Sunday, January 13, 2013

Interview With Shannon Kearns, a Transgender Man Being Ordained as a Priest

Shannon Kearns is a transgender man and will be ordained on January 19th as an Old Catholic priest. I'm thrilled to be able to interview him, and grateful that he took the time to answer some questions when he is so busy getting ready for the ordination service. He says that "there still aren’t enough stories (though thankfully more each year) of transgender clergy. If my story can reach someone who feels called but thought there was no space for them, than that’s amazing."

I have been blessed by reading his thoughts on church liturgy as resistance against the secular culture and his experience as a trans individual in the church. I will be praying for him on January 19th as he is ordained, and for his ministry starting a new church in Minneapolis, House of the Transfiguration.

Shannon is a graduate of Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York and is a deacon, about to be ordained as a priest, in the North American Old Catholic Church. He writes as the Anarchist Reverend. He tells me that he loves to read, watch cheesy TV, and play LEGO video games.

Can you tell me about the Old Catholic tradition? It may not be a familiar one to many readers.

The North American Old Catholic Church is an independent Catholic group not in communion with Rome. As a group they ordain women, queer folks, partnered and married people, and folks who have been divorced. They are focused on social justice issues and new church starts. There are parishes all over the United States, but the main concentration is on the East Coast.

Were you raised in the Old Catholic tradition, or came to it later?

I was not raised in the Old Catholic tradition, or really any Catholic tradition. I grew up in a fundamentalist evangelical church. While there was a lot about the church that I loved, I never really felt like I fit in. When I hit Junior High I felt a very strong call to serve the church in some way. I wanted to be a part of making the church more welcoming to people. As someone who lived the first part of my life being perceived as female, I was told from a very young age that I could never be in ministry except to, maybe, teach Sunday school. I definitely could not be a pastor. As I came to understand more and more of my own identity (first coming out as a lesbian in college and then later coming out as a transgender man), I also came to understand more about faith and my relationship with God shifted. I left the evangelical church and worked in mainline churches for several years (United Methodist, American Baptist, United Church of Christ) which was a better fit theologically, but I still felt something was missing for me.

What attracted you to the Old Catholic Church?

I began to explore Catholic liturgy, introduced to it through the life and witness of the monastics, the activism and wit of Dorothy Day, and the poetry and fierceness of Philip and Daniel Berrigan. In the Catholic tradition I found the mix of radical politics and deep, contemplative faith that I had been really longing for.

However, even though I was strongly drawn toward Catholicism, I still felt that I had no place in it: As a transgender man there was no way I could be ordained as a Roman Catholic and I had no idea that the Old Catholics even existed. I was pursuing ordination in a mainline congregation; even though it didn't feel like the exact right fit, it seemed like one of the only options I had to fulfill my calling to ministry. I found the Old Catholics on Twitter of all places! The presiding Archbishop Michael Seneco reached out to me to see if I could help get the word out about the North American Old Catholic Church and the fact that they ordain transgender people. The more we talked about the NAOCC, the more I felt like it would be a good fit for my own calling and ministry. I was ordained to the diaconate in June of 2012 at the Philadelphia Transgender Health Conference.

How do you feel called to be "set apart" through ordination?

I feel like my calling to ordained ministry is not about being "set apart" from people so much as it about specificity of role. Meaning that I am called to walk with people, to help them create rituals that mark time and bring meaning to their lives, to help facilitate worship where they can experience God, and to preach and teach the Gospel.

Can you describe what the ordination service will be like?

The ordination will take place as part of a traditional Catholic Mass. There will be prayers and singing, the Bishop will lay on hands to ordain me, I'll be vested (dressed) in my new vestments (clergy clothing; a priest's stole and chasuble), and then I will help to celebrate the Eucharist.

Do you think that being a transgender person gives you a certain perspective of God as Creator, Christ and Spirit, or affects how you will serve the church?

Being trans has definitely shifted how I understand Jesus especially. My own physical transition has brought me to a much better understanding of what it means to be embodied, what the incarnation meant, and has challenged my thoughts about crucifixion and resurrection. The idea that Jesus lived a bodily life really resonates for me in new ways.

I think really having experienced being not welcome in the church will affect how I serve the church. I know what it feels like to be told that I am not the "right kind" of Christian or Catholic, I know what it feels like to desperately want to be in a religious community but to feel like I don't fit in or that I am not wanted, I know what it feels like to want sacred space but to not know where to go to find it. I want to be able to minister to other people who have been on the margins or who have felt unwelcome in churches.

I'm fascinated by your statement that being trans has challenged your thoughts about crucifixion and resurrection. Can you say more?

Here is a short response, but it might also be helpful to read the passion narrative I wrote based on my trans* experience.

The first time I really started to think about the similarities between my own trans* experience and the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus was in a class in seminary. We were looking at the story of "Doubting Thomas". I had been transitioning for a little while and quite frankly I was exhausted: I was tired of fighting with people to use the right pronouns, tired of answering questions about the state of my body, about what surgeries I had (or had not) gotten, tired to advocating for myself. In class that day we read the story of how Thomas wouldn't believe that Jesus had been resurrected until he saw Jesus' scars. It reminded me of all of the invasive questions I got from people. It reminded me of the comments people would make about my appearance. Why couldn't they just believe that I am who I say that I am? I was also struck by the gentleness of Jesus' response to Thomas. He both chides Thomas for his lack of faith, but also offers to show him his scars anyway. It was a stunning moment.

I began to look more closely at the passion narratives of Jesus and I saw more parallels; his "coming out" at the transfiguration, his struggles with his family, the way his friends started out as his biggest supporters but abandoned him in his time of need. And I was struck by the way he had to endure pain and crucifixion in order to get to the beauty of the resurrection, but that even when he was resurrected he still lived with the scars of what he had experienced. In medieval paintings of Jesus, the wound in his side looks eerily like the chest surgery scars of many trans* men; this, too, was another point of contact.

I think my experience of transitioning has helped me to engage with these stories again; to cling more steadfastly the idea of resurrection being bodily, to understand that bodies are important and that even though I live with scars there can be something holy about them.

Thank you! This has been great. Blessings!

Thanks!! Really appreciate you doing all of this.

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