In the Fourth Nocturn

On the Response to the House of Bishops

Over 2,500 Church of England members have signed an open letter condemning the House of Bishops’s recommendations for liturgy to affirm gender transitions.

The letter makes some good points, some of which I agree with: on the whole, the recommendation by the House of Bishops does not present an ideal solution to the problem it sets out to solve. But there are too many clues in the letter that lead me to suspect the motives of the authors, so that I am unable to sign the letter as it stands: as a transgender woman, it would be tantamount to signing away my own dignity.

The original authors of the letter and some of its signatories are, I believe, disingenuous in presenting their concerns as being for people ‘with gender dysphoria’ (although not all transgender people experience gender dysphoria). Much of their argument is against affirming transgender people in the church at all, not against this particular liturgy: it is an argument that transgender people in spiritual crisis should be turned away at the door, and thus stands in direct opposition to the authors’ assertion that they ‘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’. While freely lambasting the House of Bishops’s efforts to produce an appropriate and welcoming liturgy for this purpose, they offer no constructive solutions to the problems they find, in large part because there is no possible liturgical solution to them: they make clear in the first of their seven points that they don’t want a liturgy at all, and many of the remainder of their points repeat well-worn lines of attack against transgender people used by openly prejudiced political groups which seek the total erasure of transgender people from society.

The authors of the letter begin by asserting that they do not ‘want to harm the potentially larger numbers of children by prematurely imposing untried and untested ideas on young children’, and later continue along similar lines, writing that ‘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.’

The vast majority of transgender people, though, transition in young adulthood or later, not as children;1 for those who do take steps in childhood to affirm a trans identity, it is a decision which they make for themselves, (hopefully) with the support of their parents, and with the full support of the medical system. The authors express concern about the long-term effects of puberty-blocking drugs, which they misleadingly call ‘“puberty blocking” hormones’, perpetuating a myth about the medical provisions for transition before puberty: they are not hormones in themselves, but preparatory medications whose effects wear off as soon as one stops taking them. Someone who decides as a child to transition, and is given puberty blockers, can later reverse their decision and grow up into a normal and healthy adult of their original gender. The entire purpose of puberty blockers (as opposed to full hormone replacement therapy) is that they do not have long-term effects, and thereby that they prevent children from needing to make decisions about a medical gender transition before they are responsible enough to make a choice which could have permanent effects on their body if they later change their minds.

Overall, the concern for the medical aspect of transition appears to demonstrate a desire to involve the Church in scientific debates in which it is most unqualified to take part. The authors write of the medical issues that ‘the bishops’ guidance offers no recognition of the wider issues at play’, but there is also no clear reason why the bishops should be obliged to enter into this debate. On medical and scientific issues in general, the Church of England normally accepts the medical and scientific consensus and seeks theological answers to the moral and ethical problems raised thereby, within the framework that science provides; but this letter continually suggests that the medical and scientific consensus is new and potentially flawed, and therefore should be ignored. That claim is not justified within the letter, and has nothing to justify it in mainstream medical science: people have been transitioning gender with the aid of the medical profession for a hundred years, a process which has improved far, far more lives than it has damaged.2

Another point on which the response to the bishops errs is in the idea that acceptance of transgender people weakens the Church’s understanding of gender, saying that it could undermine the Church’s current doctrine of marriage, writing:3

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.

There are feminists who claim to wish to erase the societal differences between men and women entirely: they are called ‘trans exclusionary radical feminists’ (terfs for short) and are generally seen as the enemies of the transgender rights movement. Gender transition, in fact, affirms the rôle of gender within God’s creation: there is no reason a transgender woman cannot marry a man, or a transgender man a woman. It is true that the vast majority of people conform to an idea of gender based entirely on chromosomes and sex organs, but the letter simply handwaves away the minority of intersex people who do not neatly conform to this conception of gender — so that while on one hand it demands a deeper theological reflection on the problems posed by transgender people to the Church’s doctrine, on the other hand it appears not to have any concern at all for how we should treat intersexuality theologically, a significant and difficult problem for any theology of gender based around scripture and a purely chromosomal–physiological conception of what gender is. Therefore a theology of gender is needed which can coherently respond both to physiological intersexuality and to transgender identities, including people who assert male or female gender identities as well as non-binary ones.

The letter also raises a point about the effect that a gender transition has on one’s spouses, parents, and other relatives:

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.

However, the fact of someone’s transgender identity is not decided by the wishes of one’s family. It is true that transitions can be painful affairs for the relatives of transgender people. Many personal decisions made by individuals can be painful for their relatives: some marriages are also painful affairs for relatives who may not like their son or daughter’s partner, but that is not a reason to abolish Church marriage. Nor does the objection of their relatives make such marriages any less able to truly mirror the relation between Christ and his bride the Church; likewise, there surely cannot be any suggestion — the letter makes none — that transgender people, regardless of their transition status, are any less capable of living a Christ-like life, and of becoming one in the communion of saints, than are our cisgender brethren. The rite warns ministers about possible pastoral problems and advises them to be sensitive to them: some pastoral issues cannot be solved with liturgies and rubrics, and this is one of them. The only way to handle this is sensitively and in private meetings between pastors and their flocks. If the House of Bishops can do anything, it is offer opportunities for clergy to train themselves to handle this specific kind of pastoral issue, but that is beyond the scope of liturgical guidance.

As I have already pointed out, though, the letter does raise some valid objections to the form of service proposed. In particular, the use of affirmation of baptismal vows for this purpose is highly questionable: the letter even mentions that that service is intended to be associated with repentance. I believe that in the Early Church, the re-taking of baptismal vows was used to reconcile former heretics to the catholic Church4 — an association which is frankly insulting to transgender people who ask for a service of welcome, who were faithful Christians before transitioning and remain faithful Christians after. The text of the liturgy has nothing to do with the situation in which it is now being employed: the circumstance demands something unconditionally celebratory, founded on thanksgiving to God for transgender people as part of the diversity of his creation. The liturgy for renewal of baptismal vows, which is partly penitential in nature, is the wrong kind of service for this purpose.

Moreover, it doesn’t scale well. Each transgender person will have different desires for how they would like to be welcomed into the church as their new selves. I dislike being the centre of attention and so, if and when I have a formal ceremony of blessing of my transition, I would much prefer a single short prayer that can be put, for example, just before the sharing of the peace at Sunday eucharist. Yet there is also great symbolic power in asking those who are supporting someone through a transition to join together with them in receiving the holy communion, so it should scale all the way to an affirmation mass, with full eucharistic propers. Every trans person requesting a blessing will have different preferences and requirements, and it is a shame that this was not acknowledged in the guidance.

In addition, the use of biblical texts about name changes to affirm gender transition is, as the letter says, pretty theologically shallow — although understandable, given how little one has to work with scripturally to deal with issues of transsexualism. But some deeper theological analysis can yield some deeper scriptural insights into a theology of transgender; indeed, the list of potential scripture readings includes a large number of excellent suggestions which create interesting perspectives on welcoming transgender people into God’s family in their true and proper genders.

Nonetheless, the fact that the House of Bishops is taking the issue of welcoming transgender people into the Church seriously can only be welcomed. If further developments in this area can be made, in line with the consensus of medical science and with input from the voices of transgender people, rather than from cryptotransphobic voices from the church’s lobby groups, so much the better. But I sincerely hope that the bishops and the majority of Church of England members reject the premise of the arguments of the ‘Response to the House of Bishops’.

Thanks to Lena Könemann, Megan Kramer, Sean B. Palmer, Lauri Love, and others who chose to remain anonymous for reading drafts of this article. The opinions expressed herein are mine alone.

  1. Source: Grant et al., Injustice at Every Turn: A Report of the National Transgender Discrimination Survey (2011).

  2. Source: ‘What does the scholarly research say about the effect of gender transition on transgender well-being?’, What We Know: The Public Policy Research Portal (Cornell University, accessed 1 February 2019).

  3. For the sake of honesty and full disclosure, I must here admit that I, personally, support the introduction of gender-equal marriage in the Church of England. However, I have written the following section so that it makes sense even if one does hold to a conception of marriage that is exclusively between one man and one woman.

  4. I recall reading this somewhere, but I can’t remember where. I would appreciate confirmation or refutation.