In a world of change and flux, it is reassuring to know that some things remain the same. Take, for example, the motion passed by the Church of England General Synod, calling for a liturgy to help transgender people celebrate their transitions. This motion is consistent with liberal Protestantism’s age-old calling, that of baptizing the moral norms du jour of the respectable chattering classes, presumably in hopes of enhancing the appeal of religion to its cultured despisers. Transgenderism was bound for liturgical acceptance.
By now, experience should have taught even the moderately self-aware that, where religion is concerned, cultural relevance is a cruel mistress, always promising the Church a place at her table but never quite delivering. Alas, self-awareness has never been the strong suit of those liberal Protestants who have perfected the art of always being belatedly in support of whatever nonsense the sexual revolution is now declaring a self-evident truth that only a hate-filled bigot would deny. And so we have this liturgical proposal which, as with all liturgies, tells us a lot about the General Synod’s understanding of its church’s purpose. It points toward a view of the Church as offering a religious idiom for the therapeutic concerns of modern Western society. So far, so conventional.
But the proposal is actually far more sinister than the usual capitulation to the latest sexual hobby-horse. What is missing in this doubtless well-intentioned move is any reflection upon the deeper philosophical implications of transgenderism. To treat it as yet one more legitimate human choice, which can be included in the pantheon of human freedoms, is to miss the real issue. Transgenderism challenges traditional notions of human personhood at the deepest level. For that reason, it is perhaps appropriate to recognize transgenderism in a liturgy: A liturgy reveals a church’s deepest beliefs as it articulates the dialogical relationship between a people and God, and thus dramatizes who they are in relationship to each other. For the Christian, liturgy presupposes identity. Indeed, the Christian liturgy legitimates identity.
My guess is that those who proposed this motion did so in order to be inclusive and affirming. They are motivated by a sincere pastoral concern. But their proposal is ultimately cruel and callous. They are putting their seal of approval on the demolition of the notion of human nature. The costs of that will in the long run be catastrophic, seen in mutilated bodies and hormone-addled minds. These Anglicans are making a Nietzschean move, not a Christian one.
If human identity is merely a psychological conviction, a social construct, or a personal choice, then those theologies and philosophies and social arrangements predicated upon human nature vanish as the morning mist. Yes, the Church needs to handle with pastoral care and wisdom the victims of the confusion generated by the identity anarchy raging around us. But that does not mean sanctifying the status quo or providing palliative care. To do so is to concede that “human nature” is a mere combination of an adjective and a noun—a couple of words that, one might say, have proved full of sound and fury, but ultimately signify nothing.
If the Church takes its cues on personhood from these latest cultural norms, then it really has nothing to say to modern society. Quests for cultural relevance have usually ended with the Church being the pitiful handmaiden of irrelevance. Today, it might end up worse than that: with the Church as the useful idiot of the coming Nietzschean Übermensch.
Carl R. Trueman is Paul Woolley Professor of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary.