At its meeting in April, Blackburn Diocesan Synod passed the following motion on welcoming transgender people: ‘That this Synod, recognising the need for transgender people to be welcomed and affirmed in their parish church, call on the House of Bishops to consider whether some nationally commended liturgical materials might be prepared to mark a person’s gender transition.’
In an article on this motion entitled ‘Church of England to consider transgender naming ceremony,’ which was published on 21 May, the Guardian declared that ‘The Church of England’s position on transgender people accepts that two opposing views of transsexual people’s experience and gender transition can ‘properly be held,’ similar to that of the views over women’s ordination, according to a House of Bishops memo in 2003.’
This summary of the Church of England’s position is wrong on two counts.
First, there was no House of Bishops memo in 2003. What the House of Bishops produced that year was not a memo, but a detailed, 358 page, report, Some Issues in Human Sexuality.
This report was not a statement of policy. As its subtitle ‘a guide to the debate’ indicates, it was instead an introduction to the theological debate about human sexuality, explaining the issues that members of the Church of England would need to consider when thinking about human sexuality or making any policy decisions in relation to it.
Secondly, because of its nature as guide to the debate rather than a statement of policy, Some Issues does not say what position the Church of England should take, either on the overall issue of how to understand transsexualism theologically, or on the specific issues of the best form of treatment for those with gender dysphoria and whether those who have undergone gender transition should be ordained or married in their new identities. It therefore does not declare that two opposing views ‘can properly be held’ in the Church of England and the Guardian is wrong to say that it does.
Rather than set out policy in relation to transsexualism. Some Issues highlights the key theological issues which the Church needs to address before it is in a position to determine policy. These issues are summarised at the end of chapter 7 of Some Issues in the light of the key issue of what it means for a transsexual person to live in obedience to Jesus Christ:
‘Does such obedience mean learning to accept and live with their given biological identity because this is the identity which God has given them, or does it mean seeking a new post-operative identity on the grounds that it is this which will enable them to more fully express the person God intends them to be?
As this paper has shown, the issues surrounding transsexualism are very complex and controversial. However, this is no excuse for retreating into a gut reaction that simply says that transsexualism is unnatural and therefore wrong, or a simplistic approach that says that any course of action that enables people to feel more comfortable with their own identity must be the right one.
There are serious theological issues at stake here to do with the nature of sexual identity as created by God and as affected by a fallen world, and it is these theological issues that must be allowed to shape any responsible Christian approach to this subject.
At the heart of the matter is the question of the Christian understanding of what constitutes our God given identity as human beings. It has traditionally been held that one of the implications of the Christian belief in the resurrection of the body is that it shows that our bodies are integral to who we are before God. We are not simply people who inhabit bodies, rather our bodies are part of who we are. If this is the case, what are the theological grounds for saying that in the case of people with gender dysphoria their ‘true’ identity is different from that of the body with which they were born? Can we go down this road without moving to a new form of gnostic dualism in which the body is seen as separate from the self?’ (Some Issues, paragraphs 7.4.19-7.4.22)
It could be argued, of course, that through the hormonal and surgical treatment involved in gender transition, those who have gone through transition are given a new body which conforms to who they truly are.
However, this argument has to deal with counter argument put forward by Oliver O’Donovan in his 1982 Grove Booklet Transsexualism and Christian Marriage and quoted in Some Issues, that we should be wary of the notion that: ‘…the surgeon’s art, by equipping the transsexual with functioning genitalia, can qualify him as a member of his assumed sex.’ For O’Donovan this notion ignores the distinction between that which is God given and that which is an artificial human creation:
‘To know one’s body as self is to know the difference between that givenness from which one’s freedom begins and all the artefacts which are the product of one’s freedom. Artificial organs which are moulded onto or into one’s body do not cease to be not-self and become self. They are properly called ‘artificial’ because their reality is not congruent with the reality of the body itself. Of course this does not as such prohibit their use. It is important, certainly, to the meaning of sexual intercourse that the organs with which we engage in it are ourselves; but if our organs are incapable of performing their duty and need artificial assistance, I know nothing that can be said against it in this case any more than against the use of crutches in walking. The point is simply that such assistance never becomes anything more than a substitute to make good the body’s deficiency. Whatever the surgeon may be able to do, and whatever he may learn to do, he cannot make self out of not-self. He cannot turn an artefact into a human being’s body. The transsexual can never say with justice: ‘These organs are my bodily being, and their sex is my sex.’ ‘ (Transsexualism and Christian Marriage pp.14-15)
If O’Donovan is right, to affirm the chosen sexual identity of the post transition transsexual is to say that the artificial changes that have taken place are indicative of their true, God given, identity and we are still faced with the challenge of saying why we think this is the case given that they were born with a body with a particular sex which sexual reassignment treatment can modify to a certain extent, but can never abolish. We still seem to be endorsing a dualism in which the body and the self are to be seen as separate.
Given that the Church of England has never debated the issues concerning transsexualism highlighted in Some Issues, let alone reached a decision about them, it would be irresponsible for it to go down the line recommended in the Blackburn Diocesan Synod motion and think about producing liturgical materials to mark people’s gender transition. Before the Church of England can responsibly produce liturgy in this area it needs to know what its theological position is with regard to transsexualism and if it is to affirm the new identity of people who have undergone gender transition it needs to be able to answer the issues raised in Some Issues.
The Church of England cannot simply affirm someone’s post transition identity in order to make them feel loved and accepted (vitally important though this is). It would have to be absolutely sure that this new identity is the identity that person truly has before God. It is not clear that the Church of England is in a position to say this is the case.