‘The Church of England has come a long way in the past twenty years,’...said almost no one.
I know. That’s more than a little harsh. Clearly one of the joyous changes in the past twenty years is women active in ordained ministry in a huge variety of contexts. Equally, LGBT people are a little more visible within the church and – even if I am a living in a little South Manchester metropolitan bubble – in many parishes lay and ordained queer folk are loved and affirmed. However...
Oh, yes, recent weeks have left us with a huge however...
Other people have already made more sophisticated and theologically nuanced comments on the women as bishops situation. On matters of equal marriage, gender and sexuality, I’ve previously offered reflections in this blog & in print. One reason for holding my blogging tongue on both matters in the past couple of weeks has been my almost overwhelming anger, confusion and disappointment. In addition, in the midst of the busyness of Advent and preparing for Christmas I’ve struggled to still my mind sufficiently to write anything even vaguely cogent.
I like to think I'm quite capable of standing back, taking the long view and not buying into the devices and desires of the Zeitgeist. Today, however, I want simply to speak from the heart about equal marriage. I also recognize that what I say may just be the ‘ravings’ of someone who is already marginal on matters of gender and sexuality in church and wider society. My narrative – trans, lesbian, feminist etc – is hardly grounded in either the dominant or the authorized voices of the church. I speak only for myself. However, I sense there are lots of LGBT people out there in the pews who are troubled about the presumed standardized narrative of the church but may be scared of saying anything publicly. This especially applies to LGBT ordained people who fear for their jobs and prospects. In an institution that – whatever the internal politics and reality – has appeared less than committed to human equality and dignity recently, one should not forget that long-term unpleasant and unjust elephant in the room of C of E polity: if you are queer and (the formula is vile – forgive me) ‘in an active gay relationship’ one cannot be ordained.
I am still reeling from the most recent ‘Church of England’ statement on marriage. Much attention has rightly been focused on exactly who ‘the Church of England’ is in this statement and who thought this was a sensible statement to utter. The ‘we’ referred to again and again in this statement may haunt all parts of the C of E for years to come. Even if it is the case that the government proposals for equal marriage are ill-conceived and no one in the C of E was consulted about the so-called ‘quadruple lock’, the Church House statement does little to affirm people like me – seeking to be faithful to Christ, to serve the church, but who are frankly tired being given the impression of having a place in the church on sufferance. Consider the following regrettable (and perhaps already notorious) passage:
‘...the uniqueness of marriage is that it embodies the underlying, objective, distinctiveness of men and women. This distinctiveness and complementarity are seen most explicitly in the biological union of man and woman which potentially brings to the relationship the fruitfulness of procreation. To remove from the definition of marriage this essential complementarity is to lose any social institution in which sexual difference is explicitly acknowledged. To argue that this is of no social value is to assert that men and women are simply interchangeable individuals. To change the nature of marriage for everyone will be divisive and deliver no obvious legal gains given the rights already conferred by civil partnerships.’
Consider the opening couple of sentences:
‘The uniqueness of marriage is that it embodies the underlying, objective, distinctiveness of men and women. This distinctiveness and complementarity are seen most explicitly in the biological union of man and woman which potentially brings to the relationship the fruitfulness of procreation.’
‘Underlying, objective, distinctiveness’ & ’complementarity ...seen most explicitly in the biological union of men & women...’ are two statements that have troubled me this week. As a trans woman I am more conscious than most about the power and attraction of essentialist conceptions of gender. As someone who, from a very early age, felt like I should have been a girl, I suspect I am more susceptible than most to gender stereotypes about what ‘real’ men or women look like. However, those of you who know me well or have read my book will know I am rather playful around stereotypes. My ‘adventures’ in gender have revealed the nuances and performative dimensions of so much that we call ‘gender’ and how that plays out in our sexualities. The concept of gender, folks – with the profound nuances revealed by chromosomal complexities, intersex & transgender – is a hell of a lot more interesting than our casual use of words like ‘man’ or ‘woman’ suggests.
And here we come to the rub. In 2005 the Gender Recognition Act 2004 (GRA) became law. Until that time, even though I was a post-operative transsexual etc, I was still legally a man. Since that law was enacted and I received my gender recognition certificate and new birth certificate I am legally a woman. Let’s just go over what that means.
I can – should I wish – get married to a man. (For some trans people one of the reasons the GRA mattered so much was that it meant they could marry their partners.) However, it is highly unlikely that I’m going to marry a man. Intriguingly, I am biologically XY, but because of the GRA I can marry someone else who is XY or someone who is XX chromosomally but who is legally, under the GRA, male. I could not – as it stands – marry either an XX chromosomal person who is legally female or a fellow trans woman. I could, of course, contract a civil partnership with either of the latter people.
Now some folk will say, ‘Well, Rachel, you can’t have it both ways.’ In the words of a character in Robert Altman’s film Gosford Park, ‘You can’t be on both teams at the same time.’ And, frankly, I hear the force of this. But this is not really my point.
My point is this. The last time I checked, the Church of England – whatever that term denotes – had not rejected, challenged or sought complete exemption from the Gender Recognition Act. If I understand the Act correctly, Church of England clergy can decline to marry trans folk on grounds of conscience, as they might decline to marry a divorcee. This is to say, the C of E does not contest my legal status or my right to marry; it simply allows individual ministers to exercise conscience. (While this presents pastoral issues in and of itself, I’m not hugely concerned with that right now.) I have not had my birth certificate – which states that I am female - treated as invalid or questioned. I am qua trans person – conscience clause aside - allowed to marry in the Church of England.
Insofar as that is the case, then, clearly the ‘C of E’ has already abandoned the statements I have highlighted above. Let me underline this: I - someone who is chromosomally male (which many will claim is the biological grounding of gender) but legally female – can, in principle, marry in church. The C of E statement claims that marriage embodies the underlying, OBJECTIVE, distinctiveness of men & women. But surely people like me give the lie to the unthinking crassness of that statement.
I make this point not for the sake of causing embarrassment or discomfort. I simply want us to be honest and real. I know some who might read this will say, ‘We cannot legislate on marriage on the basis of freaks/anomalies/blah like you.’ But freaks like me expose the opacity in lazy formulas like ‘objective distinctiveness of men and women’ grounded in biologically defined fecundity; legally we reveal that already, before equal marriage legislation is formulated, we are in a brave new world and the C of E is already fully involved in it.