In July 2017 the Church of England’s General Synod passed the Blackburn motion asking the House of Bishops to consider introducing new liturgy to affirm trans people in their faith after transition. In the end, the bishops decided not to introduce new liturgy, but said that the existing liturgy for Affirmation of Baptismal faith should be used and they would issue new guidance. The new guidance was issued in December 2018.
LGBTQFaithUK wholeheartedly supports the House of Bishops on this matter.
The pastoral guidance from the House of Bishops can be seen here.
Now, a petition has been launched online, which people can sign, to oppose the new guidance. The text of the petition can be seen here.
Unfortunately, the petition contains a number of factual errors, misstatements and confused thinking.
My first concern with the petition is that it is not clear who is the author of the actual content. This has been put up on a website that was created for the purpose, as evidenced by the bespoke website address. The petition contains numerous inaccuracies and instances of inflammatory language. It is not a balanced objective response to the House of Bishops guidance.
Nor does it seem to understand the nature of what ‘guidance’ means. The guidance from the House of Bishops sets out to explain how to carry out services in which people reaffirm their baptismal vows. It achieves that objective. It is a false premise to criticise it for not doing things that it was never intended to do.
In this article, I will go through the petition and show some of the flaws in their presentation.
Sentence 2 of paragraph 1 states ‘Because it has affected a very small proportion of people, evidence from the medical and social sciences is often conflicting and of poor quality.’ Trans people are a small part of the population, but this does not mean that any studies about them will necessarily be conflicting or poor quality. The population of trans people in the world is large enough for accurate, statistically significant studies. The statement chooses to ignore the world class research studies that have been done and are continuing to be done in universities and scientific establishments around the world.
The next sentence in paragraph 1 ‘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’ conflates several different ideas together in ways that obscure, rather than illumine, current understandings. As society changes, the social meaning of gender will change and indeed the social meaning of many things will change because they are part of an ever-changing social context. Theories about the interplay of biological sex and the meaning of gender have been studied by academics for decades and will continue to offer fresh insights for a long time to come. What has changed is the amount of publicity and visibility that is given to gender and gender variance.
Gender dysphoria is a medical diagnosis. It will be influenced by biomedical research, rather than by research in the social sciences. The social science academic research helps us to understand gender, but does not define it for an individual.
Paragraph 2 shows a misunderstanding of the difference between medical research, social sciences and educational research. The paragraph introduces the concept of ‘harm’, but does not justify what harm is being considered. Safeguarding is of paramount importance in schools. Any intervention that was likely to cause harm would not be allowed. Even a quick search on Google Scholar will turn up a significant amount of academic literature showing studies into harm reduction for trans students in school. Research shows that the biggest risk is an unsupportive environment.
Paragraph 3 introduces the idea of political debate as well as philosophical and anthropological issues in public debate and theological analysis, but does not discuss any of them. Instead it criticises the House of Bishops guidance for being brief. Everyone writes for an audience and the House of Bishops were writing for clergy who needed advice on how to use existing liturgy, it needed to be brief to serve it’s intended purpose.
The theological rationale had already been published and did not need to form part of the published Common Worship books. It can be accessed here.
Paragraph 4, which introduces the 7 bullet points, may restate some of conservative evangelical orthodoxy, but it will be read very negatively by those who are LGBTI+. ‘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.’ It will be heard by trans people as it is by lesbian, gay and bisexual Christians as a call to repent from being the person that God made us to be and a doubting of our Christian faith. It would be good to be welcomed as brothers and sisters in Christ. The paragraph continues by saying ‘But we do not believe that the Guidance is the right way to do this,’ but it does not specify what ‘to do this’ actually means. In some respects, the two sentences are a non sequitur.
Bullet point 1 is just factually incorrect. The House of Bishops have called their guidance Pastoral Guidance for use in conjunction with the Affirmation of Baptismal Faith in the context of gender transition. They have not given it ‘The title of ‘gender transition services’.
Bullet point 2 essentially just says – ‘we don’t think you should do this’. Using phrases like ‘dominical sacraments’ are redundant, when the Anglican church only recognises two sacraments, baptism and ‘the supper of our Lord’. Articles XIX and XXV refer to the types of sacraments and to their efficacy as signs of grace. A reaffirmation of baptismal vows is not a sacrament, it may be a vehicle for God’s grace and blessing but it is also a way for the church family to support and affirm their commitment.
Bullet point 3 seems to regard transition as nothing more than a change of name. It is far more than that, it is a change of direction in life and affects every aspect of a person’s life, so the parallels with the scriptures are very appropriate. These scriptures are ones that have meaning for trans people and are sources of inspiration where they are nourished by God’s word. Whoever wrote this material might find that if they took the opportunity to listen to trans people and heard the scriptures as they are understood through the lens of their experience then the writer may realise that the Bishops got this one right.
Bullet point 4 starts with factual errors. It says ‘The possibility of celebrating gender transition appears to be based on the rejection of physical differentiation between male and female (known as ‘sexual dimorphism’).’ Surely, the possibility of celebrating anything is based on the idea that what is being celebrated is a good thing. I would suggest that, considering the number of people who choose to have surgery, such as a double mastectomy or facial feminisation during their transition, that any surgical changes reinforce the physical differentiation rather than reject it.
The rest of bullet point 4 brings in intersex and marriage. It repeats the idea that people who are intersex are ‘a very small number who are biologically intersex’. The proportion of people who are intersex is 1.7%. The population of the UK in 2016 was 65.64million, which means that there were just over a million intersex people in the UK alone. That is not a small number that can be ignored just because it is theologically inconvenient. Even taking the, smaller, percentage of those who are equally male and female, such as those who have one ovary and one testes, the percentage is 0.05%, which would give over 3000 in the UK alone.
The church is obliged to marry any couple that comes to them for marriage, provided that they are one man and one woman. If one of them is a trans man or a trans woman, the law still applies and the church has to marry them. An individual priest could optout of doing the wedding, as they could for a couple where one had been divorced, but they would have to arrange for another priest to take the service. Trans actually reinforces the dominant narrative about marriage.
Bullet point 5 starts with inflammatory language. In my work I come across families where a relative is transitioning or has transitioned. The language of ‘traumatic’ etc is not used. The language is ‘difficult’ or ‘challenging.’ What they need is support. Where there is an unsupportive environment, then the situation becomes more difficult. Unsupportive church environments are a big source of harm.
It is nice to see that conservatives have embraced the idea of ‘not talking about us without talking to us’, we have been saying that for years, but they have taken no notice. I wonder how many trans people and their families they consulted before making this petition public.
Then, for some reason, the bullet point goes back to the idea of ‘novel and largely untested theories’ and ‘potential for harm … of children and young adults’. This merely repeats the ideas of paragraph 2.
Bullet point 6 starts with ‘The notion of gender transition is highly contested in wider society.’ I don’t think the notion is contested, gender transition has been happening for almost a century, at least. How it works out in practice may be under some debate, and the consequences are still being worked through.
- Then follows a sentence of 95 words (the total of the whole petition is only 952 words, including the title). This massive sentence, conflates together several different ideas in one go. In taking this approach, the writer introduces contradictory theses and does not offer evidence for their claims. It appears quite confused. Just to take a few of these ideas:
• ‘There is widespread concern at the idea of biological males claiming to be women when they have not shared their personal and social experience;’. I question the claim of ‘widespread concern’. The idea of biological males claiming to be women could take several books to unpack, but what is missing is any idea of biological women who are transitioning to male. Under some understandings, any surgery or medical intervention would confirm the sex that the person already knows themselves to be. I wonder what would be the case for ‘biological males claiming to be female’ if they did share their personal and social experience. It sounds like the personal and social experience is being seen as more important than biology.
• The idea of ‘a worrying increase in rapid onset gender dysphoria (ROGD)’ is challenged at all levels. There is only one scientific paper on the subject. The quality of this research has been widely criticised, as has the methodology of using online questionnaires from three sites aimed at parents who do not support their children in their transition. We may be back in the area of evidence that is ‘conflicting and of poor quality’. There is no consensus that ROGD even exists.
• The next concern is the one about ‘the long-term effects of ‘puberty blocking’ hormones given the poor quality of the research;’. Does the writer of this petition realise that long term effects, in medical terms, may mean a 25 year study or longer? These drugs have not been used widely enough or for long enough for these studies to happen yet. It is an area of ongoing and high calibre research.
• It says ‘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.’ What is certain is the consensus of the harm of not intervening in the short term. It has been extensively studied, in high calibre academic studies, that trans youth have a higher rate of suicide, self-harm and depression. Not intervening may mean that the young trans person does not have a long-term future at all.
- There are long term studies showing the positive effect of interventions and support. Since the 1970s the World Professional Association for Transgender Health has published extensive guidelines on the internationally agreed Standards of Care for trans people. This is based on extensive high calibre research, showing the consensus among healthcare professionals. The current, 7th edition, can be downloaded here.
Bullet point 7 is probably the first part that I come close to agreeing with. If it were a new liturgy, then it could be understood as a development in doctrine. However, I don’t think that a guide to how to use a liturgy is sufficient to count as a new liturgy.
I too am grateful for the clarification about the status of the guidance. I believe that the mistake happened when the Church of England communication team set up a radio interview and advised the interviewee, mistakenly as it transpired, that the Guidance was to be mandatory.
In the concluding paragraph, I think the Bishops should refer those who have signed the letter to the work of the Living in Love and Faith project, which will be published in 2020.
On a positive note, I agree wholeheartedly with the final sentence – ‘We assure the House of our prayers as they consider the best way forward.’
To learn more about this subject, LGBTQFaithUK recommends the following books, all written by ordained clergy, based on doctorate level research and with the experience of being trans themselves.
Trans-Gender: Theology, Ministry, and Communities of Faith
By Justin Tanis
Published by Wipf and Stock
By Austen Hartke
Published by Westminster John Knox Press
Transfaith: A Transgender Pastoral Resource Paperback
by Chris Dowd, Christina Beardsley
Published by Darton,Longman & Todd Ltd
This is my body: Hearing the theology of transgender Christians Paperback
by Christina Beardsley, Michelle O’Brien
Published by Darton,Longman & Todd Ltd