Trans equality in Blackburn: a new doctrine of humanity?

May 26, 2015 by

By Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream.

I’m always a bit nervous when my phone rings and a message appears “no caller ID”. Usually it’s a sales rep asking if the Anglican Mainstream HR manager might be interested in a new payroll system for its hundreds of employees, or similar, but just occasionally it might be something more sinister. Like a Guardian journalist. And so I was contacted by Karen McVeigh for my opinion on a story which had just broken: Blackburn Diocesan Synod’s passing of a motion to approve liturgies to mark and celebrate someone’s ‘gender transition’. As I hadn’t heard about this before I should perhaps have said “no comment”, pleading ignorance, but Karen was politely persistent and I wondered whether an alternative point of view would be given at all if I said nothing. So I made some comments very much in defensive mode which can be read in her article here.

Conservatives have been on the back foot trying to respond to the sexual revolution and nowhere more so than over the transgender question. Since the Guardian article I have heard from a Synod member from Blackburn Diocese, who says that the motion came from Lancaster and Morecambe Deanery. During the debate at Diocesan Synod, speaker after speaker used the currency of love, compassion for the hurting, acceptance and welcome for all, and my informant comments: “It appears that we’re expected to base our views on how people feel, rather than what God has said.”

Bishop Julian Henderson is a conservative evangelical who spoke and voted against the motion which was overwhelmingly carried; Chris Newlands, the vicar who brought the motion, has reason to be unhappy with the appointment of Bishop Julian because of personal lifestyle and theological outlook, and it’s possible that the motion was brought forward as an ambush to cause maximum discomfort to the Bishop. The motion will now also have the effect of testing the LGBT-affirming credentials of candidates up for election to the new General Synod later in the year.

Newlands was interviewed on the BBC early morning Sunday programme (without anyone giving an alternative view). He reiterated his concerns given to the Guardian reporter – that transgender people experience high levels of bullying and discrimination, and said that, though this new service being advocated would not be a “re-baptism”, it would be more of a re-naming. God, who made the person one gender physically, now needs to be re-introduced to that person who has changed gender and has a new name and identity.

Well known maverick clergyman and social commentator Giles Fraser as usual has not lost the opportunity to attack orthodox Christian faith in his “Loose Canon” column. To give him credit, he is doing theology in the public square, and suffers abuse from atheists who can’t understand why he persists with the God thing. But his defence of the Blackburn motion contains some serious flaws. Firstly, he says

“If God has called us all by name, it would be good if He got the name right.”

The implication is that God is a bit behind the times; he hasn’t realised that the person he formerly knew as Sue is now Harry, and God needs to be informed in case he makes one of the worst of modern faux pas – referring to a transgendered person by their former name and gender.

Fraser goes on to say

Indeed, as Deuteronomy insists: “Women must not wear men’s clothes, and men must not wear women’s clothes. Everyone who does such things is detestable to the Lord your God”…And I’m happy to call it nonsense, because that’s effectively what Isaiah does too.

Fraser contrasts the “conservative evangelical” author of Deuteronomy, concerned about sexual morality and boundaries between genders, with the “progressive” Isaiah who was clearly, well, an 8th century bc Giles Fraser. This is because Isaiah looks forward to a day when eunuchs, previously excluded from the assembly of God’s people, would one day be included. Fraser applauds this as an example of the Bible arguing with itself, and of the progressive view winning out. But Giles, Jesus did not think the Bible was internally inconsistent. He did not come to abolish the law as you claim Isaiah has done. He regarded Deuteronomy and Isaiah as equally authoritative, and saw himself and his ministry as the fulfilment of their teaching, rather than deciding on a line to take and picking out the bits he could get to confirm it.

And the vision of the prophets, that one day those previously excluded – gentiles, eunuchs – would be included, does not come about because God changes his mind on sexual morality and gender flexibility like some celestial Conservative MP. Its because the death and resurrection of the incarnate Son of God removes the necessary but temporary visible barriers established by God to illustrate the seriousness of sin and the wonder of grace, something that is affirmed consistently by Deuteronomy, Isaiah and Jesus.

A lot more theological and pastoral work needs to be done on the issue of transgenderism by orthodox Christians, (for example along the lines of this helpful piece here). “Gender dysphoria” is a recognised medical condition where increasingly, adults and even children are being set on a course to attempt to change the physical characteristics, hormonal make-up, clothing etc to align with the gender that the person feels he or she is. But however painful the process of feeling “trapped in the wrong body” and however keenly felt, the church cannot just unquestioningly affirm and celebrate before God what appears to be an expression of radical individual choice resulting from a disorder, rather than something good. Fraser is right that the name, personality and identity of each person is important to God, but turning to Christ involves accepting and embracing who we are as God has made us, including our biological gender, and bringing ourselves under the easy yoke in humble submission, not seeking to be someone different and to be recognised and named as such. This seems to be based on profound dissatisfaction what God has made –can that be right? – and undermines historic biblical doctrines of creation and of humanity. Because of this it will cause further rifts between the Church of England and its Anglican partners in other parts of the world.

Those who voted for an official liturgy to celebrate an act of ‘gender transition’ in Blackburn Diocese apparently included some evangelicals. In previous generations, key theological battles were fought over Christology and especially the doctrine of salvation and the atonement. Increasingly today it is anthropology that is the battleground: some Christians seem to be enthusiastically affirming the saving death and bodily resurrection of Christ, while at the same time embracing a doctrine of humanity that is foreign to the Bible. For the sake of ‘mission’, compassion, and the right to sit at the high table, church leaders are deciding that a Christian understanding of male and female and the human personality can be quietly done away with.

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