Boundaries of Inclusion

‘All are welcome’ and ‘come as you are’ can’t enable a safe community if they mean, ‘come and say and do whatever you want’: we’re only able to create a safe community if we have boundaries. Below I explore some of the issues and ideas, with some questions to discuss this in your context. I don’t ‘have all the answers’ and share this with a hope of helping to open the conversation…

I love being part of church that says, and deeply means, ‘all are welcome’ and ‘come as you are’. It is my, and our, delight to welcome people and see them flourish and thrive as they realise they can truly be themselves in the church community, and bring their gifts and ideas and their whole selves to that community. However, this also means we meet some ‘interesting people’ – for example, some who have sought us out to ‘set us straight’ (literally), some who have tested the extent to how they can behave before we have to intervene, and some whose beliefs vary very much from ours and we are challenged with ‘if all are welcome, why is my view, my behaviour, not okay here?’

In publicly stating that we’re an inclusive church, we’ve realised we need to define what we mean by inclusion and to realise that it is fine, even necessary, to make some clear boundaries.

Here I’m going to explore some of these ideas and what we’ve been doing in our context in case that’s helpful. I realise that to live is to learn, and I’m happy to learn from you if you’ve found other or more helpful approaches.

At the first church meeting when we decided to register as an inclusive and affirming church and be more open and clear about this, someone raised the issue that this surely meant excluding people with the opposite view. Where would be the space for those who believe the bible is opposed to homosexuality to come and share their ideas? (interesting how we would not even contemplate making that same space for people who believe similar things about people with other protected characteristics such as ethnicity…). We decided that day that to be a safe place for people who are LGBT+ actually did mean that from now on, as a church, we wouldn’t be engaging in those debates. That the space for those conversations would be private conversations with specific people on the leadership team, and not ‘open season’ for people to come and discuss with people of the church community.

We recognised that day that we were ‘drawing a line in the sand’ and staking our identity as a church. And that by saying, ‘we’re inclusive and affirming’, we were also saying, ‘this space has conditions’. Although ‘come as you are, behave how you want’ would be offering a kind of freedom, it would also be offering a kind of unfettered chaos of behaviours which just isn’t safe for anyone.

But maybe it’s also true that the church is never really a place/community without conditions anyway. I am writing now about churches as public spaces, not just meaning ‘traditional church buildings’ but the space, wherever it is, that the church community gather.*

In every space we enter, there are rules. Most of society knows what behaviour is expected in certain spaces – e.g. a shop, a hotel, a cafe. We know that stealing items, damaging property, being rude to staff, throwing furniture, deliberately making a mess, being obtrusively loud, for example, are not the ‘social code’ for these spaces.

Churches have often tolerated bad behaviour and not been clear about what is required. This ranges from homophobia, racism, and sexism, to general condescension, rudeness, and behaviour designed to ‘get my own way regardless’. Churches, and other organisations which largely rely on volunteers often have a notion of ‘niceness’ as equating with ‘goodness’ (the two are not actually synonymous), and consequently struggle to address negative, destructive or discriminatory behaviours.

The general negative behaviour is another paper! But in the discriminatory behaviours, we have also needed to be clearer.  

One issue was that we had an instance of people joining our community specifically to integrate into it in order to then ‘show us our error’ by, for example, instructing gay people that they ‘should become straight’ (which is just too many sorts of wrong to contemplate). And other instances of people making what became unreasonable demands or exhibiting truly awful behaviour and still demanding to be ‘included’ regardless.

Whilst both types of behaviour are extremely sad, and both responded to, we hope, with kindness and forbearance, we also had to respond with clarity. Our community is not here to be trashed. The people in our community are not here to be abused, made unreasonable demands of, or tested to the limits. By all means have your difficult conversations with the leadership team, we are not trying to silence people. But we will not have our community of people trashed, damaged or abused.

This is so very hard. It hurts to even write it. I know how it sounds and I hear the protestations for they are also my own: ‘but surely someone who behaves like that most needs that safe space?’, ‘but surely that person is also damaged and needs your compassion?’, ‘but surely your community should be able to help and sustain someone so damaged?’

Whilst part of my heart still responds with, ‘yes, of course!’, I am afraid that the answer in honesty is sometimes needs to be: ‘no’. Whilst those in leadership have given huge amounts of time to those people, our church community is a diverse and beautiful mix of people, many with their own vulnerabilities, which can be safely shared where people also operate in that context of creating safe space for each other.

In behavioural terms, it is to say that surely a china shop should be able to welcome a bull. We would not expect that – we would say – ‘but the bull will necessarily break things’. Exactly.  

Like every other place/space that welcomes the public, I believe churches need to be clearer about what are effectively ‘terms and conditions’ but which we expect people to just ‘know’. Some things seem clear to people, and other things are assumed and we wish they weren’t (like, ‘I must wear posh clothes to church’, or ‘I will have to give money’ – neither are true).

The things that are important and apparently not obvious, we need to make clearer.  

We decided we needed to make clear what we mean then by those phrases, ‘all are welcome’ and ‘come as you are’. We have developed a kind of simple ‘terms and conditions’ poster, so that it’s clearer what we mean by those things. It states what we mean by our love of diversity and then suggests that someone struggling with this can talk to one of the ministers. Because ‘you are welcome’ doesn’t mean, ‘welcome to behave how you want’ or ‘come and say what you want’, if what you want to say or do is detrimental or un-accepting. The love of diversity is about welcoming and loving diversity which creates a safe space for us each and all to be diverse. We aren’t a safe space if ‘any behaviour goes’, because that isn’t safe, and could even be damaging.

In addition to our own poster, we also display the posters from the Birmingham Methodist Circuit on Positive Working Together, showing the ‘shared commitment’ of how we commit to behaving in church life**.

We have needed to make clear that our church folk – members, visitors, friends of the church – don’t need to explain or justify themselves, and that if there is a debate wanted, then there are certain people to approach who will have those conversations with you, not just anyone you meet at church. To this end, we suggest that anyone at church who is asked to explain themselves or their views on inclusion, can instead point people to the poster as it explains what we mean as a church and offers someone to contact if you want to discuss that.

We have needed to make clear what we mean by ‘safe space’ – it sounds a bit obvious, but behaviour in a safe space needs to be safe behaviour. This has led to some difficult conversations at times where we’ve needed to make clear what is and is not acceptable in church community life. For example, racism and homophobia will always be challenged and never be tolerated, you will be offered a conversation with someone specific, but not to ‘vent views’ in church life or at individuals or groups.

These conversations have often taken considerable time. Sometimes people with damaging behaviour have no idea that they are upsetting others or no idea/pattern for behaving differently. Their behaviour may even be militantly attempting to support inclusion by being negative to those who struggle with it. It becomes complicated when someone is feeling confident in the community, beginning to thrive, and then starts to use that strength to cause damage to others. Initially there will be conversations explaining this, and the Positive Working Together sheets* being known and always on display does give a shared reference point for challenging negative behaviours. Sometimes people are not aware, and can cooperate in changing that behaviour to again be part of creating safe space for each other.

Occasionally, and sadly, we have sometimes needed eventually to suggest that a different church may be the place for a person to find their home and space to grow. We do welcome all, but we can’t actually welcome all behaviour. This is heartbreaking. We genuinely want to include everyone, but sometimes, in somewhat extreme circumstances maybe, it just isn’t possible. Belonging is a ‘2-way street’ – it isn’t just about a community offering belonging, it’s also about learning to be in that community in a way which doesn’t damage other people in it. Be that community a street, work environment or a church. Sometimes behaviour can create safeguarding concerns in preventing safe space, which also needs to be considered seriously.***

Whilst it’s reasonable to expect that churches should be able to cope with difficult people, the need for clear boundaries is real for all communities. It is naive to assume that ‘everyone knows’ what is expected, so let’s be clear. Some people just don’t know how to be with other people in a way that is not damaging, and yes, of course the church should offer a place of healing. But I would argue that even in the process, the place for venting or exhibiting poor behaviour is not among other potentially vulnerable community members, but with people who have offered that space and who may indeed signpost someone to more expert help on particular things if that is required.

This is where we’re ‘up to’ and it’s not perfect. But working out not only what those boundaries are, but how to make those boundaries clear is an ongoing process. There is a boundary for inclusion – the person is always included, but their behaviour needs to learn to ‘fit with’ creating a safe community. It isn’t behaviour with no consequences – which isn’t to say that someone can’t change or find a way for different understandings – but whilst they are doing that journey, it may not be appropriate to say whatever they are thinking in church groups or meetings where it could be triggering for people and not be in line with the church’s passion for, and stance on, inclusion and diversity and creating safe space. The space for grace and change does not mean space to abuse or damage.

Some of the ministry team are happy to offer to have discussions with people who struggle with our perspective on inclusion and diversity. There are people who genuinely want to discuss things to increase their understanding, but we don’t want the church congregation put in the position of having to justify or explain themselves, so making clear where those conversations can be had is important. Again, we are not trying to silence people, but conversations need to be in appropriate places with people ready to have them.

Someone once asked me if they could come to our church and be themselves, behave exactly as they liked. I said absolutely not. They said, ‘but you said you’re an inclusive church!’ I explained that there are still boundaries – come and be yourself, but at the same time, love of diversity means there is kind of a ‘behaviour boundary’ – for example, we will not tolerate homophobia, discrimination based on disability, racism, sexism, other discrimination, and not nastiness, bullying, or other toxic behaviour. The person laughed – used to churches which refused to welcome them because of their sexuality, that’s what they meant, but although my answer was slightly facetious, it’s true – our church community is not a safe place if anyone can come and behave however they like. We don’t all have to agree about everything, but we do agree about how we behave and where, and how, we broach the things we struggle with.

Boundaries are integral in creating safe space. It is in safe space that people can thrive.

– Ruth Yorke

To ponder or discuss:

  • Think of a time or context when you’ve felt really free to be yourself. What did that feel like? How did it affect you?
  • How would you/do you approach the dilemma of being inclusive, when that seems to mean excluding some people?
  • In every public space there are either explicit or ‘unwritten’ rules about how we are expected to behave. If you were writing those for your church, what would the important things be? How could you make those clear? 
  • How do you feel about churches displaying what are effectively ‘terms and conditions’ for being part of the church community? When could that become excluding rather than about creating safe space?
  • Who are the people in your church community who would be available to have those potentially difficult conversations with people who currently have non-inclusive views? Whilst some people may just appear to want to push their views, some people may genuinely value an open discussion – who would you signpost people to in your church community?
  • Do you know the places/organisations local to your context where you can signpost people for additional/expert help and support?

References/notes/additional suggested resources:

*I am writing about church communities as that is the context for me, but I imagine similar issues may arise generally in faith groups and in various communities trying to be inclusive.

**Positive Working Together resources from the Birmingham Methodist Circuit can be found here: https://www.birminghammethodistcircuit.org.uk/circuit-teams-training-and-resources/positive-working-together/

Positive Working Together information and documents can be found here: https://www.methodist.org.uk/for-churches/guidance-for-churches/introducing-positive-working-together/

***Information here on Safeguarding in the Methodist Church:

https://www.methodist.org.uk/safeguarding/policies-procedure-and-information/

Suggested additional reading:

https://www.methodist.org.uk/media/21753/conf-2021-27-the-theology-of-safeguarding.pdf    see section 6.3 (pp. 361ff.) I found this after I had written several drafts of this piece and it summarises the issues and things to consider expertly.

https://inclusivegathering.org.uk/i-you-we-making-space-for-one-another-at-igb/ A really helpful piece explaining how creating a truly, radical inclusive community, requires us to acknowledge our own needs, the needs of others, and that shared inclusive space can only be created if we are prepared to adapt and lay aside some of our preferences to create a ‘we’ space which works for a whole community.

Thoughts about Privilege

When I started looking at this bible passage, I thought I knew what it was about…but then…. 

On first read this story in Luke 13: 10-17 is about Jesus healing a bent-over woman, or the religious leaders missing the point about Jesus’ ministry. It is.

But preparing to preach on this passage, I was struck by how this is also about privilege.

I’m not an expert on Privilege, but this is as it struck me, reading this passage afresh.

What’s going on in this reading depends who you are. If you are ‘the woman’ (I am sorry that we don’t know her name), this story is about healing and freedom, identity, and restoration to community and equality.

If you are Jesus, this story is about those things and also about yet again having to defend himself from people who repeatedly show that they just don’t understand.

If you are the religious leaders, this story is about how you queried and ‘set right’ this upstart young rabbi who seems to take delight in flouting rules, and given that he is so popular with people and can command a crowd, you just can’t have him behaving like this. Their country is occupied, their religion – which is also about their identity – is tolerated providing it keeps to ‘its place’.

As I started writing my sermon, I was thinking about this and then it struck me – you have to be in a place of privilege to cite the rules in this situation. Someone bent over and in constant pain and social exclusion isn’t going to start a debate about the Sabbath rules when you’re offering to set her free from pain and enable her to be back into her place in the community.

Whatever their own troubles, the reason the religious leaders are focusing on the fact that Jesus has healed this woman on the wrong day, is because they can. If they understood what it was to be in constant pain and excluded for 18 years, they would just have rejoiced with her.

People in a place of privilege can choose whether they engage with suffering/abuse/neglect/racism/homophobia/discrimination. Because it doesn’t affect them.

People in the midst of war can’t choose whether to be affected by war – they are – it’s their daily struggle and daily life. In a similar way, people who are affected by racism, homophobia, discrimination, abuse, and hatred, can’t just choose to be unaffected and effectively ‘walk on by’ unmoved – these things are part of daily life and the daily struggle many people live with.

So if I am not these people, I can be unaffected. I have a choice. I don’t have to care, I don’t have to listen, I don’t have to campaign, I don’t have to try to change anything or speak up. Because it doesn’t affect me.

This is a glimpse of what privilege is about.

I recently came across this quote attributed to Benjamin Franklin:

“Justice will not be served until those who are unaffected are as outraged as those who are.”

If we want justice, we have to stop letting our privilege get us ‘off the hook’ – of course we can’t fight everything all at once, but we could start by standing up for justice, we could start by speaking up next time someone is discriminated against, or signing a petition, or not laughing at the racist joke (and not making the racist joke).

Another point from this gospel reading: Jesus calls ‘the woman’, ‘daughter of Abraham’ – he is making clear that she is part of the covenant community, part of God’s people. She isn’t even just ‘this woman I’ve just healed’; she is ‘family, community, part of the same faith as you and me’.

This woman who has been disregarded in their response so far, is accorded the same status as any other Jew – here she is, ‘daughter of Abraham’ – equally God’s own.

Jesus used his privilege as a man, an educated teacher, as someone in whom was the fullness of God, to lift up someone bent over, to set her free from her affliction, to heal her, to restore her so that she could look other people in the eye, and to make clear that her identity is ‘child of Abraham’, which in this context is equivalent to saying, ‘child of God’, because the children of
Abraham are God’s people.

So Jesus doesn’t just help her out of her place of pain and exclusion, he makes clear that her identity is equal.

Part of using our privilege is not only to lift people up, to set people free, but to make clear that we are all equal, to help make society and our own communities those which enable everyone to be equal, to be equally heard and equally able to contribute and be supported. No patronising ‘helping’ will do. If I ‘help’ you, I am the benevolent giver and you the grateful receiver. If I ensure somehow that you are lifted up and set free, and make clear that you are equal and so am I, we are free to be siblings before God, for you to speak up and be heard in your own right, to disagree with me and to make your own way. You won’t even owe me anything, because you shouldn’t have been in that position in the first place.

I started out thinking that the sermon’s message was going to be, ‘look around your community – who is bowed down? Trapped? Stuck? Treated as ‘less than’? how can you lift them up, stand with them, speak up so that others will listen to them?

It is about that, but the gospel is teaching us so much more. Wanting to be like Jesus isn’t about being a ‘nice’ but about challenging the world we’re in, confronting injustice, confronting, and using, our own privilege and becoming people who are about God’s Kingdom where love and justice reign.

For everyone. 

Which could be costly – society and the economy work better for people with privilege if they keep that privilege – their (our) lives are easier, more comfortable in every way. If we really all understand everyone as equal, and live like that’s true, it will change us and change the world. 

 

by Ruth Yorke 

I’m very happy to receive kindly phrased feedback that can help me learn… happy to review things if you think I’ve made a mistake… learning and keeping on learning is a joy (even if it’s also a  challenge…) 

Trans women, the media, toilets, and agendas

Just why are there SO many media articles about trans women and toilets?

Although it’s estimated that trans people make up only about 2% of the population, there seems to be a huge number of articles in the media about trans people. I wonder why?

The simple answer could be because we are prepared to read them. It’s just supply and demand after all? If we don’t read it, they won’t print it/put it online? And if they don’t do that, they don’t get paid.

Or is there an agenda of ‘divide and rule’, where we get so worked up about the issues allegedly caused by certain people (usually vulnerable people in minority groups), that we blame those people and totally ‘miss’ that really the injustices and horrors are committed by wealthy, influential people in power, those who could actually change things. Not enough jobs? Well it isn’t about resource management or training opportunities – there must be a minority group to blame. Waiting lists at the hospital? It must be a minority group ‘flooding’ the NHS, not that the NHS has been underfunded and treated like a business for decades.  You know the sort of thing – a big ‘expose’ on how refugees/asylum seekers/Black people/Asian people/trans people/Polish people…. are the REAL problem.

We could use our energy to query those with power and influence, but instead get tricked into in-fighting amongst each other, and blaming ‘easy targets’ who are vulnerable and are not actually the people depriving or damaging anyone.

The hatred and vitriol towards trans people is, like so many hatreds, entirely misplaced and based on publically touted misunderstandings which directly damage real people.

It is for all of us to ask the question as to whose agenda is being helped by this? It is certain that we are ‘being played’, but to what end?

Trans women are women. They are not a threat to other women in any particular way. Trans women think like women, because they are women. That they were born with male biology does not mean they are men pretending/wanting/trying to be women. Trans women are women, regardless of biology.  Trans women grew up with the brain of a girl, with a girls feelings and thoughts, but being treated as if they were a boy. This is really tough. Can you imagine growing up being, and feeling, totally misunderstood and misgendered by the people around you? People insisting you are other than you know yourself to be inside, as a person. (If this is you, there are some links at the end of this piece for support and info.)

Big media cases (such as the recent Forstater case*) whip up the public with click-bait headlines, intended to divide us. The headlines ask bizarre questions such as, ‘Do you want a man in the women’s toilets?’ Well, not particularly, no… but what has this to do with anything? There is no actual evidence that making it easier for all women to use the toilets labelled for women, would make this happen. I don’t know of any cases where a trans woman has gone through the process of transition, living as a woman, identifying as a woman, seeing doctors and psychologists and being tested and interrogated, just so they can go into women’s toilets to attack other women.

On this topic, it seems obvious but relevant to point out that people – any people – can actually go into the women’s toilet cubicles. The sign denoting the toilets are for female people, doesn’t actually offer ANY protection from entry by or attack from a predator, rapist or violent criminal. Nada. Nothing. It’s just a sign. That’s all it is. Personally I feel much safer in a single cubicle which can be used by any one person, and where the general populous are milling about outside – either in a shared handwash space, or just straight into public space. I can also live without the massive queue to the ladies toilets – shared gender neutral facilities would help reduce those queues!

The people who most enjoy putting stories in the press about trans women being such a danger to cis women, have an agenda. They may like you to think they are trying to protect you, but the threat is not trans women. Either they’re just printing/writing what they think will help them get paid. Or it’s more sinister and they want us, at grass roots, blaming each other, fragmenting our society, and keeping the rich, rich and in power. ‘Divide and rule’ has been used by people in power for centuries to control the general populous. Let us not be so foolish. Let us remember that if we pull together, and campaign, we can change the world – we could vote out the hatred and make a fairer world.

As a cis heterosexual woman, I am not afraid of or worried by trans women. Perhaps because I am blessed enough to know some? I know some trans men too and guess what – they are just… men. They vary like other people. The trans men I know are kind, decent, funny, caring, helpful blokes. Like the cis gendered men I choose to have in my life too. And the trans non-binary people in my life are also…you know… people… people I like, eat with, chat with, worship God with.

I do sympathise if you’ve believed what you see and hear in the media – if you haven’t actually met any trans people and read the nonsense in the media, it can seem very persuasive and convincing that there is a threat to all sorts. When we do meet people, the barrier and the ‘imaginary monster’ is destroyed. We discover that actually – people are just people – with their own thoughts and feelings, struggles and joys, quirks and interests. Which is why I’m encouraging us all to query those kinds of media reports and stories which suggest that certain people, who have actually done nothing wrong, are scary monsters we should fear.

If you do struggle with the idea of someone being trans, perhaps read up a bit (some suggestions at the end), and remind yourself that each person is a person. Regardless of what the media want you to believe, trans people are people – just people – of course trans people vary in character and sense of humour like everyone else – trans people are not necessarily all saints! But that’s because trans people are people.

Maybe, even if we don’t understand, and even if you have some reservations, we could just respect trans people as people and just decide to be kind. Frankly, trans people suffer enough without any of us adding to it. We could also decide to query the media article and the agenda for it, rather than querying the people who suffer because of those articles.

Like the rest of humanity, trans people need kindness and respect, and also compassion and support. Trans people are often coping with daily, yes DAILY, insults and violence. Around the world, hundreds of people are killed every year for being trans. People like my lovely colleagues and friends. Not for doing anything wrong or saying/doing the wrong thing or committing a crime – just because someone finds out they are trans and decides they should die for that.

Maybe we could be people who make the difference? who query the media? who support the real people in our communities? who give people the benefit of the doubt even if we don’t understand everything? who make safe space for people? who respect the journey of those who suffer and are determined? who offer respect and maybe even a cuppa, a biscuit and a chat?  

Let’s get more savvy and query the motives of the media. Let’s ask: who does it serve if I become afraid of people who pose no threat at all? why would I want to treat any person who has done me no harm, in a negative way just because of their identity?

And yes, given that trans people are only around 2% of the population, just WHY are there so many stories against trans people in the media?

It’s time to question the motives of the media, not the motives of trans women. To ask who benefits from the lies that instill fear and wish to divide us? and who would worry if we pulled together, campaigned, stopped blaming vulnerable people for the systems in which they also suffer, and made those who are actually responsible for problems, accountable.

  • Ruth Yorke, August 2021. Views are my own. Please write (kindly) and inform me if you notice any errors and I will review. I acknowledge that I still have much to learn. Thank you.

Helpful places to find more info:

https://www.stonewall.org.uk/truth-about-trans

https://www.glaad.org/transgender/resources

https://genderedintelligence.co.uk/

for help with word and terms: https://www.glaad.org/reference/transgender

image from Pixabay, copyright free, used with thanks.

*the outcome of the Forstater case should concern us all – deciding as it did (I summarise) that Forstater has the right to decide what gender someone has and treat them accordingly. Under this ruling, she can decide that I, as a cis gendered woman, am actually a man – she can then ask for me to be refused access to female spaces, persistently call me ‘he’, and if I appeal to the organisation, they can do the same. Far from making anyone safe, the ruling puts us all at risk.

Challenging boundaries – Queering the gospel.

My thoughts on the gospel of John, chapter 20, verses 24 – 29 (Jesus meets Thomas after Jesus’ resurrection) shared April 2021.


“In winter 2018 we had a book group looking at a book called ‘Upside Down Bible’, by Symon Hill. That book encouraged us to look at gospel stories in a different way – to look and listen – who is represented? Who is heard? Who is missing? Who is silent?

I have been reading around queering of the gospel – which has some similar traits – it’s looking at the gospels in a different way, listening, seeing afresh –

In Liz Edman’s book – ‘Queer Virtue’ – she talks about how Jesus ruptures boundaries of what seem to be binary opposites – 

The boundary between men v. women… hmm… it’s challenged… let’s think about people in a different way…

‘rich = good, poor = bad’… hmm…let’s think about people in a different way… 

‘blessed v. Cursed’…hmm…let’s think about people in a different way…

and in this reading – so many binary opposites are challenged. 

‘Goodies v. Baddies’ – the ‘believers’ v. ‘the doubter’…hmm… not so much – actually, although it can be seen as a rebuke, Jesus’ words to Thomas actually offer him what he needs – effectively saying, ‘Thomas, if you need to see my scars, you go right ahead.’  

And then the big binary – life v. death. All neatly packaged opposites….hmm…maybe not so much… Jesus challenges that boundary too.

This Jesus after resurrection was a bit…well..queer… this Jesus sits across boundaries and challenges them – they know it is him, but not always immediately – sometimes he appears to be not quite as they remember, his friends on the Emmaus road don’t recognise him at all until he breaks bread, and there must have been something about him in this encounter for Thomas to be ‘not quite sure’ when he just hears about it… really? the dead live? even after brutal murder in public? really?

Jesus also ruptures the binary of ‘perfection v. brokenness’. Scars in your perfect divine resurrection body Jesus? really? big scars on your chest, your hands, your feet? really – still perfect? how can this be so? 

Jesus in this stunning keeping-of-murder-scars ruptures the binary that perfection is about not being scarred or damaged. this is potent. 

Father Shay, aka Father Shannon Kearns, the first Old Catholic trans priest in the USA, speaks about this passage and how seeing Caravaggio’s painting of Jesus meeting Thomas in this room changed his life. In Caravaggio’s painting, Jesus’ scar ‘in his side’ is in the side/front of his chest – pretty much where breast removal scars are for trans men who have that surgery. In seeing that painting and reading the gospel passage again, Shay realised something shocking – that his scarred, apparently damaged body was actually perfect. just as it was. and no less so because of the scars. Jesus is perfect, divine, whole WITH the scars. 

Shay also reflects that particularly during transition, people constantly asked him questions about his body. Was he having the surgery? What did being trans mean for his body? What did he look like undressed? Was he having hormone therapy? And a whole host of questions that are way over the border of normal conversation. (What on earth gave people the idea to think that’s okay? and people still do that…). Reading this passage afresh, Shay recognised himself in what was perhaps a resigned, tired, but kind response from Jesus. ‘Hey, if you need to see my scars, to know about my body, to believe I am who I say I am, sure, I’ll tell you. But wouldn’t it be wonderful to just be believed?’ 

In Shay’s context, wouldn’t it be wonderful for him to know that when he tells you he is a man, he is just believed with no cross-examination, no need to metaphorically ‘put your hand in his scars’. 

I found Shay’s account moving. 

I wonder too what we can learn about a Jesus who challenges boundaries and binaries that we think don’t mix. 

Maybe, just maybe, we have something new to learn from Jesus? 

We perhaps sometimes think we have it all worked out. We know our place in the world. We know right from wrong. We know who the goodies and the baddies are. We know who is important and who is not so much. Who is special and who is ordinary. We know what roles people should play and how society should work. And boy, would we sort out the government if only they’d listen to us? 

Maybe, just maybe, there are layers and layers and shades in between that we just don’t know yet? 

Maybe we can learn something from people like Liz Edman and Shannon Kearns who see riches I know I hadn’t seen before and who can help me see my Jesus a little more deeply, a little more richly? 

A facebook post by Ashley O Callaghan explains that creation is full of those beautiful ‘in between’ spaces that teach us that the binary is not all there is. Imagine the beauty of the ‘in between’ space between day and night – a sunrise or a sunset. Imagine the beauty of the space between sea and land – a gorgeous beach. Imagine the wonder of the space between fish and birds – puffins and ducks that can fly in the sky and swim and dive. Imagine the wonder of a space between ‘men’ and ‘women’ – beautiful trans and non binary people, all these beautiful ‘in between’ spaces, showing the wonder of God’s genius and diversity in creation.

There is so much more than we often see. Jesus has so much more to show and to teach us.

As we are challenged to look at the gospels in a different way, and to see from a perspective we hadn’t yet considered, we can learn yet more of our beautiful God who can do more than we can ask or think… and whose love is deeper, broader, wider than we have yet understood… (Ephesians 3: 18) and in whose story we can all be found…”

Read more about Symon Hill’s book, The Upside Down Bible, here https://symonhill.org/writing-3/the-upside-down-bible/

Read more about Liz Edman’s book and watch her video clipswww.queervirtue.com

Read more about Frs Brian and Shay and Queer Theology here https://www.queertheology.com/queer-gospel/

Watch Fr Shay’s video about Thomas here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EnkXzBqfNUY&ab_channel=QueerTheology

Read the full text of Asher O’ Callaghan’s piece on creation and gender here OtSSupcgotrnsoaaoSrbeicer tco2Sa3i,t 2dh01o8

Ruth Yorke, sermon shared on 11th April 2021 in Birmingham UK

Wanna be a Grinch?

We probably all have an idea of ‘the Grinch’ – that friend or relative who seems to find no joy in things and make them miserable for others – especially around Christmas festivities. I have often referred to myself as a Grinch because (shock horror!) we only decorate our home at Christmas with a nativity set and Christmas cards that people give us, rather than anything like tree/tinsel etc. Many friends and relatives have tried to convince me that my life would be more complete if I were to stop being a Grinch!

I just re-watched the film of ‘the Grinch’ this evening and I realised that I want to be a Grinch! I don’t want to spoil the book or the film for you so stop reading now if you don’t know the ending….

(space so you don’t see the plot – look away, watch/read and return!)…

but the Grinch is someone who had strongly held views, views born of hardness and pain, views strong enough to act on them in ways which brought misery to everyone around him and made him a social pariah.

But the Grinch is also someone who attracted, miraculously, the kindness of a small child. And because of that kindness, and because he could see a way to be different, the Grinch was transformed. The Grinch realises that his cold-hearted way of living (specifically in hating Christmas) is not how he wants to live anymore, and despite being well known for his views, he allows them to change. He has stolen from everyone, deliberately tried to destroy their Christmas, but stops the path to destroying everyone’s Christmas gifts, risking himself in the process, makes amends and apologises. The community welcome him, and he is transformed.

Love and kindness, allowed into his heart, make all the difference.

So I say – “let’s all be Grinches!” – because let’s all be people who allow even long-held beliefs and ideas which are born of hard-heartedness to be let go; let’s allow our hearts to be melted, changed, transformed. Let’s make amends where we can, apologise where we can, live differently and not let the past hold us back from letting kindness and love transform.

So me – I am a but Grinch, and I hope to be moreso! Here’s to the Grinch!

Joined across distance?

A note on ‘The Communion of Saints’ in this time of Covid.

Many years ago, it became ‘in vogue’ to look around the rest of the church/meeting when everyone said ‘the grace’, which is a short prayer which is often used at the end of a church service (or meeting). The prayer is ‘may the Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with us all, evermore, Amen’.

The idea is that it’s more meaningful to pray this while looking at people. When I was a teenager, this practice started, it was more friendly, and I joined in.

Around 15 years ago, I stopped looking around (unless I’m at the front leading), because instead, with my closed eyes, I picture everyone in the room, and alongside them I picture Christian friends in this country and around the world (specifically in Mongolia, where I have another ‘home church’) and friends in heaven. For me, in this short prayer, we all ‘come together as one’ and I find it really special.

For me, this is connected to the idea of the ‘Communion of Saints’. I am aware that this is a whole theology, which is not part of my very ‘low church’ protestant tradition, so my apologies to Roman Catholic and Anglo Catholic readers.

But for me, the Communion of Saints is that connectedness, not just between earth and heaven, but across the world, where the Love of God connects and binds us to each other in a way I can’t even find words for.

I have found these thoughts even more important in Covid, when I can’t even meet with the people I live within a few miles of, who I would usually be in the same room as, eyes closed, picturing the other ‘saints’.

For me, Communion of Saints is a connectedness in and through God’s love that knows no bounds. Not death, not miles, not even isolation or Covid rules.

So I share these thoughts in case they are also encouraging to you. In God’s love, even when distant, even when alone, whether on earth or in heaven, we remain connected and we remain in the love and grace of God.

Created equal, but not the same…

In our rush to be united and positive, can we miss God’s point?

I keep hearing things about how we’re ‘all the same’ – like the tv show ‘Embarrassing Bodies’ slogan, ‘there’s no shame, we’re all the same’, and today I heard a pastor say, ‘When God looks at us, he doesn’t see Black and White, he sees his children’.

Well, I say She does see Black and White. Deliberately so. I say we’re not all the same.

I do understand that point – and the idea that ‘we’re all the same’ is about our shared humanity – and that’s an important point to make – yes – we are all equally human, in all our marvellous diversity of colour, ethnicity, sexuality, levels of ability, neurodiversity, gender identities – nothing makes us more or less important than someone else. Yes!

But the subtle danger of this message can be to say that our differences don’t matter. In the sense of all being human, they don’t. Not at all. I’m with Jo Cox on, ‘we…have far more in common than that which divides us’. Of course. Yes.

But actually as someone who loves diversity and is serious about inclusion, I also want to affirm that we are different, deliberately so, and that that is good.

When God looks at us – Black and Asian and White and… , or cis or trans or non binary or intersex, in all our variety and diversities,  God sees ‘someone God loves’ and sees someone who is Black, someone who is Asian, someone who is…who they are… God sees someone cis, someone trans, someone non binary, someone intersex. Our identity is not peripheral to our humanity but part of our humanity. Our diversity is not a distraction to our beauty in humanity, but an essential component.

When we take that seriously, those differences become part of the beauty of creation that we want to appreciate, explore, listen to, understand.

I have a friend who has a ‘leaf identity app’ – no more for him saying, ‘what a lovely tree!’ – he is there with his phone app taking a photo, identifying the tree and then learning about it. He is fascinating to go for a walk with! ‘They’re all just trees, they’re all the same’ you may cry… ‘ah, but see this leaf pattern, see this bark, see this flower, this fruit – see this diversity’…

This is the spirit of appreciating diversity in humanity too. When we really value diversity, ‘we’re all the same’ is the starting point which underpins all people in shared humanity, and we then want to understand all our ‘varieties’ (ref to the trees!), which with people usually means meeting, listening, talking, sharing, asking what matters. And often we may start to understand not only how wonderful diversity is, how interesting to learn about the experiences and lives of others, but also that this diversity sometimes has a cost.

The cost of diversity is often (though not always) because a diversity is not a majority group in the context the person lives in, they often face discrimination, prejudice, misunderstanding, even abuse and violence. This can run to laws – local and national – which make their lives hard or even impossible.

People not affected by that discrimination then have their ‘moment’ to step up and take action.  Because truly – when you value diversity and learn it’s under threat, you want to do something.  We can’t just shrug our shoulders.

People who are in the majority in their context may never face those threats. Which is good – but it is easy to then feel it’s ‘not our issue’ if it isn’t affecting us. That’s called ‘privilege’: when we can just choose not to mind about an injustice –  because people being daily and routinely disadvantaged or discriminated against don’t have the luxury of not minding about it.

If I am in a majority group, I am not expected to explain myself, reveal who I am, ‘come out’, answer the repeated question ‘where are you from?’ or be repeatedly asked if I’m really disabled if I’m not using a wheelchair, or ‘why are you in a wheelchair?’ or other intrusive questions which are actually not a strangers business.

Those of us who say we love diversity and are inclusive, have work to do. Yes in listening, sharing, meeting with people (online at the moment?!), reading up, educating ourselves, and then in standing/sitting together with others, learning from people what they need and what we need to campaign about, joining with them in working for a just world where they can just live their lives as equally human and not having to hide (or constantly explain) who they are; using any leverage or influence we have to make sure they are heard, consulted, listened to – by us and by others.

In our humanity, ‘we’re all the same’, and of equal value.  In our appearance, understanding, identity, culture, language, experiences of life – we all differ – and that’s wonderful – to be celebrated not overlooked.

Finally then, I don’t think God looks at us and sees we’re all the same. I don’t believe God is colourblind, or genderblind, or anything else-blind – I am very sure God made our diversity because God finds it beautiful. It is deliberate and planned that we are NOT all the same in our expression of humanity. Moreso, it is an expression of being made in God’s beautiful image. All of us. None of our diversity and difference is supposed to be overlooked, and neither is it a reason to exclude, judge, lecture, discriminate, abuse or do violence to someone. It’s meant to be beauty that we appreciate, enjoy, discover, defend.

“For you are beautifully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139 verse 14)

Easter Saturday – I don’t think we’re there yet…

Easter Saturday is a time of waiting, a liminal space between the sorrow of Good Friday and the coming joy of Easter.

Right now, I feel that Easter Saturday is ‘ahead’ of where we are as a nation.

Holy Week for me this year has felt like a fast-walk through the Covid-19 crisis.

In Holy Week, we get the inkling that change is coming. The ‘Hosannas’ of Palm Sunday quickly turn into the thought-provoking devotions of Passion Sunday. Before we know it, we’re at Maundy Thursday, contemplating suffering and death, sensing it coming. Jesus meets with his friends, they share supper together, he goes to pray, asks his friends to stay awake and pray with him. The soldiers come for him. He has been let down – and suddenly everything they all knew is changing and the world is going dark. Jesus’ friends are separated from him.

Good Friday defined by death and suffering, exhaustion, pain, abandonment, denial and last breath.

I feel that we are in these two places right now – for some of us, we are still in Maundy Thursday – aware that change is here and that we need to change how we are, pray, be alert. Separated from those we love.  Aware that we need to adjust to a different reality.

Others are already in Good Friday – our frontline workers who are dealing directly with the effects of the virus on human bodies – their patients and their own. They are directly in the midst of pain, death, exhaustion, suffering, people in situations where last breaths are taken and death is a reality.

Although the calendar tells me it is Easter Saturday, in relation to Covid-19, we are yet waiting for Easter Saturday. Waiting for a time when the death is over and there is a pause, a space, where we wait for joy.

I keep thinking of the phrase ‘holding on to Hope’, because that seems crucial to me. In this situation, for some of us on Maunday Thursday, many people in Good Friday, it is a dream to get to Easter Saturday.

I pray that will come and that soon we will all know the joy of Easter, when we are in a new dawn, and a place of life and joy.

A ‘Rule of Life’ for these strange times?

Could creating or living by a Rule of Life be good for you in this extraordinary time?

I am part of a religious order (the Methodist Diaconal Order, MDO) and of the many things that means, it means we have a ‘Rule of life’. That may sound a bit harsh or restrictive, mainly because of the word ‘Rule’ I guess! But in fact, it is a way of sustenance, strength, freedom and also challenge.

So I am wondering whether this time  – which for many of us, even if only sometimes, can be a time of change, fear, illness, instability, uncertainty – is the ideal time for each of us to consider our own ‘Rule of life’? It may begin as temporary in this time of crisis and you can review it in coming months.

There are many perspectives on ‘Rules of Life’, but for me, the word ‘Rule’ in this context can be seen as ‘rhythm’, ‘pattern’,  ‘routine’ or ‘practice’ – much like the ‘Rules’ that govern nature – the sun ‘by Rule’ rises and sets, the sea ‘by Rule’ ebbs and flows, and so on…

I’ll explain a bit how it is for me… I find within our Rule of Life, the way to live in a rhythm or pattern that enables me to fulfill the ministry of my vocation as a Methodist Deacon. It also makes space within it for my vocation as a wife, family member and friend. The particular challenges of that vocation are supported, strengthened, and enabled to be sustained by living in the way the Rule guides.

For me, the Rule of Life helps me keep to a discipline, which is shared in our Order, and it challenges me to live in the way I have committed to. I seek to live in this way and to ‘inhabit it’ each day. It is not something to ‘beat myself up with’ but something I work with and try to ‘breathe in’ and become, recognising that sometimes I will be more ‘in tune’ than at others.

For me, it is also about balance – between living my interior life and exterior life, between time consciously given to ‘work’ and time consciously ‘switching off’ from that work. It reminds me that other people are important and that the vocation isn’t about being ‘busy doing good’ but about living the life I’m called to live. 

I wonder what your ‘Rule of Life’ would need in it to support, strengthen and enable the ministry of your vocation to be sustained?  Your vocation, your life-calling, may feel quite different at the moment than in usual times. We usually talk about ‘vocation’ in long term language, but in these days, I believe we can find vocation, life purpose, a useful way to look at what is newly being required of us at the present time and in coming days, which we very much hope will be short-term. You may suddenly be finding that your usual rhythms and routines are impossible, and that the way that you normally keep your balance and sustain your good humour, is under severe pressure, especially with social activities and gatherings only possible over the internet. You may suddenly be at home more than you’re used to, or alone more than you’re used to; you may suddenly trying to work and parent full time, at the same time, or may be struggling to keep working in a ‘keyworker’ job which is under extraordinary pressure.

A Rule of Life can help to find that balance and remind us who we are, even in times of stress. It can help us to mentally ‘take a step back’ or pause for a moment to wonder how we respond in the context of our vocation.

In this sudden change of routine for most of us, this is when having a Rule of Life feels even more crucial that it could otherwise.

I encourage you to have a look at some Rules of Life, including if you like, the MDO Rule of Life (there are several links to Rules of Life at the end) and if you can, copy out the parts that resonate with you and make some additions that will be useful to you – you could ‘glean’ something from several perhaps? or you may find one that suits you just as it is.

All of these Rules of Life will have been written specifically for the vocation the followers of that Rule are called to. Therefore, looking at your own vocation will be important in deciding what to include in your Rule of Life.  

In writing your own Rule of Life, if you are in a faith group, you may want to include aspects like worship and prayer (in ways that work with who you are), serving God and others, thinking each day or week about how God is involved in your life and the lives of others and how you might be being challenged to grow or change? You may want to commit to things/people you find life-giving, and to ensure you take periods of time ‘off’ for rest, and finding support. Vocation can be multi-faceted, and so your Rule of Life can reflect what you need to help you in that that means right now. It isn’t about writing yourself an impossible list, or something akin to ‘new years resolutions’, but to guide and enable, sustain and support.  

A Rule of Life is generally a guide and written in a way that gives space for each day to unfold differently – it is more ‘principles’ than a tight schedule.  (A helpful guide on writing your own Rule of Life is referenced below.) Though if you are someone who finds a schedule helpful, you can write your Rule that way.

There are many more things one could write about having a Rule of Life – the MDO is currently consulting on ours and whilst some common themes are emerging, it is also true that there is a diversity in how we express it, and what it means for each, and how it ‘works’ for each. We are all different, even though we all follow the same Rule. The Rule has space in it for both diversity and unity. Most Rules of Life are shared, and one is accountable to others in how one lives it (for example, in the case of a Religious Order) and indeed, you may want to get together with people you live with, or chat on the phone/online with friends about writing a shared one? 

I wonder if, in this particular time, having a Rule of Life that you find sustaining and supportive, that offers you some guide and balance, which can be as simple as you like – could offer anyone – of a faith group or not, and in a group or following it alone – something special at this time?

Ruth Yorke

Useful links:

About the Methodist Diaconal Order Rule of Life (uk)

https://www.methodist.org.uk/about-us/the-methodist-church/the-diaconal-order/living-by-a-rule/

On writing your own Rule of Life: (this link is being difficult! please put ‘Methodist Church, writing a Rule of Life’ into your search engine if there is a space here!)

http://www.methodist.org.uk/media/5035/dd-explore-devotion-writing-a-rule-of-life-0313.pdf

The Benedictine Rule

http://www.benedictfriend.org/the-rule.html

The Franciscan Third Order, Rule of Life

The Iona Rule of Life (note differences for Community of Iona and Associate Members)

‘Love in the time of Covid-19’?

The title of ‘Love in the time of Cholera’ has got me thinking this week. Sadly I haven’t read the book, it’s just the title that has reverberated round my mind and heart this week.

In the midst of Coronavirus and the massive impact on our society, what is ‘Love in the time of Covid-19’? What does it look like? What does it mean? What does it ‘do’?

The answers to that are huge and diverse. One response might be that love does what it always does, but in the time of enforced social distancing, love just finds a different way to do it.

So love that generally embraces, holds, even shakes a hand, decides that for the sake of the other, the physical contact will be withheld and instead affection and warmth will be shown in another way. How? When we could still meet – through smiles, through caring enough to wash hands, stand far enough away to not accidentally carry infection to someone vulnerable? And now in social distancing we cannot be in such proximity… what does love mean?

In my own Christian tradition, and in my own ministry, bringing people together, building community, developing more links between people, building connections, is crucial and it’s what I’m about.

What is love in the time of Covid-19? What is my ministry of community in a time of Covid-19?

Strangely, love is now redefined as keeping our distance, but only physically. The phone, a long-time friend, is suddenly much more essential. Not just a way to make arrangements to meet, but the way we meet. The internet not just a source of information or social chit-chat and photo sharing, but an essential tool in maintaining relationships and care for each other.

This evening, my colleague and I hosted a messenger group chat and catch up where 9 of us shared how we are, chatted generally, laughed a lot, shared prayer concerns and ideas for ‘getting through this’. At the end of the call, I felt inspired by these wonderful people, and I think we all felt more positive about being able to ‘meet’ in this way again, indeed, whenever we want – ‘just click on the video icon and see who’s about’. Permission to connect.

In the next week, another colleague and I will pre-record our Sunday welcome, prayers and sermon, to be shared online, and daily prayers held at our church are already being streamed daily for anyone who wants to connect over the ether and join others in prayer.

Maybe working out what love is in this context will stretch our imaginations, stretch our hearts and minds?

A church member has ordered a mass of palm crosses, so that they can be sent out to folk for Palm Sunday, and is planning Easter cards. ‘It’s important people still know they are part of the church, that they’re remembered, that they belong’.

This is love in the time of Covid-19.

The pastoral group leaders are contacting every person on each of their ‘lists’ to check on people and see if there are unmet needs we can help with. Younger members or those less at risk are offering to do errands or make regular calls to people now isolated who are used to being able to get out.

Local people have put together a Facebook group to co-ordinate need requests from people self isolating or ill, with volunteers doing food collections and deliveries and errand-runners. I heard a story of a man who managed to get the last pack of 12 toilet rolls in a shop, only to end up sharing them, for free, with an older lady who’d grabbed for the same pack.

There is a trend for ‘viral kindness’. Love in the time of Covid-19. Making connections. Making friends of strangers.  

The Foodbank list is still up with foods most needed, but we now have also the cash donation page and the days in which they’re most desperate for volunteers – maybe love in the time of Covid-19 will change how we give to the Foodbank – cash and time rather than tins and packets?

Love in the time of Covid-19 means for me also includes making a list of friends and relatives I know will either now be home alone or home with children and making a plan to call and check on them, offer a listening ear, laugh together, catch up (when do I make time to call usually? Not as much as I mean to…).

Covid-19 is awful. It can kill. It is damaging and ruining lives.

And yet, Covid-19 is teaching us new ways to love, of connecting, of caring – and reminding us of ways to love that we don’t make time for.

Someone has written a beautiful piece akin to a dream – that we will, hopefully in just a few months – be able to appreciate more the simple things we took for granted – being able to meet a friend for coffee, being able to meet together for planning events, worship, prayer, socialising, going to see a film or theatre –   maybe Covid-19 will remind us how much we have.

For some, Covid-19 is a daily, in-your-face crisis with sacrifices – health workers and others who are on the frontline, fighting the disease, a daily putting-themselves-at-risk that those sick or at high risk may be cared for. For others, it is a different crisis – one that makes their stressful job  more stressful, or makes their ‘normal job’ suddenly crucial (have we ever properly appreciated shop workers and people who drive lorries to deliver food to shops as much as we do right now? people who keep water, electricity, gas, internet and other services available to so many of us?)

For charities working with homeless people and refugees, the choice to currently keep services open is literally saving lives, and yet sacrificial – many homeless people and refugees have lower immunity – they are more at risk and the services are crucial, but it is hard to provide them without being in contact with each other.

Love in the time of Covid-19 for some involves sacrifice, for some just extra effort and stress. For those of us on the receiving end of services, maybe love in the time of Covid-19 includes appreciation, gratitude, recognising the people who are really crucial to our lives.

Love in the time of Covid-19 may be about being aware of the value of others and affording worth to those who are so crucial but who are used to being overlooked, and underpaid. About understanding what’s important, finding news way to connect, to include and demonstrate belonging, new ways to care and appreciate and attribute worth.

What, for you, is ‘love in the time of Covid-19’?

Ruth Yorke

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