Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Reflections of a First-Time Christian Speaker

As I type, I've just returned home from my sixth trip to the Greenbelt festival, this time held at the beautiful Boughton House, just outside Kettering. This year was different, though, as it's the first time I've been a contributor. I took part in two events, firstly by sharing some of the more comical aspects of my story of going through gender reassignment, as part of the Tenx9 storytelling programme run by the lovely Padraig O'Tuama and his partner Paul Doran, and secondly by taking part in a panel discussion in the Big Top entitled 'We're Not an Issue; We're a Gift', about queer people in the church. I wanted to reflect on this experience and offer a few thoughts on wider issues that I've been pondering now I've caught up on sleep!
This year, Greenbelt have been making a conscious effort to include a wider variety of voices as they move to a new location and try to get back to their roots to some extent. As such, there was a call for submissions a few months beforehand. Having sat there listening to others say their piece in previous years, I've thought it'd be fun to have a crack at doing a talk, so I submitted a proposal for what I guess was an extended theological reflection: using my experiences of facilitating Transgender Day of Remembrance events in Milton Keynes as a lens, I planned to reflect on how we might make connections with groups such as (but not limited to) LGBTQI people, who have often been hostile to church with good reasons, using Ann Morisy's work on 'apt liturgy' from her book 'Journeying Out'. It later turned into a small group session I led, and a blog post on sacred spaces. From the response I got, I think my proposal was a little misunderstood by the Greenbelt talks team, but it seems it led in the fullness of time to the invitation to be on this panel. The storytelling, by contrast, came about through me volunteering in the week before the festival; I thought it would be a laugh!
Tenx9 involves getting nine people to tell real-life stories of up to ten minutes in length. The theme for the session I took part in was 'change', and as it turns out, I was one of three trans people taking part. Someone told the very moving story of the impact on their life of a gas explosion in their neighbour's house, and another guy had us all laughing with the story of how he once accidentally made a nun say 'penis'. I love the variety of stories and storytellers at these events, which are very democratic. We had two 'famous Christians', if I can use that term, as contributors, along with a guitarist who once played the Albert Hall; the rest of us were ordinary peeps from all sorts of backgrounds. People seemed to enjoy what I had to say, which felt kinda good if I'm honest. Transitioning can be bloody hard going at times, and it's nice to be able to share the ample humour I've found during that journey. It felt very comfortable as it was held in one of the smaller venues, and through my local preaching I'm used to addressing a room like that.
The panel discussion was a whole different kettle of fish! Beforehand, Sally and I had joked about Adrian Plass' 'Sacred Diary' books and his fictional alter ego's experiences as a Christian speaker; with that in mind, it all felt like entering a rather alien little world. It was my first time doing anything like that, and especially given all the others on the panel (Rachel Mann, Sara Miles, Padraig O'Tuama and Tracey Byrne) were all experienced at this sort of thing, I felt very nervous. If I'm honest, I also felt like a bit of an imposter. I know through personal experiences and community activism type stuff I've done, I had useful things to say, and I'd like to think I'm not completely theologically illiterate. However, I did find myself wondering what I was doing there - have I become a sort of professional trans man by accident? Would anyone take what I have to say seriously, or just wonder why this odd little guy with his skinny tie and spikey hair was even there?
I don't think it went too badly in the end, though being very tired, having cold and wet feet (thus meaning I was shivering all the way through) and being put on the spot a few times didn't help with the whole 'thinking on my feet' thing. It was great certain people were trying to be so affirming, but I guess I need to have the confidence to say so when I'm not sure I have much to say for myself! I did manage to stammer out the couple of (hopefully) semi-intelligent things I'd figured out beforehand, and I hope I didn't sound too daft or self-centred the rest of the time! Afterwards, I had some really good conversations, including with someone I'd last had any contact with two years ago, and feel it was worth the uncomfortableness I felt before and during. It may sound silly, but it was good to feel I was being taken seriously by people like Rachel, who are properly clever (her background is in philosophy) and whom I like and respect. However, it all got me thinking about how strange the Christian bubble(s) can be, and reflecting on some of the less healthy aspects of it all.
First up, I wonder if we are in danger of creating a bunch of 'Christian celebrities', if you see what I mean, out of a group of people who just happen to be queer. Contrary to Mark Driscoll's complaint about the comparative lack of famous pastors or preachers on this side of the pond, I think it's healthy that we don't seem to go in for putting certain people on pedestals as much, not least because everyone has feet of clay when it comes down to it, and the only way to go once on a pedestal is splat on the floor! However, it does seem that this is beginning to happen to a bunch of people like Vicky Beeching (who chose to come out recently) and Sally Hitcher (who was publically outted against her will), for example, which is neither a good sign, nor something they've necessarily sought out.

There's a risk that, when we make heroes of such people, we end up (inadvertently?) reducing them to simply one-dimensional representative figures, focusing so much on their queerness that we miss out on what else they are and have to offer. I no more want to be the 'go-to trans man', as someone put it to me, than I'm sure anyone wants to be typecast or pigeon-holed in this  way, but when we make celebrities of people that's exactly the risk we run.
Secondly, one of the good things about Greenbelt opening things up like this is that it's a move towards greater democratisation.  However, there's still a question there about who gets to have a public voice and on what basis. Looking around me, I can't help but feel that being ordained, being part of the academy or being involved in things like community activism as a full-time thing means someone is taken more seriously than people not in those brackets might be. It strikes me that, even in denominations like the Methodist Church, which are better than many at affirming certain lay ministries, there's a tendency towards clericalism and professionalisation that means someone who has much to offer and good things to say, but does things like preaching, leading worship or community activism alongside other paid work and/or caring responsibilities, just isn't usually given the same platform to speak, something that particularly impacts lay women. There are exceptions, but it's rare in my experience.

It's something I personally find frustrating as someone with a background in academic research working outside of academia (I'd love to do a talk on how Christianity and mathematics interact, but not being in the employ of a university wonder if anyone would consider giving me that chance?), but has a far wider scope: how much of an opportunity are we missing to hear valuable ideas and perspectives because of the (unrecognised?) prejudices of those in a position to act as gatekeepers? How far do the choices of those gatekeepers reflect the prejudices of the paying punters like me? Moreover, did being Dr Karl mean I got this chance when plain Mr Karl might've been overlooked?
Thirdly and more theologically, it seems to me that praise and adoration can actually be far more dangerous than criticism in throwing someone off course. The Gospels show that, time and again, Jesus had to deal with people who were all too ready to pull him to pieces, and faced with that degree of hostility, many of us would be tempted to back away from what we were doing. However, the greater danger came from the people who wanted to put Jesus on a pedestal, even to make him king at one point before he walked away. Praise can be seductive, as much as anything else because I suppose most of us want to be liked by others, and being well thought of feels pretty good. How many of us have done something we later regret because we got suckered in by flattery?

It's no accident, I would argue, that two out of the three temptations Jesus faced in the desert were to do with acting in ways that would've set him up as a kind of hero; instead, he chose the path of self-emptying rather than self-gratification. This isn't to say that there's no place for encouraging and affirming people; clearly there is, and much damage can be done by pushing messages that result in people struggling to see their own intrinsic value. Again, it's something that women often bare the brunt of, through people telling them they should never think of themselves and their needs. It does mean, though, that we need to be really careful in how we treat well-known or famous Christians at events like Greenbelt.
There's an accidental three-point sermon for you. I'm now off to do the laundry!

1 comment:

  1. Cracking read, Karl. The Christian 'Sleb thing is always interesting - I guess what matters to me is the substance behind the image. I think you've got something to say and contribute and we should focus on that. It's almost impossible to avoid being 'a representative' if one belongs to a perceived minority. My instinct is to both use it and do your best to subvert the representation. x


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