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to the Guardian ‘2,155 clergy and senior lay members of the church have demanded the guidance be revised, postponed or withdrawn.’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.