It seems a long time since our Annual Conference in February, which was one of our most successful ever. We mustered 30+, our usual modest numbers being amplified by members of The Sibyls with whom the conference was jointly organised. Transgender issues formed the theme, and we were fortunate to have as our keynote speakers Tina Beardsley and Elaine Sommers. Below are the notes which Tina used for her PowerPoint presentation (not, alas, reproducible in illustrated and animated form here!) from which readers can gain a flavour of her input; we all sang along with “Getting to Know You” which set the tone for a warm and informative half-hour. Elaine was more discursive in her approach, not using notes; but much of the material for her contribution can be found in two articles by her on the Changing Attitude website, which I commend. The session was excellently chaired by one of our Patrons, Bishop John Gladwin.
There followed our AGM, and I reproduce below the Chair’s report and the accounts. Unfortunately, no new members came forward for the Committee, which was therefore re-elected en bloc – nor did a new newsletter editor appear, so my job is still open if anyone fancies it! But it was clear that interest in our activities was increased amongst those who attended, who included a number of non-members. After all these years, our membership and our finances remain just about viable – but too small for the work we have to do.
The day concluded with a panel discussion with a number of transgender people, ably chaired by Susannah Cornwall. This discussion illustrated the sheer diversity of understandings of gender, from those born male who come to believe “I am not a man, I am a woman” to those who cannot simply identify with either gender. As Tina pointed out, people who might identify as transgender form a tiny minority – yet we have probably all met some such people, whether we realise it or not. And they challenge a number of assumptions, not least about the binary male-female divide and “complementarity” which is to be found in conventional readings of Scripture. That, no doubt, is why they are widely misunderstood and even persecuted within the Churches, particularly those of an evangelical persuasion; we heard many sad stories, which strengthened our resolve to work for a far more generous understanding of gender issues within Christian faith and the interpretation of Scripture.
Since then, we have continued with our work with theological educators. A wide range of denominations continue to be involved in this, and it becomes ever more timely as the Roman Catholic Church in particular struggles so publicly and painfully with sexual issues. The dramatic resignation of Cardinal O’Brien, a week or so after our conference, highlights that struggle. It was most significant that he himself should have bowed out with some radical remarks on clerical celibacy – not that the removal of that burden, should it ever happen, would solve all the Church’s problems, but at least it would open the gates to a more humane understanding of sexuality as an irresistible force in all our lives with which theology must come to terms.
Meanwhile, in the wider Church and world, we have seen the production of a report on marriage, by the House of Bishops of the Church of England, which has received almost universal rubbishing because of its naivete about sex, gender and sexual orientation. Even the Church Times, hardly the most radical organ, considered that it was “best forgotten”. This widespread criticism of an apparently impeccably orthodox study of the theology of marriage is of great significance. It is as if the Church, at a point somewhere nearer the grass-roots than the Bishops are, is finally waking up to the inadequacy of the old theological formulae.
The controversy about gay marriage is clearly the occasion for this publication. But by purporting to go deeper into marriage and sexual theology generally, the Bishops have “shown their workings” in a way which lays them open to better-informed criticism. Not the least of its failings is its heavy dependence on the concept of complementarity between women and men. That concept is not analysed even in theological, let alone psychological, sociological or biological terms. The most egregious statement is that no human being is “asexual” – all are either men or women. This is not only a misuse of the term “asexual”, which usually refers to a lack of sexual desire/activity rather than to underlying identity of sex or gender. It is simply not true, as studies into intersex and transgender (and our own conference) have demonstrated.
I do not think it necessary here to go into more detail about this document now (but note what I say below about the probable theme of our next issue). I commend the analyses by Susannah Cornwall in her blog, by Jonathan Clatworthy on the Modern Church website, and by Jane Shaw in the Church Times of 26 April. One of the members of the commission which produced the report, Charlotte Methuen, has written what amounts to a minority report (though her dissent is nowhere acknowledged publicly by the Bishops), and this also is well worth reading.
It is tempting to suggest that CSCS itself should produce an alternative version! But the seeds of our thinking are well documented – not only in Jo Ind’s Memories of Bliss to which this newsletter constantly refers, but now also in Susannah Cornwall’s excellent SCM Core Text on Theology and Sexuality which we hope to review in a future edition. What is clear from these books, and the critiques of the report mentioned above, is that “sex”, “gender” and “sexuality/sexual orientation” are three quite different things, all of them immensely complex, and none of them susceptible (beyond the level of the stereotype) of analysis simply by reference to selected Biblical texts and traditional Church teachings.
The widespread negative response to the Bishops’ document gives one hope that our message is at last getting through in at least some places within the Churches. But that is a slow process. It must be pursued in the formation of church leaders, which is why CSCS’ work with theological educators is so important – and we hope it could lead to a major conference in 2014. It must be pursued in the world of academic theology, which is why our journal Theology and Sexuality and the work of our members such as Gerard Loughlin, Adrian Thatcher and Susannah Cornwall need continued support. And it must be pursued at grass-roots level – so I would welcome many more accounts of local initiatives for discussion such as those which I related from my own parish in the last edition. Members of the Committee, whether sex educators like Jane Fraser, activists like Martin Pendergast and Rosie Martin, or communicators like Terry Weldon, all have their parts to play. But so do you, our readers, and we would love to hear from you much more.
As a next step in this process, the Committee propose that both the next edition of this newsletter in the autumn and our Annual Conference next February might be devoted to the theme of “Redefining Marriage?” Who knows, perhaps this actually will lead to an alternative statement! In any event, I would particularly invite contributions on that theme. This is partly about same-sex marriage, but maybe the real point is whether what is on offer, to same-sex or opposite-sex couples alike, should simply be this institution/sacrament/status “as it stands”. For it has changed, is changing and must continue to change if it is to be “fit for purpose” for society as a whole.
Gender Varying Faith: Our Genders – Our Stories Conference Presentation, Christina Beardsley
Poem: So? Ho Heather Janet
Chair’s Annual Report 2012-13 Martin Pendergast
CSCS Accounts year ending 31 December 2012 Colin Hart