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Transgender liturgies?

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Posted by Tim Edwards, 1 Feb 2018

Tim Edwards responds to the bishops' advice on welcoming transgender people into church using the existing Affirmation of Baptism service.

Recent headlines reported: “Church of England bishops have blocked the introduction of a new prayer celebrating a transgender person’s change of sex”. It became clear, however, that matters are regrettably rather more complicated than that.

Good Intentions?
The bishops were responding to a resolution of synod that began with “recognising the need for transgender people to be welcomed and affirmed in their parish church”. And as an intention that is entirely good and right. Of course, we want to see everyone welcomed in their parish church and where that is lacking it shows a serious failure to live up to and express the gospel, which shows us God’s loving welcome of all kinds of people, on the basis of his love shown in the cross of the Lord Jesus. If we are to take it in its standard dictionary definition of “Offer (someone) emotional support or encouragement” , then affirmation is absolutely what should be on offer, as it is what we all need as we respond to the challenging demands of following Jesus.

However, good intentions are not sufficient. Unless well-informed, we are all familiar with the harm that they can do.

The guidance offered by the bishops is regrettable, because the liturgy it suggests does not fit. It disregards our true identity and seems to redefine Church doctrine by stealth, without any proper reflection on what the Bible says about human identity and gender.

This service for this occasion?

The rite of affirmation of baptismal faith is an odd choice for this situation: the service, after asking whether someone has been baptised, merely reiterates the decision and profession of faith from baptism and the call to discipleship.

There is nothing here that looks like a naming ceremony or similar, so there is no provision within this service – as it stands – to validate a transition in identity and/or gender. It is hard to avoid the implication that some significant level of adaption is envisaged, which calls into question how far it can truly be said that there is no new liturgy. (It also hardly makes sense to issue the recommendation of the liturgy, but delay giving any guidance on its use until “later in 2018”).

Who am I?
The Affirmation of Baptism service repeatedly underlines the Biblical truth that baptism declares a new identity – the identity that we were created to bear (in the image of God, as male and female), an identity renewed in Christ (who bore our brokenness and sin on the cross, so that we might know that wholeness of his resurrection), and an identity brought to life in the Holy Spirit (not obliterating our individual characteristics, as paragraph 6 of the Bishops’ statement wrongly implies).

To use this service then to celebrate an alternative identity – one created by us – seems disingenuous.

What are we saying?
The liturgy of the church is one of the ways that we publicly say what we believe and who we are based on what God has said.

What we believe is not something that is to be changed lightly or by stealth, because it is determined (as Canon A5 of the Church of England reminds us) by what God has revealed in Holy Scripture. As the church’s shepherds, to whom the well-being of the folk is committed, rather than doing things by stealth, the bishops would do well to proclaim the message of the Scriptures, which welcomes all kinds of people, which provides the support we need, and which alone can bring the wholeness that broken people need.

Further comment on the Bishops’ statement can be found on Martin Davie’s blog: A failure to take sex seriously.

Tim Edwards is Rector of St Katharine's, Knockholt and St Margaret's, Halstead, and a member of Church Society council.

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