This week has been declared Transgender Faith Action Week by the Interfaith Coalition for Transgender Equality, a fact to which I was drawn by Becky Garrison‘s article for Cif Belief. This comes after the wonderful 4thought.tv (which airs short personal statements on controversial subjects after the evening news on Channel 4) spent a week discussing “Is it wrong to change gender?”
The week began with a video by Christina Beardsley, a Church of England priest, hospital chaplain and vice-chair of Changing Attitude. Beardsley transitioned a decade ago, after 23 years of ordained ministry, and gave a succinct and compelling 105 seconds on the church and transgender. After introducing herself, she loses no time in making the point: “There is no theological objection to someone changing gender”. No ifs, no buts, no cautious relative clauses, and it is a quote she takes from George Carey, former Archbishop of Canterbury, and one who in no way could be labelled as a liberal. If that were not shocking enough for many people Christian and non-Christian alike — she continues by lauding the Bible for being transgender friendly. I really enjoyed seeing her hard-hitting approach, made all the more necessary due to the inherent prejudice against transgender, despite strong theological arguments to the contrary.
Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say,
“The Lord will surely separate me from his people”;
and do not let the eunuch say,
“I am just a dry tree.”
For thus says the Lord:
To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths,
who choose the things that please me
and hold fast my covenant,
I will give, in my house and within my walls,
a monument and a name
better than sons and daughters;
I will give them an everlasting name
that shall not be cut off.
This passage is God’s vision given to Isaiah of the restoration of his people. The surrounding chapters resound with social justice and the welcoming of those who were formerly despised into the presence of God. Although the term ‘eunuch’ is not a perfect fit for transgender people, it does, in context, refer to those who were outside of society’s strictly male-female order. It is interesting to note that this passage from Isaiah couples eunuchs with foreigners as those previously despised, comparing transphobia with xenophobia and racism, a failure to accept those who are different. The ‘sons and daughters’ who had previously prided themselves in their inherent possession of God’s kingdom are to be superseded by foreigners and eunuchs. Likewise, Jesus mentions eunuchs as a positive example of entering the Kingdom of Heaven in Matthew 19.12, and Philip befriended, taught and baptized an Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8.27-39.
Trans people have the same rights to get married in the Church of England as cisgender people since 2004, when it became possible to change one’s gender in law. The same applies for all of the ministry of the church, through to ordination. An individual member of the clergy may refuse to conduct the marriage or perform another ministry to a trans person on grounds of conscience, but is required to make sure that the marriage or ministry is conducted by someone else. If a trans person is legally allowed to get married in a specific church building, the clergy may not prevent it. Likewise, clergy may not ask a trans person ‘up front’ if they have changed their gender.
The other short videos of that week on 4thought.tv are also worth watching. I particularly found Keith Tiller’s video interesting: a man who has struggled with his own gender identity through his life, and found acceptance of himself as himself in Christian faith. His experience reminds us that gender identity and sexuality are still personal issues however much the personal is political. Tiller makes reference to Deuteronomy 22.5 (and could have mentioned Deuteronomy 23.1 too) as a biblical injunction against transgender. However, in context, both verses refer to ritual purity and avoidance of the practices of other ancient religions, and should be read in conjunction with the more positive verses mentioned above. It is also good to note that the Church of England’s policy, albeit a quiet one, is clearly in favour of the acceptance of trans people.
Pav Akhtar’s video is also worth noting. He mentions how third gender people were an accepted part of society in pre-colonial India and Pakistan, and how the imposition of Western prejudices has led to their increased marginalisation.
A few years ago, as a parish priest, I had a number of pastoral conversations with two trans people in the parish. I wish that conversations and resources about transgender and the church were available to me then, as I was unprepared and probably offered them little in the way of useful ministry. I pray that the church become more welcoming to trans people, and hope that the bishops be more outspoken in support of trans people.
- Transgendered in Faith: A Review of Progress (queeringthechurch.com)
- Trans clergy are finally gaining greater acceptance | Becky Garrison (guardian.co.uk)
- Transgendered in Faith Week: Books (queeringthechurch.com)