Of bishops, trans people and liturgies

In 1995 (I think) as curate in charge of a little church in Portsmouth I was approached by a trans member of the congregation. I will call him Frank. He wanted to know if I would re-baptise him, I think he used the words ‘christen again’. I explained that baptism was a once for all sacrament and could not be repeated. He asked if something else was possible to acknowledge his new name. I said I would consult, which I did, and went back to him and told him that it wasn’t possible to do anything.

That is one of the (far too many) things I regret. It was cruel and unkind. I am sorry. Since then I have blessed houses, rooms, classrooms, cars, a bus, pets (cats, dogs, hamsters, snakes, stick insects, budgerigars), gardens, trees, foundation stones and probably more. But I did not bless this man as he entered his new life after a lifetime of struggle.

The recent statement from the House of Bishops on the request by General Synod for consideration of liturgies for trans people has caused grief and hurt. There is, however, a considerable ‘yes’ in the Bishops statement. If Frank were to approach me now I would with confidence offer a re-affirmation of Baptismal vows. The theology in the Bishops’ short statement is good, although I would like to stress the communal nature of baptism more. I would work with Frank to craft intercessions that reflected his journey and that of his family, friends and loved ones, I would suggest that we work together on other prayers and perhaps some ritual action that suggested change and new life. I would offer all of that in the context of the Sunday Eucharist and suggest some sort of parish social afterwards if he wanted. I would share with Frank some sample liturgies such as those soon to be published by Christina Beardsley and others (Transfaith) and use those as an inspiration. Because I am, by nature, conservative in matters liturgical I would expect the language of the prayers to reflect Christian liturgical tradition, I would look in Scripture for the (many) examples of people changing their name, of leaving the familiar behind and embracing the new. I would do all that confident that I had not only the House of Bishops support but their encouragement.

We don’t yet know what the further guidelines will suggest. I hope and pray that they will be permissive rather than restrictive and that they would allow all that I have suggested. What seems to be missing from the commended service is acknowledgement of profound change as well as continuity. I hope the sort of additional texts I would work on with the person requesting the liturgy would reflect that. I would welcome help with that and possible examples, it would be good if the further guidance from the bishops drew from actual trans people and their own writings and experience.

The language of the Bishops’ statement is good. It avoids saying ‘no’, but it still somehow doesn’t work. I do not know what was intended by the statement. All of us who are ordained work with signs and symbols on a daily basis. We know that the ‘medium is the message’. The message here is a very firm ‘no’ even though, bizarrely, they seem to be saying yes to quite a lot and it is a significant if small step forward. Perhaps the bishops are trying to please too many people? It is hard to tell. I think the service they recommend is a very good way forward and provides a good basis for work. However, if they had just talked with trans people, and been seen to do so; if they had just offered some positive examples of prayers and intercessions and scriptures suitable for such an occasion they would have sounded so much less like they were saying ‘yes-but’.

When working with new teachers I always stressed the need for authenticity. Children I would tell them have a way of sniffing out fakes. Actually, of course, most human beings have that gift. The bishops say:

“The House of Bishops welcomes and encourages the unconditional affirmation of trans people, equally with all people, within the Church, the body of Christ, and rejoices in the diversity of that one body, into which all Christians have been baptized by one Spirit.”

But somehow it feels inauthentic. It is not demonstrated in action. It needs a process that might have involved a series of publicised meetings: “Bishops X and X are meeting today with a representative group of trans people to consider provision for official liturgies as requested by General Synod.”

I know from painful experience that leadership is not so much pleasing all of the people, nor even some of the people but can seem like pleasing none of the people, all of the time. This post is really an attempt to understand, myself, the dynamic of what has happened. Deep listening, deep attentiveness is needed to hear the stories of those who are different to us. We need also to acknowledge that the starting position for those who have been excluded is not neutral. We need to be intentional and to compensate for past hurts and damage.

Here is one example of a set of prayers that, I believe, could be used within the Bishops’ encouragement, it stresses as they do our true identity in Christ and it acknowledges the real change that has occurred. It seems to me deeply biblical and Jesus-centred:

Dynamic and holy God, we remember how you changed the names of Abraham and Sarah, as they set out to follow you.  We know that you changed the name of Jacob, after a long night of wrestling with you.  We now declare publicly and affirm the name you have bestowed upon _____________.

Candidate: Holy Creator, you make us and you change us.  I come before you today, surrounded by community, with awe and humility to put on the mantle of a new name.  May your Holy Spirit surround us and transform me in all truth, that with the name of  _________ I might grow ever more surely into the full stature of Christ.”

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