Last July, General Synod voted on a contentious motion about the welcome of transgender people in the Church, proposed by Chris Newlands as a Blackburn diocesan motion. That it was contentious was already evident from the fact that the Bishop of Blackburn had voted against it when it was previously debated in the diocesan synod. The motion read as follows:
That this Synod, recognising the need for transgender people to be welcomed and affirmed in their parish church, call on the House of Bishops to consider whether some nationally commended liturgical materials might be prepared to mark a person’s gender transition.
Chris Newlands had introduced the issue with a story about someone who approached him wanting a liturgical rite akin to baptism, because they were not sure that God knew them under their new gender identity. In his Synod speech, he cited the story of a five-year old as an example of transgenderism:
“David” and “Ruth” are active members of an evangelical Church of England parish church and they have been for a long time. Five years ago, they became parents of a healthy baby boy, “Nathan”. The church was delighted to share their joy at his birth, but it was not long before Nathan showed every sign that he was actually their daughter and not their son. He refused to wear trousers and showed absolutely no interest in any boy toys, only pink princess-type toys and decorations for his bedroom.
The striking paradox about this story is the detachment of the terms ‘daughter’ and ‘son’ from any sense of biological reality, coupled with an absolutising of socially constructed gender markers. In the Victorian period, pink was associated with boys and not girls. And the projection of transgender ideology on children when they are so young appears to be highly damaging, especially to young girls, a group who already have enough to cope with as they form their understandings of themselves in society.
But the problem with the motion as it was presented was the absolute connection made between ‘welcome’ and ‘liturgical materials’. There was an attempt to separate these two issue out, in the form of an amendment proposed by Nick Land, but this was resisted by Chris Newlands, largely on the grounds that he refused to ‘acknowledge different understandings around gender dysphoria and the field of gender identity more widely’, and rejected in the debate. (I had already discussed this prior to Synod, and asked whether he would accept a friendly amendment, but he refused point blank.) Despite this, members of the House of Bishops had indicated clearly that these were indeed different issue. Richard Frith, bishop of Hereford and Vice-Chair of the Liturgical Commission, made it clear that the ‘consideration’ that was being asked for would result in a decision not to act:
We already have liturgical materials which speak of our common identity as Christians and which are appropriate for the welcome of transgender people. I do though very much welcome the motion as it gives us an opportunity to make a positive statement about inclusion and openness.
A cynical listener might have classified that final statement as an expression of virtue signalling—but the comment does have the virtue of clarity. This was made even more clear in the final speech in the debate by John Sentamu, Archbishop of York.
Chair, members of Synod, there are two parts to this motion and they both have to be taken with equal weight. The first is the need to welcome and affirm in their parish transgender people. Is there any one of us who does not say “yes” to that first part? Anybody? So on that first part we will say “yes”.
Then the second bit talks about the House of Bishops. It is the House of Bishops being asked “to consider whether” and “whether materials might be”. Actually, the motion has been very carefully crafted. I welcome it because it allows us to do what Chris Newlands was trying to suggest without kicking it into the long grass. The theology has to be done but that cannot be done very quickly.
Because the first part of the motion is affirming, the need to affirm that people should be welcomed in their parish church, I want us to vote “yes”, and the second bit, because it is “considering” whether some materials might be prepared, it is provisional, and because it needs a lot of work we shall come back to the Synod from the House with what we thought, but we are going to give it very serious consideration in light of the Secretary General’s paper, particularly paragraphs 12 and 14.
From these comments, it was very predictable what the House of Bishops would decide (not to introduce new liturgy) and when it was leaked to the Daily Mail, a statement was quickly issued. Despite what was said in the debate, the Mail’s report characterised the bishops as ‘throwing out’ what Synod had ‘demanded’—and this apparent volte face was widely interpreted by supporters of the motion as hypocrisy, of saying one thing in the public forum of a Synod debate, but the opposite in private when there would be less publicity. The House of Bishops’ statement makes the same separation between welcoming and the devising of new liturgy, but it seems clear that the response is to say: ‘That which the campaigners have united, let not the House of Bishops divide.’
Don’t forget to book your place at the Festival of Theology on Jan 30th!
The cementing together of welcome/affirmation and agreement with transgender ideology is evident in other discussions in this area. Paris Lees, a trans woman journalist who grew up in Nottingham, documents the traumatic experience of bullying, taunting and violence experienced by her and other trans people—and I can’t help wondering whether the Synod motion might have made more explicit mention of this. But at the centre of the piece there is a quite extraordinary claim:
This violence is often justified on the grounds that we’re not “real” women, that we’re tricksters, sick men who deserve to be beaten and murdered. I wonder if cosy establishment figures who question whether we’re real women have considered how that directly contributes to this culture of violence? The abuse trans people face doesn’t occur in a vacuum. The things people read or hear about trans people in the media affect the way they perceive and, ultimately, treat trans people.