Talking of baptismal rites. It’s time for the bishops to stand firm.

All is not well in Church of England land. That much is clear. And, as usual, the subjects we are falling out about are sex and gender.

The catalyst for the latest outbreak of outrage is, of course, the House of Bishops decision to issue guidance notes to be used when offering the Rite of Baptismal Reaffirmation to a trans person wishing to ‘re-appropriate’ their baptism.  According to the Guardian ‘2,155 clergy and senior lay members of the church have demanded the guidance be revised, postponed or withdrawn.’

It will be interesting to see the episcopal response. I hope that it is calm, measured and, above all, kind to the trans community. I sincerely hope that the trans people seeking to re-appropriate and affirm their identity ‘in Christ’ are not sacrificed on the altar of false unity. I hope that the bishops have the courage, compassion and confidence to speak truth back to assumed power.

I also hope that the bishops refuse to capitulate to the numbers, which as David Baker, a signatory to the letter, has suggested are, in any case, entirely besides the point, as well as notions of so-called seniority. The bishops must not allow themselves to be swayed by the lukewarm thinking of theo-utilitarian ethical discourse and perceptions of seniority and power.

In considering whether to re-appraise their prior commitment to Trans Christians the bishops should reflect not just on the content of the open letter but, on some of the quotes given to the press, for in these quotes is to be found the yeast of beliefs and assumptions behind the composition of the letter. The quotes act as a commentary to the plain text of the letter.

The Guardian reports that ‘one member of the archbishops’ council, the Rev Ian Paul, suggested church leaders were “allowing themselves to be hijacked by these very small special interest groups”.’

I have two problems with Ian’s analysis: First, church leaders (bishops) have not allowed themselves to be hijacked by a very small special interest group! It was General Synod ‘wot did it.’ It was the overwhelming vote in favour of the Blackburn Motion, at General Synod, which paved the way for the subsequent process which resulted in the issuing of the Guidance Notes.

To suggest that the The House of Bishops was ‘high-jacked,’ is a deeply theo-political analysis of recent church history.

But, my bigger concern is this: so what if the Christian trans community are a ‘very small special interest group?’ The fact that this community is relatively small, and that hitherto it has been largely kept in the ecclesial dark, is the point. Reaching out to those on the margins, bringing them back into the fullness of community, affirming them as God’s beloved, allowing them to reshape the ‘Anglican Core’ seems to me to be an authentic Christian response. Failing to pay attention to them because they are a ‘very small special interest group,’ is to pass by on the other side.

Edward Dowler, the Archdeacon of Hastings, suggested (again to the Guardian) that the bishops “might have been more circumspect about appearing to lend their support to an increasingly high-profile ideological movement whose aims and methods sit uncomfortably with the Christian gospel and are now being increasingly questioned throughout western society.” 

Again he declines to acknowledge that it was General Synod, en masse, ‘wot did it.’ The ‘aims and methods’ he so clearly disapproves of were the fruit of the synodical process. It may, for him, be a bitter fruit to swallow, but to suggest that the bishops have capitulated in the face of ‘an increasingly high-profile ideological movement’ is, once again, a highly creative re-writing of recent church history. The chilliest feature of his argument is, however, the re-categorization of real people as ideology.

When the House of Bishops wrote their guidelines they rightly spoke to, and engaged with, trans Christians. The fact that Trans Christians are a ‘very small special interest group’ was taken seriously. Their ‘smallness’ was not regarded as a negative, but as a positive. Canon Rachel Mann’s reflection (as quoted in the Daily Telegraph) on her involvement in the process, and the subsequent issuance of the now contested guidelines, is beautiful, dignified and graceful:

“This is a classic example of Anglican thoughtfulness. This is a set of guidance that addresses the deep human desire that we all have, whether trans or non-trans, to reaffirm our baptismal commitment to Jesus Christ.” 

So here is the paradox: to suspend or jettison the guidelines, and the use of the Rite of the Reaffirmation of Baptism, would itself be a capitulation to ‘an increasingly high-profile ideological movement,’ and this is something that the bishops should avoid. To deny a small group of people a rite through which to re-appropriate, and re-affirm, their commitment to being ‘in Christ,’ in order to appease 2,000 or so loud and angry voices would be an act of huge betrayal.

The Bishops have listened, first to synod, then to trans Christians. There has been real integrity in both their ‘aims and methods.’ They  listened, engaged and acted. They did so with pastoral sensitivity and liturgical flexibility.

The trans Christian community should not be sacrificed on the altar of conservative Christian ideology and it matters not a jot whether such ideology is publicly endorsed by 2,155 signatories, or even more.

It is time for the bishops to stand firm in the ‘hope that has been set before’ them by a group of people who should be of ‘special interest’ to the Church.





7 thoughts on “Talking of baptismal rites. It’s time for the bishops to stand firm.

  1. There are only two genders, male and female. A quick glance at the front of the lower abdomen will speedily indicate into which category God has placed that person.

    I am aware that a few people undergo a surgical procedure in a vain attempt to change the physical appearance but the body still remains either male or female in spite of this. And this, in effect, is arguing with God that He has placed the person in the wrong category. We should not argue with God ! He is omnipotent.

    One can buy a Rolls-Royce car-badge on eBay and fix it to the front of a Ford Fiesta — however, the car is still a Ford Fiesta. Changing the badge alters nothing.

    Sqn Ldr Alan Birt

    • Dear Squadron Leader Birt

      I see your MA is in War Studies. There are only two sides in war, the ally and the enemy. One only has to look at history to see that all countries fall into one category or the other. Perhaps you would like to have go at categorising the following: France, Spain, Poland, Germany, Holland, United States, Russia.

      I don’t have an MA but even I know that gender is a complex issue, and sex (which I think is what you’re actually referring to) is equally complex.There are five determinants of the sex of an individual: external genitalia; internal genitalia; gonads; chromosomes; and hormones.Only one of these can be determined by the method you suggest.

      By the way, not arguing with God because he is omnipotent makes him sound like the school bully.

      I am sorry that God gave you defective knees. I trust you’re not contemplating surgery.

      • God did not give me defective knees and I do not blame Him because my knees are becoming worn. I am now in my eighties and so have passed my “best by” date. It is generally accepted that we were designed for ‘three score years plus ten’. So I have no reason to complain to God or anyone else for the fact that I am now wearing out. It is just a sad fact of life but I do wish I could still genuflect.

        No, I am not contemplating surgery.

  2. Thanks for this, Andrew–though I am not sure it is you, as the writing style is different from your usual, so I wasn’t sure whether this was a guest post from someone.

    It was slightly odd to read here a criticism of *one* comment in *one* of the many press comments, taken out of context, rather than actually engaging with the issues in the letter. Was this because it was an easier target? You are right to cite David Baker’s comment on numbers (though he notes this isn’t irrelevant) but he then goes on to ask for engagement in the issues that the letter raises—not as an expression of ‘outrage’ but as a careful reflection on some serious liturgical, theological and pastoral issues. Might you be able to do that?

    On the question of ‘hi-jacking’ (or ‘high-jacking’) you raise the question of process. It is a matter of record that the Liturgical Commission did not give proper consideration to these measures, that individuals had considerable control over the process, and the that House of Bishops did not even consider or discuss the guidance that was issued in their name. Are you claiming that this is a method which has integrity?

    And you repeat the idea that ‘it’s Synod wot done it’, though I think you know that that claim is not true. Synod passed a motion, not asking for liturgy or guidance, but asking is the House of Bishops ‘could consider *whether* such a liturgy’ might be produced. So it would have satisfied this motion for the House to say a simple ‘no’ and leave it at that. Somehow, along the line, this request for consideration was interpreted as a demand for a particular outcome. How exactly did that happen?

    I look forward to your thoughtful response to these questions.

    • Hi Ian, no guest writer; all me. I think that it is perfectly acceptable to engage with the a range of (I presume) carefully considered comments given to the press. They add colour and context to the plain words of the letter. Of course it is for the bishops to explain the process through which the material (guidelines) came into being and I am sure that this will be asked (thereby becoming a matter of public record) at synod. It is undoubtedly true to say that the culmination of events is the fruit of the debate and the passing of a motion on the floor of synod. The exact wording of the motion makes interesting material and is worth re-reading. It doesn’t ask for a specific liturgy but rather ‘new liturgical materials.’ You state that the request was translated as a demand for a particular outcome which you presumably think the bishops then capitulated to, but can I ask what is your evidence for this? I wonder how you (and others) might justify your claim that the process was high-jacked? I would also like to understand why you think it relevant to bring to the table the idea that the trans group are a very small special interest group.

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