by the Rev'd Dr. Christina Beardsley
The Blackburn Diocesan Synod Motion on Liturgies for Transgender People
A Blog Post for TransEpsicopal by the Revd Dr Christina Beardsley,
(former Changing Attitude, England trustee for trans people)
First of all, thank you for inviting me to post again on the TransEpisocpal blog, and I’m sorry not to be joining the TransEpiscopal delegation at General Convention in Salt Lake City in July. I loved being with you in Indianapolis in 2012, and was so pleased and proud when the transgender non-discrimination resolutions were approved then.
It would have been exciting to be present at this year’s General Convention, when name change liturgies are being considered because, as you’ve no doubt heard, the General Synod of the Church of England will also be discussing this … at a date to be confirmed; but discuss this matter it will, at some point.
General Synod is composed of three houses: Bishops, Clergy and Laity. The three Houses can, and do, meet separately – the House of Bishops (diocesans plus elected suffragans, plus, for the moment, elected women clergy representatives) and the College of Bishops (diocesans, suffragans, plus the elected women clergy) meet regularly at other times – but most of General Synod’s business and debating is conducted with members of all three houses present in the chamber, even if they subsequently vote by houses.
The Church of England’s synodical structure is made up of Deanery Synods (composed of laity elected by the parishes, plus the licensed clergy of the deanery), Diocesan Synods (composed of clergy and laity, elected respectively by the clergy and lay members of the deanery synods) and General Synod (also elected by the clergy and lay members of deanery synods). There are a number of additional constituencies as well, including cathedral deans and universities.
The opportunity to vote in Church elections is something I feel strongly about having been disenfranchised for at least four years as a consequence of my transition in 2001. It felt dreadful to be excluded from this important aspect of Church life, and I would urge anyone who has a vote to use it, wisely and well.
There will be elections to the General Synod in 2015 and much is happening to ensure that people with inclusive views are elected on this occasion. Synod members serve for five years, and it was soon apparent that some of those who served during the last quinquennium had not been transparent about their views when they stood as candidates. That period was dominated by the debates on the consecration of women as bishops, and given the struggle that entailed, some of those who had claimed, as candidates, to ‘favour’ women’s ministry, evidently did not equate that conviction with their inclusion in the episcopate.
The newly elected Synod will discuss the Shared Conversations on Human Sexuality that are taking place in the Church of England, with diocesan delegations currently meeting in regional groups, and it is vital that those elected support the full inclusion of lgbti people.
It will also be the new General Synod that will discuss the following motion from the Blackburn Diocesan Synod:
“That this Synod, recognising the need for transgender people to be welcomed and affirmed in their parish church, calls on the House of Bishops to consider whether some nationally commended liturgical materials might be prepared to mark a person's gender transition."
The Church of England’s synodical structure is a two-way street. General Synod can send matters for discussion to Diocesan and Deanery Synods, as it did with Women Bishops. Likewise, a Deanery Synod can send a successful motion to its Diocesan Synod for debate and, if approved there, on for discussion by the General Synod, as has happened in this case.
The story of the Blackburn motion is one of grassroots Christian response. A young man approached his local church for baptism, following gender transition, but he had already been baptised, so the parish priest, the Revd Chris Newlands, Vicar of Lancaster Priory, worked with him to produce a suitable rite to mark this significant change in his life. Realising that this scenario must be occurring in other places, Chris brought it to the attention of his church council, and then his Deanery Synod (Lancaster and Morecambe), where a motion was passed, and sent on to the Blackburn Diocesan Synod. I prepared the background paper for the Blackburn Diocesan Synod debate, which is available here:
After receiving Diocesan Synod approval, the motion was sent on to the General Synod. It is now parked in a list of such motions which you can find here. It will be for the General Synod’s Business Committee to decide when to schedule it for debate, and one can anticipate delay, maybe until the regional Shared Conversations are complete.
In the meantime there has been press interest in the motion, the most sensitive piece coming, naturally, from the Guardian with a companion piece by the Revd Giles Fraser, who mentions the late Revd Carol Stone (Carol and I were at theological college together, though neither was aware that the other was trans at that date – 1976-78). The Guardian article also mentions Susan Musgrove’s Service of Affirmation and Blessing, which took place in her parish church in Northumberland in 2013, and which I blogged about at the time (here).
Services of this kind, therefore, are happening already and have been for some time. Will the General Synod have the courage to invite the House of Bishops to explore and commend forms of prayer for Church of England parishes that wish to celebrate with and affirm their transgender congregants and parishioners? I do hope so, given that parish clergy are already recognising and responding to a pastoral need.
Chris Newlands was interviewed about the motion on the BBC Radio 4 Sunday programme (which covers religious current affairs) on the 24th May 2015. Sadly, I don’t think you’ll be able to access the link but I’ll include it just in case (here). The interview begins at 6 minutes 58 seconds.
Chris is asked why, if parish clergy are already devising services for transgender people, a common liturgy is needed. In reply, Chris notes that transgender people are a vulnerable group in society, often subject to bullying and abuse, and at high risk of suicide. He believes that an official Church of England service would be an important signal of the Church’s welcome, an affirmation of God’s love for transgender people that would counter the many negative messages transgender people often receive.
As the Revd Rachel Mann has commented, it will also be important for trans people to be consulted and involved in the preparation of any liturgies, given that we are the best people to articulate our own needs, and some of us will be skilled in theology, spirituality and worship (Rachel, for instance, is a poet as well as being a priest).
In the Sibyls, Christian spiritualityfor transgender people, which I’ve belonged to for nearly two decades, we have noticed a huge change. In the early days of Sibyls, the mid to late 1990s, trans people were rejected by their churches, and Sibyls events the only place where members could receive Holy Communion as themselves. Today, society is so much better informed about trans matters, and clergy and congregations less judgemental and more receptive to trans people. Sadly, rejection can still happen, of course, but a transformation has taken place, and the grassroots desire for Church of England liturgies to mark trans people’s lives is part of that.
At this side of the pond we will watch with interest as similar proposals come before the General Convention, praying for you, as I know you pray for us. Pray please that the Blackburn motion, now passed, will not be delayed too long in coming before the General Synod, and for its successful progress once it reaches there.