LAST July, I attended the meeting of the General Synod of the Church of England in York. On the Sunday afternoon, I sat on the podium next to the Revd Chris Newlands, proposer of the motion from Blackburn diocesan synod, as one of his advisers. The Blackburn motion was about transgender or gender variant people — “trans people”, for short.
The first part of the motion called on the Church to commit to truly welcoming a group who are often hidden and marginalised in our society, albeit some have gained a higher public profile recently and understanding has been improving. Many trans people have experienced rejection by the Church and it was time to address that scandal.
The second half of the motion called on the House of Bishops to consider issuing a liturgy or rite that could be offered when a trans person approached their parish church for prayer to mark a significant stage in their gender journey. Chris, the proposer, received just such a request and had prepared a short service for that occasion. How much better, though, if the Church of England could authorise a form of prayer that busy clergy could take off the shelf when needed.
As well as being convenient for clergy and lay minsters, authorising a liturgy for trans people would also demonstrate that the Church was serious about the welcome mentioned in part one of the motion, aware of trans people’s specific needs, and willing to respond to their requests appropriately.
That was the basis of the Blackburn Motion and it passed by a huge majority in all three of Synod’s houses (Bishops, Clergy, and Laity) seven months ago. Since then, we have heard nothing, until last weekend when The Mail on Sunday leaked the story that the House of Bishops had decided that a liturgy for trans people should, in the Mail’s words, “be blocked”.
A hastily issued statement followed from the Church of England, in response to the leak, which insisted that it was welcoming to trans people, but would not be issuing a liturgy. Instead, clergy were advised to adapt the existing Affirmation of Baptismal Faith rite on these occasions and to be creative. Further guidance is promised later this week.
Like many trans people, I am deeply disappointed, and not a little angered, by this outcome. I’m sure that I will have further reflections once we hear the reasons for this decision, but here are my initial thoughts about what has happened and what we can learn from it.
- To be truly welcoming, the Church must be prepared to change
The idea that one can be welcoming to a group of people while not engaging with their specific needs and requests sounds suspiciously like the notion of permitting “maximum freedom” without actually changing the Church’s thinking and practice.
This was the approach, in relation to lesbian and gay people, which was effectively rejected by the General Synod whenit decided not to “take note” of the GS 2055 Marriage and Same-Sex Relationships after the Shared Conversations. People realised that this was not going to work on the ground, and there is no reason to think it will fare any better if applied to trans people.
It is simply not good enough for the Church to claim that it is welcoming when it clearly isn’t. If the Church really wants to be a welcoming place for trans people then it has to be prepared to learn and to change. It’s a matter of first principles: metanoia or repentance. The Church has to turn itself round or, rather, be turned round by God’s grace, in order to be welcoming to all.
2. ‘No more talk about us without us’
This pithy saying is a mantra among those who are stigmatised, marginalised, and often not party to conversations about their needs due to their mental health. It is a line in the sand. Not to attend to the voices of those directly affected is to objectify, problematise, and, often, patronise.
The Blackburn Motion grew from a parish priest’s encounter with a trans person and their willingness to listen. As the motion went through the various synodical stages, it was checked out with trans members of the Church who also contributed to the briefing paper. (This is in stark contrast, I believe, to the briefing paper issued by the Synod’s secretariat prior to the Blackburn Motion debate, which was not, I think, informed by those it most affected).
No trans person spoke when the motion was debated, but that was because there is no openly trans member of General Synod — yet! I was there, though, and saw several other trans people in the public gallery. We were being talked about, but not without us hearing what was being said about us.
How many trans people, I wonder, were consulted, or present, when the Bishops decided not to proceed with a trans liturgy? My guess is that the answer is “none”. And this has to stop. It is utterly alien to the pastoral encounters modelled by Jesus in the gospels; contrary to the long pastoral tradition of the Church of England; and contrary to current insights from reflective practice. It is also deeply corrosive of trust and credibility.
In particular, this episode has highlighted something I have been thinking for a while: the bodies currently tasked with teaching and pastoral care around sexuality and marriage — the Pastoral Advisory Group and the Coordinating Group — require urgent review to ensure that they are fully representative of the wide range of LGBTI people in the Church. This is not currently the case. People are and will continue to be “talked about” if this is not addressed as a matter of urgency, and the process is deeply flawed as a consequence.
3. The Church of England has taken a stand against conversion therapy
Although there was uncertainty as to whether this stand applied to trans people when conversion therapy was debated at General Synod last July, all the therapeutic bodies, including the World Professional Association for Transgender Health, condemn its use with gender variant people.
It is unfortunate timing, then, given the Bishops’ decision not to authorise a trans liturgy, that a fringe event is planned for the next General Synod in February that appears to take an alarmist and negative view of trans people. Looking at the publicity, the list of speakers, and knowing what they have said in the past on this subject, it is seems likely that trans people’s reality will be dismissed as an ideology. The implication of this kind of rhetoric is that trans people should not transition or, if they have, that they should de-transition. It is conversion therapy in all but name, and it is worrying that this event should be taking place in Church House, Westminster.
4. ‘No one is an issue or a problem’
These words appeared in the Archbishops’ Letter of February 2017 in which they announced the process on marriage and sexuality which promised “a radical, new, Christian inclusion”.
Not to proceed with a trans liturgy looks to me as if trans people are perceived as a problem, and probably an issue as well.
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?
Advising clergy to adapt existing material feels like reluctance to engage with us as we are. It’s a familiar dynamic. My collaborator, Chris Dowd, heard it again and again in his interviews with 12 transgender Christians, as part of the research which formed the basis of our forthcoming book, Transfaith: a transgender pastoral resource (DLT). In the following passage he pinpoints precisely how the Church needs to change to be truly welcoming of trans people. It is Pastoral Insight 8: “there is a marked difference between celebration and toleration of trans identity”:
“The interviewees in mainstream churches reported they were expected to moderate their behaviour and appearance to avoid causing offence to other people in their churches. They often micromanaged their behaviours because they felt acceptance was conditional on not drawing attention to themselves.
“While this is clearly much better than condemnation, it is not the most nurturing environment for people who have spent most of their lives hiding. While the polite ignoring of difference may initially lead to less friction, it also invalidates. It also leaves difference as a permanent unresolved issue on the margins of the congregation’s awareness.
“Celebration includes talking about what is unique about people and their lives. It is referring to, and addressing, their specific concerns and life experiences as part of worship and church life. It involves discussion of difference, perhaps being uncomfortable with it and dealing with it honestly. In the specific case of trans people it is the validating of life experiences by providing rites of passage.”
Inclusion as lifelong learning
On Sunday morning, I had the enormous privilege of preaching at the two churches of the parish that includes Grenfell Tower. I was preacher number five in a series of sermons on inclusion, and my theme was sexual orientation and gender identity. These were the churches that touched so many of us by their speedy response to that terrible fire. With other faith communities locally, they opened not just the church doors but their hearts to those who had lost everything. As churches they know so much already about being inclusive, so I just love their humility. Big-hearted they may be, but they realise that they still have lots to learn about how to be an inclusive church — and so do we all.
The Revd Dr Christina Beardsley is 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