The ‘neutral gender bathroom’, specially designated in the Indiana Convention Centre for those attending the General Convention 2012, has been a cause of some mirth. Even TransEpiscopal delegates, pleased to see that the organisers had addressed the request for this facility for transgender people, were amused by the sequence of the words. It should, of course, have read ‘gender neutral bathroom’. The laughter covers a serious problem. Toilets can be a nightmare for some transgender people, especially those who, because they are ambiguous in their gender expression for some reason, are accused of being in the ‘wrong’ space, or expected to use the disabled toilets. A gender neutral bathroom, well-signed as such, so that no one is in any doubt, can be a much needed safe space.
When I was growing up the church community felt very much a safe space, where I was nurtured in Christian beliefs and values, and learned that I was loved and accepted by God – something I was only to realise fully, as heart knowledge, much later when I became an adult. I’m not suggesting that church, even the small parish church I attended, was safe for everyone – I can see now that class distinctions were in operation – but it was for me, most of the time.
Church was a safe place and, funnily enough, a gender neutral space. Shaking hands at the door after church I overheard one of our youth group, a farming lad, observe that the vicar had such soft hands compared to his. And I remember, after the next vicar’s induction, two or three clergy, almost being run over by a bus as they crossed the road like a gaggle of silly schoolgirls. Our female youth leader on the other hand, was dynamic, forceful and proud of the fact that she, rather than her husband, was in charge of the household accounts. All examples of a fairly gentle blurring of gender stereotypes, but church culture, as I recall it, felt a safe space for that kind of thing, though, of course, at that time the clergy were all male (though not all were stereotypically masculine as I’ve just noted).
Schools and university were, for me, if not gender neutral, then at least co-educational. My friends were male and female, and so it seemed obvious to me, naively as it transpired, that women would be ordained to the priesthood sooner rather than later. Some women went to theological college in the late 1970s with episcopal assurance that women would be being priested by the time they left. The same bishop looked forward to the time that gay clergy would be able to live (openly?) with their partners in the vicarage. These were hopeful days (as Colin also remembers them being in Southwark).
But women’s ordination to the priesthood didn’t happen quickly at all. The Church of England, to its shame, obtained exemption from the Sex Discrimination Act – and from much subsequent equality legislation – making the Church a less than safe place for women and, after the fateful Higton debate in 1987, for lesbians, gays and, more recently, trans people.
What we need now is for the Church to become a safe, gender neutral space. I’m not talking about a little room hidden down a corridor, like the conference ‘bathroom’ we began with, where those who are different or oppressed have to huddle. The Church of England needs to become – or make it abundantly clear that it is – broad and accommodating: like the Indiana Conference Centre itself, which at 400,000 square feet was a huge ‘tent’ under which every aspect of the Episcopal Church’s life could be celebrated, and where people felt safe to ‘witness’ to the truth of God in their lives irrespective of race, colour, ethnic origin, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, age, disabilities, gender identity and expression.
But that tent, so safe for the majority in the Episcopal Church, has become an uncomfortable place for those who hold more conservative views, especially since many who would agree with them have already left. ‘Is there a place for me in this church?’ asked the opponents of same-sex blessings, and much the same was said by opponents of the un-amended legislation on women bishops in the Church of England. The words of Susan Russell, former President of Integrity USA, seem to apply to both: “There is a critical difference between feeling excluded because you are disagreed with and being excluded because of who you are.” Indeed.
Can we, here in England, avoid some sort of split, if the two visions are as incompatible as they seem to be? Can the hurts and divisions within the Anglican Communion, which I felt with greater force in America, be healed. Can safe neutral spaces be created for honest conversation between those who are bitterly divided? I hope so and caught a vision of it in the map of the Indian Convention Centre itself, a vast space, but linked by ‘skywalks’ to the nine or so hotels where everyone was staying. Auspiciously, one of the hotels was called Canterbury! Are we, as members of the Church of England, prepared to walk the walk from the ‘hotels’ of our own favoured traditions and securities, and gather with people who are different from us, and who disagree with us, in a big top where safety is prized, honesty encouraged, and everyone honoured as a child of God?