Last July’s General Synod passed a motion brought by Chris Newlands on behalf of Blackburn Diocese, expressing the Church’s welcome of transgender people and asking the House of Bishops to consider whether they should offer some sort of liturgy to mark the transition of a person’s sex identity. In January, the House of Bishops responded saying that they had considered the question, and had decided that no such liturgy was necessary. This was not received well by those campaigning for a change in approach, and the main complaint was that, though the wording of the motion asked the House of Bishops to ‘consider’ whether a liturgy was needed, of course everyone knew that what was meant was that the House of Bishops should produce a liturgy, not simply consider the question. Such an interpretation is clearly mischievous, not least given that the modest nature of the wording was explicitly appealed to in the debate, and that the Vice Chair of the Liturgical Commission, Richard Frith, expressly warned that such ‘consideration’ would not lead to the offering of a liturgy.
One of those protesting the bishops’ decision was Tina Beardsley, a member of the Sibyls, Christian spirituality for transgender people, and a core consultant member of the Coordinating Group for the Episcopal Teaching Document on Marriage & Human Sexuality. Her response to the bishops had two parts:
I understand the theology that our identity as Christians is in Christ, and hence that to adapt the Renewal of Baptismal Vows for trans people seems fitting. Yes, indeed, renewing one’s baptismal vows, following name change or any other stage of gender confirmation, can be very healing. I know that for myself.
But what is the problem with producing a short pastoral service that could include the renewal of baptismal vows, but that also stated, on the cover, or as a heading, that this rite was specifically for use with gender variant people? Why does it appear to be so difficult to actually name us and our reality?
To explore the issues, it would be useful to have a liturgy to consider—and in fact Tina Beardsley has written one as part of a forthcoming book, and you can read it online. There are some important aspects of it that are worth noting.
The opening scene involves having two tables, one with symbols of the past identity, and the other with symbols of the person’s new ‘gender or non-binary identity’ that is to be affirmed. It is interesting to note that this ritual space still has a binary division—but the division is not between humanity as male and female, but between humanity locked into the old paradigm of male-and-female, and human now in the new liberating paradigm of gender fluidity. This division is reinforced by the opening scripture verse:
God will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away. (Revelation 21)
In context, this verse is about the final consummation of all things, and the completion of redemption on the return of Jesus, leading to a description of the eschatological goal of creation in the New Jerusalem, which fulfils all the promises of God to his people. But it is also the reality anticipated in Paul’s language of resurrection life in Romans 6 and the ontological change brought about by faith in Christ which makes the believer a ‘new creation’ (2 Cor 5.17) in anticipation of the ‘new heavens and new earth’ (Rev 21.1). The liturgy makes the ritual claim that this eschatological salvation is now being realised in the process of sex identity change—but also makes the pastoral claim that this process offers the end of unhappiness. Although transition might well be a positive result for some, this is far from universal.
Following this verse comes an opening statement.
Friends, we come here today to mark a change of name. It is a recognition of a pre-existing truth that has been obscured, one in which we have all played our part in uncovering. Today we witness a sacred transformation in which the true purpose of PN’s (natal name) life has been revealed.
Two claims are made here. The first is that the new sex identity which the person will own has been ‘pre-existing’, and this clearly accords with the experience of many who suffer from gender dysphoria, who testify that they have felt uncomfortable with their sex identity from childhood. But the liturgy makes a further radical claim about this: that this ‘truth’ has been ‘obscured’, presumably by the biological sex identity of the person concerned. This presupposes a kind of body-self dualism which has led many to argue that transgenderism (as an ideology) has much in common with gnostic and Platonic ideas which have consistently been rejected within orthodox Christian belief. The second claim is that the change being celebrated is part of ‘sacred transformation’, using the kind of language about sanctification used by Paul in Romans 12.
This theme of sanctification continues in the following paragraph, which claims that the change of sex identity, expressed in the taking of a new name, parallels stories of call and change in Scripture, in Abraham and Sarah, Jacob who became Israel, and Saul who became Paul. This is about recognising both ‘true nature and God’s purpose’, and so makes claims about reality as well as holiness. It is not surprising that the liturgy assumes that Christian theology has no particular view on sex identity, offering the choice of new identity as ‘male/female/nonbinary/gender queer (use appropriate term)’. But the text returns to classic Christian language of sanctification in talking of ‘old ways of living need to be put to aside so that new and affirming ways of living, loving and being can be taken up’. The notable absence here is any language of repentance, which is central to NT understanding but here is displaced by the process of sex identity change.
The second reading is from Ecclesiastes 3 (‘There is a time for everything under heaven…’) though in context the passage is not asserting that everything we imagine can have a place, simply that all the normal experiences of life have their turn. There follows a transitional comment leading to vows of commitment, which again draws on NT language about conversion to faith in Christ:
We recognise that this is the time for you to put away the identity that feels like an ill-fitting garment and no longer serves God’s purpose for you.
This has a close parallel to Paul’s language of ‘putting on Christ’ in Gal 3.27, Romans 13.14 and Col 3.10–12, and is used with an eschatological sense in 1 Cor 15.53.
The vows that follow are quite striking, in that they replace the commitments made to others in the liturgies of ordination and marriage with vows made to the self to live authentically according to one’s self-understanding. There is mention of ‘calling’, of the ‘whisper of the Spirit’, or prayer, struggle and discernment, but all these are expressed without any connection to external reference points, in particular the reference point of Scripture, which features prominently in the ordination and marriage liturgies. There is an invitation for affirmation from ‘family and friends’, but no space is given here to the issues and challenges that are often presented to spouses and children by those wanting to make sex identity transition.
The final blessing continues to co-opt biblical language of both creation and salvation. ‘God the creator dreamed of this day at the beginning of time’ echoes language about salvation planned ‘from the foundation of the world’ (Matt 25.34, Eph 1.4, Rev 13.8). And this new sex identity constitutes ‘new life’, that language used in the NT for the life of salvation in Christ.
Overall, then, this liturgy departs markedly from Anglican practice in being rooted in biblical ideas and theology for what it is doing. Instead, it plunders Scripture for ideas and language to describe the felt significance of the moment—but in doing so it elevates sex identity change to the level of salvation, claiming implicitly through its ritual structure that fluidity and self-construction of sex identity, separated from bodily sex identity, is the eschatological goal for humanity which is anticipated in this rite. Instead of Scripture shaping the theological ideas, key bits of Scripture are pressed into the mould required by this ideological outlook. This is not simply an act of welcome; it is an act of radical reconfiguration of theological understanding, not only of sex, gender and the body, but of salvation and eschatology.
In their explanation of the decision not to create a new liturgy, the bishops made this key theological comment:
The rite of Affirmation includes the opportunity for the candidate to renew the commitments made in baptism, and for the congregation to respond. The emphasis is placed not on the past or future of the candidate alone but on their faith in Jesus Christ. The Affirmation therefore gives priority to the original and authentic baptism of the individual, and the sacramental change it has effected, allowing someone who has undergone a serious and lasting change to re-dedicate their life and identity to Christ. The image of God, in which we are all made, transcends gender, race, and any other characteristic, and our shared identity as followers of Jesus is the unity which makes all one in Christ (Galatians 3.27-28).
This is the central theological point about identity within Christian faith—that it is centred on the work of Christ, not the self-construction of the interior life of the individual, that it has a clear corporate dimension, and that baptism points to the one ontological, salvific action of God in Christ. Despite Tina Beardsley’s protestation, her liturgy contradicts every element of that, and offers us an alternative, individualistic, internally focussed understanding of redemption achieved by being true to one’s felt sex identity, with no reference to traditional Christian teaching about sex or the body.
There is no doubt that those who experience gender dysphoria need urgent help, support and welcome, and I think many in the Church of England want to offer that welcome. But as long as those campaigning on their behalf cement the need for welcome with an assertion of a radical reconfiguration of theology, then they are inhibiting, not helping, this pastoral process.
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