Bishops stand firm on trans baptism services

The Church of England has responded to criticism about its controversial new guidance on using affirmation of baptism services to mark gender transition.

William Nye, writing on behalf of the House of Bishops as its secretary, explains that: ‘The guidance makes no change to the Church’s teaching.’ He adds that the guidance ‘commends and encourages the use of An Affirmation of Baptismal Faith for the purpose of a transgender adult wishing to … mark their transition.’ Nye appears to be unaware that these statements involve a direct contradiction, as the teaching of the church is expressed in and must align with its public liturgy. So for the bishops of the church to have commended the use of a liturgy for marking gender transition is necessarily to have given official church sanction to gender transition, and that is most definitely a change in the teaching of the church. The attempt to deny this is either naïve or disingenuous.

Nye observes that: ‘Next year the Church of England will publish a major new set of teaching and learning resources on identity, relationships, marriage and sexuality, “Living in Love and Faith”.’ He claims that: ‘The pastoral guidance does not pre-empt the work of the “Living in Love and Faith” process.’ It is difficult to credit this, however, when the guidance clearly does mark a significant change in the church’s response and approach to transgender, and is being heralded as such by those involved in producing it as much as those who criticise it. It is very hard to understand why the bishops cannot recognise this, and why they did not wait for the new resources they have commissioned to be produced before taking such foreseeably contentious and divisive practical steps.

Nye makes much of the distinction between guidance and ‘rules’, explaining that ‘there is no obligation on anyone to offer the rite in this or any other context. Any priest who feels unable to offer this rite in this context is free not to do so.’ But why should a priest feel unable to offer a rite which, Nye has claimed, does not represent any kind of change in church teaching? Why would a priest have any qualms about offering a service that involves nothing new? The lie in this whole scenario is given by the very need to make a clarification on whether or not the innovation is compulsory.

Nye also misses the point here about what is really significant about the bishops’ guidance: what is important is not that the guidance is optional but that it is official, that it comes with the authority of the bishops of the church, who are the guardians of her doctrine. The new service may not be mandatory, but mandatory or not it is now an officially sanctioned use of liturgy to mark gender transition. The Church of England too often at present tries to take refuge in this idea that something that is optional is not really a change of teaching (it is a recurring theme in the sexuality debate for instance), failing to recognise that to permit something that formerly was forbidden is itself a change of stance, regardless of how ‘optional’ it is. To be permissive is most certainly not to be neutral.

Nye’s statement on behalf of the House of Bishops therefore does nothing to remove the problems created by the new guidance. It remains the case that the bishops should withdraw the guidance immediately and await the release of the resources they have commissioned before taking any further action in this controversial area.

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