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I’ve never met Gwen. She has been a friend on Facebook since 2009. Recently her profile pictures began to change. She began to wear her hair longer, her features appeared softer, and though she was still using a male name it was apparent that she might be transitioning to female. Not that unusual these days, of course. But Gwen is a priest of the Epsicopal Church USA so her transition, when it was announced, had an additional public dimension because of the nature of her ‘workplace’.
When Gwen informed her Facebook friends that there was to be a meeting of the parish vestry (the equivalent of the parochial church council in the Church of England), with her bishop present, to inform the parish of her transition I was delighted for her. She had the all-important support of her bishop, and the process had not been derailed by an outing (a common hazard for trans people at that stage of their journey): there would be time to digest the news, communicate background information to the people who needed to know, and to plan the way ahead for the parish community.
I also felt confident that all would go well for Gwen because in 2012 the General Convention of the Episcopal Church had passed three resolutions that affirmed trans people in the life of that Church – and I’d been present at that General Convention as an affiliate member of the TransEpiscopal delegation. Here’s a link to the three trans affirming resolutions:
The first added ‘gender identity and expression’ to the anti-discrimination canon regarding access to the discernment process for ordination, the second added it a similar canon regarding access of the laity to all levels of church participation and representation, and the third included it in a church-wide anti-bullying campaign.
With impressive governance of this kind what could go wrong?
Well, sadly, things ‘did go wrong’ for Gwen, in that some members of her congregation were unable to accept her invitation to share her journey with her, and on February 26th 2014 Bishop Larry Benfield of Arkansas, severed the relationship between Gwen and her congregation. Both Gwen and the Bishop have said that this will help her to transition at her own pace, but it is a disappointing outcome, especially after the Episcopal Church had taken such huge strides towards trans inclusion. Indeed, on her blog, Elizabeth Keaton has described Gwen, not unreasonably, as the Episcopal Church’s first transgender martyr and you can read more of the background there:
What Gwen’s case has highlighted is that there was a lacuna in the three trans affirming resolutions approved in 2009: namely, what of clergy who transition? The resolutions did not include that scenario and members of TransEpiscopal will be working to address that in the coming months,
building on the amazing work that has made the Episcopal Church, at least in its official policies, a world leader in affirming the place of trans people in the Church.
Sound equality policies are vitally important, but they are also worthless if they fail to influence practice on the ground. It is the gap between the public ethos and policy of the Episcopal Church and what actually happened to Gwen which makes her case so tragic, but she has already demonstrated by her gracious statement that she is not going to be a victim and I know that she is optimistic about the future.
The situation in the Church of England is not dissimilar to that in the Episcopal Church in the US. Both have roughly the same number of transgender clergy who have transitioned – eight or nine – though unlike the Church of England, in the Episcopal Church two of them are male; and the Church of England also has a robust – but not widely known – policy for ordinands who are transgender. See paragraph 16 of a document that can be downloaded here
Like the Episcopal Church, the Church of England does not have a policy for clergy who transition. Indeed, the Revd Carol Stone, who transitioned in 2000 is still the only the Church of England cleric to have transitioned as a parish priest and remained in her post. There have been at least two others who have tried, and who were faced with a ‘severance’ from their parochial work like the one Gwen has just experienced. Changing Attitude, England plans to do something about that.