In response to the Church of England House of Bishops’ announcement last week that a new liturgy to mark the transition of a transgender person is not needed, despite the overwhelming support of General Synod in July 2017 to ‘consider preparing nationally commended liturgical materials to mark a person's gender transition’, a lecturer on Christianity and issues of gender and sexual equality has published an article challenging this decision.
In an article published today on the Modern Church website, Dr Rob Clucas from the School of Law and Politics at the University of Hull, describes the House of Bishop’s latest action as a failure to address properly the framework of legal and institutional discrimination against trans people in the Church of England, which includes the lack of official rituals and services to celebrate the significant events of trans people within the Church.
The announcement of the decision, An update on welcoming transgender people (GS Misc. 1178, Nye, 2018), says it
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.
Dr Clucas, who is also a trans person and former member of the Church of England, argues that while this welcome and claim to rejoice in the diversity of the body of Christ are superficially positive, the reference to a welcome ‘equally with all people’ suggests the House of Bishops is equating ‘equal’ with ‘identical’ treatment:
if the House of Bishops has indeed equated ‘equal’ with ‘identical’, then perhaps they do not understand that fairness often requires different treatment. Alternatively, perhaps they do understand this, but in their view, there is something about being trans that does not seem to require or deserve additional support in order to reach a position of parity… Or, perhaps a third option is better: that the House has not thought sufficiently about the experience of being a trans person in the Church. If this is the case, it is likely that any inability to comprehend the situation of a trans person in this environment was compounded by a lack of trans representation in the House of Bishops discussion.
Dr Clucas takes issue with the House of Bishops’ claim to have
prayerfully considered whether a new nationally commended service might be prepared to mark a gender transition.
He responds with a detailed analysis of how:
To have considered the matter ’prayerfully’ is not necessarily to have considered the matter adequately.
Following a critique of the House of Bishops’ analysis, Dr Clucas includes examples of liturgical resources available to celebrate transition, which include
a recognition of movement from one name and gender identity to another, and the place of God in that becoming.
Although the House of Bishops’ recommendation that clergy should adapt the current service to affirm baptism goes some way to resolving the disempowerment of trans people who have no rite, Clucas argues it remains unsatisfactory, as
In co-opting the baptism rite as a trans person’s welcome, it seems likely that the Church is attempting a compromise designed to placate the rejecting and accepting alike.
It is also unsatisfactory because ‘they abdicate their responsibility for leadership’ by
potentially permitting the flourishing of substantial discretion in the shape of the service; …in allowing some creative and sensitive priests to design a liturgy that meets their congregant’s transition needs – whilst other trans people, less fortunate in their priest, will have to settle for the shoehorn. This may be convenient for Church politics, but at the cost of the trans person involved.
Dr Clucas concludes with ‘sadness and resignation’:
I would have liked to inhabit an institutional church that believes I am wonderful because I exist; that accepts my truth as a truth worth valuing and celebrating; that recognises the prejudice that we all absorb, and helps me fight against it; that tells those who believe I am misguided, wrong, or mad, that they are the misguided ones, holding rigidly to their prejudice in the face of an overwhelming phenomenological, psychological and legal consensus that being trans is an unusual, but normal variation of being human. I would have liked to be aligned with a church that is brave enough to acknowledge that a new understanding of gender can be a Godly one, even if the secular world arrives there first. I would have liked to know an institutional church that truly practices the love that it preaches – or at least makes a better attempt at so doing. But the institutional Church of England was not this church when I was a member, and it is not this church now.
This church, I believe, is still possible.
Download the full 5000 word article, The Church of England: welcoming transgender people? by Dr Rob Clucas, from the Modern Church website.
This complements his recent article published in Modern Believing, the academic theology journal published quarterly by Modern Church, in which Dr Clucas discussed the situation of trans people in the Church of England within a framework of legal and institutional discrimination, and made reference to important omissions for trans people in Church life, including the lack of official rituals and services to celebrate the significant events of trans people within the Church. This article, Trans people and the Church of England: Disadvantage and micro-aggressions, is available on the Liverpool University website.