narrow ideological conceptions of the ‘ideal’ human, which reflect the interests of those insistent upon them rather than the actual experience of God in Christ Jesus.
As dis/ability theologians similarly encourage us, we need to start with Christ, who, as the great gay poet-priest Gerard Manley Hopkins put it, “plays in ten thousand places, lovely in limbs and lovely in eyes not his.”
If, as the Gospels reflect, God is indeed found among the “little ones”, the “blessed”, who suffer and are marginalised, can we not see Christ incarnate afresh in sexually and gender diverse people today?
If so, fifthly, we move from seeing LGBTIQA+ people as part of the Fall to part of divine Flourishing. Again, this is about reclaiming Catholic emphases on the centrality of God’s grace in the diverse expressions of creation and incarnation, rather than imposing false ideas of sin and shame on those who are actually gifts to help lead us into greater life together.
LGBTIQA+ people of faith do not need welcome, or inclusion, for we are already at home with God, as family members and part of Christ’s Body, wholly natural, and imaging the divine in our diverse ways. What we do need is space to flourish, and thereby we can enable others to flourish also.
Thankfully, we are beginning to see some signs of this, including the recent decision of Flemish Catholic bishops to offer blessings to previously excluded queer couples. Meanwhile, we have decades of queer theology and affirming scholarship to draw upon, together with well-informed groups such as New Ways Ministry in the US and Rainbow Catholic agencies here in Australia. Next year also sees Sydney host World Pride: an opportunity to join with groups such as Acceptance and Equal Voices in offering space and building fruitful relationships.
This also flows with the best of contemporary faith development, and not least with receptive ecumenism, which has rightly emphasised how we need to insist less on our differences, or even our commonalities, and instead receive the gifts of others different from us, without which we, too, will not flourish.
In 1986, speaking to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, Pope John Paul II expressed this beautifully, saying: “the Church herself in Australia will not be fully the Church that Jesus wants her to be until you have made your contribution to her life and until that contribution has been joyfully received by others.” The same can be said for LGBTIQA+ people, and others still on the margins.
As Pope Francis put it, in his 2021 World Communications Day message, “Come and see (Jn 1:39) is the simplest method to get to know a situation. It is the most honest test of every message, because, in order to know, we need to encounter, to let the person in front of me speak, to let his or her testimony reach me.”