Category Archives: Uncertainty

One Year Later…

On Thursday, I was preparing for my first appointment at the Gender Identity Clinic (GIC) and gathering together the papers that demonstrate that I’ve been living as a man, openly and publicly in every aspect of my life, for some time. I came across a letter I’d asked my then boss to write for me, containing the date on which I came out at work and so began my ‘official’ real-life experience. My appointment happened to be one year on exactly from that day, which is quite a coincidence. Following this, my first experience of the GIC and the suggestion of a friend on Facebook, I’ve decided to reflect a bit on what this year has brought along and where I’m at.

Prior to coming out to my colleagues, I’d told a few people but otherwise kept things secret. Knowing that transgender people have been hounded out of jobs and faced discrimination, I was very nervous about how people would react to me. On the whole, I needn’t have been. The vast, vast majority have either been overtly supportive, or just quietly got on with using the right name and correct pronouns without saying anything specific about it all. I’ve had to deal with a couple of idiots outside of my department and some guys being jerks when it comes to my using the gents’ loos, but that has been very rare, thankfully. It’s been a similar story with church and the rest of my life down here in Milton Keynes.

Being able to be completely open about who I am has been an incredibly liberating experience, which has freed me from having to pretend all the time and repress part of myself. I think I’ve grown in confidence and am much more settled as a result. I’ve now got a whole new wardrobe and very few of my ‘female clothes’ have survived the cull. When I’ve got the money, I’ll get a new suit, which is really the last big purchase; the rest of my stuff is either from the blokes’ sections of stores, or as near as damned it. This outward change, together with my new hairdo (short and spiky) has helped me to feel more settled as Karl and again boosted my confidence.

In terms of everyday life, little has changed, though there are specific issues which were previously uncomplicated but now take thought:

  • Toilets: which to use and when. When it’s safe to do so, I use male toilets, but that’s not always practical. For example, in busy public places like the shopping centre and the cinema, I worry I’m more likely to encounter a member of the public with ‘Daily Mail views’, and get a hard time. This is more of a fear in places where alcohol feeds in, and not all pubs have an easily accessible disabled toilet. Wetherspoons pubs are particularly bad for this, so I have to find strategies when I go there. Generally there is the back-up option of a disabled toilet elsewhere, but I’m always worried I’m stopping someone with a disability from using it, and so it gets complicated.
  • Changing rooms. These are even more awkward, due to the lack of privacy and need for nudity. I don’t want to use the female facilities, can’t yet use the male ones, and some disabled changing rooms are rubbish. I’m yet to find a gym where this isn’t a problem.
  • Clothes shopping: trans-friendly stores. My early experiences of trying to buy men’s clothes were complicated by not knowing my sizes, and also by not passing, which meant store staff often didn’t know how to deal with me. One shop (BHS) accused me of shoplifting because I tried on a men’s shirt. Another (H&M) wouldn’t let me use the male changing rooms or take men’s clothes into female changing rooms. I do wonder if I should’ve just changed in the middle of that store to make the point, but I didn’t dare! (Probably for the best!). Now I’ve learnt that stores like House of Fraser are very good and let me use the right changing rooms without hassle, but as I know my sizes, I can usually get away with trying things at home with the reasonable hope of them fitting.
  • Dealing with the NHS. In the absence of being able to get my paws on testosterone, I’ve been taking female contraceptives to stop my menstruation. My GP practice have been fine with this, but I am amused by always getting the lecture on safe sex, as if Tractorgirl could be the source of a sort of virgin birth part two! People just don’t get LGBT relationships sometimes… Moreover, one has to be the expert most of the time – my GP had never met a trans person till I walked in – and one of the nice things about going to the GIC was being able to be the patient for once!
  • Being allowed to leave the country. To get a new passport with the correct gender marker, I’ve needed a letter from my GP. Not a problem, but another little thing that makes transgender life more …. hard work/time-consuming/bureaucratic. There are also places such as Canada where travel can be complicated for someone like me who is yet to begin treatment, which is a bugger when planning a honeymoon!
  • Telephones. As my voice still sounds female, I sometimes have trouble getting people to believe I am who I say I am over the phone. For example, one time at work someone was convinced they’d got the wrong number, even when a colleague grabbed the phone and told them otherwise! More recently, I had a phone call from a recruitment consultant who refused to believe I was me, and asked what name to call me despite having my CV in front of him with ‘Karl’ looming up at him! Clearly his firm need better diversity training.
  • Inane questions. Most of the time, when people ask me about what being transgender/transsexual means and is like, they’re genuinely interested and do so sensitively. As I reckon it’s best they hear what it’s all about from me rather than the Daily (Hate) Mail, I’m happy to chat and share my experiences. However, questions about my genitals are not acceptable – would you quiz anyone else on what they’ve got in their trousers? No. Well, mind your own business when you’re talking to me then! It is odd how one’s body can be viewed as public property as the NHS is the gatekeeper of gender reassignment…
  • Transgender media coverage. Some of the rubbish written about trans people of all shades can be quite hard to deal with, especially when it filters through to the popular imagination (see above). For example, in the week I came out, there was a big fuss being whipped up by the Sun about a trans man giving birth, and I remember hearing some vicious negative comments at work. Hopefully having to deal with a real live trans man has helped dispel some of that nonsense and prejudice, but it made me feel scared. I imagine this is even worse for trans women, who in the early stages of their transitions are usually more visible than I’ve been – chatting to others suggests they do get more flack, not helped by the press portrayl of us.
  • Correcting people on pronouns. Trans men at this pre-hormones stage often get mistaken for women and have to spend time correcting people. 95% of stuff shouted at me in the street has been homophobic, not transphobic, and I understand this is other people’s experience too. I suppose it’s a product of the much wider range of gender expression which is usually considered acceptable for women that people look at me and assume I’m a woman, and sometimes think I must be a lesbian. However, for me, it’s a pain in the backside, and means I spend a lot of time telling people off for making assumptions. Getting my chest binder has given me more confidence to do so.
  • Waiting lists. Going forward, I need to go through a second assessment at the GIC, this time with two shrinks, before I can start hormones. At least this time I have a date for my grilling. The uncertainty of the waiting and not knowing has been tough on both of us, especially with the move to GP commissing and worries about funding. It has felt at times like living in limbo.

That’s just a few of my niggles! It’s important to stress though that this has been an incredibly positive year on the whole, despite the above. Looking to the future, I can begin to see the end point, at which I’ll be able to live as a normal bloke, post second-puberty, chest operation and hysterectomy. I do worry whether Tractorgirl will still find me attractive when all is said and done, which is miles scarier than anything a surgeon could do, but we’re taking it day by day (cliche time – sorry!) and getting there. I take comfort from the fact we wouldn’t be getting hitched if she wasn’t, like me, willing to give it a bloody good go! I think we’ve also grown closer through this and having to deal with our feelings when they’ve risen to the surface, so I’m cautiously optimistic.

So. that’s year one in the life of a transsexual man. I’ve run out of things to type now, so I’ll stop!

Coming Out

There’s an article kicking around on the Guardian website at the moment about a book written by a palliative care nurse that lists the most common regrets people express on their death-bed. Apparently the regret people most frequently expressed to her when she counselled them in their last days was that they’d wished they’d had the courage to be true to themselves, rather than living according to the expectations of others. This is something I imagine most people have felt at some point in time – a regret that they’d tried so hard to be what they thought others expected or wanted, maybe struggling to be ‘normal’. Sometimes, however, we reach a crisis point, and putting on a façade or continuing to try to fit into others’ ‘boxes’ no longer works.

Over the past four years or so, since I had a bit of a breakdown, I’ve been doing a huge amount of coming to terms with who I really am, instead of what I thought I ought to be. This process has at times been incredibly painful, but also immensely positive. I feel I’ve gone from being unable to process or talk about difficult things in my past for fear of rejection and the consequences of opening the Pandora’s box, to being a fairly confident (which if you’d met me then is huge progress!) and basically happy person. This journey has brought me to a place where I need to acknowledge something fundamental about my identity that will mean making huge changes to my life, some of which bring sadness and uncertainty because of how they might impact people close to me, but which I hope will ultimately mean I am freer to be myself than is currently possible….

I’m transgender.

Transgender (often shortened to trans) is an umbrella term for various things, but in my case what it means is that I have always experienced a profound mismatch between my brain and my body, in that emotionally and psychologically I am very definitely male, even though my body is female. I’ve been aware of this for a long time, though it’s only recently I’ve acquired the vocabulary to be able to express my feelings, and the confidence to admit to myself, and so to others, what has been going on beneath the surface.

My earliest memory of realising I was ‘different’ dates back to when I was four and had started reception class. It was the first time I’d realised how differently boys and girls are treated. Suddenly I had to wear a skirt and was expected to be interested in ‘girl’s stuff’ and to want to spend time with the other girls, all of which felt completely wrong. I couldn’t understand why I wasn’t being treated like one of the boys, which is what I felt I was, and while I don’t remember much from that time, I do clearly remember the disorientation and confusion I felt about what was happening.

That feeling didn’t go away as I got older, despite being allowed (though not without a few battles with my mother) to be a complete tomboy until I hit secondary school, when the gender distinctions if anything got even sharper, and being as boyish as I was resulted in bullying. I did have pretty short hair, and was ‘read’ as male on occasion, so it was very hard dealing with being called a boy in a skirt, as much as anything else because that’s how I actually felt and was scared others would find out.  I suppose it’s the stage of life when children start to become sexually aware, and in a hetero-normative setting, that means clear boundaries between the sexes. Anyway, as time went on, having to put on a show for the world and ‘act girly’ felt increasingly oppressive, compounded by hitting puberty and my body beginning to develop in ways that were quite contrary to what I wanted to be happening. The result of all this was deep unhappiness and discomfort, which I dealt with by attempting to ignore my feelings as much as possible and trying to fit in with what I thought I ought to be. Bear in mind that Section 28 was still law then, and I had no outlet to be able to discuss being attracted to women, let alone desperately wanting to be a man on the outside, as well as the inside.

As I said earlier, over the past few years, I’ve learnt to be honest with myself about who I really am, and a big part of that journey has been embracing my gender identity. Just being able to acknowledge the body-brain mismatch has already been a liberating and healing experience, but in order to be really happy in my own skin, I’ve come to terms with the fact that I need to embark on a process of gender reassignment; that is, I wish to ‘transition’ from being outwardly female to being outwardly male, so that body matches brain. This is not a decision I’ve come to lightly, and not without thinking long and hard about its implications and talking it through with my partner and closest friends. If there was an alternative, like therapy, that would allow me to be happy and whole, I’d jump at it, but there isn’t.

This means I’m going to undertake the NHS process to change my body; it’s a prolonged process that will last a number of years and eventually (it can be over eighteen months from seeing a GP to getting an initial appointment at a Gender Clinic) result in it being impossible to tell if you stopped me in the street for a chat that I wasn’t born with a male body. The NHS should pay for the testosterone shots I’ll need to take for life (and which, to pre-empt some comments, cost less to buy than the prescription charge, so the NHS makes a profit!) but I know I’m almost certainly going to need to pay for the surgery to remove my breasts, which could cost over £5000. Thus, it’ll be a while before there are any physical changes.

In the short term, however, I have to begin what’s called the ‘real-life experience’; that is, I have to begin living, as far as is possible, as a man. As such, my name has changed informally and soon will officially (by Deed Poll) and I’d appreciate it if people could refer to me using male pronouns (he, his, him, etc.). I know this will take time to get used to and there will be mistakes at first; I’m not going to jump down people’s throats if they accidentally slip up. However, if folks could try their best, then I’d be grateful. Doing this is a condition of further treatment, so it’s a hurdle I have to clear and not an optional thing.

Well, there you go! No doubt reading this sparks various questions, and given most people so far have asked me the same sorts of things, here’s a brief FAQ about transgender issues, followed by some useful links:

  • The best analogy I can think of for what it feels like to be trans goes something like this: imagine for the sake of argument that there’s a language called ‘male’ and another called ‘female’, within which there are different dialects and accents, but which are pretty distinct, at least to someone who struggles with languages. I’ve had to pick up the odd phrase of ‘female’ in order to be able to survive, but try as I might, I’ll never be fluent, or able to manage more than a few sentences even, whereas ‘male’ is my natural language and I can chat away in it quite happily given the chance. Anyone who’s ever found themselves in a foreign country not knowing much of the language may have experienced some of the inability to express themselves and resulting vulnerability that brings; it’s like that for me all the time. However, being stuck with a female body means I’ve never had much chance to practice my ‘male’ and so have a lot to learn about the grammar and syntax of the language, how it works, and much vocabulary to absorb. Transition is that learning process.
  • Being trans is most definitely not a choice. Various scientific studies have shown that hormone levels present during foetal development, and the foetus’ sensitivity to said hormones, can create a situation where the brain develops in one direction and the body in another, resulting in the mismatch trans folks experience on a daily basis. Moreover, as I’ve already explained, the process of correcting this is costly, painful and scary, for others as well as for me, and that’s without the stigma attached to not fitting in with social conventions surrounding gender. Yes, transition is a choice, but it’s a choice between a lifetime of being miserable or being whole. It’s as stark as that.
  • The process will not fundamentally change who I am. I will still be the same person, with the same personality, same abilities and faults, same likes and dislikes, same values, same faith. It’s a gender reassignment, not a full-blown personality transplant!
  • Some people have asked me why I want to bother, as I hardly strike them as the lager-swilling, football-mad skinhead type. Others have suggested that transition and the desire to ‘pass’ (to be perceived as male) only serve to reinforce an unhelpful gender binary. It’s true that people who do not feel they fit into either ‘box’, gender-queer people, suffer discrimination and sometimes struggle to deal with social constructs around gender. For what it’s worth, I think gender is a spectrum and can be fluid, something I occasionally experience too. However, I don’t see that the process I’m going to undertake makes this worse, as I’m not trying to conform to a particular stereotype; the point is that I’m figuring out what it means for me, a unique individual with a particular history, to be male and perceived as such. It’s about being fully myself, not conforming to someone else’s idea of what I should be.
  • For my Christian friends: I don’t know where God is in all of this, but I do know I’m loved and known completely by the same God who became human in Jesus Christ. That’s enough for now!
  • Language like ‘tranny’ or ‘gender-bender’ is really offensive. Please don’t use this about or to me.

 

Here are the links I promised:

Leaflet (which has been made into an official NHS document) on what being transgender is all about, an explanation of its probable cause and some definitions:

http://www.gires.org.uk/assets/gdev/gender-dysphoria.pdf

Guardian blog written by a trans woman (someone changing from outwardly male to female) that has many parallels with my own story and articulates the challenges of transition really well:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/series/transgender-journey

Stonewall Scotland’s very helpful leaflet about supporting trans people in the workplace:

http://www.stonewall.org.uk/documents/changing_for_the_better.pdf

Website of the Gender Identity Research and Education Service, which works closely with the NHS:

http://www.gires.org.uk/

Website of the Gender Trust, which contains useful information around terminology:

http://gendertrust.org.uk/glossary

Faith, doubt and Advent

I’ve been making a serious effort this Advent to address something I know is a bit of a problem – my prayer life. I find it really hard to get into the habit of setting aside regular time simply to pray, whether using a daily office or simply sitting with God, not trying to do anything.

I started out with the best of intentions – I was going to say evening prayer every day, having realised that however much I try to be, I am just not a morning person and setting my alarm earlier doesn’t work as I just doze through it. That lasted two days before life got in the way and having let it slip once, it just vanished into the ether.

Part of the problem is, I think, that if I’m going out of an evening, I’m often on a very tight schedule. I often don’t leave the office till gone 5.30pm (sometimes it’s more like after 6pm) which isn’t by choice but reflects the volume of work I have on, and it takes 30mins to walk home. I’ve then got to cook myself dinner, which if making something nice from scratch can take anything between ten minutes and an hour, eat it and do the washing up. By the time I’ve done that, got changed out of  my suit and run out of the door again, I’m often running late as it is.  Time to pray feels like wasted time in the rush to get back into town. Even that doesn’t really wash as an excuse, though, as days when I’m doing nothing other than flopping in front of the television in the evening are still devoid of a daily office, mostly due to sheer fatigue after a long day’s problem solving.

I have realised that I’ve hit several walls at once:

  • Until about four months ago, I lived in Durham with a Cathedral on my doorstep and was able to go to a daily Eucharist and Evensong. I’m so much better at going to something scheduled like that and am much better at praying with others. There is no real equivalent in Milton Keynes and I miss it.
  • I find it hard to read the Bible because my inner academic kicks in and worries about hermeneutics and context and differing interpretations and doctrine and it forms a kind of mental wall. I worry I’m ‘not doing it properly’ and there is no point if I don’t. In short, I’ve lost the art of devotional reading of the Bible.
  • A year of undergraduate-level theology and biblical studies in Durham raised far more issues than it solved. For example, I had to write an essay on how to read the first eleven chapters of Genesis and in researching that came across so many different perspectives and opinions that apart from being sure what I didn’t like and the pre-existing theological bias driving that, I just wasn’t sure how to evaluate these. On what basis could I compare the thoughts of people far more knowledgeable than me and fluent in the original languages? It left me not sure what to think anymore. I think this sort of thing is the cause of point two.
  • Last year, I lived with someone who placed a great deal of emphasis on the use of daily offices, seeking the intercession of the saints and theological reading. This wasn’t a problem in of itself but his habit of making me feel guilty for not persuing these things with same zeal was. It seemed to me that all this stuff and the full-blown conservative Roman Catholic devotional life could easily be used as an excellent way to hide from God, or at least to keep her at arm’s length, and my trying to have an altogether simpler devotional life was ‘just not good enough’ and was frequently criticised. I also found it very hard having my beliefs attacked regularly and having to defend and justify myself all the time, and I don’t think I’ve entirely ditched this person’s baggage.
  • I’m still struggling to come to terms with leaving the ordination process. This might sound an odd thing to say given that it was several months ago and I’m about to embark on the adventure of becoming a Methodist local preacher. However, I think before then I’d had lots of doubts and questions floating around my head that I didn’t dare let surface. The pain of leaving the process and feeling distanced from the church removed that barrier and released a lot of stored-up anger with God, all of which has brought into question several theological assumptions that I suppose I simply accepted without examining them.
  • Further to the previous point, I am sick to the back teeth of church politics getting in the way of real encounter with God in so much of the Church of England. I’m not just on about women bishops and homosexuality and the covenant, but all the stuff about things being done a certain way because ‘we’ve always done it that way’ or ‘that’s how Father likes it’, and liturgical trappings of vestments, acolyting etc becoming so much more important than the God to which they are supposed to point. I JUST DON’T CARE! YOU DON’T EARN BROWNIE POINTS WITH GOD FOR DRESSING UP LIKE ELVIS-MEETS-THE KKK AND WALKING IN RIGHT ANGLES!!! I should add that the forced jollity of charismatic services and the usual evangelical cliches also drive me round the bend these days. Enough of the formulae, I want God!
  • I miss having a spiritual director to hold me to account.
  • I have a massive lazy streak.
  • I find maintaining my own routines and structure difficult.

So where does that leave things?

I’m not 100% sure.

What I do know is that God has been working in my life in the last few years to bring about a lot of healing and through particular things that have happened and the people he has brought into my life, especially TractorGirl, I’m so much more like the person God made me to be and infinitely more comfortable in my own skin. I know that whatever happens, I am loved from top to bottom purely and simply because I am. It’s not about achieving things or never messing up. It’s about pure, unearned, freely-given love. What’s more, that’s true of every single person and every single part of creation. The challenge is to live in the light of those two things and to make time to enjoy God for her own sake.

There’s a great quote from a former Bishop of Durham, David Jenkins, which I can never quite get right but goes something like this: knowing God, and being known by God, doesn’t depend upon, nor does it guarantee, being right about God. I think this needs to be my motto over the coming weeks. My last year in Durham made it difficult to hold onto this, but I now see that it’s key, because it not only leaves room for the inevitable errors we all make when thinking about God or reading the Bible, but it also leaves room for doubts and questions and being able to say ‘I don’t know’. Having room for grey areas rather than feeling pinned down to only black or white is something that has been missing for a while now in my faith. That isn’t to say that truth doesn’t matter, but is simply to admit that I don’t have things sorted all the time and like TractorGirl, recognise I need to engage openly and honestly with my doubts.

In practice, I think this will mean having to figure out a way of giving my prayer life (in whatever form) the time it needs and so engaging with scripture, but also finding time, however ad hoc (and ad hoc may well be the best thing at the moment), just to enjoy God. Not having answers is hard for me as a scientist who likes to have things well-defined (which I know is ironic giving how much of science is really groping in the dark) but also as someone who likes to be in control. It feels vulnerable.

That brings me back to Advent, which is my favourite time of the Christian year. God didn’t come into the world on clouds descending, in a blaze of glory and power and might. Instead, God in human flesh was born as a small baby, entirely dependent on his parents, themselves very ordinary and at the mercy of the political situation of their day. which made them forced pilgrims and refugees. It’s an enormously vulnerable position fraught with risk, with the risk of loving all of us so much as to give up the thing that matters most.   God in the vulnerability, the mess and the ambiguity of the world is the only God that makes sense to me in my vulnerability, mess and ambiguity. Sometimes it’s all I can hang onto.

One of God’s little jokes?

The benefits scenario reached its highly silly climax today. The Job Centre, having confused the information from the University, will not give me benefits because my name is not on a pass list, despite me having ceased to be a full-time student some time ago. This now leaves me in an interesting financial position…

On the good side, Tractorgirl seems finally to have grasped that I love her and that the precise language we use to make a formal commitment to each other matters far, far less than the commitment itself. This will make my life  easier! Also, my thesis has now been corrected and awaits the approval of the internal examiner, which means it should finally be finished soon, and I have an interview for a really good job down south tomorrow.

I leave you with a dose of Monty Python to keep you smiling 🙂

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5TLeyUTm8gQ[/youtube]

Honesty is always the best policy?

Life got even more ludicrous today.

I’ve been waiting for my Jobseeker’s Allowance to come through and it’s taken nearly two months to discover the problem – my theology course. I need this sorted to have the piece of paper to take to the council to claim my housing benefit, so it is very important.

When I first signed on, I made the mistake of being honest about doing my theology course. The rules say that anything involving sixteen hours or more study time per week constitutes full-time study (which seems silly to me – a bit like adult prices starting from age twelve) and thus would mean one is not entitled to benefits. Now, my course involves one (at its peak two) evening classes a week of two-and-a-half hours each. Even then with private study hours matching contact hours, I have only been doing ten hours per week study at most.

However, as I discovered recently when trying to use a computer in a postgraduate-only room in the university, they (Durham University, who validate my theology course) have registered me as an undergraduate (despite me technically still being a postgraduate, though as I have been viva-ed already, I’m not any more). What’s more, they have me down as a full-time student.

Therefore, I find myself in a fix. What counts in the eyes of the law is the title, not the reality. Thus, being registered as a full-time student, I officially do sixteen hours plus in a week, by definition, even though this does not match the reality. The implication is that the money I was hoping to get paid will not appear as the course only finished yesterday and it’s only from today that I am not a full-time student, not when I made my claim after my PhD viva.

It seems crazy to me that a desire to be honest and upfront could cause so many issues. I stand to lose about £400 in JSA and another £310 in housing benefit as a result of this. The theology course people are refusing to send a letter to the Job Centre explaining the reality of the situation, or that seemed to be the gist of the phone conversation I had this morning. I don’t know if the Job Centre will accept there was an honest misunderstanding, or whether I’ll now be accused of making a false claim.

Moreover, this was money I was planning to use for a deposit on a flat when the time comes to move to start my job, whichever one that ends up being. I’ve already taken out a loan from my bank, so I don’t think borrowing more is an option, so if I need to find a deposit and first month’s rent, plus meet the cost of moving, I could be up shit creek without a paddle unless maybe my employer can help, but of course they have no such obligation. My parents may be able to help, but that’s also a case of ‘wait and see’. I would have been much better off and had far less stress if I had lied, which surely is wrong!?!

Ever feel the walls are closing in? There’s only one thing to sing at a time like this, on the basis that anything is better than a nervous breakdown:

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1loyjm4SOa0[/youtube]

Time for a re-think?

I spent the weekend on retreat with a group from GCN at Buckfast Abbey, which is near Totnes in Devon. It’s only the third GCN event I’d been to, and I was nervous that I would be stuck spending my weekend with deeply irritating camp blokes or people all too like some folks I’ve known in Durham who aren’t very comfortable with their sexuality and act like jerks to hide the fact. Thankfully, I couldn’t have been more wrong about it!

The first evening we had a lovely meal, much wine and a talk about 1 Peter from the priest leading the weekend. On the Saturday, TractorGirl and I led a session looking at the prologue to St John’s Gospel in the morning. As a couple of people requested it, I’ve added the text of my talks. We had a nice lunch at the Abbey’s cafe, which does extremely tasty-but-bad-for-you puddings. In the afternoon, one of our members talked about his experience of the ex-gay movement and we had a good discussion about being gay in the church. That evening saw us decant to the pub for a lovely meal (or at least it was when my food finally got there!) and I spent the Sunday morning chilling while TractorGirl went to mass.

For the most part, the weekend gave me much-needed space to relax, to catch up with people (though some all too briefly – methinks some travel might be in order) and make new friends. It did me good to get out of Durham for a while, and I got to spend some quality time with TractorGirl which I really appreciated and was lovely.

So far, so good. However, God was also doing his thing of unsettling things. One of the people on the retreat was an Anglican priest and after hearing me preach, told me he thinks I am a natural preacher, teacher and pastor and that in his belief, I am called to some sort of ministry within the church. This wasn’t the first time someone has told me that – it has happened several times after preaching and when getting to know people in the church – but what scared me a bit was his certainty.

Now, since I left the ordination process in Durham Diocese, for what I think was a sensible and principled reason, I’ve been doing a certain amount of re-assessment of my faith and place within the church. I had initially concluded that Anglican ordained ministry was not for me and that I would be better giving up altogether or looking at switching denominations. However, in the last couple of months, I’ve been wrestling with all of this and the jolt over the weekend confirms my initial thoughts:

  • Within my remaining time in Durham, I would like to keep worshipping at the Methodist Church that has become ‘church family’ and who have loved and accepted me unconditionally. The Cathedral is lovely and I will still go there sometimes, but I’ve had enough.
  • Joint Anglican-Methodist membership is something I would like to do purely for its own sake, because it does express my journey and theological roots. However, I don’t think I’d pursue local preaching unless after the move I end up in a Methodist church. First and foremost, I am an Anglican. The Church of England, despite its many faults, is my home and I love it very much. I feel deep down that it’s where God wants me to be, and after all, it won’t change if everyone who struggles in it flees.
  • Leaving the process hasn’t lessened my desire to serve God in the church as well as the world of work. I don’t think full-time parish ministry is for me, but NSM or reader training do appeal, and I need to stop running away and look at them.

In short, the conclusion I’ve come to is that God doesn’t seem to want to give up on me in ministry in the church of some form. The task now is to discern the right expression for that. This means dealing once again with the thorny issue of sexuality and after the weekend and sharing my story and, far more interestingly, hearing from others, I just about feel in a position to do that. I will have to get better at ‘playing the game’, but I think stepping back for a while and talking to so many encouraging people has helped me see how that might work.

I think, through all the ‘ifs, buts and maybes’ of the last few weeks, what has emerged through much prayer, thought, wrestling and tears, is a sense of the need to step out, take risks and use my gifts to serve God. I can’t really talk about the other part of my life where the need to take a leap of faith and just live with the uncertainties has become apparent and I hope I’m responding appropriately, but in both cases, I’ve realised that I can either carry on running away, or take the risk of love. It’s very scary, but I honestly believe I’m doing the right thing in both cases.

There’s a clip from one of the best films of all time, in my humble opinion, ‘Good Will Hunting’, about taking risks. I couldn’t find the specific clip I wanted, but the end of this illustrates my point about safety nets and the need to risk getting hurt to find love:

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VAF8zRUdp18&feature=related[/youtube]

A brief update on life…

I’ve had a mad three weeks or so and therefore just haven’t found the time to blog, so here’s an update on life at the moment:

I am now Dr TOH, as of 8th June. I have just minor corrections and thankfully not many of them, so the thesis should be all done soon. However, I doubt I’ll make July congregation because of the rest of life…

I have been up and down the country looking for work. Had a few interviews since I last wrote anything. One will take a fortnight to get back to me and I’m not convinced I want the job anyway. One would have been great but turned me down – since when has talking through in detail the planning of the final two chapters (representing a year’s work) of a PhD thesis been an insufficiently strong example of planning an activity? The interview I had in Manchester today seemed to go well and I’ll hear tomorrow. The company seemed great so I’d really like to progress to the next stage. All in all, with job applications, life has been hectic.

I had my first experience of the dismalness of benefit claiming this month. One now has to apply for Jobseeker’s Allowance and Housing Benefit by phone, and they want to know one’s entire life story. Then I had to go for an interview with Jo, an advisor who slavishly followed her computer system (which couldn’t cope with the concept of a graduate looking for graduate jobs) and talked to me as if I am a particularly stupid monkey with a particular reason to be stupid. She refused to listen to me and the system couldn’t cope with the types of jobs I’m applying for – management consultant wasn’t on the list, so such jobs can’t exist… I’ve promised to be a good girl and look on the Jobcentreplus (plus what, exactly?) website twice a week, which I intend to use to find the most bizarre jobs going and blog about. I have to go back Monday for my fortnightly humiliation. Prayer please – felt very down after the last time.

TractorGirl has been on a pioneer missioner adventure. Whatever comes of it, I hope it gives her the confidence to explore the Diaconate when the time comes. Can’t deny it hurts, though, watching her being encouraged when the Church of England gives one no room to pursue ministry with integrity.

We have had some sunshine at last, and I now have a tan of sorts. In other news, Prince Phillip is still alive. Oh yes, I may have solved my impending housing issue and last week I bought a new tie 🙂

Durham Mystery Plays, Fascism and general life stuff

The other day, TractorGirl and I went to see the Durham Mystery Plays, a series of modern attempts to carry on the tradition from the 15th Century of using drama to re-inact stories from the Bible. The most famous series of these is probably the York Mystery Plays, though they have also been revived in Chester. Most of the cast were sixth-formers who did a really great job.

The first play, ‘The Fall of Lucifer’ was at the Gala theatre and based on Britain’s Got Talent; the second was at the Cathedral, ‘The Fall of Creation’ and was an operatic piece with lots of schoolchildren running about, and the remainder, four based on the Old Testament and four on the New, were down at the Sands, a sort of park about five minute’s stroll from said Cathedral.

I think the best and most thought-provoking was ‘God’s Day Off’, imagining what God found when he couldn’t resist taking a look at the Creation on the seventh day. It shows God not being too impressed with the consequences of giving human beings free will and perhaps regretting his decision. It got me thinking about the vulnerability of God and the risk of creation. Probably the most fun play was ‘Noah and the Fludd’, where they made a ‘nark’ to save them and God was a feisty North East women. I don’t think the play in the Cathedral really worked; it wasn’t possible to hear what was  being said most of the time and it all felt a bit silly. I do wonder what the young people re-telling the Abraham and Isaac story made of it…

The day after that, we went on an anti-fascist demonstration with United Against Fascism. I’ll upload photos when I get around to it. The English Defence League came to protest in Newcastle and even on match days I’ve never seen as many police. According to UAF, we outnumbered them; the Police seemed to suggest the numbers were about even. Either way, I think it was really important to stand up against fascism in whatever forms it takes these days. The scary thing though was listening to a bunch of young lads on the train home talking about it all as if it was all great fun. Quite how young some of the lads being groomed are is frightening, as is the level of violence that was casually talked about. One wonders if they really have idea of what they’re getting mixed up in and the consequence for those affected by them.

On a lighter note, my search for a job continues. I have a phone interview to arrange at some point and also an assessment for what they (the uni disability people) think is dyspraxia, which will make my life a lot easier when it comes to psychometric testing. On top of that, I am trying to refresh my memory of my PhD thesis ready for Tuesday’s viva. Apart from a wobble yesterday, I think all of that is going well. But, now for once the sun is out, so I’m going to enjoy working outdoors for a while. TTFN 🙂

Grey night of the soul

There has been a lot of change in my life of late. In the last few months:

  • I have submitted my PhD and am waiting for the viva (and working hard to prepare, honest!)
  • I have left the C of E ordination process (which I’m pleased about)
  • I’ve done some serious re-thinking of career plans
  • I could well have joint Anglican-Methodist membership soon

On top of that, I don’t know what I’ll be doing, where I’ll be (in particular in relation to TractorGirl) and maybe how I’ll put food on the table (though that is almost certainly me panicking) in a few weeks’ time.

All this and a conversation today with a friend on a similar topic has got me thinking. Where is God in all of this change? I suppose because I’d been thinking about ordination for so long (and still feel a deep sense of call, though am glad to be out of the process) it’s shaped how I see and understand my faith. Now that’s not on the agenda, how do I tell my story, and what is God doing? I must admit as well to a deep sense of boredom with a lot of church stuff, which feels increasingly pointless, and a degree of apathy about prayer. When you’ve prayed for guidance, made a real effort to listen to God, prayed about and discussed it through with others who’ve encouraged you to follow a given path, you think you have some idea of what God wants. The failure of that has left me wondering just what my faith is about and the point of prayer.

It taps into a major theological issue I really struggle with anyway – in what sense can we speak of God’s action in the world? To hear some people talk, God micro-manages their lives. I can see that it can be comforting to believe that God is in charge, and I’m not knocking anyone who has a really deep sense of that, but I can’t help but ask about the problems God seems incapable of resolving. On the other hand, belief in a distant God who just stands back (like the Deism of Locke, for instance, or the only sort of ‘God’ Dawkins can deal with) is just not the Christian God. A solid doctrine of creation tells us that God is moment by moment creating, sustaining and redeeming the world, so that if his attention lapsed for a moment, there wouldn’t be a creation. Moreover, God’s desire for that creation is to have life in all its fullness, which is why he sent Jesus. Grace is a constant reaching out to what is not God in love to draw it into the life, the very heart, of the Trinity (think Rublev’s ikon) which is made possible through salvation history culminating in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

I know the various answers such as the free-will defence and the need for the creation to be free and open to risk in order to have any integrity. I like Rowan Williams‘ idea of a sort of ‘membrane’ between us and God that can be thinned out by prayer, a holy life, a combination of events, so something new can break through. I’d use this sort of reasoning to reconcile the resurrection with science – a deeper level of reality, of truth (indeed truth his very self) has broken through. But, however satisfying such explanations might be intellectually, they don’t cut it emotionally. I know some (one person in particular) would find it hard to accept that more than rationality is needed, but we are inherently emotional beings (indeed, there is evidence that without emotions, we find it nigh on impossible to put decisions into action – such is the case with some folks with brain damage) and if God takes all we are seriously, the emotions matter to him as well as our ideas.

Last night, at the Cathedral, I went to a service for the Venerable Bede’s saint day, and found the sermon very moving. It’s the most down-to-earth thing I’ve heard for ages, and I wanted to give the preacher a big hug. God felt present in that service in such a powerful way. I can’t say I’m experiencing a sort of dark night of the soul, because God is there, but nor can I say that last night is the norm and keeping faith feels like a real effort, though I’d never abandon it because I really do believe Christ is risen. That’s why I’d call it a ‘grey night’ of the soul; I need a re-think about what is at the heart of my faith. Applying for jobs has shown me that use of my gifts to serve others has to be at the heart of career choices, but the rest is all a bit vague…

A Little Light Relief

My last two posts have been quite heavy, so here’s a little light relief:

I went to see Joan Armatrading with TractorGirl at the Sage on Thursday. I enjoyed what I can remember of the concert, but she was going for the stadium effect and so there was a screen with Media Player-style visuals as well as very bright lights and especially loud music, so it all got a bit much for my synaesthesia and apparently I fainted! TractorGirl’s blog tells of how I mistook Joan Armatrading for Joan Armitage for Simon Armitage, a middle-aged male poet. I’m special!

Earlier in the day, I had been to the Baltic to pass a few hours. While there, I bumped into a friend from undergraduate days who was there on a works do, which was random but lovely. In terms of the art, on the ground floor there was a series of three videos by Jordan Baseman about a woman who likes nature and flowers and all that, a man talking about his life of crime and a gay man discussing his first sexual experience in the days when homosexuality was illegal in the UK. I found the latter very moving but didn’t really rate the other two. The rest of the art was bizarre; some bright flashy lights and texts from Iraq war files by Jenny Holzerand something completely random and unintelligible by Raqs Media Collective, which I think was meant to be about falling in love, but just seemed unfinished.

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Gordon Brown has had an unfairly hard time in my opinion for calling Gillian Duffy a ‘bigoted woman’ when being driven away from a walkabout. I think her views on immigration and on Eastern Europeans were bigoted (where are they all coming from – Eastern Europe of course, silly old bat!) It has made me more inclined to support Brown; at least he said what he thought! After the hustings, I think my local Labour candidate is a good bet, so that settles the question 🙂

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‘The Cellar Door’ is one of the multitude of Italian restaurants spread throughout the centre of Durham. My previous visits there have been somewhat of a let-down. The service was slow, they never had the wine I wanted and the food was ridiculously greasy. Well, things have changed! I went there with Stewpot yesterday for dinner and it was much better. The food was edible and I didn’t feel I was about to lose ten years off my life. Service was better as the man who always wears a shirt that is too small wasn’t there and the wine was ok. I would now recommend it.

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Finally, life is a bit mad at the moment. I have two job interviews coming up in the next week that would see me doing something rather different to maths PhD work but would both be interesting in their own ways. Prayers for those (Thursday 6th and Tuesday 11th) would be appreciated 🙂 I am doing a science and theology talk on Thursday as well, it’s election day and at some point I have to write an essay on Mission-Shaped Church for my theology course. In addition to all the busy-ness of the next few days, I am absolutely sick of hearing stuff about homosexuality. These last two blog posts have opened a can of worms, and so if anyone talks about it to me, they are liable to get this kind of reaction:

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w1Zl1stDsUI[/youtube]