The announcement on Tuesday of the House of Bishops’ guidance for the welcome of transgender people in the Church arose from a diocesan motion brought to General Synod in July 2017. There were several things about this debate which indicated how problematic the whole process was bound to be.
First, it was brought by Chris Newlands on behalf of Blackburn Diocese, and the Bishop of Blackburn, Julian Henderson, actually voted against the motion when it was debated in the diocese. Secondly, the wording of the motion was rather slippery: it did not ask the bishops to produce a liturgy for the welcome of transgender people, but asked them to consider whether such a liturgy should be devised. In that sense it was a ‘null’ motion: whatever you thought about the substantive issue, how could anyone object to asking the bishops ‘to think about it’, as they were of course at liberty to think about it and quickly say ‘no’. In fact, Richard Frith, the Bishop of Hereford and Vice-Chair of the Liturgical Commission, actually said in the debate that no new liturgy would be forthcoming, so we already had the answer. And, thirdly, there was a complete absence of any adequate theological reflection, either prior to the debate or during it.
The problems inherent here came to the surface when the House of Bishops’ decision (as they had indicated in the debate) not to offer a new liturgy was in January 2018 leaked to the Daily Mail who construed is as a rejection of what Synod had ‘demanded’—the confusing arising precisely because of the slippery wording of the motion. They then had to rush out a statement, which is still listed as offering a ‘theological rationale’, but is in fact almost devoid of theology.
The problem with this week’s statement is almost the opposite. Having said that they will not produce a new liturgy, it almost appears as though they have offered one: the guidance is not entitled ‘How to conduct the Affirmation of Baptismal vows when transgender people are present’ but ‘Guidance for gender transition services’ which will be ‘incorporated into Common Worship’. So it now appears that we have ‘gender transition services’ when we were told that we would not have such things. The overall result is not what some trans people wanted, which is at least one good thing, since the liturgies that have been proposed are entirely sub-Christian and probably merit the label ‘heretical’. But the bishops do appear to have proposed a new use for existing liturgy, rather than issuing pastoral guidance on the use of a liturgy under particular circumstances. Dr Rachel Mann, who is a trans member of General Synod, commented:
I helped ensure that trans people were properly addressed in the guidance, that the recommended ritual possibilities would be rich and flexible, and that the biblical resources would be broad and vibrant. I know many people will feel that an entirely new liturgy of welcome and affirmation should have been developed. Given that that was not on the table, this guidance is genuinely exciting and fresh.
It is flexible and sensitive enough that, for the first time, trans people’s stories can be acknowledged and celebrated with boldness in the C of E. It says that we, too — as trans people — are bearers of the image of God. . . as much as non-trans people. This is surely something to celebrate and welcome, and represents a watershed.
Tina Beardsley, another trans person involved in the process, commented online:
‘What is the status of this new House of Bishops’ Guidance on trans people and the liturgy?’ was one of the questions I was anticipating when I was interviewed on Premier Christian Radio half an hour ago. And the answer – I checked – is that HoB’s guidance is something that clergy ‘must’ follow it. ‘Does that mean people will be forced to do so?’ was the next question. Well, yes, was my reply. The House of Bishops issues guidance about all sorts of things, such as marriage, for example, so that those clergy who wish to officiate at the wedding of a same sex couple in church are currently unable to do so due to the force of House of Bishops’ guidance. The word ‘guidance’ is misleading in this context. It doesn’t mean you can follow it if you like it but not if you don’t like it. So maybe the issuing of this guidance today is more significant than it looks. It also raises the matter of conscientious objection, which clergy would presumably need to take up with their bishop.
So those involved in the process do think that this is a watershed, that is changes C of E practice and teaching, and that it is compulsory. And, not surprisingly, it was widely reported that ‘Church of England to offer baptism-style services to transgender people to celebrate their new identity for first time.’
If these assertions are not true, then the House of Bishops needs to issue clarification immediately. If they are true, then the bishops have in fact done precisely the opposite of what they said they were going to do, several times in the debate, and in the subsequent statement, and they need to offer an explanation
Quite apart from the immediate perception, the guidelines issued raise a series of fundamental questions about the bishops’ approach.
Why the complete absence of theological reflection? Given deep Christian theological thinking about creation, and the narrative of male and female, the affirmation of creation in the teaching of Jesus, the reference to bodily difference in creation in Paul (Romans 1), Paul’s appeal to the resurrection body in sexual ethics (1 Cor 5), the importance of bodily resurrection as the post-mortem destiny of humanity—why is there simply no reference to this at any point? The use of the affirmation of baptism vows is particularly problematic here; not only is this central to Christian understandings of initiation and discipleship, baptism actually enacts bodily death and bodily resurrection in the immersion in and coming up out of the water. We tamper with these foundational understandings at our peril, and the ambiguous language in the guidance of ‘identity’ (‘This could provide both the candidate and congregation with an opportunity both to understand theperson’s Christian journey and to affirm them in their identity’ para 7) is in real danger of hijacking language about initiation, new life and eschatology to trans ideology.
Why the collapse of Christian language of initiation into cultural memes? The problems with the guidance begin with its opening line:
The Church of England welcomes and encourages the unconditional affirmation of trans people, equally with all people, within the body of Christ
Since when was the gospel of ‘repent and believe, for the kingdom of God is at hand’ (Mark 1.15) reduced to ‘unconditional affirmation’? If the point is that trans people shouldn’t be treated as a different class of humanity, then that would be hard to disagree with—so why not simply say that? All the debates around sexuality become mired in impossible ambiguity because of different construals of what it means to ‘affirm’ people. Jesus welcomed the marginalised, and called them to repent along with everyone else (Luke 5.32) and so should we.
Why the misuse of biblical texts? In reading Scripture, context is everything, and the listing of passages where God’s redemptive action leads to a change of name, in the context of a service which appears to be celebrating the transition of name and identity, has strong echoes of Tina Beardsley’s proposed trans liturgy, misreads these texts badly, and overlays on the scriptural narrative a particular ideology of sex identity.
Why the complete absence of reference to biological reality? One of the heated debates around trans ideology and advocacy relates to biological reality—what is actually going on in the transition process? A correspondent to the medical journal The Lancet just this week made an impassioned appeal for proper engagement with biological reality:
Sex has a biological basis, whereas gender is fundamentally a social expression. Thus, sex is not assigned—chromosomal sex is determined at conception and immutable. A newborn’s phenotypic sex, established in utero, merely becomes apparent after birth, with intersex being a rare exception.
Distress about gender identity must be taken seriously and support should be put in place for these children and young people, but the impacts of powerful, innovative interventions should be rigorously assessed. The evidence of medium-term benefit from hormonal treatment and puberty blockers is based on weak follow-up studies. The guideline does not consider longer-term effects, including the difficult issue of detransition. Patients need high-quality research into the benefits and harms of all psychological, medical, and surgical treatments, as well as so-called wait-and-see strategies. This approach will provide reliable information for children, parents, and clinicians, and inform societal debate.
Where is pastoral consideration for families? There is a single, trivial reference to the families of the trans person at the centre of the process:
If members of their family are to be present, the minister will wish to be sensitive to their pastoral needs. (para 4)
So what does this mean for the wife who feels devastated by her husband who decides he is trans? For the children who feel abandoned? What does it means for parents who feel that their child has died, and that they need to come to terms with this new person? And what does it mean for marriage, given that the Church does not recognise same-sex marriages? Are a woman and her former husband, now a trans woman, still married or not? How could the bishops have issued ‘pastoral guidance’ without considering these issues? Is their own pastoral experience so limited?
What about the impact on teenagers and their own thinking? The writer to the Lancet goes on to observe:
We need to understand the rapid increase in referrals of girls and any relationship with gender identity legislation, the interplay between gender dysphoria, sexual orientation, and unpalatable roles in our highly-gendered society, and the twin potentials for underdiagnosis and overdiagnosis and treatment.
What might this kind of service say to a teenage girl, who is learning very quickly how challenging modern life is for a woman, and is thinking that life could be much less challenging if only she were a boy—and here is the Church saying that such a change is not only unproblematic, but might even be God’s intention for her? How could such a Church escape the charges of being misogynistic at the very least, and perhaps even open to the accusation of child abuse?
What about the poor success of transition, continued mental health issues, and the vexed question of detransition? A trans person wrote this letter to the Telegraph last month:
Trans legislation will endanger the young
SIR – I wish to express concern over the Government’s proposed trans self-identification Bill, particularly in its implications for young people.
The current reckless and, in my opinion, irresponsible “trendy to be trans” culture (which social media has helped to promote) is pushing many very young people into making life-changing surgical decisions. I cannot stress enough how vital it is to have in place medical criteria and adequate preparation and conditioning (which the Bill seeks to remove) before embarking on such action. What if he or she discovers that they were not trans after all, but in fact gay, a cross-dresser or asexual?
Trans success stories are eagerly promoted by those calling for self-identification, since they regard them as lending credence to their cause. It is indeed tragic that some transsexual people take their own lives if transitioning is delayed; but how many also die by their own hand when all goes disastrously wrong? I had high hopes of finally realising my teenage dream when I left hospital in 1995. Sadly, over the years, it has all unravelled for me due to post-op complications, family torn asunder and societal prejudice, but most of all because I cannot entirely escape my male origins. I must accept the harsh reality that no amount of drastic cutting of my body can ever alter my biology – fact. And this proposed Bill is claiming to be a definitive solution to the question of gender identity.
I would not want others considering such drastic, irreversible action to end up like me, lost in a twilight world of fear and loneliness. They should be made aware of all the risks and warned that for all the legal entitlements the proposed Bill promises, it will not bring public acceptance.
And why do something now, when there is a long and lengthy debate happening under Living in Love and Faith? Following the disaster of July 2017 in Synod, it was wisely decided by the Business Committee to postpone any further debates on sexuality until after the LLF reporting in 2020 (or beyond). So why didn’t the bishops include this under the same rubric? Why put the pastoral cart before the theological horse on this issue but no other?
So did the bishops consider all these issue before issuing the guidance? If they did, then were is evidence of their thinking? If they did not, then why on earth did they start tampering with liturgy, and baptism liturgy at that, before engaging with these issues? Some might say that they felt under pressure to act. But why? The questions around trans identity are much more complex than those around same-sex marriage, and wide society is much more ambivalent. When Jenni Murray was no-platformed for suggesting, from a feminist perspective, that trans women were not the same as biological women, she reflected:
I know that in writing this article I am entering into the most controversial and, at times, vicious, vulgar and threatening debate of our day. I’m diving headfirst into deep and dangerous waters.
Did the bishops not think the same? Fools rush in where angels fear to tread, and there seems to be little that is angelic about this guidance. The House of Bishops are, to many people, now looking either incompetent, incoherent or duplicitous in this move, and without further comment and response, they will be inviting members of the Church to make their own decision as to which is the best description.
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