The Church of England recently released a document of “pastoral” guidelines for performing an “Affirmation of Baptismal Faith” ceremony for transgender individuals. These guidelines attempt to avoid liturgical innovation by locating special recognition of trans individuals inside of an existing ceremony, a move bishops had signaled in January. Even so, the announcement has set off shockwaves throughout the Anglican world. What does this document require of priests, and what are its implications for the church’s understanding of sex and gender?
At the heart of the guidance is a prioritization of the “pastoral,” which effectively cordons the ceremony off from meaningful theological reflection. This leaves the guidance grossly underdetermined, reducing priests to cheerleaders for those on their way to a new sex. The document opens, for instance, by announcing that the Church of England “welcomes and encourages the unconditional affirmation of trans people, equally with all people, within the body of Christ….” It goes on to insinuate that transitions from one sex and “identity” to another may sometimes be licit—and that affirming these transitions is always the appropriate “pastoral” response. In conducting such ceremonies priests should be “guided by the wishes of the candidate.” The church, it now seems, must give unconditional welcome to trans individuals, but those individuals are apparently free to impose conditions upon the church.
This triumph of the “pastoral” happens when the church abdicates its responsibility to respond to such moments theologically. As the document notes, the “giving or adoption of a new name has a long history” within the tradition, as at confirmations or upon taking holy orders. Yet the text does not attempt to connect such a practice to the taking of a different gender. This simple derivation from past to present circumvents the very theological thinking required to keep such a practice from sliding into a warmed-over celebration of therapeutic individualism. This is a baptism-type ceremony, to be sure, but it is the spirit of the age that is being consecrated.
Of course, developing the theological architecture necessary to provide real pastoral guidance to gender dysphoric Christians and their priests would make explicit the deep revolution that is at work in the church’s teaching about the nature of sex and the person. It would also open up the possibility that pastors and priests might have the responsibility to say “no” to requests for consecrating new names for transgender individuals.
It is ironic that such an individualistic and therapeutic atmosphere would infect the church’s understanding of baptism through a service reaffirming baptismal vows. It is in baptism, as the document notes, “where we find our true identity in Christ.” Yet any “Affirmation of Baptismal Faith” founded upon transitioning into a new sex risks conveying that the source of alienation within one’s former life was one’s physical body—introducing a latent Gnosticism into the theology of baptism. The individualism is already baked into the “Affirmation” ceremony itself, which was added to the Anglican service book in response to “requests for more vivid recognition of post-baptismal experiences of personal renewal and commitment.” By making gender transitioning a valid “post-baptismal experience” under the rubric of “pastoral” considerations, the bishops have both altered the theological anthropology traditionally surrounding baptism and foreclosed further debate about the matter within the communion.
In 1996, Stanley Hauerwas remarked that the church might soon recognize faithful gay unions as an exception. Much has happened in the Protestant churches since then, not least regarding those unions. But Hauerwas’s proposal identified the central question for the churches interested in providing “pastoral” responses to the kinds of lives and relationships the modern world has generated. As he observed then, “exceptions are not a problem for a community that is secure in its essential practices.” Yet he went on: “The crucial question,” he suggests, is “how to live in a manner that the exception does not become the rule.”
The Anglican Communion has not been secure in its teaching about sex and personhood for quite some time, though. Its history should lead us to conclude that allowing exceptions while trying to prevent them from radically reconfiguring the church as a whole is impossible. The moral logic and grammar contained within “exceptions” or “accommodations” are not limited to the individuals to whom they pastorally respond. They alter the self-understanding of the community that grants them. It is hubris to offer such an innovation while pretending it can be quarantined from a reconfiguration of the broader norms of the church.
Making contraception an exceptional possibility at Lambeth 1930 has pervasively reconfigured the Church of England’s theological imagination, such that affirming contraception has now become a marker of Protestant identity. And now the torturously titled and similarly clear “Pastoral Guidance for use in conjunction with the Affirmation of Baptismal Faith in the context of gender transition” threatens to do likewise on theological anthropology, further eroding the Church of England’s claim to bear witness to the one God, the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth.
Matthew Lee Anderson has a DPhil in Christian Ethics from Oxford University and is the Founder of Mere Orthodoxy.