Queer holiness and human longing for transformation

Delivered at A Summer Mass, 1 February 2019, as part of the Midsumma Festival

First of all, may I thank you for the invitation to speak today, and, as an incomer, may I acknowledge the traditional owners of this land: the Wurundjeri peoples of the Kulin Nation and pay respect to their Elders, past, present and emerging. Our struggles and joys are bound together.

A ‘queer’ saint?

Is Brigid a queer saint, do you think? I don’t just mean as a likely LGBTI+ sacred forebear, but in the sense of being a figure who challenges and transforms our conceptions and ideas of holiness. Of course the word ‘queer’ is highly contested, and also disliked, for good reasons, among some sexually and gender diverse people. Yet among the broad range of its meaning, ‘queer’ does, I think, have its value. As we meet on the feast of Brigid, it is certainly one way into reflecting on what she has to say to us as we celebrate Midsumma Festival, and the lives and contributions of sexually and gender diverse people. For, on the most obvious level, it is certainly apposite to remark on Brigid and her relationship with her intimate companion Darlughdach, with whom she shares this saint’s day, as she shared so much of her life, including her bed. Whilst so much about Brigid is cast about with legend, it seems reasonable to me therefore to place her, and Darlughdach, high in the pantheon of LGBTI+ Christian saints. Even if some might contest that however, Brigid undoubtedly offers us distinctive, transgressive, and mysterious paths into life and God: vital and vibrant queer ways, into holiness and transformation…

The Celtic Imagination

One would certainly have to say that Brigid, and Darlughdach, stand in the great tradition of Irish Christian mystical faith. With Padraig, Brigid indeed is the greatest of all the Irish saints, and embodies what the brilliant Irish priest, philosopher and poetic writer John O’Donohue called ‘the Celtic Imagination’. This, as we see vividly in Celtic culture is not a ‘straight’ thing. Rather, like a Celtic work of art it is full of circles, decorative knots and other features which weave difference beyond separation and tension into beauty and harmony. In Celtic Imagination the binaries which straight cultures define and use to regiment life are rather invitations to creativity and transcendence. Life and death, joy and sorrow, male and female, earth and heaven, the human and the divine: all are interwoven in the Celtic Imagination. There can never be one ‘thing’ alienated from ‘the other’. No wonder then that Celts in becoming Christians took powerfully to the reality of God as Holy Trinity. For whilst the Trinity may puzzle the straight and narrow, it is a natural expression of the mutual interchange and indwelling of so-called ‘opposites’ and of the existential experience of the queerness of Celtic Imagination. Brigid and Darlughdach for instance knew intuitively and instinctively that holiness and the world’s transformation lay in the transcendence of straight categories: in the mysteries arising from the depths of scripture, solidarity and soul.

The human longing for transformation and spiritual sea-change

Such queer holiness is a gift for us too, and for our times. For whether we look into religious or secular life, we find a desperate search for, and resistance to, such transformation. We could for instance, reflect on this in relation to the vigorous resurgence of racism, sexism and nationalism, and many other forms of populist phobias and right-wing identity politics across the globe. Being as I am a priest however, let me reflect on the religious aspect. For it is powerfully apparent that we are in the midst of a great sea-change in attitudes in spirituality: borne of tremendous and unprecedented shifts in science and technology, ecological pressures and the movement of different peoples and cultures across the world. I suspect indeed that future historians will name this as one of those threshold times between one era and another. So now wonder we are in turmoil!

Now, particularly from a Christian historical perspective, we have been through similar upheavals before, albeit different in character and scale. Not least this includes what historians call the transition between the ‘medieval’ world and the ‘modern: the period in which a great upheaval took place in Christian life and faith, including the emergence of some of what we now call ‘Anglicanism’. That sea-change also resulted from a powerful cocktail of forces: including new learning, communications and technology; the rise of nationalist features and centralising authority; fresh world horizons and moral panics about death, the family and gender.

A new Reformation?

As such, are we part of a second Reformation? Some would say so, and some hope so, whilst some want to finish what they see as an incomplete first Reformation. Why, we even have groups like the New Cranmer Society to that end. Well, I hope none of those things. For whilst there is much to be thankful for in the Reformation era, it was, literally and metaphorically, also a violent mess, with blood on many hands, including Cranmer’s. Moreover, significantly, it was intellectually and spiritually imbued with deeply patriarchal and hierarchical assumptions, a privileging of pre-critical readings of the early church, and a hatred of pluralism on almost all competing sides. A re-forming of Christianity on that basis might indeed appeal to some for those very reasons, but it is hardly a healthy prospect! It often seems more like a De-formation than a Re-formation.

Deformation today – betraying the best of Reformation

There is a huge De-formation of Christianity going on now. This includes deformed shapes of faith which, for all their appeal to the past and European Reformations, reject their better elements. The destructive schismatic global Anglican network GAFCON, for example, betrays the English Reformation by denying the very centrality of grace and the flexibility of faithful expression which that tumultuous period established. The Reformers thus embraced the ‘new learning’ and biblical re-interpretation of their own age, and made radical shifts in reshaping marriage and the family. Today’s Deformed Christianity however rejects looking again at scripture with fresh eyes and findings, It rejoices in the subjugation of reason, science and human experience. It glories, with militant secularism (albeit for other reasons), in perpetuating religious illiteracy. It proclaims its own self-interested ‘orthodoxy’, whilst jettisoning the depth and breadth of Christian Tradition, which is never simple, but always nuanced and changing (if slowly). For Deformed Christianity seeks to freeze faith and turn it into stone tablets. It does not nurture compassion written on human hearts and through the infinitely diverse bodies of human beings. Deformed Christianity indeed risks destroying the fertile yet fragile ecology of faith, by, in John O’Donohue’s words, ‘laying down tarmacadam in our minds for the motorway of fundamentalism’ to roll through.

Transformation – Beyond Denial

So if not Re-, and certainly not De-, formation, what then? How about Trans-formation? - after all, so many things which are trans are wonderful, and not just what I now see in the mirror! For Transformation is not about rejecting all of the past but reworking what is and has been into something more glorious and healthy for the present and future. It is not about going back, or forward on a similar or reactive trajectory, but going beyond. It is not so much fighting against nature and/or culture as learning to journey across with them in new ways. It is not about establishing red lines of defensiveness but learning to take the hands of others who are also seeking the metaphorical transformative hormones of honesty, humility and hope.

For many years, I have seen the religious battles of our day as part of a contest between territorial religion (which seeks to control and define faith as narrow law and belief, and also to hold on, or increase, its power and privilege) and transformative religion (which seeks to be open to love and its subversive, dynamic, but very vulnerable, power of change). Recently however I have come to feel there is another deep issue at stake. For resistance to celebrating sexually and gender diverse people surely cannot be put down to seeking to safeguard power and privilege alone, nor even to fear and hatred of ‘the other’. So I wonder if many Christians - and for that matter, other resistant and even persecuting, groups – are not in deep denial about their own need for transformation. ‘Saul’, said Jesus, ‘why are you persecuting me?’ For it was pretty obvious, wasn’t it? Saul was not simply persecuting because he had been brought up to defend his in-group, and from fear of ‘the other’. Saul feared that of Jesus within his own self. Only as Paul, the trans-formed human being, with a new name and identity, could he also be free. For religion, in my view, is inescapably queer, in all kinds of ways. Until churches and others admit that, they will continue to harm themselves as well as the rest of us. Take it from me: hiding from what you are won’t help, and suppressing your truth doesn’t make you easy to live with! Churches, like the rest of us, cannot grow in holiness until they begin to allow themselves to be transformed, and to transform. Trans people in that respect are but witnesses to the reality of us all.

Embracing ‘difference’ - sharing thresholds, liberation and eternal fire - with Brigid & Darlughdach

This brings us back, in conclusion, to Brigid and Darlughdach. Much more could be said about them, particularly Brigid, about whom we know much more, albeit so much that is legend and fable. Three transformative features however are particularly prominent…

Firstly, Brigid is a threshold figure. She crosses the binary boundaries of paganism and Christian faith (as both goddess and saint); of male and female (in heading a double monastery of both); of chastity and relational intimacy (as both a nun and intensely beloved mutual soul-partner of Darlughdach). She thus embodies for us the life of faithful transformation to which we are called in Christ. For as our Ephesians reading puts it for her saint’s day, it is only when we are strengthened in our ‘inner being’ with love, that we begin ‘to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth’ of the love ‘that surpasses knowledge’, including all binary constructions. Brigid and Darlughdach show us that it is when we embrace ‘difference’ that we can truly ‘be filled with all the fullness of God.’

Secondly, Brigid’s life and faith is a story of liberation: from her own and her family’s slavery; in her (proto-feminist) agency in finding freedom from a marriage demanded of her; and, not least, in her solidarity and empowerment of the poor. This is the ringing message of biblical good news which queer holiness brings and which the straight world seeks to deny itself and others: the message repeated in our psalm today – that God ‘raises up the needy out of distress… The upright see it and are glad… Let those who are wise give heed to these things, and consider the steadfast love of the LORD.’

Thirdly, and most profoundly, the central image associated with Brigid is that of fire: the symbolic fire kept burning by women in Kildare for a thousand years, until Henry VIII extinguished it in the Reformation; the fire of eternal resistance and liberation rekindled by the Irish and still alive today; the fire of sacred passion and the purifying flame of integrity. This is the fire of the Gospel love of which we hear again today: that queer love of those who do not just love those who love them, but who love their enemies; the fire of queer holiness which does not judge but forgives so that forgiveness may happen, which gives so that giving may flourish, with ‘good measure… running over’.

Queer holiness – transforming love

It is sad that Brigid is not included in the Anglican Church of Australia’s official lectionary for this day. For she rightly appears in that of many others, including the Church of England. Yet perhaps that is not really surprising, for the Anglican Church of Australia has such a divided soul, part of which often appears to be in deep denial of that to which Brigid, and Darlughdach witness namely this divine love which is so far beyond any binaries of which we can conceive; this liberating incarnation which embraces all the suffering and hope it touches; and this burning mystery which can never be confined, which both gives us passion to live and peace to endure. This is the beauty of our own queer holiness, the fruit of transforming love, a profound gift for all.

May we therefore never be deformed, nor simply reformed, but transformed, from glory into glory, in the name of that even queerer fella Jesus, Amen.