Our Rector Miranda Threlfall-Holmes, who was at the Church of England's General Synod when it voted to consider authorising a liturgy to welcome trans people by reaffirming their baptismal identity in their new name and gender, responds to the decision announced this week that the House of Bishops has declined the opportunity to create a new liturgy.
It was at my last meeting of General Synod as a member for Durham diocese that we voted to ask the House of Bishops to consider authorising a liturgy for trans people to reaffirm their baptismal identity in their new name and gender. I don’t think I was the only person to be rather surprised, in a good way, that the debate was so overwhelmingly positive. This seemed to be something in the realms of gender identity that the Church could finally agree on.
So what are we to make of the news leaked by the Mail on Sunday last weekend that the bishops have decided not to go ahead with such a liturgy? I suppose the first thing to say is that it isn’t quite as bad as it first sounds. The bishops haven’t said they don’t think that trans people should be welcomed in their new identity, what they’ve said is that they don’t think a new service is needed, as the existing service of ‘Reaffirmation of Baptism’ can be used with appropriate tweaks. (Full press release and links to the debate and the existing service can be found on the Thinking Anglicans blog. They also remind clergy that it is fine to write our own prayers for such occasions, giving blanket permission for bespoke services that can be designed to fit the particular person and circumstances.
I can see why they’ve gone down this route: if only because it takes AGES to get new liturgy authorised in the Church of England, with every individual word being scrutinised and potentially amended in full debate. You can risk ending up with something, several years down the line, that sounds and looks like it was indeed written by committee.
However, it is still unfortunate, I think, that the opportunity has been lost to make an unequivocally positive statement about trans people. The news leaves a bitter, lingering aftertaste – a concern that the bishops couldn’t quite bring themselves to do it.
Here at St Bride's, we are proud to host the first Open Table community (there are now 12, with many new ones in various stages of development across England and Wales). Open Table provides safe, sacred, sacramental space for LGBTQIA+ people to explore their faith. As a result, the team here are on occasion asked for bespoke services relating to new life stages such as coming out, civil partnerships or marriage, and affirming gender identity.
In the light of the news that no new official liturgy is going to be commissioned, we want to share with you the experience of one of our community (who wishes to remain anonymous) who wanted to mark their new, transitioned identity in church:
'As the trans person for whom St Bride's devised a wonderful service of re-affirmation, I would first like to clarify that, in contrast to the impression given by the Mail on Sunday, I have never changed sex... and I never intend to change sex.
'Rather, the incredibly touching service was a celebration of the spiritual journey I have been on since allowing Christianity back into my life, post-transition, after decades feeling excluded. This exclusion gave me a very poor opinion of Christians. So the very last thing I wanted was to identify as one myself!
'In that regard, I am saddened the House of Bishops has decided to keep trans people at a distance rather than evidencing Christ's love to us. Their decision allows for a harmful impression of Christians - that I have found no evidence for within congregations themselves - to continue. I feel they have failed in their duty of leadership and I share OneBodyOneFaith's reluctance to wait for them to show it.
'No doubt, LGBTQIA+ Christians will take this latest snub on their already broad shoulders and march on regardless. I, myself, know there is a warm welcome for me at St Bride's and Open Table and I look forward to that continuing.'
With the permission of the person we affirmed in this service, we would like to share this with you as an example of what is possible. Feel free to use it or adapt it as you see fit.
Open Table reaffirmation of baptism service, December 2017:
The service began with informal words of welcome.
A candle was brought in, and Carrying a Candle by Jan Sutch Pickard was read
People were then invited to be still for two minutes of silence.
Psalm 139:7-16 was read, followed by a reflection from the presiding minister.
These words by Rebecca A Edmiston-Lange were said by an Open Table lay leader:
Come into this place which we make holy by our presence.
With all your vulnerabilities and strengths,
Fears and anxieties, loves and hopes.
For here you need not hide, nor pretend,
Nor be anything other than who you are
And are called to be.
Come into this place,
Where we can touch and be touched,
Heal and be healed, forgive and be forgiven.
Come into this place,
Where the ordinary is sanctified,
The human is celebrated,
The compassionate is expected.
Come into this place.
Together we make it a holy place.
The person affirming their faith then shared what brought them to this moment and what it means for them.
The presiding minister anointed them, saying words adapted from the Kaloomps United Church, Canada and Rev Alister Pate's presentation on Baptism and Identity.
N, may the blessing of God, Source of Love,
Jesus Christ, Love incarnate,
And the Holy Spirit, Love’s power
Be with you today and always.
All: The grace of Christ attend you,
The love of God surround you,
The Holy Spirit keep you.
Minister: N, Shine as a light in the world to the glory of God
And share that light with the world.
A piece of music for reflection was then played. While the music played, the anointed person passed each person present an unlit candle. When the music was finished, all were invited to come forward and light their candle from the central candle, either in silence, or saying a brief prayer, or a word of affirmation, concluding with a prayer written by our ministry team for the occasion:
All: N, we love you
We support you.
We affirm you as who you are
And support you as you step forward
In this journey in light and hope.
Blessing by Rev Steven Shakespeare:
May the outrageous welcome of the Father
Accept us for who we are;
May the incarnation of the Word
Touch and hold us close;
May the wandering of the Spirit
Help us risk ourselves for love;
And may the blessing of God
Creator, Redeemer and Giver of life,
Be with you now and always.