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House of Bishops’ gender-identity proposals criticised

07 April 2022


Banners at the Reclaim Pride Protest in central London last July

Banners at the Reclaim Pride Protest in central London last July

THE House of Bishops has ignored and overridden the concerns of trans people in announcing new proposals to explore questions of gender identity and transition and to “seek and commission an appropriate group to take this work forward”, says Changing Attitude England (CAE), which campaigns on LGBT issues in the Church of England.

The House of Bishops’ decision was described on Tuesday by the Revd Colin Coward, of CAE, as “astonishing and unnecessary”. Pastoral guidance issued by the Bishops in December 2018 reads: “The Church of England welcomes and encourages the unconditional affirmation of trans people, equally with all people, within the body of Christ, and rejoices in the diversity of that body into which all Christians have been baptised by one spirit.”

It remains the current position of the C of E, which, after decisions by the House of Bishops and the General Synod, is committed to the liturgical marking of gender transition, and the opposite-sex marriage in church of a trans person, with legal gender recognition. Trans and non-binary people are welcome to enter the discernment process for ordination.

CAE has therefore questioned the Bishops’ attitude to trans people, and expressed distrust of the motives behind this latest course of action, which, it says, has been “rejected repeatedly as unnecessary and abusive”. Dr Tina Beardsley, a retired health-care chaplain and member of the CAE steering group, said on Tuesday: “There is absolutely no need for any such work to take place, because it is potentially harmful.”

The announcement concluded a brief House of Bishops report on the House’s 24 March meeting. It followed eight months of what CAE described as “intense conversation” between Dr Beardsley and other steering-group members, the Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Sarah Mullally, who chairs the Next Steps Group (NSG); and Dr Eeva John, the enabling officer for Living in Love and Faith (LLF).

The conversation was prompted by the House of Bishops’ agreement in principle, in May 2021, to form a working group under the auspices of the NSG, which is charged with engaging the Church at grass-roots level with the LLF resources.

“We pointed out to them that it was a really bad idea to focus on one group in this manner, and that it risked undermining the Church of England’s position and practice in this area — the work of two decades — not least the unequivocally affirmative statement included in the House of Bishops’ own pastoral guidance,” Dr Beardsley said.

“We asked the Bishop of London to ensure that any such working group on gender identity and transition would be composed of a wide range of trans members, including transfeminine, transmasculine, and non-binary people, together with those who are recognised specialists in the field of gender identity and in overseeing people’s transitions.”

Bishop Mullally told CAE in July 2021 that the NSG proposed a “resource-gathering exercise, enabling the Church to be better informed about the multiple questions being raised in society about gender and transition, and the serious pastoral impacts these debates are having on trans people and others affected by them”.

CAE has argued that there is no “debate” in society about gender transition. In a letter to Bishop Mullally last November, Dr Beardsley said that the country had “witnessed a relentless media campaign of misinformation that questions trans people’s identities and threatens their legal rights. The atmosphere has become so toxic that even trans people with a high public profile are reluctant to participate in studio discussions on this subject; so there is no debate.”

Last August, trans representatives meeting with Dr John were told that the “working group” would be engaged in desktop research, looking at books and articles, and preparing a digest for those who needed it. The NSG then proposed an annotated bibliography, including contributions by people hostile to the full inclusion of trans people. The representatives objected to this as likely to create a “pros” and “cons” argument, something avoided in the production of LLF materials. The materials already contain trans resources.

That proposal was withdrawn. Speaking to the Church Times on Monday, Dr Beardsley said that it was unclear why the House of Bishops needed to problematise trans people. “Why isolate this group?” she asked. “What is happening to trans people is looking like what was happening to gay people in the 1980s.” The proposed working group seemed to be focused not on good practice in pastoral care, but on the societal questions around trans people.

Mr Coward said: “We would like to know who brought this proposal, totally opposed by trans clergy and CAE, to the House of Bishops for a second time. Whoever it was has wilfully overridden the patient representations made over a period of months to the NSG. This is an astonishing and unnecessary decision. The repeated abuse of LGBTQIA people in the Church of England must end now.

“The majority of British society, including members of the Church of England, agreed that questions of gender identity and transition have been broadly resolved and enshrined in law. These questions were resolved by the Church of England in 2017. The House of Bishops fails to understand this.”

Mr Coward called on the House to “take responsibility for creating a radical new Christian inclusion for LGBTQIA+ people. Homophobic and transphobic teachings have no place in the Christian Church. They are no longer acceptable as authentic, valid expressions of the teachings of Jesus.

“Extreme conservative beliefs about gender and sexuality are not legitimate orthodox variants of Christian teaching and doctrine, but are remnants of church traditions from the past that reflect an understanding of biology and anthropology that has long been rejected.”

The former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Williams headed a list of signatories to a letter to the Prime Minister on Monday, convened by Steve Chalke, a Baptist minister and the founder of the Oasis Trust.

It followed an announcement by the Government that it would ban conversion therapy for gay people, but not for trans people. Conversion to Christianity, said the signatories — who included the Deans of Manchester, St Edmundsbury, St Paul’s, and Southwark — was the “event or process by which a person responds joyfully to the glorious embrace of the eternally loving and ever-merciful God.

“It has nothing to do with so-called ‘conversion therapy’ — pressure put by one person on another to fit their expectations; the attempt to induce vulnerable and isolated people to deny who they truly are.”

The letter continued: “To be trans is to enter a sacred journey of becoming whole: precious, honoured, and loved, by yourself, by others and by God.

“To allow those discerning this journey to be subject to coercive or undermining practices is to make prayer a means of one person manipulating another. It is a wrong-hearted notion of care and a wrong-headed understanding of conversion. Every church should be a safe space that affirms people in being who they are, without fear of judgement.”

The campaigning organisation Stonewall and 100 other organisations have withdrawn from the Government’s forthcoming Safe To Be Me conference over the issue, and it has been reported that the Government may be cancelling it. The UK is hosting this, the first global LGBT+ conference, in London, from 29 June to 1 July, to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the first official London Pride marches.

Read more on this story in Angela Tilby’s column here

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