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Bishop of Blackburn apologises for ‘confusion’ over his position on trans guidance

18 January 2019

Bishop commended the guidance, before signing a letter criticising it


The then Bishop of Blackburn, the Rt Revd Julian Henderson, speaks at a meeting of the General Synod, at Church House, Westminster, in 2017

The then Bishop of Blackburn, the Rt Revd Julian Henderson, speaks at a meeting of the General Synod, at Church House, Westminster, in 2017

THE Bishop of Blackburn, the Rt Revd Julian Henderson, has confirmed that he opposes new guidance on adapting the liturgy for the Affirmation of Baptismal Faith to mark a person’s gender transition — despite commending it for wider use.

The Secretary to the House of Bishops, William Nye, meanwhile, has rebutted criticism that the guidance represents new “teaching” matters of gender.

Bishop Henderson chairs the House of Bishops Delegation Committee, which oversaw work to produce new guidance that suggested how churches could use existing liturgy for baptism “in a creative and sensitive way” to mark a person’s gender transition (News, 14 December, Letters 21/28 December, 4 January).

When the guidance was issued last month, he was quoted in a Church House press release as saying that he commended the guidance for wider use across the Church.

Only days later, however, Bishop Henderson was a signatory to a lengthy and critical response to the guidance from the Church of England Evangelical Council (CEEC), of which he is the President.

Speaking on Wednesday, Bishop Henderson said that he had always opposed the introduction of services to mark a gender transition before proper theological work — through the Living in Love and Faith project (News, 4 January) — was done.

“I opposed the diocesan motion [in Blackburn, which sparked the entire process] and abstained in the General Synod,” he said. “[But] as chair of the delegation committee, I was in quite a difficult position. This has not been the easiest journey to navigate.”

The nearly unanimous opinion of the committee he chaired was to proceed with the guidance, so he agreed, despite his personal reservations, Bishop Henderson said. But it had been a mistake, he now accepted, to be the “front person” when the new guidance was announced.

“This should have and easily could have been someone else on the committee, and then none of this would have occurred. . . I think there are some important lessons to learn.”

Bishop Henderson said that, after the guidance was issued, he had received many expressions of concern from Evangelical colleagues, and his diocesan Evangelical fellowship had requested a meeting, to clarify where he stood.

In a subsequent meeting of the CEEC last month, Bishop Henderson apologised for the “confusion and anxiety” caused by the incident, an official CEEC report stated.

Rather than commending the guidance to the Church, his actual position is that of the CEEC, which said that the guidance “raised a number of serious questions and aroused deep concerns”.

Adapting an existing rite for gender-transition services was “highly divisive and theologically and pastorally questionable”, the CEEC response last month argued.

There were many unanswered questions, the document went on to suggest, including whether clergy could be compelled to follow the guidance against their consciences. These concerns are shared by the traditionalist Catholic grouping The Society.

In a statement issued by Church House on Thursday of last week, William Nye, Secretary to the House of Bishops, sought to address concerns about the guidance.

It had been issued, he said, in “direct response” to a vote by the General Synod in 2017 that asked the House of Bishops to consider producing a special liturgy to mark gender transition, and which called for transgender people to be welcomed in churches (News, 9 July 2017).

The Bishops had decided not to produce special or new liturgy, Mr Nye said, but to allow existing liturgy to be used, for which it had produced guidance.

“The pastoral guidance is not intended as a restatement or a new statement on matters relating to gender. The guidance makes no change to the Church’s teaching.”

Neither, Mr Nye said, did the guidance pre-empt the work of the Living in Love and Faith project.

He also said that “any priest who feels unable to offer this rite in this context is free not to do so. They should find appropriate ways to offer welcome and pastoral care, as they would to all people.”

But transgender priests who helped develop the new guidance said that they were “saddened” that Bishop Henderson could not support it.

The Revd Dr Tina Beardsley, a consultant member of the C of E’s Episcopal Teaching Document and Pastoral Advisory Group, described Bishop Henderson’s comments as “disappointing”.

“It does seem a little strange to be saying ‘I’m sorry but you’ve got to wait another two years and possibly longer beyond that before we can actually pray with you,’” she said. “That doesn’t feel right to me.”

Canon Rachel Mann, a transgender priest, poet, and writer, who also advised on the guidance, said: “I am surprised that [Bishop Henderson] has qualms, because it strikes me that this is a classic example of Anglican thoughtfulness. Nothing new has been offered. . . This is a set of guidance that addresses the deep human desire that we all have, whether trans or non-trans, to reaffirm our baptismal commitment to Jesus Christ.

“I am saddened that Bishop Julian feels that, in his individual capacity, he cannot stand by this statement.”

Bishop Henderson said that it was vital that those in his own constituency recognised that, as a diocesan bishop, he had to “operate in different ways”.

“I liken it to a battlefield where there are lots of different fronts. We need to be supportive of one another as we try to deal with these issues, rather than saying ‘Oh, that person has let the side down because they haven’t done it exactly the way I would have done it.’”

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