They say it is the hope that kills you. Every so often a Christian body does something to lift your heart and make you truly proud. A statement is made, a commitment displayed, a sign of genuine understanding revealed about the lives, faith, needs and gifts of LGBTI+ people. You begin to believe it is possible that we will move forward, together. Then you look around and what was written is qualified or changed, what was committed to is downgraded, what you thought was understanding is shown to be so partial and obscured. It happens again and again, as it just has, so clumsily, with the Church of England bishops' backflip on transgender Christian liturgical affirmation. Back in rushes the anger, the frustration, and the deep soul-seeking about whether it is worth persisting: all coupled with a renewed sense of betrayal and lack of integrity. How long O Lord?..
Only six months ago, the Church of England's General Synod overwhelmingly endorsed a motion welcoming and affirming transgender people and asked its bishops to consider national liturgy for transitioning. At the time, together with the General Synod's condemnation of so-called 'conversion therapy, it seemed like a circuit breaker in the Church of England's painful paralysis on LGBTI+ issues. It gave great heart to many in England who started thinking that maybe it was safe to go back in the Anglican water, and to others across the world and in the Anglican Communion in particular. Now it seems that, once again, it was only a partial dawn. Without any further consultation with either transgender Christians, or the grassroots initiators of this development, the House of Bishops decided not to explore liturgy for transgender people, and, to make matters worse, were forced to hastily release a statement after the news was leaked to the Daily Mail. Once more, trans people's needs and the powerful call of its wider membership fell aside, as the church leadership again managed to shoot itself in the foot, and cripple itself, just as it was beginning to find a more healthy pathway forward.
The bishops' decision is certainly not a complete disaster. As the Bishop of Norwich is quoted as reaffirming in the bishops' statement: "The Church of England welcomes transgender people and wholeheartedly wishes for them to be included in the life of the Church." That has to be,the bottom line today. The bishops also suggest that the existing Affirmation of Baptismal Faith rite be used and that 'clergy always have the discretion to compose and say prayers with people as they see fit.' However the absence of any episcopal action not only re-opens the hurts ad anxieties of transgender Christians, it also leaves things even more muddled. For it is hardly likely that the bishops mean a free for all of liturgical creativity, whilst they leave transgender people seeking such affirmation to the whims of individual clergy and the lottery of whether they have an understanding church where they live. On various levels it looks like passing the buck. This fits with the continued lack of effective actions to back up the new climate the bishops have encouragingly said they seek for LGBTI+ issues, whilst it largely ignores the exacting conversations and church processes that have been conducted . As OneBodyOneFaith, the leading UK body for LGBTI+ Christians and allies, puts it in their immediate response, 'it feels like kicking trans people into the long grass' just as the wider body of LGBTI+ people have been 'kicked into the long grass' by other recent leadership actions.
This matter cuts to my heart on a personal level, not only as I am a trans woman, but as I was raised, baptised and ordained in the Church of England. I have seen it before, notably in the 'bad faith' shown after the initial agreement to ordaining women which led to 'guilt' money pay-offs for objecting clergy who wished to leave, and to other 'protective' measures which have tied up energy in the Church of England ever since. It is hardly however something confined to the Church of England, or the Anglican Communion. Even when moving forward, Christian leadership can sometimes tend to make two steps half-heartedly forward and one backward, or out to the side, in a curious crab-like hokey-cokey motion which is hardly attractive never mind a real commitment to God's ever-renewing dance of love, joy and freedom. Not so long ago in Australia the Salvation Army moved in the same way in response to Safe Schools, raising hopes (based on grounded trans and ministerial experience), and then crashing them as the light of understanding was crushed by backlash politics.
So is there hope in the churches that won't kill us? Well, yes, for LGBTI+ people are nothing if not resilient. One outcome of the bishops' decision is that existing liturgies and other resources, and welcome forthcoming publications (with several liturgies) like TransFaith will become even more attractive. Some clergy will also take the opportunity to be creative, testing the bishops' expressed permission and withdrawal. More broadly, the energy and vision, as well as the anger and frustration, of LGBTI+ Christians are not going away. For, as Canon Peter Leonard, Chair of OneBodyOneFaith and also a leading General Synod member, puts it the situation of LGBTI+ Christians cannot not be allowed to remain the church’s official position any longer:
‘All those of us who want to see a church which reflects the radical inclusion of Jesus will stand alongside our trans sisters and brothers who are once more being let down by the church of which we’re a part. Our message to the bishops is simple, as it was last February; we’ll work with you, but we won’t wait for you. This latest move demonstrates once more that they are out of step not just with the mind of Synod, but with the broader church and society too’
Church leaders today have a choice. They can try and keep or drag people back into closets of hurt and denial, with horrible or insubstantial words and actions, or they can help us all to learn to take courage and dance together. Sitting on the fence is too painful for everyone. Some of us know how hateful and unsustainable the closet is. We long for active partners who won't just suddenly freeze or unexpectedly kick us in the shins. Let's try again...
The Revd Dr Jo Inkpin: