The House of Bishops and transgender: Fifteen wasted years.

Introduction.

In 2018 the House of Bishops issued two statements on the transgender issue. The first of these was GS Misc. 1178, ‘An update on ‘Welcoming Transgender People,’’[1] and the second, which built upon the first, was ‘Pastoral Guidance for use in conjunction with the Affirmation of Baptismal Faith in the context of gender transition.’[2]

Although these are the two most recent House of Bishops statements on the subject, they were not the first material produced by the House on the transgender issue. In 2003 the House of Bishops published a discussion document entitled Some Issues in Human Sexuality[3] which, among other topics, looked at what it called ‘transsexualism’ and in the same year the House issued a memorandum on the matter.[4]

In this paper I shall compare and contrast what is said in these four documents. I shall argue that they show us three main things. First that the House’s position changed from one of neutrality in 2003 to one of support for gender transition in 2018. Secondly, that that the House failed to give adequate theological justification either for the position it took in 2003 or for the position it adopted in 2018. Thirdly, that for fifteen years the House has avoided answering the key questions about the transgender issue identified in Some Issues in Human Sexuality and that is this failure that has prevented it from reaching a theologically justifiable position on gender transition.

I shall also argue that the House has failed to make a proper contribution to the public debate on the transgender issue, and has failed to give guidance on pastoral care for people with gender dysphoria and their families, on the marriage of those who have gone through gender transition and on the issue of whether those who have gone through gender transition should be ordained.

Finally, I shall suggest where we need to go from here.

Some Issues in Human Sexuality 2003.

As its subtitle suggests, Some Issues in Human Sexuality was written as ‘a guide to the debate’ about human sexuality as this stood at the time when this report was written. The report was intended to enable members of the Church of England to better understand the matters under discussion so that when they came to make decisions about them they would do so in a properly informed fashion.

Chapter 7 of the report is concerned with the topic of ‘transsexualism’ (what we would now call ‘transgender’ issues). The chapter looks in turn at what is meant by the term ‘transsexualism,’ the history of transsexualism, the growth of the debate about transsexualism in society as a whole and the nature of the Christian debate about transsexualism. It also highlights the issues about the nature of the human person, divine order, the interpretation of the Bible, the appropriateness of medical intervention, marriage and birth certificates, and the place of transsexual people in the life of the Church that are raised by the Christian debate.

At the end of the chapter two key questions are identified as lying at the heart of the Christian debate about transsexualism.

The first question concerns what it means for a transsexual person to live in obedience to Christ.

The report asks:

‘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?’[5]

What is said in this quotation reflects the fact that back in 2003 sexual reassignment surgery was the centre of the discussion of transsexualism. Today we would be more aware that many transgender people find ways of expressing their sense of their true identity without undergoing surgery. However, the fundamental issue raised in the question remains as relevant today as it was then. Does the path of Christian discipleship for transgender people involve accepting their biological identity, or does it mean seeking a new identity which they think more fully expresses the person God intended them to be?

The second question concerns what constitutes our God- given identity as human beings. The report states:

‘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? ‘[6]

Although the report itself does not say so, because it is raising questions rather than answering them, the answer to the question in the last sentence of this quotation is ‘no.’

As Robert George explains in his 2016 article ‘Gnostic Liberalism,’ despite the differences between them the various Gnostic heresies that existed during the early centuries of the Church all held to an anthropology that sharply divided:

‘….the material or bodily, on the one hand, and the spiritual or mental or affective, on the other. For Gnostics, it was the immaterial, the mental, the affective that ultimately matters. Applied to the human person, this means that the material or bodily is inferior—if not a prison to escape, certainly a mere instrument to be manipulated to serve the goals of the ‘person,’ understood as the spirit or mind or psyche. The self is a spiritual or mental substance; the body, its merely material vehicle. You and I, as persons, are identified entirely with the spirit or mind or psyche, and not at all (or in only the most highly attenuated sense) with the body that we occupy (or are somehow ‘associated with’) and use.‘ [7]

The anthropology of the modern transgender movement is based on a similar division between the self and the body. The often repeated transgender claim that someone is a man trapped in a woman’s body, or a woman trapped in a man’s body (or someone who is neither male nor female trapped in a man or woman’s body), only makes sense if it is held that that there is a self which has an identity which is separate from, and different to, the body to which it is attached. I can only meaningfully say that my sexual identity is different from the biological sex of my body if in fact I am not my body, but a distinct spiritual or mental substance which exists apart from my body.

Orthodox Christianity, however, rejects this kind of body-self dualism. Scripture, reason and the Christian tradition all 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 this combination of body and soul that we see exhibited in the stories in the Gospels about the humanity of Christ. Christ is one self in whom a human body and soul exist and act together.[8]

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 by God to enable us to fulfil his 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, following the pattern of Christ’s resurrection, 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 is 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.[9] 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.

Those who suffer from gender dysphoria are part of this majority. They find it psychologically difficult to identify with the sex of their bodies, but the sex of their bodies is physiologically unambiguous. They are men and women who, for reasons which are still not clearly understood, struggle with being men and women.[10]

All this being the case, it follows that the answer to the previous question in Some Issues about Christian discipleship is that it is not compatible with the path of Christian discipleship for people with male or female bodies to claim either that they are really a member of the other sex, or that they have some other kind of sexual identity. Our responsibility as God’s human creatures is to acknowledge and accept with gratitude the sex God has made us to be as this is manifested to us in the nature of our bodies, and this remains true even in the case of those who struggle with gender dysphoria.

In the words of Oliver O’Donovan:

‘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.‘[11]

The House of Bishops Memorandum 2003.

Following its meeting in Leeds early in 2003 the House of Bishops issued a memorandum on transsexualism which runs as follows:

‘The House recognised that there was a range of views within the Church on transsexualism and accepted that (as matters stood at present) both the positions set out below could properly be held: a) some Christians concluded on the basis of Scripture and Christian anthropology, that concepts such as ‘gender reassignment’ or ‘sex change’ were really a fiction. Hormone treatment or surgery might change physical appearance, but they could not change the fundamental God-given reality of ‘male and female He created them’. b) others, by contrast, whilst recognising that medical opinion was not unanimous, were persuaded that there were individuals whose conviction that they were ‘trapped in the wrong body’ was so profound and persistent that medical intervention, which might include psychiatric, hormone, and surgical elements, was legitimate and that the result could properly be termed a change of sex or gender.

The House agreed that the Church should continue to engage in discussions with the Lord Chancellor’s Department with a view to safeguarding the position of bishops unwilling to ordain transgendered candidates and, once marriage of transsexuals became possible in law, securing an exemption for clergy not willing to solemnise such marriages.’ [12]

As the second paragraph indicates, the context of this memorandum was the discussions which the Church of England was then having with the Lord Chancellor’s Department to safeguard the freedom of bishops not to ordain transgender candidates and the right of clergy not to marry transgender people in their chosen sex once such a marriage became possible in law (as it did under the Gender Recognition Act the following year).

In this context the purpose of the first paragraph was to make clear that the view that ‘gender reassignment’ or ‘sex change’ was a fiction could properly be held by members of the Church of England and that therefore freedom of religion meant that such a view should be protected in law with the consequence that bishops should not have to ordain transgender candidates or clergy have to marry people in their assumed identity.

From an orthodox Christian standpoint it is easy to see why the bishops state that this position (position a) can properly (i.e. rightly) be held within the Church of England. As we have seen, orthodox Christian anthropology holds on the basis of Scripture, reason and tradition, that the unity of the human person means what makes someone male or female is their biology. Because this is immutable it follows that any claim to have changed sex is a fiction. Someone can adopt the role of a member of the opposite sex (or of someone who is neither make nor female), but this is not who they truly are.

What the bishops do not make clear, however, is why the alternative position (position b) can also properly be held. There is a growing body of evidence that medical intervention is not necessarily the best way to help people who find it difficult or impossible to accept their sex.[13] Furthermore, it is difficult to see on what basis the results of such intervention could rightly be called a change of sex. Hormones and surgery can mask someone’s biological sex, but they cannot fundamentally alter it. It follows that a change of sex does not and cannot occur. As John McHugh puts it, ‘Transgendered men do not become women, nor do transgendered women become men.’[14]

The only way it could be held that someone’s true identity was different from their biology would be to go down the route of dividing the self from the body and, as we have seen, this approach involves a gnostic dualism which is incompatible with orthodox Christian anthropology. The bishops’ memorandum suggests that it is possible for medical intervention to change someone’s sex by changing their body, but for the reason noted in the previous paragraph this suggestion does not work. This means one either has to buy into body-self dualism, or say that the claims about their identity made by those who have undergone gender transition are indeed fictitious.

Although the memorandum was produced prior to the publication of Some Issues in Human Sexuality, the bishops were aware of what that report was going to say. However, they decided not to address the questions it raises about whether the claims made by the transgender movement can be upheld without accepting a gnostic anthropology and whether, therefore, gender transition is compatible with Christian discipleship. Because the memorandum does not engage with these questions the bishops fail to establish that Christians can properly support gender transition.

GS Misc. 1178 – ‘An update on ‘Welcoming Transgender People’’ 2018.

After 2003 the House of Bishops produced nothing further on the transgender issue until January 2018 when it published GS Misc. 1178, ‘An update on ‘Welcoming Transgender People.’’

This paper was a response to a motion on ‘Welcoming transgender people’ that had been passed by the General Synod in July the previous year. This motion ran:

‘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.’[15

In response to this motion, GS Misc. 1178 suggests that rather than create new liturgical materials Church of England ministers should respond to requests to mark a transgender person’s new identity ‘in a creative and sensitive way’ by making using of the existing rites of Baptism and Confirmation, or the service for Affirmation of Baptismal Faith, which the paper suggests is an ideal liturgical rite which trans people can use to mark this moment of personal renewal.’

Unlike the 2003 memorandum, which declares that those in the Church of England can properly hold both that the identity claimed by someone as a result of gender transition is a fiction, and that a change of sexual identity has in fact occurred, GS Misc. 1178 talks only about the affirmation of gender transition. The idea that someone might properly be unable to affirm that gender transition has occurred, or might properly hold that a person’s rejection of their biological sex was incompatible with Christian discipleship, is absent from the picture.

If we ask why GS Misc. 1178 thinks that gender transition should be affirmed we are not given an answer.

The two places in the paper in which the bishops give justification for what they propose are in paragraphs 3 and 6. They run as follows:

‘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 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).’

What is said in these two quotations is in itself true and helpful. It is right to welcome and affirm unconditionally as people those who identify as transgender and it is right to rejoice in the God given diversity of the body of Christ. It is also right to say that all human beings are created in God’s image regardless of their gender, race, or any other characteristic and that it is being followers of Jesus that unites Christians together.

However, none of this tells us why it is right to affirm gender transition. Welcoming and affirming people as those whom God has created and redeemed, rejoicing in the contribution they make to the diversity of the body of Christ, and acknowledging that they have been made in God’s image and that we are united to them as fellow followers of Jesus, does not mean that we have to accept every claim that people make about themselves or everything that they do. Indeed the warning given by St. Paul in Romans 1:18-32 about the way in which human thinking and behaviour has been distorted by the Fall means that we have to accept that some of the claims people make about themselves will be untrue and some of things that they do will be wrong.

This means that we cannot simply accept at face value the claim made by transgender people that they are trapped in bodies which do not express their true identities, or that it is, or has been, right for them to undergo a process of gender transition. Reasons have to be put forward for accepting either of these claims and GS Misc. 1178 does not offer such reasons.

Furthermore, like the 2003 memorandum, GS Misc.1178 fails to engage with the key questions raised in Some Issues in Human Sexuality. Just like in 2003 the bishops fail to address the questions Some Issues raises about whether the claims made by the transgender movement can be upheld without accepting a gnostic anthropology and whether, therefore, gender transition is compatible with Christian discipleship.

As we have seen, had they looked seriously at these questions they would have had to say that the answer to both of them is ‘no’ and that for this reason it is not right to use the Church of England’s liturgy to affirm gender transition regardless of what was said by General Synod about the matter.

Pastoral Guidance for use in conjunction with the Affirmation of Baptismal Faith in the context of gender transition 2018.

The Pastoral Guidance published by the House of bishops in December 2018 follows on from what is said in GS Misc. 1178. This guidance explains in more detail what would be involved in using the Affirmation of Baptismal Faith (or the rites of Baptism and Confirmation if these are felt to be more appropriate) in order ‘to recognize liturgically a person’s gender transition.’ [16]

Like GS Misc.1178, the Pastoral Guidance gives unequivocal support to affirming gender transition. The guidance insists that rites marking gender transition ‘should have a celebratory character’[17] and once again the idea that someone might properly be unable to affirm that gender transition has occurred, or might properly hold that a person’s rejection of their biological sex is incompatible with Christian discipleship, is conspicuous by its absence.

The Pastoral Guidance is also like GS Misc.1178 in failing to explain why gender transition should be affirmed. The justification that is offered is word for word identical with what is said in the previous document[18] and is unsatisfactory for exactly the same reasons.

The Guidance that has not been given

Part of the role of the bishops is to contribute a Christian voice to debates about important issues taking place in British society. When it comes to the issue of gender transition the bishops have failed in this role.

They have, rightly, spoken out against violence and hatred directed towards transgender people. However, they have not contributed to the public discussion about whether it makes sense to say that people are ‘trapped in the wrong body’ or can ‘change their sex,’ or to the discussion about how acceptance of male to female transition affects the issue of women’s rights, or to the discussion about whether gender transition is the best treatment for gender dysphoria, or to the discussion about the potential medical and psychological effects of launching children and young people on a path of gender transition that may involve the use of hormones to block puberty.

All these are serious issues on which there has been, and still is, vigorous debate. However, the bishops have failed to make a Christian theological or ethical contribution to this debate and have therefore left the impression that these are issues on which the Church has nothing worthwhile to say.

There has, for example, been no contribution from the bishops to the vigorous public debate around the Government’s proposed reform of the Gender Recognition Act. The sole official Church of England response has been a note from Dr Malcolm Brown, the Church of England’s Director of Mission and Public Affairs, explaining that the Church was not going to respond to the Government’s questionnaire because this might cause difficulties for the Living in Love and Faith Process – a consideration which did not, as we have seen, prevent the bishops agreeing to a change in the Church’s liturgical practice to allow the celebration of gender transition. [19]

The bishops have also failed to give any guidance on pastoral care for people with gender dysphoria and their families. Gender dysphoria is a condition which can have a devastating effect on the people involved and on their families and friends. Clergy and laity need guidance on how to provide, or arrange, appropriate spiritual, emotional, psychological and medical support which is in line with Christian teaching for people in this situation. Sadly the bishops have failed to provide, or commission, any material to provide such guidance.

A final failure by the bishops has been to provide guidance on the issues of marriage and ordination. The position of the Church of England is that clergy may, but do not have to, marry those who have gone through gender transition in their new identity, and that bishops may, but do not have to, ordain transgender candidates.[20] Some Issues in Human Sexuality sets out the arguments around the marriage and ordination of transgender people,[21] but the bishops have failed to engage with these arguments and have not produced any material which gives a theological justification for the Church’s current policy. As a result the Church’s position appears simply arbitrary.

Where should we go from here?

The transgender movement has taken over from the gay rights movement as the leading progressive social cause of our time and conversation with those involved in ministry, particularly ministry among young people, will soon show that the number of people who identify as transgender is growing exponentially. This is therefore an issue which the Church has to get to grips with and the bishops have the responsibility to provide the Church with leadership and guidance on the matter. Unfortunately, as this paper has shown, their track record in this area has not been good.

After fifteen years this needs to change. The bishops should take the opportunity provided by the Living in Love and Faith process to produce detailed teaching and guidance on this issue, teaching and guidance which covers all the matters noted in this paper and which starts from the basic Christian beliefs that human beings are a unity of body and soul and that the human calling is to accept with gratitude the sex we have been give through our bodies as a good gift from God (however challenging we may find such acceptance to be) and to live accordingly.

This is, of course, very hard teaching for those with gender dysphoria, but, as we have seen, it is teaching that we cannot avoid unless we want to go down the gnostic path of dividing the self from the body. We are called to show the maximum amount of compassion for those with gender dysphoria, and give them the maximum amount of support, but we cannot do this by simply setting aside what Scripture, tradition and reason tell us about the way God created his human creatures to be.

M B Davie 2.1.19

[1] General Synod, GS Misc. 1178, ‘An Update on ‘Welcoming Transgender people’’ 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] House of Bishops, ‘Pastoral Guidance for use in conjunction with the Affirmation of Baptismal Faith in the context of gender transition.’ at https://www.churchofengland.org/sites/default/files/2018-

12/Pastoral%20Guidance-Affirmation-Baptismal- Faith.pdf

[3] House of Bishops, Some Issues in Human Sexuality, London: CHP, 2003.

[4] House of Bishops Memo HB(03)M1 text at http://changingattitude.org.uk/archives/8542

[5] Some Issues, pp.248-9.

[6] Ibid, p.249.

[7] Robert George, ‘Gnostic Liberalism,’ First Things, December 2016, at  https://www.firstthings.com/article/2016/12/gnostic-liberalism

[8] In the words of the Athanasian Creed, Christ was (and is) ‘Perfect God and Perfect Man: of a reasonable soul and human flesh subsisting.’

[9] 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/.

[10] 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 the rest of their body. However, at the moment there is no reliable scientific evidence which shows that transgender people have distinctively different brains or that it is the form of their brains that gives them their sense of sexual identity (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).

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

[12] House of Bishops Memo.

[13] See Meyer and McHugh, op.cit, Part 3 and Ryan T Anderson, When Harry became Sally, New York: Encounter Books, 2018, Chs. 5-6 and Yarhouse, op.cit. Ch. 5.

[14] John McHugh, ‘Transgenderism: A Pathogenic Meme,’ Public Discourse, June 10, 2015 at https://www.thepublicdiscourse.com/2015/06/15145/

[15] Details about the motion can be found at https://www.churchofengland.org/more/media- centre/news/welcoming-transgender-people.

[16] Pastoral Guidance, Para 2

[17] Ibid, Para 4

[18] Ibid, Paras 1 and 2.

[19] Reform of the Gender Recognition Act – Government Consultation A Response from the Church of England can be found at:  https://www.churchofengland.org/sites/default/files/201810/Gender%20Recognition%20Act%2 consultation%20response.pdf.

[20] The decision of the House of Bishops in 2002 was that bishops who agreed to sponsor a transgender  candidate must also take responsibility for ordaining them and finding them a title parish. See Chris Newlands, GS 2071A Diocesan Synod Motion Welcoming Transgender People , Para 11 at: https://www.churchofengland.org/sites/default/files/2017-11/gs-2071a-welcoming-transgender-people.pdf and also Ministry Division, Sending Candidates to BAP, 2017, para 1.14.

[21] Some Issues, pp. 239-242, 247-8 and 286-289.

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2 thoughts on “The House of Bishops and transgender: Fifteen wasted years.

  1. Pingback: The Churches of East Dean, Friston & Jevington » Weekly Newsletter
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