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Topical Tuesday: On Tiaras and Tutus

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Posted by John Percival, 21 Nov 2017

John Percival responds to the CofE report: Valuing All God's Children

The Church of England’s report, Valuing All God’s Children, made headlines around the world last week. Addressing homophobic, biphobic and transphobic (HBT) bullying, it contains several significant weaknesses.

The Church of England carries a massive responsibility for education through its 4,700 schools. As part of that responsibility, it must provide guidance on various areas of policy and strategy, including how to tackle bullying. As a basic expression of loving our neighbours, the desire to offer guidance on tackling all kinds of bullying is to be highly commended. As a reflection of twenty-first century Britain, the need to consider how to support children living with or related to LGBT experiences is a missional necessity.

We must be thankful that thought has gone into this guidance produced by the CofE’s Education Office on tackling HBT bullying. Many will know the voice of Peter Ould as one which speaks with wisdom, experience, clarity and faithfulness on these issues. He has encouraged all Christians to welcome this report warmly.

While there is lots in the guidance that I appreciate, I want to take a moment to set out some hesitations that I have. I am not claiming to know all the answers, but I think there are some significant weaknesses in this document that demand further attention.

Speaking wisely in a world of soundbites
First, let’s get the obvious out of the way: did it really need to mention tiaras and tutus? In our soundbite world, the document leaves some massive hostages to fortune. While Martin Davie is right that the headlines missed the point, it’s also the case that the specific examples about tiaras and tutus were not really necessary, and have ended up making the CofE the butt of all sorts of unfortunate headlines and cartoons. More seriously, this also produces growing misunderstanding and distrust around the worldwide Anglican Communion. We must raise our game in the area of communicating through the media.

The Christian theological framework
Secondly, does the guidance operate within a Christian view of humanity in light of creation and the fall? While claiming to be a policy on tackling HBT bullying, the guidance has gone far further by providing an official Church of England account of children’s sexual and gender-identity development (e.g., sections 7, 8 and 9). At the same time it has reduced the theological framework that was present in the first edition of this guidance (e.g., paragraphs 16, 17 and 23). For Christians, such a biblical and theological account of human life and sexuality is the only way to establish the “climate of truth” (as well as love and acceptance) that the guidance encourages. What remains is a somewhat sentimental portrayal of humanity that appears to enshrine universalism at the heart of Christian education: “no child or young person can leave a Church of England school without a sense of their own belovedness and without being offered honour as a person of divine indwelling.” Divine indwelling is a description that Christian theology reserves for Christian believers, and if we cannot distinguish between those who subscribe to the Christian faith and those who do not, then we are going to struggle in both our prophetic and pastoral roles in society. There is a risk that we end up painting a Christian linguistic veneer on what is essentially a secular narrative (ably supplied by the two Stonewall employees who contributed to the report).

Ideals and normality
Thirdly, how can we speak of the ideals of God’s design for human life in a culture that doesn’t recognise those ideals and, in a whole range of ways, is not living in line with those ideals? The Christian virtue of hospitality is a valuable one to employ in this context when considering difference, but many will object to the call to “celebrate the wonderful variety of different ways of being human,” to the extent to which these various ways fall short of God’s ideals. Furthermore, the guidance says, “It may be best to avoid labels and assumptions which deem children’s behaviour irregular, abnormal or problematic just because it does not conform to gender stereotypes or today’s play preferences.” This is to be commended for discouraging a premature application of labels (LGBT or otherwise), but, at the same time, isn’t part of growing up learning what is ab/normal and how boundaries, whether creational or cultural, function?

The challenge of Christian homes
Fourthly, there is an assumption that a strong Christian home makes life more difficult for young people in exploring their identity. For example, it is asserted with no supporting evidence that “Pupils with a strong family faith background can find navigating perceived home expectations and peer expectations particularly tricky.” While that will be the experience of some, it is rather misleading to omit the beautiful examples of a strong family faith background offering magnificent support to young people navigating these issues. How long is it before loving Christian homes are seen by the authorities as a threat to safeguarding children’s welfare?

Defining bullying
Fifthly, the report presents an inadequate definition of bullying, namely, “behaviour or language which makes a person feel unwelcome or marginalised.” This is fundamentally different to the Government’s primary definition of bullying, which specifies activity that is repeated and intentional, a definition that is echoed in Stonewall’s HBT bullying guidance. This Government/Stonewall definition serves to exclude activity that is one-off or accidental. With the CofE guidance relying exclusively on the victim’s feelings, a single explanation of the traditional Christian view on marriage or gender could count as bullying, if it causes them to “feel unwelcome or marginalised.” Do we really want teachers to face the threat of suspension because of an accidental and one-off misuse of pronouns or an honest explanation of the CofE’s teaching on marriage?

For these reasons, I have serious reservations about the guidance and the impact, particularly on Christian children, that will result. Bullying is evil, and ought to be addressed at all levels and in all forms. Nevertheless, a misjudged solution to a misdiagnosed problem can do more harm than good.

This is a situation where the less-is-more principle should have been applied. I never thought I would find myself saying this, but Stonewall’s guidance on this area is actually better (although still problematic), because it says less. We can all agree that bullying is wrong, even if we do not agree on the ethics of gender and sexual identity. Can I make a plea, then, that Valuing all God’s Children should be revised at the earliest possible opportunity?

John Percival is a PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge and the Production Editor of Churchman.

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