Transgender Christians and the Church’s mission

Sarah Lawton, a Deputy from the Diocese of California writes about Resolutions D002 and D019, and the full inclusion of trangendered persons into the life of the Church.

Resolutions D002 and D019 seek to add “gender identity and expression” to the list of categories protected from discrimination in the church, including access to the discernment process for ordination (D012) and also more generally to the life, worship and governance of the church (D019).

Gender identity is one’s inner sense of being male, female, or something more complex; gender expression is the way in which one manifests that gender identity in the world. These resolutions are based on our growing understanding and practice in church to respect the dignity of transgender persons (transsexuals, and others who differ from majority societal gender norms).

In 2009, a group of eight transgender Episcopalians–four lay people, a deacon, and four priests, ranging in age from 19 to 70 and hailing from dioceses around the church–went to General Convention to urge passage of several resolutions. They were organized by TransEpiscopal , which coordinated its work with Integrity’s legislative team. Also in 2009, Deputy Dante Tavalaro of the Diocese of Rhode Island was the first openly transgender member of the House of Deputies. It was a groundbreaking year.

Although 2009 was the first time that any resolution on transgender concerns ever made it out of committee and onto the floor of either House, several trans-friendly resolutions were passed by wide margins, including a resolution calling for national, state and local laws to protect transgender persons from employment discrimination and violence. However, the resolution on access to the ordination process ultimately failed.

It did pass the House of Deputies by a super-majority, but after much debate was amended in the House of Bishops to drop reference to all specific protected categories such as race, gender, national origin, etc., in favor of the word “all.” Because “all” does not always yet mean all in the Episcopal Church, and because naming those protections has been a long struggle over years, TransEpiscopal, Integrity, and other groups recommended that the House of Deputies vote no on the amended resolution, effectively killing the resolution.

This year D002 brings back that same resolution, along with D019 to address access to the church’s wider life. TransEpiscopal is sending another team of advocates, and Integrity has made passage of these resolutions a top priority for this convention.

The Rev. Dr. Cameron Partridge, Episcopal Chaplain at Boston University and lecturer at Harvard University, writes:

Rather than adding specific protections for transgender people to the canons, the bishops voted to strike all demographic categories, simply directing dioceses to “make provision for the ministry of all baptized persons.” It is tempting to think that if we remove specific mention of groups that have historically been the targets of discrimination, as this amendment sought to do, we can erase the distinctions among us and make it unnecessary to discuss differences that make us uneasy.

But even though naming and discussing difference has proved daunting to us as a Church over the years, it need not serve simply as a source of stumbling or of distraction. It can be a part of our rebirth and new life that accompanies our membership in Christ’s body.

Many transgender Christians know this quite well. I have many times encountered transgender people who tell their own lives as stories of salvation history. Many, including myself, are people for whom the mystery of faith finally helped us claim our selves, our souls and bodies, as vessels of reconciliation. In many ways the transgender community reminds me of the wild olive shoot (Romans 11:17-24) with which Paul describes Gentile entrance into the larger trunk of God’s Promise—a people engrafted into God’s heart.

When we open our hearts to consider what is at stake theologically in the full incorporation of trans people into the church, we find some of the same theological questions about sex, gender and sexuality that we have grappled with for decades as we have debated the place of gay and lesbian people in the church. During that time, we have slowly moved beyond rigid notions of sexual/gender “complementarity.”3 In short, we have come to accept that God made us in more varieties than typical “masculine” males and “feminine” females who are to be paired only in “opposite” gender couples.

Many people now think we are created as part of a sexual/gender spectrum, which can include people who marry people of the “opposite” sex; people who do not marry, including celibate religious; women who never give birth, by choice or necessity; people whose expressions of gender exceed the norms of their cultures; people born with a combination of female and male bodily traits4; gay, lesbian or bisexual people; and transgender people.

This continuum—more nuanced than simply male and female, heterosexual and homosexual—helps us see human beings as part of creation in all its variety and ambiguity. Like Gregory of Nyssa and Maximus the Confessor, we can view human beings as both a “bond” of a wonderfully variegated creation and an agent, or workshop5, of creation’s transformation into the heart of God. Humans were created last, reasoned the patristic theologians, and we were given the gift of gathering the whole together and lifting it up so that all creation might be transfigured by the Creator.

When we stumbled in our feeble attempts to fulfill that vocation, Christ came into our midst and became the “fresh institution” of creation, transfigured us in his image, and bound creation to himself—even the parts of creation that we do not always understand and that sometimes make us uneasy. It is through this transforming power of Christ that I, and many transgender people like me, find our true identity as children of God..

My hope, and that of many people with whom I minister, is that this summer we will embrace transgender Christians as agents of transformation and add “gender identity and expression” to our nondiscrimination canons. As the church seeks ever more urgently to restore God’s creation through reconciliation, I pray that we will see this decision as part of the transformative community we long to be.

Here is the Chicago Consultation paper “Transgender People and the Church’s Transformative Mission.”

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