Yes, but…A response to Christina Beardsley’s letter to the Next Steps Group.

In her letter to Bishop Sarah Mullaly as Chair of the LLF Next Steps Group on 19 July 2021[1]questioning the need for a further working group on gender identity and transition, Christina Beardsley declares that the understanding of the Changing Attitude group is that:

‘…the Church of England is committed to:

  • the ‘unconditional affirmation of trans people’
  • the liturgical marking of gender transition
  • the opposite sex marriage in church of a trans person with legal gender recognition
  • and that trans and non-binary people are welcome to enter the discernment process for  ordination.’

She then asks:

‘Can the Next Steps Group tell us what the missing elements are that a working group on gender identity and transition would need to consider? Are there substantive matters needing research beyond the fact that some people choose to disagree with the Church of England’s official position?’

She further adds that if the Next Steps Group:

‘…. wish to be better informed about trans people’s lives and the current scientific research in this field, I will gladly fund an evidence-based training session for the Group, delivered by GIRES (the Gender Identity Research and Education Society), which has an excellent reputation.’

In response to the first of these points I agree with Beardsley that the Church of England has committed itself to the ‘unconditional affirmation of trans people,’  that it has made provision for services to liturgically mark gender transition, that it does allow those who have legally changed their gender to marry in church according to their new legal identity, and that it is happy for trans and non-binary people to enter into the discernment process for ordination.

However, there is an elephant in the room which she does not acknowledge, which is that the Church of England has never provided a proper theological justification for its position on these matters.

With regard to the ‘unconditional affirmation of trans people,’ the House of Bishops’ 2018 paper – ‘An update on ‘Welcoming Transgender People’ (GS Misc. 1178) states in paragraphs 3 and 6:

‘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, God given, 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.

With regard to the liturgical marking of gender transition, neither of the two supporting papers for the 2017 General Synod debate on holding services to mark gender transition, ‘Welcoming Transgender People, A note from The Revd Chris Newlands’ (GS 2017A) and Welcoming Transgender People, A note from The Secretary General’ (GS 2071B), explain why it is right to hold that someone who is biologically male or female is in fact in the sight of God a member of the opposite sex. A service to mark gender transition only makes liturgical and theological sense of this is the case and yet neither of these papers show why it is the case (and no explanation  was offered during the Synod debate either).

The House of Bishops’ ‘Pastoral Guidance’ published in December 2018 which explains 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’ simply repeats what was previously said in paragraphs 3 and 6 of GS Misc. 1178 and therefore presents the same problems.

What all this means is that the Church of England permits the liturgical marking of gender transition, but it has given no adequate theological justification for doing so.

The same is true with regard to the marriage of people who have legally changed their gender. The Church of England has never explained why it thinks that a legal change of gender means that someone is genuinely a member of the opposite sex from their biology and why, therefore, it is right to regard them as a member of that sex for the purposes of marriage. This means it has never explained why it thinks that marriages between a cisgender man and a transgender woman, or a cisgender woman and a transgender man, are not in fact same-sex marriages and therefore contrary to the definition of marriage in Canon B.30.

Likewise the Church has never explained why it is right to ordain trans or non-binary people. The decision that people who had gone through gender transition could be ordained was decided at a discussion in the House of Bishops in 2002 prompted by a specific case in the Diocese of Bristol. I was present in the room when the decision was taken as the then theological consultant to the House of Bishops, and I can say with certainty that there was no theological discussion of the matter. The issue was whether there was any canonical prohibition of transgender people being ordained and, as there was not, it was accepted that they could be, with the caveat that no bishop had to ordain in such circumstances. This decision was then simply later extended to include non-binary people.

The question of whether someone who identifies as transgender (or non-binary) can rightly be seen as embodying the holiness of life that the Church requires of its ordained ministers was not discussed in 2002 and has never been discussed by the Church of England since. As before, the theological work simply has not been done.

The nearest thing that the Church of England has to a theological statement on transgender is the memo issued by the House of Bishops in 2003. As Beardsley notes in her letter, this memo (HB 03 M1)  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 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 the standpoint of orthodox Christian theology, 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. 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.[2] 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.’[3]

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 the problem with this approach is that it involves a gnostic dualism which is incompatible with orthodox Christian anthropology.

This anthropology tells 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.[4]

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. Furthermore, the doctrine of the resurrection of the body teaches us that we will be biologically male or female for all eternity.

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 above this suggestion does not work. Even after the application of hormones and surgery a biological male will always remain biologically male and a biological female will always remain biologically female. 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.

What all this means is that, in response to Christina Beardsley’s question, there is indeed something for a working party on gender identity and transition to consider. Such a working party needs to undertake the theological work on these matters that the Church of England has never properly done, and then consider whether the Church of England’s current policies with regard to transgender and non-binary people are compatible with the results of such work.  

It is not the case, as Beardsley seems to suggest, that all the information that the Next Steps Group needs can be provided by a briefing from GIRES. This is for two reasons. First, GIRES is a secular think tank that is not in position to help either the Next Steps Group with the theological work that needs to be done on the transgender issue. Secondly, GIRES is a partisan think tank that represents only one side in the current secular debate about the nature of transgender and the best treatment for  gender dysphoria. A briefing solely from GIRES would give the group a very biased view of the nature of contemporary secular thinking about these matters.

To summarise,  Beardsley is right is what she says about where the Church of England currently stands on the issue of transgender and non-binary people. However, what she fails to note is that this position lacks a proper theological foundation, and so there is still further work that the Church of England needs to do, work that could potentially lead to the current position being changed. Her suggestion of the Next Steps Group being briefed by GIRES fails to take into account that GIRES is a secular group representing only one side of the current debate about transgender issues. A briefing by them would therefore not tell the Group everything it needs to know.


[1] Christina Beardsley, ‘We’ve made our decision’: the Church of England and trans people’  at:

   http://www.unadulteratedlove.net/blog/2021/7/20/weve-made-our-decision-the-church-of-england-and-   

   trans-people

[2]  See Lawrence Meyer and Paul McHugh, ‘Gender identity’,  New Atlantis, Fall 2016,Part 3 and Ryan T  

   Anderson, When Harry became Sally (New York: Encounter Books, 2018), Ch. 5-6 and Mark Yarhouse,   

   Understanding Gender Dysphoria, Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2015) Ch. 5.

[3] John McHugh, ‘Transgenderism: A Pathogenic Meme,’  Public Discourse, June 10, 2015 at:  htttps://www.thepublic

discourse.com/2015/06/15145/

[4] In the words of the Athanasian Creed, Christ was (and is) ‘Perfect God and Perfect Man: of a reasonable

   soul and human flesh subsisting.’