By Zachary Guiliano
In the lead-up to the Church of England’s General Synod on Feb. 20-23, a debate stirred about pastoral guidance related to welcoming transgender people in English parishes.
On December 11, Church House announced the release of “Pastoral Guidance for use in conjunction with the Affirmation of Baptismal Faith in the context of gender transition.” The announcement said the guidance would be incorporated into Common Worship, the church’s authorized collection of alternative and supplemental liturgies.
The guidance was framed as a response to a motion from the July 2017 meeting of General Synod recognizing “the need for transgender people to be welcomed and affirmed in their parish church” and calling “on the House of Bishops to consider whether some national commended liturgical materials might be prepared to mark a person’s gender transition.”
Three transgender priests, the Rev. Tina Beardsley, the Rev. Sarah Jones, and the Rev. Canon Rachel Mann, were named as consultants. Beardsley claimed in an interview with Premier Radio that clergy would be obliged to follow the document’s recommendations.
The guidance commends (a technical term in church canons) using Common Worship’s liturgy for the Affirmation of Baptismal Faith as “the natural liturgical context for recognizing and celebrating their identity in Christ and God’s love for them.” Recommended changes to the rite are few but significant.
The document suggests that addressing the person with a newly adopted name or pronouns could be a “powerful moment in the service,” comparing such a moment to the “giving and adoption” of new names in Scripture and in services involving monastic profession.
It also suggests that the rite may include “anointing with the oil of chrism” to symbolize entrance into “the blessings of the Messianic age,” as well as giving gifts, like a Bible “inscribed with the person’s new name.” Commended biblical readings, such as the renaming of Jacob, reinforce these ceremonial options.
Reaction at the time of release was muted, and Church House staff were not soon available for comment, nor were some bishops involved in the process.
But some members of the House of Bishops, the Liturgical Commission, and other senior members of the Church of England expressed discontent with the process, and their limited ability to comment on and suggest changes to the rite. These members were not willing to speak on the record or be named. London’s Times reported that at least 10 members of the House of Bishops had recorded their opposition to the guidance, as well as their expectation that many clergy would boycott it.
The release of the guidance surprised some, since the Church of England is currently engaged in Living in Love and Faith, a wide-ranging project exploring sexuality, gender identity, and human relationships. That project’s final report is due in July 2020, and is likely to be discussed at the Lambeth Conference that year.
The Rev. Ian Paul, a member of Archbishops’ Council and General Synod, and a popular theologian and blogger, wrote a piece on his Psephizo weblog on Dec. 13, which was widely circulated on social media. Paul said the guidance could appear as if it creates a new liturgy and touches on the church’s teaching regarding sexual identity, two things the House of Bishops said it would not do. Moreover, the guidance did not adequately address a variety of pastoral issues involved in welcoming transgender people.
Paul wrote: “The House of Bishops are, to many people, now looking either incompetent, incoherent or duplicitous in this move, and without further comment and response, they will be inviting members of the Church to make their own decision as to which is the best description.”
Tashi Lasalle, director of communications at Church House, told TLC before Christmas that the rite was not intended to pre-empt the broader explorations of Living in Love and Faith. It “was approved by the House of Bishops delegation committee … and shared with the full House as a paper.”
The bishops approved the document as deemed business, she said.
She stated that clergy are under no obligation to use the recommendations.
The story took on life again in the new year, with a statement on Jan. 10 from William Nye, secretary general to the General Synod and to the Archbishops’ Council. He confirmed prior details released privately by the Church of England’s communications team. “The pastoral guidance is not intended as a restatement or a new statement on matters relating to gender,” he wrote. “The guidance makes no change to the Church’s teaching.”
He too noted that use of the guidance was not prescriptive, nor were priests required to offer the rite described in it to any particular transgender adult, but they “should find appropriate ways to offer welcome and pastoral care, as they would to all people.”
The issue continues to develop. On Jan. 25 the Church Times reported on the appearance of an open letter and website, “Response to the House of Bishops,” which asks the House to “revise, postpone, or withdraw” its guidance.
It has been signed by nearly 3,000 members of the Church of England, over 1,000 of whom are serving clergy. Numbers continue to climb each day.
Signatories include the Archdeacons of Bath and Wells, Carlisle, Guildford, Hastings, and 22 area or rural deans. Six retired bishops have signed: Kenneth Barham, Colin Bazley, Graham Dow, Richard Inwood, Henry Scriven, and Michael Nazir-Ali.
The Rev. Rachel Marzsalek, a signatory, was interviewed on the BBC on Feb. 3 and noted the broad base of support that the letter has among evangelical and Anglo-Catholic Anglicans. Invoking the principle of lex orandi, lex credendi, she said, “What we speak out truly reveals our faith, so changes in liturgy are important.”
Ian Paul, also a signatory, described the numbers as unprecedented in recent times. “But the most important thing here is not simply the numbers, but the fact that the letter highlights really important doctrinal, liturgy and pastoral issues that have not been adequately addressed.”
The letter says that the signatories welcome everyone and that “gender dysphoria is an emotionally painful experience that requires understanding, support and compassion.” It adds: “We do not believe that the guidance is the right way to do this, since it raises some significant issues for the church’s belief and practice.”
Meanwhile, LGBT groups and allies, such as OneBodyOneFaith, LGBTIFaithUK, and ViaMedia.News, have begun a counter-organization, and a new letter supporting the current guidance has appeared in the Church Times, with nearly 600 signatories. The Rev. Jo Kershaw organized that response.
The Bishop of Liverpool, Paul Bayes, was also interviewed by the BBC, and he argued that the proposed changes had “all been done above board.”
“It will be great to hear the objections … but I think when the church speaks in the way that it has, then what the church says should be honored, and people who want to have their transition recognized now have a way to do it, which I think is great.”
Bayes did not respond directly to the BBC when asked whether the church had done enough theological study about gender identity, though he asserted that “there is no new doctrine.”