One of the most difficult debates facing General Synod when it meets in July arises not from the main business agenda, but from a diocesan motion from Blackburn Diocese, which will be proposed by Revd Chris Newlands:
That this Synod, recognising the need for transgender people to be welcomed and affirmed in their parish church, calls on the House of Bishops to consider whether some nationally commended liturgical materials might be prepared to mark a person’s gender transition.
I was approached to discuss this with Chris on last weekend’s Sunday programme on Radio 4, and if you want to see how complex and challenging this debate is going to be, then you can listen to our discussion on iPlayer starting at 30 minutes into the programme. The difficulties start (as is often the case in such debates) with the language; the question here is less about ‘gender’ (that is, socially constructed roles of men and women) but ‘sex identity’ (that is, whether someone is a biological man or woman) as is evident from Chris’ own language. That is why, in informed discussions, the situation we are faced with is described as ‘gender identity disorder’ or more commonly ‘gender dysphoria’. Chris is right to emphasise the serious and distressing nature of the pastoral issue—but unfortunately my agreement with him on this, and my explaining my personal experience of that amongst friends and family was edited out (the discussion was pre-recorded) in order to create a sense of ‘liberal pastoral care’ versus ‘traditionalist dogma’ on the programme. There is no doubt at all that this is how many will seek to configure the Synod debate.
But very quickly quite serious theological issues arise as well. Chris explains how this issue has arisen, because someone approached him who had transitioned from female to male, and he wanted to be ‘reintroduced, because he didn’t think God would now know who he was.’ The assumption of a fundamental change of identity also falls foul of basic science; our biological sex is not determined merely by our external genitalia or our social roles, but by our chromosomes, and no amount of medical intervention will change that. Given that all this has been raised within the first minute of the discussion, you can see why everyone else approached by the BBC declined because they did not feel well enough informed!
There are four very useful resources that I think members of Synod—and anyone else concerned about this issue—needs to explore if we are to have a debate of any value. The first is the BBC2 programme shown last January, Transgender Kids: who knows best? which centred around the views of Kenneth Zucker, a Canadian psychologist whose controversial approach with transgender children led to his being sacked in 2015 from a Toronto gender identity clinic—he claims because he challenged the ideological consensus. It was fascinating in the way it presented the cases sympathetically from both sides, but sadly is not available on iPlayer at present. *Update* The programme can be viewed on Vimeo here. (My references to the evidence presented in this programme were also edited out of the Sunday discussion.)
The second is a web site which featured in the BBC2 programme, Transgender Trend. The site does not post new material very often, but there is a fascinating archive looking at practical implications of current approaches, and critiquing them primarily from a research point of view. The site describes itself in clear terms:
We are a group of parents based mainly in the UK, who are concerned about the current trend to diagnose ‘gender non-conforming’ children as transgender. We reject current conservative, reactionary, religious-fundamentalist views about sexuality. We are also concerned about legislation which places transgender rights above the right to safety for girls and young women in public bathrooms and changing rooms.
We come from diverse backgrounds, some with expertise in child development and psychology, some who were themselves extreme gender non-conforming children and adolescents, some whose own children have self-diagnosed as ‘trans’ and some who know supportive trans adults who are also questioning recent theories of ‘transgenderism.’
The third resource is the excellent discussion in Mark Yarhouse’s book Understanding Gender Dysphoria which I reviewed two years ago. Yarhouse offers some clear thinking through the maze of complexity on this issue, including being clear about the difference between gender dysphoria (which is a psychiatric issues) and intersex conditions (which are a medical issue), a difference that Chris Newlands did not appear to understand. Yarhouse offers a considered proposal for Christian engagement in this issue:
The Christian community has several ongoing responsibilities moving forward. These have to do with thoughtful scholarship in this area, which includes:
- critical analysis and engagement with the work being done in the area of sex and gender
- thoughtful engagement with best practices in clinical service provision to those who have been diagnosed with Gender Dysphoria
- listening to the experiences of faithful believers who are navigating gender identity conflicts in their own lives
- identifying the best way to be a faithful witness to a broader culture in which norms regarding sex and gender are eroding
- engaging with “convicted civility” those who are actively deconstructing norms related to both sex and gender
- identifying and implementing best practices as the body of Christ and, in particular, the local church in relation to unchurched and dechurched transgender persons
- providing sensitive pastoral care to those in the Body of Christ who are navigating this terrain
What is striking in all this is the Yarhouse’s profound sense of awareness. He is acutely aware of the stories of those experiencing transgender inclinations; he is aware of different theological responses; he is aware of what is at stake within culture; and he is even aware of the impact of his own responses to all the different groups who have a stake in this. I think this is what makes early readers see this book as so valuable in shaping our understanding of and response to the issue. And it is this which shapes Yarhouse’s own response:
Certainly we can extend to a transgender person the grace and mercy we so readily count on in our own lives. We can remind ourselves that the book of redemption in a person’s life has many chapters. You may be witness to an early chapter of this person’s life or a later chapter. But Christians believe that God holds that person and each and every chapter in his hands, until that person arrives at their true end—when gender and soul are made well in the presence of God.
The fourth resource specifically relates to the Synod motion, and is a detailed analysis of the issues by Martin Davie, published as a Latimer Briefing paper. It is free to download, either as a full study or as its concluding chapter. I suspect that some reading this might feel Davie does not give sufficient attention to the practical, pastoral issue, but his analysis of the debate is excellent, and has real pastoral implications.
The claim that gender transition is the best way to help someone with gender dysphoria is called into question by the available evidence which fails to demonstrate that transition is successful in resolving the mental and physical health issues experienced by transgender people. Scepticism about gender transition is expressed both by well qualified experts in the field of mental health and by a growing number of people who are explaining the reasons why, having gone through gender transition, they then decided to revert back to living in their birth sex.
Whatever happens, this debate is not going to be an easy one. But unless those in the discussion are well-informed, we are in danger of having the kind of polarised, truncated and ill-tempered exchange that often marks such debates.
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