The Anglican Church of Canada has prepared a set of gender-themed liturgies for trial use, including a blessing on gender transition, that the church’s director of Faith, Worship and Ministry says could be the first of their kind for a national church in the Anglican Communion if they are eventually authorized.
On Nov. 6, Council of General Synod (CoGS) voted to commend Pastoral Liturgies for Journeys of Gender Transition and Affirmation for study, trial use, evaluation and feedback for a one-year period where permitted by bishops. The liturgies, a supplement to the Book of Alternative Services, include a blessing on the gender transition process, an affirmation of gender identity, additional prayers and pastoral prayer resources, suggested Bible readings and an appropriate hymnody.
Liturgies to mark gender transition and affirmation for transgender Christians are available in a number of Anglican Communion provinces, but primarily at the local or diocesan level, says the Rev. Eileen Scully, director of Faith, Worship and Ministry for General Synod.
There are two exceptions at the national church level. The Episcopal Church (TEC) in the United States voted at its 2018 General Convention to authorize “A Service of Renaming.” But whereas TEC’s liturgy is intended to mark any experience that has led a baptized person to adopt a new name, the Anglican Church of Canada’s Pastoral Liturgies for Journeys of Gender Transition and Affirmation explicitly refer to gender identity, transgender, cisgender and intersex individuals.
“Rather than starting from the idea of a generic renaming for whatever occasion… we decided we were starting from the point of pastoral relationship with transgender persons,” says Scully, who wrote the liturgies in close partnership with a consultative body which met at her invitation to inform the work.
Meanwhile, in 2017, the Rev. Christina Beardsley, a Church of England priest, had written a background paper for discussion in the General Synod of the Church of England which called upon the House of Bishops to produce a liturgy to mark gender transition. Ultimately, however, in 2018, the church’s House of Bishops did not recommend development of a specific liturgy, but instead a modified affirmation of baptismal vows for transgender Christians to commemorate new names and identities.
In this context, and in the wake of General Synod 2019, when a contentious vote to amend the marriage canon to allow same-sex marriage failed to pass, Archbishop Linda Nicholls, primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, held a discussion with LGBTQ+ Anglicans to listen to their concerns.
“Coming out of General Synod and what were emerging issues for the LGBTQ2S+ community, and given the pain that many people felt coming out of 2019, I wanted to hear from the community,” Nicholls said.
“One of the things that emerged from that was a realization that our church still thinks very much in binary terms of male and female and did not have any ways of acknowledging the emerging pastoral concerns for transgender people,” she added.
“It has always been the place of the church to respond pastorally to the needs of people in their relationship with God and with each other. Realizing that this is not a new question—I had come across it in my own ministry as a parish priest—was there a way in which we could reflect that pastoral need in the life of the church, as we always do, through liturgy?”
The group consisted of around 15 people, mostly transgender Anglicans but also a few “allies”—non-trans people actively involved in trans advocacy—from across Canada, who would meet with Scully on a monthly basis and provide feedback on drafts.
The transgender consultative body, in discussing and writing the Canadian liturgies, built upon approximately 20 rites authorized by dioceses or parishes. These included TEC’s “Service for Renaming” as well as liturgies from dioceses and parishes in the United States, England and Australia.
Mindful of a 2010 General Synod resolution calling on the church to “embrace the outcast and stand against the abuse and torment of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender persons,” Scully says, the group focused on what transgender Anglicans saw themselves as needing in terms of the worship life of the church.
In two books co-written with United Reformed Church minister the Rev. Chris Dowd, Beardsley responded to conservative theology around gender that looks back to the Book of Genesis and the distinction between male and female in terms of Adam and Eve. Studying Paul’s writings to the Romans, Beardsley said that when Paul writes about the “new Adam” he uses the Greek word anthropos, referring to humanity in general, rather than andros, meaning an adult male person.
“Although [Christianity] has followed cultural norms about gender wherever it’s been lived and expressed, there is in its theology and its foundation documents in the New Testament a considerable focus on our humanity and not on our gender,” Beardsley said.
This focus on humanity rather than gender find reflection in one of the liturgies CoGS commended for trial use, “A Blessing Over the Process of Gender Transition”. This blessing states that according to Scripture, the “first human’s gender is more poetic than clear cut—this first human embodiment included maleness, femaleness, and more than these—all of this was affirmed as very good.”
The Rev. Theo Robinson, a transgender priest at Interlake Regional Shared Ministry and consultative body member, called approval of the liturgies for trial use “an amazing step forward into full inclusion.”
“I’ve had such excellent support [as a transgender person] in the diocese of Rupert’s Land and it just floored me every step of the way, but I know that isn’t the case for everybody,” Robinson said. “I think the more churches out there start actively using these liturgies, the more inclusive the Anglican Church is going to be visibly to others, which I think is going to be amazing.”
Although CoGS has approved the liturgies for trial use and feedback, not all Canadian Anglicans believe the church has done sufficient preparatory work.
Sharon Dewey Hetke, national director of the Anglican Communion Alliance (ACA)—which describes itself as “an organization that affirms classical Anglicanism”—said putting forward a trial liturgy was premature and that further discussion of relevant theological issues is needed.
“Especially for us as Anglicans, a change in liturgy really is a change in doctrine in the sense that our liturgies are core to who we are as Anglicans,” Hetke said. “The way that we pray and worship together is essentially the source of our formalized doctrine.”
Hetke expressed appreciation for the formal feedback process on the Anglican Church of Canada website. The ACA, she noted, has already started to do theological work on issues raised by these rites and prayers.
“We look forward to contributing in a helpful way to that [feedback] process,” Hetke said. “But we think that the theological questions really do need to be addressed first in order for us to move forward together as a church.
“The issue of gender identity raises many theological questions, we think—for example, around what the scriptures would tell us about embodiment and identity. What we learn about the doctrine of creation … what does it mean to be a creature, a created being, and to see our lives and our bodies as specially designed by God and as created gifts from God? The doctrine of the fall—how do we see ourselves, all of us, as part of God’s good creation, broken yet in the process of being healed and redeemed?”
“As an Anglican, speaking personally, I’m really happy to be part of a church where we can have conversations on really tough and complex issues,” she added. “But I just want us to do those conversations well and respectfully and not shying away from the tough theological work that needs to be done.”
The Rev. Margaret Rodrigues (they/them), a transgender priest and member of the working group, has served as lead for transgender ministry in the diocese of Toronto since 2014. For Rodrigues, approval of the liturgies for trial use represents a spirit of optimism, acceptance, caring and love on the part of the church towards its transgender members, their friends, family and allies.
“It will be wonderfully encouraging to be able to say [to trans Anglicans] that yes, our churches do have liturgies for the events in your life and if you are hoping to change your name, reaffirm your identity, have surgery, whatever it may be, there are liturgies that the church can officially use… to affirm these events in your life—to make these events in your life special as part of your spiritual journey, because that didn’t exist before,” Rodrigues said.
Rodrigues also believed the liturgies would help increase understanding among cisgender parishioners—those whose gender identity corresponds to their sex at birth—of the challenges trans people face.
“I see this liturgical work as the thin end of a very large wedge to create a much greater understanding of the needs of trans people in society in general,” Rodrigues said. “That’s why I think it’s hugely important.”
The Pastoral Liturgies for Journeys of Gender Transition and Affirmation are currently available for download at anglican.ca/about/liturgicaltexts/trialuse. Anyone who downloads the liturgies can submit their name and email address; they will then receive evaluation forms to provide feedback on the rites.
At the end of the trial period in November 2022, FWM will collect evaluations and discern whether more changes or feedback are needed. The liturgies must then go to CoGS again with a motion for General Synod to provide formal authorization.