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Synod’s ‘welcoming’ transgender motion asks Bishops to consider liturgy

Susan Musgrove

Affirmed in her parish church: Susan Musgrove (right) with her daughter Sophie Summers, in St Andrew’s, Corbridge, Northumberland, in 2013, at a service to celebrate her gender transition

Affirmed in her parish church: Susan Musgrove (right) with her daughter Sophie Summers, in St Andrew’s, Corbridge, Northumberland, in 2013, at a servi...

THE House of Bishops is being asked to consider producing a special liturgy to mark gender transition in churches, after a motion to “welcome and affirm” transgender people was carried by the General Synod on Sunday afternoon.

The Blackburn diocesan-synod motion, “to recognise the need for transgender people to be welcomed and affirmed in their parish church, [and] call on the House of Bishops to consider . . . some nationally commended liturgical materials”, was moved by the Revd Christopher Newlands on behalf of the diocese.

A special majority of two-thirds was required in each House for the motion to be passed, and was obtained: Bishops 30 to two, with two abstentions; Clergy 127 to 28, with 16 abstentions; and Laity 127 to 48, with eight abstentions.

An amendment from Dr Nicholas Land (York), which suggested that the motion would raise “substantial theological and pastoral issues” that the Church had not yet considered, was lost. Though it recognised the “dignity” of all people, and agreed that transgender people should be “welcomed unconditionally” in churches, it also requested that the issues be considered first, and brought back to the Synod by the end of the quinquennium.

Introducing the original motion, Mr Newlands 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 trans community, some of whom were sitting in the public gallery.

In the UK, he said, transphobic hate crime had risen by 170 per cent in the past year, and, around the world, 17 people had been killed, some by their own relatives, so far this year “because they were different”. Moreover, the charity Stonewall had stated that 48 per cent of trans people under the age of 26 had attempted to take their own lives, 30 per cent in the past year. Issues were rejection, discrimination, physical abuse, stereotyping, and internalised transphobia.

“Family and friends can cause an increased risk of suicide, but so can churches,” he said. “Trying to call gender dysphoria ‘fake science’ and persuading people not to transition or, worse, to try and reverse the process, is causing irreparable damage to people’s lives and wellbeing.”

He also pointed to the Gender Recognition Act 2004, which had been passed unopposed by the Lords Spiritual, and which confirmed their new gender in law, allowing them to marry in their new gender – services that Church of England clergy had already conducted. He also pointed out that the Church had ordained people in their new gender identity.

Anne Foreman (Exeter) agreed that the Church could do better, and give the transgender community what they wanted. 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”.

Priscilla White (Birmingham) made a similar observation. Giving a fresh look at Genesis, she said that the binaries of male and female were placed alongside other binaries, including night and day, and land and water, not all of which were “clear-cut”. “God is as present in dark as light,” she said, “and in water as dry land.”

Other Synod members also drew on the experiences of transgender people who had spoken to them or their diocese. The Revd Dr Rowan Williams (York) quoted an email from Peter, who attended York University, who said that he had felt welcomed by the Church, but was “paranoid” that this would change if the Church knew that he was transgender.

The Archdeacon of The Meon, the Ven. Gavin Collins (Portsmouth), quoted Lisa, who was currently undergoing transition, and who had told him: “I was lost from the day I was born and wandered far. . . I just want to come home for the first time.”

In a maiden speech, Sarah Brush (Worcester) told the story of Patrick, who received a new birth certificate, driving licence, passport, and other documents in his new name when he transitioned a couple of years ago.

His church had put together a service of affirmation, for which he was thankful. He said: “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.”

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 met someone who had felt like a boy in a woman’s body. The Church needed to be open and loving, and carrying this motion would have a powerful effect on those who were suffering so much.

But the Revd Sonya Doragh (Liverpool), who has three adopted children, suggested that there were some parallels between adoption and gender reassignment, and that existing baptismal vows could be used in this instance, instead of composing a new liturgy: “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.”

The Bishop of Hereford, the Rt Revd Richard Frith, who is the vice-chair of the Liturgical Commission, agreed that 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 a cumbersome and complicated, and arguably insensitive,” he said.

This was the basis of Mr Land’s amendment. He said: “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.”

Concluding the hour-long debate, however, the Archbishop of York, Dr Sentamu, asked whether there was anybody in the Synod who could possibly disapprove or vote against a motion as simple as welcoming transgender people. He recognised the theological and liturgical concerns raised by members, but emphasised that the motion only asked the House of Bishops to “consider” whether it “might” be able to produce an appropriate liturgy. He assured the Synod that the House of Bishops would conduct much work before any liturgy was produced.

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