On not properly resourcing General Synod

When I attended my first meeting of the General Synod in November 1999 I sat in on a debate about the translation of the Nicene Creed. At the centre of this debate was an involved discussion of the best way to translate the Greek word ek in relation to Jesus’ birth from the Virgin Mary. Should it be translated ‘of’ or ‘from’?

This might seem to be incredibly arcane debate, but those engaged in it rightly thought that it mattered. The reason that it mattered was that the translation question raised important issues about how we should understand and express the central claim of the Christian faith that God became Man for our salvation in the womb of the Virgin Mary.

These issues needed to be resolved because it was important that what the Church of England said in its liturgy bore the most truthful witness possible concerning this matter. Because liturgy is the Church’s public corporate declaration of what it believes it behoved the Church of England to take as much trouble as was necessary to get its liturgy right.

I was reminded of this early experience of General Synod when I looked at the two briefing papers, GS 2071A from the Revd Chris Newlands and GS2017B from the Secretary General William Nye, which  were published yesterday to resource the forthcoming Synod debate on a motion from the Diocese of Blackburn calling the House of Bishops to consider commending liturgies to mark gender transition.

What struck me was the contrast between the theological seriousness of the debate on the translation of the Nicene Creed back in 1999 and the almost complete lack of theological seriousness shown in these two new resource papers. Neither of these papers attempts to address the key issue at the heart of the debate about the Blackburn motion, which is whether it would be theologically correct for the Church of England to express in its liturgy the belief that someone who is biologically male can nonetheless be a woman and that someone who is biologically female can nonetheless be a man. If the Church of England develops liturgies to mark gender transition, as Newlands invites it to do, then this is what it will be saying.

Neither of the resource papers explore either the grounds on which some people believe this belief to be true or the very serious grounds on which others (like me) believe that it is completely false. [1]

The nearest we get to a theological discussion of the matter are the references to Genesis 1:27, Galatians 3:28 and Matthew 19:12 in paragraphs 6 and 7 of Nye’s paper, but Nye fails to explain the relevance of these verses to the key issue under debate.

Newlands emphasises the theological importance of liturgy but fails to note that liturgy needs to be truthful in what it affirms about God and humanity in order to be spiritually beneficial or to explain why he thinks a liturgy afforming gender transition would be truthful.

Both resource papers refer to the House of Bishops memo HB(03)M1 which declares that different views about the issue of what it calls ‘transsexualism’ exist and can properly be held within the Church of England and say that this is the Church of England’s position. It is important to note four things about this memo, however.

  • The memo was not the result of a process of discussion and debate across the Church of England. The truth is that it was a memo produced at speed at a meeting of the House to prevent divisions within the House of Bishops as the Church of England entered into legal negotiations with the Government in the run up to the Gender Recognition Act of 2004.
  • The memo does not give any justification for why both views can ‘properly’ be held within the Church of England. It simply asserts that they can be.
  • What the memo says has never been discussed by either the General Synod or by the Church of England as whole. In fact there has been no discussion or debate at all about the transgender issue by the Church of England nationally. This means we are starting the debate from scratch, which makes the failure to provide adequate documentation even more serious.
  • If the proposal to develop commended liturgies to mark gender transition goes ahead then this will be a move away from the position taken by the memo because it will mean that the affirmation of gender transition will have become the position taken by the Church of England (even if people are permitted to dissent from it). This is because as the Latin tag has it lex orandi, lex credendi – what the Church prays is what it believes.

It is also worth noting that neither resource paper makes any reference whatsoever to the way in which the claim that gender transition is the best way to help someone with gender dysphoria is called into question by the available evidence, which fails to demonstrate that transition has a long term success rate in resolving the mental and physical health issues experienced by transgender people. Scepticism about gender transition is now being expressed both by well qualified experts in the field of mental health and by a growing number of people who are explaining the reasons why, having gone through gender transition, they then decided to revert back to living in their birth sex

Because the resource papers thus fail to address the key theological issue under discussion, fail to acknowledge the problems relating to an appeal the Bishops memo and fail to refer to the debate about whether gender transition is a beneficial way of treating gender dysphoria they are utterly inadequate as resources for a responsible debate in General Synod.

This being the case, the only responsible way forward is either for Synod to decline to consider the Blackburn motion on the grounds of having received inadequate preparatory material, or for Synod to amend the motion to call for a proper, in depth, discussion of the transgender issue across the Church.

M B Davie 17.6.17

[1] I have discussed the arguments from both sides in depth in my book Transgender Liturgies, which can be ordered or downloaded from the Latimer Trust website at www.latimertrust.org.