An address given at St. John’s Fulham who, as an Inclusive Church are exploring the protected characteristics this season, on Sunday the 9th of January 2022.
Today is the first Sunday in ordinary time. The Christmas decorations are, I hope, safely stored away in the cupboard under the stairs, the last carols have been sung, we’ve finally got rid of most of that pesky wrapping paper, we’ve seen in the new year, and we are ready to get on with business as usual, right? Wrong. Our readings today speak of anything but business as usual, anything but “the way we’ve always done it”. In our Gospel reading today we heard about Jesus’s baptism. And there are two things that change in that story: the first change is a change to what baptism means, and the second change is a striking change in the relationship between God and humanity.
We are Called to set Fires
Baptism changes with Jesus. John the Baptist warns the crowds that: “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” You still baptise with water here, not fire, right? Well, as a trans person, I have definitely had more than one baptism of fire. I have experienced attempted conversion of my sexuality and gender by spiritual, physical and sexual abuse. I have been made to leave churches due to my identity. It has been suggested to me that, in order to be a good minister, whatever that means, I need to stop talking about parts of my life that are related to my gender and sexuality. I have experienced public misgendering and threats. And I actually have it relatively easy. Trans people who are visibly identifiable, female or feminine, black or brown, are more likely to experience the dangers of unemployment, homelessness, abuse, and even death.
Despite these clear and proven dangers, no church denomination in England has made any notable attempt to train all of their ministers and officers on trans awareness, or to create and sustain safeguarding policies and practices that protect trans people from the danger that we often experience in, or related to, churches. Creating Sanctuary is a group of safeguarding and lived experience experts who have made a start on this work independently, in our own time. Have a look at the Creating Sanctuary resources online and see how you might apply them here. I mentioned ‘baptisms of fire’. In the Bible, though, fire is often linked to sanctification and protection rather than than destruction and difficulty. The fire of the burning bush where Moses met God sanctifies an ordinary space, turning it into a holy space for a time and inspiring the Presbyterian motto nec tamen consumebatur – burned but not consumed. Later in exodus, a pillar of fire provides a guiding light that the Israelites follow to freedom. The flames of exodus are the baptism of holy fire that I believe the church needs today: a turn to wonder and worship, and away from moralising and control; a turn to guidance and protection, and away from silencing and fear.
Our Gospel reading teaches us Jesus will baptise with the Holy Spirit and with fire and so, this new year, I pray for a fire by which trans folks are seen and protected, not burnt alive.
We are Called by God
And yet, despite John the Baptist’s fiery warning, in Jesus’s baptism we also witness a remarkable change in the relationship between God and humanity. The Holy Spirit descends upon Jesus in bodily form like a dove. And a voice comes from heaven saying, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” You, a human, are God’s child, and you are fully affirmed, wholly loved, completely enough, just as you are. Up until this point, there has been a marked separation between God and humanity but, at the moment of Jesus’s baptism, something changes. The relationship between God and humanity changes. God and humanity meet. God and humanity touch. In her timely book, Shameless: A Sexual Reformation, Nadia Bolz-Weber explains that ‘Holiness is about union with, and purity is about separation from.’ In uniting with humanity God is able to reaffirm the commitment made at creation when God sees humans and says ‘this is good’. In Jesus, God is able to see humanity and say ‘with you I am well pleased. Relationship is about dialogue, where all voices are heard, and where it is accepted that in hearing to understand, rather than hearing to respond, genuine change is not only possible, but also likely. In that moment at Jesus’s baptism where God and humanity touch something changes, but that moment isn’t a final or isolated change – it sets in motion a continuing spiral of changes as God and humanity continue to communicate, to be in dialogue, to this day.
We can each learn something from each-other. We learn something more about God every time we listen to another human being speak the truth to power in love. We learn something more about humanity each time we listen to another human being tell their story. For the last three years I have been researching the identities, insights and experiences of a diverse group of trans and non-binary Christians, and the most valuable thing that I have learnt from them is the importance of joy and affirmation. That transition can be framed as a move towards joy – not as a route march away from misery. That genuine affirmation isn’t just about the church saying that it’s ok to be trans – it is, and we don’t need permission – rather, affirmation is about realising that actually trans and non-binary people have valuable things to teach the church. In his book Transforming: The Bible and the Lives of Transgender Christians Austen Hartke reminds the reader that: “At the messy, lovable, chaotic potluck that is life in the church, transgender Christians have a lot to bring to the table. We can help the church see Scripture through different lenses; we can help other Christians understand their own gender identities; we can help to break down barriers created by sexism and misogyny; we can remind people of the diversity of God’s creation, and of God’s unlimited nature; we can stand in the gaps and bridge middle spaces where others may be uncomfortable or uninformed; we can help make connections between the sacred and the secular, making the church more relevant for the world, and we can provoke people into asking questions about themselves and about God that they may never have thought to ask before.”
And so, this new year, as God and humanity continue our transformational dialogue, I pray that the church begins to really hear and to understand trans and non-binary peoples voices and that those who speak of God’s voice bring words of affirmation, not judgement.
We are Called by Name
But if we are to explore the transformative potential of Jesus’s baptism as fully as possible, we must also look back to the prophets, and forward to the early church. In today’s reading from the Hebrew scriptures, the prophet Isaiah reminds his community members to not be afraid, and that they are being called by name. Don’t be afraid, you are called by your name. God’s affirmation of Jesus, of humanity, at his baptism is another reminder that we should not be afraid, that God calls us by our names. If being called by name is the antidote to fear, it is a concept that is worth giving some attention to. And, in the Bible, being called by name is about processes of change. In the Bible, God calls people by changing their names in recognition of who they have shown themselves to be.
Israel is named in recognition of the courageous battle with God which changed his life. Abraham and Sara are given their names in recognition that their descendants would be numerous, after a struggle with infertility and childlessness. Similarly, the Bible points towards a new name for people who live outside of norms related to gender, with Isaiah prophesying that ‘no eunuch will be called a dry tree’, which is later echoed by Jesus. When people refuse to use a trans person’s name or pronouns with the excuse that a change of name is unbiblical, they forget that God calls people by name, and that new names represent an important journey, and carry meaning.
My name – Alex – means something. It means ‘defender’, and I chose it because speaking up for those who are marginalised, unheard, or abused is a core element of my vocation. My pronouns – they/them – mean something too. They suggest that I have experienced more then just being male. For me, being non-binary is about integrating my femininity, my masculinity, and my queerness – a word that I reclaim and do not use lightly – it is about acknowledging the complexities of who I am, and not trying to hide or simplify myself for the comfort of others. I wonder what your name and pronouns mean to you. It’s worth thinking about. Isaiah says ‘Don’t be afraid, God calls you by name’.
So, this new year, I pray that trans and non-binary people will be called by our names and pronouns, and that everyone will take a moment to think about the importance of the words that each of us uses to describe ourselves and others.
We are Called to Lead
There is one final moment of transformation, of turning away from “the way we’ve always done things”, in today’s readings. In Acts, we read that disciples go out to baptise people from Samaria, because they have heard and accepted the word of God. This is a notable moment of transformation, both of the historical cultural divide between Israelites and Samaritans and because of the potential means of the Gospel spreading through a Samaritan woman, with whom, according to tradition, Jesus shouldn’t have even spoken. This is a moment in which years of polarisation move towards resolution, in which years of power imbalances move towards equity, and in which years of unjust rules and norms move towards abolition. In part, because Jesus chooses to make a Samaritan woman who has had many husbands and draws water in the heat of the day an unlikely Christian leader.
We need trans leaders. It is striking that there are no trans or non-binary bishops and very few trans and non-binary priests in the Church of England. And this isn’t denominational, I am not pointing fingers. I was the first out trans person to be ordained in the United Reformed Church, and am still in a very small minority. I often visit churches with trans members, and they are rarely put in positions of responsibility and visibility. Why not? The church needs trans leaders if years of polarisation over gender are to move towards resolution. The church needs trans leaders if years of power imbalances are to move towards equity. The church needs trans leaders if years of unjust gender roles and norms are to be drawn to an end. It is well past time for change.
And so, this new year, I pray for more trans and non-binary leaders, both in church and in society.
We are Called to be Wise
At the beginning of this address, I pointed out that the Christmas season is over. Well, that depends slightly on denomination and tradition! In the United Reformed Church, it is rare to have midweek services, and so we often celebrate epiphany today, in which we remember the magi’s visit to Jesus in his infancy. And so, as I conclude, I would like to briefly remember epiphany. Austen Hartke alludes to the magi’s gifts to Jesus, noting that: “It might seem daunting to a congregation to have to learn about pronouns, or to designate a bathroom gender-neutral, or to have difficult conversations about what it means to affirm LGBTQ+ identities. But transgender people are not a burden for Christianity, or for the church. They come bearing gifts!” So what gifts can trans people bring to the church today? Earlier this week, Lynda Serene Jones, Professor of Religion and Democracy at Union Theological Seminary, suggested that ‘Civil disobedience lies at the heart of the Epiphany story: The magi receive an unjust order from a vindictive tyrant. Instead they defy him. Trans people resist and defy the injustice unleashed every day by a normative system that defines and limits people based on their genders. Rather, we point to a more creative way.
And so, this new year, as we continue on our respective journeys, I pray that you might experience the freedom and creativity that comes from resisting and defying unthinking obedience to norms and, instead, embarking on an unexpected detour. May it be so. Amen.