Jesus was portrayed as a transgender woman in a performance in an Anglican church yesterday.
The Bishop of Manchester, David Walker, has not blocked the play entitled 'The Gospel According to Jesus, Queen of Heaven'. Award-winning playwright Jo Clifford, a Christian who is herself transgender, depicts Jesus retelling biblical stories with a "different slant".
"The play imagines a transgender Jesus coming back to the world today," Clifford said. "She pitches a sermon and tells a few very familiar gospel stories."
"She has a communion, shares bread and wine with the audience, which is really a gesture of solidarity in the face of death and she gives a blessing."
When the play was first shown in Glasgow in 2009, 300 protestors held a demonstration outside the theatre in opposition. One protestor said she had not seen the play but said "you don't need to go near a sewer to know it stinks". At the time the Archbishop of Glasgow condemned the play and said it was "hard to imagine a greater affront to the Christian faith".
At one point in the play Jesus, played by Clifford, says, "I love my mum" in reference to God.
At another, she says: "Our Mother who art on Earth, blessed is your name." Against images of gay couples kissing, she continues: "Give us this day our daily kisses, for yours is the Queendom..."
The play, which was performed at St Chrysostom's Church in Manchester's Victoria Park, includes a reinterpretation of the story of prodigal son in which he is thrown out by his father for wanting a sex change.
The show has met with considerable controversy and numerous critics have labelled it offensive and "wholly inappropriate". However its staging in a church has raised particular concerns.
Michael Nazir-Ali, a traditionalist and former Bishop of Rochester, said: "It is quite clear from the Gospels that the identity of Jesus is male, his "mum" is Mary and he always refers to God as "Father", so to suggest otherwise is contrary to Christian teaching.
"In cases in which a play is to be staged in a church building, the bishop is perfectly entitled under Church law to direct the cleric in charge to ensure the content will be consistent with Christian teaching and not offensive to the public.
"If the bishop's directions are not followed, the matter becomes one of discipline."
Another senior cleric and expert in Church law described the play as "wholly inappropriate for performance in a consecrated building" and looked to the bishop to take action "as he is required to do".
Clergy are required under church law to "take care" plays performed in churches are in line with "sound doctrine" and those in doubt should refer the matter to the bishop.
The Bishop of Worcester, John Inge, a member of the Church's doctrine committee, said he was "surprised" the play was performed in a church and added the production sounded "irreverent".
However Clifford has previously dismissed claims the play was blasphemous.
"People did that when they didn't know anything about the play," she said. "They assumed that it would be very offensive to the church.
"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," she said.
"No matter what their belief, no matter what their gender, orientation or sexuality."
Bishop of Manchester, Dr David Walker, 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," he said.
"...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. Nevertheless, there are aspects of the play Jesus, Queen of Heaven which to my mind stray beyond the challenging into territory that many reasonable Christians will find offensive."
The bishop added that while offence in itself is not grounds for preventing the play to take place, he could not support it being shown in a church venue. However, this decision, he said, lies with the local minister.