The Pacific School of Religion is home to the Centre for Lesbian and Gay Studies in Religion and Ministry (CLGS). I was interested to read of a forthcoming event they have coming up in November the Transgender Religious Leaders Summit.
There are several things about this conference which have interested me.
The first thing to strike me about this event was the way they define what a leader is, and so who the event is aimed at. They say, “Who is a faith leader? If you are an active member of a faith community and are promoting transgender inclusion, acceptance, and dignity then YOU are a leader!“
This definition fits in with one of the sessions which is being run entitled “What Does it Mean to be a Leader?” which is described as follows: “Topic Description: Do “Trans Religious Leaders” really need to be clergy? There is a tendency to align leadership with the need for PhDs and MDivs. This session will focus on the kinds of leadership needed that fall outside of traditional seminary/clergy credentialing tracks.”
I am not sure if the reference to post-graduate qualifications is as relevant in the UK as the US but there is certainly, in the mainstream denominations, a link between academic qualifications in theology and ministry and authorisation. Over recent years there has also been a professionalisation of leadership roles (both lay and ordained), as various theorists have discussed. Even within the pioneer church movement (linked to Fresh Expressions and Venture FX) there has still been this issue of authorisation and professionalisation to some extent with programmes such as the CMS one being introduced to give academic accreditation up to MA level. Therefore, whilst this discussion is related to the trans community it relates to an issue which can and should be more widely discussed.
The next thing which grabbed me as I read the conference agenda was the way that it had such a varied group of contributors. It is inter-faith in the widest sense, including both Wiccan and Jewish contributions, but also very Christian in content.
Then there is the way it is a both an academic conference dealing with biblical and practical theology and an activist/ support gathering by the looks of the programme.
I couldn’t work out if this is pretty much intended as a Californian gathering or whether it is more widely attended from across the United States. If it is primarily Californian then that in itself raises a range of questions about whether there is a west-coast power base which impacts the wider nation.
I, for reasons regular readers will be familiar with, was also interested in the launch of the Transgender Families of Faith Support Group, although I suspect this will be a US based rather than international support group. As the description of the session launching this organisation says, “Topic Description: Gender non-conforming family members impact the entire family. Some of these issues are difficult to live with especially when there are issues of faith to consider. This will be the launching of a new support group for family members of transgender, transsexual, queer, intersex, and gender non-conforming individuals.”
Overall this seems to be a somewhat unique event which does not have a UK equivalent. Whilst cultural differences between the US and Britain do need to be acknowledged many of the questions it raises and is intending to discuss still apply this side of the Atlantic and have relevance within and beyond the trans and inter-sex community. For example what is a leader? How do we nurture leaders in a way which is not linked to the professionalisation of ministry or to academic qualifications? How can faith leaders (however we define that) “act as ‘bridges’ to communicate life-changing thoughts and actions” by giving voice to youth within and beyond faith communities? How can the experience of different groups change or influence our liturgy? How do we create “change within and without spiritual communities?”