Lay Anglicana, the unofficial voice of the laity throughout the Anglican Communion.
This is the place to share news and views from the pews.

Get involved ...

Queering The Pitch – Review of ‘Dazzling Darkness’: Chris Fewings


A review of Rachel Mann’s new book Dazzling Darkness

When I strayed into the Church of England in 1976, there were no women priests or even deacons. Very few Anglicans doubted publicly that same-sex relationships were sinful. It had never occurred to me to question that God was a He. Though at school we joked about ‘the operation’, I don’t think I was fully aware that people really did change their sex. Rachel Mann, author of Dazzling Darkness, published this month, is a lesbian Anglican priest who began life as a baby boy called Nick.

It’s an intensely personal book of theology, exploring a number of themes each explored in more depth by others elsewhere (as the author acknowledges), but in the unique context of the life of Rachel Mann, boy, young man, young woman, atheist, philosopher, born-again Christian (briefly), vicar, explorer of what Henry Vaughan called in God ‘a deep but dazzling darkness’. She has undergone two major courses of surgery, one chosen and longed for, the other imposed by illness. She celebrates life in memories of her raucous youth, in heavy metal music, in poetry, in relationships, in ideas, in wrestling with life and everything life throws at her.

It’s a book about stripping: stripping masks off her self and her God, stripping away our assumptions, stripping off youthful ambitions, seeing even physical health and happiness stripped away, and being left naked before God. She comes clean about her need to dramatise herself and be centre stage. She dares to show us the most recent phase of her gender journey: having anathematised all her maleness in her twenties, she has turned round and embraced her younger self as part of her identity. She doesn’t hesitate to present the psychological aspects of her need to become a believer rather suddenly in her twenties.

The term ‘queering’ isn’t much mentioned in this book. It’s a word which has come to means questioning all our assumptions about gender: not just accepting lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people and relationships on equal terms with ‘cisgender’ heterosexual ones, but asking questions about any defining lines we draw around our sexual identities – and yet without bland assertions like ‘we’re all the same’. At a cultural level in the West, the twentieth century queered many gender assumptions – women in trousers, women as heads of government, same-sex relationships – yet men wearing skirts can still shock.

But it’s not just gender assumptions which can be queered. One approach to worship is straight bowling: with a familiar run-up we direct our prayers at a clearly visible wicket. Result! We feel the consolation of God’s presence like a ray of light from above. At the other end of the scale, we fumble around in pitch darkness, throw googlies, and bump into God in unexpected places.

There’s nothing new about images of darkness, downness, smallness, foolishness, powerlessness or unknownness about God: take a look at Calvary. Yet there’s a tendency to exalt these into a mystical tradition. This is dismissed by some Christians (‘it begins with mist, centres on “I” and ends in schism!’) while others imagine that only an elite can indulge in it. I think it’s an aspect of most people’s lives, coming to the fore whenever our neat concepts about life break. We have to keep rewriting ‘mysticism’ to stop it getting ossified in familiar language: it is a deeply reverent way of iconoclasm. It is a falling in love, a loss of control.

And so our words about God, the way we pitch our faith to strangers, the quality of our pitch dark desolation, is always up for ‘queering’. Throughout our lives, things we took for granted can be turned upside down – and childhood naiveties can be revisited and embraced. Belden Lane’s book The Solace of Fierce Landscapes set out to explore the ‘mystical’ tradition in the context of ordinary life, death and desolation. Dazzling Darkness is another compass point on this shifting landscape. Rachel writes:

The love which stands besides us, which bleeds with us and will not walk away is beyond explanation. … the love which came to me was costly. It was dark love. Sacrificial love … only truly known … where our usual strategies of control and success have failed. … I found God in Christ squatting beside me in the darkness.

For me, and for many the most challenging part of this book will be the sex re-assignment surgery. (No physical details are described.) With searing honesty Rachel faces this head on:

There is simply no doubt that to have sex reassignment surgery is a profound act of violence against the natural body. In effect, with the help of the NHS, I took perfectly normal, functioning male genitalia and utterly destroyed and refashioned them. It was a decision that no rational normal man would take. And though I most certainly, at a personal level, gained far more than I lost, I wiped out my manhood.

She explains how deeply and how consistently she longed to be female from the age of five. Controversially, she draws a parallel with the cross: without celebrating violence, she declares “I do not think we should be afraid of the thought that there are circumstances in which reconciliation cannot avoid violence.” Paradoxically, it is after becoming completely at home with her new female body that she finally found much to celebrate in her male self.

I’m out of my depth here because I’m simply not familiar with the issues, and I guess I need to hear a variety of stories of gender dysphoria. I suspect that there is a whole spectrum of inner male and female, perhaps on more than one axis. I’m aware that I have a lot more to learn about what it means to male or female.

Some theologians fall into a darkness so dazzling they can no longer write or speak of it. I hope Rachel Mann will continue to explore, to reflect, to question, to write, and to enlighten.

Rachel has written about the book online here. You can buy it on paper or digitally direct from Iona Books.

Revd Dr Christina Bearsdley has written a guide to the pastoral care of trans people.

The illustration is via Shutterstock, Image ID: 89074480: “a collection of NASA images digitally enhanced by Antony McAulay of some of the wonderful nebulae of our universe”




11 comments on this post:

UKViewer said...

A fantastic review, which must have been challenging to write.

Rachel sounds a challenging person to meet as well, in the sense of having gone through so many different experiences, made so many life changing decisions, all of the while, seeking something more than their own identity.

One thing that this whole story points me towards is the diversity of humanity. We can’t be neatly compartmentalised into convenient gender roles or even LBGT roles.

Each of us is unique, gifted by God with life and with all of its ups and downs, including the sort of dilemma that Rachael must have faced her whole life. Ours paling in comparison, but very real and unique to us personally.

I like the descriptions of worship, our experiences of God can so ‘so like that’ sometimes it’s obvious he is there and sometimes he seems so far away (or should that be she?.

It seems to me that the book challenges so many assumptions about our inherent humanity, that we might have to just re-write them from scratch.

13 December 2012 18:21
Phil Groom said...

Wow – just wow!

13 December 2012 18:54
rachel mann said...

Just to say, I’m a real pussycat really 😀

13 December 2012 22:33
Lay Anglicana said...

This is a brilliant review, Chris, as many others have said. Partly because you so effectively draw the reader in, persuading us that this is not a book about something which is of only objective interest to most of us, it demands a subjective as well as an objective response from us all.

The obvious comparison is with James/Jan Morris and her book ‘Conundrum’. I read this many years ago, and remember it as focusing on the explanation of the strength of her need to have ‘the operation’. I do not remember it discussing the spiritual aspect.

I had a fascinating discussion with Colin Coward, of ‘Changing Attitude’. He agreed with my unscientific observation that the proportion of non-mainstream gendered people amongst the clergy was higher than in the general population. He suggested the reason for this is that those outside the norm focus on identity and the meaning of life at a much younger age, and more intensely, than the general population.

15 December 2012 21:28

Thanks for a lucid review. Having greatly enjoyed The Solace of Fierce Landscapes, I look forward to reading Rachel’s book. I generally find that debating positions (which I’m often invited to adopt) seem to become thin and ephemeral in the face of authentic personal story, and this sounds like one of those.

10 January 2013 13:58
Chris Fewings said...

There’s another review here, by Jem Bloomfield: “Reconciliation, in narrative or emotional terms, is not made simple in Dazzling Darkness. But there is a recurring insistence on ‘God’s solidarity’ “

12 January 2013 22:54
Chris Fewings said...

Jill Seeger has posted a review of the book on the Ekklesia website:

21 January 2013 21:49

[…] Chris Fewings at Lay Anglicana […]

23 January 2013 12:37
Peter bell said...

Being a Christian can bring much joy to your life, but above all the love for one another. Understanding( or trying to ) people who are gay, bisexual or transgender one must accept them, that is how they want to live. But I can well understand the pain and distress they go through to accept who they are .even in 2013 it still takes courage to cross the line and say yes I am gay.So to reach the tender age of five and somehow feel uncomfortable with being a boy and wanting to be a girl at that age with all the mental. Problems latter on in life about the finality of a sex change is mind blowing. I think I would have to do a .lot of research to fully understand this.

11 February 2013 01:25
Chris Fewings said...

Simon Marsh, vicar of Bramhall, has written a review of Dazzling Darkness here:

12 February 2013 13:53

[…] also Bishop Alan Wilson and Bishop Kelvin Wright and Jill Segger and Iona Books and Chris Fewings at […]

12 October 2013 14:55

Leave a Reply

We rely on donations to keep this website running.