At General Synod this past July, the Church of England, called on the House of Bishops by a vote of 284 to 78 to develop liturgies to mark gender transitions of members who so desire to avail of them. The stated goal being the ability to offer a “pastoral response to the need of transgender people to be affirmed following their long, distressing and often complex process of transition”, and so that they understand they are “welcomed and affirmed in their parish church”. For the Church of England this shouldn’t seem entirely noteworthy given the fact that many dioceses already support transgender persons for ordination.
The issue is not so clearly defined and isolated however. Others have suggested (somewhat cynically in my view) that the vote of Synod is a proxy war regarding the issue of gay marriage and changing canons and liturgies around the issue, as The Scottish Episcopal Church recently did. At the same time, I think what is at stake is far more foundational: the very acceptance of LGBT persons as real Christians. The Archbishops of Canterbury and York recently released a statement in support of LGBT persons on the anniversary of the decriminalization of homosexuality in the UK and were rebuffed for their unsolicited and “unhelpful” comments. In the statement the archbishops again nobly called upon provinces of the Anglican Communion to work towards the decriminalization of LGBT persons throughout the globe.
An un-needed intervention? At the same moment the President of the United States twitter-banned transgendered persons from serving in the US military and the US Justice Department suggested the Civil Rights Act does not protect LGBT persons from discrimination. Nigeria arrested en masse 42 persons on the suspicion of being gay with a possible prison term of 17 years if found “guilty”. The Roman Catholic Archbishop of the US Military Services offered an opaque statement on respect for military personnel, yet wrongness of transgender identity. Say nothing of reports on the Russian state’s anti-LGBT behavior, and the atrocities of ISIS.
LGBT persons are our sisters and brothers, families, loved ones, and neighbors. I remember hoping in 1997 that the US Roman Catholic Bishop’s Conference document Always Our Children was going to be about, well, its LGBT children. That hope was in vain. Maybe that hope will find fruition in the Church of England’s newly commissioned teaching document on human sexuality slated for 2020. Maybe Archbishop Justin Welby’s season of “radical Christian inclusion” will indeed prevail.
These dynamics point up to me that perhaps something has gone terribly amiss in the liturgical life of our churches. Aside from rituals of blessings and marriage of LGBT persons that are testing our churches – those things will sort themselves – I have the sneaking suspicion there is a more fundamental problem: That too much worship has become either ritualism or sensationalism and not transformation. Not about the in-breaking of the Kingdom.
One of the most formative books on liturgy I ever studied The Unread Vision: The Liturgical Movement in the United States of America (1998) makes the point:
“The social consciousness which motivated the [liturgical] pioneers and promoters in those early years of the liturgical movement has been lost and desperately needs to be rediscovered. Perhaps the liturgical movement needs to be re-founded, and a sense of the Church as the Mystical Body of Christ retrieved” (287).
If we are true communities of liturgical prayer it is impossible that our social witness is not more clear, unified, and profound. If we are true communities of liturgical prayer it is impossible that we cannot speak words of life to those most in need – and if needs be, give up our well-being and comfort for their sakes. The body of Christ is a healing body. If our witness is anything other, it is false.
In 1968 Bobby Kennedy urged that
“perhaps we can remember – even if only for a time – that those who live with us are our fellows, that they share with us the same short movement of life, that they seek – as we do – nothing but the chance to live out their lives in purpose and happiness, winning what satisfaction and fulfillment they can. Surely this bond of common faith, this bond of common goal, can begin to teach us something. Surely we can learn, at least, to look at those around us as our fellow and surely we can begin to work a little harder to bind up the wounds among us and to become in our hearts brothers and countrymen once again.”
And this is the missing foundation of our prayer that seems to me is setting all else askew. The lack of a basic Christ-centered recognition of the humanity of the other.
Indeed, perhaps churches and our liturgies are too filled with issues and not with persons any longer. Looking at people when you pray will change you – whether you agree or disagree. A face will change everything, just as Christ’s face did, the true icon of the Father.
Here is the face of a young man, Dain, who was attacked and severely beaten because he was gay. Churches need to hold these icons in their prayers, deliberations, and teaching – and the love of Christ that surpasses all understanding (Eph 3:19) will open paths of blessing and truth and reconciliation.
James Hadley teaches Liturgical Art and Architecture for the Catholic University of America, and Culture and Faith for the Australian Catholic University in Rome, Italy. He is a tutor for Saint John’s School of Mission, Nottingham, UK and an ordinand in the Church of England.