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Synod: ‘Something tangible’ for transgender people

14 July 2017


A desire to speak out: left; the Revd Chris Newlands moves his private member’s motion; right; Dr Nick Land

A desire to speak out: left; the Revd Chris Newlands moves his private member’s motion; right; Dr Nick Land

WELCOME and affirmation for transgender people, and for the House of Bishops a request to look at whether special liturgical provision would help, was the message of the Synod on Sunday afternoon.

Moving the motion from Blackburn diocesan synod, the Revd Christopher Newlands (Blackburn) apologised than no trans member would be able to speak to the Synod, since there were no transgender members; but assured the Synod that he had spoken to members of the community, some of whom were sitting in the public gallery.

The story of George had, he said, “sparked into a flame” his desire to speak out for trans people; but that was not the story he was telling today, which was about a little boy, “Nathan”, whose parents saw signs that their little boy was in fact a little girl, and who became “Natalie” with the support of the C of E school, and received a “tremendous welcome” into the church family.

Her parents hoped that, after her medical transition, she would receive more than a “grudging” acceptance, but “full support and affirmation” as she grew.

In 2010, 97 children had been referred to gender-identity clinics, and the number had risen to 1400 in 2016. The welcome of the Church for these people must be Christ-like, he said. In the UK, transphobic hate crime had risen by 170 per cent in the past year, and, around the world, 17 people had been killed so far this year, “because they were different”, by relatives and others.

Moreover, the charity Stonewall stated that 48 per cent of trans people had attempted to take their own lives, 30 per cent in the past year. There was rejection, discrimination, physical abuse, stereotyping, and internalised transphobia.

Churches could increase the risk of suicide as much as family and friends, he said, but condemning discriminatory practice could set this right. It was possible to use existing liturgy, but the Church could do better, he said, as it had done in the wake of recent tragedy, or terrorist attacks, with specific prayers, names, and details of the event. “An authorised liturgy of welcome and affirmation would stand as a prophetic sign to all people that the Church accepts the reality of gender dysphoria and the situation of trans people,” he said. The Bible contained numerous transition stories.

He also referred to the Gender Recognition Act 2004, which had been passed unopposed by the Lords Spiritual, and which confirmed their new gender in law, allowing people to marry in their new gender — services at which clergy of the Church of England had already officiated. The Church had also ordained people who had changed their gender identity.

Dr Angus Goudie (Durham) said that he had been a GP for four decades, and, although he had seen few transgender people, he knew of their struggle. This motion was a real opportunity to offer welcome and support to these people in the face of rejection. They were one of the most vulnerable groups in the Church, he said, because, although their identity in Christ was clear, others categorised and judged by “boxes”, including gender.

It was necessary to do something to help with acceptance. There had been a change of tone after the human-sexuality report from the House of Bishops, but the same could not be said for transgender people. The motion rather than the amendment was appropriate, because it was straightforward.

He accepted the concerns raised for large numbers of children who were trying to understand gender, and those who might not require gender transformation later in life, and who might go on to identify as gay; but this report was not about them.

This was for adults over 18, who had been living in a new identity for more than two years, and who might not yet have had medical treatment. This group was, therefore, comparatively small; but the message would be carried across the whole transgender community, that they would be welcomed and loved.

The Revd Sonya Doragh (Liverpool) spoke of her three adopted children, and how they were celebrated using the service of thanksgiving for the gift of a child. This was a wonderful occasion, and she suggested that there were some parallels between adoption and gender reassignment. The notes preceding the liturgy said that it could be used in different circumstances, to “recognise that something has happened for which they wish to give thanks to God”.

She herself had renewed her baptismal vows after a time away from the Church, following trauma in her teenage years. “I am eager to offer a welcome to all those who seek the embrace of our church family and agree that, after gender reassignment, using a liturgy of welcome is appropriate and right.”

She contended that the resources needed were already available. “If we seek to write resources that fit every possible circumstance, it would mean we need a liturgy each. We are all special. That would result in resources that in fact separate us rather than gather us, as the liturgy is supposed to do.” She opposed the motion.

Dr Nick Land (York) moved an amendment that replaced the motion in its entirety. His amendment sought to “(a) recognise the dignity of all people as made in the image of God and so affirm our commitment to welcome unconditionally in all our churches people who experience (or who have experienced) gender dysphoria;
(b) acknowledge different understandings around gender dysphoria and the field of gender identity more widely; (c) consider that the preparation of liturgies to mark gender transition raises substantial theological and pastoral issues that the Church of England has not yet considered; and (d) ask the House of Bishops to consider the theological, pastoral, and other issues that gender transition raises for the Church and to report back to General Synod by the end of this quinquennium”.

He said that he was grateful that the motion provided an opportunity to consider “issues of gender variance” and how best to welcome and support transgender people in churches. Transgender people were often “vulnerable, bullied, and marginalised, and face a substantial amount of psychiatric illness, persecution, and pain”.

It was also important because issues of gender variance were becoming “increasingly prominent in society and healthcare”, as seen in an increase in referrals. The reasons for his amendment were fourfold. First, “liturgy needs to flow from theology and doctrine.” The C of E had “not settled on a doctrinal position on issues around transgender” and “serious theological thinking is required before any specific transition liturgy should be put together.”

The second consideration was pastoral. “It is absolutely right we seek to help people with gender variance to get the best holistic outcome for them. But at present it is difficult to see how this can be achieved in the absence of clear theological opinion.” He was concerned about “a risk that if our sole contribution is liturgy around transition, without accompanying theology, we may inadvertently distort this really important decision-making process”.

Third, the majority of transgender people were not campaigning for “the post-modern deconstruction of gender. They are committed to gender.” But there was an “increasing trend to see humanity as redefined not in the image of God, but as a self-defined construct, with gender fluid, non-binary, or irrelevant. This is an important issue for the rapidly increasing number of adolescents presenting with identity worries. . . We need to be much clearer in our thinking about what it means to be made in God’s image, so we can give support to all young people at a time when their confusion about what they are threatens to overwhelm them.”

Finally, there were practical issues to consider when offering the necessary unconditional welcome to transgender people. He expected some “rather heated and unwelcome PCC debates”. There was a need for theology to make a “hopeful and helpful and positive contribution in this complex but very important issue of human experience”.

SAM ATKINSSpeaking out: Dr Richard Goodie (left), and Lucy Gorman

The Bishop of Hereford, the Rt Revd Richard Frith, spoke as vice-chair of the Liturgical Commission. He welcomed the motion, but not the amendment. The affirmation of baptismal faith in Common Worship was designed to recognise post-baptismal experiences of personal renewal. “To go beyond this and produce a generic liturgy specifically for the welcome of transgender people could be cumbersome and complicated and arguably insensitive.”

The transition of gender identity could be accommodated in the range of liturgical possibilities already available. The affirmation “reminds us all of the baptism into Christ which we share and which reaches deeper than any part of our identity. We already have liturgical materials which speak of our common identity as Christians, and which are appropriate for the welcome of transgender people.”

The Revd Martyn Taylor (Lincoln) was fully supportive of the need to welcome transgender people, but wished to urge caution on the liturgical front. He told the story of baptising a four-day-old baby, Lucy, at Addenbrookes Hospital. She had been given two days to live, and was unresponsive. But, as he baptised her, her eyes were suddenly wide open. “I thought to myself: something just happened. The Holy Spirit has touched Lucy powerfully. We all saw it.”

She would turn one in three weeks’ time, and a scan has shown that the brain tumour she was diagnosed with had not grown at all since the baptism. “When I baptised her and asked God to take her into his arms, . . . they were there not because she is male or female, old or young, but because she is human. . . God knows you. He calls you by name. His acceptance has everything to do with Jesus and nothing to do with your gender. . .

“In baptism and confirmation, we already have powerful signs of God’s love and acceptance. . . Whenever we are tempted to doubt God’s love and acceptance we do not need a new liturgy, but to look back to our baptism in Christ. . . We already have all the liturgy we need in baptism and confirmation: signs of God’s ungendered grace and welcome to us all.”

In a maiden speech, the Revd Dr Sarah Brush (Worcester) told the story of Patrick, a person whom she first met when working as a youth worker, and Patrick was known as Patricia. He transitioned a couple of years ago. “As part of his transition, he received a new birth certificate, a new driving licence, a new passport, and many other documents in his new name,” she said. “He asked his church how they might do something similar, and his church happily worked with him.

“They put together a service using the affirmation. He was so thankful, and this is what he says about his experience: ‘the willingness to pray with me and for me, and to affirm my place as a child of God, helped me to feel comfortable in that place and openly welcomed, rather than feeling that I had to skirt around it. There is definitely something tangible when acceptance of a person is visibly shown and celebrated.’”

Giving a fresh look at the Genesis account of creation, Canon Priscilla White (Birmingham) said that the binaries of male and female were alongside other binaries, including night and day, and land and water. But “not all binaries are clear cut. . . God is as present in dark as light; as present in water as dry land,” and continued: “God is also present in the twilight and marshland, even though Genesis doesn’t mention them.”

Mr Newlands resisted the amendment, in particular the clause that acknowledged “different understandings around gender dysphoria”. “There are different understandings,” he said. “Most significantly, there is the view that is held by the World Health Organization and all the medical and clinical organisations in this country that gender dysphoria is a reality and needs a great deal of support inter-disciplinary to all medical processes.

“The other understanding is that gender dysphoria is a fiction; and that understanding is one that causes severe harm to individuals, and that view has to be resisted at all costs. We did this with conversion therapy yesterday, and I hope we will be able to send a powerful signal today.”

Dr Simon Clift (Winchester) recommended a book by Mark Yarhouse, Understanding Gender Dysphoria. “My prayer is that we will warmly welcome and affirm transgender people in a way that is authentically grace filled and full of truth,” he said.

The Revd Dr Rob Munro (Chester) said: “Yesterday we opposed a therapy to change sexual attraction. Today we are affirming those who have been through a therapy that changes sexual characteristics. That seems to me at least to beg the question: ‘What foundations are we building on?’ He said that he would not test the Synod’s knowledge of the LGBTIQAZ range of options, but Facebook now provided 40 options for people to use to identify their gender.”

Anne Foreman (Exeter) thanked the Secretary General for his background paper. She opposed the amendment as too complicated. She was grateful for a member of her congregation, Ivonne, who had given her an insight into the life of a transgender person, and who said that God had made humanity, “male and female”, not “male or female”.

Mrs Foreman agreed with Mr Newlands that the Church could do better, and give the transgender community what they wanted. She urged the Synod to support the original motion, and listen to what the trans community had said.

The Revd Dr Rowan Williams (York) also resisted the amendment, because, if the Synod waited till the end of the quinquennium, the transgender person on whose behalf she was speaking might not be here.

Peter, she said, who attended York University, had been confirmed last month. Quoting an email from him, she said that he had felt welcomed, but had an underlying paranoia that, if the Church knew who he was, he might not still be welcomed.

The motion would show that the Church loved transgender people, and encouraged them not to “shy away” from faith and be passive. He said that he would “rather die” than be passive, and had already self-harmed. To be confirmed in his new name was a journey into self-acceptance, Dr Williams said, and she feared for his life should the amendment be passed.

The Revd Dr Ian Paul (Southwell & Nottingham) said this was a complex but vital issue. The motion seemed to put forward a “binary view” that was ill-serving. The pastoral issues were manifold, he warned. He had a transgender person in the family, and all had to live with the confidence; he had also witnessed breakdowns from wives whose husbands had gone through gender transition. There were wide ramifications pastorally, and the amendment would prevent the “cart from being put before the horse”.

Tim Hind (Bath & Wells) did not think that God had called his people to be intellectual, but foolish. He worried that the Church was more concerned with “crossing t’s and dotting i’s”. The amendment kicked the simple welcoming motion into the long grass. He wanted a decision, not a delay.

The amendment was lost in all three Houses: Bishops 11-19, with two recorded abstentions; Clergy, 64-103; Laity, 75-108, with three recorded abstentions.

Lucy Gorman (York) said that the motion was “bigger and more important” than a sexuality issue. It was about having a Church that was safe and accepting; and about making a statement together. It was about opening their arms to the trans community. She hoped that the Synod recognised that this was not about sexuality, urging members to be radical, Christian, and inclusive.

The Bishop of Worcester, Dr John Inge, said that, “to his shame”, a few months ago he would have said that the motion was “political correctness gone mad”, but he had since met someone who had felt like a boy in a woman’s body. The Church needed to be open and loving, and passing this motion would have a powerful effect on those who were suffering so much.

The Archdeacon of The Meon, the Ven. Gavin Collins (Portsmouth), spoke about Lisa, who was currently undergoing transition, and who had contacted the diocese asking whether the Church was considering openly welcoming transgender people. She feared that she would not be welcome after the transition; that her contract with the Church might “expire”. She said: “I was lost from the day I was born and wandered far. . . I just want to come home for the first time.”

Archdeacon Collins said that this was an opportunity for the Church to embrace Lisa and others publicly.

The Revd John Dunnett (Chelmsford) said that he would love and help his children if they wanted to transition, as he would a family friend or churchgoer. But the motion was debating liturgy, and there were still “logical questions” on Genesis anthropology and pastoral ministry to wrestle with, on which the Church should think, and come back.

The Archbishop of York, Dr Sentamu, said that there were two parts to the motion: first, the need to welcome and affirm transgender people in their parish. He asked the Synod whether there was anybody who could disapprove of, or vote against, this.

The second was about the House of Bishops’ “considering” whether it “might” be able to produce liturgy for welcoming transgender people. He welcomed this, as the theology could be started “very quickly” after the motion was carried, and it should and could be passed quickly. The House would conduct a lot of work before something would be produced, he assured the Synod.

The unamended motion was carried in a vote by Houses: Bishops, 30-2, with two recorded abstentions; Clergy, 127-28, with 16 recorded abstentions; and Laity, 127-48 with eight recorded abstentions. It read:


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.

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