One reason feminism and religion often come to blows is their frequently differing stance on sexuality. Religion (especially Christianity) has a reputation for being homophobic.
Many Christians feel able to identify as feminist while simultaneously holding more conservative theology on sexuality. Others believe feminism, active LGBTQI sexuality and religious faith can all be held happily in tension.
I asked Rachel Mann – a trans woman, lesbian, priest in the Church of England and a feminist – to share her insights into this. (Also, follow her on Twitter at @RevRachelMann)
VB: Rachel thanks so much for your time. You describe yourself as a trans woman, a lesbian, a priest in the Church of England and a feminist. Tell me about that combination and your journey.
RM: How I can hold all of these together is a question I’ve often asked myself. For some readers the fact I’m ordained, trans and lesbian will be sufficient proof that the C of E is an apostate church. Others – and this includes some of my Anglican brothers and sisters – will be inclined to say it’s ok to be gay, trans and ordained as long as I am celibate. And others still – including (perhaps unsurprisingly) me – will say that God celebrates and rejoices in LGBTI folk and we are as much part of God’s work of salvation as anyone else.
VB: I have vast respect for the gracious way you interact with those who disagree with you on networks like Twitter. How do you answer people who challenge you about how you embrace your sexuality and your faith?
RM: Well, as someone who spent over ten years being formed and trained as a secular philosopher I always want to frame questions carefully. Alas, there isn’t space to be pernickety, but in asking ‘Does Christianity support LGBTI people?’ I want to ask supplementary questions like ‘Whose Christianity?’ and ‘What do we mean by ‘support’ and indeed, LGBTI people?’
As a philosopher I was trained to take arguments for and against a proposition very seriously, but experience tells me that seeking to live the Gospel and come to a mind on any social issue is not so much a matter of argument as relationship.
I taught philosophy of religion, including arguments for the existence of God, yet no argument ever convinced me of God’s reality; it was only in prayer and trust that I entered into relationship with God. My point is this: I do not propose to offer water-tight arguments in favour of God’s or ‘Christianity’s’ support for queer people. Indeed, I’m not even sure I’m offering arguments in any traditional sense. Rather, I want to open up possibilities for thinking creatively and critically.
VB: What would you say to non-religious feminists who see the Bible as homophobic and something that should be rejected in favour of a non-theistic approach to life?
RM: We do no honour to the Bible if we treat it like the spiritual equivalent of one of those old Hayne’s Car Manuals, simply offering a step by step way to holy living. Feminist scholars like myself have been keen to outline how some parts of the Bible are ‘texts of terror’ against women; black and womanist theologians have done the same with biblical texts which are used against ethnic minorities. We need to acknowledge that the so-called ‘Seven Knock-Down Passages’ against gay folk are texts of terror too – that is, they have been used to legitimate hate, prejudice and violence. We acknowledge they are there, but as with modern understandings of gender and race relations, we place them in the context of a larger vision of God in Jesus Christ – God as love, reconciliation and compassion.
VB: More conservative Christians might say you are picking and choosing which parts of the Bible you accept and reject?
RM: The Bible always sits in relation to other texts, contexts and ourselves and texts have been variously interpreted over time. The classic passage from Genesis regarding Sodom has been interpreted as being about failure of hospitality as well as rape and sexuality. The ‘failure in hospitality’ interpretation is not necessarily a modern one either. Indeed, Jesus’ comments about it in Matthew 10 seem to focus on hospitality.
Crucially, the Bible is no mere instruction manual which interprets itself but a complex collection of often contradictory books which reflect the attempt of human beings – with all our brilliance, stupidity, foolishness and vanity – to comprehend what it means to be in relationship with God. And if there is one abiding theme of the collection – God’s faithfulness in love – then what that means has been unfolded over time and in time. So, as we have sought to understand what that faithful love means in each generation we have abandoned any number of things Christians have – at various times – claimed are part of God’s economy, not least the regulation of women’s behaviour and identity, and slavery.
VB: Many Christian feminists choose not to worship within the Church of England, or “Anglican” Church as it’s known, as it has been slower to accept female leaders than some other non-denominational churches. The Church of England still doesn’t have female bishops for example. Does this make it difficult for you to exist within it as a feminist?
RM: I am an unashamed Anglican. This does not mean I presume to suggest that the Church of England has some special insight into the purposes and intentions of God in Christ (heaven forbid!) but I want to acknowledge Anglicanism’s significance in forming my understanding of church polity and what it means to be a Christian in a particular time and place.
VB: Tell me more about that.
RM: Well, key to this is what I take to be a great gift in Anglican theology: the willingness to take seriously what an early Anglican theologian Richard Hooker called ‘The Three Fold Cord’. In essence, this is a picture of how the church community and its members might engage in journeying together and suggests we take (1) Scripture, (2) Tradition and (3) Reason/Experience as a ‘cord’ thoroughly intertwining each dimension with the other, informing and shaping our comprehension of God and living faithfully.
VB: How does that tie in with meshing Christainity, feminism and the LGBTQI community?
RM: Within the Three Fold Cord approach, the Bible is fundamentally significant but must also be unfolded in the light of Tradition and of the reality of human experience and reason. One implication is that the Bible – or Tradition or Reason for that matter – should not be allowed to become an idol: the traditions which have accrued over time are given due weight as are the insights derived from experience and reason. The latter factor is especially significant for our understanding of sexuality, gender and the Bible, for it is clear, from a close reading of historical, literary and scientific discourses, that what it means to be a human being and a Christian has changed significantly over time.
VB: So the homophobic reputation that Christianity has gained itself may in fact be something it can shake off over time?
RM: Yes. It is possible for Christianity to choose to ignore the insights of science, psychology and sociology as well as the practical experience of diverse communities, just as it is possible to ignore the insights derived from historical, form and redaction criticism of the Bible. Yet, perception shifts and understanding increases over time. Researchers into ‘intersex’, for example, have demonstrated that our gender dimorphism is a tragically crude way of dealing with what it means to be creatures living in our world (tragic not least because it has led to well-intentioned, but sometimes crushing interventions to ensure that individuals conform to a societally-authorized binary narrative).
VB: Do you think it will be easier in years to come for people to be feminist, LGBTQI and Christian?
RM: I do. I find this capacity for an expansion of our understanding of God’s unfolding kingdom to be a sign of the hope that lies within Christianity for LGBTI people: two hundred years ago or so it was still respectable in some parts of the world for a person to insist that one could be a Christian and be a slave holder. Is that imaginable now? Could anyone stand up in a ‘Bible-believing’ church and claim it’s cool to be a Christian and into slavery? I think not.
VB: What would you say to anyone in the LGBTQI community who feels the Christian faith is against them rather than for them?
RM: For LGBTI people, there is a dimension of Jesus Christ who is in solidarity with those who have been cast to the social and religious margins, who are outcast and who are, in the eyes of the comfortable and seemingly righteous, ‘unrighteous’.
As I suggest in my book, Dazzling Darkness: “God in Christ is all about passion: he becomes our victim, handed over to us, the subject of our jealousies, fears and our desire to be in control. This is a god who gets filthy in the dust of Palestine. This is a god tortured at the end of a whip. This is a god who is mocked and killed. This is no clean, unsullied immortal.
This is a man thoroughly caught up in and destroyed by the violence of the world. This is a man who is intimate with the world’s darkness. And in this ironic world it is the perpetrators of violence who claim to be agents of light: the keepers of the peace, the protectors of the faith and the saviours of the nation. And on any human calculation these claims are reasonable: to wish to protect the nation from further violence or from one’s occupiers is humanly commendable. These people are wearing metaphorical white hats.”
VB: That’s a powerful perspective.
RM: It’s only the one who is unafraid of darkness who embodies God’s way. Christ is the one who discovers in the darkness the hope for the world and who takes the darkness into his being. He is the rejected one who travels down into the darkness of the dead, who walks in the company of the dead and the lost and yet is not completely destroyed. He is the one who takes death within himself and offers new life and hope.
VB: Would you encourage religious people who feel they have a ‘handle’ on the truth to consider revisiting their beliefs about sexuality with an open mind?
RM: We are all caught up in nexuses of meaning and it remains unclear to me, at least, by what criteria one might arrive at a definitive assessment of the truth. As Christians we are inclined to assert that Christ is ‘The Way, The Truth, and the Life’ but what that actually means in lived reality should encourage humility.
VB: Have you always viewed God this way?
RM: My own experience of God suggests that s/he is more comprehending, generous and yet challenging than any god I might make for myself. When I became a Christian in my mid-twenties, I expected to encounter a God who was judgmental, harsh and obsessed with rules. The God I encountered was ultimately more terrifying – for this God invited me to follow a Way of reconciliation, generosity and love. This God still terrifies me for s/he is so much more forgiving and reconciling that I would ever want or could be. But that’s just my experience and where we start from tells us much about where we end up. Depending upon our experience, prejudices and the traditions that form and attract us we might arrive at quite differing conclusions, but my hope is that we can at least be honest about the often shaky foundations of our certainties and prejudices. Our humility may lie in recognizing that none of us possess Christianity as a discourse of mastery. In following the Way we walk into a joyous unknown.