The first of the Washington resolutions echoes in part a resolution the Diocese of California passed in October, entitled “Supporting Transgender Access." Both resolutions call for “educational, pastoral, liturgical, and legislative efforts that seek to end the systemic violence against transgender people, calling special attention to the rise in violence against transgender women of color.” Both resolutions also encourage congregations “to remove all obstacles to full participation in congregational life by making all gender-specific facilities and activities fully accessible, regardless of gender identity and expression.” The DioCal resolution also asks the churchwide General Convention to endorse similar language at its convention this summer.
If it passes this resolution, the General Convention would build on work TransEpiscopal began supporting more than a decade ago. After a first attempt in 2006, the Convention passed resolutions in 2009 supporting trans justice, particularly regarding employment discrimination and hate crimes. In 2012 it got more serious about trans justice within our own ecclesial life by passing resolutions committing the church to nondiscrimination on the basis of gender identity and expression in access to the discernment process for ordination as well as to all levels of church life and governance. In 2015 the Convention called for a name change rite (for all, including trans people) to be incorporated into the upcoming revision of the Book of Occasional Services. General Convention also committed to examine how we can better facilitate name changes in our records and forms. Follow-ups on both of these resolutions are coming to General Convention 2018. For a complete list of General Convention legislation supportive of transgender and nonbinary people, as well as recent statements from the Episcopal Church’s Presiding Officers, click here.
What received the most attention out of the Diocese of Washington Convention was a resolution entitled “On the Gendered Language for God.” It goes to General Convention this summer and asks simply that “if revision of the Book of Common Prayer is authorized,” that revision should “utilize expansive language for God from the rich sources of feminine, masculine, and non-binary imagery for God found in Scripture and tradition and, when possible, to avoid the use of gendered pronouns for God.” Distortions of that last clause seem to have inspired headlines that the diocese of Washington, or even the Episcopal Church as a whole, has now prohibited the use of he/him/his pronouns for God. That is not accurate. Similar reporting leaps have been made on a recent move toward gender expansive language by the Church of Sweden, a Lutheran body. A blanket prohibition isn’t mandated there either, as this report emphasizes. Both Sweden and Washington call for an expansive approach to language for God, and ask for particular care about pronouns. Both underscore that God is ultimately beyond gender. This is not a newfangled, politically correct cultural capitulation. It’s old theological news.
The call for a more gender expansive approach to language of God and of prayer has been happening for a long time. Feminist and Womanist theologians in particular have been intervening in this conversation since at least the 1970s and 80s. See, for example, Rosemary Radford Ruether’s Sexism and God Talk, Delores Williams’ Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk, or Elizabeth Johnson’s She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse. The trans theological interventions that started in the late 1990s and early 2000s—for instance Virginia Ramey Mollenkott’s Omnigender and Justin Tanis’s Transgender: Theology, Ministry, and Communities of Faith – continued this conversation in a new vein. Today theologians such as Robyn Henderson-Espinoza, Justin Tanis, Christina Beardsley, and Susannah Cornwall are among those continuing the conversation.
Fundamentally, these Washington resolutions seek to fulfill the church’s mission to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ and our baptismal promise to strive for justice and peace among all people and to respect the dignity of every human being (Book of Common Prayer, 855 & 305). This is the same spirit that inspires the first resolution passed by the Diocese of Washington on January 27th: "On Becoming a Sanctuary Diocese." "In faithfulness to the baptismal covenant," it invites people of the diocese to stand together in opposition to "policies that target undocumented immigrants for deportation while also placing undue restrictions on refugees seeking safe haven in the U.S." Each of these resolutions in different ways extends an invitation to communal "places of welcome and healing."
The conversation these resolutions kicked off may be newly intensified and reactionary but it isn’t new, either in the wider worlds of theology or the Episcopal Church. We’re glad the conversation is becoming more widely known, and we want to see it accurately reported and understood. We also want to see it deepen, not only at General Convention but on the ground in congregations.