Transgender, reality and pastoral care

Introduction

Last week the Church of Scotland published a report entitled Diverse Gender Identities and Pastoral Care which is intended help its pastoral teams ‘to support those in our communities who identify themselves as transgender.’[1]

The report was produced on behalf of the Church of Scotland by the Scottish Trans Alliance which describes itself as a ‘project to improve gender identity and gender reassignment equality, rights and inclusion in Scotland.’ [2] It consists of eleven stories about the experiences of seven transgender people, two mothers of transgender children, the wife of someone who is transgender and a Church of Scotland minister. The transgender people involved include those who would describe themselves as ‘androgyne’, ‘non-binary,’ and ‘demi-boy’ and those who have undergone transition from male to female and female to male.

This report is worth considering by those outside the Church of Scotland because it raises the question of what is the best way to care pastorally for those who identify as transgender. Is the approach advocated in the report the correct way forward, or would some other approach be preferable?

The approach taken by the report.

The approach to pastoral care advocated by the report can be summed up in the single word ‘acceptance.’ The message contained in all the stories in the report is that everyone should accept unconditionally and without question the identities claimed by transgender people and support them in living out those identities.

Three reasons are given for this.

First, these identities are who people really are. This can be see, for example, in the stories of Kaden and Judith which are designed to tell us that Kaden really is a demi-boy and that Judith really is woman.

In Kaden’s story we are told:

‘I am an 18-year-old demi-boy which basically means I mostly identify as a boy but thatthere is a bit of me, that could be a third gender, but isn’t: it is feminine, I suppose, but not in a girly way. I don’t really know, it is just a thing. I’m definitely non-binary which is under the umbrella term of trans.

My self-discovery that I’m non-binary happened almost overnight. One day suddenly I realised everything felt a bit wrong. Up until then, I hadn’t acknowledged puberty, I had ignored it and then on my 15th birthday I felt disconnected from what my body had become and, more importantly, I realised that I felt disconnected rather than just fumbling through life with a disconnection.

When I first came out I described myself as gender fluid but as time went on I tried out trans-guy and then found demi-boy and that really fitted what I felt so I carried on down that road. A lot of people talk about gender dysphoria but they don’t mention gender euphoria as much. For me when someone introduced me as Kaden or used male pronouns that felt really good, that felt right.

I suppose I am androgynous but mostly boy. I lean towards the masculine with a masculine outlook and feelings but I do have feminine in me. I try to describe it via life goals and my life goal would be to have a beard and lipstick.’ [3]

In Judith’s story we are told:

‘I’ve always known I was different. Even at school the other boys called me Mary because I was much happier playing with girls than running around with them. Growing up in an industrial town in the 1940s and 1950s was hard. Men were men and women were women and women were somewhere down there – lower. I’ve always known I was born into the wrong body.

But you go along with life. I got married at 24 to a lovely woman, and eventually had a family – as that was what was expected, but part of me was always unhappy. I had tofind time, to dress as Judith, privately. All the stress of pretending to be someone else –pretending to be a man – all that stress would fall away if I could just spend some time dressed in Judith’s clothes. Then I could relax and be who I knew I really was. Luckily my jobtook me away a lot and I stayed in hotels, so hidden in the boot of my car was all I needed to be Judith. Alone, I would lock myself up in the hotel room and watch TV in a nice dress It wasn’t anything sexual, it was just about being honest, being me – Judith.’ [4]

Underlying this acceptance of the identities that people claim for themselves is the further belief that our identities as sexual beings are not determined by our biology. As Jo puts it in the course of telling her story: ‘Some men have vaginas and some women have penises.’[5]

Secondly, discovering their true identity helps people’s mental well-being whereas not acknowledging that identity is mentally damaging and can even lead to suicide. We can see this point about mental well -being in the stories of Kaden and Judith, and we can see the point about mental damage in the stories of Andrew and Dyan.

Andrew, who is a female to male transgender states:

‘People presume I chose to be a trans man. Please believe me when I say that no one chooses to be transgender. Nothing about this journey is easy; who would choose to put themselves through this, all this pain and stress and medical procedures? It’s not about choosing to be transgender – it is about choosing to live as your real self and in the end that is a choice you don’t really have. You can’t go on any more – you have to live as yourself. That’s why suicide rates for the trans community are so high. You can’t carry on living a false life. ‘ [6]

Dyan tells the story of how her daughter Julie transitioned to her son James. She declares:

‘Things are good now but looking back Julie was a very unhappy teenager. There was self-harm and suicide attempts. Julie would have killed herself and it was killing me – I couldn’t watch her all the time. She was a nightmare teenager. She’d go into her room and I was terrified about what was going on, certainly some cutting. I’d hide every blade in the house. There were no sharp knives in my kitchen during that time. There had been no mental health problems until adolescence arrived because if you feel you are male and you start getting breasts and periods – well that is when he just flipped out – couldn’t cope with it. That’s where the self-harming came in because of disgust at the body – he had no self-esteem.

Julie was a desperately unhappy person who was trying to kill herself so if Julie said she wanted to be James then by golly I was going to support it. We knew we had to go down this route because eventually a suicide attempt was going to be successful. The provement in his mental health was huge and as he’s continued on his journey; it has all sorted itself out now. I have no worries on that score anymore.‘  [7]

Thirdly, God approves of people’s identity. Thus Jo, who identifies as non-binary, tells us:

‘I have had conservative traditional Christians call me an abomination, an affront to decency, a profound threat to the natural order but I don’t see that in the Bible. When I read the two creation stories in Genesis I see that ‘male and female created he them’. I know that these people read that as ‘male and separate to that female’ but the Hebrew is much more ambiguous than that. Perhaps it is ‘male together with female’. It might mean that the first being was androgyne. Indeed the work of Jung would suggest that we all have female and male energy in us. Trans people are part of God’s creation. It says in Isaiah that I named you in the womb. God’s word is full of texts that talk about the mercy and compassion of the creator.

I have no doubt that Jesus would love us. I was taught that Jesus came down to earth andembraced all human experience so, of course, that must include my experience too. We see that Jesus reached out to people that conventional society of the time would have hated and excluded and that he treated them all equally. We even have the passages in Matthew (19:12) where Jesus directly talks about eunuchs. That is me. He is talking about me. I am a eunuch. Look at the beautiful story of Phillip and the eunuch in Acts (8:26-40). Even the passages in the Old Testament refer to specific cultural contexts that aren’t around anymore. There isn’t a theological problem with trans people, there is just prejudice.’ [8]

Maxwell, who is a female to male transgender, likewise explains:

‘Thankfully, I never had any kind of fear that God would have any difficulty with my transition. I knew I was made, loved and affirmed by God. I knew that I was made in God’s image and that being transgender was truly a gift from God. My gut feeling was that it was all good and that God had finally got me to the place I needed to be.

I can link my transition experience to the resurrection story. Being resurrected in a different way, being transformed in a new way, you become who you were meant to be. I often hear transgender folks in a church context talk about having a resurrection experience and I feel like that is what God has allowed me to have.’ [9]

For these three reasons, the report says, whether you are a minister with transgender people in your congregation, a member of a congregation with transgender people in it, or the parent, spouse or other family member of a transgender person, you need to listen to them and accept who they say they are.

Responding to this approach.

The first thing that needs to be said in response to this report is that that anyone interested in the debate about transgender needs to read it. It is a very clear and accessible statement of the pro-transgender position. If you want to know why those arguing for the acceptance of transgender by the churches think as they do then this report will tell you.

Secondly, the report is right to highlight the importance of listening to the stories of transgender people and their families. All good pastoral care has to start from where people are, just as Jesus started from where the Samaritan woman at the well was in her life (John 4:7-26), and we will only discover where people are if we are prepared to listen to their stories in a non-judgemental fashion. The report’s prescription of ‘a hanky, a cup of tea and a hug’[10] may sound rather twee, but is in fact a good place to start.

Thirdly, however, we should not simply take at face value what people say about their own identities. This is because one of the consequences of this being a fallen world is that people can be deceived about who they truly are. A classic example of this is the strange case of King Charles VI of France, who became convinced that he was made of glass and consequently would not allow people to touch him and had special reinforced clothes made to prevent himself from being broken.

Transgender people may find the suggestion that their position is in any way akin to that of Charles VI to be offensive. Nevertheless, his story is relevant because it reminds us that we cannot just accept the truth of what people say about themselves. We have to check what they say against other available evidence.

In the case of Charles VI and others suffering from what is known as a ‘glass delusion’ there is no reason to question the sincerity of their self-perception. They genuinely believe that they are made of glass. However, everything else we know about the composition of human bodies tells us that this belief is wrong. There can be no such thing as a glass human being. [11]

In the case of transgender people there is likewise no reason to question the sincerity of their self-perception. As the stories in the Church of Scotland report remind us, there are a small minority of people (some one in ten thousand men and one in thirty thousand women) who experience a disconnection between their sense of who they are and the sex of their bodies (what is technically known as ‘gender dysphoria’). Declaring that they are gender non-binary, or that they are a member of the opposite sex to that of their bodies, is a way of overcoming this sense of disconnection by adopting an identity which accords with their sense of who they are.

However their adoption of this identity does not prove that their sense of who they are is correct. As in the case of all other human beings, what they say about themselves has to be checked against the other available evidence.

If we do this, we find that the evidence provided by the use of our natural reason tells us that the human race, like other mammals, is a sexually dimorphic species. That is to say, the human race is a species of animal that is divided into males and females. As the American writer Christopher Tollefsen explains:

‘Our identity as animal organisms is the foundation of our existence as selves. But fundamental to our existence as this animal is our sex. We are male or female organisms in virtue of having a root capacity for reproductive function, even when that capacity is immature or damaged. In human beings, as well as in many other organisms, that function is one to be performed jointly with another human being; unlike the digestive function, no individual human being suffices for its performance.

Accordingly, reproductive function in human beings is distributed across the two sexes, which are identified by their having the root capacity for one or the other of the two general structural and behavioral patterns involved in human reproduction. In male humans, this capacity is constituted by the structures necessary for the production of male gametes and the performance of the male sex act, insemination. In females, the capacity is constituted by the structures necessary for the production of oocytes and the performance of the female sex act, the reception of semen in a manner disposed to conception.’ [12]

Of course, human beings are not simply mechanisms for producing sperm and eggs and bringing them together to produce offspring. However, everything else that is true of human beings is true of them as creatures who have bodies that are biologically designed for the performance of this basic function, even if through accident or design they never actually have children.

Furthermore, the distinction between the two types of human beings necessary for sexual reproduction begins from the moment of conception. To talk in the way that has now become fashionable about ‘sex assigned at birth,’ as if what makes someone a boy or a girl is what someone decides at that point, is a denial of reality. The development of medical technology means that we can detect that a foetus is male or female long before they are born.

The use of our natural reason also tells us that as well as having bodies we also have immaterial souls, or conscious selves, which is why we are capable of rational thought, and possess freedom of action and moral responsibility.

Our souls, however, do not exist in isolation from our material bodies. Each human being is a single person consisting of a unity of body and soul. We can see this, for example, if we consider a case where someone asks someone else ‘shall I give you a hug?’ A hug is a physical act by the body and yet it makes sense to ask ‘shall I give you a hug?’ rather than ‘shall my body give you a hug?’ because when my body acts it is my whole self, body and soul, that is involved. Conversely, if I have a thought it is ultimately my conscious soul that is doing the thinking, but it does so in unity with my body. That is why our thoughts can be affected by the state of our bodies to the extent that when our bodies become unconscious we cannot think at all.

The fact that ‘I’ am a unity of body and soul means that it makes no sense to suggest, as we have seen Judith does in the Church of Scotland report, that ‘I was born in the wrong body.’ There is no ‘I’ separable from the body we possess. What ‘I’ means is the person who exists in this particular combination of body and soul. The suggestion that I should have been born in a different body really means that I should have been a different person, but in that case I would not exist, so the suggestion is asking for the impossible.

What is also impossible is for someone to change their body from male to female or vice versa. It is possible through the use of hormones and plastic surgery to change to a certain extent the way our bodies function and their outward appearance, but we cannot change the fundamental character of our bodies as male or female. We can produce what Paul McHugh calls ‘feminized men or masculinized women, ‘ [13] but we cannot make a man into a woman or a woman into a man.

The evidence of Scripture agrees that human beings are bodily creatures that are male and female and are able to reproduce as such, but it supplements the witness of natural reason in this regard in two key ways.

First, it teaches in the creation narratives in Genesis 1 and 2 and also in the words of Jesus in the Gospels (Matthew 19:4, Mark 10:6) that we are not a dimorphic species by accident, but because God in his goodness and wisdom created us as such so that men and women together can rule over and care for the world on God’s behalf and together can produce offspring who can continue this vocation in their turn.[14] Scripture as a whole further teaches that the dimorphic structure of the human species is also the basis for marriage (Genesis 2:23-24) through which human beings are called to bear witness to the marital relationship between God and his people, which has begun in this world, but will be finally consummated in the world to come (see Ephesians 5: 21-33 and Revelation 19:6-9, 21:2-4).

Secondly, it teaches that our bodies are an eternal part of who we are. In the life of the world to come we shall have the same physical bodies that we have now, only animated by the Spirit and thereby made imperishable and immortal (1 Corinthians 15:52-54). This means that if because of our form of embodiment we are men in this life we shall be men in the world to come and if we are women we shall be women in the world to come. We can see the truth of this in the case of Jesus, who is in his humanity the ‘first fruits’ (1 Corinthians 15:23) of the new form of human existence created by his death and resurrection. In his humanity Jesus was a male human being with a male body and it was this same body that was resurrected (Luke 24:36-42), which subsequently ascended into heaven and which will return to earth when Jesus comes in glory (Acts 1:9-11). Being embodied as male or female is thus literally an inescapable part of our existence. Who we are as sexed being will be who we are for eternity.

Maxwell’s appeal to resurrection in support of gender transition thus backfires. Biblically understood, belief in resurrection tells against any idea of a genuine move from one sex to another.

It is true, as Jo notes in her contribution to the report, that the Bible makes reference to eunuchs. However, in the Bible eunuchs do not form an exception to the binary distinction between men and women. This is because the term eunuch refers to men who for some reason lack sexual capacity (and are therefore incapable of entering into marriage). Thus the standard dictionary of New Testament Greek offers three possibilities for the word eunouchos. The first is ‘a castrated male person’ (Matthew 19:12, Esther 2:14, Acts 8:27ff). The second is ‘a human male who, without a physical operation, is by nature incapable of begetting children’ (Wisdom 3:14, Matthew 19:12) and the third is ‘a human male who abstains from marriage without being impotent, a celibate’ (Matthew 19:12).[15]

This being the case, the welcome extended to eunuchs in Isaiah 56:1-5, Matthew 19:10-12 and Acts 8:26-40 cannot be understood as biblical support for those who are transgendered because the eunuchs referred to in the Bible were not transgendered. They were, as we have said, men who lacked sexual capacity. It is true that this made them ‘gender variant’ in the sense of being outside the norm for men of their culture, but this does not mean they were transgender.

It is also true that there are a very tiny number of people (referred to as ‘intersex’) [16] whose sex is genuinely ambiguous in the sense that they have a mixture of male and female chromosomes, or a body that has a mixture of male and female characteristics. These people are not evidence against the idea that the human race is dimorphic because their condition is a result of a developmental disorder that has no good biological purpose of its own and that both by its extreme rarity and by its character points us to the truth that the human norm intended by God is to be either male or female. In the words of Oliver O’Donovan, what we find in the bodies of people with intersex conditions is, ‘an ambiguity which has arisen by a malfunction in a dimorphic human sexual pattern.’[17]

However, even though the development of their male or female identity has become disordered, people with intersex conditions bear witness to their creation as human beings in God’s image and likeness through the male and female elements that exist in their bodies. They are therefore to be treated with same dignity and respect as all other human beings and pastoral care for them has be about helping them to discern the specific vocation that they have before God, in the light of their condition, as people created by God and redeemed by Jesus Christ, and summoned to have faith in the Gospel and love God and neighbour.

What the evidence that we have looked at thus far indicates is that it makes no sense to say that people have a true self that is at variance with the sex of their bodies. It also shows us that it would be wrong to say that God wills people to live as if this were the case. God has made us permanently the male or female creatures that we are and he calls us to live accordingly. To quote O’Donovan again:

‘The dimorphic structure, with its orientation towards permanent heterosexual union, is the generically given foundation for our individual sexual vocations. The first obligation of every human being is to hail that created givenness as a created good and to thank God for it, even though he or she may then have to acknowledge that for him or her in particular this created good has taken on the aspect of a problem.’[18]

This means that the first two reasons given in the Church of Scotland report for accepting transgender people’s claimed identities do not work. This leaves us with the third reason, which is that adopting new identities is necessary for the mental well-being of the people concerned.

The evidence that we have challenges this argument as well. This is because although the stories in the report all suggest that gender transition produces a happy outcome, this view of the matter is challenged both by academic research studies and by the testimony of those who have ‘de-transitioned’ (i.e. returned to live according to their original sex).

If we look at the research studies first of all, we find they suggest that measures to achieve relief from mental anguish by embracing a transgender identity are of very limited effectiveness overall.

The available evidence shows that being transgender is linked to serious issues of both mental and physical health. For example, the biggest ever survey of transgender people in the United States indicates that there is a far higher prevalence of mental and physical health issues among transgender people than among the population as whole. The survey, undertaken by the National Center for Transgender Equality, surveyed 27,715 self-described transgender people in 2015. The key findings were that

  • 39% of transgender people had suffered serious recent psychological stress (as compared to 5% among Americans generally);
  • 40% of transgender people had attempted suicide (as compared to 4.6% among Americans in general);
  • 7% of transgender people had attempted suicide in the last year (as compared to 0.6 among Americans in general);
  • 1.4% of transgender people were infected with HIV (as compared to 0.3% among Americans in general. In particular, 3.4% of male to female transsexuals and 19% of black male to female transsexuals had HIV.[19]

Furthermore, the research suggests that that gender transition will not necessarily be effective in resolving these issues.

Thus Dr Chris Hyde of the University of Birmingham notes that a study of the issue by the university’s Aggressive Research Intelligence Facility in 2004 showed that ‘there’s still a large number of people who have the surgery but remain traumatized – often to the point of committing suicide.’[20] Likewise, a major Swedish study 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.’[21]

In 2014 the highly respected American medical research company Hayes Inc. undertook a review of the evidence for the long-term benefits of gender transition. It gave the studies supporting transition its lowest rating for quality and concluded that ‘Statistically significant improvements have not been consistently demonstrated by multiple studies for most outcomes.’[22] In 2016, on the basis of their survey of the evidence, Lawrence Meyer and Paul McHugh likewise found that it ‘suggests we take a skeptical view toward the claim that sex-reassignment procedures provide the hoped for benefits or resolve the underlying issues that contribute to elevated mental health risks among the transgender population.’[23]

The growing body of testimony from people who have ‘de-transitioned’ also points in the same direction. Two examples, one from a Christian and one from a secular writer, illustrates this point.

First, the American Christian writer Walt Heyer, who underwent male to female transition, reports in his article ‘I was a trangender woman’:

‘I knew I wasn’t a real woman, no matter what my identification documents said. I had taken extreme steps to resolve my gender conflict, but changing genders hadn’t worked. It was obviously a masquerade. I felt I had been lied to. How in the world had I reached this point? How did I become a fake woman? I went to another gender psychologist, and she assured me that I would be fine; I just needed to give my new identity as Laura more time. I had a past, a battered and broken life that living as Laura did nothing to dismiss or resolve. Feeling lost and depressed, I drank heavily and considered suicide.’[24]

Secondly, Cari Stella, another American, who underwent female to male transition, declares:

‘I will say, from my own experience and from my conversations with other detransitioned and reidentified women: transition is not the only way, or even necessarily the best way, to treat gender dysphoria. I felt a strong desire, what I would have called a ‘need’ at the time, to transition….And it wasn’t weeks, or months, that I stayed on hormones, before I realized that I needed to stop. I was on them for over three years, cumulatively. I know women who were on testosterone, three, for, five, even ten years before they were able to recognize that it was f***ing them over. It can be dam hard to figure out that the treatment you’re being told is to help you is actually making your mental health worse. Testosterone made me even more dissociated than I already was.’ [25]

What all this suggests is that purely from a mental health perspective we need to find a better approach to helping transgender people that enables them to understand and address the underlying issues that cause them to feel disconnected from the sex of their bodies so that these do not continue to haunt them in the future. [26] The selection of happy stories in the Church of Scotland report is a piece of propaganda by the Scottish Trans Alliance which obscures the darker reality pointed to by the sort of evidence that we have just considered.

What should pastoral care look like?

As we have already noted, Christian ministry to transgender people, as to all people, has to begin by meeting them where they are, getting to know them and understanding their stories. Beyond that starting point, we need to be a people who exhibit both truth and love. As Andrew Walker writes in his book God and the Transgender Debate:

‘If Christians have anything to offer in this contentious age it is truth, and we should not shy away from the truth. But equally, if we use truth as blunt force trauma against those who are coming to grips with what discipleship means, woe to us. Woe to us if we demand conformity from those who are struggling more than we are willing to walk alongside them while they are struggling.

It is only loving to hold to biblical truth if that truth comes wrapped in love. We are only firmly anchored, able to grow and to share the gospel without being tossed about by every idea and argument from both the conservative and progressive ends of the spectrum, if we are ‘speaking the truth in love’ (Ephesians 4 v 15). Neither love nor truth is an optional bolt on to our Christianity.’[27]

As people of truth we have to continue to uphold a number of key truths that we have already identified in the course of this paper:

  • Reason and Scripture tell us that people’s sex is defined by their biology;
  • Reason and Scripture tell us that there are two sexes, male and female;
  • Reason and Scripture tell us that a person’s sexual identity cannot be changed or eradicated;
  • Reason and Scripture tell us that the path of wisdom and godliness lies in accepting the truth of our sexual identity and living accordingly;
  • A growing body of evidence indicates that seeking to change one’s sexual identity will not bring lasting relief from the distress caused by gender dysphoria and reason therefore suggests that encouragement should be given to alternative forms of treatment that address the underlying mental health issues that lead to gender dysphoria.

As people of love, who value the God given dignity of transgender people as those whom God has created and for whom Christ died, we should be proactive in ensuring that transgender people are not subject to harassment or violence, or discriminated against in the provision of goods, services, or opportunity for appropriate employment.

As people of love, who recognize and value as a work of God the sex into which transgender people were born, we should encourage transgender people not to engage in cross-dressing or to go down the path of gender transition. If they have gone down this path, love means helping them to accept and live out their original, God given, sexual identity, whilst acknowledging the acute challenges doing this will raise, particularly for those who have undergone gender re-assignment surgery or formed families in their assumed identity.

Finally, as people of love we should give transgender people an unconditional welcome into our churches and provide them with appropriate pastoral care. As a Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod report helpfully explains, the starting point for such pastoral care is the truth that:

‘…. the deepest need of such a man or woman—as it is for every person—is to know that he or she is beloved by God. Christ’s love and forgiveness are in this case, as always, one’s greatest needs. Sorrow, confusion, frustration, shame, and despair are likely present in any individual dealing with gender dysphoria or struggling with questions about his or her identity as male or female. If such an individual has not already sought psychotherapeutic care, the pastor should seek to encourage and, to whatever degree possible, facilitate the individual in securing competent therapy that is not hostile to the Christian faith.’[28]

Such pastoral care also needs to be based on:

‘…. the development of genuine Christian friendship modelled after the One whose friendship knows no boundaries (Luke 7:34). Loving pastoral care for the individual seeks to provide a spiritually nurturing, encouraging, and accepting ‘safe place’ to someone who may well have suffered from actual or perceived ostracism, mockery, and animosity. He or she may view the church with suspicion or share the common assumption that Christianity is more concerned with moral judgments, cultural battles, or political victories than about broken and suffering people. In accepting the struggling individual, a relationship of interpersonal trust develops. Within that relationship there will be natural opportunities to make Christ known, to call the person to trust in his promises and love, and to show that the purposes and commands of God for our lives are for our good.’[29]

Since ‘the pathway of growth, sanctification and change can be expected to be slow and painful’ and ‘struggle and relapse can be anticipated’[30] our pastoral care needs to involve patience and a long term commitment to praying for, loving, listening to, and assisting the person concerned in any way necessary. It will also mean continuing to love and support them even if progress is slow or relapses occur, trusting that God is in the process and has the capacity to bring about the result that he desires, even if this takes years. As Walt Heyer reminds us in A Transgender’s Faith: ‘we must never give up on people, no matter how many times they fail or how long recovery takes. We must never underestimate the healing power of prayer and love in the hands of the Lord. We must never give up hope.’[31]

The reason we must never give up hope is because God can and does change people’s hearts and lives. We noted earlier that there are a growing number of testimonies from people who have de-transitioned following gender reassignment. Among these are Christians who testify how God has enabled them to accept their biological sex as a gift from him and live accordingly. A good example, with which we shall conclude this response to Diverse Gender Identities, is the following testimony from Robert John bearing witness to what God has done for him:

‘I had irreversible gender reassignment surgery in 1997 absolutely convinced I was a woman in a man’s body. I anticipated living happily ever after, however I had persistent difficulties and fell into deep depression. I began reading the Bible, unsatisfied with superficial proclamations of diversity, inclusiveness, and tolerance. I happened upon King David’s famous repentance Psalm 51 and discovered, like David, I could be forgiven for all my sins. I also learned God chastens those whom He loves and I was being guided to seek repentance, and faith in the finished work of Jesus Christ. I knew identifying as a woman was not living in truth, and returned to my given names and birth gender without further surgery. My victory has come by allowing the Lord in my heart, becoming God-focused instead of self-centered, and am thankful for my birth sex and many blessings. Despite the consequences and challenges. God has led me to witness His truth and love, and I can testify: indeed, God’s grace, mercy and truth do set one free.’ [32]

M B Davie 15.3.18

 [1] Church of Scotland, Diverse Gender Identities and Pastoral Care at: http://www.churchofscotland.org.uk/resources/learn/publications/diverse_gender_identities_and_pastoral_care

[2] Scottish Trans Alliance at https://www.scottishtrans.org/

[3] Diverse Gender Identities, p.11.

[4] Ibid, p.15.

[5] Ibid, p.7.

[6] Ibid, p.22.

[7] Ibid, p. 25,

[8] Ibid, p.7.

[9] Ibid, p.28.

[10] Ibid, p.18.

[11] For more on the glass delusion see ‘The people who think they are made of glass, ‘ BBC News Magazine, 8 May 2015, at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-32625632

[12] Christopher Tollefsen, ‘Sex Identity,’ Public Discourse, 12 July 2015, at http://www.thepublicdiscourse.com/2015/07/15306/

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

[14] Contrary to what Jo argues there is no suggestion in the creation narratives that human beings were originally androgynous. See Richard Davidson, Flame of Yahweh – Sexuality in the Old Testament, Peabody: Hendrickson, 2007, pp.20-21.

[15] W. Arndt, F. W Danker, F. Wilbur Gingrich and Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000, p.409.

[16] Around 0.018% of live births.

[17] O’Donovan, Transsexualism: Issues and Argument, Cambridge: Grove Books, 2007, p. 8.

[18] Ibid pp.19-20.

[19] James, S. E., Herman, J. L., Rankin, S., Keisling, M., Mottet, L., & Anafi, M, The Report of the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey. Washington, DC: National Center for Transgender Equality, 2016.

[20] David Batty, ‘Mistaken identity,’ The Guardian, July 30, 2004, http://www.theguardian.com/society/2004/jul/31/health.socialcare.

[21] Cecilia Djehne et al, ‘ Long-Term Follow-Up of Transsexual Persons Undergoing Sex Reassignment Surgery: Cohort Study in Sweden,’ PLoS One, 6 (No.2), 2011.

[22] Hayes, Inc ‘Hormone therapy for the treatment of gender dysphoria’ and ‘Sex reassignment surgery for the treatment of gender dysphoria,’ in Hayes Medical Technology Directory, Lansdale Pa: Winifred Hayes,  2014.

[23] Lawrence Meyer and Paul McHugh, ‘Gender Identity,’ in New Atlantis, Fall 2016, p.113.

[24] Walt Heyer, ‘I was a Transgender Woman,’ Public Discourse, 1 April, 2015, article at http://www.thepublicdiscourse.com/2015/04/14688/.

[25] Cari Stella, ‘Response to Julia Serano: Detransition, Desistance and Disinformation’ posted on You Tube9 August, 2016 at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9L2jyEDwpEw. For further testimonies pointing in the same direction see Ryan Anderson, When Harry Became Sally, New York: Encounter Books, 2018, Ch.3.

[26] A particular area of concern is the way in which children and young people who exhibit confusion or distress about their sexual identity are now being encouraged to identify themselves as members of the opposite sex and are given powerful drugs to prevent the onset of puberty. Since we do not know what the long term psychological and physiological consequences will be, this amounts to dangerous experimentation on the nation’s children and is something the Church needs to challenge. For an introduction to the issues involved see Anderson, op.cit. ch.6.

[27] Andrew T Walker, God and The Transgender Debate, Epsom: The Good Book Company, 2017, p.128.

[28] The Lutheran Church -Missouri Synod, ‘Gender Identity Disorder or Gender Dysphoria in Christian Perspective,’ 2014.

[29] Ibid.

[30] The Evangelical Alliance, Transsexuality, Carlisle: Paternoster Press, 2000. p.82.

[31] Heyer, op.cit. p.141.

[32] Text from the website Sex Change Regret http://www.sexchangeregret.com/examples. For other such testimonies see Heyer, A Transgenders Faith and the documentary film Tranzformed which containsthe witness of fifteen ‘ex-transgender’ Christians, https://tranzformed.org/.

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Lex Orandi, lex credendi and the proposals for the affirmation of same-sex relationships and gender transition by the Church of England.

This paper is an expansion of a paper I originally wrote in July 2016. It has now been updated to include reference to the proposal from Hereford Diocesan Synod to mark same-sex marriages through the use of a service of Prayer and Dedication after a Civil Marriage and the proposal that has now been put forward by the House of Bishops that services of Baptism, Confirmation and the Affirmation of Baptismal Promises should be adapted to allow for the liturgical marking of gender transition.

Latin phrases and their meanings.

There are a series of Latin phrases that are widely used in theology such as sola scriptura, sola fide and ecclesia reformata semper reformanda. One thing they all have in common, apart from saying things that are theologically significant, is that their meaning needs careful unpacking if it is to be understood properly.

Thus the phrase sola scriptura (‘Scripture alone’) does not mean that the Bible is the only rule of Christian faith and practice in the sense that no Christian should either believe anything or do anything that is not explicitly mandated in the Bible. As Richard Hooker points out in the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, this is an extreme position which it is impossible to live out consistently in everyday life. ‘For in every action of common life to find out some sentence clearly and infallibly setting before our eyes what we ought to do, (seem we in Scripture never so expert,) would trouble us more than we are aware.’[1] Try deciding between a flat white and a latte in your local coffee shop on the basis of an explicit sentence in Scripture on the issue and you will see what Hooker is getting at.

What the phrase sola scriptura does mean is that Scripture is the supreme authority in all matters of doctrine and practice. There are other authorities, such as Christian tradition and the exercise of sanctified reason, that the individual Christian and the Church collectively may rightly draw on to shape what they think and what they do, but all such other authorities are subordinate to, and subject to correction by, the written word of God.

In similar fashion the phrase sola fide (‘by faith alone’) does not mean that there is no need for the Christian to exercise the virtues of hope and love (1 Corinthians 13:13) or for the Christian to perform good works (James 2:14-17). What it does mean is that the means by which the Christian enters into , and remains in, a right relationship with God is through faith in the saving work of God in Christ (John 3:16) a faith which will be expressed in love, hope and good works.

Likewise the phrase ecclesia reformata semper reformanda (‘the Church, having been reformed is always in need of reformation ’) does not mean that the life of the Church needs to be in a state of perpetual revolution in which every aspect of faith and practice has to be continuously re-examined and thought out afresh. What it does mean is that visible churches are liable to error and that when they do err they need to be reformed in line with biblical teaching (reformanda secundum verbum dei as the final words of the full version of the phrase put it).

Another Latin phrase which is often used and which needs careful unpacking is the phrase lex orandi, lex credendi (‘the law of praying is the law of believing’) and it is this phrase which will be the focus of this paper.

The origin of the phrase lex orandi, lex credendi.

The phrase goes back to the work of the fifth century theologian St. Prosper of Aquitaine who wrote in the eighth chapter of a work entitled the Indiculus Gratia Dei (‘Index concerning the grace of God’): ‘Let us consider the sacraments of priestly prayers, which having been handed down by the apostles, are celebrated uniformly throughout the whole world and in every Catholic Church so that the law of praying might establish the law of believing (ut legem credendi lex statuat supplicandi) ’[2]

The Indiculus is a compilation of authoritative statements by the Popes on the subject of grace and it was written by St Prosper in his controversy with the semi-Pelagians, who held that God’s grace was necessary neither for a person’s first movement towards conversion nor for their final perseverance in the faith. In response to their position, St. Prosper, following St. Augustine, argues in response that the Church’s prayers show that the faith of the Catholic Church is that salvation must be the work of God’s initiative (and hence a matter of grace) since in the liturgy the Church prays for the conversion of infidels, Jews, heretics, schismatics and the lapsed, none of whom would seek the true faith on their own.

As St. Prosper puts it in the passage immediately following on from the sentence quoted above:

‘For when the bishops of the holy peoples observe the mandates committed to them by office in the presence of divine mercy, they plead the cause of the human race, and while the whole Church sighs deeply with them, they entreat and pray that faith may be given to unbelievers, that idol worshippers may be freed from the errors of their impiety, that the light of truth may appear to the Jews, the veil over their heart having been removed, that heretics may regain their senses by perception of the Catholic faith, that schismatics may receive the spirit of revived charity, that the remedies of penance may be granted to the lapsed, and finally that the court of heavenly mercy may be opened to catechumens when they are led to the sacraments of regeneration. The effect of these very things demonstrates that they are not asked from the Lord either vainly or in a perfunctory manner: seeing that God deigns to draw many out of every kind of error, whom delivered from the power of darkness he might transfer into the kingdom of the Son of his charity (Col 1:13), and from vessels of wrath he might make vessels of mercy (Rom 9:22). This is so much thought to be entirely divine work, that to the God accomplishing these things thanksgiving and praise are always rendered for the illumination or the correction of such people.’[3]

Lex orandi, lex credendi in the Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Anglican traditions.

Although St. Prosper thus uses the idea that how the Church prays shows what the Church believes in a specific context, in the form of the phrase lex ordandi, lex credendi his idea has become used as a general principle, the principle that how the Church prays helps to establish for us what the Church believes.

This principle is formally acknowledged in Roman Catholic theology. Thus the Catechism of the Catholic Church declares:

‘The Church’s faith precedes the faith of the believer who is invited to adhere to it. When the Church celebrates the sacraments, she confesses the faith received from the apostles – whence the ancient saying: lex orandi, lex credendi (or: legem credendi lex statuat supplicandi, according to Prosper of Aquitaine [5th cent.]). The law of prayer is the law of faith: the Church believes as she prays.’ [4]

It is also an accepted part of Orthodox theology. Thus the Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew I, declared in a homily to welcome Pope Benedict XVI to Constantinople in November 2006 ‘we recognize that the rule of prayer is the rule of faith (lex orandi, lex credendi)’ and used this principle as the basis for his argument that ‘in liturgy, we are reminded of the need to reach unity in faith as well as in prayer.’ ‘The Liturgy teaches us,’ he said, ‘to broaden our horizon and vision, to speak the language of love and communion, but also to learn that we must be with one another in spite of our differences and even divisions.’[5]

As well as being part of the Roman Catholic and Orthodox traditions, the belief in the principle lex orandi, lex credendi is also an important part of Anglicanism. One of the things that distinguishes Anglicanism from the Lutheran and Reformed traditions, which were also shaped by the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century, is that while in the latter theological authority has been given to a single confessional document such as the Augsburg Confession of 1530, the Genevan Confession of 1536, or the Westminster Confession of 1646, in Anglicanism theological authority has traditionally been given to a confessional document, the Thirty Nine Articles of 1571 plus two liturgical documents, the 1662 Book of Common Prayer and the 1662 Ordinal.

This has meant that if you wanted to know, for example, what Anglicans believe about people’s need for the saving grace of God you would find the answer not only in articles IX, X and XV of the Thirty Nine Articles, but also in the confession of sin contained in the services of Morning and Evening Prayer in the Book of Common Prayer which runs as follows:

‘Almighty and most merciful Father, We have erred, and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep, We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts, We have offended against thy holy laws, We have left undone those things which we ought to have done, And we have done those things which we ought not to have done, And there is no health in us: But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us miserable offenders; Spare thou them, O God, which confess their faults, Restore thou them that are penitent, According to thy promises declared unto mankind in Christ Jesu our Lord: And grant, O most merciful Father, for his sake, That we may hereafter live a godly, righteous, and sober life, To the glory of thy holy Name. Amen’

Similarly, if you wanted to know what Anglicans believe about the ordained ministry you would find the answer not only in articles XXIII, XXIV, XXVI, XXXII and XXXVI of the Thirty Nine Articles, but also in the 1662 Ordinal. For example, the Articles are silent about what form the ordained ministry should take. It is the Ordinal that we learn about the Anglican commitment to the historic threefold order of Bishops, Priests and Deacons. In the words of the Preface to the Ordinal:

‘It is evident unto all men diligently reading holy Scripture and ancient Authors, that from the Apostles’ time there have been these Orders of Ministers in Christ’s Church; Bishops, Priests, and Deacons. Which offices were evermore had in such reverend estimation, that no man might presume to execute any of them, except he were first called, tried, examined, and known to have such qualities as are requisite for the same; and also by publick Prayer, with Imposition of Hands, were approved and admitted thereunto by lawful authority. And therefore, to the intent that these Orders may be continued, and reverently used and esteemed, in the Church of England; No man shall be accounted or taken to be a lawful Bishop, Priest, or Deacon in the Church of England, or suffered to execute any of the said functions, except he be called, tried, examined, and admitted thereunto, according to the Form hereafter following, or hath had formerly Episcopal Consecration or Ordination.’

This historic Anglican commitment to the doctrinal significance of the 1662 Prayer Book and the 1662 Ordinal remains in place today. In the Church of England Canon A5 names the Book of Common Prayer and the Ordinal alongside the Thirty Nine Articles as places where the Church of England’s doctrine is to be found. Likewise, in Canon C15 the Declaration of Assent made by Church of England ministers declares that in the Book of Common Prayer and the Ordinal together with the Thirty Nine Articles the Church of England has ‘borne witness to Christian truth’ and those making the declaration affirm their loyalty to this ‘inheritance of faith.’ In the wider Anglican Communion not all churches give the same level of doctrinal authority to the Book of Common Prayer and the Ordinal as the Church of England does, but nevertheless across the Communion as a whole ‘The Thirty Nine Articles, the Book of Common Prayer and the Ordinal [of] 1662 represent the historic sources of lawful doctrine for a church.’ [6]

Furthermore, as new Prayer Books and Ordinals have been produced in the churches of the Anglican Communion during the 20th and 21st centuries the principle of lex orandi, lex credendi has been extended to them as well. Thus the constitution of the Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia states that it ‘holds and maintains the Doctrine and Sacraments of Christ as the Lord has commanded in Holy Scripture’ as explained not only in the three historic sources of Anglican doctrine, but also in ‘A New Zealand Prayer Book – He Karakia Mihinare o Aotearoa.’[7]

The misunderstanding of lex orandi, lex credendi and the liturgical approach of the English reformers.

At the beginning of this paper it was noted that the phrase lex orandi lex credendi needs careful unpacking. This is because its meaning can be (and has been) misunderstood.

This misunderstanding arises when liturgy is seen as the basis for theology. We can see this misunderstanding for instance, in the introduction to the 1985 Book of Alternative Services of the Anglican Church of Canada. This declares:

‘It is precisely the intimate relationship of gospel, liturgy, and service that stands behind the theological principle lex orandi: lex credendi, i.e., the law of prayer is the law of belief. This principle, particularly treasured by Anglicans, means that theology as the statement of the Church’s belief is drawn from the liturgy, i.e., from the point at which the gospel and the challenge of Christian life meet in prayer. The development of theology is not a legislative process which is imposed on liturgy; liturgy is a reflective process in which theology may be discovered. The Church must be open to liturgical change in order to maintain sensitivity to the impact of the gospel on the world and to permit the continuous development of a living theology.’[8]

In this way of looking at the matter, which has been put forward by a number of theologians such as David Fagerberg,[9] Aidan Kavanagh[10] and Alexander Schmemann[11] the law of prayer is the law of belief because it is the experience of worship that is, and should be, the basis for our theology. Christians meet together to worship God and theology develops as they reflect on this experience. This means that if we want to know what to believe our liturgical experience is the place to go to find out.

From a traditional Anglican point of view, however, it is not liturgical experience that comes first, but Scripture. It is Scripture rather than worship which is the primary source of our knowledge of God. In the classic words of Archbishop Thomas Cranmer:

‘Unto a Christian man there can be nothing either more necessary or profitable, then the knowledge of Holy Scripture, forasmuch as in it is contained God’s true word, setting forth his glory, and also man’s duty. And there is no truth nor doctrine necessary for our justification and everlasting salvation, but that is (or may be) drawn out of that fountain and well of truth. Therefore as many as be desirous to enter into the right and perfect way unto God, must apply their minds to know Holy Scripture; without the which, they can neither sufficiently know God and his will, neither their office and duty.’[12]

As he goes on to say:

‘Let us diligently search for the well of life in the books of the Old and New Testaments, and not run to the stinking puddles of men’s traditions, devised by man’s imagination, for our justification and salvation. For in Holy Scripture is fully contained what we ought to do, and what to eschew; what to believe, what to love, and what to look for at God’s hands at length. In these books we shall find the Father from whom, the Son by whom, and the Holy Ghost, in whom all things have their being and keeping up, and these three persons to be but one God, and one substance. In these books we may learn to know ourselves, how vile and miserable we be, and also to know God, how good he is of himself, and how he maketh us and all creatures partakers of his goodness. We may learn also in these books to know God’s will and pleasure, as much as (for this present time) is convenient for us to know.’ [13]

Because Cranmer and the other reformers of the Church of England in the 16th and 17th centuries believed this they also believed that while churches had the authority to establish their own liturgies this right was limited by what was in Scripture. As Article XX of the Thirty Nine Articles puts it, they believed that: ‘The Church hath power to decree rites or ceremonies, and authority in controversies of faith: and yet it is not lawful for the Church to ordain anything that is contrary to God’s word written.’

The Anglican Reformers further believed that key parts of the practice of the medieval English church fell foul of this principle. For example, as Eamon Duffy explains in his book The Stripping of the Altars praying for the dead in purgatory and the cult of the saints were a key part of English religion in the late medieval period. [14] However, the English reformers rejected both as being contrary to Scripture. In the words of Article XXII they held that:

‘The Romish doctrine concerning Purgatory, Pardons, worshipping and adoration as well of Images as of Reliques, and also Invocation of Saints, is a fond thing vainly invented, and grounded upon no warranty of Scripture; but rather repugnant to the word of God.’

As a result of this conviction, when Cranmer and his fellow reformers began to develop a new liturgy for the Church of England during the reign of Edward VI they gave no place to either praying for the dead, or continuing to invoke the saints, or adore their relics.

What we see here is that for the English Reformers rather than theology flowing from liturgical practice, theology was seen as based on Scripture and therefore theology and the liturgical practice resulting from it required correction when they departed from what Scripture taught.

As well as seeking to correct the liturgical errors of the medieval Church in this way, the English Reformers also developed a positive alternative liturgical approach of their own which formed the basis for the Book of Common Prayer and the 1662 Ordinal. In developing this approach their commitment to the normative role of Scripture in theology and in liturgy meant they developed a series of services in ‘which nothing is ordained to be read, but the very pure Word of God, the Holy Scriptures, or that which is agreeable to the same.’[15] What this conviction means in practice is that the services and other liturgical material contained in the Book of Common Prayer and the 1662 Ordinal, are largely made up of readings from Scripture, paraphrases of, and allusions to, Scripture, and summaries of biblical teaching. They are an attempt to express biblical theology in liturgical form.

It might be asked at this point what room this approach to liturgy leaves for the principle lex orandi, lex credendi. If the liturgy is simply a reflection of what is in the Bible then in what sense can liturgy in and of itself have authority for theology? The answer is that the liturgy, like other extra-biblical authorities such as the teaching of the Fathers, the Catholic Creeds and the confessions of faith produced at the Reformation, has authority precisely because it reflects what is in the Bible.

As Canon C15 suggests, the authority which the Book of Common Prayer and the 1662 Ordinal have is the authority of faithful witness. They rightly constitute a lex credendi because they faithfully point us to the teaching of the Bible and by so doing help shape our thinking and our behaviour, both in church and in our daily lives, so that they are increasingly in line with this teaching.

The principle that has governed the development of new forms of liturgy in the churches of the Anglican Communion is that ‘Liturgical adaption and innovation must not be inconsistent with the Word of God and with the spirit and teaching of the Book of Common Prayer 1662.’[16] This has meant that, in theory at least, Anglican liturgy has continued to have proper authority because it has been in line with the teaching of Scripture.

It is also important to note that in insisting that the authority of liturgy rests on the prior authority of Scripture this approach is in line with what St. Prosper originally taught. As scholars such as Paul De Clerck[17] and Geoffrey Wainwright[18] have noted, St. Prosper’s argument in the Indiculus is based on the teaching of St. Paul in 1 Timothy 2:1-4 where the Apostle urges that ‘supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all men’ because God ‘desires all men to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth.’ In the words of Wainwright, St Prosper’s argument is that:

‘…the apostolic injunction [1 Tim 2:1-4] to pray for the whole human race – which the church obeys in its intercessions – proves the obligation to believe with the holy see, that all faith, even the beginning of good will as well as growth and perseverance is from start to finish a work of grace.’[19]

In other words, for St. Prosper it is the teaching of the Bible, which the liturgical practice of the universal Church then reflects, that proves the point he wants to make about the priority of grace. Liturgical practice for him does not have a free standing authority but is authoritative as a reflection of the teaching of Scripture. Lex ordandi is lex credendi because it embodies the antecedent teaching of the Bible.

Proposals for the liturgical affirmation of same-sex relationships in the Church of England.

The 2013 Report of the House of Bishops Working Group on human sexuality (the ‘Pilling’ report) had as one of its ‘findings and recommendations’ that ‘there can be circumstances where a priest, with the agreement of the relevant PCC, should be free to mark the formation of permanent same-sex relationship in a public service.’[20]

Now that its shared conversations of human sexuality have come to an end and a new House of Bishops’ teaching document on marriage and sexuality is being drawn up, one of the ideas that is being floated as a way forward for the Church of England is the implementation of this recommendation by allowing services of ‘blessing’ or ‘welcome’ for same sex couples who are in Civil Partnership or same-sex civil ‘marriage.’

For example, in an article entitled ‘Battle looms in Church of England over ‘blessings’ for gay marriage’ published in Christian Today on 4 July 2016 Ruth Gledhill writes: ‘There is unlikely to be any attempt to change the definition of marriage. However, progressives are hoping for a move towards allowing church services of recognition for civil partnerships and same-sex marriages. Calling such services ‘blessings’ would be problematic but they could be given another name such as ‘services of welcome.’[21]

There are two forms which the implementation of the Pilling recommendation might take. One would involve the provision of an agreed form of liturgy for clergy who wish to use it and the other would simply give permission to individuals and groups to develop their own liturgies for this purpose. However, what both have in common is that they would mean that the Church of England would be happy for its clergy to offer a public liturgical affirmation of same-sex relationships (including same-sex ‘marriages’).

A specific proposal has now been put forward by the diocesan synod of the Diocese of Hereford which passed a motion on 19 October 2017 stating:

‘That this Synod request the House of Bishops to commend an Order of Prayer and Dedication after the registration of a civil partnership or a same sex marriage for use by ministers in exercise of their discretion under Canon B4, being a form of service neither contrary to, nor indicative of any departure from, the doctrine of the Church of England in any essential matter, together with guidance that no parish should be obliged to host, nor minister conduct, such a service.’[22]

If such a service followed the pattern of the existing service of ‘Prayer and Dedication after a Civil Marriage’ it would involve a same-sex couple dedicating their marriage to God and being blessed and prayed for as they embark on their new life together.[23]

Why these proposals go against the principle of lex orandi, lex credendi.

Both the general proposal for the blessing of same-sex relationships by the Church of England and the specific proposal contained in the Hereford motion would violate the principle of lex orandi, lex credendi.

To understand why this is the case the key point to grasp is that, unless the Church of England is to become completely apostate and decide that it can disregard what God thinks about the matter, any decision to allow the liturgical affirmation of same-sex relationships has to be based on the belief that God approves of such action and therefore of the relationship which is being affirmed. As J I Packer rightly notes:

‘To bless same-sex unions liturgically is to ask God to bless them and to enrich those who join in them, as is done in marriage ceremonies. This assumes that the relationship, of which the physical bond is an integral part, is intrinsically good and thus, if I may coin a word, blessable, as procreative sexual intercourse within heterosexual marriage is.’ [24]

For the Church of England to declare through its liturgical actions that this is the case would be to violate a series of statements about marriage and human sexuality to which it is already officially committed.

The Book of Common Prayer marriage service depicts marriage as taking place between a man and a woman. Thus it says that at a wedding those who are gathered together have done so ‘to join together this man and this woman in holy matrimony.’

Canon B30 declares that:

‘The Church of England affirms, according to our Lord’s teaching, that marriage is in its nature a union permanent and lifelong, for better for worse, till death them do part, of one man with one woman, to the exclusion of all others on either side, for the procreation and nurture of children, for the hallowing and right direction of the natural instincts and affections, and for the mutual society, help and comfort which the one ought to have of the other, both in prosperity and adversity.’

The motion passed by General Synod in November 1987 states:

‘This Synod affirms that the biblical and traditional teaching on chastity and fidelity in personal relationships is a response to, and expression of, God’s love for each one of us, and in particular affirms:

1.that sexual intercourse is an act of total commitment which belongs properly within a permanent married relationship;

2. that fornication and adultery are sins against this ideal, and are to be met by a call to repentance and the exercise of compassion;

3. that homosexual genital acts also fall short of this ideal, and are likewise to be met with a call to repentance and the exercise of compassion;

4. that all Christians are called to be exemplary in all spheres of morality, and that holiness of life is particularly required of Christian leaders.’ [25]

The 1991 House of Bishops report Issues in Human Sexuality argues that what it calls a ‘homophile’ orientation and attraction could not be endorsed by the Church as:

‘…a parallel and alternative form of human sexuality as complete within the terms of the created order as the heterosexual. The convergence of Scripture, Tradition and reasoned reflection on experience, even including the newly sympathetic and perceptive thinking of our own day, make it impossible for the Church to come with integrity to any other conclusion.

Heterosexuality and homosexuality are not equally congruous with the observed order of creation or with the insights of revelation as the Church engages with these in the light of her pastoral ministry.’ [26]

Resolution 1.10 of the 1998 Lambeth Conference declares that the Conference: ‘in view of the teaching of Scripture, upholds faithfulness in marriage between a man and a woman in lifelong union, and believes that abstinence is right for those who are not called to marriage.’ It also declares that the Conference ‘cannot advise the legitimising or blessing of same sex unions nor ordaining those involved in same gender unions.’ [27]

The 1999 House of Bishops teaching document Marriage states that ‘Marriage is a pattern that God has given in creation, deeply rooted in our social instincts, through which a man and a woman may learn love together over the course of their lives’ and that ‘Sexual intercourse, as an expression of faithful intimacy belongs within marriage exclusively.’ [28]

The Preface to the Common Worship marriage service tells the congregation that:

‘Marriage is a gift of God in creation through which husband and wife may know the grace of God. It is given that as man and woman grow together in love and trust, they shall be united with one another in heart, body and mind, as Christ is united with his bride, the Church.’[29]

The 2005 House of Bishops Pastoral Statement on Civil Partnerships states:

‘It has always been the position of the Church of England that marriage is a creation ordinance, a gift of God in creation and a means of his grace. Marriage, defined as a faithful, committed, permanent and legally sanctioned relationship between a man and a woman, is central to the stability and health of human society. It continues to provide the best context for the raising of children.

The Church of England’s teaching is classically summarised in The Book of Common Prayer, where the marriage service lists the causes for which marriage was ordained, namely: ‘for the procreation of children, …for a remedy against sin [and]…. for the mutual society, help, and comfort that the one ought to have of the other.’

In the light of this understanding the Church of England teaches that ‘sexual intercourse, as an expression of faithful intimacy, properly belongs within marriage exclusively’ (Marriage: a teaching document of the House of Bishops, 1999). Sexual relationships outside marriage, whether heterosexual or between people of the same sex, are regarded as falling short of God’s purposes for human beings.’ [30]

The statement goes on to say:

‘It is likely that some who register civil partnerships will seek some recognition of their new situation and pastoral support by asking members of the clergy to provide a blessing for them in the context of an act of worship. The House believes that the practice of the Church of England needs to reflect the pastoral letter from the Primates of the Anglican Communion in Pentecost 2003 which said:

‘The question of public rites for the blessing of same sex unions is still a cause of potentially divisive controversy. The Archbishop of Canterbury spoke for us all when he said that it is through liturgy that we express what we believe, and that there is no theological consensus about same sex unions. Therefore, we as a body cannot support the authorisation of such rites’.

One consequence of the ambiguity contained within the new legislation is that people in a variety of relationships will be eligible to register as civil partners, some living consistently with the teaching of the Church, others not. In these circumstances it would not be right to produce an authorised public liturgy in connection with the registering of civil partnerships. In addition, the House of Bishops affirms that clergy of the Church of England should not provide services of blessing for those who register a civil partnership.’ [31]

Finally, the House of Bishops Pastoral Guidance on same-sex marriage stated that the same principles should apply with same-sex ‘marriages’ as with Civil Partnerships and that in consequence: ‘Services of blessing should not be provided. Clergy should respond pastorally and sensitively in other ways.’[32]

In the light of these declarations the only way that the Church of England could permit with integrity services of affirmation for same-sex partnerships including ‘marriages’ (which would in reality be services of blessing even if they were called something else) would be to repudiate all the statements just listed and declare that it now believes something else instead. Only in this way could the principle of lex orandi, lex credendi, that the Church of England prays as it believes, be maintained.

However, as we have also seen, in Anglican theology, as in the work of St. Prosper of Aquitaine, what the Church believes is based on the teaching of Scripture and so in order to rightly move to a new theological position the Church of England would need to be able to show that the affirmation of same-sex relationships as marriages, or as partnerships equivalent to marriage, is in line with biblical teaching.

This cannot be done. In Scripture marriage is established by God at creation as a life-long, exclusive, sexual union between one man and one woman in principle open to procreation (Genesis 2:24, Matthew 19:3-6) and all forms of sexual activity outside of marriage thus defined are seen explicitly or implicitly as what the New Testament calls porneia, forms of sexual sin which have no place in the life of God’s people. This includes all forms of same-sex sexual activity (see Genesis 19, Judges 19:22-30, Leviticus 18:22, 20:13, Deuteronomy 23:17-18, Mark 7:21, Acts 15:29, Romans 1:26-27, 1 Corinthians 6:9-1, 1 Timothy 1:10, Jude 7).[33]

No provision is made in Scripture for same-sex ‘marriages’ or partnerships and there is no theological room within the teaching of Scripture for them to exist. As Michael Brown observes:

  • Every single reference to marriage in the entire Bible speaks of heterosexual unions without exception, to the point that a Hebrew idiom for marriage is for a man ‘to take a wife.’
  • Every warning to men about sexual purity presupposes heterosexuality, with the married man often warned not to lust after another woman.
  • Every discussion about family order and structure speaks explicitly in heterosexual terms, referring to husbands and wives, fathers and mothers.
  • Every law or instruction given to children presupposes heterosexuality, as children are urged to heed or obey or follow the counsel or example of their father and mother.
  • Every parable. Illustration or metaphor having to do with marriage is presented in exclusively heterosexual terms.
  • In the Old Testament God depicts His relationship with Israel as that of a groom and a bride; in the New Testament the image shifts to the marital union of husband and wife as a picture of Christ and the Church. [34]

It is because Scripture is thus clear about the matter that not only the Church of England but the entire Christian tradition in all its forms has consistently upheld a pattern of sexual ethics based on either heterosexual marriage or sexual abstinence and has rejected same sex sexual relationships as intrinsically sinful.[35]

This being the case there is no place within the principle of lex orandi, lex credendi as Anglicans have understood it for the Church of England to allow for the liturgical affirmation of same-sex partnerships. The marriage service in the Book of Common Prayer declares ‘that so many as are coupled together otherwise than God’s Word doth allow are not joined together by God; neither is their Matrimony lawful’ (‘lawful’ not just according to the law of the state, but according to the law of God).

All forms of same-sex sexual partnerships (same-sex marriages included) are examples of relationships ‘otherwise than God’s Word doth allow.’ It is for this reason that the Church of England as a church with a liturgy based on Scripture cannot give any form of liturgical affirmation to such relationships.

The proposal for affirming gender transition.

In July 2017 General Synod endorsed a motion from the diocese of Blackburn which 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.’

Gender transition is the process by which someone who has male biology and who has previously been identified as male comes to identify themselves by what they see as their true female identity and vice versa. If they are Christians they may well want to have this new identity publicly marked by the Church before God and his people and the motion passed by Synod called for the bishops to consider whether new liturgical materials should be developed for this purpose.

The response from the House of Bishops, published as GS Misc 1178 An update on ‘Welcoming Transgender People, was not to agree to authorise new material, but to suggest that gender transition be appropriately by marked using the existing services of Baptism, Confirmation and the Affirmation of Baptismal Faith. As paragraph 4 of the bishops’ response puts it:

‘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 of their response 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.’

Why this proposal is also problematic

This proposal by the bishops, if agreed, would mark a new lex orandi in the Church of England. Henceforth the Church of England would be declaring through its authorised liturgical actions that it was an acceptable part of Christian discipleship for someone with male biology to identify themselves as female and vice versa.[36]

This would not violate the principle lex orandi, lex credendi by going against any specific existing teaching of the Church of England. The Church of England currently has no specific teaching on this matter. The nearest we get to this is a 2003 memo from the House of Bishops which simply records that at that time different bishops thought that there were two views which could properly be held:

‘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.’

What the bishops’ proposal would violate, however, is the point noted above that liturgical developments can only have legitimacy if they are in line with the teaching of Scripture. A lex orandi that goes against the teaching of Scripture is automatically illegitimate.

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, just as he resurrected the body of Jesus, so that we will exist for all eternity as the male and female human beings God created us to be (see 1 Corinthians 15)

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.’[37]

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. This 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.’[38] 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.’[39] 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 it 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. As noted above, it is for this reason that some members of the House of Bishops supported gender transition back in 2003. This argument was also to the fore in the General Synod debate on the Blackburn motion.

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.[40] Scepticism about gender transition is expressed both by well qualified experts in the field of mental health [41] 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.[42]

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. What the bishops propose in GS Mic 1178 would not be an expression of this kind of love and for that reason their proposal should be rejected.

Conclusion

When rightly understood, the principle lex orandi, lex credendi provides a useful tool for assessing both a church’s liturgy and its doctrine. A church’s liturgical practice needs to cohere with its doctrine and both need to be in line with Scripture. As we have seen in this paper, the use of this tool shows us that not only are proposals for marking same-sex relationships unacceptable, but so also is the new proposal to use liturgy to mark gender transition.

The teaching of the Bible and the historic teaching of the Christian tradition about human sexuality is all of a piece. They tell us that God created human beings as male and female, with men and women each having their own distinctive biology oriented in different ways to the procreation and nurture of children. They also tell us that God created marriage as a union between one man and one woman and that this forms the proper God given context for sexual intercourse and for fulfilling the divine command to ‘be fruitful and multiply’ (Genesis 1:28). In the light of this teaching it would not be right for the Church of England to affirm liturgically either same sex relationships or gender transition. Orthodox Anglicans therefore need to say an unequivocal ‘no’ to both proposals.

M B Davie 6.2.18

 

[1] Richard Hooker, The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, Bk.II.viii.6.

[2] Text at Andre Marie, ‘Lex Orandi Lex Credendi,’ http://catholicism.org/lex-orandi-lex-credendi.html. ‘Supplicandi’ here is the equivalent of ‘orandi

[3] Indiculus 8, translation by Danel Slyke at http://www.pcj.edu/journal/essays/vanslyke11-2.htm

[4] Catechism of the Catholic Church, London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1994, Paragraph 1124, p.258.

[5] Patriarch Barthlomew I, ‘Homily by His All Holiness Patriarch Bartholomew during the Divine Liturgy on the feat day of St Andrew at the Patriarchal Cathedral of St. George, November 30 2006’ at http://www.stgeorgegreenville.org/OurFaith/Articles/Bartholomew-DivineLiturgy.pdf

[6] The Principles of Canon Law Common to the Churches of the Anglican Communion, London: Anglican Communion Office, 2008, p.58.

[7] Constitution of the Anglican Church in in Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia, Part B.1.

[8] Anglican Church of Canada, Book of Alternative Services, Toronto: Anglican Book Centre 1985, p.10.

[9] David W. Fagerberg, Theologia Prima: What is Liturgical Theology?, Chicago/Mundelein: Hillenbrand Books, 2004, pp. 39–69.

[10] Aidan Kavanagh, On liturgical Theology, New York: Pueblo Publishing, 1984.

[11] Alexander Schmemann, Liturgical Theology, Crestwood: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1990.

[12] Thomas Cranmer A Fruitful Exhortation to the Reading and Knowledge of Holy Scripture in John Leith (ed) Creeds of the Churches Oxford: Blackwell, 1973, op.cit. p. 231

[13] Ibid. p.232.

[14] Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars, New Haven and London: Yale UP, 1992.

[15] The Book of Common Prayer, ‘Concerning the services of the Church.’

[16] The Principles of Canon Law Common to the Churches of the Anglican Communion, p.61.

[17] Paul De Clerck, ‘Lex Orandi, lex credendi’: The ordinal sense and historical avatars of an equivocal adage,’ Studia Liturgica 24, 1994, pp.178-200.

[18] Geoffrey Wainwright, Doxology: The praise of God in doctrine, worship and life, New York: OUP, 1990.

[19] Ibid, p.225.

[20] Report of the House of Bishops Working Group on human sexuality, London: CHP, 2013, p.151.

[21] Text at http://www.christiantoday.com/article/battle.looms.in.church.of.england.over.blessings.for.gay.marriage/89832.htm

[22] David Pocklington, “CofE service after same sex marriage?” in Law & Religion UK, 20 October 2017, http://www.lawandreligionuk.com/2017/10/20/cofe-service-after-same-sex-marriage/

[23] See ‘An Order for Prayer and Dedication after a Civil Marriage’ in Common Worship: Pastoral Services,London: CHP, 2000, pp. 173-183.

[24] J I Packer, ‘Why I Walked,’ Banner of Truth, January 27, 2003, at https://banneroftruth.org/uk/resources/articles/2003/why-i-walked/

[25] General Synod report of proceedings vol 18 no.3 London: CHP 1987 pp.955-956

[26] Issues in Human Sexuality, London: CHP, 1991, p.40

[27] The Official Report of the Lambeth Conference 1998, Harrisburg: Morehouse Publishing, 1999, p.381.

[28] House of Bishops, Marriage, London: CHP, 1999, pp.7-8.

[29] Text at https://www.churchofengland.org/prayer-worship/worship/texts/pastoral/marriage/marriage.aspx

[30] House of Bishops Pastoral Statement on Civil Partnerships, paragraphs 2-4, https://www.churchofengland.org/media-centre/news/2005/07/pr5605.aspx

[31] Ibid. paragraphs, 16-17.

[32] House of Bishops Pastoral Guidance on Same-sex Marriages, paragraph 21, text at https://www.churchofengland.org/media-centre/news/2014/02/house-of-bishops-pastoral-guidance-on-same-sex-marriage.aspx

[33] See Richard Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament, Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1995, Ch.16, Robert Gagnon. The Bible and Homosexual Practice, Nashville Abingdon, 2001, Michael Brown, Can you be Gay and Christian? , Lake Mary: Front line, 2014, Martin Davie, Studies on the Bible and Same-Sex Relationships since 2003, Malton: Gilead, 2015.

[34] For this point see Brown, op.cit. pp.86-90.

[35] See S, Donald Fortson and Rollin G. Grams, Unchanging Witness, Nashville: B&H Academic, 2016.

[36] It is important to distinguish such people from the 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. Such ‘intersex’ individuals have to find a path of Christian discipleship that honours God’s creation of human beings as male and female in the context of their own ambiguous physical condition. This is a different situation from someone who is indisputably either male or female in their biological make up.

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

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

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

[40] 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 fromcardiovascular 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 of Transsexual Persons Undergoing Sex Reassignment Surgery: Cohort Study in Sweden,’ PLoS One, 6 (No.2), 2011).

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

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

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

Introduction

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.

What is ‘just love’?

The Ozanne Foundation’s strapline

A lot of organisations now have straplines which attempt to summarise what they stand for. Thus John Lewis uses ‘Never knowingly undersold,’ OFSTED ‘Raising standards – improving lives’ and the Church of England ‘A Christian presence in every community.’

The Ozanne Foundation, which supports the cause of LGBTI equality and which was launched amidst much publicity just before Christmas, has as its strapline ‘We believe in just love for all.’ This, it tells us, is what this new foundation stands for.

An important purpose of a strapline is to send out a positive message about the organisation that uses it in order to gain support for its activities. At first glance ‘We believe in just love for all’ succeeds in achieving this purpose because it sends out a message that resonates with two of the things that are almost universally accepted in our society. Almost everyone would say that they believe in the importance of love and the importance of justice. It would seem to follow that an organisation that indicates that it believes in both justice and love must be one that is worthy of support.

What is also important, however, is that a strapline should send a clear message about the beliefs and activities of the organisation concerned. Here the Ozanne Foundation is less successful because what it says is ambiguous. One the one hand, it could be saying that the Foundation believes in treating everyone with ‘just’ love, in the sense of nothing else but love. On the other hand it could be saying that it supports ‘just’ rather than ‘unjust’ love.

In the remainder of this article I shall explore these two ways of reading the Foundation’s strapline and explain why both of them, if taken seriously, actually undermine the very cause for which it stands.

What is love?

If we start with the first way of reading the strapline, what we are being told is that the Ozanne Foundation believes in loving everyone. This would seem to be an unproblematic statement. Surely believing in universal love has to be a good thing?

However, there is a problem with this statement. The problem is that it begs the question as to what it means to love everyone.

This question arises because the word ‘love’ has multiple meanings. Consider the following the three sentences. I love cheese toasties. I love my mother. I love the woman I have just married. Each of these sentences uses the word love, but in each of them (hopefully!) the word is being used in a different sense. If the subject of sentence three regards his new wife in the same way that he regards his mother then he is in deep trouble. Equally, he is in deep trouble if he regards her in the same way as a cheese toastie.

Down the centuries the fact that love can have different meanings has been noted and philosophers and theologians have classified these different meanings in a variety of ways (a helpful introduction to these classifications can be found in C S Lewis’ book The Four Loves). A useful way of classifying the different meanings of love is to say that the word can refer to five things.

First, love is used to refer to the strongly positively feeling that we have towards certain things. Thus someone might say ‘I love cheese toasties, the music of the Bee Gees, and the beach at Cromer.’

Secondly, love is used to refer to the affectionate feelings we have (or should have) towards the members of our families, as in ‘I love my mother, my father, and my big sister.’

Thirdly, love is used to refer to the feelings we have towards those with whom we are close friends. Thus we can talk about the love between David and Jonathan in the Bible (a love ‘passing the love of women’ – 2 Samuel 1:26) and the love between Frodo Baggins and Sam Gamgee that lies at the heart of The Lord of the Rings.

Fourthly, love is used to refer to what is known as ‘erotic love’, the strong combination of emotional and sexual desire that we can have for another man or woman.

From a Christian perspective these four forms of love can be regarded as positive aspects of being human. God has created us to enjoy things such as food, music and beautiful places, to have strong affection for our families and friends and to experience erotic attraction.

However, the Christian faith also tells us that there is a fifth form of love which is more important than the previous four. As C S Lewis note in Mere Christianity, this kind of love (what he calls ‘charity’) is ‘quite a different thing from liking or affection.’ It is this kind of love that St. Augustine refers to when he says that God ‘loved even when he hated us’ and to which Jesus refers when he tells us that we are to ‘love our enemies’ (Matthew 5:44).

This kind of love is an act of will that seeks to do good to someone because of the value that we perceive that person to have, regardless of whether we feel like doing so or not.

This is the kind of love that God has for us because of the value we have as creatures made by him in his image and likeness (Genesis 1:26-27). It is the kind of love that he showed by sending Jesus to rescue us from sin and death. ‘But God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us’ (Romans 5:8).

It is also the kind of love that we are called to show towards God and our ‘neighbour’ (i.e. every other human being). As our infinitely wise and good creator, God has infinite value and we are called to reflect this by living in obedience to him regardless of whether we feel like doing so or not. As part of this obedience we are also called to reflect the immense value of each and every human being. We do this through acting in a way that promotes their good by enabling them to flourish as the people God made them to be (again regardless of whether we feel like it or not).

This fifth kind of love does not necessarily involve affirmation. It can do so on occasions when affirming someone is in accordance with truth and is what will enable them to flourish. However, on other occasions loving someone will involve opposing how they behave even while we still continue to value them as someone created by God. The old saying that we should ‘hate the sin, but love the sinner’ is often criticised nowadays, but it encapsulates brilliantly how God behaves towards us and how we should therefore behave towards other people.

To quote Augustine again: ‘[God] hated us when we were such as he had not made us, and yet because our iniquity had not destroyed his work in every respect, he knew in regard to each one of us, to hate what we had made, and love what he had made.’ We are called to do likewise. Thus we are called to love the alcoholic but hate his enslavement to alcohol. Likewise we are called to love an adulteress, but hate her adultery.

Just and unjust love

It is this fifth kind of love that fulfils the twin commandments to love God (Deuteronomy 6:5) and to love our neighbour as ourself (Leviticus 19:18) which Jesus said form the basis for all the other commandments of God found in the Old Testament (Matthew 22:34-40).

This statement by Jesus points us to the truth that when we are talking about the fifth kind of love we have described, the concept of ‘just love’ (in the sense of love that is just rather than unjust) is a tautology, like talking about a ‘three sided triangle,’ or a ‘human man.’ This because the classic definition of justice is to give everyone their due and what we owe God and other people is that we love them according to this fifth kind of love. When we love God and human beings in this way we automatically act justly towards them. The commandments contained in the Old Testament, and the ethical instructions contained in the New Testament, are specifications of what it means to act with love (and therefore act justly) in particular situations. They teach us how to love rightly and therefore act justly.

It is important to note, however, that it only this fifth kind of love that is automatically just. The other four kinds of love that we have noted (love of things, love of family, love of friends and erotic love) may, or may not, lead to just behaviour.

We can see this if we consider the simple example of love for a cheese toastie. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with wanting to eat a cheese toastie. This is because of the basic New Testament principle that God created food ‘to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth’ (1 Timothy 4:3). Wanting to eat food that God has created for us to enjoy is therefore in itself perfectly acceptable.

Furthermore it is possible to envisage situations in which our love for cheese toasties leads us to behaviour which fulfils the twin commands to love God and neighbour. For example our love for cheese toasties may lead us to make them to feed the hungry or to give them away free as part of an outreach event designed to commend the gospel to university students. In both cases we would be showing love to our neighbour and if our acts were motivated by love for God we would be showing love to him as well.

However, it is also possible to think of scenarios in which our love for cheese toasties leads us to act in a way which goes against our obligation to love God and neighbour. For example, we might be led to steal a cheese toastie, or eat one ourselves instead of giving it to someone in need of food. In both these cases there would be a failure to love our neighbour (the shopkeeper and the person in need of food) and to love God who has told us to not to steal (Exodus 20:15) and to give bread to the hungry (Ezekiel 18:7).

One can extend these sorts of scenarios to cover all of the first four kinds of love. Thus friendship may lead us to sacrifice our life to save our neighbour’s, or it may lead us to lie on his behalf. Both forms of behaviour might equally be motivated by love of a friend, but one would be just and the other unjust.

The bottom line is that when thinking about a claim that behaviour motivated by love is just behaviour we have to ask whether it is compatible with love for God and neighbour. Only if this is the case is that behaviour truly just.

The aims of the Ozanne Foundation and why they are problematic

According to its website the purpose of the Ozanne foundation is to combat discrimination against LGBTI people.

At first sight this might seem to be seem to be an entirely loving and therefore just thing to do. LGBTI people (like all other people) have been created by God in his image and likeness and therefore have immense value which we are called upon to respect. It would seem to follow that love for God and neighbour requires combatting discrimination against them and the aim of the Ozanne Foundation is one we should support.

However, in reality things are not that simple. The known views of Jayne Ozanne and her supporters and the publicity linked to the launch of the Foundation make it clear that what they mean by combatting discrimination against LGBTI people involves getting people (particularly religious people) to accept:

  1. That it is right for two people of the same sex to have a sexual relationship;
  2. That someone can be of a different sex from the sex of their body;
  3. That it is right for people to claim to be of a sex that is neither male nor female.

As they see it, it is only when these points are accepted that discrimination against LGBTI people will have come to an end.

Unfortunately, accepting these points and acting upon then would not be an example of ‘just love.’ This is because Scripture (in the creation narratives in Genesis 1 and 2 and in the rest of the biblical text building on them) and reason, looking at the observable reality of what human beings are like, tell us that:

  • The human race is a dimorphic species consisting of men and women whose sex is determined by the biology of their bodies;
  • Sexual intercourse is designed to take place between men and women and has its purpose not only physical and emotional pleasure, but the procreation of children;
  • God ordained marriage between two people of the opposite sex as the sole legitimate setting for sexual intercourse.

Loving God and loving neighbour means thankfully accepting that this is how God in his wisdom and goodness created us to be, living according to this created pattern ourselves, and encouraging and supporting others to do likewise.

It is true, of course, that there are people who are sexually attracted to people of their own sex, people who feel that their true sex is different from their biological sex and a very small number of people whose biology combines both male and female elements.

From a Christian perspective, however, these people’s experiences are not due to God’s creative intention, but are instead a result of the disorder introduced into the world as a result of the Fall, a disorder which Christ came into the world to overcome. As a result, love for God and neighbour does not mean accepting this disorder as something good, but seeking to combat it by helping the people involved to live in a way that reflects as far as possible God’s original creative intention, in anticipation of God’s final kingdom in which all things will finally be made whole.

For this reason, the real aims of the Ozanne Foundation belie their claim to stand for ‘just love for all’ and are therefore aims which we should not support

M B Davie 5.1.18

Why did the incarnation happen as it did?

At the centre of Christmas we celebrate the fact that ‘the word became flesh’ (John 1:14). God the Son, the second person of the Trinity, who has existed alongside the Father and the Spirit from all eternity, took human nature upon himself for the sake of our salvation.

According to the accounts given to us in the Gospels of Matthew (Matthew 1:18-22) and Luke (1:26-37 and 2:1-7) the way he took human nature upon himself was through a miracle. In the words of the Apostles’ Creed he was ‘conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary.’ What this means is that Jesus had no biological human father. He took his humanity from his mother Mary in whose womb he was conceived by the miraculous action of the Holy Spirit.

The question that is not often discussed is why the incarnation happened this way. Why in his infinite wisdom and goodness did God decide to take human nature upon himself by means of this particular miracle?

There are three misleading answers to this question.

The first is to say that the incarnation happened this way because Jesus’ birth from a virgin is what makes him the Son of God. This answer might seem to be supported by the words of the angel Gabriel to Mary in Luke 1:35:

‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you,

and the power of the Most High shall will overshadow you;

therefore the child to be born will be called holy,

the Son of God.’

However, these words are the angel’s answer to the question asked by Mary in the previous verse ‘How shall this be, since I have no husband?’ In verses 31-33 the Gabriel has told Mary that she will conceive and have a son who will be ‘called Son of the Most High.’ May asks how she can have this son in the absence of a husband and verse 35 supplies the answer. It describes the means by which Mary will conceive her promised son, not the reason why this son will be the Son of God (which is not what Mary asks).

The reason that Jesus will be called the Son of God is because in him created human nature will be united with the eternal divine nature of the second person of the Trinity in one person. The method by which this union will take place will be a virginal conception, but there is nothing to suggest this is the only way that it could have happened and that God the Son could not have united himself with a human nature created through sexual intercourse between a husband and wife. There is no reason why this would have been impossible.

The second is to say that Jesus had to be born of virgin because a holy God cannot be associated with sexual intercourse. The problem with this answer is that in the Bible God is associated with sexual intercourse. It is something which he created at the beginning of time as a means by which husband and wife could be united together and fulfil the divine command to ‘be fruitful and multiply’ (Genesis 1:28, 2:24) and it is the means he regularly uses to cause children to come into existence, whether in the normal course of events, or by means of a miracle as in the case of the birth of John the Baptist from Zechariah and Elizabeth (Luke 1:5-24, 39-66). Saying that the action of God and sexual intercourse are intrinsically incompatible is therefore clearly wrong.

The third is to say that Jesus had to be born of a virgin because otherwise he would have been subject to original sin like the rest of the human race. This answer confuses sexual intercourse as the means by which original sin is passed on from one generation to the next with sexual intercourse as the reason because of which it is transmitted.

Someone who is born as a result of sexual intercourse will be subject to original sin. However, this is simply because sex was the means by which they became a member of fallen humanity as a descendant of Adam. Sex itself is not the reason for their fallen state (as if sexual intercourse created original sin), it is only the channel through which they inherit it.

In addition, even if Jesus had human descent from both Mary and Joseph this would not necessarily have made him subject to original sin. This because without divine intervention the human nature he inherited from Mary would have made Jesus subject to original sin. What preserved him from this was the positive action of the Holy Spirit who enabled him to remain free from sin from his conception onwards. This could, presumably, have been equally true if he had inherited his human nature from both Mary and Joseph.

If we set aside these three misleading answers what can we say about the reason why the miracle of the incarnation took the form it did? The answer is fourfold.

First, the nature of the miracle, which means that Jesus had no human Father, points us to the truth that his father is God since in the unity of his person he is God the Son ‘begotten from everlasting of the Father,’ as Article II of the Thirty Nine Articles puts it. Jesus the Son can save us because he is God and he is God because he has God the Father as his father. This is the first truth to which the miracle of the virgin birth points us.

Secondly, the work of the Holy Spirit in bringing about Jesus’ conception (Matthew 1:18, 20, Luke 1:35) points us to the truth that what is taking place in Jesus is the beginning of a new humanity and a new creation. Just as when the world was first made it was by means of God at work through his Spirit (Genesis 1:2, Psalm 33:6), and when humanity was created the first human (created by God without sexual intercourse) was given life through the Spirit (Genesis 2:7), so also in the birth of Jesus there is through the creative work of the Spirit the beginning of new humanity (with Jesus as the second Adam) as the first fruits of a renewed creation (Romans 8:18-25).

Thirdly, like the story of the birth of John the Baptist with which it is intertwined in the opening chapters of Luke, the story of the miraculous birth of Jesus points us to the truth that the saving grace of God does for us what we cannot do for ourselves.

Elizabeth and Zechariah couldn’t have children because ‘Elizabeth was barren, and both were advanced in years’ (Luke 1:7). Yet what seemed impossible became possible because the action of God enabled them to become the parents of John the Baptist.

Even more radically, Mary couldn’t have a child because, as we have seen, she was unmarried and therefore not involved in sexual intercourse. Yet God took her virginity and used it as a symbol of how salvation, which we are unable to achieve through our own actions, is made possible through the action of the free grace of God. In the story of the birth of Jesus, all human striving and activity, symbolized by the begetting of children through sexual intercourse, is set aside in favour of simply accepting grace as a gift. As  Charles Cranfield puts it:

‘…that Jesus’ mother was a virgin attests that God’s redemption is ‘by grace alone.’ Here our humanity, represented by Mary, does nothing more than accept, than submit to, being simply the object of God’s grace. That is the real significance of the address ‘favoured one’ to Mary in Luke 1:28. The male, characteristically the dominant and aggressive element of humanity, is excluded from this action and set aside, and in Mary our humanity’s part is simply to be made the receptacle of God’s gift, the object of God’s mercy: ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord, let it be with me according to your word’ (Luke 1:38).’

In the words of St. Paul, ‘For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God – not because of works, lest any man should boast’ (Ephesians 1:8-9).

Fourthly, just as Jesus’ resurrection is the prototype of our resurrection (1 Corinthians 15: 20-23) so also is virgin birth is the prototype of our own virgin birth. This truth is highlighted for us by St. John in John 1:12-13: ‘But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God; who were born, not of blood not of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.’

The language St. John uses in these verses has a deliberate double reference. He is describing how Christians become children of God, but he describes this process in language that also refers back to the virgin birth of Christ. What he is saying is that through faith and baptism we become children of God through Jesus and this happens through a supernatural work of God that follows the pattern of Jesus own birth. In John 1:13 there is no reference to the work of the Spirit, but this reference is supplied in Jesus’ teaching on the new birth in John 3 to which this verse in John’s prologue looks forward. In John 3:5-8 Jesus tells Nicodemus that that the new birth referred to in John 1:13 comes through the work of the Spirit:

‘Jesus answered, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.  Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born anew.’ The wind blows where it wills, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know whence it comes or whither it goes; so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.’’

In summary, the virgin birth of Christ as recorded by Matthew and Luke points us to four key truths:

  • Jesus is God the Son eternally begotten by God the Father;
  • What is taking place in Jesus is the beginning of a new humanity and a new creation;
  • The saving grace of God does for us what we are unable to do for ourselves;
  • The birth of Jesus is the prototype of our own miraculous re-birth as children of God.

God does all things for a purpose. With God there are no accidents and so we may be sure that the form of the miracle by which Jesus was born into the world was intended by God to point to these truths. This is what he wants us to learn as we think about the manner in which Jesus Christ was born.

M B Davie 15.12.17

 

The real problems with ‘Valuing all God’s children.’

Why the headlines got it wrong.

A week ago today the Church of England published an updated version of its guidance on tackling bullying in church schools, Valuing All God’s Children. This report generated a media firestorm, which concentrated on the issue of what little boys should be allowed to wear in school. Thus the headline in the Daily Telegraph said ‘Let boys wear Tutus and high heels if they want to, Church of England says’ the Mail online went with ‘Let little boys wear tiaras’ and the Metro’s headline was ‘Boys should be able to wear tutus, tiaras and heels if they want, says Church of England.’

These headlines, and others like them, all distort one very small part of what the report has to say. What the report actually says in one paragraph on page 20 is the following:

‘In the early years context and throughout primary school, play should be a hallmark of creative exploration. Pupils need to be able to play with the many cloaks of identity (sometimes quite literally with the dressing up box). Children should be at liberty to explore the possibilities of who they might be without judgement or derision. For example, a child may choose the tutu, princess’s tiara and heels and/or the firefighter’s helmet, tool belt and superhero cloak without expectation or comment. Childhood has a sacred space for creative self-imagining.’

Contrary to the impression given by the headlines this paragraph does not say anything at all about what boys in particular should wear and it says nothing at all about what any child should be allowed to normally wear to school. All it says is that children should be allow to choose what they like from the dressing up box.

Presumably the headlines were motivated by the fact that no one would be interested in a story headed ‘Children should have free choice from the dressing up box’ but what they succeeded in doing was missing the point of the report as whole, which can be more accurately summed up as ‘Church of England gives guidance to schools on combatting ‘homophobic, biphobic and transphobic bullying.’

By focusing on their own fantasy version of the report rather than what the report actually said, what the press coverage failed to spot was that there are three big problems with the report.

Problem 1: A limited focus.

The first problem lies with the fact that the report singles out three particular forms of bullying for exclusive attention.

In his Foreword to the report the Archbishop of Canterbury correctly notes that ‘All bullying, including homophobic, biphobic and transphobic bullying causes profound damage, leading to higher levels of mental health disorders, self-harm, depression and suicide.’ If all bullying has this effect (and no one in their right mind will deny that it does) then it is not clear why the report concentrates particularly on three particular kinds of bullying.

Such concentration could be justified if (a) these kinds of bullying need highlighting because no one has been addressing them before (b) these are the most prevalent kinds of bullying in church schools or (c) these kinds of bullying are more damaging to those involved than other kinds of bullying. However, the report does not provide any evidence to support any of these three points and in fact no such evidence seems to exist.

The truth is that Church of England schools (like all other state schools) have (rightly) been tackling bullying aimed at those who are known to be (or who are perceived as) lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender for a number of years, that this kind of bullying is not the most widespread form of bullying that takes place (numerically, the bullying of straight teenage girls on the basis of their looks, or the bullying of those with learning difficulties, is far more common and, as the report itself says, the incidences of bullying of gay, lesbian and bisexual pupils are actually declining), and that there is no research that shows that this kind of bullying is qualitatively more damaging than other forms of bullying when it does occur.

If anyone really wants to know about the reality of bullying they need to look not at this report but at the Annual Bullying Survey  – 2017 Bullying Statistics in the UK available at https://www.dichthelabel.org/research-papers/the-annual-bullying-survey- 2017. This tells us that the top reason people say they are  bullied  is attitudes to my appearance (50%) followed by attitudes to my interests or hobbies (40%). Attitudes to my sexuality and my gender identity or expression come bottom of the list at 4% and 3% respectively.

Furthermore, by concentrating on these statistically rare forms of bullying, the Church of England is sending out a message which says that, whatever the title of the report may declare, in reality it values some of God’s children more than others. We show what we value by what we focus on and the Church of England has decided to focus on the needs of some children and not others. That is not to say that these children do not matter, but they don’t matter more than those whose unhappiness is not mentioned.

In addition those who work in schools have only a limited amount of time and energy available to them and this means that if they are instructed to focus on these three forms of bullying then other forms of bullying will get overlooked, in the same way that a police focus on ‘hate crime’ will lead to other offences (such as, for example, home burglaries) being given less or no attention.

What the Church of England should have done is either issued a comprehensive anti-bullying strategy, of which action against homophobic, biphobic and transphobic bullying would have been a part, or issued a range of reports detailing the action to be taken to combat the whole range of different forms of bullying that children now face both at school and online. They could even have asked the bullying survey for help.

Problem 2: Some views are more equal than others.

The second problem is that integral to the action that the report calls for to tackle homophobic, biphobic and transphobic bullying is ‘speaking clearly about LGBT equality.’ (p.18). What this will mean in practice is church schools promoting acceptance of same-sex sexual relationships, same-sex marriages, families with two parents of the same sex, and people changing their gender identity from male to female, or female to male, or from male or female to some other ‘non gender-binary’ identity. By extension it will also mean teaching pupils who have been brought up to think differently that they, their families, and their place of worship, are wrong and need to change their position.

On page 11 of the report we are told that:

‘Professor Trevor Cooling’s metaphor of a Bedouin ‘tent of meeting’ may be a helpful model for Church schools. This strategy asks teachers or facilitators to host a space where different views can be aired and honoured: ‘a place of hospitality, welcome and respectful engagement, sacred and mutual, but not neutral to its own Christian values, whilst being genuinely open to the free expression of engagement’.

However, this idea of a church school as a neutral place of meeting between those with different views about sexuality where a range of views can be ‘aired and honoured’ will be undermined if the school’s policy is to promote the view that same-sex relationships and families and gender transition should be accepted by everyone and anyone who thinks otherwise is wrong. If it is to be truly neutral a school surely has to say ‘some think this, and others think that, but as an institution we have no view of the matter.’ A school promoting LGBT equality cannot say that

The idea of a church school as place where a range of views about sexuality can be ‘aired and honoured’ is further undermined when Section 6 of the template for a school’s anti- bullying template talks about ‘prejudiced based incidents’ as follows:

‘A prejudice based incident is a one-off incident of unkind or hurtful behaviour that is motivated by a prejudice or negative attitudes, beliefs or views towards a protected characteristic or minority group. It can be targeted towards an individual or group of people and have a significant impact on those targeted. All prejudice based incidents are taken seriously and recorded and monitored in school, with the head teacher regularly reporting incidents to the governing body. This not only ensures that all incidents are dealt with accordingly, but also helps to prevent bullying as it enables targeted anti-bullying interventions.’ (p.33)

The difficulty with this paragraph lies in in its definition of ‘prejudice’ as ‘negative attitudes, beliefs or views towards a protected characteristic or minority group.’ What this will mean in practice is that any expression of moral disapproval of same-sex relationships (including same-sex marriage) or of gender transition that is regarded as ‘unkind’ or ‘hurtful’ by someone who identifies as homosexual, bisexual or transgender will have to be logged as a ‘prejudice based incident’ and will render the culprit (whether pupil or teacher) liable to disciplinary action (‘targeted anti-bullying interventions’). The result of such an approach will not be difficult to foresee. Staff and pupils alike will very soon learn that any such expression of disapproval will not be ‘honoured’ but will land them in serious trouble and so a regime of self- censorship will prevail.

Rather than teaching people to deal with differences of view in an open and respectful way, what pupils will be taught is not to express opinions that are disapproved by the dominant social group. They will learn, to misquote George Orwell, that all views may be equal ‘but some are more equal than others.’ Is this really what church schools should be teaching their children?

Problem 3: A thin theology.

The third problem with the report is that its theological basis is thin in the extreme. What the report tells us is that the theological basis for its recommendations is the belief that

‘… all children are loved by God, are individually unique and that the school has a mission to help each pupil to fulfil their potential in all aspects of their personhood: physically, academically, socially, morally and spiritually. Our aim is that all may flourish and have an abundant life. Schools have a duty to try to remove any factor that might represent a hindrance to a child’s fulfilment’ (p.5)

The problem is that the report does not explain how we know that helping a child find fulfilment in line with the fact that they are loved by God means telling him or her that it is OK for them to enter into same-sex relationships, or declare that they are a member of the opposite sex, or that they are gender neutral. Throughout the entire history of the Christian Church until the last few decades of the twentieth century, this view of human fulfilment would have been regarded as completely morally perverse in the same way that we would think it morally perverse to tell someone that it is OK to engage in sexual violence, or sex with children or vulnerable adults.

The implicit assumption underlying the report is that we can disregard what the Church has traditionally thought because we have now progressed morally and know better than our ancestors, However, the only way we could know this is if we had a vantage point outside the historical process that enabled us to see the goal to which humanity is meant to be heading and thereby allowed us to say that we have got closer to that goal than previous generations. As C S Lewis taught us, you can only talk about progress if you know where you are going. Otherwise what you think is progression may actually be walking round in a circle or even going backwards,

Simply saying that all children are loved by God and need to be helped to find their fulfilment does not give us the vantage point we need. It simply begs the question about how the God who loves us wants us to behave and how we can find our fulfilment by living in accordance with his will. This is a question the report not only fails to answer, but fails even to ask.

M B Davie 20.11.17