Last spring, I wrote about a new book, put out by British publisher Darton, Longman, and Todd: Transfaith. The book is a collection of seven experimental liturgies for “transgender” use composed by a Church of England priestess and a former Metropolitan Community Church minister who “retrained” for ministry in the United Reformed Church.
The story is again relevant because the Church of England, in early December 2018, approved adapting liturgies to make them “celebratory” in marking “transgender transitions.” What they are doing is even stranger. Rather than introduce new liturgies per se, the Anglican divines are trying to bend the Baptismal liturgy to new ends.
Transfaith sought to create a “Renaming Ceremony” to mark gender “transitions.” Rather than create a special rite as Transfaith did, the House of Bishops instead seeks to adapt their “Affirmation of Baptismal Faith” (similar to the Catholic “Renewal of Baptismal Vows”) for the occasion. The Transfaith liturgy is theologically bizarre; the Anglican bishops couple bizarre with confused.
The original Transfaith “Renaming Ceremony” was a parody of baptism. The bishops’ handiwork tries to use baptism itself (at least in terms of its “reaffirmation”) to mark the occasion.
The “Renaming Ceremony” seized on the theme of “rebirth” and the tradition of conferring a name in Christian Initiation. “Change of name” is treated as tantamount to change of sex. The authors assure us that there are “echoes in the Bible” of such a practice, as when Abram became Abraham, Sarai Sarah, Jacob Israel, and Saul Paul. None of them apparently noticed that Abram did not become Sarah nor Jacob Rachel.
In the “Renaming Ceremony,” the name-change is justified because it “is a recognition of a pre-existing truth that has been obscured.” Transgender ideology puts huge weight upon the culture, but, in this instance, the “pre-existing truth” is not “male and female [God] created them” but some hidden, self-discovered reality which even God has been apparently complicit in obscuring.
Clothes are also important to the “Renaming Ceremony.” The rubric provides that candidates are to be “dressed in gender neutral clothing but bearing symbols of their natal gender.” Symbols of their “natal gender” are then put under a cloth and a kind of a baptismal candle is then extinguished. Symbols of their newly assumed “gender” (wherever it happens to be among the fifty shades) will then be taken up and a new candle lit.
As Ryan Anderson asks, if gender is a state of mind independent of a sexual biological foundation, i.e., if I am a simmering Sally waiting to burst forth from the cocoon of a bodily Harry, then what exactly does it mean to be a “female” or a “male” without a body? How am I male or female independently of a body? This question is not marginal to the proposed Anglican ritual, primarily because of the way the revisions torture Galatians 3:26-28 to accomplish two contradictory ends simultaneously. We’ll return to this below.
In a true baptismal rite, a candle is lit as a symbol of “the light of Christ.” The lighting and extinguishing of candles in the “Renaming” ceremony (associated with some kind of putting on and taking off of “genders”) sounds more gnostic than Christian.
One suspects the Anglican bishops understood this when, in lieu of inventing new rites, they opted for incorporating “gender transitions” within an existing reaffirmation of Baptism. But the problems only get bigger.
First, the title of the Anglican bishops’ document betrays their confusion: “Guidance for Gender Transition Services.” After saying they would not create new rites and that they were adapting their “Reaffirmation of Baptism” to the circumstances of “gender transition,” Anglicans now have a “gender transition service” in fact, if not in name: the “Reaffirmation of Baptism” will be deployed as the de facto service.
Second, the de facto rite talks out of two sides of its mouth. While eisegetically appropriating Galatians 3:28-29 (“In Christ there is neither male nor female”), a rite that should affirm that all persons irrespective of sex are saved in Jesus Christ is warped into a rite that reinforces and “celebrates” mentally constructed sexual differentiation. On the one hand, it wants to say sex is irrelevant to baptism; on the other hand, it says let’s make baptism a celebration of sex. From “male and female does not matter to be saved,” the Anglican adaptation is now “let’s celebrate male or female, not as a function of biology but of consciousness.” The theological leaps required to get from one point to another would have challenged Nadia Comeneci in her prime.
In the Christian tradition, reaffirmation of Baptism (i.e., renewing baptismal vows) occurs at spiritually significant moments, e.g., the completion of Initiation, Confirmation, and the annual celebration of the Paschal Mystery in the Easter liturgy. It does not even occur at all spiritually significant moments, e.g., candidates for ordination or—perhaps more important for the “transgender” situation—persons marrying do not normally renew their baptismal commitments. So why is the “reaffirmation of Baptism” being adapted to “gender transition,” especially when one of the foundational scriptural texts being invoked to give this cultural accommodation a veneer of theological cover suggests that sexual differentiation is irrelevant in matters spiritual? This practice wants to have it both ways: it tries to say that sexual differentiation is unimportant, yet it uses baptism as a means to solemnize differentiation based not on biological reality but on a state of mind.
What other non-spiritual moment analogous to “gender transition” would warrant a “reaffirmation of Baptism?” Race transition? Might someone not identify with some other race or ethnic group than the one that person had hitherto appeared to be? Nobody is (yet) suggesting that since there is neither “Jew nor Greek” in Christ Anglicans should solemnize “racial transitions.” Galatians 3:28 also proclaims that social status—“slave or free”—is irrelevant to one’s Christian identity, but if we are cherry-picking the text to celebrate certain socio-cultural views, could we imagine a ritual for “reaffirming baptism” if one were emancipated (which might be relevant to some Anglican communities in the Third World)? The fact that nobody talks seriously about any of these ideas poses the question why “gender transition” should also be afforded such spiritual attention and stature?
Third, the Anglican bishops declare their warrant for the new rite/adaptation to be an “unconditional affirmation.” As one commentator has noted, baptism is not meant to be an “unconditional affirmation” but a call to repentance and conversion. Even if we are to prescind from the moral issue of intentional bodily mutilation involved in “transition,” it is a warping of baptism to treat it as a celebration of “I’m OK, you’re OK” when the fundamental Christian message is that, absent the healing grace of Jesus Christ in baptism, no one is “OK.”
Fourth, gender transition rituals usually involve renaming (as the original draft service presupposed) and find cultural expression in the so-called “pronoun wars.” Is a “reaffirmation of baptism” a renaming? Is a new “name” to be inserted on a baptismal certificate or only annotated? And how does all this square with the Christian tradition—including the Anglican bishops’ own affirmation in this document—that “[t]he rite for the Affirmation of Baptismal Faith is not a second baptism”? Indeed, it reads: “The Church of England teaches that the sacrament of baptism is only to be undertaken once.” One comes away with the impression that this is a “rebaptism” or a “new creation” in everything but name. (But, as I have observed with regard to other issues, the Church of England, with its proclivity towards “consensus,” is hardly likely to be divided over something like faith or morals.)
The Anglican bishops’ proposal betrays the incoherence that follows when theological truths are pressed to accommodate cultural trends. Anglicans have already fractured (and distanced themselves from their ecumenical rapprochement with Rome) over a sacrament where sexual differentiation is relevant: Orders. Now, they apparently want to see what happens when they wedge sex (as a mental construct, not a physical reality) into a sacrament where sexual differentiation is irrelevant.
(Photo credit: Shawn Goldberg / Shutterstock)