Today I am coming home – as a transgender female and as a priest: both of these together. I preside at this eucharist integrating, with those vital parts of my identity finally united, and my heart dances. It has been a long journey. For I was ordained priest in London thirty years ago last month, and I presided at the eucharist for the first time, but with much brokenness in my heart and pain in my soul. Only men could be priests in England at that time and, whilst I was, or seemed to be, a male, it really, really, hurt. It cut so deep because of all that was rejected, not least my wife, with whom I had shared exactly the same priestly formation and whose vocation was as clear as mine. It cut deep too, I now recognise, because something inside me knew that there was something not right about who and what I was. I could not put that into words properly at the time. We were still so impoverished back then. I did not have the language, the awareness, to recognise that I was myself female, never mind the self-acceptance. So it was more than solidarity that made me resist, almost to the last moment, full acceptance of my priestly ordination. I wrestled hard in my soul about how I could go forward when I was doing damage to my heart. In the end, I did not delay it. I told myself that I could do more good for inclusivity and women inside the men’s club, with a vote and an active, articulate voice in the house of clergy. I told my heart too that, irrespective of the politics of gender, God had called me first and I had no right to delay that vocation, even on the terms offered, for it was of God. I was right on both counts. Therefore I chuckle now that a female was indeed ordained priest in me thirty years ago, and by a bishop who was the most ardent episcopal opponent of women’s ordination at the time. I hope, and trust, that, in the renewing space of heaven, Bishop Graham Leonard is also dancing with joy For thirty years ago last month, whilst part of me truly rejoiced in God’s gift, a sword also pierced my soul. Today that wound is finally healed....
Let me begin with a famous story from the life of St Francis of Assisi.
A long time ago, the town of Gubbio in Italy had a major problem. A wolf had been eating their livestock and attacking, and even killing, those who had been sent to kill him. Understandably therefore the people of Gubbio grew very afraid, and even frozen in their fear, quarreling together about what was to be done and inflicting their anger and anxiety on one another. What could be done? In the end, they realised, perhaps only God could save them, so they asked the holiest person they knew, St Francis of Assisi, to help.
St Francis did not take the task lightly. He knew that the wolf was indeed capable of great violence. Yet, as someone who was particularly close to the ways of animals, he sensed that there might be another way. So he took courage and walked out into the woods where the wolf scarily lay. Then, in the depths of the forest, making the sign of the cross as the wolf came upon him, he spoke softly ‘Brother Wolf, I will not hurt you. Let us talk in peace.’ The wolf was caught in uncertainty. This man did not approach him with weapons and violence. He had no anger or fear. Instead, Francis’ powerful spirit of peace and compassion unnerved him, touching his own pain and fear. So the wolf sat down on his haunches and listened. Francis told the wolf what the people of Gubbio were experiencing, all about their pain and fear and anger, and he asked the wolf ‘why are you attacking the livestock and the people? Why did you kill?’
The story goes on that the wolf then told Francis his story: how he had been left behind by his own pack when he was injured: how he preferred deer and rabbits but he could not run fast enough to catch them, so had had to settle for the people’ sheep and goats; how he only attacked when he was really desperate and hungry; and how he had only killed people when they had seemed to threaten him. Hours passed as Francis and the wolf pondered together. Then Francis, understanding that the wolf had genuine remorse for what he had done, asked the wolf to accompany him to Gubbio, to ask forgiveness, that all might be reconciled. Slowly the wolf put his paw in Francis’ hand and they walked into the town.
In Gubbio, the people were amazed and powerfully moved by the wolf’s repentance. For those who had lost loved ones or livelihoods, it was particularly challenging. Could they too let go of their own pain and fear and violence, share in God’s forgiveness and begin again together in peace? Time passed with much reflection. However, in the spirit of Christ, anguish turned to healing and even expectation. The wolf was turned from enemy into friend, and the town’s greatest help and protector. How then might we too respond, in our fear and struggles, to those who seem to threaten us in our own day?...
At times Jesus must have felt, as perhaps sometimes we feel, that he could not win. Had he followed the ascetic practices of John the Baptist he would have been condemned as demon possessed. As it is, his critics are quick to judge his joyous engagement with life as a failure of self control and an indicator of immorality. He compares the society around him with a bunch of quarrelsome children, who are refusing to enter into the dances and activities associated with wedding and funeral feasts - in other words they are refusing the very stuff of life. When we refuse to engage with the stuff of life, in all its joy and terror, we repress our emotions and become hard of heart. Then we can indeed become quarrelsome and irritable, concentrating on minor details and neglecting the big picture. Jesus is saddened when this happens, because we miss out on so much. We also end up weighed down with burdens too heavy to carry, that are of our own making, just as the Pharisees did in Jesus own day.
So what is to be done? Firstly we need to look to Jesus, who as the incarnation of God was not afraid to experience the full range of our human emotions of joy, anger, fear and grief. He lived passionately out of the very height and depth of human feeling. Now that can be pretty confronting for ourselves and sometimes others. As most of you know Jo and I have recently become grandparents. This week our daughter has been facing the challenges of an infant living into the fullness of their human emotions, expressing himself in anger and crying as well as beginning to reward her efforts with first smiles. It is quite a challenge for both of them. Yet infants as Jesus said, do indeed sometimes understand things better than adults...