Transgender: pastoral and prophetic responses
By Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream.
Our thinking about sex and gender is being shaped, not by philosophical discussions, descriptions of a way of thinking, abstract point-by-point reasoning. Rather, we’re being presented with stories about people, whether it’s fictional characters on a soap opera who we come to admire and identify with, or real individuals, like the woman I heard being interviewed on the radio some weeks ago. Megan, from Brighton, was talking about Alice, her daughter. Alice was born with male accoutrements and so was originally, ‘mistakenly’, called “Adam”, but as she grew up she showed a preference for a female persona. “When she said she wanted to be a girl, I was delighted”, gushes Megan, “and we’re now beginning the process of transitioning, so eventually Alice’s body conforms more to who she really is. I know the risks: she’ll have a higher chance of mental health problems later, but that’s because of stigma in society against trans people”.
The interviewer asks gently: “and how are friends and family responding?”
“Everyone is completely supportive. We’ve had so many ‘likes’ on social media. In the school, Alice is Alice, she plays with the girls and uses their toilets, and all the children are being taught that we are all free to be who we want to be. A couple of parents did question it but I’m glad to say they’ve been firmly put in their place and told that bigotry will not be tolerated”.
A story closer to home has reached the national media this week. A fourteen year old girl has decided she’s a boy. Her parents will not let her begin the process of transition, believing that they are responsible for her welfare, and that their daughter has been influenced in this direction by others including a social worker. The girl has complained to the local authority, who are backing her wishes against those of the parents, and are threatening to take the girl away from her family so she can be free to pursue the search for her gender identity. The parents, we are told, are committed Christians, and are being supported in their legal case by Christian Legal Centre.
There are several important questions that need to be asked when confronted with the new social reality that has nurtured the transgender phenomenon. Depending on our personality, our life experience, our understanding of Christian faith, some questions may resonate more than others:
- how should I, and the Church, respond to transgender people?
- What does the Bible say about sex and gender, and about suffering, sin and salvation?
- What does ‘gender theory’ (the idea that our gender identity is in our mind, not our body) mean for all of us when it is promoted in society and enforced in law?
- Where has this new thinking come from?
- What will happen to freedom to believe and practice orthodox Christian faith in the West?
- What should we do?
Many of these questions will be addressed at the Conference led by Christian Concern on 11-12 November in London.
Two recent books explore some of the questions in more detail. Vaughan Roberts, Rector of St Ebbe’s Church, Oxford, takes on the issue of Transgender as part of the new ‘Talking Points’ series from the Good Book Company. His main concerns are summarized by the first two questions on the above list. Some people suffer from ‘gender dysphoria’; the science is unclear why; these are suffering individuals coping with interior stresses rather than actively representing an agenda or ideology. They are not just people ‘out there’ like the media stories at the start of this piece. Adam/Alice may be in our church or our workplace or family.
Christians should not respond with disgust, “yuk”, but nor can we simply endorse with a “yes” the worldview of someone who has rejected their body’s sex and is creating a new gender identity. Vaughan then takes the reader through an overview of biblical theology of personhood from creation to revelation. Sin has brought about sickness and disorder; human thinking is corrupted (there is a clear exposition of Romans 1:18ff), but the good news is about God’s rescue plan through Christ. Unlike contemporary thinking which locates me as the centre of the universe, and authenticity coming from affirming my desires, Scripture tells us that Jesus is the hero and the centre, my identity comes from union with him, and by conforming my desires to God’s will.
While Vaughan’s book does mention the need for some Christians to contend for public truth in these areas, the main emphasis of the book is pastoral and evangelistic. Writer Daniel Moody is more interested in the impact on all of society when a man legally takes the identity of a woman, and vice versa.
Daniel’s book uses simple analogies to explain and deconstruct what is going on. If the law declares that a man (physically) is in fact a woman because he feels a woman (mentally), then reality has been changed for all of us. The law now recognizes me as a man, not because of my physical sex, but because that’s who I have declared myself to be. If taken to an extreme, if transgender is normal, then using the physical body to determine identity is taken away, and all we are left with to define humanity and navigate reality is mind, and words with changed meanings (see also here). Hence the title of the book ‘The Flesh made Word’, alluding to a reversal of the Gospel message.
Daniel’s book has a unique style and subject matter that is not always easy to read. I found myself skipping over bits I didn’t quite follow or even disagreed with, but then would find passages that stopped me short, startling me with the implications of what is happening in society. Apart from the title there is almost nothing explicitly Christian in the book except at the very end (for that reason Christians who want to find reasoning that does not only depend on Scripture may find it helpful). The ‘hiding’ of the physical body in the new doctrine of gender, is compared to Adam and Eve hiding from God in the garden. Finding ourselves as human beings requires looking at God again.
In today’s environment Christians are finding it harder to hold together the personal and the philosophical, the evangelistic and the prophetic. Is a transgendered person just an individual going through psychological anguish? Or is he/she also a symptom of a wider problem, what Isaiah describes in 59:14: “justice is driven back…truth has stumbled in the streets. Honesty cannot enter.” When the fear of hurting the feelings of an individual prevent the church from warning about a lie which is changing the basic understanding of reality of more and more people, is that ‘compassion’, or avoidance of spiritual conflict with contemporary ‘strongholds’? It may be that some Christians have a particular calling to focus on evangelism and pastoral care within churches, but this cannot be seen as the only valid Christian response to Transgender, as if the stumbling of truth in the streets is not our concern. To speak prophetically to society about wrong thinking, and to care compassionately for individuals caught up in it, is not a contradiction, but two vital aspects of the church’s ministry.
 The names in this section have been changed; the story is as I heard it.
See also: Legal sex: exchanging the truth about sex for the lie of gender, by Daniel Moody, The Public Discourse