A failure to take sex seriously: A response to GS Misc 1178


In July last year the Church of England’s General Synod passed a motion brought forward by the Blackburn Diocesan Synod. This motion declared

‘….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 advance of this February’s General Synod the House of Bishops has responded to this motion in GS Misc 1178, An update on ‘Welcoming Transgender People.’[1]

The three key paragraphs in this paper are paragraphs 3, 6 and 4.

Paragraph 3

In response to the call in the July Synod debate for the Church of England to welcome and affirm transgender people, paragraph 3 declares:

‘The House of Bishops welcomes and encourages the unconditional affirmation of trans people, equally with all people, within the Church, the body of Christ, and rejoices in the diversity of that one body, into which all Christians have been baptized by one Spirit.’

The problem with this paragraph is its use of the term the term ‘unconditional affirmation.’

It is unquestionable that all people should be regarded as having infinite value because they have been created by God in his image and likeness (Genesis 1:26-27) and because Christ died and rose for them in order that they might have eternal life (Romans 5:1-21). It is also unquestionable that in obedience to the Great Commission (Mathew 28:18-20) the Church is called to welcome everyone in order that they may have the opportunity to become disciples of Jesus Christ.

However, this does not mean that is right to offer anyone ‘unconditional affirmation.’ We live in a world in which ‘all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God’ (Romans 3:23) and this means that there are many aspects of everyone’s lives which it is not right to affirm because they are contrary to God’s will. For example, it would certainly not be right to affirm the ‘works of the flesh’ listed by St. Paul in Galatians 5:19-21.

As a result what we need to offer to everyone is ‘conditional affirmation.’ We need to affirm those parts of their life which are in accordance with God’s will and oppose and challenge those which are not.

In the case of transgender people the questions currently under debate are whether it is right for them to:

  • live as members of the sex that is opposite to the sex of their bodies;
  • claim that the their true sex is male even though they are biologically female, or female even though they are biologically male;
  • claim that their true identity is neither male nor female, but is something else such as androgene, intergender, or pangender.[2]

From an orthodox Christian viewpoint these are not things that should be affirmed.

Scripture, reason and the Christian tradition teach us that in his goodness and wisdom God made human beings as a unity of body and soul. Rocks are purely material, angels are purely spiritual, but human beings are a unity of a material body and an immaterial soul. This unity means that we are our bodies and our bodies are us, which is why it makes sense to say I got up in the morning, I ate and drank, and I went to bed at night. All these are actions of the single self who is both body and soul.

It is as this unity of body and soul that we are either male or female. To be male or female is to have certain bodily characteristics that are designed to enable us to fulfil God’s command to ‘be fruitful and multiply’ (Genesis 1:28) by playing a particular role in the procreation and nurture of children.

Although death leads to a separation of the body and the soul, so fundamental are our bodies to who we are that God will resurrect our bodies at the end of time so that we will exist for all eternity as the male and female human beings God created us to be (see 1 Corinthians 15)

There are a very tiny number of human beings (around 0.018% of live births) who suffer from a developmental disorder stemming from the Fall that means that they either have elements of both male and female in their biology or have a body whose observable physical characteristics cannot be classified as either male or female.[3] However, these intersex people are the exceptions that prove the rule. The vast majority of human beings fulfil God’s original creative intention by being clearly and indisputably either male or female in their biology and therefore in who they are. [4]

All this being the case, it is not right for people with male or female bodies to claim either that they are really a member of the other sex, or that that they have some other kind of sexual identity. This claim involves a rejection of our responsibility to acknowledge and accept with gratitude the truth about who God has made us to be as this is manifested to us in the nature of our bodies. As Oliver O’Donovan puts it:

‘The sex into which we have been born (assuming it is physiologically unambiguous) is given to us to be welcomed as the gift of God. The task of psychological maturity – for it is a moral task, and not merely an event which may or may not transpire – involves accepting this gift and learning to love it, even though we may have to acknowledge that it does not come to us without problems. Our task is to discern the possibilities for personal relationship which are given to us with this biological sex, and to seek to develop them in accordance with our individual vocations. Those for whom this task has been comparatively unproblematic (though I suppose that no human being alive has been without some sexual problems) are in no position to pronounce any judgement on those for whom accepting their sex has been so difficult that they have fled from it into denial. Nevertheless, we cannot and must not conceive of physical sexuality as a mere raw material with which we can construct a form of psychosexual self-expression which is determined only by the free impulse of our spirits. Responsibility in sexual development implies a responsibility to nature – to the ordered good of the bodily form which we have been given.’[5]

What this means is that while we should have enormous compassion for those who suffer from what is known as gender dysphoria and who therefore feel that they cannot identify with the sex of their body, we cannot for this reason affirm the alternative identities to which they aspire. That is not who God has made them to be and therefore it is not who they truly are. It is not legitimate for us, or for them, to reject how God has made them.

Furthermore, it is not right either to affirm people’s desire to live as members of the opposite sex because this involves violating the biblical teaching that we should live as the members of the sex that God has given to us. This teaching can be found in Deuteronomy 22:5 which prohibits cross-dressing on the grounds that ‘to dress after the manner of the opposite sex was to infringe the normal order of creation which divided humanity into male and female.’[6] It can also be found in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 where St Paul tells the Corinthians that men should follow the dress and hair codes which proclaim them to be male and women the codes which proclaim them to be female because ‘God’s creation needs humans to be fully, gloriously and truly human, which means fully and truly male and female.’[7] This does not mean that people should uncritically embrace the gender stereotypes of any given society. What it does mean is that they should live in a way that proclaims to that society the truth of God’s creation of human beings as male and female.

It is now often said that is necessary to affirm people’s desire to identify with, and live as, a member of their desired sex because this is the way that they will achieve psychological wellbeing. However, the claim that transitioning to live as a member of their desired sex is the best way forward for people with gender dysphoria is called into question by the available evidence, which fails to demonstrate that transition is successful in resolving the mental and physical health issues experienced by transgender people.[8] Scepticism about gender transition is expressed both by well qualified experts in the field of mental health[9] 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.[10]

Rather than affirming that it is right for transgender people to reject their God given sex, what Christians need to do instead is to truly love transgender people as the men and women God created them to be. Such love means a long term commitment to giving them the spiritual, emotional and psychiatric support necessary to help them find healing and wholeness by accepting who they truly are and living accordingly.

Paragraph 6

In the final sentence of paragraph 6 the bishops declare:

‘The image of God, in which we are all made, transcends gender, race, and any other characteristic, and our shared identity as followers of Jesus is the unity which makes all one in Christ (Galatians 3.27-28).’

The point of this sentence is not entirely clear, but what the bishops seem to be saying is that people’s sexual identity is not that important because their being made in the image of God transcends their sexual identity and because what unites Christians is their shared identity as followers of Christ, as set out by St. Paul in Galatians 3:27-28.

If this is what the bishops are saying then their argument does not hold water.

First, as Genesis 1:26-27 makes clear, people’s sexual identity and their being made in the image of God cannot be separated. According to Genesis, to be made in the image of God is to be made male or female. There isn’t an asexual human identity that transcends being male or female.[11]

Secondly, the point which St. Paul is making in Galatians 3:27-28 is that regardless of their ethnicity, social standing, or sex, people can be inheritors of the promise made to Abraham through faith in Christ, and as such members of the family of God. He is not saying that men and women cease to be men and women, or don’t need to live as men and women, but simply that the distinction between men and women does not count in relation to their being heirs of the promise made to Abraham.

To extend Paul’s argument to make him say that it is all right for people to identify with whatever sex they like regardless of their biology is to misapply what he is saying. As we have already noted, St. Paul is clear in 1 Corinthians 11 that men need to live as men and women as women and this means accepting the sex of their body.

Paragraph 4

In paragraph 4 the bishops set out their response to the request from Synod ‘to consider whether the recognition of a transgender person’s new identity was a moment which should be marked in a particular way in worship.’ Their response is to say

‘After taking time to consider the issue prayerfully, the House would like to encourage ministers to respond to any such requests in a creative and sensitive way. If not already received, baptism and confirmation are the normative ways of marking a new or growing faith in Jesus Christ. If the enquirer is already baptized and confirmed, the House notes that the Affirmation of Baptismal Faith, found in Common Worship, is an ideal liturgical rite which trans people can use to mark this moment of personal renewal.’

It is not entirely clear what the bishops are saying about how the rites of Baptism, Confirmation and the Affirmation of Baptismal Faith should be used to mark someone’s gender transition. Paragraph 8 promises guidance later in the year. However, on the basis of existing unofficial services created to mark gender transition it seems likely that what would be involved would be people who had undergone gender transition being baptized or confirmed or re-affirming their baptism in their assumed identity, using a name and pronouns consistent with that identity. Thus if Mark became Carol in a male to female transition then Carol would be the name that would be used and so would female pronouns and terms such as ‘daughter’ rather than ‘son.’

Such rites would be understood both by the person concerned and by the Church as an acceptance of the reality of their new identity and as an affirmation that God accepts this new identity as well.

The problem with the Church of England going down this route is that it would mean:

  • The Church of England declaring untruthfully both to those inside and outside the Church, and in the face of God, that someone’s true sex can be different from the sex of their body.
  • The Church of England failing to make clear to those inside and outside the Church that undergoing gender transition is something that is contrary to God’s will and so should not be undertaken, however desirable it might seem.
  • The Church of England failing to make clear to those inside and outside the Church that both theology and non-theological research show us that a process of gender transition is not the best way forward for those with gender dysphoria and that a better approach is a combination of pastoral care allied with psychiatric support where needed to help people to learn to live as members of the sex into which they were born.

These are three things that the Church of England must not do and so what the bishops are proposing needs to be rejected.

A further issue which needs to be noted is that the House of Bishops paper says nothing about the legitimacy of conscientious objection to the proposed new rites. This means that clergy facing accusations of transphobia for refusing to use the proposed rites to affirm gender transition will be without any official statement from the Church of England that such a refusal may be a legitimate thing to do.

A failure to take sex seriously

At the root of the problems with the paper is a failure to take sex seriously. The bishops fail to recognise that a person’s sex, given by God and determined by their biology, is a fundamental part of who people are. We cannot escape our sex and, because it is a gift given to us by God, we should not wish to escape from it, however psychologically troubling it may be for us. Developing rites that suggest that people can escape their sex, and that it is right for them to do so, is thus completely the wrong direction for the Church of England to go in.

What the Church of England needs to do instead is (a) to produce clear teaching explaining the nature of our sexual identity and why this is a good gift from God and (b) to develop the resources which are at the moment sadly lacking to help clergy and others provide transgender people with effective pastoral care that will help them to live as the people God created them to be.

Martin Davie 25.1.18

[1] The full text can be found at https://www.churchofengland.org/sites/default/files/2018-01/GS%20Misc%201178%20%20An%20update%20on%20Welcoming%20Transgender%20People%20%28003%29.pdf

[2] For a fuller list of alternative sexual identities see http://gender.wikia.com/wiki/Non-binary.

[3] For details see Leonard Sax, How common is intersex?’, Journal of Sex Research, 1 August, 2002, text at http://www.leonardsax.com/how-common-is-intersex-a-response-to-anne-fausto-sterling/.

[4] It is sometimes suggested (and even taught in schools) that there are people who have female brains in male bodies and vice versa and that this is what leads them to identify with the opposite sex from their body. However, at the moment there is no reliable scientific evidence to support this conclusion (see the summary  of the relevant studies in Lawrence Meyer and Paul McHugh, ‘Gender identity’, New Atlantis, Fall 2016,pp.102-104 and the discussion in Mark Yarhouse, Understanding Gender Dysphoria, Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2015, Ch. 3).

[5] Oliver O’Donovan, Begotten or Made?, Oxford: OUP, 1984, pp.28-29.

[6] P.J. Harland ‘Menswear and Womenswear: A Study of Deuteronomy 22:5,’ Expository Times, 110, No.3, 1988, p.76.

[7] Tom Wright, Paul for Everyone – 1 Corinthians, London: SPCK, 2003, p.143.

[8] For example, a major Swedish study published in 2011 looking at the long term outcomes for people who had undergone sex- reassignment surgery found ‘substantially higher rates of overall mortality, death from cardiovascular disease and suicide, suicide attempts, and psychiatric hospitalisations in sex-reassigned transsexual individuals compared to a healthy control population.’ (Cecilia Djehne et al, ‘ Long-Term Follow-Up ofTranssexual Persons Undergoing Sex Reassignment Surgery: Cohort Study in Sweden,’ PLoS One, 6 (No.2), 2011).

[9] See for example. Paul McHugh. ‘Transgenderism: A Pathogenic Meme’, Public Discourse, 10 June 2015 at http://www.thepublicdiscourse.com/2015/06/15145/.

[10] See for example Walt Heyer, A Transgender’s Faith, Walt Heyer, 2015 and the testimonies in the 2017 documentary film Tranzformed (https://tranzformed.org/).

[11] This of course raises the question of the status of intersex people. The best answer seems to be that even in their disordered state they point to God’s creation of human beings as male and female in that their disorder consists precisely in the existence or combination of male and female elements in their biology.  They bear God’s image as bearers of maleness and femaleness in this way.


2 thoughts on “A failure to take sex seriously: A response to GS Misc 1178

  1. Pingback: Martin Davie: A Failure to Take Sex Seriously – The Church of the Redeemer
  2. Pingback: Martin Davie–A failure to take sex seriously: A response to GS Misc 1178 | TitusOneNine

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