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Issue No.117
22 January 2019

A work of welcome

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How welcome are transgender people in our churches? Rachel Mann believes we can all learn from their struggle to find themselves


"The Christians will love your faith but hate your life."

THAT'S WHAT AN ATHEIST FRIEND SAID TO ME when, as a transgender woman in the 1990s, I came to faith and announced I intended to start going to church.

My friend's statement indicated a fault-line in British culture that was certainly true 20 years ago: that the Church, especially along its charismatic-evangelical wing, was at odds with Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) people. Twenty years on, culture has shifted remarkably in many respects. For trans people like me, there is greater awareness of our stories. The 2004 Gender Recognition Act offered new legislative protection for many trans people.

As for the Church, I sense the situation is both nuanced and troubling. I'm conscious that personally I've found the Church a very supportive institution in many ways. I've found a much higher level of support than my friend said I would. Ultimately, I was ordained and I hold responsible positions within the institution.

One might think that this indicates that the Church is more progressive than many think. In some respects, that is true. However, my experience cannot be taken as emblematic for trans people. The fact remains that respect for and celebration of trans lives in the Church continues to be far from fulsome.

'Coming out' as trans is, for many, a terrifying moment. It may lead to the loss of one's job, family and status. One might expect that the Church - which knows that the Way of the Cross leads to resurrection - would be supportive and encouraging. Unfortunately, that isn't the case as often as one would hope.

Many churches treat trans people as menaces. I have friends who have been treated as psychologically damaged and dangerous to the community simply by virtue of being trans-sexual. Some churches insist that trans people be kept away from ministry, or children or responsibility. Trans people continue to be ostracised and bullied.

Recently, the Church of England's governing body, the General Synod, moved a motion to welcome transgender people into the life of the Church. This is good news. However, each of us is invited to take this work of welcome forward. We can be agents of Christ's radical welcome. In a society in which trans people still face serial bullying, mockery and negotiate extremely high suicide rates, kindness and acceptance matter.

Trans people simply want to be accepted for themselves. If a person tells you they are trans, please take their story seriously. It has probably taken immense courage to disclose this. Ultimately, trans people want to be afforded the same level of respect as anyone else. Jesus's summary of the Law, "Love your neighbour as yourself", applies to people like me too.

My prayer is that, as the Church travels on, it will come to appreciate that trans people are simply one variant of human being. Indeed, more than that: we are gifts to the faith community. Trans people have real wisdom to offer regarding every human's struggle to become who God is calling them to be.