It is July. It is time for General Synod in York. This is the kick-back Synod. Time for sandals and open-necked shirts, strawberries and ice cream, and clergy not looking clerical, except for the ones who always do. But the external relaxedness masks some serious business.
Three pieces of business around sexuality and gender issues are to come before Synod. GSMisc 1158, the House of Bishops’ proposals replacing the ill-fated report GS2055; A motion from Blackburn Diocese, GS 2071A Welcoming Transgender People; and Jayne Ozanne’s Private Member’s Motion on Conversion Therapy, supported by GS 2070A.
Jayne’s motion asks for Synod to endorse a statement from January this year, signed by a number of significant professional medical bodies, as well as some advocacy groups, describing so-called Conversion Therapy “unethical and harmful”, and proscribing its use by their members. Jayne’s motion also asks for the Archbishops’ Council to become a co-signatory to the statement.
The Blackburn motion, which has been long-delayed, says this:
“That this Synod, recognizing the need for transgender people to be welcomed and affirmed in their parish church, call on the House of Bishops to consider whether some nationally commended liturgical materials might be prepared to mark a person’s gender transition.”
It is the first time trans people’s concerns have ever been debated by General Synod. Interestingly, its focus is on liturgical provision around transition. A most useful background paper by Dr Tina Beardsley, resourcing this debate, can be found here.
The House of Bishops, rocked by the rejection of their previous proposals, found the way ahead was sketched out by the letter of the two Archbishops published on 16th February 2017. In it the Archbishops stated: “we need a radical new Christian inclusion in the Church. This must be founded in scripture, in reason, in tradition, in theology and the Christian faith as the Church of England has received it; it must be based on good, healthy, flourishing relationships, and in a proper 21st century understanding of being human and of being sexual.”
GS Misc 1158 is their attempt to put flesh on the bones of that.
Sometimes the Church of England does some good things, some very good things, in relation to restoring dignity to people. It is not afraid of supporting refugees, both practically and politically. Its best work is seen in the way it responds to a disaster like Grenfell Tower – the local Church of England churches quickly became a centre of support, action, and care for the homeless, bereaved and traumatised people of North Kensington. It works well ecumenically and across all faiths and none, and there is no sense of this help being given conditionally or with strings attached. Among many churches and faith groups it is also Church of England churches that have enthusiastically set up and maintained food banks for those for whom austerity has had a very real practical impact.
These General Synod motions talk, variously, about the restoration of human dignity principally to people who are on the inside. Of course, the Church of England doesn’t have an inside and an outside quite like other churches. It is the established church of the land, and therefore all English citizens have a proper interest in its actions and policies, even in its theologies, however inexplicable they may seem to many. Nevertheless, these motions are really for internal consumption. They deal, as so much Church of England business has over the years, with one of the really intractable difficulties the Church has made for itself, how it is to treat people in their sexual and gendered variety in the Church.
UK society has answered that question. Drawing on the traditions of human rights thinking that arise from very diverse sources, but which find their summation in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, our society has worked its way around, over the last fifty years or so, to thinking that no group should be discriminated against by virtue of its difference. (It is not insignificant that the principal author of that Declaration, John Peters Humphrey, was a Canadian, who, as a disabled and parentless boy, was relentlessly bullied when he was at school.) It has legislated to this effect, and so, while people can be racist or sexist or homophobic at home or in their heads, they can’t behave that way in public.
The Church of England has gone some way towards accepting this social change. And some way to resisting it. There was never any question of the Church of England seeking opt-outs from race discrimination legislation. Why so? Perhaps, because a significant number of prominent English clergy were working in South Africa and were implacably opposed to the doctrine of separate development of the races. They saw and understood the injustice, cruelty and oppression that was the consequence of that doctrine, and had worked with the majority black populations. So, while racism was a danger in the 1960s in England, church leaders supported efforts to end race discrimination here. Its own internal record on supporting and developing ethnic minority leaders has been very poor in the past, but it has the theoretical tools and is making some effort to support doing a better job on that.
It has been less successful with its attitude to women. Resistance to equality between men and women in society is very deep-rooted. There is still a gender pay gap, and women still don’t get paid the same as men for equal work. In the Church of England moves to equalise opportunities for women to offer their gifts and talents in God’s service have come very slowly and rather incompletely. Theological justifications and ecclesiastical arrangements for unequal treatment have been enshrined and solidified rather than being discouraged.
But it is with its attitudes to gender variance and differences of sexual orientation that the Church of England has drifted away dangerously from the ethical moorings of the country as a whole. It isn’t simply that it wishes to act differently. It is that the country now understands the equal treatment of all its citizens to be a foundational moral principle. Doing anything less than this is understood by the vast majority of citizens not simply to be undesirable, but at a profound level, immoral and unethical.
But this ethical thinking does not cut any ice with those who consider homosexual relations to be against the Word of God, or who think that gender dysmorphia is a wicked temptation to be fought against. How then can we frame the debates that are coming in Synod in such a way that they might start to make some sense to that minority of people who are so implacably opposed to change?
I want to suggest that there is in our tradition, and in the Scriptures, an enormously powerful recognition of the significance of the encounter of the individual with the divine. This encounter, from the beginnings of the human story as we have been told it, shapes the sense of self by that encounter. I become who I am through the I-Thou encounter (as Martin Buber put it). Abraham, Moses, Samuel, Mary. But also the unknown and the nameless – the woman who touches Jesus in the crowd, the disciples on the road to Emmaus. Among the great names of Biblical history there is an over-riding sense of the story of God’s action through these encounters, working and changing lives for greater purposes, but there are also two other things worthy of note.
First, it is not always about a great call. It is always first of all a recognition of people’s unique and wonderful personhood. That they are themselves before God, and in that meeting know themselves to be themselves. Sometimes fearful, they are always reassured, but they often simply encounter love, and they know themselves to be loved.
Secondly, no one but God tells them who they are. They find out for themselves what it means to be who they are. Indeed, the attempts by others to shape the identity of individuals is often a disaster for people who think they know best who someone else is. As GS Misc 1158 puts it:
If we would presume to say anything on this subject, we must know that we are talking about and talking to people, with their immense capacities for joy and for pain, created in the divine image and precious in God’s sight in ways we can barely begin to fathom.(my emphasis)
There is an unalienable dignity about being who you are before God. It is deeply rooted in Scripture, and it has been worked out by followers of Christ in human history time and time again. It has not been an uncomplicated matter – and for pioneers it has often been painful and costly, and sometimes lonely. It has been through this process that so many people’s gifts and talents have been liberated for the service of others.
Here is a new way to look at these matters. It is biblical, it is rooted in the Christian tradition, and its ethical foundations arise directly from the value that is in everyone because of their status as a child of God. Out of this essential vocation come all the other possibilities of human becoming.
So, of course we should make provision for trans people to find a way of marking their new identities. They know who they are – they certainly don’t need us to tell them if they are allowed to be themselves. What they need us to do is to support them. They and God know the truth of their personhood – and loving communities around them, marking important moments of transition will start to liberate the potential within them for their own wellbeing, and for the good of their families and communities.
Conversion therapies wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for religious people keen to tell others who they can and can’t be. But that is not their job. They are the most dangerous and damaging example of religious pressure imaginable. Evidence of the harm they do is well-documented. In the matter of human dignity, any solution to a human conundrum that pretends to know the end from the beginning attempts to bypass the relationship of individuals with God, and should be resisted by all those who know the foundational importance of that encounter.
GS Misc 1158 is not a document to make the heart beat faster. It outlines a lengthy process towards a teaching document by 2020. That makes nine years since the establishment of the Group that produced the Pilling Review. This latest document is clear that it wants to be working towards “radical inclusion”. Yet the membership of the group tasked with producing the report has only one person on it who is confidently and openly homosexual. And no one who is transgendered. The Pastoral Advisory Group is hardly better. Notably absent is anyone from the main campaigning groups in this field – OneBodyOneFaith, Inclusive Church, LGBTI Mission. The only person identifiable with a particular perspective is Sam Allberry (who would describe himself as Same-Sex Attracted) from Living Out, – a very small group, who think they know what God wants for all LGBTI people.
It is all very pedestrian, and still very exclusive. Voices that might upset the apple cart are carefully left out of the inner circle. It is still trying to manage a ‘problem’, for all that it says it isn’t. But what it fails to do is to accord to people the dignity that is theirs in Christ, and then to work outwards from that. It feels like an exercise in treading water in the hope that something might come along and save us, but with little expectation. It still reeks of fear and anxiety.
But our faith has told us the way forward. It is to stop trying to tell people who they can and should be, and instead to embrace the dignity that God has already given them. It is to stop boxing them and reducing them and telling them that they cannot exercise their gifts because they don’t come in an acceptable package, and instead to welcome them in all their complexity and beauty, and to accompany them in their discipleship as they respond to the call of God. It is to listen to the divine voice that says, as it always does, “Fear not.”
I shall pray for Synod members. I shall pray for them to welcome and pass The Blackburn and Ozanne motions. And I shall hope that they will try and amend GS Misc 1158, so that it can truly do what it says it wants to do and make a real contribution to the “radical inclusion” our Archbishops set as the goal of our transformation in this area.
I talked this weekend to a young woman who is a member of the Church of England. She is a Millennial – a grouping beloved of our leaders. She is a regular worshipper, someone who is serious about her faith. She has thought about whether or not she might have a vocation to ordained ministry. She talked about the possibility of getting married. What she said was that she wasn’t sure that she wanted to get married in church, because she didn’t want to be married using rites that implied that same-sex couples couldn’t be married as well. I was a little saddened to hear that – but then again, I thought she understood what radical inclusion really means. What it has always meant through the centuries. That human dignity in all its variety comes from God, and we should be fighting to honour it, not to diminish and demean it.