Transforming Theology Conference 16th November 2018
This excellent conference took place at Cambridge University, School of Divinity. It looked at some questions and experiences of theology in the lives of trans people.
The conference had been scheduled to be part of Transgender Awareness Week.
I apologise in advance if I make any mistakes in the use of pronouns or if I misdescribe anyone. All mistakes are unintentional.
Alex Clare-Young, one of the organisers of the conference, gave the first talk. Clare-Young, like many of the participants, was training for ministry, in the United Reform Church. This has not been an easy experience, partly because the church was not keen for him to talk about his experience of being a trans masculine person.
He explained the state of trans theology so far had been concerned with critical – apologetic – pastoral theology and what this meant. The next stage will be to take it through to anthropological – theological – practical by examining more deeply what it means to be trans in the context of the whole person.
He read a powerful poem by Lee Mokobe who is a South African slam poet. A TED Talk video of this is available to watch at: TED Talk
The transcript of the poem taken from the talk can be found at:TED Talk transcript
The next speaker was Ph.d student Kenneth Wilkinson-Roberts who talked about the Church of England’s Regional Shared Conversations that they had taken part in. [For the record, I also took part in this].
A key feature of the Shared Regional Conversations was the idea of ‘good disagreement’. It was an exercise in trying to talk and understand others, but without trying to change people’s opinions. Wilkinson-Roberts showed that this was a direct opposite of Reconciliation. They described Lederech’s conflict transformation theory and the stages it takes as well as Butler’s ideas of performative theory.
In order for the current disagreements to be resolved, it will be necessary to allow for a process of mourning as people let go of long held beliefs and reconstruct their world view. However, the current good disagreement strategy tends to lead to people and communities solidifying their views instead of being willing to let them go. This is where peace theories can suggest ways forward to resolve the challenges and tensions which trans people experience.
In all of this it is necessary to recognise the effect of power dynamics and the challenge of partial recognition for trans people, which can lead to a culture of ignorability.
The next two speakers were both ordained clergy, one a curate in a village outside Cambridge and the other a curate in the Church of Wales.
Rev Diana Johnson spoke of her experiences in her curacy. In particular, the experience that the ecumenical partnership that had existed in the village had come to an end because the Baptist church in the village had not recognised her ordination.
She also spoke of the use of language, such as the use of the word ‘uncomfortable’, where different people can use the same word and mean different things. For some, it may be an expression of unfamiliarity and ignorance that can be addressed by education and dialogue. It could also be an expression of discrimination. Discernment of the difference was not always easy.
Rev Dylan Parry-Jones spoke of Liberation theology and Welshness. Being Welsh gave him an experience of reclaiming an identity that was an insult – ‘welsh’ was originally a Germanic word meaning ‘foreigner’, but which is now a proud identity. This is a similar way in which the word queer has been reclaimed. Reclaiming an identity like that can provide a way to be at the margins with integrity.
The keynote address was given by playwright Jo Clifford. Bad theology kills people was a powerful message. She talked of two of her plays, Gospel according to Jesus Queen of Heaven and God’s new frock and performed some extracts from these. This was theology that challenged people to see things in a new way and not accept conventional ideas. She made the point that ‘every time and culture has known us’.
An excellent conference. There was only one downside for me – the building. I had expected that Cambridge School of Divinity would be one of those magnificent old buildings, steeped in history. Instead it was a modern metal and glass place, it may be very comfortable and fit for purpose, but hardly historical.