Andrew Bunt, who is Assistant Pastor at King’s Church, Hastings and Bexhill, has written a fascinating and helpful Grove Booklet on welcoming and supporting transgender people in the Grove Pastoral series, under the title People not Pronouns: Reflections on Transgender Experience. I asked him about the background to writing the booklet, and the interesting approach that he took to this important pastoral question.
IP: You start the booklet with a very honest account of your own confusion about your sex and gender identity. Do you see this confusion as unusual or quite common? Do you think that it is on the increase now because of current debates about sex and gender?
AB: It’s hard to know how common such confusion is, but I expect it might be more common than we think. Many children experience some level of confusion about their sex or gender identity. That can just be part of the journey of coming to understand the reality that we all have sexed bodies and that men and women are different. Or it can, as it was for me, be a more profound confusion or discomfort with one’s sex identity and sense of self. But for the vast majority of children, this confusion naturally abates as they grow up.
Since talking about the topic of sex and gender, I have met many people who relate to my later experiences of not really feeling they make the cut as a ‘real man’ or ‘real woman’. I think that sort of experience might be quite common.
Right now, we are of course also seeing a huge number of teenagers identifying as trans and reporting discomfort with their sex and gender identity. This does seem to be a new phenomenon, likely influenced, at least in part, by the prominence of the discussion in our society.
IP: You argue that Christians should be active in the debates around gender identity. What do you think makes so many hesitant to get involved?
AB: We all know that debates around gender identity are volatile. We see this in the reactions to statements made by people in the public eye—for example, J K Rowling—and the debates around matters such as transgender sportspeople. In view of this, a level of hesitancy is probably inevitable.
I think many people are also aware of the complexity of the debates. We recognise that the conversation is about a complex topic that touches on biology, psychology, philosophy, language, and medicine. Many of us just feel very aware of our lack of expertise on these matters. We might also be conscious of our lack of personal experience of the topic. And these are good reasons to think about whether, or perhaps particularly how, we should get involved.
But I still think Christians should be active in these debates. The conversation is volatile and complex because it’s about real life and real people. It’s because of this that we should get involved. We should care about people’s well-being, care about safeguarding young people, and care about people knowing how best to live to experience their best life. Our hesitancy should make us stop and think about how we engage well and in a helpful way, but we should still engage.
IP: I was fascinated that, rather than go straight to the complex issues around gender dysphoria, you focus first on the question of compassion, and our need to love and care for those affected. Why has this become such a priority for you?
AB: Primarily it’s become a priority for me because I’ve learnt about the lived experience of those living with gender dysphoria. I think we often fail to realise how real, painful, and debilitating gender dysphoria can be.
I’ve also been provoked by the experiences that trans people have had among Christians. I have heard stories of terrible treatment of trans people in respected UK churches even within the last few years. I’ve spoken to trans people who don’t feel safe to go to any church because of the ways they have been treated. I fear that among Christians today there is still a heart attitude problem in relation to trans people.
I’ve also been struck by the parallels between the experience of people who live with gender dysphoria and my own experience of being same-sex attracted. In Christian circles especially, sexuality and gender are often spoken of as abstract issues. I’ve sat in many sermons and seminars and felt I was being talked about as an issue rather than acknowledged as a person. We often forget that these topics are about real people. But when we do realise we’re talking about people, compassion, love and care should be the obvious right response for Christians, as the example of Jesus shows us.
IP: Having talked about the ‘heart’ issues, you take us into the ‘head’ issues, helping us to think clearly about issues around sex and gender. Do you think Christians should see scientific understanding as an ally here?
AB: I do think we should see scientific understanding as an ally to biblical teaching. For example, both science and the Bible recognise that there are only two sexes, and that sex is determined by the structuring of our reproductive systems.
In a summary of the available peer-reviewed research, professors Lawrence Mayer and Paul McHugh conclude:
It is these reproductive roles that provide the conceptual basis for the differentiation of animals into the biological categories of male and female. There is no other widely accepted biological classification for the sexes.
Only our reproductive systems provide a stable and binary basis for identifying biological sex.
The Bible puts forward the same understanding in Genesis 1. In Gen 1.27 we are told that we are created male and female. The very next verse gives us the command to ‘be fruitful, multiply and fill the earth’. Creation as male and female immediately leads to the command to reproduce because being male or female is rooted in our reproductive system. And as in science, in the Bible we find no other stable binary on which biological sex could be based.
When we think about transition, science again supports this understanding. Medical and surgical transition can, in reality, only make surface changes to an individual. Even if some aspects of a trans person’s body may be altered to appear more like the reproductive system of the sex they believe themselves to be, their reproductive system can never truly be restructured to take on a different role in procreation. No surgery can allow a biological male to produce large gametes (eggs) or a biological female to produce small gametes (sperm).
IP: We live in a culture in which emotions seem to dominate so many debates, especially in this area. Is it possible to engage with the ‘objective’ issues here—and if so, how can we do this constructively?
AB: I’m not keen to ignore emotions. They shouldn’t dominate a debate, but, as a good gift from God, they may have a place. The fact that emotion is often prominent in debates about this topic is a reminder that it’s a topic about real life and real people. We should pay attention to emotions—both our own and those of others—better to understand where we’re coming from, what we care about, and how we might move forward together. But we shouldn’t be controlled by emotions.
For example, a common emotive element of this discussion is the reality of mental health and suicidality among trans people. It is right that people get emotional about that. If we love people, we should care about mental health struggles and suicidality. Emotion alerts us to something important. The next step is to consider objectively where the relationship between trans experience and mental health lies and, on the basis of that, how we can best help people. We engage objectively at this point, not to ignore emotion, but because of emotion, because we care.
Problems arises when we stop at emotion and don’t allow it to lead us to objectively consider key questions. This is where we get the real tensions in the cultural debates. We all agree that we want to find the best way to help trans people. We all agree that we want to help the mental health of trans people and to reduce suicidality. But if we don’t take an objective look at these questions and instead stick with our emotional responses, we won’t be able to find the best answers. We can only debate constructively if we acknowledge emotion but then lay it to one side to engage the key questions.
IP: You make a surprising turn by looking at the question of hope and suffering. How has this changed the nature of the debate for you? What do Christians and the church have to offer here?
AB: I think this is the real crux of different perspectives on trans experience. Some see it is identity and as just part of the diversity of humanity. On this view, it makes sense that transition is the best solution. But I think that the Bible and science suggest that trans experience is better understood as an example of suffering. This is a growing view, especially among professionals reflecting on the huge increase in trans-identifying teens.
If this is so, then Christians and the church are uniquely equipped to help because we are uniquely equipped to handle suffering well and to help others to do the same. We have a worldview—the Bible’s big story—that explains why suffering exists but also why we all know it shouldn’t. That gives us permission to lament over pain and suffering, a practice that itself has power to strengthen us in the face of suffering. Our worldview also tells us there is a day coming when suffering ends. That gives us strength to keep going in the here and now.
We also have the ability to invite people into relationships that can support, encourage and sustain in the midst of suffering—a relationship with God and relationships with his people. The work of the Spirit and the active love and care of church family are part of what God gives us to help us face and navigate suffering. For those of us who want to support well, that is often as simple as being a good friend, being someone who is present, who listens, and who gently points to the truths of the gospel and the age to come.
IP: Do you think it is possible for Christians in the local church to engage fruitfully with this whole issue? What are the secrets to doing this well?
AB: I do, and I think it’s an area of great opportunity. We’re talking about people experiencing something difficult and distressing, looking for a clear sense of who they are, and, often, looking for a community where they can belong. We’re at the stage where many are noticing that the solution that has often been offered (i.e. transitioning) doesn’t actually bring the hoped-for relief. And sadly, because of that, we now have many people feeling hurt and let down, people who are living with the life-long impact of medical and surgical interventions that didn’t deliver and that should probably never have been offered to them. Against that background, we have the opportunity to be a community where people can experience love, care, and acceptance, can find out who they truly are, and can find support to navigate whatever experience of suffering they may be facing.
To do this well we need to be informed. Learning a bit about this topic is vital. We can’t respond well if we don’t first understand. We need to think in terms of people, not just issues and ideology. We need to think about the ‘why’ and not just the ‘what’. Why does God call us to live out our biological sex? Why might he ask someone with gender dysphoria not to transition? Why can he be trusted on this? And we need to act, not only speak. We can’t just pronounce an answer, we need to be the answer, being the sort of Christians and the sort of churches who can bring real hope and help to those suffering as a result of gender dysphoria.
We have good news for transgender people, good news for detransitioners, and good news for anyone who feels a level of discomfort with their sex and gender. My hope is that the church might become the most obvious place for those for whom these experiences are real-life to turn. I think that would be a good sign that we were becoming more like Jesus.
Andrew Bunt serves as an assistant pastor at King’s Church Hastings and Bexhill, and is also part of the team at Living Out. He studied theology at Durham University and King’s College London and loves helping people to understand and live out biblical teaching. He blogs as a contributor at Think Theology.
Andrew’s booklet People not Pronouns: Reflections on Transgender Experience is available from Grove Books, post-free in the UK or as a PDF ebook.