One of the few LGBT History Month events in February which tackled the controversial theme of Religion, Belief and Philosophy head on was a performance of a play written and performed in an Anglican Church in Manchester by Jo Clifford, a trans Christian actor portraying Jesus as a trans woman.
I first became aware of the one-person show called The Gospel According To Jesus Queen of Heaven in 2009 when the play’s opening night in Glasgow was attended by about 300 demonstrators. Roman Catholics joined evangelical Christians for a two-hour protest during which they waved placards and sang hymns. I was intrigued and saddened by this, not least because Catholics and Evangelicals are not natural allies historically – each group has condemned the other in the past as being not truly Christian. But such is the strength of feeling around LGBT issues among some people of faith that their opposition can bring them together in ways that ecumenism and interfaith work cannot.
Then in 2011 I had the pleasure of taking part in an intimate gathering at which Jo Clifford performed excerpts from the play. It was a deeply moving and inspiring performance. She explained:
When I was a boy, I was taught that when Jesus came down to earth as a human being, he took on board all human experience.
So why not the experience of a transsexual woman?
And if he did, what would he say?
So when I heard that the play would be staged in full at St Chrysostom’s Church in Manchester in February, I had to go, and it was well worth the trip.
St Chrysostom’s has hosted a monthly communion service for the LGBT community since 2007. It was an excellent venue – just a few seats were available as the audience were encouraged to stand or sit on the floor on rugs and cushions as if we were gathered around a middle eastern itinerant preacher to hear her teaching first hand. Jo moved around the space and invited us to move with her as she gradually lit up the darkened church and retold Gospel stories with a fresh perspective.
Her interpretation is not as unorthodox as some Christians believe – I have it on good authority from more learned Bible scholars that the Greek word used for Jesus’ gender, anthrōpos, is the generic term equivalent to human, not the specific anēr, which refers to a male individual of the human race [Reference]. So the biological sex of Jesus is not as significant as the understanding that he became fully human.
Portraying Jesus as a transsexual is not nearly as shocking or offensive or outrageous as it may first appear to be. Indeed it belongs very firmly to mainstream Christian tradition. We are taught that Jesus, being the Son of God, took on human form and so engaged fully with human experience… Furthermore, we are taught that Jesus constantly associated with the downtrodden and excluded members of his society.
Jo has produced five short videos explaining her intentions in writing and performing the play, which you can watch here. She also wrote a blog for the LGBTicons website here. There’s another interview incorporating footage of a live performance here.
News that an Anglican church was hosting the performance in February was met by calls (from people who have not seen the play or read the script) for the Bishop of Manchester to ban the show, but the Bishop said in a statement that depictions of Jesus as one of a marginalised group was an honourable tradition
That [they] are often controversial should neither surprise us nor be a reason for rejecting them,… Whilst the performance of a drama which imagines how Christ might look as a member of the transgender community is both challenging and well away from the historical person of Jesus, it can still represent an important truth that he who took on human flesh is their Lord and Saviour as much as anyone else’s.
He added that while he thought aspects of the play “stray beyond the challenging into territory that many reasonable Christians will find offensive,” offence in itself is not grounds for preventing the play to take place, and he left the decision about whether to host the performance up to the local minister.
Jo Clifford defended the play:
As a practising Christian myself, I have no interest in attacking the church or mocking the church or making fun of the church or in any way being blasphemous or offensive.
I simply want to assert very strongly, as strongly as I can, that Jesus of the Gospels would not in any way wish to attack or denigrate people like myself.
I think it’s very important to get across the message that Jesus of the Gospels would not condone or want to promote prejudice and discrimination against anybody and to try to convey a message of compassion and love and understanding of everybody,
No matter what their belief, no matter what their gender, orientation or sexuality.
You can read the full story of the response to the Manchester performance here.
After the performance I was delighted to meet the show’s producer who told me they are hoping to bring the performance back to Liverpool for the Homotopia Festival in November. I will share details as soon as I have them – I heartily recommend it.