On January 19, 2013, Shannon T.L. Kearns will be ordained as a priest in the North American Old Catholic Church in Minneapolis, MN. Shannon is the blogger known as the Anarchist Reverend, the convener and founding pastor of the House of the Transfiguration, and is poised to be the first transgender priest ordained in the NAOCC. Shannon was gracious enough to talk with me about his journey to Catholicism and ordained ministry from his evangelical roots.
Shannon Kearns. Credit: Alison Killeen.
Growing up with the label “girl” limits your options in any patriarchal religion. Like many little Catholic girls, Shannon learned early on what your place will be if you are called to ministry an inhabit a female body. “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.”
Shannon received his undergraduate degree in youth ministry, and spent the first three years after that working as a youth minister in a church where he felt he had to remain closeted. After taking a year off to discern his next steps. Shannon still felt the call to ministry, and was accepted to Union Theological Seminary in New York. After earning his Master of Divinity, Shannon began to discern where he could best respond to his call to ordained ministry.
Like many seekers, Shannon explored and worked in different denominations, including the United Methodist, American Baptist, and United Church of Christ. These denomination were “a better fit theologically, but I still felt something was missing for me,” Shannon recalls. What was missing was the Catholic tradition. “In the Catholic tradition I found the mix of radical politics and deep, contemplative faith that I had been really longing for,” he says. Luminaries such as Dorothy Day and the Berrigan brothers, the monastic traditions, and the ritual of Catholic liturgy all played a role in calling Shannon to Catholicism. However, he knew the barriers he would face if he sought ordination in the Roman Catholic Church as a transgender man.
The Spirit, however, works in mysterious ways. While preparing for ordination in a mainline Protestant tradition, Shannon found the North American Old Catholic Church – on Twitter: “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.” For those who are unfamiliar with the North American Old Catholic Church (NAOCC), it is an independent Catholic church not in communion with Rome. The NAOCC ordains those who are called regardless of gender or gender identity, marital or partnership status, or sexual orientation. Shannon says, “Finally it was a place where I could serve as ALL of who I am, embrace the ritual I was coming to love, and be a part of a church that had nurtured and challenged the people who nurtured and challenged me in my own life of faith.”
Oh his journey to priestly ordination, Shannon chose to have his diaconate ordination at the Philadelphia Transgender Health Conference, the largest free conference on transgender issues in the United States. Why chose this venue for an ordination? “We chose to have the ordination at the conference to let people know that the NAOCC exists and that they ordain transgender people,” Shannon says. “So many trans* folks have felt cast out of their religious communities or feel a calling to ministry but aren’t sure how to have that calling be fulfilled. The Philadelphia Transgender Health Conference is the largest, free trans* conference in the United States and so it made sense to have it there as a public witness. It was a small group that attended the ordination, but I heard from several people how moving it was for them to be there; to feel like they were welcome at the table.” What about folks who weren’t there for the ordination? It’s a funny story, according to Shannon: “upstairs in the convention center Comic Con was taking place. So when the priests and Bishop showed up in their robes they didn’t seem out of place at all! I think a lot of people figure they were there for Comic Con and not for the health conference!” When asked if he thinks his gender identity and journey to the priesthood will influence the kind of priest he will be, Shannon replies, “I definitely think that my own process of feeling unwelcome in the church influences what kind of a Priest I am. I know what it’s like to be told that I don’t belong or that I am not the ‘right kind’ of Christian or Catholic. Because of that I am more sensitive to others who feel like they want to worship God but are leery of the church.”
Deacon Kearns with Archbishop Michael Seneco
Shannon blogs at Anarchist Reverend (http://anarchistreverend.com/) where he blogs about his work, theology, and issues of gender identity and sexuality. I asked him about the seeming contradiction of embracing both the philosophy of Christian anarchy and ordained ministry. He responded that “Honestly this has been one of the biggest paradoxes for me. I am influenced by Christian anarchist thought including Leo Tolstoy, Jacques Ellul, and Dorothy Day which says, basically, that the world works best when everyone is equal and everyone helps to take care of each other. It is that mutuality that so attracts me to anarchist thought. Anarchism is generally anti-heirarchy which means that many would say my ordination as a priest is a violation of my anarchist principles. I understand it more that I am being ordained to a specific 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. Those are the things I feel called to do, and those are also the things I have been trained to do.” What about gendered titles for ministers, such as “Father”? For Shannon, “Speaking for myself, as someone who is binary identified, feeling very strongly that I am simply male, I actually really appreciate being called ‘Father.’ It seems to be an affirmation of my gender identity in a very profound way. It feels right. I do think, though, that that is not always the case for people and there should be a gender-neutral option available.”
After his ordination, Shannon will be launching a new worship community in Minneapolis, the House of the Transfiguration (http://houseofthetransfiguration.com/). Shannon’s inspiration for this community is, “to create a community that combines the ancient rituals of Catholicism with a modern practice. The kind of place where you can feel comfortable in jeans and sneakers and still say the words of the Mass and experience deep tradition. It’s also a place that is very much centered on the idea of being rooted in, and being an influence on, the community in which it is located. We want to bring about a change in our neighborhoods, working on peace and justice issues, working for equality, and helping our neighbors.” His hope is to create a mix of the best parts of each church he has been a part of, “The emotional connection of the evangelical church, the justice work of the mainline churches, and the deep ritual of the Catholic tradition. All of these things influence each other and make the whole experience stronger.” Who is House of the Transfiguration for? Shannon says, “I think that there a lot of people who have been longing for community and for a place to experience ritual but who haven’t felt like they could for whatever reason. I hope that House of the Transfiguration can reach a lot of people. I have no idea how much it will grow; what I’m really hoping for is healthy community that can make a positive change in the city.” House of the Transfiguration is still seeking a space to call home, and hoping to begin meeting in February. If you are interested in learning more about this emerging community, Shannon invites you to contact him directly through the website above.
Congratulations on your ordination, Shannon! We give thanks for your gifts, your call to ministry, and your service, and wish you the best on the next steps of your journey.
(Stylistic note: the use of “trans*” is a way of including all people who are transgender, transsexual, genderqueer, or are otherwise gender-nonconforming. The asterisk comes from the boolean search, which means that if you put an asterisk after a word fragment the search returns everything that follows after. It is a way of being more inclusive.)
Johanna Hatch currently serves as Co-President of the Women’s Ordination Conference Board of Directors. She lives in Verona, WI with her family.