Last December, the House of Bishops issued guidance on the use of the liturgy for Reaffirmation of Baptismal Faith in order to ‘mark gender transition’ in a ‘celebratory’ way. I wrote then identifying a wide range of problems that it raised in relation to the use of liturgy and scripture, the lack of evidence of any theological thinking, and the failure to take into account some key pastoral realities or the debate in wider society around the issue. A subsequent statement was issued but addressed none of these major issues.
Because of this lack of adequate response, a group of people from across the traditions of the Church have written an open letter to the House of Bishops, asking them to ‘revise, postpone or withdraw this guidance until all these questions are properly addressed’. You can read the letter here, along with the more than 1,700 names of those who have signed this (and the text is also reproduced below). The letter has now been publicised in the national media, and is sure to attract more signatures—if you share these concerns, do add your name too. I commented to Christian Today:
This is an area of debate that people are very cautious about commenting on. The fact that so many, from a wide range of traditions in the Church, have been prepared to ‘put their heads above the parapet’ is an indication of the strength of concern expressed here.
‘The letter has been signed by 800 clergy, including area deans, archdeacons and retired bishops, as well as 700 lay members, including members of Synod, Church wardens and PCC members. But the most important thing here is not simply the numbers, but the fact that the letter highlights really important doctrinal, liturgy and pastoral issues that have not been adequately addressed. The bishops really need to think again and consider these things properly.’
David Baker adds his view that, if the bishops value listening so highly, they need to listen and respond to these concerns:
We ask not to be heard because of our numbers – though those should give pause for thought. We ask not to be heard because we are ‘right’ – for we do not claim to have all the answers. We ask not to be heard because we bring threats – for we come in the peace of Christ. We ask not to be heard at the price of excluding others – for by all means hear the voices of those who think differently from us, and especially those who experience transgender issues personally.
No: we ask to be heard because we believe the detailed theological questions we raise merit close examination. So we ask not to be dismissed with soundbites (‘this is not compulsory’) nor with platitudes (‘this does not change doctrine’) – for we have heard the soundbites and the platitudes, truly we have, and yet we still come to the table now with our voices, our questions, and the detail of the issues we raise. And we will keep coming until the details are answered.
We ask to be heard because the voice of the church, of which we are part, right across the world and through history, speaks mostly with a different voice on these matters to what we now hear from you. We cannot simply ignore the voice of brothers and sisters in Christ in other denominations, in other continents, at other times and places. And we ask to be heard because the voice that should be heard above all is not ours but the voice of God through Scripture – and we do not believe the existing guidance has yet engaged with that fully. We ask to be heard because we wish to walk with you, our shepherds in Christ, our bishops, to the Word of God once more and to say to you, ‘Show us – please show us, how may our questions be answered from these pages?’
So respectfully, and from our hearts, we ask you to listen. To engage, point by point, in detail, with the matters being raised. To listen from the heart, with minds engaged, and in so doing to hear the questions well. And as you engage with us, listen to us, pray with us, we assure you of our prayers. We are fellow pilgrims together, walking as part of his church, under the authority of his ever-speaking Word. For it is his voice and his voice alone that counts – not ours.
Here is the full text of the open letter for ease of reference. Add your name at the letter’s web page.
Gender dysphoria is an emotionally painful experience that requires understanding, support and compassion. Because it has affected a very small proportion of people, evidence from the medical and social sciences is often conflicting and of poor quality. Although gender dysphoria has been recognized for many decades, in recent years controversial new theories about the relationship between biological sex and the social meaning of gender have been linked to gender dysphoria. These ideas continue to be widely contested, with well intentioned and thoughtful people on all sides of the debate.
The many ordinary parents and teachers who now express concern about these new theories do not wish to cause harm to the tiny number of children afflicted by gender dysphoria; but neither do they want to harm the potentially larger numbers of children by prematurely imposing untried and untested ideas on young children. Given the many instances in the history of medicine where under-researched interventions, introduced prematurely, have caused more harm than good, our guiding principle should be ‘first do no harm’.
This is the wider medical, social and political debate into which the House of Bishops have introduced their brief ‘Guidance for gender transition services’. The document is undoubtedly well intentioned but lacks the serious theological analysis required to address the philosophical, anthropological and social issues in play in public discourse.
We, the undersigned, are unreservedly committed to welcoming everyone to our churches and communities of faith, so that all might hear and be invited to respond to the good news of repentance and faith in Jesus Christ. But we do not believe that the Guidance is the right way to do this, since it raises some significant issues for the Church’s belief and practice.
- The House of Bishops previously stated that no new liturgy would be offered. The title of ‘gender transition services’, the focus on the use of a person’s new name, the use of oil and water contrary to previous rubrics in Common Worship, and the description in the later explanatory note confirming that this service is to be used to ‘mark gender transition’ amount to the offering of a new liturgy, since existing wording is now being put to a new purpose.
- We are deeply concerned at what appears to be a misuse of the liturgy by which we celebrate one of the dominical sacraments, which are the founding markers of the Church itself (Articles XIX and XXV). Although reaffirmation of baptismal vows might well be appropriate at certain seasons of life, it should primarily be focussed on celebrating new life in Christ rather than a new situation or circumstance, as set out in Common Worship: Christian Initiation, and should always centre on salvation, repentance and faith rather than ‘unconditional affirmation’.
- We are similarly concerned at the inclusion of new biblical readings within the guidance and their suggestion that the changes of name for biblical characters in the light of God’s salvific action and intervention offer a legitimate parallel to the change of name associated with gender transition.
- The possibility of celebrating gender transition appears to be based on the rejection of physical differentiation between male and female (known as ‘sexual dimorphism’). This dimorphism is not only an almost universal biological reality (with the exception of a very small number who are biologically intersex) but has also been the basis of the Church’s understanding of Christian marriage, is seen as an important feature of God’s work as creator, and is a symbol of God’s covenant relationship with humanity. The guidance offers no theological reflection to justify this sort of revised narrative.
- Although the guidance presents itself as ‘pastoral’, there does not appear to have been any consideration of the enormous and often traumatic impact of gender transition by an individual on immediate friends and family, including spouse and children. On the principle of ‘not talking about us without talking to us’, there should have been careful consultation with these groups and consideration of the impact on them of such a service before issuing the guidance. In addition, there is no recognition that novel and largely untested theories about sex and gender also carry potential for harm in terms of the psychological and developmental needs of children and young adults.
- The notion of gender transition is highly contested in wider society. There is widespread concern at the idea of biological males claiming to be women when they have not shared their personal and social experience; there has been a worrying increase in rapid onset gender dysphoria (ROGD) particularly amongst girls who appear to lack confidence in their identity as female; there are concerns about the long-term effects of ‘puberty blocking’ hormones given the poor quality of the research; and there is no scientific or medical consensus that surgical and medical interventions (‘gender transition’) effectively address the complex symptoms associated with gender dysphoria over the long term. The bishops’ guidance offers no recognition of the wider issues at play here.
- We are grateful for the clarification that the offering of such services is not mandatory, contrary to the public statements of those involved in formulating the guidance. However, the guidance remains a new policy statement by the House, to be incorporated into Common Worship, and if it stands will be appealed to in the future as signifying a change in liturgical and therefore doctrinal understanding, whether or not that was intended.
In the light of these significant concerns, we ask that the House of Bishops revise, postpone or withdraw this guidance until all these questions are properly addressed. We assure the House of our prayers as they consider the best way forward.
Add your own name here.
Much of my work is done on a freelance basis. If you have valued this post, would you consider donating £1.20 a month to support the production of this blog?