Melanie McDonagh

The problem with the Church of England’s gender guidance

The problem with the Church of England's gender guidance
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There has been an equivocal reaction, wouldn’t you say, to the Church of England’s pronouncement that little boys should be allowed to wear tiaras and high heels at school, while issuing a helpful form to encourage teachers to report transgender bullying; the new rules, it says, are designed to 'challenge homophobic, biphobic and transphobic bullying'; (the second is new to me). Stonewall – which has changed its remit quite a bit from the old days when it campaigned just for gay rights – has welcomed the move. But as you’d expect, Christian evangelicals have taken a more dusty view.

It’s hardly new for the CofE, though. Back in July it passed a motion at General Synod not just welcoming transgender people into the church but calling on the house of bishops to consider preparing nationally approved liturgical materials to mark a person’s gender transition. There’s scope for pure parody here but let me merely observe that the motion was supported by the Rev Christopher Newlands from Blackburn, who referred in a briefing paper to a man he calls 'George', who had transitioned from being female and felt the need to “reintroduce himself to God, with his new name and gender identity”.

You know, I don’t think God needs reintroduction to George on the basis that you’re unrecognisable to your creator with your bits surgically removed, but who am I to know? I would, however, observe that the Catholic church is having its own problems with the authorities on this one: it is to be obliged to redesign its school application forms to avoid the words “mother” and “father” because a parent complained to the Schools Adjudicator about the wording for admission to Holy Ghost Roman Catholic school in Wandsworth. The Church is already having to tread on eggshells when it asks priests to affirm that parents actually go to church (the form for the school I have applied to for my daughter has had to do an about-turn on that one); now it’s having to renounce Genesis 1:27 in order to admit pupils to its schools at all.

And, as by now we all know, the Scottish administration has said it will allow primary school children to adopt the gender of their choice without the say so of their parents; a similar proposal is with Education Secretary, Justine Greening. Would I trust her to see off this scary bid to undermine the authority of parents on the sensitive issue, with its raft of psychological and physical implications? Nope, I would not. Michael Gove, who was the best Education Secretary in a generation, would have thrown this abject submission to the lunatic tendency out at first sight. Ms Greening, who has been useless where she hasn’t been actually damaging in each department she’s been responsible for, inspires no such confidence.

But back to the church. There is obviously nothing to be said against standing up to bullying of any description. But it’s not just taking a benign approach to little boys who varnish their fingernails, is it? What it’s about is more fundamental: embracing the whole notion of gender as a construct, a matter of choice, to be reinvented at will.

Plainly, Christianity has room for all comers. The very first person the apostle Philip was sent to, by an angel of the Lord, no less, was rather a grand Ethiopian eunuch. Now, I’m not quite sure where eunuchs stand in the great transgender debate, on the basis they didn’t quite identify as non binary so much as have it thrust on them, but they could, I suppose, count as intersex, or at least a bit trans. So the Church, I’d say, is fine on eunuchs. 

But for the rest of us, there is something non negotiable about gender: that bit about “male and female he created them”. You can be as creative and flexible as you please when it comes to how you interpret those identities – personally, I am terrifically in touch with my masculine side when it comes to arguments, end of year exams, antipathy to modern novels about relationships and liking Latin and PG Wodehouse – but the gender itself is a given, one of the aspects of ourselves that makes us human. And for Christians, the notion that we are created men and women should, I reckon, be a clue to how we approach the thing. But even if you’re not, the notion that gender is all in the mind is a fundamental departure from humanity as we’ve always understood it.

Not for the first time, Pope Benedict, saw this coming. In a near-universally misunderstood Christmas address to his Cardinals in Rome all of five years ago, he identified as a fundamental threat to the family, the notion that gender is something we invent for ourselves. I give an extract from it below; it’s what the CofE should be saying, and isn’t.

“…The Chief Rabbi of France, Gilles Bernheim, has shown in a very detailed and profoundly moving study that the attack we are currently experiencing on the true structure of the family, made up of father, mother, and child, goes much deeper.

While up to now we regarded a false understanding of the nature of human freedom as one cause of the crisis of the family, it is now becoming clear that the very notion of being – of what being human really means – is being called into question. He quotes the famous saying of Simone de Beauvoir: “one is not born a woman, one becomes so” (on ne naît pas femme, on le devient). These words lay the foundation for what is put forward today under the term “gender” as a new philosophy of sexuality. According to this philosophy, sex is no longer a given element of nature, that man has to accept and personally make sense of: it is a social role that we choose for ourselves, while in the past it was chosen for us by society.

The profound falsehood of this theory and of the anthropological revolution contained within it is obvious. People dispute the idea that they have a nature, given by their bodily identity, that serves as a defining element of the human being. They deny their nature and decide that it is not something previously given to them, but that they make it for themselves. According to the biblical creation account, being created by God as male and female pertains to the essence of the human creature. This duality is an essential aspect of what being human is all about, as ordained by God. This very duality as something previously given is what is now disputed.

The words of the creation account: “male and female he created them” (Gen 1:27) no longer apply. No, what applies now is this: it was not God who created them male and female – hitherto society did this, now we decide for ourselves. Man and woman as created realities, as the nature of the human being, no longer exist. Man calls his nature into question. From now on he is merely spirit and will. The manipulation of nature, which we deplore today where our environment is concerned, now becomes man’s fundamental choice where he himself is concerned.”

Written byMelanie McDonagh

Melanie McDonagh is a leaderwriter for the Evening Standard and Spectator contributor. Irish, living in London.

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