When I was training to be a vicar at theological college, a group of friends and I decided to have a bit of a laugh one year by writing a spoof liturgy.
The satirical rite – which rejoiced in the name of 'Celebrating Common Community' – was performed for the annual Student Revue. There was no mention of God – obviously we didn't want to be blasphemous. The aim was to gently mock the vacuity of the wording in some modern rites which sounds good, but in fact has little real theological content.
My friends and I particularly enjoyed the culmination of this pseudo-liturgy. It concluded with the four of us standing and intoning solemnly, 'The community is all around us; the community is big; praise be for the community!' We recited this while rotating slowly on the spot with a single outstretched arm and pointing finger. And just before we came to 'Praise be' we all did a single, deliberately feeble, synchronized 'jump for joy'. It brought the house down.
I'm delighted that this year the House of Bishops has also decided to have a bit of similar fun. They've come up with something that fits right in with our Pythonesque 'Celebrating Common Community' by producing a paper called 'Pastoral Guidance for use in conjunction with the Affirmation of Baptismal Faith in the context of gender transition'. Bit of a long title guys (and gals) – I might have gone with something a bit snappier myself.
But you can tell it's a spoof because the guidance contains pretty much no theology whatsoever. Obviously no serious group of bishops leading the Church of God would commit such a basic own goal... would they? And moreover, it takes an existing liturgy – the renewal of baptismal vows – and applies it to a wholly different context, without setting out even basic whys or wherefores...
Some people have been taken in by this spoof liturgy. That delightful chap at Church Society, Lee Gatiss ('crazy name, crazy guy' as Private Eye would say) has written an article (see here) highlighting the flaws that would exist if this were a serious Anglican document. As if! I must admit the bishops almost had me too, for a moment. At one point the guidance recommends the use of sprinkling with water or the use of oil. That sounds a bit like real liturgy! If you're going to fit in with the over-the-top ethos of 'Celebrating Common Community' you want something a bit more way-out, such as smearing a bit of lard across the forehead of each member of the choir. Way more fun!
On a more serious note, I'm also very uneasy that they are taking what is actually a really complex and sensitive issue – that of trans men and women – and reducing it to four and a bit sides of sparsely written A4 (and even that has plenty of white space). It seems to me that such a profound matter isn't really something to be dealt with in this way. For this is, if truth be said, a deeply complicated issue. There is a wealth of serious theology out there on this subject for anyone who wants to discover it. One of the articles I found most helpful was by Mark Yarhouse, the Rosemarie S. Hughes Endowed Chair and professor of psychology at Regent University, where he directs the Institute for the Study of Sexual Identity. You can read it here.
I have met a couple of transgender people in my time, but I have never had the privilege of walking with someone struggling with these issues long-term. It must be so, so difficult – and I am aware that is a massive understatement. At the same time, in wider society, there seems to be a whole 'trans ideology' which takes this very serious matter and gridlocks it into an Orwellian system of thinking – and woe betide the Christian (or indeed anyone) who dares to think differently! You will be silenced! Thankfully, there does seem to be increasing questioning of what is going on, not least because of the appalling injustice which can take place when such ideology is unthinkingly incorporated into society's structures (see here for more on that).
Our trans brothers and sisters in Christ deserve better than these four-and-a-bit sides of A4. As Nate Collins of Revoice has written: 'As we commit ourselves to listening to actual transgender people and taking their experiences seriously, we'll be better equipped to apply biblical wisdom to the specific circumstances of their lives.' Thankfully the Church of England is engaged in more serious reflection on sexual matters in its 'Living in Love and Faith' project, due to report in 2020. Hopefully we'll get something far more serious theologically on this important and sensitive issue when that arrives.
But, in the meantime, all together now: 'The community is all around us...'
David Baker is a former daily newspaper journalist now working as an Anglican minister in Sussex, England. Find him on Twitter @Baker_David_A