FSG: Faith, Sexuality and Gender

On the margins of orthodoxy

Reflections On Androgyny (1) 15 August 2009

I’m finally getting round to copying over into this blog a series of articles on my androgyny that previously appeared in a Yahoo 360 blog that has now been closed down. Here’s the first part:

I’m an androgyne. What does that mean? People often think of the terms ‘androgyne’ and ‘androgyny’ as referring only to physical characteristics: when a man or woman has an ambiguous appearance in gender terms and seems to be part-male and part-female. But this is not the kind of androgyne that I am.

Androgyny also refers to psychological gender as well as gender appearance. It relates to people who feel that the conventional dichotomies – male / female, masculine / feminine – are not adequate to describe their gender identity. The androgyne gender identity (one could call it ‘androgendity’) can comprise either a combination of what the person in question feels are distinctly masculine and feminine characteristics, or an absence of either polarity, or something in between these two options.

I would define my own androgyny as the former: I have personality and mental characteristics that I identify as female / feminine and others that I perceive as male / masculine. In terms of anatomical sex, I am, identify as, and am happy to remain male. This illustrates the fact that androgyny is not the same as transsexualism, e.g. when someone who is born with a male anatomy has what they experience as a female personality and mind, and who then might undergo a sex change (or in more PC terms, gender reassignment) to assume the outer bodily appearance of a woman.

In this sense, androgyny is a sub-category of transgenderism: when people have gender identities that cross, transcend or blur the traditional gender dichotomy or binary I referred to above. On this definition, transsexualism would also count as a type of transgender condition.

The kinds of thing I am raising here are often not easy to grasp or accept for people who do not experience any variance between their gender identity and their physical sex, or between their gender identity, and the role they adopt in society and the way they are perceived by others. Both types of variance are usually present for an androgyne. As I’ve said, my body is male and also looks male, despite the presence of what my girlfriend unflatteringly refers to as my ‘man boobs’ – which I prefer to see as less flabby than that description implies: the result of a combination of my sedentary middle-aged lifestyle and occasional bouts of press-ups and sit-ups, giving something (I like to think) of a muscular impression.

In terms of my social role and how I’m perceived by others, I think this is predominantly masculine, too; although there’s a slightly ‘camp’ aspect, linked to a predilection for exaggeration and word play. I think it would shock some of my male friends and associates if they realised that part of me ‘feels like a woman’ – including the sexual feelings; but I’ll delay getting into the relation between gender identity and sexuality (again, not a ‘straightforward’ one) till a subsequent post.

So the feminine / female part of me is not often openly expressed. I am, to that extent, a ‘closet androgyne’, or at least I was till I decided to ‘come out’ on the world-wide web, albeit under the blanket of a pseudonym! In my next entry on this subject, I’m going to try to weave a path through the thorny issues concerning the distinctions and interrelationships between male / female and masculine / feminine, and those between anatomical sex and psycho-social gender identity upon which they rely.

 

Twenty years of struggle and twenty years of faith 10 August 2009

Yesterday marked the 20th anniversary of the start of my journey in faith. On that day, a quite remarkable event – experienced as an immediate answer to prayer – gave me the gift of faith: instantly, like a light being switched on. It’s not my intention to tell that story here. Rather, I wish to write about the way in which my faith journey, right from its inception, has been intertwined with a struggle to understand and come to terms with my sexuality and gender identity. I’ve discussed these before in this blog: bisexual and androgynous (psychologically both male and female).

It would be wrong for the reader to suppose that, before becoming a Christian, I was not in conflict over my sexuality and wavering gender identity, and that becoming a Christian suddenly made all of that turn awkward and guilt-laden. Nor is it the case, simply, that my faith has healed internal divisions and guilt complexes I had about sexuality and gender prior to my faith awakening.

It is, however, true that it was the light of faith that first enabled me to shine a light of understanding, acceptance and love on myself as I really am, and as different from the person I had tried to be during the first, non-believing, part of my life. During those 26 years – well, at least since puberty – I had unquestioningly assumed I was straight; though not without the occasional momentary stirring of desire for those of my own sex (male), whether real persons glimpsed in the street or images in the media. As I explored and deepened my faith, and undertook what was literally referred to as a ‘Journey in Faith’ (a six-month course of instruction in the faith at my local Catholic Church), it soon became apparent to me that there were issues of sexuality and gender in myself that I needed to confront if my faith commitment as a would-be Catholic was going to be completely honest and whole-hearted: Catholic faith should not become a superstructure justifying me in continuing to deny my sexuality and gender identity, indeed reinforcing that repression.

For me, the dynamic that always seems to have been most creative is acceptance of particular truths about myself (e.g. bisexuality) coupled with a resolution in faith not to express my sexuality in a way that conflicts with the Church’s teaching. Indeed, even before my dramatic conversion experience, as I was earnestly seeking some way in which I could embrace and experience faith, I came to the conclusion that Christian faith might require me to be celibate – although I am not sure whether or how I linked up this thought to my sexuality, as I did not think of myself as bisexual or gay at that point, at least not consciously. Then, during the two months before I was due to be received into the Church at Easter, I experienced a remarkable period of growing in my life of prayer, devotion and understanding of the sacraments, in which I felt God was very close to me, accompanying me step by step, and providing numerous visible signs that he was guiding my thoughts, actions and enquiry. But this phase was initiated by my finally coming to the realisation that I was bisexual and, at the same time, resolving to be celibate.

Again, I am not quite sure why I made the equation: Christian faith + bisexuality = celibacy; as, if you are bisexual, the route of Christian marriage is still open to you. But as those two months progressed, I felt God was calling me not just to the Catholic Church but to priesthood, which of course requires celibacy whether the priest in question is straight or gay. It’s not the case – again, at least not consciously – that I had the idea of priesthood at the time that I made the resolution of celibacy. Indeed, the very idea of becoming a Catholic priest was completely alien to me at the start of February 1990: it had never occurred to me throughout my entire life, and certainly not even in the six months since my conversion experience. But by the time I was finally received into the Church, this had become almost a firm decision, which illustrates how far I travelled during those two amazing months.

Those of a secular, psychoanalytical disposition would doubtless argue that, in making my choice for celibacy and then embracing an institution that views such a resolution as a holy sacrifice for the service of Christ, I was indeed doing what I had determined not to do: taking flight from the uncomfortable truth of bisexuality into a superstructure that reinforced my denial of it. But such a description would simply not be true to the way I experienced things. There was much more of a unity about my inner transformation: a real, powerful encounter with the love of God that inspired me to want to dedicate my whole life and self to him, and which finally empowered me to accept my sexuality and mixed(-up) gender identity: faith commitment and acceptance, not rejection, of bisexuality and gender confusion inextricably linked with one another.

In any case, I did not eventually go on to put myself forward for the priesthood. Instead, shortly after my reception into the Church, I began an intense and loving relationship with a woman that has continued to this day. However, this relationship has also been unconventional: not sexual, in the biblical sense (or, practically, in any sense for much of the time), so that in effect I have remained ‘celibate’ for over 20 years, if not always chaste. I have also remained ‘faithful’ to my ‘partner’ for all of this time; meaning that I have not actively expressed the gay and transgender aspects of my personality, at least not with other people. Meanwhile, this freely embraced celibacy and sexual renunciation has given me the ‘freedom’ to continue my inner explorations both of faith and sexuality / gender, although my relationship has also at times created a painful and repressive context for both these journeys. My partner would prefer me to be straight and uncomplicated, in both areas. So, out of love for my partner, I have had to perpetuate an outward persona of being straight and unambiguously masculine, maintained in front of friends, family, church (but not in the confessional) and work colleagues. Similarly, through the joint effect of mistakes I made and traumatic experiences in my partner’s own earlier life, the combination of my ardent convert’s Catholicism and mixed-up psychosexuality became simply unbearable to her, and I’ve had to step back somewhat from my faith commitment, though not renounce it as a) I could not, and b) my partner is also a Christian.

So I’ve effectively become a ‘non-practising’ Catholic, in both senses of the word ‘practising’. But neither has my renunciation of active bisexuality and transgenderism been the consequence of a naïve embracing of a sexually repressive, homophobic Catholicism; nor has my abandonment (for now) of a priestly vocation and passionate life of Catholic devotion been the direct result of my own inner conflicts over sexuality and gender. Rather, I’ve continued to grow in both areas – faith and self-understanding – while actively pursuing neither of these sides of my life and personality as fully as I might have wished.

What lessons, if any, would I draw from my experience that might be of help to others? If anything, I would want to emphasise the distinction between self-love (coming to love oneself through the encounter with God’s love) and the secular obsession with self-expression and self-fulfilment. The fact that God loves us as we are (straight, gay, bisexual, transgender, transsexual, or whatever) does not mean that we have to express those particular aspects of our personality in a narrow, active, physical way, as if anything other than doing so means that we have not fully embraced and accepted those characteristics. In fact, the opposite is true: if you feel you have to express your homosexuality, for instance in active gay relationships, in order to feel liberated from sexual repression and unhealthy self-denial, then you are actually still being driven by unacknowledged sexual guilt and by a compulsive surrender to your sex drive. That is not a path that of itself is conducive either of more authentic and deeper self-love and self-understanding, nor of growth in one’s ability to give and receive love, including to and from God. Sexual ‘liberation’ can be just as much of a dominating, life-limiting experience as sexual repression.

By contrast, the love of Christ, if it truly penetrates your heart, frees you to live by a greater principle than the secular imperative of self-realisation. This is love of self not for the sake of your self but for the sake of love: God’s love that extends equally and beyond measure to all persons and all creation, and in which you are called to go beyond yourself – no longer focused on selfish concerns but on God’s loving will to be realised through self-surrender to him and to love. In other words, self-love in the love of God frees you to live for that love without regard to self. If it is God’s love that has enabled you to accept yourself – as bisexual and androgynous, in my case – then there is no longer any need to act out those facets of your personality, and so be bound by them, to prove to yourself and others that they are acceptable and lovable, because you know that God loves you as you are and you are freed to love him in return.

So much for the theory; but in practice, things are always more difficult and less perfect, as my thwarted faith aspirations and at times frustrated emotional life demonstrate. The pull of sexuality, of ‘the flesh’, remains strong. But if, after succumbing to physical desires that are not of the love of God, you turn to Christ confident in his loving mercy, he will show you that he loves you none the less for your weaknesses – if not in fact more. And this is why I find Christian movements that try to ‘convert’ gay people ‘back’ into a straight orientation and lifestyle highly disturbing if not actually blasphemous. It is the very encounter with the love of God that helped me to see and love myself as bisexual and transgender. To turn away from that and deny it, supposedly in the name of Christ, would actually be to reject God’s gift of love, and the ability he has given me to love myself. But loving myself does not mean indulging myself and leading a life ‘orientated’ towards the fulfilment of every aspect of myself, including gay and transgender behaviour. True love, and the proof of authentic Christian living regardless of self (and this in fact means regardless of sexual orientation and gender identity), means renouncing oneself and dedicating oneself to God’s love and service for its and his own sake. Being overly wrapped up in trying to create a life and persona for oneself as ‘straight’ or as gay in fact implies more attachment to self: taking one’s attention away from God and on to self. Whereas I know that God loves me both as I am (flawed and bound to the flesh) and for what I am to become in him.

So my life is not without struggle and inner conflict. I’ve had twenty years of it. But I’ve also had twenty years of faith, by the grace of God. And long may I continue to struggle and to grow in that faith.

 

Sexuality, Gender and Catholicism 27 December 2008

As a bisexual, transgender Catholic, I feel it incumbent upon me to comment on Pope Benedict’s recent remarks in which he is reported to have affirmed that homosexuality and transgenderism are at least as great a threat to the survival of humanity as climate change.

I have to admit that when I first heard the report about this statement on the radio, I thought it sounded like a very ill-advised thing to say, at the very least: bound to encourage homophobia, and violence towards gays and transgender people. And it’s true, those words will inevitably lead some miguided people to feel they have a sanction to be even more discriminatory and hostile towards GLBT people.

That’s partly because utterances on controversial subjects such as this get reported only in part and out of context. That was certainly the case with these remarks. When you look at the Pope’s words in greater detail, he’s not in fact saying that homosexuality and transgenderism per se are a threat to the survival of humanity. What he appears to be repudiating is the undermining of the distinction between male and female that is expressed in active homosexuality and transgender behaviour, and the intellectual justification that is given to such behaviour through gender theory. He is reported to have said that it is not “out-of-date metaphysics” to “speak of human nature as ‘man’ or woman'”; and that blurring this distinction could lead to the “self-destruction” of the human species.

This is a more complex and less judgemental point than some of the media reports appeared to suggest. I do actually agree that within the life of the Church – which is the model for the life of the whole world as transformed by the Holy Spirit – there are distinct roles for men and women. For instance, I believe that God confers authority in the Church on men, as expressed in sacramental priesthood and the authority of fathers in the family. I should stress, however, that this is an authority based on the service of God and of those over whom one holds authority; and it should not be – though often is – synonymous with authoritarian partriarchy. Similarly, women very often, but not always, have a vocation for more ‘maternal’, nurturing roles – whether motherhood itself, teaching, nursing / doctoring, etc.

However, these gender roles should not be interpreted in a narrow, exclusive way. E.g. because the Church, or much of it, believes that men have a leadership role and that women are suited to more caring, maternal roles, there should not be an automatic expectation that all men (biological gender) will be natural leaders (social gender, personality) or that all women will be natural mothers and care givers. Yes, one can insist on a fundamental distinction between male and female (although how does one deal with the real, empirically verified issue of intersex persons?); and one can legitimately expound a view of the Christian faith that promotes the exercise of certain roles on the part of each sex. But to assert that all men have to be (only) masculine as well as male, and all women should be feminine (only) as well as female, seems to me to ignore the rich and complex diversity of gender identity and roles that is simply an ordinary part of the make-up of human beings and societies.

I think there is a need for greater clarity and precision on the part of the Church in these matters. Pope Benedict is a highly intelligent man, and if he wishes to open up a debate about gender, and not merely about sexuality where the focus normally lies, then the Church’s position needs to be set out in a manner that does not appear to replicate the naive tendency to mistakenly equate gender with biological sex. Apart from anything else, much of the gender theory that the Pope’s statement seems to be castigating does not at all put in doubt the polarities of male and female, and masculine and feminine; on the contrary, these antinomies are integral to understanding and articulating a whole host of transgender and non-heterosexual personality and behaviour types.

And that includes my own: to abandon my self-understanding as bisexual and androgynous (part-female and part-male psychologically, and even neurologically – in terms of how my brain is wired) would be to abandon a hard- and long-fought struggle to come to terms with my inner complexities and contradictions in a way that has enabled me to remain true both to myself and to my faith.

One can be bisexual, transgender and a faithful Catholic. And if the Pope wants me to explain how, I’d be happy to enter into conversation with him.

 

The consecration of female bishops is a greater source of disunity than that of gay bishops 8 July 2008

Some of my readers might be shocked to read such a statement from me. In which case, let me explain.

The Church of England yesterday voted to ordain women to the episcopate. The arguments against this decision were the classic Catholic ones: that there is no precedent or authority for the move, either in Scripture, Tradition, or in the Anglican Communion itself acting in isolation from other churches that see their authority and the truth of their sacraments as based in the apostolic succession. The victorious women, on the other hand, or at least some of them, claimed that the vote in their favour constituted an end to the discrimination that had been practised against them. This sort of language is totally inappropriate, inaccurate and misplaced. It’s nothing to do with discrimination. Who do the women think were discriminating against them, and for what reason? It’s supposed to be about discerning the will of God, not untapping previously denied job opportunities. This sort of response shows a complete lack of concern for Church unity; and, in that, it seems to me to betray an absence of the Holy Spirit.

And the point is, this decision does introduce profound disunity into the Church. There are many bishops, priests and laypersons who just won’t be able to accept it, on theological grounds not those of discrimination. Many of these will end up leaving the Church. Many who stay will be faced by terrible dilemmas about who they can worship and serve under and with. It’s not just a case of some male priests being unable to accept the authority of a female bishop; but also, they and many laypersons won’t accept the authenticity of the priesthood of those ordained by a female bishop. Over time, this could spread enormous confusion and fragmentation into the day-to-day life of the Church; or else, the thing will just prove unworkable, and the men and women concerned will either just leave or split off to form their own continuing and – in their eyes – authentically apostolic church.

Now, I am sympathetic to the Catholic position and the people – women as well as men – who just can’t accept the validity of a female episcopate. I’m a Roman Catholic myself; and while I advocate a loving, compassionate and non-judgemental attitude towards those who have difficulty adhering to the Catholic Church’s moral teaching in all areas of sexual life (and that includes myself – a bisexual and transgender man), I do try, however imperfectly, to live out a life of faithful obedience. I feel I need to reiterate this to combat a reaction to my stance against women bishops that might make out I was being self-serving and hypocritical: being a gay (actually, bisexual) man, thinking it was absolutely fine for gay male bishops to be sexually active; while being misogynistically opposed to women bishops. This is completely not the case: I don’t think it’s just fine for a gay bishop to be sexually active; and I’m not opposed to women bishops out of aversion towards women – I don’t have an aversion towards women; I love and desire them, as it happens, and enjoy friendship and fellowship with them.

The thing is, the question of women bishops is a more fundamental issue of doctrine than that of gay bishops; and it introduces more disunity into the Church, in ways I’ve attempted to outline above. The teachings about the Church itself, and the apostolic foundation of its authority and sacraments, are absolutely integral parts of Catholic dogma. If you start introducing bishops who, by virtue of that teaching, cannot be regarded as authentic, then the whole edifice is literally subverted from within. A male bishop whose morality is questionable, and certainly would be regarded as sinful from the standpoint of traditional Catholic moral teaching, is nonetheless still an authentic bishop if he has been chosen by his peers and consecrated in accordance with tradition. (This is leaving aside, for a moment, the question of the Catholic Church’s denial of the belief that the Anglican Communion actually does have the apostolic succession!) So his morality is more a matter of discipline and moral example than fundamental dogma.

The fact that the issue of female bishops introduces more division into the church than sexually active gay clergy is illustrated, for me, by the fact that the breakaway conservative evangelical movement, GAFCON (discussed in my previous post), is potentially going to end up being just as divided over this as over the anti-gay-clergy sentiment that unites it. So far, GAFCON has glossed over this issue so as to prevent a united front. But there are undoubtedly going to be African dioceses and conservative evangelicals that will be unable to accept the authority of women bishops; and so you’ll end up with at best a two-track break-away GAFCON Church, with parts of it happy to accept women bishops and others who elect to come under the authority of male bishops only. The geographically dislocated character of the GAFCON movement – with some Western dioceses or individual churches choosing to come under the authority of bishops from other continents – could be the thing that facilitates this dual approach. However, it will break up the traditional association between a bishop and the geographical territory over which his pastoral mission extends.

This lack of engagement with the profound issues raised by women bishops is, for me, demonstrated by the one part of the GAFCON website where they engage with the question of female ordination. This is an interview with a Ugandan bishop, where – in answer to the question, “What is the Church of Uganda’s position on the ordination of women?” – the following answer is offered:

“The Bible is very clear that homosexual practice is sin. But, nowhere in the Bible is being a woman described as a sin. The ordination of women and the ordination of practicing homosexuals cannot be compared. They are not the same issue. People of equally strong evangelical conviction come to different conclusions about the ordination of women, but we in Uganda have understood the Bible to teach that God created men and women in His image and both can be ordained to serve God in His Church.”

Well yes, if this is the quality and consistency of theological understanding that is being applied to these issues, GAFCON is going to have problems! So women can become bishops because it’s not a sin to be a woman! Well, thanks a lot for the enlightenment! And gay men can’t be bishops because being a practising homosexual is a sin – well, a) that’s not very pastorally sensitive to the gay members of your congregation, and b) what about ‘out’ but non-practising homosexuals – is it a sin to be gay, and even if it is a sin (which the Catholic Church doesn’t teach), does that mean gay men can’t be bishops? We’re all sinners, after all.

And yes, people of strong evangelical convictions will come to different conclusions about the ordination of women – particularly, their ordination as bishops. And one wonders how united the GAFCON break-away Church will be able to remain as more Western, liberal dioceses introduce women bishops, while traditionalist evangelical and African dioceses won’t accept the authority of women.

You certainly can and should compare gay and women bishops: they’re both a product of the liberal West. But women bishops are a more fundamental threat to the Anglican Communion as a Church in the Catholic tradition. Admittedly, to evangelicals such as the Bishop of Uganda, this may not be such a problem. But then, GAFCON doesn’t seem to be too bothered about fostering the unity of the Anglican Communion, either.

 

GAFCON: Schism and the Repudiation of Homosexuality 29 June 2008

How significant are differences in belief about openly gay clergy and church blessings of gay unions? Very significant if you consider that such things are said to form part of a “false gospel”, and have contributed to the formation of an alternative episcopal hierarchy in the Anglican Communion at the GAFCON conference, which ended in Jerusalem today.

The gay issue has naturally dominated much of the press coverage of GAFCON (Global Anglican Future Conference). However, this movement is about much more than mere disagreements about marriage and sexuality, important though they are. It’s also about evangelical Anglicans, and those from developing countries (particularly Africa), finally making a break from a church whose compromises between evangelicalism, liberalism and catholicism are rooted in a long history (including the history of British imperialism) and in the moral uncertainties of modern Western society. These compromises and ambiguities are no longer perceived to be necessary or relevant to a confident African Christianity and a militant evangelicalism who base their certainties in Scripture and the traditional cornerstones of Anglican doctrine: the four Ecumenical Councils, the three Creeds, the Church Fathers, the Thirty-Nine Articles and the Book of Common Prayer.

The first thing to be noted is that GAFCON is a schismatic movement. It tries to make out that it will be able to co-exist with the ‘official’ Anglican hierarchy, and that it is just a movement and alternative discipline within the Anglican Communion. However, it is taking the classic form of a schism: seeing itself as the representative of true Anglican-Christian orthodoxy, tradition and liturgy; and setting itself up as able to command authority over all the Anglican faithful by virtue of its claim to uphold the ‘true’ Gospel over against the ‘false’ Gospel that the official hierarchy is unable to confound. It is hard to see how a single Church could survive with two organisations and groupings of bishops competing against each other to be accepted as the very basis for unity, and of coherence of belief and practice, within the Church. The truth of the matter is GAFCON really seeks to supplant the established Church hierarchy and, in a sense, re-launch the Anglican Church as a whole – and not just one movement within it – on its own foundations. It will doubtless take many millions with it, who will believe that it is the ‘true’ Anglican Communion. Many millions will not follow, however, and will retain their allegiance to the established church that has the Archbishop of Canterbury loosely as its head.

The question I would wish to ask is this: will such a schism strengthen or weaken the Church’s witness on homosexuality? Is it more powerful for people to have radically differing views on sexuality within the same community of believers, or to take a stand on the issue to the extent of breaking up over it and forming separate churches? I ask this because I think that gay clergy and blessings are a bit of a straw man. Or should I say they’re being made out to be the ‘last straw’, the final outrage, that’s forcing the hand of the dissidents. But this is really a pretext, and it isn’t necessary to risk splitting up the Communion for the so-called conservatives to express their concerns and their opposition to what is being done in certain parts of the Communion, particularly in North America. This is a matter of discipline not of fundamental Church doctrine: the common Anglican teaching remains that gay clergy should not be in actively sexual relationships, that marriage is an exclusively heterosexual thing and that there is no such thing as an ‘official’ blessing ceremony for gay unions, although these may be carried out by clergy as private occasions.

Admittedly, there are many in the liberal wing of the Communion – and not just in Canada and the USA – who have more affirming views on homosexuality, and consider that loving gay relationships are a positive thing, indeed a gift from God. And such people might even go so far as to sanction gay marriage. However, these views are not the mainstream; and in any case, the traditional Anglican way has been to accept that there is a diversity of beliefs within the Church, reflecting the plurality of beliefs within society at large. The fact that in some churches, they preach that it’s all right for two male or female clergy to share each other’s bed has never up to now been thought to prevent other Anglican churches from believing and preaching diametrically opposing views and still to consider each other as Christian brothers, united in their search for God and for truth. But now, the new organisation is saying that people who advocate and practice such a “false gospel” can no longer be in communion with them: effectively, they would exclude them from their version of the Anglican Communion – they would be excommunicated, meaning they had put themselves beyond the redemption won for us by Christ.

It’s the fact that it isn’t really necessary to set up a dissident church within a church in order to disagree fundamentally with the liberals on these points, and continue teaching the opposite, that makes me think that the gay issue is merely a pretext for a split that the evangelicals and African churches involved have wanted for some time. In reality, it’s the only issue of substance that divides the new proto-church from the old. The statement of belief issued by GAFCON, the Jerusalem Declaration (see above link), is essentially no more than standard traditional Anglicanism that most Anglican believers would have no difficulty in embracing – deliberately so, as the new movement seeks to impose itself as the true Church. The gay issue is being made out to be more extreme and threatening than it really is (because, as I say, the majority of believers do not follow the ultra-liberal line) to justify a split that is ultimately about re-centring the Communion on evangelical principles: Scripture and a specifically conservative-Anglican acception of Tradition; as opposed to the Trinity of (evangelical) Scripture, (Catholic) Tradition and (liberal) Reason that has provided the foundation for the co-existence of multiple interpretations of the faith within the Anglican Communion hitherto.

Ultimately, the new movement is not interested in the gay issue: they simply want out, and want it out of the church. No actively gay person will be welcomed within their Anglican Communion. And it’s in this refusal to exercise the Church’s pastoral mission to its gay followers, as much as in the schism GAFCON is bringing about, that the bishops behind the new movement are failing in their duty to act as a focus for unity in the Church and a witness of God’s love to the world.

 

Gay Clergy Wedding: A Storm In a Vicarage Teacup? 17 June 2008

Is all the fuss that erupted yesterday over last month’s blessing of the gay civil partnership of two Church of England vicars just a storm in a teacup? Clearly not from the point of view of the many furious reactions from senior conservative figures in the Church. Some of these have called the ceremony blasphemous and have claimed it breaks church rules, which prohibit formal blessings of gay unions. The blessing service in question did apparently use many of the forms and words of a traditional, heterosexual marriage ceremony, while adapting it to the gay context. So, to all intents and purposes, it looked like a wedding even though it did not formally claim to be one, or even to be an official blessing.

I have quite a lot of sympathy with the conservatives, based on the fact that I believe in the traditional Christian teaching on marriage and regard it as something sacred, mysterious and revealed. And heterosexual. Marriage has been handed down to us as such in Scripture and Tradition, and – in Catholic belief – through the teaching Authority of the Church. And we cannot change holy matrimony, and expand it to encompass gay unions, just because we wish it to do so. True marriage is a sacred thing that needs to be upheld; above all, modern, secular society needs the Church’s witness to the sacred character of marriage in a world where marriages and families are constantly being torn apart through personal failings and social pressures. The ceremony that is at the centre of the present controversy went too far in reproducing a traditional marriage service, which could indeed undermine some people’s faith in and understanding of the uniquely sacred character of the union in marriage of a man and a woman. And it is highly disingenuous of the vicar who conducted the ceremony to claim that it wasn’t a marriage or a formal blessing, and that he has technically not broken any rules; because it’s clear that the ceremony was making a strong implicit statement that the gay union at its heart was in many ways morally and spiritually equivalent to a traditional marriage.

Yet, at the same time, are not many of the objectors also going too far? To me, the whole thing appears trivial on one level, and it’s futile to waste so much time and energy over it. How does the Church think that the secular world it is trying to bear witness to will react to all this indignation over a ‘marriage’ that no one is technically claiming to be a marriage anyway while, at the same time, many – perhaps most – people would now accept that gay couples should have the right to get married, albeit in a civil ceremony? The whole thing does a huge discredit to the Church in the eyes of many who might otherwise be sympathetic towards its defence of marriage and other traditional moral values. As if the Church didn’t have other far more important and urgent things it should be concerning itself with, such as the social and spiritual deprivation of so many in our society, and the elimination of wars, famine and disease, and their causes and effects. Obsessing so much about the gay issue just makes many people dismiss the Church as a quaint, outmoded irrelevance – more interested in ceremony and petty rules than substance.

So the ‘gay clergy marriage’ story is important, in that the integrity and sanctity of marriage needs to be defended; but not that important that we should lose sight of the Church’s primary mission: to witness to and enact God’s compassionate love in the world. So how should the matter be dealt with? Well, if the policy of the Church is that there can be no formal services of blessing for gay unions, then church premises and property should not have been used in such a public ceremony: any blessing that was given should have been done properly in private, consistent with the claims of the vicar who led the service that it was just a personal response to a request from friends. The vicar should have been quietly reprimanded and informed that if he carried out another blessing for a gay marriage in church premises again, tougher action would be taken. Meanwhile, private blessings, held in non-ecclesiastical surroundings, should be tolerated, just as the fact of clergy entering into civil partnerships themselves is tolerated on the condition that the couple remain celibate. The gay vicar couple at the centre of the dispute are both still exercising their ministry in the church; and, to be honest, if they are truly expected to remain celibate while living together as civil partners, then they really need the blessing of the Church and any grace that that might bring!

After all, it’s not as if the church is sanctioning any gross immorality by giving its blessing to faithful, monogamous gay relationships. If anything, surely, they are to be encouraged in preference to a life of promiscuity. Indeed, does it really discredit – or does it not in fact honour – the tenets of Christian marriage if gay couples wish to place their relationship within the framework of the exclusive lifelong fidelity that marriage demands? At the end of the day – or at the end of life – I feel sure that gay persons will be judged more on the extent to which they lived up to their commitments to one another than by the fact of making those commitments in the first place. And so long as the commitment that remains in the first place for all Christians, gay or straight, is the commitment to Christ, then we need not have any fear. And that includes the misplaced fear of conservative, straight opinion that is worrying more about these issues than about bringing God’s love to a world that is starving for it.

A storm in a teacup, maybe; but one with a ripple effect that diminishes the Church’s stature and impact beyond the vicarage walls.

 

Male and female he created them 21 May 2008

Mexico was scandalised this week by the country’s first wedding between a male (female-to-male – FtM) and female (MtF) transsexual. Not surprisingly, the ceremony incurred the wrath of the Catholic Church in the country. However, as the bride’s sister was quoted as saying, “At the end of the day, it’s a marriage between a woman and a man, so what’s the problem with blessing this union in the eyes of God?”

This is indeed an intriguing question: if an FtM transsexual counts as a woman in the eyes of the Church, and an MtF transsexual is considered a man, then a marriage between both of them – so long as neither of them have been married before – is in fact a female-male union, even if it is the spouse who plays the male role who is the ‘woman’ and the bride is a ‘man’. However, the problem is not in the bare facts but in the spirit with which the couple are committing their lives to each other, which precisely does require that the husband should be a ‘man’ and that he should make the type of commitment that husbands make to wives in Christian marriage (to give himself utterly to the wife out of love, to the extent of being prepared to sacrifice his own life if necessary to save his wife’s life, as Christ died for humankind); and that the bride is a woman making a bride’s pledge to her husband: to love and obey him as she would Christ.

Of course, saying that a marriage involving an FtM and MtF transsexual couple does not comply with these defining parameters of authentic marriage does mean that one is asserting that the couple in question are really a woman and a man, and not – as they see themselves and appear physically to others – a man and a woman; i.e. that ‘woman’ and ‘man’ are terms that relate only to the ‘birth gender’ (the physical, anatomical sex the individuals were born with) and no other understandings of gender. Part of the reason for the insistence on this criterion is of course one of the integral purposes of Christian marriage, in the traditional understanding: that of having children and bringing them up as Christians. The ‘woman’ or ‘bride’ must, in this scheme of things, have been born with the bodily organs required for her to become a mother within marriage; and similarly for the husband / potential father.

I say ‘must have been born with the bodily organs etc.’ rather than simply ‘must have the bodily organs’ because an authentic marriage – one in which the spouses firmly believe that God has called them to commit themselves to one another – logically must have been intended by God for those individuals from all eternity, which therefore requires that one of them be born female and one male. This ‘authentic’ marriage would be contrasted, for instance, to ones in the future where it is theoretically possible that there might be genetic and / or stem cell-based treatments that would enable women to transition entirely into men, complete with functioning genitals; and for men to become women in every physical respect, including with functioning ovaries and wombs. In such a case, would the MtF ‘bride’ not in fact be ‘really’ a woman in every sense – physical and psychological, sex and gender – while the FtM ‘husband’ was ‘really’ a man?

On the other hand, would such an apparently total gender reassignment in reality be any less artificial and superficial than the treatments presently available? The fact that the transitioned woman and man would not just appear as such but would actually be fully female and male anatomically would not of itself invalidate the view that they were ‘really’ a man and a woman respectively, based on the bodies they had been born with – which was as God created them and therefore intended them to be.

But you’d now be paradoxically in the situation where a woman and a man were, in every normal sense of the terms, female and male (physically and psychologically) – and even, who knows, capable of conceiving children ‘naturally’ – but who would be denied marriage on the basis that they were really (‘spiritually’) male and female, and therefore not capable of fulfilling the roles of husband and father, and wife and mother, respectively. On this view, the fact of being female or male would depend not on what you as a person feel you are, nor on how society views you, nor on your present bodies, but on how God made you and what you therefore are in his (or her) eyes.

So one authentic Christian way of living out one’s vocation, as a transsexual, is to accept that, in some mysterious way, one is really – in God’s eyes – a woman even though one feels that one is really a man; and vice-versa for psychological women locked in men’s bodies. As a Christian, it might be better not to undertake a gender reassignment, if one were able in faith to accept the body one was born with as something that God wished one to take on – in the manner of a cross that had to be borne (in the other sense) as part of our sharing in Christ’s suffering for the sins of the world. But by the logic I have attempted to map out, whereby the appearance of gender (even, in theory, the actual possession of a fully female or male body) has nothing to do with the ‘real’ gender (psychologically or spiritually), a transsexual should in no way be condemned for seeking to transform her or his body to align it with her or his psychological gender. Nor – on the other hand – should transsexuals expect or demand that all Christians accept that their ‘new’ genders are their ‘real’ genders from the spiritual perspective, to the extent of authorising and carrying out Christian marriages of the sort discussed at the beginning of this post.

But equally, this does not justify the rejection or condemnation of transsexuals, whether transitioned or not, but calls for a new flexibility and openness of thought and compassionate understanding, whereby one accepts that the gender a person feels they are may be quite the opposite of how they were born or what they appear to be; and that the gender they appear to be may be quite the opposite of what as Christians we are entitled to believe they are. Perhaps this new expansion of the horizons of our thinking will help not just Christians but society as a whole to be more open to the plurality and shades of gender experience, including those which are found but so often suppressed in people who feel their gender identity is wholly ‘normal’ and aligned with their anatomical sex.

So in this life, it is legitimate to believe that we are called to accept the gender we were born with as something essential to what we are and are meant to be in God’s eyes and plan. But in the life to come, these gender differences – including those internal to the self – will no longer matter as we will be reunited with the God in whose image both male and female humanity was created; and, who knows, both the male and female sides of ourselves will be reunited and reconciled in him. After all, the biblical text says, ‘male and female he created them’; and not, as we so often interpret it, ‘male or female’.