Bishops, rites and people; some thoughts.

There is something in the D.N.A. of institutions that means that they are designed to frustrate, irritate and, annoy. Yet, we need institutions to support, affirm and hold us. Religious institutions in particular are, or ought to be, in the job of supporting, affirming and holding. The Church of England, primarily (but not exclusively), does so through her rites and sacraments.

In the marriage service, for example, the new couple are affirmed in their new status as husband and wife through the act of proclamation; ‘I now proclaim……’ The proclamation, or act of affirmation,  only takes after the couple have made their declarations and vows. In the marriage service the entirety of the congregation assents to ‘support and uphold them in their marriage now and in the years to come.’ 

Support, affirmation and holding people (individuals or couples) before God are the premises on which pastoral rites are built. Rites, need to be crafted carefully so that they speak, without ambiguity, into the specifics of a situation. Any rites that fail to do so lack liturgical sensitivity or even sincerity. That is why re-appropriating an existing, and if we are honest seldom used rite, for  new circumstances is problematic at best. At worst it’s an act of liturgical insensitivity.

Last year General Synod overwhelmingly passed a motion asking the House of Bishops to consider authorizing a new liturgy to support, affirm and hold trans sexual people. Recently the House of Bishops decided, presumably on the advice of the Liturgical Commission, that a new liturgy wasn’t required for the act of welcoming, supporting, affirming and holding trans Christians, and that instead an existing rite, ‘Affirmation of Baptismal Faith,’ would, to put it colloquially, ‘do.’ The House of Bishops seemed to have rushed to this decision without wider consultation.

Following last year’s vote The Rev’d Chris Newlands, who proposed the notion, described the vote as  ‘a wonderful opportunity to create a liturgy which speaks powerfully to the particularities of trans people, and make a significant contribution to their well-being and support’. The Archbishop of York implored Synod members to vote for the motion asking the bishops to consider new and creative official liturgies designed to welcome a transgender person under their new name.

Well now we know nothing new is to be offered; nothing creative is to be offered. Nothing radical is to be offered. The very term ‘radical new inclusivity’ (the aspirational term introduced after synod voted not to take note of the House of Bishops report on human sexuality) is starting to look increasingly like a cheap and contentless slogan, rather than a guiding theological motif.

It seems as though the community directly effected weren’t even consulted on the proposed way forward. This led one friend to suggest that what is on offer is ‘a second class liturgy for second class people.’ This despite the pledge from the House of Bishops that they would never again talk about a particular group of people without including them. Another friend, the mother of trans children, an ordinand, has written as follows:

‘I find this deeply upsetting for two reasons. An individual who goes through the transgender process does not ‘choose’ to ‘change’. They are acknowledging and accepting what has always been. Yet the vocabulary of discussion speaks of the process as if it’s a lifestyle choice. That leads to my second gripe; following the path of acknowledging a true gender identity is the most painful process requiring incredible courage and patience. This deserves – needs – specific, unique, loving acknowledgment before God and a loving church family. A casual nod by allowing the amendment of any other service is dismissive and unacceptable.’

The very real feeling exists that the House of Bishops have rushed to a cheap, or casual, liturgical decision to deal with what they perceive to be a difficult challenge; the requirement for a new and creative liturgy; one that supports, upholds and affirms. In an attempt to tick a challenge off their to do list they have favored chronos over kairos and it simply isn’t good enough.  I suspect that the reason they have done so is because  leadership is currently being exercised in a climate of deeply entrenched fear, whether acknowledged or otherwise, for as another member of the LGBTI community has written:

‘They are attempting to avoid criticism from anybody by claiming to include trans people whilst avoiding doing anything to include trans people.To trans and allies they say “we welcome trans people.” To anti trans people they say “we haven’t made any changes whatsoever.” It’s cowardly and it isn’t leadership.’

The House of Bishops will no doubt claim that they have done as they were asked. In doing so they have rendered hollow any claims to ‘radical new inclusivity’ and failed to live up to the pledge never to talk about a particular group of people without including them in the decsion making process. It isn’t good enough. 





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