As preparation for hosting an international conference on LGBT+ rights, the Government committed to introduce new legislation banning ‘conversion therapy’. Despite significant lobbying pressure from some LGBT+ groups, others objected, on three main grounds: that the basic terminology of ‘conversion therapy’ was unclear; that the initial proposals effectively criminalised anyone with a ‘gender critical’ view who did not subscribe to a particular view of gender ideology, including an unqualified support for transgender ideology; and that as a result there would be ‘unintended consequences’ in criminalising both religious leaders and parents who questioned these approaches.
In response, the Government decided to rethink, and had plan to announced this in May alongside a raft of other issues in the Queen’s speech, in order to keep objections to a minimum. But Paul Brand, an ITV journalist whose same-sex partner is a Civil Servant, leaked the plans for a u-turn, which prompted a u-turn back: the Government would introduce legislation banning so-called ‘conversion therapy’ but only in relation to gay identity, and not in relation to trans identity. There followed a further backlash from trans supporters, including an open letter from Steve Chalke, founder of the Oasis Trust, signed by other religious leaders including Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury, and Sam Wells, vicar of St Martins-in-the-fields.
Excl: Some of the UK’s most senior religious leaders – including former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams – have written to the PM urging him to ban trans as well as gay conversion therapy.
“To be trans is to enter a sacred journey of becoming whole”. pic.twitter.com/LqccCzHfqZ
— Paul Brand (@PaulBrandITV) April 4, 2022
The key phrase here is:
To be trans is to enter a sacred journey of becoming whole: precious, honoured and loved, by yourself, by others and by God.
This is an extraordinary claim to make, and it pushes the conflict of views to a completely new level—though perhaps one that was always present. In his excellent critique of this statement (in, appropriately enough, The Critic), Matthew Roberts comments:
In one sentence this brings into the open what a good deal of the LGBT+ movement has become: it is now a sacred quest, an agenda no longer driven science, common sense, or simple compassion; but by a transcendental vision, a desire for mystical fulfilment and a metaphysical belief in unseen realities. This is, more than anything else, a religion.
It is important to offer this kind of analysis, but it is also vital to connect this with the painful pastoral realities not only for those who are on this journey, but friends, relations, and especially parents of those affected. The claim by Chalke and others is making a move at three levels.
First, the claim is being made that those who hate their sexed bodies are best pastorally supported and cared for by being affirmed in that hatred and supported in changing their bodies to appear to be the other sex. (We need to be clear that no-one can change the sex of their own body; what is being done is that the obvious and socially significant external markers of bodily sex are being changed or removed, either by hormone treatment or with the addition of surgery.) There are many groups and campaigners who dispute that this is actually appropriate as a pastoral and parental response, including the non-religious Transgender Trend, who focus on biological and research evidence to oppose this. The problem with any discussion on this, for those involved, is that, if as a parent I have supported my child in undergoing this process of transition, and if TT and other groups are right that this is a mistake, then I have been complicit in the irreversible damage to my child’s body. On the other hand, if I don’t support my child in this, I risk breaking my relationship with them as they are drawn into groups who will support them in this action. This is a desperately painful and unenviable situation to be in.
But part of the argument of TT and others is that the political and ideological support for this approach actually creates the context in which this kind of action becomes acceptable, and allows young people to be drawn into this action without proper critical reflection.
Second, the claim is then being made that this response is justified because hatred of one’s own sexed body, rather than being a response to social and cultural pressures, is actually the result of ‘being born in the wrong body’. This assumes that our true sex identity is found in our inner life—that it is possible to have a ‘sexed brain’ or a ‘sexed soul’. The problem here is that this is a far-reaching metaphysical claim, not simply about ‘trans’ people, but about all of us, and it is without any supporting scientific evidence. Some feminists argue that is eliminates the importance of biological sex difference, and thus undermines the place of women in society.
This concern is explored extremely well by Andrew Bunt in his excellent Grove Booklet People not Pronouns: Reflections on Transgender Experience. He begins with his own early experience of feeling deeply uncomfortable with his own sex, and leads into the need for a compassionate response to young people in that kind of situation. But he then moves on to explore the reality behind such feelings, and the best way to respond.
My experience of continued discomfort with my masculinity in adolescence and early adulthood was the result of stereotypes. I had a set idea of what a real man was like, and I very clearly did not fit into that box. I did not make the cut. Recognizing that my identity as a man is something given to me by God, and is unchangeable, helped me to become comfortable in my masculinity. I realized that I am a man because God says I am a man, not because of some ability to live up to a certain set of standards. I am a man and therefore I can live out my identity as a man with the unique personality and preferences that God has given me. This means I do not need to worry about not liking sport, hating aggression and usually finding it easier to develop friendships with women than with men. And it means I can embrace my love of musicals and Downton Abbey, and my sometimes flamboyant nature, as none of these things change my identity. I can be how I am, without it changing who I am.
I suspect that many people would be helped if we recognized the given nature of our sexed identity, and avoided unbiblical and unnecessary gender stereotypes.
But what does all of this mean for those who experience more acute gender dysphoria and for those who identify as transgender?
First, it means it is not possible to be born in the wrong body. This idea relies on a separation between the body and the true self which, as we have seen, does not fit the biblical picture of human identity. Our body is part of our true self. It is not possible for it to be in conflict with the truth about us.
It also means that transitioning to live in line with experienced gender is not the right or the best approach when an individual experiences a strong conflict between sex and gender.
This is not an easy thing to say. Every time I say it I can see in my mind’s eye the faces of those who live with the pain of gender dysphoria. I think of those who cannot look at themselves in a mirror. I think of young people who have said that life will not be bearable if they have to remain living in line with their sex. I think of adults who have said that they wake each morning not knowing whether they will be able to get through the day still winning the internal battle against the urge to cut their own body. I think of the pain, the strain, the tears and the anguish.
Sometimes it all makes me wish the answer was different. But I continue to believe that what God says about our sex and gender is right and good. And this is not just blind obedience—it is trust (pp 17–18).
This leads to the third level claim in the Chalke letter: not only is there a metaphysical basis for trans ideology, but this is a sacred quest. I was surprised to see that Rowan Williams had put his name to such a claim, not least because I had corresponded with him about this three years ago. When the House of Bishops commended the use of baptism liturgy to welcome a trans person to church in their new name, a large number of us protested, and Rowan Williams signed a counter letter in support. I asked him:
I am writing to express my surprise at your signing the letter which criticised the open letter responding the House of Bishops’ Guidance on welcoming transgender people into the Church, making use of the liturgy for the Affirmation of Baptismal Faith.
I know from your writings that you regard bodily identity as a key aspect of theological anthropology, and the lack of reflection on this issue was one of the key concerns expressed in the open letter, which has attracted more than 3,000 signatures, include more than 1,000 licensed clergy. We were also concerned at the appropriation of liturgy which, connected to one of the two dominical sacraments, is of foundational importance to the Church, but which now appears to be being put to another use in ‘marking the gender identity transition’ of individuals, rather than celebrating faith in an unqualified way.
Those who signed the open letter state quite clearly that we are committed to offering a welcome to all, and those of us involved in drawing the concerns together in the first place (from a wide range of traditions in the Church) were all motivated by our personal and pastoral experience of engaging with people for whom this is a live issue.
I was also surprised that the response letter which you signed actually showed no interest in engaging with the important theological, liturgical and pastoral issues that we raised. In case you have not been able to study it in detail, it is still online here https://www.responsetohob.co.uk
His reply included this explanation:
I don’t think and have never thought that the fact of gender dysphoria simply relativises dimorphism, only that it gives reason to acknowledge that this dimorphism is not in all instances an absolute binary distinction – indeed the desire for transition in a sense recognises that some sort of dimorphic distinction is real, but also that how it is established and realised may not in every case be straightforward. So to respond in the way the bishops do to ‘transitioning’ individuals doesn’t seem to me by any means to weaken a commitment to the centrality of bodily identity, and I have never been persuaded by the idea that gendered identity is a mental or social construct; and that isn’t actually what I hear from most trans people I know. I realise that the popular language about ‘being in the wrong body’ can be profoundly misleading; but I interpret it as saying not that there is a bodiless identity indifferent to the gendered particularity of an individual, but that the complex of bodily and psychophysical data in this particular organism is in some way unbalanced – perhaps mislabelled, perhaps developmentally non-standard – and would benefit from therapeutic intervention.
It seems to be rather odd that Rowan Williams is happy to attach his name to an approach based on the idea that some can be ‘born in the wrong body’ whilst dissenting from what most people who use that phrase actually mean by it. I replied:
I would very much agree with you that transgender understandings do not undermine sex dimorphism; ironically, there is a sense in which they commonly accentuate it, especially based on cultural stereotypes of sex identity, and this is where such an approach comes into conflict with feminist perspectives, which will often want to downplay binary gender identity especially in relation to social roles. I would also agree with you that there is a sense of ‘unbalance’ or ‘developmental’ issues, but the fact that the typical approach of therapeutic intervention is to surgically and medically attempt to alter bodily reality (though of course this is only ever partial, since we can never alter chromosomal identity) to align with the psychological perception, rather than the other way around, is the issue of concern. This is a concern to the medical profession, since most consider there is no clinical evidence identifying why this direction of travel is the best; gender transition does alleviate some of the symptoms of gender dysphoria, but there remains a much higher morbidity in relation to many other mental health issues, suggesting from a medical point of view that this intervention is not well founded.
From a theological point of view, the concern is that no-one has articulated any understanding of what we think is happening in terms of theological anthropology. Sex dimorphism based on bodily identity is important in relation to our theology of God as creator (as we can see in Paul’s appeal to it in Romans 1) and underpins a Christian understanding of what marriage is. I am not aware of any theological work having been done on this in the Church of England which would allow us to agree that someone who undergoes gender transition is or is not ‘truly’ in any sense changing their sex identity.
I received no further response.
Martin Davie picks up on this theological issue about how we understand the relation of body and soul in his response to the Chalke letter:
The Anglican tradition agrees with the wider Christian tradition that human beings consist of bodies and souls.
We can see this, for example, in the words of the Holy Communion service in The Book of Common Prayer. The Minister gives people the bread and wine so that Christ’s body and blood may ‘preserve thy body and soul unto everlasting life.’ The people ‘offer and present unto thee, O Lord, ourselves, our souls and bodies’ and pray ‘that through thy most mighty protection, both here and ever, we may be preserved in both body and soul.’
Likewise, in the Burial Service a distinction is made between the soul of the departed ‘which it hath pleased Almighty God of his great mercy to take unto himself ’ and their body which is committed to the ground, ‘earth to earth, ashes, dust to dust.’
So, ‘who am I?’ Paul, and the Christian tradition following Paul, says that ‘I’ am a single self, a psychosomatic unity consisting of a body and a soul. I am a material body, including a material brain, but that is not all I am. I am also an immaterial, conscious, rational, soul that is aware of God, other people, and the world in general, a mind that acts in and through my body in the light of this awareness.
As Nancy Pearcey notes in her book Love Thy Body there is a tendency in contemporary Western thought to regard the soul, the conscious part of our existence, as the ‘authentic self’ with the body ‘demoted to a nothing but a ‘meat skeleton’’ extraneous to who we truly are. This is not the Christian view. The Christian view is that while I am not simply my body, nevertheless, I am my body and my body is me (as when I say, ‘I am going to sit down,’ or ‘I fell off my bicycle,’ both acts directly involving only my body but nonetheless involving me as a whole).
One day my material body will die (unless Jesus returns first), but my soul will survive that death, and because disembodiment is not its proper state God will re-unite my soul with my resurrected body in the general resurrection of the dead at the end of time. Just as the human body that Jesus assumed at the incarnation is an integral part of who Jesus is and will be for all eternity, so also the bodies which we have are going to be an integral part of who we will eternally be. Even if we would like it to be the case, there is no escape from our bodies.
Furthermore, in accordance with God’s creation of human beings as male and female (Genesis 1:26-28, 2:18-25, 5:1-2, Matthew 19:4-5, 1 Corinthians 11:2-16) a central part of what it means to be created by God in his image and likeness is to be male or female.
Contrary to what is often suggested today, being male or female is something that is determined not by our feelings but by our biology.
It is worth noting in this how serious is the claim that ‘trans people are on a sacred journey’. This claim is no mere pastoral response; it actually touches on central theological issues of creation, incarnation, atonement, salvation and eschatology.
Matthew Roberts therefore summarises the chasm in thinking between Chalke and Williams and orthodox Christian belief:
Christianity teaches that the body is good, a good creation of the good God. The sexual differentiation of male and female bodies is held up in Scripture as of first significance in what it means to be the image of God. It is not a prison to escape from, as the Greeks thought, nor meat to be slashed to gain the attention of the gods, as the Canaanites thought. Our God himself took a human body, and though he offered it as a sacrifice, that was to save our bodies from the grave. And so like his body, ours will be raised again to eternal life, with their wounds healed, that we may live as bodies and souls united eternally in God’s presence. Christians know that our bodies are made to be temples of the Holy Spirit, not sacrificial victims to be offered in the hope of satisfying the Sacred Self.
And this brings us right back to the thing that prompted the letter in the first place—the Government’s plans to ban ‘conversion therapy’.
What has now become clear is that the proposed legislation has been aiming at the wrong target. It is not orthodox Christians, who teach that we should live not for self but for the Holy God, restraining sexual desires to the marriage of one man and one woman, who pose a risk of harm. No, it is those who promote a religion of enlightenment by bodily modification. Christians teach children that their bodies are good, to be loved and cared for; they tell them that they are to be carved up to match the mysterious “gender identity”. Christians teach that bodies are God-given, to be valued and accepted, whose very nature and design teaches precious truths about who we are; they teach that bodies are mere “walking meat skeletons” (to quote one BBC video for teens), a mere container for the Self, whose structure and function mean nothing and should be ignored, blocked, or even disposed of altogether. Who, do you think, is more likely to cause harm?
When chemical sterilisation and physical mutilation are promoted as a “sacred journey to wholeness”, it is time to realise that those who say such things are not offering the rest of us solutions. It’s time to begin to see them as, just perhaps, part of the problem.
I think he is right.