Sermon Preached by Canon Simon Butler
Sunday 6th August 2017
(The Feast of the Transfiguration)
Theme: Christianity & the Transexual Person
Readings: Genesis 1:26-31; Luke 9:28-36
Then from the cloud came a voice that said, ‘This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!’
Last week, the country marked 50 years since the decriminalisation of homosexuality. There have been a whole set of programmes on television and radio about that significant change in social attitudes. The struggles of the Church of England apart, and which of course I feel very keenly, the landscape for gay men and lesbians in British society has changed radically. Same-sex marriage is now legal and courts continue to rule that LGBT people have equal rights under the law when that is challenged.
LGBT stands for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender. Today I’ve been asked to reflect on what our Christian faith has to say about the last of those letters, the T. In many ways the transgender experience stands apart from the other three letters, simply because being transgendered is not about sexuality, but about gender. Sexuality is about to whom we are attracted and how we relate to one another. Being transgendered is not primarily about that, but about how people experience themselves as male or female and how that relates to their biological sex. It’s very important to make this distinction. Indeed, being transgendered is a recognised medical condition, gender dysphoria, for which sometimes treatment is appropriate. It’s not a mental illness but, according to the NHS website, something that “sometimes leads to distressing and uncomfortable feelings”. For some people they wish to live according to their gender identity rather than their biological sex. For some there is treatment available to make their physical appearance more consistent with their gender identity. Rates of those with transgender identity range from 1 in 2000 according to some surveys up to over 1 in 100 in others.
So much for the bare facts. That’s not what today’s sermon needs to focus on. I’ve been asked to reflect on how Christians respond to transgender people.
Of course, the very acronym LGBT is depersonalising. Christians will want to start with the most basic thing which is the humanity of every single person. We are talking about people, people with jobs, children, money worries, aging parents, religious and political views, and so on and so on. Because a person is transgender doesn’t make them less human. Christians are called to value all people as made in the image of God. As the Genesis story recounts the words of God; “let us create humankind in our own image”. I’ll get to the male and female bit later.
Experiencing oneself as male or female, or indeed as neither male or female (something that is known as Intersex), is a very profound and fundamental thing to our understanding of ourselves. Each one of us will have come to an understanding of ourselves as maybe male or female early in our human development. For the large majority our biological sex and our gender will coincide. But because it is such a fundamental thing to our nature, when we encounter someone for whom such an identity is a less-straightforward matter, it will often feel quite uncomfortable. I can remember meeting my first obviously transgender person, in the context of a funeral visit many years ago, and I found it a very disconcerting experience. I don’t think it does anyone any good to deny this common experience of feeling uncomfortable. Sometimes that feeling gets vocalised in a negative way by blaming the person who we are encountering rather than acknowledging our own feelings. But, from a Christian perspective, experiencing such feelings of discomfort in the presence of a trans person does not allow us the luxury of blaming the transgender person for our feelings. We are asked, first, to treat the other as made in the image of God and of therefore deeply loved and deeply valued by God.
It’s still important to acknowledge the difficult feelings when we encounter such a profound challenge to our understanding of who we think we are and the deep challenge to our inherited cultural norms about what it means to be a man or a woman. We once did that when white British people encountered black people for the first time and now we rightly acknowledge our experience as racist and needing to learn to manage and change our feelings because we know them to be wrong. The same should go for trans people: our own feelings about them are our own. We need to remember that they have often been living with very complicated feelings of their own for a long time and landing our own feelings on them as well is really not fair.
But what about what the Bible has to say about God creating people as male and female? For some Christians, the very existence of transgender people is somehow wishing away God’s design for creation. For them gender is a binary and Genesis their proof-text. Anything else is a fundamental challenge to their understanding of God’s purpose. So the conservative pressure group The Christian Institute, says this on its website, “Underlying the transsexual movement is a radical form of self-determination. The assumption is that a person’s subjective feeling overrides objective, biological reality. This exalts human emotion and will above God’s design as our Creator.” For others, such a narrow reading of the text is to be avoided. Look they say at a school that was made up of ‘black and white’ children. Does that imply that there are no mixed-race children in the school? Furthermore, they look at Genesis not as a scientific text but as a story. Just because male and female are the rule (or at least the most common) it does not mean there are exceptions. One wouldn’t say that because Genesis has no knowledge, say, of bacteria, that such realities are not part of creation. So, one writer says, “The celebration of the centrality of male-female to God’s plan is an affirmation of male and female, not a de-affirmation of gender variance. The celebration of one thing does not mean the exclusion of another” It seems to me that these quite sensible insights into the way we interpret the Bible should at least make us think carefully about writing off the transgender experience as something bad or beyond God’s purpose.
We are clearly all learning about the transgender experience. Some of us will have trans friends or family members. We have been fortunate at St Mary’s to have received ministry from a trans priest, Revd. Tina Beardsley, the former Chaplain at the Cheslea and Westminster Hospital, who preached here a few months ago. It’s right to listen carefully to the experience of those who have lived with gender dysphoria.
But as Christians we also listen to scripture, tradition and reason. Whatever feelings of discomfort that the encounter with trans people might bring, such feelings are not the basis for making moral or ethical decision. We have sources of authority that speak – the Bible, the history of the way our faith has been lived over the centuries, and the God-given minds we possess. When Jesus stands on the Mount of Transfiguration and the voice from heaven says “listen to him”, we are invited to not simply listen to the experience of those around us but what our Saviour says and how our Saviour lives. We must listen to Jesus, if we are to know how to live and to act and to respond to the world around us.
And, at the heart of the revelation of God in Jesus Christ is something for us all to ponder. Whether we are male or female, whether our gender identity and our biological sex match or don’t, whether we are able to identify ourselves as male or female at all, the Christian vision speaks of an even more fundamental identity we have than our gender or biological sex. And that is our identity in Christ. When we baptise someone, as I stand at the font I often pray these words, “We thank you, Father, for the water of baptism. In it we are buried with Christ in his death. By it we share in his resurrection. Through it we are reborn by the Holy Spirit. Therefore, in joyful obedience to your Son, we baptise into his fellowship those who come to him in faith. Now sanctify this water that, by the power of your Holy Spirit, they may be cleansed from sin and born again. Renewed in your image, may they walk by the light of faith and continue for ever in the risen life of Jesus Christ our Lord.” At the font, through faith in Jesus Christ, we are given a new identity that transcends and renews all the other ways we understand ourselves. So fundamental is it – even more fundamental than our gender – that St Paul can say, “It is no longer I that live, but Christ who lives in me.” Or elsewhere, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” Jesus is now our identity, it is his life which lives in us, and we are the Body of Christ in the world.
So, while I’m sure we can do much more to help and understand our trans brothers and sisters, ultimately they are already part of who we are in Christ, and ‘they’ are not ‘they’ at all. “They” are in fact “us”. We all share in a common inheritance, Christ in us the hope of glory. Together, male, female, trans and intersex, we work together for the kingdom of God. I’m sure the whole church needs to work together to ensure that we live up to that most profound truth about our identity.
Difference is often a difficult boundary to overcome. We like to compare and contrast. But the Gospel abolishes the desire to set people against one another in difference and division. We are one people in Christ. Welcoming trans people is but one small part of becoming what we already are: the rainbow people of God. Let us live up to that more fully every day in the week to come. Amen.