‘Andrew MacFarlane’ writes: This is a short précis of a longer piece that included many references to current literature on the issues contained within Living in Love and Faith (LLF). This précis is not exhaustive but provides some key discussion points.
The ‘LGBT+’ grouping
The singular grouping of lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans-sexual, intersexual, and others (LGBTI+) is an increasingly problematic term that elides a number of different issues. LGB refers to a grouping based on the attraction to specific sexed bodies; trans-sexuals are a grouping based on gender identity that typically differs from their natal sex. Intersex peoples are a group comprised of specific medical conditions, often with chromosomal abnormalities or androgen insensitivity, based on differences of sexual development (DSD). LLF assumes that LGBTI+ is a meaningful and accepted umbrella term, but that term is actually fracturing.
There is clear and sustained pushback from the ‘gender-critical‘ feminist and lesbian communities (whose views are not discussed in LLF at all) against the invasion of male-sexed women into female-only spaces. Lesbians, for whom biological sex is the only thing that matters to their sexual identities, report the sustained pressure that they face to have sex with heterosexual transwomen who retain a penis, as trans activists assume that gender identity equates to sexual phenotype. Despite reports otherwise, this is not a settled area of cultural debate (something not discussed in LLF). There is also no discussion of professionals who are unsettled by practices within gender dysphoria clinics, that rapid-onset gender dysphoria can have social components, that some children are coerced into transitioning, or that the risk of suicide in trans people is no higher than for other mental health conditions (p 96).
Indeed LLF focuses on the often-misreported harm faced by transgender people in Britain (for this is a highly nuanced issue), but fails to focus Christian concern on the 6000 Christians martyred in Nigeria this year alone. Transgender people do not face anywhere near this level of persecution anywhere in modern Britain and that is something that should temper the assertions of LLF. The lack of balanced discussion in LLF tacitly supports ‘trans’ ideology – without explanation as to what that means – at the expense of biological reality.
Whilst the topics it covers are broad, LLF fails to address theologically whether transwomen are women. If they are, could Jesus have been born of a transwomen? If yes, what does that mean for the biological basis of the Incarnation? Relatedly, consider the spaces into which transgendered persons might be stepping. Would the Church of England (CoE) envision women-only spaces and how will it react if there is pressure for transwomen to enter those spaces and environments? What reassurances can natal women have from the CoE that their space will be respected and defended even if trans activist pressure mounts? How do we encourage the (relatively) greater number of lesbians into church, if they perceive it as a place of misogyny due to trans activism?
If the LGBTI+ positions are not well-nuanced with focus on pastoral implications for the majority of those (i.e. natal women) who need refuge within single-sex spaces within the church, then that will create difficulties for the social mission of the future church. The issues surrounding sex and gender are clearly intellectually and socially fluid: the CoE may be wise to adopt a stance of watchful waiting and let society play these controversies out, especially in light of the Keira Bell case and recent Cass report into the Tavistock NHS Trust.
LLF argues that, given variations in biological sex exist, we should ‘widen our understanding of the natural variability of human bodies’ (pp 336, 339), but this presents a scientifically and medically illiterate view of biology.
First, the assertion that science shows the multiplicity of gender is philosophically incorrect. The traditional frequentist approach to science attempts to understand whether some experimental intervention is more likely to have produced our acquired results or not. Leaving aside that there is no experimental intervention when describing a gender and sexuality ‘spectrum’, science requires that the null hypothesis here is that transgenderism does not exist within our study population. Given how rare gender dysphoria and DSD (differences in sex development) is, ‘science’ will be unable to reject this null hypothesis so we would have to say there is no such thing, for example, as transgenderism.
We know that transgenderism does exist and so the science appealed to here is either descriptive epidemiology or social science. The social sciences are significantly influenced by activism, driving not only theories but also data collection and interpretation (interestingly, queer hermeneutics is one of the largest offenders). These are not benign ‘scientific’ processes, but ideological positions that often look for theoretical and empirical data to support their position. Alastair McIntyre devotes two chapters to the problems with social sciences and their generalizability within After Virtue (as relevant today as it was when published in 1981). It might be preferable to avoid appeals to ‘science’ when constructing reasons for changing established church doctrine.
Secondly, DSD is an abnormality of physiology (requiring extensive medical and social input) and so cannot be considered ‘normal’. Much of LLF is founded on the assumption that gender identity is a social construct, chosen according to first-person experience and belief. Yet here LLF attempts to justify gender identity in general from the specific case of biological variation – this is not a logical transition. LLF also co-opts the dignity of those with intersex conditions in order to support transgenderism by appealing to biology, a contradictory ideological position that is pastorally careless and not supported by any first-person accounts from intersex Christians. It may be beneficial in the future to separate the sex-based, gender-based, and DSD groupings with sensitive discussion of both how these differences could interact and the pastoral needs of each.
The Question of Identity
Identity is central to the arguments proposed in LLF. The overwhelming emphasis is that identity is psychological – it is who we feel we are. This stress on self-declaration and self-expression is recognizable as an atheist, utilitarian stance (see, for instance, Derek Parfit), which views identity as a series of unconnected, self-defined psychological states and rejects permanence. As many of us can attest, our subjective identity fluctuates according to many things: age, education, peers, and so on. How I feel today will not be how I feel tomorrow, yet I still have an abiding identity across time.
One important Christian concept missing entirely from LLF is the hypostasis, a term that speaks to an eternal identity given to us by God. Christian orthodoxy emphasizes this eternal identity and, if we believe in salvation and final judgment, then we have to believe that our identity is beyond psychological (despite p 200). As we exist in God’s image, the hypostasis speaks to an ontological truth about each person. It is from this identity that our nature (in a psychological sense) arises. God’s love is not dependent on my self-constructed identity; he loves my eternal identity that he created.
The primacy of hypostatic identity over psychological identity is easily demonstrable by considering on what basis a newborn baby is loved: babies have no capacity for self-derived psychological identity yet we love and care for them simply because they exist and have an irreplaceable position within humanity. The utilitarian position is that babies do not matter, placing LLF in a position whereby it denies the importance of physical existence. It is caveated in LLF that identity is more wide-ranging than just the subjective aspect of human experience but the absence of anything approaching hypostasis in LLF is saddening. The case of Keira Bell demonstrates powerfully what can happen when we fail to take into account the hypostasis, instead focusing on psychological and emotional identities.
LLF questions whether the CoE should bless or baptize someone after gender transition. Aside from the theological implications of contradicting the Nicene Creed (also not discussed), do proponents feel that they would be the baptizing/blessing an eternal or psychological identity? Is it presumed that God would not know all of our psychological identities across time? What if someone transitioned, was blessed/baptised by the CoE, and then detransitioned—what would that mean for their rejected identity? The CoE would be complicit in the false identification of that individual’s gender transition and thereby a co-author of their pain. These are likely to be rare occurrences but they could cause great harm to the person and the church community involved.
Finally, can Christians truly believe that the infallible God has created people who exist in the wrong body? Does our God make mistakes, or could gender dysphoria be part of the theodicy surrounding evil and disease in this world? The CoE celebrating those who transition gender implicitly reject the design God has ordained for his Creation. The lack of discussion about the Transfiguration in LLF is also disheartening, given it demonstrates the importance of the hypostasis for our eternal heavenly identities.
Interpreting Scripture on marriage
Whilst it is always necessary to reinterpret the Bible into modern contexts, there is very fine balance between exegesis and eisegesis. Examples of eisegesis within LLF include speculating that biblical writers may not have seen ‘committed, loving same-sex sexual relationships that we encounter today’ (p 279); that when Paul speaks of ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural’ relationships (p 290), he was simply unaware of ‘covenantal’ same-sex relationships that could be ‘natural’; and, that Jonathan and David shared a homosexual relationship.
The Biblical writers lived within the licentious Greek and Roman worlds, so speculating that loving same-sex relationships were conceptually unknown to the Biblical writers is not credible. Implicitly, these sections of LLF suggest that despite God’s omniscient and immutable nature and over 5,000 years of his direct revelation, somehow God failed to make it clear that marriage did not just have to be between a natal man and a natal woman. These interpretations are entirely modern and Freudian in how they distill relationships to sex and emotion.
The reduction of marriage to a ‘solemnization of a covenantal relationship’ not only diminishes marriage as a sacrament, but will also create more pastoral problems. How will the CoE react when heterosexual civil partners want to be blessed but not married (as many view marriage as patriarchal) or when the polyamorous couple, who have no wish to honour the call to monogamy, request to have their relationship nevertheless solemnized?
The Freudian view of marriage predominantly presented in LLF fails to capture the fact that Christian marriage is a spiritual category; there is no mention of marriage as being the union of Christ and his Church. It may not be ‘fair’ that same sex couples cannot marry but this is how God has revealed the institution of marriage to us; our call is to celebrate the ‘otherness’ of Christian marriage and that it is so much more than a ‘covenantal relationship’.
There can be little doubt that the over-zealous application of orthodoxy has been used as an excuse for the abuse of sexual and identity minorities throughout church history. LLF’s assertion is that this is because we in Britain assume that normality is ‘white, or middle-class, or educated, or male’ (WMCEM; p.199) and WMCEM fuel ‘stigmatization, marginalization and exclusion’. These ahistorical assertions are not presented as conjecture, but rather as fact. LLF fails to engage with more ancient denominations not under the influence of WMCEM (e.g., the Coptic, Yazidi, and Ethiopian churches), and fails to demonstrate how, if ‘sound interpretation’ or ‘good theology’ is founded on 5000 years of Judeo-Christian orthodoxy, such ‘sound interpretation’ and ‘good theology’ can be shown to be ‘white, male, middle-class, affluent, and Western interpretation [of] theology’ (p 328).
Relatedly, LLF introduces abstract statements such as ‘demands for discipline and self-denial have too often been used to reinforce uneven distributions of power within communities… they have been used to keep people in the place assigned to them in culture’s hierarchies’ (p 237). The focus on WMCEM and the modes and patterns of power and hierarchy in LLF has an intellectual lineage arising from a worldview founded in Marxist and post-modern thought, summarized as ‘identitarianism’. This worldview asserts that society is formed by culturally constructed systems of power and hierarchies. Identitarians deny objective Truth, believing that there is truth available only through ‘lived experience’ and usually in the terms they employ; we are all aware of the resulting concept of ‘lived experience’.
One problem with Marxism was that its usually middle-class acolytes could not readily identify with the ‘oppressed’, and so they developed a grievance society of oppressed peoples based on specific identities, such as race, sexuality, and gender. It is no coincidence that this pseudo-class war emerged from mainly white, middle-class, and educated university settings using ideas from WMCEM (like Karl Marx, Michel Foucault, and the Frankfurt School). Ultimately, the identitarian views espoused in LLF are not theological, philosophical or ethical; they are political and inherently divisive.
One concern for LLF should be the effect of trying to replace Christian orthodoxy with actual WMCEM university-based concepts (such as white privilege, systemic racism, power distribution, gender separated from biology, etc.). Moreover, LLF does not mention the overseas Anglican community who are more likely to support an orthodox position on many of the issues raised. Given LLF is likely to have been written largely by WMCEM people, this non-engagement with Anglicans overseas could be interpreted as ‘classically racist’ especially if the reason for non-engagement was because it was known what answers these other communities might provide.
There is also increasing evidence that views such as those suggested here are ‘high status opinions’, shared by only a narrow cadre of highly educated and wealthy proponents that actually widens inequality, typically to the advantage of WMCEM (the ‘kneeling bishops’ are good examples of this phenomena—not one of them has given their seat up for a vicar from an under-represented minority). The majority of the populace does not share these opinions; for example, we see the term ‘woke’ being increasingly used as a term of derision. Will the CoE’s evangelical and social mission be met by appealing to this narrow section of society and alienating, for instance, the socially-conservative working class (who inhabit those parishes that continue to experience the greatest decline in church attendance)?
LLF presents a series of stories to tell ‘new narratives’, and paints modern non-Christian understandings of identity and sexuality as benign and affirming. There are plenty of stories of harm and LLF makes no attempt to discuss these ‘problematic’ stories, simply implying that this area of ‘science and society’ is overwhelmingly positive. Can the lack of discussion of the deleterious consequences of modern identity—including the pastoral examples offered here—really be considered pastorally responsible?
Fundamentally, the CoE might find itself better served by distancing itself from modern social ideologies—though not necessarily through public opposition—that are already losing social traction. Church attendance will not swell because the CoE blesses same-sex marriage or baptizes new gender identities; the spread of Christianity worldwide simply reflects the truth of the Gospel and a face-to-face encounter with Jesus. There are many circles in LLF that cannot be squared: imposing top-down change will almost certainly alienate many dedicated Christians who may feel dismissed over issues that are niche when considered as a societal whole.
The absolute strength of LLF is the call to pastoral care and it should make all Christians consider our approach to those with different sexualities and identities. These sections are tremendously important and are written sensitively. The CoE needs to serve all those made in the image of God, but without resorting to concepts distanced from Christian orthodoxy. LLF says that church is not always a ‘safe space’, but safety is often interpreted as the absence of challenge. This is inherently solipsistic given Christianity is not a singular but a community pursuit. Church should be open and welcoming to all, but we should not place gender, sexuality, etc. ahead of being a Christian. The CoE should not seek to impose change in articles of faith as this will only widen what fissures already exist.
What LLF made me ultimately turn to and reflect on was Job. He suffered much when his worldly identity was taken from him. But God kept and knew Job through to his hypostatic identity that reciprocally loved God back; Job was loved when no other human would love him. The best thing that Job’s friends did was just sit in silence, let the gravity of his grief pull them into his orbit, and mourn with him. That was a true act of love. It is notable that things go wrong for the friends when they try to offer explanations and solutions to Job. What difference this position would have made to Keira Bell and others like her? This approach will help those who genuinely struggle with all types of problems to dwell within a church community and to let their encounter with God heal their wounds.
‘Andrew MacFarlane‘ is a widely published clinician scientist. He has to write under a pseudonym as his academic context does not permit him to ask critical questions publicly in the area of sexuality. He is not Alasdair Coles, Professor of Clinical Neuroimmunology at Addenbrookes in Cambridge—and it is a tragic sign of our intolerant and illiberal times that Alasdair has had formal complaints raised against him on the assumption that he was the author.