What sort of church?
Imagine a labyrinth where there is one route from the outside to the centre, albeit not a straightforward route. There are plenty of twists and turns and at times it may seem as if the route is not heading in the right direction. Persist and you will end up in the middle. To get to each stage you need to move on beyond the previous one while taking with you any positives you gained or leaving behind any negatives that you react against.
To me this image is helpful to describe the different descriptions of church attitudes towards people who are trans – from those who would keep them on the margins through to those who wholeheartedly embrace them as an integral part of the church – and give a sense of the possibility of growing engagement and inclusion in churches. While I have tried to describe aspects of different churches located in the labyrinth, I am not trying to establish a scale of trans inclusion. The words used for each description are deliberately used in order to provoke thought and feelings in you, the reader, because I have tried to use words that could describe how a person who is trans might feel if they attend a church like that.
These are caricatures. They are not based on any specific church. They come from my reading of, and listening to, the experiences of people who are trans. Trying to describe churches’ responses to people who are trans is difficult because each church is unique in subtle and not-so subtle ways. Every church is a distinctive blend of people who comprise the church, different leaders, different emphases, different locations and different theological perspectives. In offering the descriptions below the best I can do is give you a crude caricature and suggest that you see which one is most like your church. You may find that your church is a blend of descriptions, that should not surprise you. Where you see similarities, notice how it feels to you that this feels true for your church. Where there are obvious differences, notice how you feel about that too. In almost all the descriptions there are positives and rather than repeat them each time I prefer to say that each category builds on and includes the positive aspects of the preceding ones.
One final caveat. Please remember that church is not just about Sunday services. If you only focus on those who attend your church on a Sunday you may be disregarding the larger group of people who attend different groups and activities throughout the week. Sunday services may be the ‘shop window’ but churches are often more like a department store with lots of different activities rather than a single focus store such as a newsagent or bakery. How are people who are trans welcomed and included throughout the church week?
Whoa, that’s rather a negative term isn’t it? I can’t imagine any Christian church would choose to describe themselves as ‘rejecting’. It is such a counter-gospel concept that you may wonder why I have included it and you may consider it to be a rather pejorative term to use. I have wrestled more over this word than any other but I have used it because that is how some people who are trans have described their experience in some churches. I have included it because it sometimes helps to know who you are by discovering who you are not. There may be some who, in reading this, may realise that even though they would not describe themselves in this way there are aspects in which their attitude inadvertently is received in this way.
A rejecting church is one where those who are trans are told that they are not welcome, or it is made clear in less overt ways that this is the case. In a rejecting church they will find that no accommodation has been made for anyone who is not cisgender. Non-inclusive language may be dominant in conversations and in the activities of the church. In a rejecting church a known person who is trans may find that few people come and sit with them. They may be left standing on their own, or with just their own circle of friends, in the ritual of post-service tea and coffee consumption. A rejecting church may even refuse to offer communion to a person who is trans.
A rejecting church might well say that they have a high view of the Bible and rely on it heavily as their moral compass as well as the source of their teaching. As I said earlier, I would strongly argue that having a high view of the Bible can be foundational to all churches regardless of their view of people who are trans. However the inference is easy to draw from the attitude of a church that if you disagree with them you are wrong and don’t have such a high view of the Bible as they do.
A rejecting church would be one where teaching explicitly says, or the general unchallenged assumption is that the teaching would be, that God created us male and female and it is wrong to transition from one to the other. The teaching, if there is any, would be in line with the Evangelical Alliance’s stance that it is wrong for a person who is trans to transition from their assigned birth gender to their true gender. Verses from the Bible might be trotted out in support of this view and you may hear statements such as, ‘God made male and female in his image and he doesn’t make mistakes’. Prayer and other ‘ministries’ may be offered (or imposed) to change the ‘sinful’ nature of a person who is trans or even, in extreme cases, exorcise a demon. The right to do this is being vigorously defended as the Government consults on whether to outlaw so-called ‘conversion therapy’.
Aside from the showcase of Sunday services, a rejecting church would be one where no practical accommodation has been made for those who are not part of them and do not share their theological perspective. A rejecting church may be one where it is clear who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’. Those who are ‘in’ are the members (or even the core part of the church membership), and non-members are left with the feeling that they are second class citizens and are unable to fulfil certain roles, are excluded from any of the discernment or decision-making and whose commitment is seen as sub-standard. To be ‘in’ requires formal interviews and there are assumed or explicit aspects of an applicant’s life that would automatically disqualify them if known. A person who is trans seeking to attend a small group may find that they are all full. They may find that the parent and toddler group no longer has spaces.
Surely no church is like that, is it? Sadly, you would be surprised and (I hope) shocked. If you speak to some trans Christians or read some of their personal accounts, you will find that there are some churches like this. There are harrowing yet hope-full testimonies in the second section of This is My Body: hearing the theology of transgender Christians (Ed Christina Beardsley and Michelle O’Brien DLT, London, 2016) that describe encounters with such churches. Such churches will need to be careful that they do not find themselves on the wrong side of anti-discrimination legislation.
You may think that a jump from ‘rejecting’ to the next approach, which I term ‘welcoming’ is a big one, and perhaps there should be another category in between such as ‘ambivalent’ or ‘thoughtless’. I considered this and decided that these are sub-categories of, if not synonyms for, ‘rejecting’. There may not be an intentionality about the rejection but it is there nonetheless – if there is no welcome, there is rejection. “Aha!” you may cry, “you’re being binary about this, which seems to contradict the approach you outlined earlier.” Perhaps I am, but if you are trans and attend an ambivalent or thoughtless church I suggest that you will feel rejected.
A welcoming church is one that may have decided that ‘being welcoming’ is one of their values. They may have thought about how people feel when they walk through the doors of the church on a Sunday (and perhaps for other activities too) and seek to ensure that it is a positive experience. They may have a statement about the sort of welcome they offer on their website. They may use words like ‘friendly’, ‘warm’ or ‘family’ to describe themselves. Welcoming churches feel warm and fuzzy when newcomers praise them for the warmth of the welcome, and they would say that people who are trans are as welcome as anyone else.
One of the dangers for welcoming churches is that they can focus so much on making a good first impression that they fail to build on it. To a person who is trans a welcoming church may feel like the child-catcher’s caravan in the film Chitty Chitty Bang Bang – very attractive and inviting at first (maybe even offering lollipops!) However, once you get inside you realise that it’s nothing like it purports to be and might even be felt to be a trap. Examples of this might include that people may still be reticent to engage with people who are trans; non-inclusive language may still used; little or no thought or effort may have been made to help people who are trans feel comfortable. While they may not be expecting that a person who is trans would receive ‘ministry’ to release them from their ‘condition’ it would readily be offered if requested and the predominant view would be that transitioning to true gender is wrong.
A welcoming church probably may not allow a person who is trans to become a member or to take on a role in the life and ministry of the church. The attitude of a welcoming church is such that the balance of grace required for a person who is trans to be part of the church is still very much coming from the person who is trans.
These churches that recognise people who are trans in their midst and acknowledge their identity, while not making gender the main thing. This could be a subset of the attitude of a welcoming church. They are welcoming, and they may seek to accommodate the needs of a person who is trans, for example by seeking to use the language that the individual asks for such as gender-appropriate pronouns. The discussion about toilets (p,22, above) is the sort of discussion that this sort of church may have, but it is possible that the church may be unwilling to take that step.
While a person who is trans is welcome and acknowledged, however, there are still limits on how involved they could be. While formal membership might be open to them without the need for discussion about their trans identity, leadership roles may still not be possible. Their involvement in ‘up front’ roles such as worship-leading may not be open to them.
A person who is trans might feel a similar sense of affiliation to this sort of church that someone has to their favourite sports team – they are committed supporters, but they are not players. They may still feel that they are mainly side-lined from taking an active part in the life of the church and their grace to accept the limits the church places on them is still required for them to be a part of the church even if they are more involved.
When a person who is trans feels welcomed, recognised and accepted then they may be in an including church. These are churches where people who are trans can participate fully in the life and work of the church. In an including church baptism, membership and leadership roles are open to people who are trans without question or comment about their gender. Including churches will have taken time and thoughtfully considered how people who are trans are included practically as well as spiritually and emotionally. They may well have an obvious statement of their inclusivity on their website or easily available to those who are interested. It is likely that the inclusion will reach to other members of the LGBT+ community but that is not a given.
More than inclusion
You may be wondering why I have a final category beyond Inclusion. The reason is that I believe that we need to build from inclusion to a point where everyone is able to play a full part in the life of their church and their gender identity is less important than the person they are. And Inclusive church says that everyone is included, regardless of any differences. All that I said in ‘Inclusive’ should also apply here, but an Embracing church is ‘Inclusive+’. An Embracing church says that everyone is included and makes no mention of differences. I realise that in the world we currently inhabit, especially for those who have been marginalised from or by cis-gender Christians, there may be a need to state that difference makes no difference, but what an amazing place church would be if everyone is embraced. Full stop.
Of course this applies not only those who are trans. But is it possible to conceive of a community that loves one another to such an extent that there is no need to do anything special for people who are trans because we are always considerate and thoughtful of all – everyone is loved and embraced? While a person’s gender identity is an important aspect of who they are it is not the only thing that makes up their personality and identity and an embracing church, while not disregarding someone’s transgender identity, does not allow that aspect of a person’s life alone to define them and they are embraced for who they are. No ‘special treatment’ is needed because everybody is loved and embraced fully.
But note well that a fully embracing church must embrace those who have different theological perspectives – everyone is loved and embraced. Such a church will find that individuals can disagree agreeably. Inclusion suggests that people who are trans can play a full part in the life of the church. Embrace suggests that the church also can play a full part in the life of a person who is trans.
An embracing church will require everyone to play their part, but I believe it is achievable if everyone is committed to embracing one another. I am not so naïve as to think that this is easy or quick to achieve. It requires much grace and a collective openness to the work of God’s Spirit. I believe that this is possible if we allow God’s Spirit to help us live the New Testament ‘one anothers’, which describe how God intends church to be. I believe that all of them are outworkings of the ultimate commandment for us as church – to love one another as Jesus loves us. Look at these injunctions from the New Testament and I hope you will see what I mean (all NIVUK, listed in the order in which they appear):
John 13:13-15 (Jesus) ‘You call me “Teacher” and “Lord”, and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.’
John 14:34-35 (Jesus) ‘A new command I give you: love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.’
Romans 12:10 Be devoted to one another in love. Honour one another above yourselves.
Romans 14:13 Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling-block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister.
Romans 15:7 Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God.
1 Corinthians 1:10 I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought.
2 Corinthians 13:11-12 Finally, brothers and sisters, rejoice! Strive for full restoration, encourage one another, be of one mind, live in peace. And the God of love and peace will be with you. Greet one another with a holy kiss.
Galatians 5:13 You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love.
Ephesians 4:2 Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.
Ephesians 4:32 Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.
Ephesians 5:21 Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.
Philippians 2:5-6 In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: who, being in very nature[a] God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage.
Colossians 3:13 Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.
Colossians 3:16 Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts.
1 Thessalonians 4:9 Now about your love for one another we do not need to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love each other.
1 Thessalonians 5:11 Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing.
Hebrews 3:13 But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called ‘Today’, so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness.
Hebrews 10:23-25 And let us consider how we may spur one another on towards love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another – and all the more as you see the Day approaching.
Hebrews 13:1 Keep on loving one another as brothers and sisters.
1 Peter 1:22 Now that you have purified yourselves by obeying the truth so that you have sincere love for each other, love one another deeply, from the heart
1 Peter 4:9 Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling.
1 John 1:7 But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.
An embracing church is a ‘one another’ church. And if everyone is ‘one-anothering’ in a church it would be the sort of community that Jesus envisaged when he imagined church into being. I would love to be a part of that sort of church. You may think I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one! God shares that dream too! Surely this is what church should be seeking to become as God’s Spirit transforms us – God’s ideal community that is a beacon of hope to the world and a free sample of Jesus to all who encounter us.