Welcoming transgender Christians and valuing discipleship: letter to Bishops misses the point

By Savi Hensman
January 28, 2019

Over 2000 people have written to Church of England bishops, urging them to “revise, postpone or withdraw” guidance on transgender people affirming baptismal vows. The letter fails to recognise the value of such services, perhaps in part because the church has tended not to put enough emphasis on adult discipleship in general.

To put this in perspective, there are about 1.1 million regular worshippers in this church, though of course more may sign and others share some of their misgivings. Active clergy alone number over 20,000. However some of those who have signed are committed and influential.

It is part of a wider backlash against moves towards greater inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people. Yet it is unlikely to halt a trend which many Christians see as reflecting the work of the Holy Spirit, in reflecting God’s love and justice for all.

Background: out of the shadows

In recent decades, attitudes among British Christians, and in wider society, towards LGBTI people have changed rapidly. It has become increasingly clear that trying to alter adults’ sexuality or gender identity to make them conform is usually pointless and damaging.

Also careful reading of the Bible and a thoughtful approach to tradition have suggested that faithful, committed same-sex partnerships, and honesty with self and others if transgender, are not wrong. Indeed many people now believe that treating minorities as second-class Christians or rejecting them goes against Gospel values.

Yet others fear that even modest measures to make churches more welcoming are spiritually harmful. This has led to intense debate. For instance in Oxford, after bishops urged ministers to be inclusive and respectful to LGBTI people, over 100 raised concerns . These were then countered in a letter to the Church Times by the lay and clergy chairs of the Oxford diocesan synod.

There are some people who accept gender transition but not same-sex partnerships and vice versa. Yet in many cases these are both linked with a rigid view of gender roles based on biological sex at birth. This can also lead to awkwardness around intersex people, who are not born wholly male or female (efforts may be made to create space for them or they may simply be sidelined).

As early as 2003, the House of Bishops recognised that either of two positions could properly be held: that “Hormone treatment or surgery might change physical appearance, but they could not change the fundamental God-given reality of 'male and female He created them'”; or that transgender people’s “profound and persistent” sense of who they are should be accepted.

Openly transgender people were ordained and clergy and congregations allowed to celebrate their marriages in church. Yet some still felt excluded or fearful, especially since their experience in wider society could still be so negative, from street violence to being sacked. Fellow-worshippers were not always accepting and even if they were, as with other minorities, confidence in one’s own worth could be shaken by wider social forces, requiring healing in order to contribute fully to community life.

The issue was revisited at General Synod in 2017, taking account of biblical and other theological issues as well as the need for more consistent pastoral care. A sizeable majority agreed that transgender people should “be welcomed and affirmed in their parish church" and that bishops should consider whether “liturgical materials might be prepared to mark a person's gender transition.”

Pushing back against greater inclusion

In December 2018, instead of a new service, guidance was issued on how an existing liturgy, for Affirmation of Baptismal Faith, could be used. Transgender people could again pledge their allegiance to Christ, in their new name. Clergy are not obliged to offer this to trans parishioners. Yet even this moderate advance has met strong opposition.

The letter not only contests the position long held by the Church of England but also society’s hard-won knowledge on this issue. It claims that “The notion of gender transition is highly contested in wider society”, yet there is plenty of evidence-based information from expert bodies such as the NHS and health professional associations about transgender people’s needs, experiences and how to respond.

The letter complains about recognising gender transition being “rejection of physical differentiation between male and female (known as ‘sexual dimorphism’).” This is supposedly “not only an almost universal biological reality (with the exception of a very small number who are biologically intersex) but also “the basis of the Church’s understanding of Christian marriage, is seen as an important feature of God’s work as creator, and is a symbol of God’s covenant relationship with humanity.”

It complains that “The guidance offers no theological reflection to justify this sort of revised narrative.” However it is hardly necessary to repeat all that has been said over the past 16 years or so on theological approaches to transgender people, or over 80-odd years in official church documents, to counter this view of the overwhelming importance of sexual difference, usually linked with inequality.

A Christian husband and wife, neither of them transgender, may have no difficulty enjoying their difference and also the company of a friend who is trans. And while the fact that God’s love is as passionate and enduring as a faithful husband is important, taking the analogy too far is unhelpful – for instance the church is not entirely made up of women. Saying that “our God is a consuming fire” (Hebrews 12.29) does not imply that the Divine sucks oxygen from all around and coats what is beautiful with soot.

The notion that, in Christian couples, the man should role-play Christ, perfect and holy, and the woman sinful humanity redeemed through another’s love, can be highly damaging for both, as many signatories would no doubt agree. Jesus lived in a society with strict gender rules – which, the Gospels tell us, he was willing to flout, time and again, to the anger of his foes and puzzlement of his friends.

The letter flags up recent controversies on changes to law and practice on gender identity. It is indeed important to take account of the particular needs and experiences of women registered female at birth as well as transwomen and make sure that young people are not pushed into identifying as trans if dissatisfied with gender roles, though supported if this really is their identity. Yet this does not detract from the need for pastoral care for people who are transgender, in the here and now. And most, on all sides of current debates, would strongly reject the notion that biology is destiny and that, from babyhood, those with male and female parts should be forced into a mould.

The ‘Response to the House of Bishops Guidance on Transgender Welcome’ also argues that the pastoral needs of families, who may be badly affected by gender transition, are not taken into account. Sensitivity is indeed needed. But there are also relatives struggling to help trans loved ones sunk in depression or anxiety, doubting even that God loves them, who may be more than glad of the guidance.

There is also a failure in the letter to take an incarnational approach to discipleship. It states that “reaffirmation of baptismal vows might well be appropriate at certain seasons of life, it should primarily be focused on celebrating new life in Christ rather than a new situation or circumstance, as set out in Common Worship: Christian Initiation, and should always centre on salvation, repentance and faith rather than ‘unconditional affirmation’.”

Yet the social and spiritual are intertwined: Jesus was born into a particular context and it is in a specific time and place that Christians seek to live out their faith. The service allows those who are transgender to seek God’s grace in ongoing transformation through the Holy Spirit, growing in faith, hope and love. A personal or social crisis may shake people in their faith journey – for instance being widowed or exiled, becoming disabled or ‘coming out’ – but also offer the chance of a deeper relationship with the Divine and opportunity to reflect this to others in a new setting.

Moving forward

Church of England leaders have promised to give the letter their serious consideration. One signatory has issued a plea to “engage, point by point, in detail, with the matters being raised”. It may indeed be helpful for bishops to explain their reasoning as well as sharing more resources about the lives and experiences of trans Christians which led to the guidance.

Perhaps, in the longer term, more liturgies such as the celebration of Christian renewal among Methodists (who also have the lovely and powerful annual Covenant service) might be helpful. Much is said about the role of the laity and priesthood of all believers but making this more concrete, and helping people to discern what God might be calling them to do outside the institutional church, might be valuable.

This will inevitably mean that people will follow some paths with which others disagree, such as taking a senior job in the City of London to try to make a company more ethical, whereas others may fear this dignifies unchristian practices. Generosity and humility may be needed, as well as pastoral flexibility of the kind set out in the guidance.

Meanwhile it is important that bishops do not abandon minorities at the first sign of disapproval. Listening to everyone is vital, including those who fear that their own identity is no longer dominant or that social change is too fast. But steadfast care for those too often pushed to the margins will ultimately benefit the whole church.

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© Savitri Hensman is an Ekklesia associate and respected commentator on welfare and other issues. She is author of the book Sexuality, struggle and saintliness: same-sex love and the church (Ekklesia, 2016): http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/22613 and has been involved in seeking greater inclusion. She wrote on ‘Health or Wealth?’ in Feast or Famine? (http://dltbooks.com/titles/2195-9780232532616-feast-or-famine)

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