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‘There are no secrets’ is the title of director Peter Brook’s 1993 ‘Thoughts on Acting and Theatre’ which I was reading on the way to this year’s Greenbelt Festival. The phrase is likely to remind members of the Church of England of the Collect for Purity, ‘Almighty God, to whom all hearts be open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hidden’ which is said at the beginning of the Holy Communion Service in many churches. What an extraordinary prayer it is – there is no hiding from God, it reminds us: our very hearts, even our deepest desires, are an open book to God; with God there is no hiding place.
In our social relationships, though, we hide from one another all the time, and one aspect that can be hidden, along with sexual orientation, is gender identity, which is why trans people, like lesbian, gay and bisexual people, decide to come out. They reach a point when they can no longer hide who they are, and their faith in God may be a positive contribution to that self-acceptance. That was the point of my visit to Greenbelt, to join Abigail Maxwell and Jamie Fletcher in a panel discussion: ‘Is gender bendable or fixed forever?’
But on the way I was reading Peter Brook, who begins ‘There are no secrets’ with the incident when he was lecturing in an English university to an audience that expected words of wisdom, as he stood, ‘six feet above’ (he doesn’t actually use the words ‘above contradiction’, like a preacher, but he might as well have done) his listeners, while he stared out into what he describes as ‘a big black hole’. Unable to see the audience, or connect with them, he asked for a change of room where he and they felt free to have a conversation.
A few hours later I am sitting with Jamie and Abigail in the Little Big Top. Three chairs have been placed for us on the platform but we are unable to use them as the angle of the spotlights is such that we too would be staring into a big black hole, unable to see our audience, who have also come for a conversation. We move and sit on the edge of the stage instead. The tent is still dark, but we can see some faces now among the shadows – old friends and people we’ve never met before, a wide spread of ages, and some children, even a baby.
We were as near an empty space as possible – Peter Brook would be pleased – which means that something interactive and creative might happen. We have our scripts, and Power Point slides, and also the usual nerves on these occasions, not least because this will be an open discussion and we have no idea how people are going to respond or what they might ask us. We are still looking into a black hole!
Earlier on Saturday, in the Glade Big Top, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, had been interviewed by Kate Bottley. That was also a conversation with the audience, one of whom asked the Archbishop when the Church would be able to bless her civil partnership to her female partner. There has been anger and frustration that the Archbishop replied that he couldn’t see the road ahead. He too was looking into a black hole it seems in relation to this, apparently straightforward, question.
How can we help the Archbishop, and other church leaders, to see the way forward? Perhaps our experience in the Little Big Top offers a clue. Convention had set up the three of us as ‘experts’ and we have all done some thinking and writing about being trans or gender queer and Christian; but there were lots of other experts in the room, and once we’d finished our presentations and the conversation took off, we were able to discern the way ahead.
This was an intergenerational conversation. I’m fourteen years older then Abigail (who told us her age) and Jamie is about eighteen years younger than Abigail. Our experiences are very different and we had much to learn from each other, and even more from the very young people who bravely spoke from the heart to that large crowd.
Many people of my generation – including the House of Bishops – conceptualise gender in binary terms: male/female, men/women, masculine/feminine. I understand my own transition in terms of a male-to- female trajectory, while realising that this shorthand phrase could easily mislead or over-simplify. Many young people just don’t see gender like that. For them gender is fluid, or they wish to express their gender in non-binary terms, and this can be hard in a church that continues to maintain the binary, for example, by insisting that marriage is exclusively for men and women.
What I saw as I peered into the darkness was a new generation that looks at things very differently from me, but that’s how the Spirit is moving, and it’s not for me to get in the way. I can join in the conversation, live within the old patterns if I want to, while embracing and learning from the new. I hope and pray that the Church of England’s House of Bishops will have the courage to look into their current black hole about gender and sexuality and discern the way ahead.
It will require a conversation with the young and I can see why the Diocesan Shared Conversations were meant to include a large percentage of young people. I wonder if that quota was met, but even if it was, the age profile of General Synod and of the House of Bishops means that an important conversation partner was and will be missing at those crucial stages. At least our Archbishop was prepared to gaze into ‘empty space’ in that Greenbelt Big Top.
As Peter Brook said, ‘there are no secrets’, that is, no specialist techniques, no ‘superior’ wisdom, when it comes to acting, and the same is true when it comes to being a Christian community. We are entirely dependent on God, from whom no secrets are hid – the God who loves us in our sexual and gender diversity, in our varied ethnicity and social class – the God who is with us and at work among us, in the light and in the darkness, and in every shade in between.