The Church of England hasn’t always been LGBTQ-friendly. In fact, the official church stance is still that marriage should remain a strictly heterosexual affair between a man and a woman. But the church is slowly evolving, and on Wednesday announced new pastoral guidelines for an official gender transition ceremony that can be performed by its parishes.
That’s a big deal for a country in which church and state are inextricably linked; the Church of England is the official state religion, public schools are run according to church tenets, and church bishops even participate in lawmaking through a special section of Parliament called “Lords Spiritual.” Unlike in the U.S., the English church has broad influence over national policy and the culture at large. And the Church of England is the mothership of the international Anglican faith, with over 85 million members worldwide.
The new ceremony for trans church members incorporates something called the Affirmation of Baptismal Faith into celebrations that mark a gender transition.
“Everyone’s journey through life is unique. Baptism is the place where we find our true identity in Christ,” reads the pastoral guidance. “As with all pastoral encounters with people negotiating major life events, ministers will wish to respond sensitively and creatively to the person’s circumstances.”
The church guidelines recommend a ceremonial event that fosters a “celebratory character.” The pastor conducting the ceremony is advised to use the trans person’s chosen name and pronouns, perform an anointment using water or oil, allow “testimony” to reflect on the person’s journey, and present the person with a baptismal certificate of sorts.
The impressively detailed church guidelines include basic definitions of what it means to be transgender along with an overview of terminology for church officials for whom the concept is new. “It should be noted that the term ‘transgender’ is typically preferred to transgendered,” reads the guidance.
The church’s ceremonial blessing of gender transition does not mean the work of LGBTQ advocates in England is over. With the church still defining marriage in heterosexual terms, a debate is roaring within its ranks over the welcoming of LGBTQ congregants.
This past May, bishops from the Lichfield diocese just outside Birmingham, England signed a letter calling for “radical Christian inclusion” that urged LGBTQ people to seek leadership positions within the church. In the letter, the bishops also instructed their parishes on how to treat LGBTQ people in a way that made them feel welcome.
“Nobody should be excluded or discouraged from receiving the Sacraments of Baptism or the Lord’s Supper on the grounds of their sexual orientation or gender identity,” read the May 2018 letter. “It is also unacceptable to tell or insinuate to people that sexual orientation or gender identity will be changed by faith, or that homosexuality or gender difference is a sign of immaturity or a lack of faith.”