By Andrew Symes:
Three articles promoting a revisionist approach to sexuality and gender appeared within two days of each other in three different church publications last week.
The Church of England Newspaper has long been known for giving a mainly conservative viewpoint, but in recent months has given increasing space to non-traditional views, particularly on the issue of sexuality. Benny Hazlehurst, founder and leader of Accepting Evangelicals, uses his regular column to argue for the Church of England to abandon its official doctrines of sexuality and marriage. In “Listening to ‘T’” he looks at the issue of transgendered people; how they are misunderstood and discriminated against in society and in church, and how the time has come for “full inclusion” of those who identify as transgender and of the philosophy behind it. Hazlehurst focuses on two testimonies. From the USA: Heath Ackley, who as Heather Clements was a Professor of Theology at the evangelical Azusa Pacific University, felt (s)he was “living a lie” as a Christian woman. The University did not agree to recognize Heath’s new name and gender, and it seems that the employment was terminated, although details are not given. From Britain: in the case of Elaine Summers, the situation is more complicated. It appears that she is actually a married man who wants to be known as a woman with the support of his/her wife, but that (s)he “has no desire to live permanently as the opposite gender” (presumably this means a kind of fluid or alternating male/female state). This couple were involved in evangelical ministry in Britain and overseas for many years, but were excluded from leadership when the transgender identity issue became known. Leaving that fellowship, they found another fellowship who offered unconditional acceptance.
Hazlehurst’s points are firstly, that the church must “listen to the experience of” and fully accept ‘T’ people as well as LGB’s, and secondly, that it is possible to be an evangelical and buy into the philosophy of ‘gender theory’ (useful summary here ): that we are how we feel or how we want to be in our minds, and not how we are physically made.
A similar point is made by Rev Sharon Ferguson who is featured in the key back page interview slot, Church Times, 6 June. Ferguson is not an Anglican but a minister of the Metropolitan Community Church; as outgoing CEO of the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement she has become a familiar face in media debates on issues of sexuality and gender, always dressed in clerical shirt and pectoral cross. The interview is carefully crafted, with testimonies about feeling God’s love interspersed with statements about action for social justice and apparently profound theology such as this one:
“I’m also undertaking Ph.D. research into the biblical and theological understandings of non-binary gender. If you start with Genesis, it says in the Hebrew that God created both male and female – making it clear that every human is male and female. It’s just a societal construct that we are either/or.” She goes on to talk about gender fluidity being recognized in other faiths such as Hinduism and native American shamanism, and how the Church of England needs to catch up with these ancient insights now being recovered.
Then, on Saturday 7 June we get the news from Christian Today online that transgender priest Rachel Mann has been made a Minor Canon at Manchester Cathedral. Canon Mann, we are told, was “born a boy in the working class end of Hartlebury”, but now her birth certificate shows her as ‘female’ (an example of Orwellian revisionism?). Like Ferguson, Mann shares her spiritual journey, involving disentangling the compassionate God in Christ who celebrates her, from the harsh and judgmental church which excluded her in the past but now is moving towards affirming her and those in her situation. Many people have been moved by Mann’s poetry which traces “her journey to her true self, a trans lesbian”, which I presume means that Mann is a man who is now a woman, but retains a sexual interest in women. The article finishes with a plug for Diverse Church, “made up primarily of young, gay evangelical Christians, that is…exerting a perceptible influence at the grass roots among youth”.
What are the key lessons to be drawn from the simultaneous publication of these three articles? While the rare phenomenon of “intersex”, and people being attracted to the idea of being (as opposed to ‘being with’) the opposite gender has always been recognized, the Christian church has seen this as an unfortunate dysfunction to be understood pastorally rather than something to be celebrated and encouraged and promoted to church leadership. But behind the message from these three articles is a demand that God and the church affirm the self-created and self-defined self, no matter what boundaries it crosses (is this not the essence of sin and rebellion?); a demand for full acceptance of the concept of gender fluidity and plasticity.
Then, the debate is framed as if has now moved beyond “liberal versus evangelical”, and that now there is a diversity of views among evangelicals on the issue of sexual ethics and gender theories. The Pilling Report of course takes this view. But this is not a true reflection of the situation: as Hazlehurst himself points out, the Evangelical Alliance has not even begun a debate among its members about the transgender issue, and the same would be said of other bodies such as the Church of England Evangelical Council. The piece about Rachel Mann claims that Diverse Church is a grouping of young evangelicals, but their beliefs would not be recognized as evangelical by any objective understanding of that term.
Lastly, what methods are used to promote the idea of freedom to define one’s own sexual and gender identity and relationship practice as compatible with authentic Christian faith? It is no longer theological and philosophical reasoning from Scripture and tradition as a measure against which we must form an understanding of what it means to be human and order our lives accordingly. Rather, personal stories of hurt and exclusion, relating a ‘journey’ of acceptance of self and/or creation of new self to experience of God, and declarations of passionate commitment to social justice. But it is working. Articles by “Accepting Evangelicals” in the Church of England Newspaper, a glowing tribute to Sharon Ferguson in the Church Times, and the installing of Rachel Mann as a canon of a Cathedral provide yet more evidence that the LGBT agenda is now fully and firmly entrenched in the C of E without any debate in Synod or serious theological justification.
More helpful analysis from a conservative viewpoint can be found here.