Two letters to the Bishops
In recent weeks,
Bishops in the Church of England have been addressed in two public letters,
with hundreds of signatories to them, offering (on the one hand) criticism
of the Bishops for their stance on offering affirmation to
people who are transgender, and (on the other hand) praising
the Bishops for their compassion
and pastoral care.
I am therefore writing to each of you as Bishops (you may recall I have written twice before, appealing for respect for diverse views of conscience on issues of human sexuality in our Church - and thank you to over 40 of you who took the time in your very busy episcopal duties to reply and engage, and my thanks to many others for their prayers). I am basically arguing the same case for allowing the exercise of conscience, one way or the other, when it comes to how we support trans people setting out on gender transition.
And trans people desperately need that support.
I applaud, and feel proud of the bishops who have proposed deeply pastoral provisions for these transitioners. Their proposed provisions were never going to please all people, but what they were actually doing was facilitating and endorsing those priests and churches who in good conscience believed they *should* publicly affirm a person's transition. They were not forcing priests all to do that. However, rather along the lines of the Scottish model on human sexuality, they were acknowledging and respecting the consciences of those who chose to.
Meanwhile, there has been a high profile letter criticising the bishops for this, and a second letter from priests and lay people who endorse the bishops. I just wish that all parties would listen hard to what transgender people themselves actually experience and say.
My plea would be for signatories of the letter that Ian Paul and others drafted to the bishops to listen more to trans people, and whether trans people themselves would find a service of affirmation helpful at the commencement of transition.
Starting transition is an incredibly vulnerable time for a trans person. They face abuse on the street. They are still racked by the dysphoria arising from incongruent genitalia (and will probably have to live in that no-man’s land for 3 years prior to surgery). They face rejection from family and ‘ghosting’ by friends. They also face distancing and cold stares of unacceptance from more moralistic Christians. They may lose their jobs or face discrimination finding work. When trying to get housing, they may get repeatedly turned down because of prejudice. Because of hostility on the street, some trans people may end up indoors and isolated. Kids on the street may ridicule them. Others spit on them. It is not always as harsh as this for all trans people, but appearance and location can make life desperately vulnerable. I’ve known trans people who’ve been beaten up, and others who have had dog shit posted through their doors. Not all trans people live in comfortable middle class environments. At pub closing times the streets are dangerous for trans people, because of the combination of alcohol and testosterone that makes some young men hostile and aggressive. And because of many of these pressures, the trans individuals themselves may often find themselves suffering from despair and depression, loneliness and abandonment.
It should be obvious that this is not some facile lifestyle choice, because really, why would anyone choose to inflict these kind of circumstances on themselves unless the dysphoria had made them absolutely desperate?
And in these contexts, at the incredibly vulnerable outset of transition… for a decent and compassionate church community to stand up and affirm them – by name, and by understood gender – in church, before God… and to say “You are not alone. We value you and respect you. We affirm who you understand yourself to be. We rejoice in your courage to try to be true to who you are”… and “We will walk alongside you through this journey”…
…that would have been HUGE for me as a transgender female (well, just female these past 10 years, it being no longer an issue, just my life and my journey with God).
At that point of isolation and public hostility and many interfaces of loss and stigma, it would have been HUGE for my church to have done that. Or, if there were other family members impacted, to have found a church elsewhere that would.
I almost despair at the visceral obsession with sex and gender that gets expressed by groups like ‘Christian Concern’ and I think I’m understandably extremely doubtful about the motives of Ian and the handful of friends who he may have consulted in the drafting of the letter to the bishops. Because behind some valid points (yes, other family members who are impacted need as much pastoral support as the transitioner) I strongly suspect there is a deeper and wider vendetta against the actual principle of transition itself: that when it comes down to it, it’s gender transition itself that is the driver for opposition on grounds of dogma.
In the same way that we hear gay people are ‘welcomed’ and ‘loved’ but their sexual relationships are still condemned and they are supposed to be celibate for life (in other words outright hostility to who they are)… so similarly, words like ‘welcome’ for trans people ring hollow, when the underlying premiss being asserted is that actually trans people are defying God’s creation order, and transition is wrong.
Research is indeed thin (through lack of care about trans people in the past, and lack of pharmaceutical profit to be made from them). So please listen to trans people themselves. The overwhelming majority of trans people would say that their lives are better when they have got through the initial ordeal of transition. That is my experience too. Like most trans women who have undergone surgery (now many years ago) it was part of an amazing and wonderful healing and liberation. The transfer from testosterone to oestrogen was hugely helpful on a psychological (and indeed physical) front. The surgery was a triumph – in appearance, in sensation, but above all in the psychological ease it brought. This was the ultimate test and outcome of transition: psychological ease and happiness after years and years of torment.
My transition was 10 years ago. I hardly need to think about it now. I am just living my ordinary life, my more productive life, my happy life. I re-trained as a nurse and have found deep fulfilment in that calling. My spirituality and relationship with God has deepened. I have received welcome and support in my prayer life from an Anglican convent. Indeed, after surgery I was nursed for 10 weeks by the sisters of an Anglican convent, who accepted and affirmed my transition. They ‘got’ that the process was part of finding wholeness in God. Above all, I am a more functional, happy human being. A human with more reserves and energy to love. In God I have felt more whole, more authentic.
I know, from speaking to probably 300 other trans people, that this is the dominant experience of people who transition IF they get through the initial ordeal. And I truly believe that God and other Christians can rejoice at that. It is not everyone’s journey, but for transgender people it is our lives, and we are not a problem to God, we are not just objects for theological talk over our heads. We just want to get on with ordinary, decent lives.
I find the opposition and hostility towards transition painful and disappointing, and often rooted in dogmatism rather than genuine pastoral concern. I do respect that people can sincerely hold various doctrinal views on issues of sexuality and gender. I want respect for my conscience, so other people’s consciences should be respected too.
However, I am deeply sceptical about the motives behind the critical letter to the bishops the other week. From the point of view of trans people, the bishops’ initiative was deeply compassionate and in some cases potentially life-saving. I agree it needs some fleshing out, but that doesn’t convince me that the fundamental motivator for that critical letter wasn’t a kick back against the principle of transition itself. And sadly, I think that plays on ignorance, and prejudice, and pivots people to sign up on specific points, which then add weight to the wider agenda of repudiating gender transition. I could be wrong, but I wasn’t born yesterday. We know that there's hostility to the very principle of gender transition.
I’ve witnessed the wretched hostility towards trans people (and indeed lesbian and gay people) on forums run by Christian Concern and the Christian Institute, organisations that seem deeply obsessed by sex and gender, and seem to massage their supporters’ hysteria with similar articles again and again and again. While groups like these are fringe expressions, often criticising the Church of England, there are also individuals within the Church of England who are vociferous about the harm of transition, and who challenge medical opinion that recognises the needs and benefits of transition for people suffering and ravaged by gender dysphoria. They cite individual cases of regret to justify opposition of transition for all. It can be a kind of manipulation of facts, at odds with what the NHS and medical and political establishment recognise to be a desperate human condition (that tragically leads to many suicides).
I plead with lay and clergy in the Church of England: listen harder to people who are actually transgender. Not just to the exceptional cases where an individual regrets decisions (we all have to take responsibility for our decisions). But listen to what most trans people say, and what the NHS says in experience, and what the GMC says, and the NMC, and the Royal College of Psychiatrists, and the Law, and all the decent people who have gone out of their way to understand, to educate, to meet trans people, in the Police, in the Army, in Schools. People endorse transition not because they are ‘secular’ or ‘culturally marxist’ but because they are decent and compassionate, and they actually recognise that for those people who are transgender, they can actually lead far better lives because of transition. Decent lives. Not hedonistic ‘lifestyle choices’, but incredibly hard choices, yet choices that can lead to greater wholeness, greater social productivity, greater love, and a journey with God into everything of who God is and wants to share with us.
This is our lives. Please listen to us. If you oppose gender transition, I hope you understand that the Bishops are not imposing anything on your own consciences; but are facilitating the consciences and decency of those churches, those PCCs (like my own), those priests who badly want to welcome AND affirm those who are transitioning, AFFIRM their transition choice, AFFIRM and act with solidarity on their journey from ‘burial in the ordeal and storm’ of the beginning, to new life and liberation and love that often happens in the end (and yes, I am using baptismal imagery there). In some senses, gender transition can be an expression of spiritual baptism… the going under… the passing through the storm… and the new beginning. I don’t really care if a Church uses a service framed around baptism or a service that simply embraces and affirms the individual publicly, but I do care (and I’m grateful to the Bishops) that those Churches with the consciences to do it, should be facilitated and mandated to make that public stand.
As Bishops, I do not believe you were telling those who signed the other letter, or anyone else, that they HAD to affirm a person’s transition in church. Bishops were, however, recognising that there are churches that conscientiously want to, who recognise what it can mean in terms of inclusion and affirmation and solidarity. My church, I am happy to say, is one of those churches. My transition too, I’m happy to say, was one of those many transitions that profoundly improved life, and liberated, but at the very beginning, in desperate isolation, I almost lost my life, twice.
I feel very strongly that for a church to publicly acknowledge a trans person, their gender, their name, their journey… is something potentially HUGE and deeply pastoral and benevolent. I am proud of the bishops for seeking to make this pastoral provision possible, and I’m proud of the hundreds of priests who have drafted and signed the supportive letter. Because, yes, people embarking on transition badly need support and recognition, and loving church communities who acknowledge them and want to publicly state that they will journey with them. The start of transition is the crisis time, when solidarity is rare and precious, but it does get better. The whole point of transition is that it should lead to flourishing and, as Christians, why would we not want that?
Previous letters to the Bishops:
'A Time for Grace' : 19th February 2017
'Responses from Bishops' : 12th April 2017
'Radical Inclusion - the Death of Lizzie Lowe' : 11th June 2018