House of Bishops approve Transgender inclusion


Friday 6th July 2012:

I’m sitting in an open session of the House of Bishops. Obviously, I’m not in England – I don’t think the English House of Bishops meets in open session (though I could be wrong). I’m at General Convention 2012 waiting to hear the bishops discuss and decide on the trans inclusion resolutions – D002 & D019 – that were submitted to them yesterday by the Mission Committee. As I wait something else is happening that would not occur in England – the confirmation by acclamation of the newly elected bishops –elected by diocesan conventions that is. Each received a standing ovation, the date of their consecration was announced, and then they took their seats with the rest of their episcopal colleagues and given full voting rights as bishops-elect for the remainder of the Convention. Interestingly there was only one woman amongst the newly elected bishops, as there was amongst the many visiting representatives from the Anglican Communion.

Business began by approving numerous resolutions from the Prayer Book, Liturgy & Church Music Committee and the Ministry Committee destined for the Consent Calendar: items that need no further debate in the House of Bishops and that can proceed directly to the House of Deputies. C105, one of the resolutions relating to same-sex blessings, was referred to a standing committee, and so would not be debated further at this Convention. Business was then adjourned until the next day, before the Trans inclusive resolutions had been discussed, so the TransEpiscopal team prepared itself for a longer wait.

Saturday 7th July 2012

I return to the House of Bishops Open session, after an inspiring Eucharist, in which the preacher argued that following Jesus meant becoming a ‘crazy Christian’, like the novelist, Harriet Beecher Stowe, who we were commemorating, and who had exercised such a profound influence on the movement for the abolition of slavery.

There had been some procedural problems the day before and the House reflected on those before starting on the day’s business, which began with the report from Committee 14, the Ministry Committee, where D002 and D019 had been approved. Bishop Mary Gray-Reeves, the chair of the Ministry Committee, presented a report and there were several items before the session was adjourned for lunch.

The Trans inclusive resolutions were finally tabled at 15.30. Ian Douglas, the Bishop of Connecticut speaking first, made the unfortunate error of referring to the Presiding Bishop as ‘Madam’. Bishop Jefferts Schori immediately corrected him: ‘You don’t refer to a woman from Nevada as madam’ [Nevada is the only State in the Union where prostitution is legal]. Speaking in favour of the resolution, the Bishop recalled the learning that had taken place in the World Missions Committee at the General Convention in 2009, when time was spent explaining the difference between gender and sexuality. When he arrived home and told his daughter about this her response was “but didn’t you all know that already?”

Bishop Gene Robinson of New Hampshire reminded the Bishops that the 2009 Convention had asked this level of inclusion of the culture, so it was only just that the Church should adopt the same standards. He referred to the ‘Out of the Box’ DVD, which all Bishops and Deputies had received, and that covered all the issues involved; he also emphasised that the resolution was to allow trans people access to the discernment process and in no way dictated to anyone who should be ordained.

Bishop Marc Andrus of California referred to an outstanding ordination candidate who had served in Vietnam, and was active in the peace movement, but who was referred to him as the bishop simply because the person was transgender. The call of David in 1 Samuel was the key to this issue for Bishop Mark: man judges by appearances; God looks at the heart. Bishop Talton, the Bishop of San Joaquin, supporting the resolution, said that gender had simply not been an issue when trans woman Carolyn Woodall went through the discernment process and he had gladly ordained her as a deacon (a scene from that service appears in ‘Out of the Box’). Bishop Love of Albany asked for clarification on the phrase ‘gender expression’ and it was the Presiding Bishop who explained that it meant ‘how a person lives in the world as male or female’. He wondered about people who were in same-gender relationships. The Presiding Bishop replied that the resolution was about the individual not about same-gender relations. The Bishop of Texas moved ending debate, the vote was taken and Resolution D002 was passed, to our great relief.

D019, extending the rights of the laity, was tabled next. Mark Beckworth, Bishop of Newark spoke movingly about the impact of a Trans man on the congregation he belonged to -not only was it transformative for the person concerned, the process had expanded people’s relationship with God.

For Bishop Tom Shaw of Massachusetts, passing the resolution would assist the Episcopal Church in its support for campaigns to add trans inclusion to state legislature. The Bishop of Upper South Carolina spoke against the proposal. A search on Wikipedia had indicated the complexity of transgender and so he urged the Church to take time to reflect on the theological implications.

One of the most profound contributions to the debate was from Prince Singh, Bishop of Rochester, who said that he often felt as if he had two identities: in India he was taken for an American and in the US he was assumed to be from ‘somewhere else’. In any case, he added, just by being people of faith we inevitably occupy liminal space and identity and so embracing trans people would take us into deeper depths of what it means to be a pilgrim people.

Once again Bishop Gene Robinson gave his whole-hearted support to the resolution. But he admitted that Trans was something he was still learning about, as are many other gay and lesbian people but that the courage of those who changed their gender expression to match their gender identity was indisputable. Bishop Lawrence of South Carolina thought that we had entered a time of individualised eros and that by accepting the resolution the Church was condemning itself to a freedom that abandons any sense of given-ness: a chaos of individuality – ‘an idol that will break us’. The response of Bishop Marc Andrus, of California was simply that if there are confusions in the culture then all the more reason to support the resolution which was intended to protect a vulnerable group of people. Once again the resolution was passed with a substantial majority.

What a wonderful debate and outcome. Soon afterwards we learnt that the Bishops had also approved the anti-bullying resolution which also included trans. The TransEpiscopal delegation has now moved on to the hotel to celebrate. The Resolutions now have to go to the House of Deputies for consideration – of which more anon.

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