THE Bishops’ guidance on special services for people transitioning gender has provoked both support and criticism (News, 14 December; Letters, 21/28 December, 4 January). Much of the criticism focuses on the use of the affirmation of baptismal promises at such services. This is scandalous to those, mostly conservative, Evangelicals who see sacraments as a kind of reward, given only to those who believe the right things and live in the approved way.
But this approach reflects a dire lack of liturgical understanding. A more grounded sacramental theology would see baptism and the eucharist as visible and tangible proclamations of the gospel: the material means of making salvation real in the individual and the community.
The affirmation of baptismal vows should be an ordinary part of Christian formation. Many congregations will renew their baptismal vows at Easter and, perhaps, this Sunday, at the Baptism of Christ. Individuals may also do so as an expression of deeper commitment. Although baptism is once for all, the affirmation of vows reminds us that the One who calls is faithful.
In reality, the bishops’ guidance should not disturb even conservative-minded Christians. The renewal of vows affirms continuity rather than discontinuity. But, in affirming God’s faithfulness, it also recognises our need for ongoing conversion and humility before the truth of our human experience. After all, the transitioning person is hardly responsible for their birth-body, or the way in which that birth-body may have been interpreted by those who brought them up. For some, transitioning may well represent a genuine homecoming, a discovery of grace in this “land of unlikeness”, where the greeting of a loving Father is expressed through the welcome of the Church.
There is nothing particularly radical about this. As Christians, we are all called to develop our moral sensibility. An inauthentic sense of self is not a good basis for any Christian life. A person in the process of gender transition is surely looking for the Church to affirm them as the person they are becoming while acknowledging that their Christian vocation may have begun much earlier.
Of course, there are issues to be resolved, and the conservatives are entitled to point these out. Transitioning can cause significant pain to others. Some transitioned people later regret their decision. Some campaigning groups draw on questionable theories of gender which have perhaps been over-influential in the general debate.
But the decision to focus the welcome of transgender people in the affirmation of baptismal vows reflects the Church of England’s liturgical instinct at its best. It is gospel-centred, pastorally sensitive — and rightly and properly cautious.