Common Roots: Ancient Evangelical Future Conference

Transitioning the liturgy

Lee Gatiss castes a gimlet eye over the bishops guidance on gender transition

The House of Bishops of the Church of England has issued guidance on the use of liturgy to mark and celebrate a person’s gender transition. This follows a statement from the Bishops in January (responding to a motion at General Synod in July 2017) that the existing rite of affirmation of baptismal faith could be used for this purpose.

Church Society and other groups responded then, as we also have on previous occasions (see below for examples). We continue to have extremely serious concerns.

The bishops start by affirming that all people are welcome at church and celebrating the diversity of the body of Christ. Those are things that every evangelical Christian would want to endorse enthusiastically. Our astonishment at God’s amazing grace, that embraces even a sinner like me, drives us to want others to share in that too.

However, this guidance is highly problematic for a number of reasons:

Distorting liturgy
As we noted back in January, this liturgy is not fit for this purpose. There is nothing in it that looks like a naming ceremony, so it is odd to use it to mark and celebrate a person’s gender transition. The transition it is intended to celebrate is a transition to public faith in Christ via repentance and baptism, not a transition from male to female or female to male via medical or cosmetic alterations.

A Christian service will always have a penitent, sorrowful aspect, as well as notes of celebration. Salvation demands repentance, an acknowledgement that our sin has marred our past. The impact of our fallen world on our past also calls for lament and intercession. By specifying only “celebration”, therefore, this guidance smothers a vital aspect of a truly gospel-shaped liturgy. Focusing on unqualified affirmation and being “guided by the wishes of the candidate” does not help clergy know what to do when they find those wishes to be contrary to Scripture and the wider liturgical framework.

The repurposing of liturgy like this is troubling. As a church whose doctrine is derived from Scripture and expressed in our liturgy, transitioning the meaning and purpose of liturgy looks like changing our fundamental doctrine by stealth.

Why is what this says a problem?
The Affirmation of Baptismal Faith, as the name suggests, has at its heart the same declaration of faith used in the service of baptism.

There, candidates are asked (along with the whole church) whether they “believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.”

However, to use this service to mark and celebrate a person’s gender transition undermines the words spoken. The new context asserts that God’s creation — whereby humankind is made male and female — is not good, such that it needs to be remade, sometimes aggressively physically, at the deep level of a person’s identity. It is true that the Fall has introduced a diversity of psychological and biological problems into our embodied existence. Nevertheless the scientific basis, let alone the theological and ethical basis, of medical intervention or social transition in response to gender dysphoria is far from established.

The candidates are asked (along with the whole church) whether they “believe in Jesus Christ, [God’s] only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, [and] born of the Virgin Mary…”

At this time of year, churches up and down the country and across the world are preparing to celebrate the wonderful mystery of the incarnation, in which the eternal Son of God took to himself a human nature “for us and for our salvation.” At countless services, the glorious words of John chapter 1 will again be heard: “the word became flesh and dwelt among us.” That language of “flesh” is theologically rich, and clearly means more than just referring to him having a body. However, it does not mean less than that: Jesus’s incarnation not only reveals God to us, he also reveals the nature of our own humanity, that our physical embodiment matters and is a good gift of the good God. That includes the gift of being male or female.

The candidates are asked (along with the whole church) whether they “believe in God the Holy Spirit…”

The Holy Spirit, as he dwells in his people, makes us new by giving us new hearts, new desires, enabling us to put self to death as we take up our cross and follow the Lord Jesus (in the company of all the “communion of saints”). That battle is constant and unending, hence the need to be called to faith in “the forgiveness of sins.” Which means that throughout this life we will all experience, in different ways, disordered desires and conflicting identities — until we arrive at the “resurrection of the body” at the return of the Lord Jesus.

Does this matter?
Some may say that this guidance is not as radical as it could have been, for various reasons (e.g. it is not providing a new liturgy as such, which some demanded, or allowing re-baptism). We gladly acknowledge the role that some of the evangelical bishops, in particular, have played in that. However, that does not mean that it is not bad, and worryingly so.

One point especially has already attracted a degree of confusion: The fact that the bishop’s statement is described as “guidance” has meant that some have taken this to be of no real force, just offering some guidelines that people may follow or not as they wish and so will not have any impact.

This misses the role that bishops’ guidance has. It is the basis on which many liturgical texts and practices are permitted within the Church of England. Previous “pastoral guidance” issued by the House of Bishops was also recognised as evidence for the doctrine of the Church of England, in the Pemberton Employment Appeal Tribunal for example, with disciplinary consequences.

Others, seeing all this, have expressed concern that churches will be forced to offer this service. That concern may be misplaced — since it is “pastoral guidance” there is pastoral discretion whether to offer the service or not. It does not seem mandatory to do so, though some clarity on that would be welcomed because this could have significant impact on those who in good conscience cannot follow this guidance and celebrate an action that they would consider regrettable, unwise, and even wrong (on the basis of some scientific studies as well as from a theological point of view).

However, even though this may not change what happens in a particular parish church, it does affect the context within which we all operate, and it sends conflicting signals to our communities and our nation. It strongly implies that gender transition is a good thing to do, which most are far from convinced it is.

In other ways, this is also deeply un-pastoral. The guidance says, “If members of their family are to be present, the minister will wish to be sensitive to their pastoral needs.” Yet it fails to give any pastoral guidance on how to deal with pertinent complexities, such as how to be sensitive to those family members who may have been negatively impacted by a transition (e.g. because it precipitated a marital breakdown or other pastoral difficulties) and who may be deeply hurt by the holding of such a service.

There are two consequences for our situation in the Church of England: one for the bishops and one for evangelicals more generally.

As Anglicans, we take our bishops seriously. However, offering pastoral guidance that has no clear or careful engagement with Scripture and doctrine makes that harder. The bishops suggest various biblical readings as “appropriate” for a celebration of transition, such as Genesis 17 where God changes Sarai’s name to Sarah, and Genesis 32 where Jacob is given the new name Israel. These suggest a highly superficial handling of Scripture to make them seem relevant.

It would have been much better to act on more substantial and careful theological and biblical reflection, perhaps in the forthcoming suite of documents called Living in Love and Faith that we are promised in 2020. It is a great pity this has been pre-empted.

Moreover, the bishops’ denial that they are offering new services or changing official doctrine, paired with the repurposing of liturgy for a new and different context, will feel like sophistry to many. This too will make it more difficult to trust our bishops, and a great many will refuse point blank to follow this guidance and hold such services, whatever the cost may be for doing so.

Secondly, as evangelicals, we care deeply about people — both in this life and for the life to come. We rely daily on the promise of Jesus that “the truth will set you free” (John 8:32). There is no tension between the truth of God’s word and loving people: if we love them, we will want to share with them the truth that we have received.

That is why we care about issues within the Church of England — because the people it serves are important to us and to God. At this time of year, countless churches will be sharing God’s gracious welcome with people and pointing them to the Son of God, born to bear our sin and our brokenness so that we might be made whole.

That is where our heartbeat is. Yet, because we want to see that wholeness brought into the whole of people’s lives, we have to care about issues like this.

Regrettably, however, there will be people who find themselves more estranged from the Church of England as a result of the bishops’ statement.

Reprinted from the Church Society

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