Letter urges House of Bishops to ‘revise, postpone or withdraw’ its trans guidance

25 January 2019

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A mosaic of the Baptism of Christ

A mosaic of the Baptism of Christ

A DRAFT open letter that has attracted more than 2000 signatures calls on the House of Bishops to “revise, postpone or withdraw” its guidance on adapting the liturgy for the Affirmation of Baptismal Faith to mark a person’s gender transition.

Last month, the House of Bishops Delegation Committee published guidance that said that 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 December). The Bishops had decided that special liturgical provision on gender transition was not needed, after the General Synod requested that it consider the matter (News, 26 January 2018).

The open letter, which has been signed online by members of the clergy and laity, is being circulated by critics of the guidance, including the conservative Evangelical organisation the Church Society (full text below). It is understood that the letter was intended to be made public in the week before the General Synod’s sessions next month.

Everyone should be welcomed in churches, the letter says, but “we do not believe that the Guidance is the right way to do this, since it raises some significant issues for the Church’s belief and practice.”

It continues: “The House of Bishops previously stated that no new liturgy would be offered. The title of ‘gender transition services’, the focus on the use of a person’s new name, the use of oil and water contrary to previous rubrics in Common Worship, and the description in the later explanatory note confirming that this service is to be used to ‘mark gender transition’ amount to the offering of a new liturgy, since existing wording is now being put to a new purpose.”

The letter also expresses concern “at what appears to be a misuse of the liturgy by which we celebrate one of the dominical sacraments. . . Although reaffirmation of baptismal vows might well be appropriate at certain seasons of life, it should primarily be focussed on celebrating new life in Christ rather than a new situation or circumstance, as set out in Common Worship: Christian Initiation, and should always centre on salvation, repentance and faith rather than ‘unconditional affirmation.’”

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Other concerns include the Bible readings proposed in the guidance “and their suggestion that the changes of name for biblical characters in the light of God’s salvific action and intervention offer a legitimate parallel to the change of name associated with gender transition”; the apparent lack in the guidance of “any consideration of the enormous and often traumatic impact of gender transition by an individual on immediate friends and family, including spouse and children”; and “no recognition” in the guidance that “gender transition is highly contested in wider society”.

The letter also questions assurances by the Bishops that use of the adapted liturgy will not be mandatory: “the guidance remains a new policy statement by the House, to be incorporated into Common Worship, and if it stands will be appealed to in the future as signifying a change in liturgical and therefore doctrinal understanding, whether or not that was intended.” The letter concludes: “In the light of these significant concerns, we ask that the House of Bishops revise, postpone or withdraw this guidance until all these questions are properly addressed.”

Among the signatories are the Archdeacon of Hastings, the Ven. Dr Edward Dowler; the Archdeacon of Bath, the Ven. Dr Adrian Youings; a former Bishop of Bedford, now an honorary assistant bishop in Derby diocese, the Rt Revd Richard Inwood; and a former Bishop of Rochester, the Rt Revd Michael Nazir-Ali. Signatories who are members of the Synod include the Revd Dr Andrew Atherstone, of Wycliffe Hall, Oxford; Prudence Dailey (Oxford); and the Revd Dr Ian Paul (Southwell & Nottingham), who is also a member of the Archbishops’ Council.

A spokesperson for Church House said: “The bishops will give the letter their serious consideration, especially in the context of the preparation of a major new set of teaching and learning resources on identity, relationships, marriage and sexuality, ‘Living in Love and Faith’, which will be published next year.

“Transgender matters will be covered in those resources and the pastoral guidance does not pre-empt the work of the ‘Living in Love and Faith’ process.

“The guidance is not a restatement or a new statement on matters relating to gender, nor does it change the Church of England’s teaching.”

The Bishop of Blackburn, the Rt Revd Julian Henderson, confirmed this month that he opposed new guidance on adapting the liturgy for the Affirmation of Baptismal Faith to mark a person’s gender transition — despite, as the chair of the Delegation Committee (News, 18 January), commending it for wider use.

 

A Response to the House of Bishops on Transgender Welcome

Gender dysphoria is an emotionally painful experience that requires understanding, support and compassion. Because it has affected a very small proportion of people, evidence from the medical and social sciences is often conflicting and of poor quality. Although gender dysphoria has been recognized for many decades, in recent years controversial new theories about the relationship between biological sex and the social meaning of gender have been linked to gender dysphoria. These ideas continue to be widely contested, with well intentioned and thoughtful people on all sides of the debate.

The many ordinary parents and teachers who now express concern about these new theories do not wish to cause harm to the tiny number of children afflicted by gender dysphoria; but neither do they want to harm the potentially larger numbers of children by prematurely imposing untried and untested ideas on young children. Given the many instances in the history of medicine where under-researched interventions, introduced prematurely, have caused more harm than good, our guiding principle should be ‘first do no harm’.

This is the wider medical, social and political debate into which the House of Bishops have introduced their brief ‘Guidance for gender transition services’. The document is undoubtedly well intentioned but lacks the serious theological analysis required to address the philosophical, anthropological and social issues in play in public discourse.

We, the undersigned, are unreservedly committed to welcoming everyone to our churches and communities of faith, so that all might hear and be invited to respond to the good news of repentance and faith in Jesus Christ. But we do not believe that the Guidance is the right way to do this, since it raises some significant issues for the Church’s belief and practice.

  1. The House of Bishops previously stated that no new liturgy would be offered. The title of ‘gender transition services’, the focus on the use of a person’s new name, the use of oil and water contrary to previous rubrics in Common Worship, and the description in the later explanatory note confirming that this service is to be used to ‘mark gender transition’ amount to the offering of a new liturgy, since existing wording is now being put to a new purpose.
  2. We are deeply concerned at what appears to be a misuse of the liturgy by which we celebrate one of the dominical sacraments, which are the founding markers of the Church itself (Articles XIX and XXV). Although reaffirmation of baptismal vows might well be appropriate at certain seasons of life, it should primarily be focussed on celebrating new life in Christ rather than a new situation or circumstance, as set out in Common Worship: Christian Initiation, and should always centre on salvation, repentance and faith rather than ‘unconditional affirmation’.
  3. We are similarly concerned at the inclusion of new biblical readings within the guidance and their suggestion that the changes of name for biblical characters in the light of God’s salvific action and intervention offer a legitimate parallel to the change of name associated with gender transition.
  4. The possibility of celebrating gender transition appears to be based on the rejection of physical differentiation between male and female (known as ‘sexual dimorphism’). This dimorphism is not only an almost universal biological reality (with the exception of a very small number who are biologically intersex) but has also been the basis of the Church’s understanding of Christian marriage, is seen as an important feature of God’s work as creator, and is a symbol of God’s covenant relationship with humanity. The guidance offers no theological reflection to justify this sort of revised narrative.
  5. Although the guidance presents itself as ‘pastoral’, there does not appear to have been any consideration of the enormous and often traumatic impact of gender transition by an individual on immediate friends and family, including spouse and children. On the principle of ‘not talking about us without talking to us’, there should have been careful consultation with these groups and consideration of the impact on them of such a service before issuing the guidance. In addition, there is no recognition that novel and largely untested theories about sex and gender also carry potential for harm in terms of the psychological and developmental needs of children and young adults.
  6. The notion of gender transition is highly contested in wider society. There is widespread concern at the idea of biological males claiming to be women when they have not shared their personal and social experience; there has been a worrying increase in rapid onset gender dysphoria (ROGD) particularly amongst girls who appear to lack confidence in their identity as female; there are concerns about the long-term effects of ‘puberty blocking’ hormones given the poor quality of the research; and there is no scientific or medical consensus that surgical and medical interventions (‘gender transition’) effectively address the complex symptoms associated with gender dysphoria over the long term. The bishops’ guidance offers no recognition of the wider issues at play here.
  7. We are grateful for the clarification that the offering of such services is not mandatory, contrary to the public statements of those involved in formulating the guidance. However, the guidance remains a new policy statement by the House, to be incorporated into Common Worship, and if it stands will be appealed to in the future as signifying a change in liturgical and therefore doctrinal understanding, whether or not that was intended.

In the light of these significant concerns, we ask that the House of Bishops revise, postpone or withdraw this guidance until all these questions are properly addressed. We assure the House of our prayers as they consider the best way forward.

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