Author Archives: Mike Higton

Questioning the “Ministers’ Consultation Response”

Recently, ‘Over 2500 Christian Ministers and Pastoral Workers’ signed a public response to the government’s consultation on the proposed ban of Conversion Therapies.

The response takes the form of a letter and an accompanying ‘background and analysis’ report. They express the concern that, as currently framed, the proposed ban will (perhaps inadvertently) have the effect of criminalising some ‘normal practices of religion’, in which Christian ministers and parents seek to persuade people to follow common Christian moral teachings.

To anyone who knows me well, it will come as no surprise to find that I disagree with almost everything the letter and report say about gender and sexuality, and their place in Christian morality. In this post, however, it is not my intention to pursue those debates, nor to speak only to those who might take my side in them. My purpose here is much more limited. It is to make a set of claims that I believe might in principle be recognised and accepted even by those who agree with the broad thrust of the theology expressed in the letter and report.

My argument is that (perhaps inadvertently) the letter and report could have the effect of

  • protecting clearly abusive behaviour not just from criminalisation but from censure;
  • promoting ways of thinking that can be used to justify such abuse;
  • making it harder for those who have suffered and are suffering from such abuse to have their testimonies and cries for help taken seriously; and
  • encouraging those who hear such testimonies and cries to blame the victims of this abuse rather than the perpetrators.

These are strong claims, but I will back them up below.

To be clear: my claims are about the words in the letter and the report, not about the authors’ intentions or motivations, still less those of the many signatories. The words the authors have produced are, as they stand, dangerous. They have the capacity to do harm. The authors may not intend this harm; they may not even have seen that their words could be taken this way. Nevertheless, once the danger posed by their words has been pointed out, they have a responsibility to mitigate it. I will therefore argue that those responsible for these words should withdraw or revise what they have written, and that, until they do so, all those who have signed the letter should distance themselves from it.

Note on references: Quotes referenced by a page number are from the letter; those referenced by a paragraph number are from the accompanying report. 

Testimonies of abuse

One of the main drivers for the proposed ban on Conversion Therapy is the weight of testimony from people who have been through such therapies, and who have experienced significant psychological or emotional harm. It is not hard to find such testimonies; large numbers are available in the public domain, as a quick Google search will reveal. They vary widely, both in the descriptions they give of what people underwent, and in their accounts of the damaging done.

There is a lot that, in another context, I would want to say about these testimonies. I would want to make stronger claims in relation to them than I shall here. In the context of this post, however, I will restrict myself to the following minimal claim: There are people – a considerable number – who have been harmed by some practices of Christian ministry that seek to change their sexual orientation or their experience of gender. I am not here talking about those who have experienced physical coercion and abuse (though there are such cases). I am talking about those who have experienced practices of ministry that were emotionally manipulative, that have had deep effects on their mental and physical well-being, and that amounted to psychological abuse.

(For an initial definition of ‘psychological abuse’, see the Church of England’s fact sheet, ‘Types of Abuse’, §3.3.)

The questions I have in mind as I approach the letter and report are: How do this letter and report encourage us to respond to people who have experienced this kind of abuse? And how might they encourage their readers to respond to someone who in future raises a safeguarding concern of this nature? These questions are at the centre of this debate.

Denying the problem

The first response that I find in the letter and accompanying report is denial: denial that such abuse exists, or that it constitutes a serious problem.

The report does raise the possibility that such abuse exists. ‘If there is firm evidence of a real and current problem with coercive and abusive therapies, not covered by existing law,’ the authors say, ‘we have no problem with legislating against them’ (§4, emphasis mine.) Elsewhere, however, this possibility is not taken seriously. The letter suggests that the problem that the proposed ban is trying to tackle is one of ‘evil and disreputable past practices which are already illegal and which Christians are the first to condemn’ (p. 1; my emphasis). The report suggests that it is one of ‘disreputable, cruel and thoroughly unchristian practices of some quack therapies in the past’ (§2; my emphasis). I can find no direct acknowledgement in the letter or the report that there is any current problem in Christian contexts.

The implicit but clear response to those who testify that they have recently experienced abuse, or those who cry out because they are still experiencing it, or any who raise safeguarding concerns in this area in the future, is that they are wrong. There is no serious problem here that needs facing and addressing. It is all in the past.

Claiming compassion

One possible response to the claim I have just made would be to note that, although there is no direct acknowledgment that people in the present are suffering psychological abuse as a result of Christian ministry in this area, there are several references to the idea that such Christian ministry should be ‘loving, compassionate’ (p. 2), and conducted ‘with gentleness and respect’ (p. 1). Doesn’t that implicitly acknowledge, and rule out, forms of ministry that are unloving and lacking in compassion – forms that are abusive and coercive?

Reference to love and compassion could have allowed the authors of the letter to call out patterns of ministry that are emotionally manipulative and damaging in precisely the way that many victims have described. The authors could have used an insistence upon compassion and gentleness to acknowledge and distance themselves from such abusive and coercive practices. As the report goes on, however, it becomes clear that the language of love and compassion are working quite differently.

First, it is claimed that this love, compassion, gentleness and respect already characterise the churches – at least, those churches whose ministers have signed the letter, or that agree with the teachings set out in the report. ‘We always seek to act in love, with gentleness and respect, for the good of all, and never with any form of coercion or control’ (p.1). This language is deployed in such a way as to suggest that there are no serious failings in love, compassion and gentleness in our churches. It is not deployed in such a way as to encourage us to be on the lookout for such failures, or to devote any energy to rooting them out. The talk of love and compassion is not allowed to disturb the insistence that coercion and abuse are safely past, and already safely condemned.

Second, when the report does call out any actions as unloving, they are not the patterns of ministry named in the testimonies of victims. What is ‘supremely compassionate’ (§9), according to the authors, is to pass on the kind of teachings that the letter and report sets out. What is ‘terribly harmful’ (p. 1) is to go against those teachings. And that is all the content given here to either ‘compassion’ or ‘harm’.

I am not here mounting the argument that the authors are wrong to call their teachings compassionate, and the rejection of those teachings harmful. That is an argument I am more than willing to make – but it is an argument for a different day. My concern today is much more specific: it is that, as far as I can see, this is the only kind of harm that the letter and report acknowledge as a danger faced in this area of contemporary Christian ministry.

In other words: far from qualifying what I said earlier, the language of love and compassion is used in the report in such a way that it reinforces its denial that there is a problem of coercive or abusive Christian ministry to tackle in this area.

Raising the stakes

There is a third problem with the idea that the letter and report’s talk of love and compassion qualifies its implicit denial of claims about abuse. As noted, the report claims that ‘Living by, teaching and helping people to follow God’s pattern of marriage is a supremely compassionate thing to do’ (§9). The compassion involved is, as the authors present it, one of rescuing people from a terrible and deadly mistake. The rhetoric of the report is stark.

In relation to gender transition, for instance, the authors are clear that they see themselves as trying to avoid actions that are ‘exceptionally damaging’ (§30), a matter of ‘irreversible damage’ (§30), and tantamount to ‘an appalling crime’ (§31). In the light of that ‘we will do all that is in our power to encourage young people away from’ gender transition’ (§30, my emphasis).

These phrases are deeply chilling, especially in the current climate. One need only consider what is happening in Texas, for instance, to understand how very threatening they sound. 

My point here, however, is this. The stakes, as the authors present them, are very high indeed. The harms that they believe they are seeking to avoid are so serious that they demand strenuous and uncompromising action – and the strenuous and uncompromising nature of this action is precisely what compassion requires. The question is bound, then, to arise: What limits might there be on appropriate action in this area? If, as you see it, you are trying to rescue someone from an ‘appalling crime’, what forms of persuasion are really off limits for you?

Christian leaders are, according to the letter and the report, to ‘urge and assist’ (p. 1), ‘to persuade, to teach and to help’ (p. 2), to ‘teach and train’ (§5). These are part of the ‘normal practice of religion’ (p. 1). Yet I can see no acknowledgment here that these normal practices can and do sometimes take forms that are emotionally manipulative and psychologically abusive – and that they can take these forms, at times, precisely because those engaged in them believe the stakes to be so high, and believe that the primary demand of compassion is that they try ever harder in their urging, persuading and training.

There is no acknowledgment here that, if you make such strong claims about how much this ministry is needed, you need to make claims no less strong about the dangers that attend such zeal, about the need for protection against those dangers, and so about the need for strict limits upon the forms that such ministry can properly take.

Dismissing feelings

At various points, the authors speak dismissively of ‘feelings’. They believe in a God-given plan for people’s identities and relationships, and they present those who disagree with them as believing that ‘their identity is found purely in their feelings’ (p. 1) – their ‘subjective feelings and attractions’ (§11; cf. §18). They make clear that they believe such feelings to be insubstantial and potentially deceitful, and that following God’s plan is likely to involve denying them (§9).

The problem is that this way of talking about feelings provides a framework, whether deliberately or inadvertently, for dismissing claims of psychological abuse. Such abuse is, after all, in significant part abuse carried out in the realm of feelings.

The picture painted in the letter and report is one in which Christian ministers are trying – in their urging, persuading, and training – to convey certain Christian truths, and in which the main thing standing against those truths is ‘subjective feeling’. If that is the framing you have internalised, then when a recipient of such urging, persuading and training reports an experience of emotional manipulation or psychological harm, you will have an easy response ready to hand: ‘That is just your feelings.’ And feelings, in this picture, often need to be overridden, at any cost.

There are significant problems with the way the report uses this language of feelings. It seems to me, for instance, to be a thoroughly inadequate way of talking about the deep-seated patterns of experience involved in gender identity and sexuality. On another occasion, I have also written about the strange dualism involved in the contrast between biology and feelings that the authors deploy. For my present purposes, however, all of that can be left to one side.

My claim here is much more limited: it is that the letter and report provide no counterbalance to the idea that negative reactions to the urging, persuading and training employed by Christian ministers are simply a matter of subjective feelings, and that such feelings have no real weight – or that they are no more than evidence of sinful resistance to the truth. In this framework, it becomes all but impossible to take seriously the idea that such ministry might cause deep psychological harm.

Insisting on malleability

There is one last area that I want to consider, but this one is a bit messier than the others. The phrase ‘Conversion Therapy’ refers to interventions based on the idea that someone’s sexuality or gender identity – or the deep-seated patterns of experience and desire that those terms are used to name – can and should be changed. The process involved is supposed to prompt or produce that change, or be the context in which it is asked for, expected, and welcomed. Such activities are the focus of attempts to outlaw Conversion Therapy, and the heart of many of the testimonies of harm with which I began.

Confusingly, there seem to be two different responses to this basic idea woven into the report. One, fairly conventional in discussions of this kind, distinguishes between identity and behaviour. Along this line, the key claim is that normal Christian ministry is not focused on trying to change the deep-seated patterns of feeling and experience that we might call ‘identity’, but on changing the behaviour that might flow from them. It is how someone acts on their desires and their feelings that matters, and that is the focus of Christian ministry. Along this line, the teaching and urging of Christian ministers is focused on helping people be obedient to Christian teachings as presented in this report, regardless of how they feel about them (§13).

A second strand of the report focuses instead on the underlying patterns of desire and experience. The authors take time to state that neither sexual orientation nor gender identity is ‘an innate aspect of personhood’ (§17); they are a matter, instead, of ‘subjective feelings’ which the authors are confident are not innate (§18). I am not sure why the authors stress this, unless they want to convey that these underlying patterns of desire and experience are malleable, and that seeking to change them can be a meaningful object of Christian ministry.

The crux of this ambiguity lies in paragraph 26 of the report. On the one hand, that paragraph states unequivocally that the authors ‘do not have any “therapy” to offer’ that could change sexual orientation or change people ‘to or from being transgender’. Hearteningly, they say ‘nor do we approve of the attempt’. One might think, therefore, that (as they suggest in §4) they are open to a ban on Conversion Therapy, including in the context of contemporary Christian ministry, if the focus of the ban on such attempts could be more precisely expressed. There are some other parts of the letter and report that could be read in that way: it is, after all, only a plea that that the government’s proposals will be dropped ‘in their current form’ (p. 2).

Yet what is given with one hand seems to be taken away with the other. In the same paragraph, they say that they ‘do not define people in these terms’. That seems to be a reference back to the claim that patterns of desire and experience that people are referring to when they speak about ‘sexuality’ or ‘gender identity’ are not innate. And I am not sure what the point is of repeating that insistence here, unless it is to suggest that the language about changing sexual orientation or gender identity simply doesn’t apply to Christian ministry, even when that ministry is oriented towards the transformation of the deep patterns of someone’s desires and experience – because the Christian ministers involved don’t believe that those deep patterns amount to something innate called ‘sexual orientation’ or ‘gender identity’. And there are other parts of the letter and report – most of those that I have cited above – that appear to reinforce this reading of the paragraph.


In the light of all that, I believe some urgent clarification and restatement is needed. To echo the letter’s own words, ‘I very much hope (and pray) that these documents will be dropped in their current form.’

I very much hope that the authors and their supporters can state more clearly and forcefully their briefly mentioned disapproval of attempts to change the deep-seated patterns of desire and experience referred to by the language of ‘sexuality’ and ‘gender identity’.

I hope they can clearly acknowledge the existence in the present of emotionally and psychologically abusive forms of Christian ministry in this area, decry the harm that they do, and state their resolute opposition to the continuation of such harm.

I hope they can make clear that those who testify to having endured such abuse, or who raise safeguarding concerns in this area, should be listened to, and their accusations taken with full seriousness, even when that means taking a hard look at forms of Christian ministry that align with the theology expressed in this letter and report.

All of this is needed because, whatever the intentions of its authors and the signatories, this response as it stands is dangerous. If taken seriously in its current form, it will make it harder for those who report emotional or psychological abuse in this context to be heard. It will encourage people not to take the testimonies of such victims seriously, and to blame those victims themselves for the psychological harm that they have suffered. It will encourage Christian ministers to think it their duty to urge and persuade people at all costs, and to dismiss the emotional toll of their actions as mere ‘subjective feelings’. It will make it all too easy for those who call out such abuse to be painted as enemies of the gospel. It will encourage people to defend those who are accused of such coercion as if they were defending the gospel.

The Ministers’ Consultation Response is, as it stands, a charter for abuse.

How should the church respond to race? – A reply to Ian Paul

Last week, I published a post welcoming From Lament to Action, the report of the Archbishops’ Anti-Racism Taskforce. Since then, Ian Paul has posted on his blog a critical response to the report, entitled ‘How should the church respond to race?’.

Ian’s post makes some points that I have also seen made on Twitter and elsewhere, relating to aspects of the report that I referred to in my post. In this reply, I am going to focus on

  • his wariness about the term ‘institutional racism’, and
  • his suggestion that the theology of the report is thin and tendentious.

On the second of these points, I’ll be touching what Ian says about Black Theology, Critical Race Theory and ‘Secular Antiracism’.

Institutional Racism

Ian says that ‘the language of “institutional racism” was coined by the so-called McPherson report, following the murder of Stephen Lawrence’. That’s not quite right – the phrase has been used in discussions of racism since at least the early 70s – but the 1999 MacPherson report certainly brought it to a wider public audience in the UK.

The MacPherson definition has been used in previous Church of England reports – e.g., in An Amazing Journey: The Church of England’s Response to Institutional Racism, by Glynn Gordon-Carter (London: Church House, 2003), p. xx. It is repeated in From Lament to Action:

The collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture, or ethnic origin. It can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racist stereotyping which disadvantage minority ethnic people.

William MacPherson, The Stephen Lawrence Inquiry: Report of an Inquiry, §6.34

From Lament to Action does not provide extensive discussion of this definition (it is, by design, not that kind of report). It does include, however, a handful of references to ‘institutional racism’ which fill out a little what the report takes it to mean. It has to do with ‘unjust structures’ (p. 8); it has to do with ‘the church’s practices and structures’ (p. 11) or its ‘structures, systems and processes’ (p. 51); it can be ’embedded in the normal practice of an organisation or culture’ (p. 47); it can be seen in ‘a number of areas of the church’s life, most strikingly in the areas of participation and representation as well as in areas of structures and governance’ (p. 11). Most fully, it involves ‘structural, institutional and systemic blockers and barriers towards greater representation and participation of UKME/GMH people in the governance structures of the CofE’ (p. 49).

Ian makes four observations when explaining why he thinks the use of this term is problematic. I’ll take them in turn.

  • ‘[T]he language has been reached for in part because of its shock value’.

    The subject matter of the report (racism in the Church) is indeed shocking – but the use of the term ‘institutional racism’ isn’t part of that shock. It is a useful and important term, widely used in sober analyses of racism.

    Sometimes, people are treated differently on the basis of their perceived skin colour. Some of that has to do with individuals acting in deliberately discriminatory ways. Some of it, however, has to do with systems, processes, cultures, habits, and practices. The word ‘institutional’ (or ‘systemic’) is used to name this.
  • ‘[T]he C of E is not a single organisation’.

    I’m not sure why this point is relevant – or, rather, I’m quite sure that it is not. The claim that the Church of England is institutionally racist does not entail the claim that the Church of England is a single organisation.

    The Church of England is a complex reality, with some national-level structures and processes, some diocesan-level, some parish-level, and all sorts of others woven around them. The report wants us, collectively, to look at all of these – at the ‘structures, systems, and processes’ involved, attending to the any of the ways in which they function in unwittingly discriminatory ways.
  • ‘When people use the language of “institutional racism”, many people hear the accusation that members of local congregations are racist’.

    It is probably true that some people will misunderstand the term ‘institutional racism’ in this way. People with a platform to speak quite widely might therefore usefully do some explaining, to help overcome that misunderstanding. The ideas are, after all, not difficult.

    Of course, we could look for another term that would enable us to make the same point – about structures, systems, processes, and culture, and about how they can have a discriminatory impact. I suspect, however, that any shorthand way of making this point is going to be liable to the same possible misunderstanding, and so will get us no further forward.
  • ‘To say that the church is “institutionally racist” could be heard as implying its basic theology needs to change—and indeed that is what some people believe.’

    I’ll be coming back in a moment to a discussion of the theological challenges that the report invites us to explore.

    I’m not sure, however, why Ian isn’t taking the report’s words at face value. The report, clearly and repeatedly, asks us to look at a whole range of ‘structures, systems and processes’ in the Church – at the Church’s ‘normal practices’, especially in the area of participation and representation. That is what its talk of ‘institutional racism’ points to.

It is vitally important that we pay attention to the reality named by the phrase ‘institutional racism’. When we ask what factors affect the differential levels of inclusion and belonging experienced by different people in various parts of the life of the Church, it is vital that we go beyond attention to the deliberate discriminatory actions of individuals. Those actions matter, and holding people to account for discriminatory behaviour is clearly a necessity. But there is much more to look at than that.

We need to look at systems, processes, cultures, habits, and practices. Or, rather, we need to listen to and learn from the huge amount of work that has already been done on investigating and analysing the discriminatory effects of our systems, processes, cultures, habits, and practices.

By way of parallel, consider my academic discipline: doctrinal or systematic theology. This discipline is not a single organisation any more than the Church of England is, but it is nevertheless possible to examine the institutions, systems, practices and cultures that it involves.

One of the factors that shapes my discipline is that Black students tend, as they specialise, to get funnelled towards practical theology or political theology more readily than towards systematic theology or philosophical theology.

Many factors seem to be in play. In part, it follows on from a similar funnelling in previous generations, which means that visible Black role models are more likely to be working in those areas – and that affects who appears at the podium, who appears in bibliographies, who appears in references and citations, and so on. In part, it has to do with hiring practices, and the judgments of shortlisting panels and interview panels. In part, it has to do with assumptions consciously and unconsciously made by teachers, when advising students about module choices, dissertation topics, and routes to further study. In part, it might also have to do with the role of different backgrounds and experience in shaping what questions students think are urgent. And so on – there are lots of factors that people have investigated and discussed as they have tried to explore this well.

The result of this funnelling, however, is a de facto segregation in my discipline (not absolute, but deeply ingrained), and it is one that has an impact on career trajectories, promotion, prestige, influence, and income. Something similar happens along gender lines; something similar along class lines – the complexities and intersections here are endless – but there is undoubtedly a racial dimension.

You can understand some of this picture if you focus on the deliberate discriminatory actions of individuals – but not very much of it. For a deeper understanding you need to look more closely, and draw on other intellectual tools. You need to look at culture, habits, and practices; you need to look at systems and structures. That is what discussions of ‘institutional racism’ are about.

That is what the term refers to in discussions of the Church of England, too. And there has been a great deal of investigation and discussion of these factors. After thirty-six years of reports, with hundreds of pages of analysis; after the Minority Anglicanism Project; after book-length discussions from Mukti Barton’s Rejection, Resistance and Resurrection to A.D.A France-Williams’ Ghost Ship; after testimony after testimony after testimony, I don’t have any doubt that the Church of England suffers from various forms of institutional racism. The question rightly posed by From Lament to Action is: What are we going to do about it?

Theology and Race

In his post, Ian Paul makes (or quotes approvingly) various claims about the theological approach that he thinks is advocated by or assumed in From Lament to Action. The impression created over the course of Ian’s post is that the report is driven by a single, narrow and controversial theological agenda, not necessarily fully visible on the report’s surface – and that it is a theological agenda problematically driven by secular, untheological concerns.

Every part of this analysis is wrong, as I will try to explain.

Black Theology

According to one of the quotes that Ian’s post includes approvingly, we are told that From Lament to Action, ‘wants to make compulsory a module on “Black Theology” for ordinands’. That’s not quite true: the report actually says that ‘Participation in an introductory Black Theology module … or module on Theologies in Global Perspective … to be a requirement for all ordinands.’ So were this recommendation to be implemented in full, no TEI would be forced to teach a Black Theology module. Nevertheless, it is true that there is a clear recommendation here for TEIs to consider teaching Black Theology.

The post goes on to say that ‘”Black Theology’ is not the theology of Black Christians”‘ That is true – in the same way that ‘feminist theology’ doesn’t mean ‘all theology written by women’. Black Theology is defined by its subject matter. It is a discipline that analyses the effect of racism on theology, and looks for ways of overcoming it. I would be shocked if someone got through a Diploma or BA in Theology, Ministry and Mission without some serious engagement with feminist voices. I think it similarly important to engage with voices from Black Theology. Of course, students and their teachers don’t have to agree with everything they engage with – but serious and open engagement is important.

Ian’s post tries to persuade us, however, that this engagement is unnecessary or undesirable, because Black Theology is ‘a narrow and quite hotly contested school of theology’. And in order to justify that description, he provides a description of Black Theology that first narrows it down so that it sounds like the work of a small coterie gathered around a single figure, and then misrepresents its substance quite drastically.

Ian’s post tells us that ‘Anthony Reddie … [is] the foundational author of “Black Theology”‘ Anthony is a friend of mine, and I think his work is important and very well worth engaging with. But Black Theology as a movement – even if we limit our focus to the British context – is older and much wider than just Anthony’s work.

As one indicator of this, look at the academic journal Black Theology. Launched as Black Theology in Britain in 1998, and re-launched (with Anthony as editor) as Black Theology in 2002, it has run through (by my count) more than 50 issues in that time. There are hundreds of articles to explore, by hundreds of authors. Or look at the work of the Centre for Black Theology at Queen’s, Birmingham, under the leadership of Dulcie Dixon-McKenzie, and the line-up of speakers who have addressed the Black Theology Forum there. And if we look beyond the British context, the variety of voices and the breadth of the discipline become even more striking. You could, for instance, look at the many authors discussed in The Cambridge Companion to Black Theology, ed. Dwight N. Hopkins and Edward P. Antonio (Cambridge: CUP, 2012), and work outwards from there. And there’s much, much more than that, if you go looking – my comments here only scratch the surface.

Black Theology is diverse, complex, and multi-faceted. Any serious investigation will show you that it can’t be reduced to the work of one person, or to one approach, or to one set of conclusions.

Critical Race Theory

But what of the substance of the report’s theology? Ian tells us that ‘Some have criticised the report for buying into the values of Critical Race Theory, even though that idea is not mentioned anywhere’. That kind of ‘Some have criticised…’ formulation is always irritating. It means that an author gets to plant an idea in readers’ heads, but doesn’t have to take responsibility for defending it.

But Ian is right: the report never mentions ‘Critical Race Theory’.

Nor, as far as I can see, is Critical Race Theory mentioned in Anthony Reddie’s SCM textbook on Black Theology (London: SCM, 2012), or in The Cambridge Companion to Black Theology. In fact, in all the thousands of pages of the Black Theology journal, I can find about five passing references to it.

I would not have any problem if there was a much more substantial engagement with Critical Race Theory in these contexts – but there isn’t, and it’s hard to avoid the impression that those who criticise the report in these terms either don’t really know what they’re talking about, or are erecting a deliberate straw man.

The mention of Critical Race Theory is a complete red herring.

Secular Antiracism

Towards the end of his post, Ian draws on the words of an unnamed friend to describe ‘Secular Antiracism’, and give his post’s fullest characterisation of the substance of the report’s approach. The words used are not Ian’s own, but he does at least partially endorse them, suggesting that From Lament to Action ‘leans too much in [this] direction’. Here it becomes clear that he thinks the theology of the report isn’t really theological, or isn’t theological enough, but is instead being driven by non-theological concerns.

The summary of ‘Secular Antiracism’ given in Ian’s friend’s words is this: ‘white people are not just historically advantaged (white privilege), but irreducibly racist (white guilt), even if they deny they are (white fragility). This racism is the basis of the modern West (white supremacy), and it works it concert with numerous other forms of privilege based on sex, gender, sexuality, ability, colour, fertility and so forth (intersectionality), all of which need to be upended’.

I don’t know what the friend was trying to describe, or what kind of conversation it was. I am interested in these words solely as they are deployed by Ian as a summary of the theological leanings of this report, or of Black Theology, or even of Critical Race Theory. As such, they provide a wildly inaccurate description – quite shockingly so.

  • Take ‘white guilt‘ for instance. You might assume, from Ian’s deployment of these words, that this would be quite a major theme in the report, or in the theologies that he is criticising. And yet ‘white guilt’ is a phrase that I can’t find anywhere in the report, or in Reddie’s Black Theology, or in The Cambridge Companion to Black Theology – and the only reference I’ve been able to find in two decades’ worth of the Black Theology journal is a in a book title in a singe footnote.

    Casting the terminological net a bit more widely, there is one pertinent discussion of ‘guilt’ that I have been able to find, in an article by James Cone that appears both in the journal and in the Cambridge Companion, but Cone is talking about the need for people to acknowledge the ways in which they benefit from past injustices that have continuing impacts in the present, and the need to take responsibility for correcting the systems that perpetuate those impacts. (James Cone, ‘Theology’s great sin: silence in the face of white supremacy’ in The Cambridge Companion to Black Theology, pp. 143–155: p. 149.)

  • Something similar is true with ‘white fragility‘. I happen to think, myself, that this is a useful concept. It is useful to have a name for the various forms of defensiveness that commonly emerge when White people are made uncomfortable by discussions of racism that suggest that, however well-meaning they might be, they might nevertheless be complicit in institutions, systems and practices that perpetuate racial inequalities. I can, however, find no significant mention of this concept in any of the sources I’ve just mentioned.

  • By contrast with ‘white guilt’ and ‘white fragility’, ‘white privilege‘ is a concept that does turn up quite a bit in these sources – though I don’t think it turns up at all in From Lament to Action. It is another useful and important concept, though I’m not sure you could tell that from the deeply unhelpful summary given here. I’d recommend as a starting point an influential 1988 paper by Peggy McIntosh: ‘White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences Through Work in Women’s Studies’ (Working Paper 189, Wellesley Center for Women, Wellesley, MA). There’s more to say than you’ll find in that paper, but it is one good starting point.

    The very simple idea is that, in our society, people who are not perceived as White tend very widely to experience a range of specific and serious difficulties, that tend not to be widely experience by people who are perceived as White. ‘White privilege’ refers in particular to the second half of this sentence. It names the fact that people who are perceived as White do not widely experience these specific, serious, widespread difficulties; that is their privilege. This claim is entirely compatible with the claim that there are in our society other sources of widespread disadvantage – in relation to poverty, class, gender, sexuality, disability, religion, geographical region, and so on. In fact, the same discussions that focus on white privilege often include discussion of the complex interactions between multiple sources of prejudice (and that, incidentally, is what is meant by ‘intersectionality‘).

  • Finally, there’s the phrase ‘white supremacy‘, which also turns up quite a bit in these sources, though it too does not turn up at all in From Lament to Action. It can be used in a variety of ways. It can refer to the blunt belief that White people are superior, Black people inferior. But it is also widely used to refer to less blatant realities – for instance, to patterns of speech and action that trade silently on the assumption that Whiteness is the norm, Blackness the exception. That is still a very crude summary, but it is a little more recognisable than the one Ian presents.

Summaries can play an important role in enabling wide discussion within the Church. Not everyone has the time or expertise needed for independent engagement with complex bodies of work like Black Theology. Judicious summaries, based on careful engagement by those who do have the time and the expertise, can be a real gift. The summary that Ian promotes here is, however, not one of these gifts. It is a caricature, that neither displays such careful engagement nor invites it.

Yet there is a rich, complex, exciting world of theological discussion of race and racism out there, in Black Theology and beyond. If you take the trouble to engage, you will find material you agree with, and material you disagree with; you will find ideas that challenge you deeply, and ideas that excite you; you will find passages that infuriate you, and passages that delight you. You will get drawn into extended, diverse and lively conversations.

Don’t let yourself be scared away from all of this by misleading caricatures. Dive in!

Further Work Needed?

Having said that, however, there is one last element of Ian’s post that I want to mention. He notes that From Lament to Action ‘speaks of gathering evidence of “theological prejudice, European and white normative frameworks in our theological foundations”‘. This report therefore, he says, ‘assumes that fundamental prejudices and normative frameworks are there’ (my italics). But Ian is not convinced. ‘I would want further work,’ he says, ‘and a much wider conversation, on all of these things before devising actions on anything like this scale.’

What is missing here – unsurprisingly, perhaps, in a post that shows a marked unwillingness to engage with Black Theology in any serious way – is an acknowledgement that we have been talking about this stuff for more than thirty years. We have produced, as a Church, endless reports, and their production has been one small part of a much wider theological discussion of race and racism – rich, vibrant, and multi-faceted, as I said a moment ago.

The task of From Lament to Action was not to initiate a discussion of all these matters – that happened a long time ago. It was not to summarise the mountains of analysis and discussion that we have already produced, for the sake of those who have not been listening. Its task was, rightly, much more limited. It was asked to review the many recommendations made in the course of the endless discussions and debates that we have already had, and to try to move us, at long last, to action.

Theological Education in ‘From Lament to Action’

Last Thursday, the Archbishops’ Anti-Racism Taskforce published its report, From Lament to Action. Given my role in the Common Awards partnership, I have a particular interest in the recommended actions that concern the Church of England’s Theological Education Institutions (TEIs).

This post offers some extended theological reflections on these actions, and some discussion of their practicality. Before reading my ramblings, however, you might like to read the more incisive reflections offered by Nick AdamsAl Barrett, and Jonathan Jong. (I am sure there are others; these are the ones that have come to my attention so far.)

The diagnosis

From Lament to Action moves swiftly. Previous reports have offered long diagnoses of the problem of racism in the church, and detailed rationales for change. From Lament to Action does not try to reproduce all that work. Instead, with a sense of urgency and determination that does not often characterise Church reports, it sets out step after practical step that the Church needs to take.

To produce this agenda, the Taskforce worked through ‘25 previous reports relating to racial justice which had been presented to the General Synod of the Church of England in the past 36 years’. They identified ‘161 formal recommendations made to the Church related to racial justice, and many more informal ones besides’ – most of them left unimplemented. They arranged, combined, updated and prioritised, and then set out the results as an invitation and a challenge (9).

Though expressed only briefly, the report’s theological approach is clear.

It is a call to the Church of England to repent, in a situation of serious sin – the sin of racism. ‘We must’, say the authors, ‘repent of racial sin, turn away from racism and be reconciled, so that we may all experience the love of God’ (7).

Racism is a sin, the report explains, because it represents a failure to be the Body of Christ together. The dedication to the report begins with 1 Corinthians 12:24–26: ‘But God has put the body together…so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it.’ In the Body of Christ, we are all given to each other as gifts. We constitute that Body together, in mutuality and responsibility for one another. And this life of mutuality and responsibility is not an imposition upon us. It is the life for which we were made. It is a realisation of our dignity as creatures made in the image of God.

Racism is a turning of the shoulder against both creation and salvation.

Actions related to theological education

I am going to run through the main actions in the report that relate to theological education, providing some running reflections.

Given its diagnosis of the problem, it was inevitable that theological education would be one key arena for the report’s recommendation. Theological education is one site in the Church’s life in which the mutual accountability of the Body of Christ is worked out. This mutual accountability is not simply one topic that theological education might cover; it is intrinsic to the whole project.

In theological education, students who are already, in their local context, disciples, readers of scripture, participants in fellowship, and involved in ministry and mission, are drawn into engagement with the wider Body of Christ. That is not so that they will repeat in their own location what has been said and done elsewhere, but so that they can be drawn deeper into the mutual accountability, the mutual giving and receiving, that should unite the whole Body across time and space.

That means, however, that the problems of exclusion tackled by this report stab right at theological education’s heart. They have to do with the breadth of the community of accountability into which theological education draws its students.

If theological education is taking place in a room in which some of the doors out to this richly diverse body of Christ are blocked, then just to that extent it fails in its core task. Just to that extent, it fails to be theological education. Racism detaches theological education from the Body that is its proper matrix.

Making the Body visible

TEIs … to mark Black History Month, celebrating diverse saints and models (modern Anglican Saints/Martyrs).

Education Action 3

Request the TEIs to use resources in training liturgies, prayers and other worship which reflect the breadth and diversity of the Anglican Communion.

Education Action 10

These may seem like the most trivial of the actions related to theological education. In one sense, however, they get to the heart of the matter. In worship, in prayers, in the images on their walls, in the stories they tell – in all sorts of ways TEIs hold up members of Christ’s Body as exemplars of people filled with the light of Christ, for emulation and thanksgiving. These practices and forms of material culture help make the Body of Christ visible to their students.

How much of the variety of Christ’s Body becomes visible in the TEI’s life in this way? How well does it reflect the diversity of their own students? How well does it reflect the diversity of the churches that their students will serve? How well does it reflect the wider diversity of the Body to which they and their students are united in mutual accountability? These are not peripheral questions for TEIs to be asking.

Diversifying the curriculum

For TEIs and other Church based training institutions to diversify the curriculum (including church history, Global Theologies) and to diversify their bibliographies (include authors of UKME/GMH background).

Education Action 10

Renegotiation of the lists of texts, people, and contexts that feature in our curricula is not a new thing. It has always been a part of theological education. You can, for instance, tell the story of the Oxford Movement through the nineteenth century in part as a story of a radical reworking of the canon of texts used in Anglican theological education – and of no less radical reworkings by the Movement’s opponents. Fighting over our bibliographies, and over the visions of the church embodied by them, is just what theological educators do.

Of course, as theological educators, we want to introduce students to the best resources out there. But ‘best’ can never be defined in the abstract. It is always defined in relation to some vision of our purpose. I have said that theological education is, fundamentally, meant to draw students into deeper engagement with the breadth of Christ’s Body. It is meant to draw them deeper into the mutual accountability that should unite the whole Body across time and space. How can monochrome curricula and bibliographies do that?

There can be a tendency in some discussions of this point to suppose that there is a tension here between two tasks of theological education. On the one hand, there is the pursuit of a deeper rootedness in the faith that is already known and loved within the Church of England. On the other, there is engagement with the challenges, questions and gifts that can come from voices from unfamiliar within that tradition.

It is, however, a mistake to frame the question in this oppositional way. Think of the experience of reading a familiar biblical text with someone whose experience and assumptions are very different from your own. Imagine that moment when, with their help, you suddenly see the text in a new way – realising that there is something more, or something different to it than you had previously grasped. In an experience like that, openness to the challenge from the other person can be precisely what opens up more fully for you the text you already know – or what opens you up more fully to that text. Yes, it might pull you away from your own existing grasp on that text, but it is your grip on yourself that is being loosened, not your rootedness in the text.

This is a characteristic work of the Spirit: to draw us deeper into Christ by drawing us into encounter with people beyond our existing circles of familiarity, through whose eyes and ears we might learn to see and hear differently.

By its very nature, therefore, theological education needs to take place in communities of learners which are themselves diverse. And by its very nature it needs to involve forms of learning – and curricula and bibliographies –  that connect students with the even richer diversity of the whole church and of the world. And although there are always tussles over space in our timetables, and decisions to make about what we can and can’t cover, there is no inherent competition between the need to be more deeply rooted in the scriptures or in the traditions that we have inherited and the need to engage with the variety of Christ’s Body. It is the same God who gives us both.

Black Theology

Participation in an introductory Black Theology module (e.g. TMM1657 of Common Awards) or module on Theologies in Global Perspective (TMM42620) to be a requirement for all ordinands

Education Action 4

In part, this action is simply another way of diversifying the curriculum, and is covered by the comments I have already made. Especially in the mention of Black theology, however, it begins to push beyond that. There is a suggestion here not just of that existing curricula might be enriched, but that they might be critiqued. That is, there is a suggestion here that we might go beyond diversification the curriculum to decolonising it.

That seems to me to be entirely right. Deeper engagement with the diversity of the Body of Christ, and with the diversity of God’s world in which that Body lives, can yield many gifts. Amongst those, it can lead us to look again at practices, habits of speech, and ideas that we have taken simply to be the way that Christianity universally is – and to discover that they are in fact local expressions. It can involve us in discovering that some of what we have taken to be faithful discipleship is in fact doing harm to our sisters and brothers.

Such scrutiny has to involve more than scrutiny of our individual motivations, decisions, and actions. It has to involve attention to the systems, institutions, and traditions that we inhabit. Those systems, institutions and traditions are shaped by human hands, and so are inevitably marked by sin. And that includes our theological traditions.

Article XXI of the Church of England’s Articles of Religion says that even General Councils of the church ‘may err, and sometimes have erred, even in things pertaining to God’. All our traditions, all our interpretations, all our theological claims and explanations, stand under the judgment of God.

There are all kinds of ways in which we can hear this judgment pronounced. Some of our hallowed ways of thinking and talking about creation, for instance, have turned out to be broken as we have looked at them again in the light of the climate crisis. Some of our hallowed ways of thinking and talking about the church, and about salvation history, and about the relationship between the testaments, have turned out to be broken, as we have looked at them again the light of the Church’s horrific record of anti-Semitism.

One of the main forms, however, in which we can listen for this judgment upon our theological traditions is in what one can very broadly call liberationist approaches. The heart of those approaches is a re-reading of those traditions in the company of those whose voices have tended to be ignored or downplayed where those traditions are produced and passed on.

Latin-American liberationist approaches, feminist approaches, disability theology, Black theology, queer theology, and many others, are examples of such re-reading. Not one of these labels names a monolithic reality. Anyone who has been paying attention, for instance, knows that ‘feminist theology’ is not the name of a single position or approach, or of a unified bloc.

Just the same is true of ‘Black Theology’. It is a name for a wide, varied, and complex movement, with many different voices. Some of those voices are more doctrinally conservative, some more radical; some are committed to approaches to scripture that sit well within the evangelical fold, others are not. Anyone who presents it as a monolithic reality is probably trying to sell you something. (And anyone who presents it as a monolithic reality that can somehow be described as ‘Marxist’ is probably trying to sell you fear.)

What unites the many different strands of Black Theology is not any single conclusion or proposal, nor the employment of any single intellectual method or tool. It is simply the commitment to re-read the Bible, and re-read our theological traditions, in community with those who have suffered from racism, and in the belief that such re-reading can be transformative. And in a context marred by pervasive racism, the duty of theological educators to engage with this work is obvious.

Having said all that, I must admit that I am not convinced by the form of the action set out here. One way of ensuring that ordinands are led into deep engagement with a wide range of UKME/GMH voices is certainly to insist upon them taking a distinct module with that focus. But there is a risk that such an approach creates a segregated space within the curriculum where Black Theological and Global Majority voices can be contained. This could end up being yet another form of inclusion that in practice serves to mute the voices that are included.

There is also a danger that some of the real energy that there might be behind bringing more Black Theological and Global Majority voices in to shape the curriculum will get dissipated in the very tedious game of module juggling. TEIs already have a frustrating time trying to work out what arrangement of modules will allow them to teach all their cohorts in ways that will address all the Common Awards requirements and all the Church of England’s Formation Framework requirements. (If you want to know a bit more about what I am talking about here, you can see my recent Twitter thread.) It’s sometimes like trying to play Tetris with starfish.

I’d far rather see some clear learning outcomes identified by Ministry Council and the National Ministry Team, and TEIs asked to think creatively about exactly how they are going to enable ordinands and other students to meet those learning outcomes. TEI plans, and their implementation of those plans, could be monitored by the Quality and Formation panel, or by the National Ministry Team and the Common Awards Team, or in some other way. Compared to the Taskforce’s proposal, an approach like this is likely to be more workable, to be less frustrating for some TEIs, and to create more potential for the transformation of the whole curriculum.


TEIs … to promote intercultural (including international) placements

Education Action 3

The report raises one important question about placements: How well does the variety of placements on offer reflect the diversity of Christ’s Body? There are other questions for us to ask, however. Has the arrangement of placements become an arena for subtle (or not so subtle) forms of segregation? How well placed are TEIs to support and protect UKME/GMH students who experience racism on placements? How ready are they to recognise such racism and respond to it, even when it comes in subtle forms?

Anti-racism training

Facilitate national standards of training for TEIs staff on mandatory anti-racism learning programme, equivalent to the national standards set for Safeguarding Training

Education Action 4

Develop guidance on good practice and a template for use by TEIs setting out the NMTs outcomes and expectations of anti-racism practice

Training and Mentoring Action 6

Develop and implement a system for TEIs to make an annual return to the NMT of all anti-racism learning programmes provided for staff and students.

Training and Mentoring Action 7

I don’t have much to say about all of these actions, other than ‘Yes’. In particular, it is vital that we all (TEI staff, students, staff on the National Ministry Team and Common Awards team, and others) learn to recognise the subtler forms that racism can take – the microaggressions and quieter forms of othering (and if you hear those terms as meaningless buzzwords, you might like to undertake some training that can help you see how they name pervasive and important elements of some of your brothers’ and sisters’ experience). We need to learn to read more attentively the body language at play in TEIs and in the church contexts they serve. We need to learn how better to respond when problems arise.

The resources already available for this learning are already immense. As the Taskforce’s report notes, huge amounts of work has been going on in this area, for decades. There is no need to invent new wheels here, or to discover whole new approaches. What is needed is implementation.

Staff diversity

All TEIs to carry out a demographic audit of tutors, lecturers and governing board members and to produce a workable plan for increasing racial diversity and inclusion of UKME/GMH members. To be submitted to National Ministry Team, alongside their annual returns

Education Action 8

Again, I don’t have much to say about this action, beyond welcoming it warmly. There are many reasons for pursuing this action, including some already noted above. One important reason, however, comes from the phenomenon of recognition.

We know that it can make a big difference to many students from any minority background if, amongst those who teach them and who help shape their learning, they can say that ‘there is someone like me’ (and can see that that person’s work is valued, and not sidelined). It can help the student to imagine that someone like them belongs in this space, and can do well in it. It can help them to imagine that they, too, might progress – even that they, too, could become a theological educator. It therefore makes a difference to how well theological education can draw in, and draw on, students from minority backgrounds. And that means it can make a big difference to how well theological education can educate.

It’s obviously something we need to work on.

Complaints handling

There’s one last topic I want to touch on before finishing. In the list of workstreams for the proposed Racial Justice Commission, the Taskforce mention ‘Complaints handling’. They want the Commission ‘to make sure that incidents of overt racism within the Church are handled fairly, and in a way that enables reconciliation.’ The Commission, that say ‘will want to build confidence in both formal and informal processes’.

There is no mention of TEIs at this point, but I hope that TEIs will be part of this picture. It is vital to ensure that students at TEIs can complain, in the confidence that their complaints won’t be held against them in the reports that are written about them to their bishops, and in confidence that their complaining won’t lead to their being identified as troublemakers.

That will require more than good will and careful assurances from TEI staff. It needs some carefully built structures, some very careful scrutiny of institutional cultures, and some honest communication.


I welcome From Lament to Action, and I welcome the actions it sets before us. Whatever questions I have about the practical details, I am eager to work with others on implementing the agenda it sets out. God has made us part of this wonderfully diverse Body, and it is about time we stopped refusing the gift.

The Life of Christian Doctrine – now published

The Life of Christian Doctrine is now out. The cheapest way of getting it at the moment (before a paperback version comes along) seems to be the eBook version available on the publishers’ website.

The book is both a discussion of the place of doctrinal thinking in the life of the church, and an exploration of the roles that it plays specifically in the Church of England.

To give you a flavour of the general argument, here are a few brief extracts.

From Chapter 1: What is Doctrine?

In the midst of things – in the midst of people gathering for worship, discovering how to follow Jesus at home and at work, saying their prayers and failing to say them, reading the bible and hearing it read, singing hymns and worship songs, sitting in silence, gathering for baptisms, celebrating weddings, crying at funerals, sinning and repenting, telling and hesitating to tell their friends about their faith, praying for the sick, sitting with the dying, visiting prisoners, helping out at foodbanks and refuges and credit unions, discovering God’s work among their neighbours, praying with icons, attending sung eucharists, speaking in tongues, praying for healing, arguing about money and about sex and about music and about candles, joining protest marches, struggling with the immigration system, crossing themselves, sitting through sermons quietly or noisily, going on retreats and to big Christian festivals, responding to evangelistic appeals, decorating churches and chapels, leading school assemblies, sneaking into the back pew hoping not to be noticed – in the midst of all this tangled and various life of the church, there are also people pursuing doctrinal theology.

When I say ‘doctrinal theology’, I have in mind a varied and changing collection of activities. I am thinking of activities of conversation, reflection, confession, teaching, proclamation, deliberation, argument, and apology, and all sorts of others. And I have these activities in mind insofar as they provide people with opportunities to express and explore claims about God and God’s ways with the world. Christian doctrinal theology takes place wherever Christians express claims about God to which they take themselves and their churches to be committed, and wherever they explore what that commitment demands of them. I am not thinking primarily of the activities of people identified as accredited ministers or professional theologians. I am, instead, thinking of activities that one can encounter among all sorts of people, in all sorts of forms, wherever the life of the church extends – and that are caught up in currents of influence and interaction that stretch far beyond the church.

These activities of doctrinal theology can be found, by an attentive observer, laced through all the activities of Christian life. They are there in the mix, as part of the untidy weave of threads that makes Christian life what it is. They might, at their best, be amongst the activities that help Christians grow together as followers of Jesus, in worship and witness and discipleship, and in the capacity to share that life with others. These activities of doctrinal theology are not the whole story, but they are one part of the story of Christian faith. Understanding the forms that these activities take, and the roles that they play – understanding, that is, the ‘nature of doctrine’ – is the purpose of this book.

This book is an attempt to answer two questions. First, there is the question of the relationship between doctrinal theology and ordinary Christian life. The practices of doctrinal theology are laced through the whole of Christian life, and all kinds of people are involved in them – but they are also practices that can be developed and refined to an extraordinary degree. People devote their lives to them; institutions are built to foster them; libraries are filled with writings that emerge from them – and doctrinal theology can appear to become detached from the life of ordinary belief. What is the connection between the community that sings ‘Jesus is Lord’, and the theological commission that pronounces that ‘Following the teaching of our common father Saint Cyril of Alexandria we can confess together that in the one incarnate nature of the Word of God, two different natures, distinguished in thought alone (τῇ θεωρίᾳ μόνη), continue to exist without separation, without division, without change, and without confusion’?[1]

I will be arguing that the kind of articulacy and sophistication displayed in the latter statement – and, more generally, all the forms of articulacy and sophistication of which doctrinal theology is capable – are no more and no less than forms of service undertaken for the sake of the church’s life, the life of ordinary belief. Doctrinal theologians who can explain the most recherché technicalities of doctrine do not thereby know God better than do ordinary believers. They may know something of the shape that ordinary lives of worship, witness and discipleship should take, if they are to be true to the ways in which God has given Godself to the world. They may help to hold those lives in shape. It is, however, those lives themselves in which God is known, insofar as they respond to and embody the love of God, and such lives will always and endlessly outstrip the diagrams that doctrinal theology draws of them.

The second question emerges from the first. Doctrinal theology, as I have just described it, is involved in the reproduction of the life of the church. Yet the life of the church is always broken, always distorted, always sinful. Whatever true knowledge of God is embodied in the life that any Christian community lives, it is always mixed with ignorance, with misunderstanding, and with the deliberate refusal of knowledge. The life of the church is a series of always failing experiments in the knowledge of God. If doctrinal theology helps to reproduce the life of the church, it will be helping to reproduce all of this failure – all of the exclusions and imbalances of power, all of the forms of harm that mar the church’s response to God’s love. Its work is no freer from these failings than is any other element of Christian life – and it can all too often be what Emilie Townes called ‘the doo-wop pom-pom squad for the cultural production of evil’.[2] My second question is, therefore, is about the role that doctrinal theology can play in the church’s learning – in the processes by which the church is taken deeper into God’s love, and taught both to repent of its failings and to discover new ways of inhabiting that love. I will argue that doctrinal theology can, at its best, help equip the church for this journey – a journey deeper into the gift of God’s love in Jesus Christ, and at the same time a journey out into the world. These are not two journeys but one: the Spirit of God draws the church further in to the gift it has been given in Christ, by drawing it out into new encounters, engagements, and improvisations, and especially by turning it towards the cries of those who suffer, including the cries of those injured, marginalized, erased, ignored, or forced into passivity by the existing patterns of the church’s life.

From Chapter 4: The Emergence of Doctrine

The life of the church is the continuous and uneven unfolding of the word that God spoke to the world in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus – the one who was, who is, and who is to come. This unfolding takes place in the lives of worship, witness and discipleship that Christians negotiate together in the midst of the world. It takes shape in the care they offer to the vulnerable, in the circulations of money around their communities, in the ways they share food together, in the attitudes they adopt to the political regimes that surround them, in the habits of worship that they foster, in the words that their teachers pass on, and in their readings of the scriptures. It always takes shape in the life that particular people are building and tending together in some specific place. The unfolding of God’s abundant gift takes the form of a polycentric collection of lived experiments in faithfulness.

The life of the church is not glorious. Every one of these experiments in faithfulness is a failure. Some of the experiments are luminous, some ignominious – but all of them are experiments conducted by people caught up in the circulations of harm that we call sin. All of these experiments both acknowledge and betray Christ’s lordship; all of them both help and harm the world.

As Christianity spread across the ancient world, its life was shaped for good and ill by the telling and retelling of God’s ways with the world. Christians pursued this telling and retelling in proclamation, confession, teaching, and controversy. For contingent reasons – reasons of habit, memory, effectiveness, and power – this telling and retelling coalesced into recognisable shapes, arranged around familiar loci. Practices arose in which those loci could be named and the flow of Christian storytelling around them discussed. The articulated statements of the faith became building blocks for argument, the means by which the faithfulness of Christian forms of living could be debated. Doctrinal theology emerged in the midst of Christian life, as one of the ingredients by which the church became what it was.

Doctrinal theology is no freer from ambiguity than any other ingredient in the life of the church. From the start, it has been entangled with the processes by which the story of Jesus is passed on, explored, and embodied. From the start, it has been no less entangled with the powerplays of Christian leaders, the forms of myopia and exclusion that have marred the church’s life, and the fractiousness that has split churches apart. Those engaged in its practices don’t stand at any safe distance from the church’s broken life.

The question I will be exploring over the remainder of this book is whether, and in what forms, doctrinal theology might be of service to the church in the midst of all this ambiguity. How, precisely, might it help Christians negotiate lives of worship, witness and discipleship together? How might it help them acknowledge the failures that in every situation mar their negotiations? How might it help the church explore and inhabit in the midst of the world the abundant word spoken to that world by God in the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth?

From Chapter 6: Doctrine and Belief:

Belief is social, and improvisatory. Christians discover together habitable settlements. They find ways of living together with each other and with their collective past, with their scriptures and with all the demands that they face. Every such settlement is an experiment in faithfulness, an essay in quest of the truth of the gospel in this particular place. Every such experiment is in part a failure, a betrayal of the love of God.

The Spirit can work in and through the processes of improvisation that form these experiments, leading people deeper into God’s truth. The Spirit’s characteristic work is to hold people fast to what they have already been given: the gift of God in Jesus Christ, in whom all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell. The Spirit’s characteristic work is also to draw people forward, enabling them to uncover or receive more of the abundance of what they have been given, and challenging them to think again about what they thought they had received. The holding fast and the drawing forward are not two works, still less dynamics that stand in tension with one another. They are one work: the Spirit continually beckons people further up and further in to the gift already given to them, by beckoning them further out into the world.

It is because of this shape to the Spirit’s work – luring the church deeper into what it has already received by leading it out into the world – that the church cannot avoid asking: How does what we are discovering fit with what we have already been given? How does this work of the Spirit in the present relate to the work of the Spirit in Christ? How do the new possibilities we think we have seen relate to scripture, or to the apostolic tradition? These questions are asked in all sorts of ways, explicitly and implicitly. They are asked and answered by the whole church. There is no reason to think that it falls particularly to doctrinal theologians to provide answers to them. They are answered primarily by a practical wisdom that discovers, or is discovered by, fittingness. People find a way to live together with what they already know, and with what they are finding.

Nevertheless, doctrinal theologians can, by the grace of God, play a role in this. Theirs is only one ministry amongst others, but they can bring certain kinds of resources to the process (though one should be wary of their selectivity); they can warn of some of the ways in which it might go wrong (though one should be wary of their hastiness in judging, and of their misplaced certainties); and they can propose ways forward (though they have no special vantage point from which to do so). Their resources, warnings, and proposals need to be tested, challenged, and interrupted in conversation with the whole Body of Christ. There must not be a one-way process here, with doctrinal theologians engaged simply in delivery; that is a recipe for the reproduction of the church’s existing failures, and for the amplification of the theologians’ own sins.

Their work is better thought of as a venue in which certain kinds of conversation can be staged – conversation between the life of ordinary belief in the present and the articulate tradition, conversation between local belief and the belief of the wider church, conversation between the scriptures and the whole history of the church’s believing. There are no guarantees of insight, no guarantees of progress or growth in such conversations, but in them a church may learn to see its present life differently in the light of its inheritance, and its inheritance differently in the light of its present life. And through such conversation and discovery, by the grace of God, the Spirit might at times work upon our life together.

From Chapter 8: Doctrine and Disagreement

Doctrinal theology can … be thought of as suspended between two forms of the passion for truth. On the one hand, there is a passion to hold fast to what we have been shown, both to the features of the truth that have become visible to us and the forms of error that we have learnt to identify and to avoid.

Yet as doctrinal theologians in a polycentric church and a divided church, none of us stands in or speaks on behalf of the centre. We each stand in one peripheral, diasporic territory, one failed experiment amongst others. We stand within particular Christian communities, each shaped by what it has truly received of God’s gift in Christ, but each also shaped by what we have missed, and what we have misunderstood. On the other hand, therefore, doctrinal theology is properly marked by a hunger oriented towards the abundance of God’s gift, its infinite exceeding of our grasp. And that abundance is, in part, reflected or exhibited in the diversity of the church – for all its many failings and errors. It is echoed in the diverse church’s capacity to surprise, unsettle, disturb, challenge, and excite. Each of our traditions stands in need of the rest of this Body, and of the gifts that our fellow members bear. We witness to the truth that exceeds us, the truth of the Word to which we are all accountable, by holding together, searching for the gifts that we might have to receive from one another. In always contingent and ramshackle configurations, the product of happenstance, self-protection, and the limitations of our resources as much as of any carefully planned engagement, we hold on to one another as a way of waiting upon the Spirit, holding on for a blessing.

There is therefore a proper curiosity to doctrinal theology, a pleasure in encounter and discovery, which will and should always be looking beyond the boundaries erected by our doctrinal decisions, with a magpie’s eye for the glint of something bright that has not yet been grasped. In the conditions of confusion in which we all live, it might even be that my neighbours’ error – a real error, one that does real harm – anchors their capacity to see something in the Word that I have missed, or to see the error in my own way of seeing. We should not so hold on to what we believe we have already been shown as to defend ourselves from all possibility of seeing more.

This is the deeper reality pointed to by Vincent of Lérins, when he declared that Christian truth is that which is taught ubique semper, et ab omnibus; everywhere, always, and by everyone.[3] For Vincent, this meant that, as Thomas Guarino puts it, that we will not find the truth by looking to teachings ‘confined to one geographical area, to one time period, or to a small group of believers’; heresy is characteristically innovative, and local.[4] The thoroughly non-Vincentian recognition that, in fact, all Christian teaching is innovative and local need not lead us to abandon his insight altogether. It really is the whole Body constituted by this polycentric diversity – everyone, everywhere, always – that is the form taken in the world by the imperfect, error-riddled, and fissile but rich, complex, and beautiful apprehension of God’s abundant gift in Christ.

From Chapter 9: Doctrine and Change

Doctrinal theologians are not the heroes of the church’s story. They are not virtuosos of the faith, from whose sheer intellectual creativity we can expect reformation, nor is their work unusually dangerous, always courting damnation. Forget the chiaroscuro. Doctrinal theology is one ordinary ministry amongst others in the life of the church, and – to the very limited extent that such distinctions are at all meaningful – it is not the most important. Doctrinal theologians are not those in whom the mind of the church specially resides – which is to say, we are not the head of this body. Instead, we are people with a particular set of roles to play in the life of the body, roles that matter, and that it is worth trying to play well. At our best, we can assist with some of the processes by which the church holds fast to what it has already seen, heard or tasted of the gift that God has given to the world. We can assist with some of the processes by which the church grubs out the distortions and restrictions that mar its reception of that gift. We can assist with some of the processes by which the church in deep engagement with the world discovers just how much more it has yet to know, as it journeys deeper into the abundant love that God has opened for the world in Jesus of Nazareth. And that is more than enough.

[1] Anglican–Oriental Orthodox International Commission, Christology: Agreed Statement (2014), §1. Available online: (accessed 29 Nov 2019).

[2] Emilie Townes used this phrase in ‘Thin Human Imagination: Searching for Grace on the Rim Bones of Nothingness’, a paper delivered at the Society for the Study of Theology in 2019. Such scholarship, she said, helps to reproduce ‘an evil matrix of ableism, racism, sexism, classism, nationalism, militarism, ageism, and more’.

[3] Vincent of Lérins, Commonitorium 2.5, cited in Thomas C. Guarino, Vincent of Lérins and the Development of Christian Doctrine (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013), 4.

[4] Guarino, Vincent, 5, 11.

Being Privileged

Hello. My name is Mike, and I am privileged. 

This is not a confession. I am trying to beat neither my breast nor your brow. I am, instead, hoping to understand better the kinds of privilege that I enjoy, the effects that they have, and the ways in which I hide them from my own attention.

Most of what I say will long have been obvious to other people, in its general application, but no doubt also in its specific application to me (if for a much smaller audience). Late to this party, I am trying to catch up – but I thought it might be helpful to try catching up in public, just in case there are others around as slow on the uptake as me.

All the forms of privilege that I am going to talk about are widespread; they are general to the point of being banal. The ways in which those generalities play out in any given life are, however, particular. In order to talk about my privilege, I am therefore going to have to talk in some detail about myself. Making myself the centre of attention is (to say the least) not the most obvious antidote to the problems I am about to describe, but I have managed to persuade myself that it makes sense in this case. I have, after all, been trained to write as if with neutral authority, downplaying the specifics of my identity and position – and that is itself one of the patterns of behaviour that helps to keep my privilege undisturbed. I am hoping this particular endeavour will be more self-subverting than self-serving, though I wouldn’t like to take bets.

This is going to have three main parts. I am going to begin by describing some of the kinds of power that I enjoy as a senior academic. (I first typed ‘relatively senior’, then ‘fairly senior’. It was a struggle to delete the adverb, and not just because I am denial about the big birthday that is not very far away.) I will move on to describe various kinds of privilege that feed into and shape that power – an Argos catalogue of unearned advantages that have helped me get to the position I’m in, that help me stay in it, and that reinforce the power that I exercise now that I am here. Finally, I will turn to my obliviousness to that privilege – and to some of the factors that conspire to keep my privilege out of sight and mind.


I have considered sticking a post-it note to my bathroom mirror, saying ‘Remember: you’re the establishment now.’ I need reminding that I occupy a position of considerable academic power, whether I acknowledge it or not.

This is difficult to write about without falling into laughable self-aggrandisement, but as a senior academic (there’s that shudder again), I am inevitably a gatekeeper. I mark students’ work; I conduct vivas; I vet applications for PhD places; I write references for students’ and colleagues’ job applications; I sit on appointment panels; I contribute to my department’s promotions committee; I review book proposals for publishers and articles for journals; I scrutinise grant applications. I have more opportunities than I can quickly name to influence who gets to enter my corner of the academic world, who gets to speak here, and who gets to be taken seriously – and those opportunities are built in to my job.

Alongside all this, there are the activities more obviously connected with my role as a university teacher. I have very considerable freedom to set the syllabus for my own teaching, to choose reading lists, to design assignments, to specify what I am looking for from students in those assignments, and to mark the results. I get to tell a whole bunch of people what counts as academic knowledge, and to do so in a context where I have some power over their results, and so over the course that their lives might now take.

I don’t want to overstate the case: I exercise this power only in a small domain, I exercise it alongside many others, it is properly limited in any number of ways, and there are some fairly robust systems of accountability that hedge me about. But the power I wield is nevertheless considerable and, whatever fantasies I may entertain about my responsible exercise of it, I need only look about me to see the possibilities for irresponsibility that it brings with it.

In my own case, this power is dramatized to an almost absurd degree by my role in the Common Awards partnership. Durham University is the validating body for a wide network of Theological Education Institutions, working with the Church of England’s central bureaucracy to monitor academic standards for thousands of students and hundreds of staff all across the UK. A constant stream of requests for my approval of changes and new endeavours crosses my desk, and I get to say ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ to each one. Again: I am not alone, there are quite a few checks and balances, and were my purpose different I could explain just how limited this power turns out to be in practice. There is, however, no denying the fact that in this role I carry the rubber stamps saying ‘valid’ and ‘invalid’, and that I am required to use them pretty constantly. The power could hardly be clearer, even were my metaphorical rubber stamps to be replaced with literal ones.

At a subtler level: however much I fear (and I do) that the academic world is full of people who know that I am a second-rate scholar – people who have seen through me – I do believe that, on the whole, I am taken seriously. That doesn’t mean I regard myself as a big name. I don’t think, for instance, that future generations of PhD students will (or should) be writing theses on me, or that my surname will ever turn into a widely used adjective. I do recognise, however, that I get to play a visible role in the evolving conversations of my discipline. (We’ll need to come back to the fear side of this equation later, not least because it is bubbling up even as I type. I’m itching to take back what I have just written, or to qualify it out of existence, even though that very itch plays its part in my ability to deny the power that I wield. For now, however, I am forcing myself to leave the claim in place.)

One way of summarising all this is to say that my position brings with it power to shape the reproduction of the academic institutions of which I am a part. I get to shape the next generation of my discipline, of my department, of my university, of the professional associations of which I am a part. And I get to shape them by drawing on the standards of judgment that I have internalised and that I inhabit. I get to shape them such that those standards are preserved and passed on. In that sense, I get to influence the reproduction of these institutions so that the next generation looks like me.

I am the establishment now. And, yes, that is a scary thought.


From power, we turn to privilege. By ‘privilege’, I mean the basket of factors that have given me an advantage over others, in my journey towards the position of power that I now occupy. I mean the factors that help me stay in it, and that make the exercise of that power easier and more effective. In particular, I mean those factors that sit beside the kinds of formal qualification, accumulated expertise, and institutional experience that get named in job descriptions and CVs, and that are discussed in job interviews.

In this section, I’m unavoidably going to sound smug – unbearably so. I’m going to be talking about all sorts of things that work in my favour, things that make my academic life easier. This is meant to be an acknowledgement of unfair advantage, not a flaunting of my capital – but I recognise that the effect might still be somewhat sickening. I only hope it is also useful to see how privilege functions in a case like mine.

First, I look the part. I am a middle-aged White male. I have never had the experience of turning up for an academic event and having someone assume that I am the assistant, the driver, or the person delivering the food. I have had the experience, when standing next to an academic who is not a middle-aged White male, of having people wrongly assume that I must be the researcher or the speaker that they were looking for.

In fact, I look the part so thoroughly that I can get away with a lot. You could think of my whole academic career as an experiment in how scruffy I can look before I cease to look the part – how dishevelled I can be before people start thinking that I can’t be the serious academic that they were expecting. Of course, I go in for an obviously middle-class scruffiness, so I’m not pushing the experiment all the way – but the answer turns out to be that, if you look like me, you can get away with a lot.

And I was trained on a diet of theologians who looked like me. Not only do I benefit from other people thinking I look the part, I benefit from knowing myself that I look the part. I was trained on a white, Western canon of theological texts. It was a training in which Black and Asian writers were, if they appeared at all, confined to their own week (often just after the week on feminist approaches): they were niche, not normal; nobody expected me to identify with them, emulate them, or look like them. These eccentric bodies did not perturb a curriculum that orbited a White sun: a system in which I learnt to think that theologians looked like me, and that I looked like a theologian.

Second, as well as looking the part, I sound the part. I speak with some kind of generic received-pronunciation accent. No doubt there’s a Henry Higgins out there who could position me more precisely, but to most ears (including my own) I probably just sound middle class. I was once at a restaurant in Italy with my family, and after the meal a German man from the next table came over to ask us where we were from, because we sounded just like the clearly enunciated audios for the English language training course he was taking. (I’m also, by the way, the kind of person who can unthinkingly throw references to My Fair Ladyand to Italian holidays into a paragraph like this, and assume that he won’t distance himself from his audience by doing so – and that’s another point I’ll have to come back to.)

I grew up in Southend, on the Thames estuary. At school (though not at home or church) I spoke with some kind of estuarine Essex accent. I wasn’t particularly aware of it at the time, and made no conscious effort to leave it behind, but it has now completely vanished. I can’t even fake it now, without sounding like a generic Guy Ritchie mobster. Now that it has gone, I sound like most people expect English academics to sound, and no-one has ever told me that I don’t sound like a professor.

There is another way in which I sound the part. I do a lot of writing and speaking as part of my job, and I know that I pass pretty convincingly as a purveyor of the kind of English that an academic should produce. And yet I think of myself as writing and speaking in a voice that is my own. I am not adopting a tone or style that foreign or uncomfortable to me. The kinds of English I leant at home, at school, and at university were a good preparation for the language I now speak – because academic English has deep entanglements with White, middle-class speech.

There’s an interesting side-effect of this. Because I sound the part – or, rather, because I have so seldom had to worry about whether I sound the part – I can experiment with speaking in simpler, less academic registers without worrying that people will stop recognising me as an academic. I can try to cut down on the long words and the technical vocabulary. I can focus on simple explanations and colourful analogies. My success in that may be very uneven, but I have never had to worry that, if I succeed, I will stop sounding like I belong behind my podium. I can also get away with jokes, sarcasm, and puns, without worrying that my audience will stop taking me seriously (another claim that I regularly test to its limits). I can even be self-deprecating, and (as I did right at the start of this whole piece) describe myself publicly as ‘slow on the uptake’ without worrying that I’m going to reinforce anyone’s worries that I’m not a real academic. I am (without really noticing it) too secure to worry about that.

So: I look the part, and I sound the part. I also have the right background. Most obviously, I went to university in Cambridge. I don’t think I’ve ever got in a door simply because some hearty figure explicitly favoured a fellow ‘Cambridge man’. I am certain that I have never secured an advantage by wearing a college tie, because I don’t (see above, under scruffiness). But I have lost count of the number of occasions on which I have discovered that a fellow academic was at Cambridge at a similar time to me, and that we have some shared reference points, some shared history – and we have relaxed a little more quickly in each other’s company than we might otherwise have done. That has to have had at least a subliminal impact on the extent to which we recognise each other as belonging in a shared academic world.

I also benefit from one of the key features of a Cambridge education, as I experienced it: a rigorous training in getting away with it. I went through the Cambridge supervision system – which, in my case, meant a regular experience of reading and discussing my essays one-on-one with senior academics. That was, for me, a training in speaking the right kind of language, and in bluffing my way through when I had only a thin skin of knowledge to draw upon. Of course, my own experience of that system was shaped by the fact that I was treated like I belonged. I didn’t have to put up with a barrage of micro-aggressions – all those subtle and not-so-subtle signals that I wasn’t quite what my supervisors expected. And it helped that I entered the process with an accumulated stock of academic confidence, drawn from my previous educational experiences. With that background and that confidence, it proved to be an extensive and effective training in sounding like I know what is going on.

More specifically, doing a PhD in the Divinity Faculty in Cambridge meant that I was part of a large enough residential cohort that I got used to intense conversation directly in my sub-discipline. And thanks to Cambridge’s power of invitation, I also got to hear many major names from the wider theological world – and not just to hear them. I got to meet, to talk to, and to be part of small-group discussions with, a whole roster of big names. It was easy to come out of that experience (given the confidence with which I entered it, and the absence of experiences of exclusion within it) feeling a sense of belonging in my own academic discipline. I can therefore walk into, say, the reception at the start of a Society for the Study of Theology conference and feel that this is my crowd: the conversation is of a kind I recognise, the references are ones I get, the names mentioned are people I know. I’ve had a training in feeling part of this conversation.

I have also internalised standards of judgment that constantly reinforce my sense that the conversation I am a part of is the theological conversation – a sense that has been bred into many of those around me, too. I was, for instance, trained in an academic community in which, on the whole, everyone read the same books – or at least one in which we read strongly overlapping collections of books, knotted together by a forest of cross-references and citations. We each, that is, read selections from the same established canon of White, western theology. And because we were all reading the same things, it was easy to think that what we were reading mattered – and that most of what mattered was somewhere within our ken. We were trained to think that seriousness was not just illustrated by but consisted in an ability to engage in depth and detail with that canon – and we were trained to display just that seriousness, and to recognise it in one another.

There is, however, another, less academic sense in which I have the right background. I am well-rooted in a certain kind of White culture. I can quote Monty Python, The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, Flanders and Swann, and Tom Lehrer; I can discus Lord of the Rings and Doctor Who; I know my way around Harry Potter, The West WingBuffy the Vampire Slayer, and Battlestar Galactica; I can dig back to Blue PeterJohn Craven’s Newsround (i.e., the real Newsround), Ivor the EngineBagpuss and the Clangers. In lots of UK academic contexts – especially in conference bars – this provides a shared world of references and jokes that are clearly generation-specific, but that otherwise pass as generic. We all know this stuff, don’t we?

And, more generally, I drop references all the time that probably signal that I am a middle-aged, middle-class White guy – remember Henry Higgins and the Italian holiday, for instance – and expect that in the average university common room in the UK, most people will recognise what I am on about.

Because I look the part, sound the part, and have a recognisable background, I fit easily into White, middle-class, English academia. As far as I am aware, most of the other White, middle-class, English gatekeepers in that world have to spend very little energy negotiating how to respond to me. I am, from their point of view, recognisable; I am safe.

And I could go on. I’m cisgender and heterosexual, and although I get into serious and sometimes upsetting conversations about gender and sexuality, I can always walk away from them: they are seldom conversations about my experience, my body, or my right to live as I do. I am cis in a world built on cis assumptions, and so the people I engage with don’t have to expend energy on establishing and remembering how to engage with me, or what pronouns to use for me. As a man, I can travel around the UK, walking in the dark from train stations to hotels to restaurants, without it occurring to me to worry about my own safety. I have never been stopped and searched, never had to explain myself to the police. (Actually, there was one incident many years ago, when I was part of a group of friends heading off in on holiday together in a minibus. The police pulled us over, possibly on suspicion that we were heading off to sabotage a hunt – but we sent such unmistakable signals of respectability that they politely let us go on our way the moment they had seen our clothes, heard our accents, and registered our general demeanour.)

All of these factors – and many more – are woven around any actual academic ability, labour, and achievement that I display. They seem to mean that, on the whole, people in the academic worlds that I inhabit give me the benefit of the doubt. People tend to assume that I know what I am talking about, even when the evidence is thin. If I am quiet in a meeting, people are (it seems) pretty likely to assume that I understand what is going on and even that I am judging the other people in the room, rather than that I am lost. If people don’t understand me, they are fairly likely to assume that the problem is theirs, not mine.

And this sense of academic belonging is written deeply into my body. A year or so back, I was showing the daughter of close friends of mine around the university – and I took her and her family into a lecture room, to show her something of the kind of teaching space she could expect. Everyone else went and sat on the ranked seating; I headed to the front – and automatically took on my teaching persona. I stood differently – I am told that I changed shape, embodying my academic authority in my posture and deportment. That’s my space, up there at the front, and I know how to inhabit it. I belong.


My first section, on power, risked sounding laughably self-aggrandising. My second section, on privilege, risked unbearable smugness. In this section – on all the ways in which it is easy for me to overlook or deny both my power and my privilege – I have to risk sounding like I am offering a series of excuses. Again, that is really not my intention. I have been slow on the uptake – slow to acknowledge the power I have accrued, and slow to recognise the forms of privilege that enable and reinforce it – but I could and should have been much faster. I am not trying to exonerate myself, but to understand the processes by which – with others’ help – I have managed to hide these things from myself, or persuade myself that I didn’t need to take them seriously. By offering this analysis, I’m hoping to make it harder for myself – and perhaps some others in similar situations – to get away with this kind of inattention in future.

There is one very good reason why I (and others like me) might need that post-it note stuck to the mirror. It turns out to be very easy to convince myself that I am still a member of the rebellion even though it should by now be obvious to everyone that I work for the Empire. (Or the First Order / Final Order – pick the Star Wars reference that works best for you.) There are, in other words, many of us pillars of the establishment who are still telling ourselves the story that we are part of a scrappy insurgency.

In myself, I can identify two main factors contributing to this. The first is simply the fact that succeeding to power does not feel like you image it will feel. It is similar to becoming an adult: few of us end up feeling the kind of confidence, the kind of stability and responsibility, that we imagined our parents to be feeling. (I realise this is a comment that makes sense for someone who grew up in a protective and supportive household, where I really could trust that there were adults who would sort things out if they went wrong. That’s another advantage that I enjoy.) We become adults, but we never become what we imagined adults to be. It is the same with academic power. When I was a student, and even when I was an early-career researcher and teacher, I projected on to the senior members of my department all kinds of security and mastery – and although I have now become a senior academic myself, I have never become what I imagined a senior academic to be. I still struggle with social awkwardness and anxiety; I still feel like an impostor – and it never occurred to me that my own teachers might feel that way.

The second factor is simply that I carry with me the memory of being an outsider, and that it is more vivid than the knowledge that I now belong. I am still the boy who – with the hand-eye co-ordination of a pineapple and the physical grace of a radiator – was picked last for sports teams in school. I am still the teenager who came from a context in which it was unheard of to go to Cambridge, and who arrived at university knowing himself to be on foreign soil. I am still the student who, having arrived at university to read maths, believed the story that admissions for maths were more truly meritocratic than those for other subjects, and that it was intellect rather than privilege that had taken him there.

These stories go deep. I still remember the slight disappointment I felt (alongside some delight) when I realised that my maternal grandfather had been to university in Durham, as part of his ordination training. It disrupted the story I had told myself (and others) about coming from a non-university family – and I was reluctant to let that story go. I also know that I tell myself the story of having been an outsider in Cambridge even though I also know how quickly and how deeply I learnt that I belonged. I used, for instance, to go on restless night-time walks around the city. On one of the very first of these walks, within a few days of arriving in Cambridge, I found myself in a dark alleyway, and saw the silhouettes of two large men standing at the far end. It occurred to me (for once) to feel slightly nervous – it was, I think, the small hours of the morning, and they were definitely looming. I carried on, however, and as I passed them heard one talking earnestly to the other about the difficulty of mapping between certain kinds of Riemann surface and the complex plane (or something like that). I remember thinking, with a small burst of relief, ‘Oh, this is my place! These are my people!’ (whilst also realising that this response might not be quite universal). Finally, I remember that, by Christmas of that first year, I was already thinking of Cambridge as home and of Southend as a place to which I was returning for a visit – and feeling irritated resentment towards those of my new friends who expressed homesickness, or who still found Cambridge intimidating, or who spoke of the snobbery that I had expected but not in the event encountered.

That last comment, by the way, reflects a pattern that I have also seen in myself in other contexts. After feeling very much out of place and anxious – and doing things like giving myself a (low) numerical target for the number of new people I would force myself talk to during my first couple of conferences – I began to feel unexpectedly but delightedly at home in the Society for the Study of Theology (and especially its bar). And I felt irritated resentment towards those who pointed out the forms of exclusion, the power games and bad behaviour, that continued to mar its life. It took me a shockingly long time to recognise the part that various of the forms of privilege mentioned in the previous section had played in my own experience of welcome – and to see how very uneven was the reach of that welcome. (I’m pleased to say that SST has, in recent years – though not through any effort of mine – been taking very seriously the need to put its house in order in this regard.)

More generally, there are still so many easy ways of framing myself as the outsider, the person on the low end of various gradients of power. I work in universities rather than in business or in politics, which automatically makes me someone who critiques from the sidelines, with much more knowledge than power. I’m an academic rather than someone in university management – and so on the receiving end of diktats and initiatives that I can’t easily influence. (And even though I am now, in my Common Awards role, somewhat closer to management, I still don’t wear a suit and tie, so you can see on which side of the divide you will find my heart.) I’m a theologian – and theology is (I still tend to assume) a discipline looked down upon by other academics. Among theologians, I think of myself as not really having a sub-disciplinary home: I’m not a proper dogmatician, or a theological philosopher, or a historian: I’m a generalist, a dilettante, who doesn’t quite belong anywhere – or so I can still tell myself. And – like, I think, the majority of my colleagues at all levels of seniority – I still fear being found out. Most days, I think I’m only just getting away with it, passing as a successful academic only because no-one is looking too closely at what I can’t do, what I don’t know, what I’ve not managed to understand.

In other words: I never really have to face up to having power. I never have to ask myself about the privilege that has enabled that power – because I don’t see the power, and because I do see everything in my past and present that resembles a disadvantage. And I inhabit academic spaces in which I am not often faced – or was not often faced until recently – with challenges to this comfortable delusion. I could think I was reading everything that mattered without reading voices from outside my bubble; I could think I was hearing all the voices that mattered without hearing from people who did not sound like me; I could think I was seeing all the faces that mattered without noticing the absence of people who did not look like me.

In fact, it’s not just that I am not often faced with questions about my position – I am actively encouraged not to take those questions seriously. The academic training that I received deeply shaped my sense of what questions are interesting, what kinds of evidence are telling, what kinds of rigour valuable. And that sense was very narrow in scope. I emerged from this training, for instance, much more likely to see merit in an analysis that really gets to grips with the logic of anhypostatic Christology than with one that really gets to grips with the social location of people who talk about Christology in that way. I was trained to see high-octane intellectual skill in the former far more easily than I see it in the latter. Imagine, then, that I am shown two pieces of work. The first is superb on the technicalities of high Christology, but is frankly rather slipshod where it touches on that Christology’s entanglement with Christian lives and politics. The second is superb on the entanglement with life and politics, but frankly rather slipshod on the technicalities of high Christology. I emerged from my academic training ready to dismiss the latter as not being serious, while treating the former as brilliant but flawed – or perhaps just as brilliant. It was, in other words, a training in looking elsewhere. It was a training in thinking it a distraction or an irrelevance to pay too much attention to the politics of my own academic work. I was formed to be a member of an academic community that maintains its power by strategic inattentiveness.

One last thing. In academia, there is always someone more irresponsible than you – someone who pays less attention, someone who draws boundaries around their world more blatantly, someone who wields their power more destructively, who does more to exclude and marginalise those who don’t look like them. It is therefore easy – very easy – to go on telling yourself the story that (compared to them) you’re one of the good guys – and then quietly to drop the parenthesis.

So what?

The story I have just told is primarily psychological – a story of the mental work I do to hide my privilege from myself, and of the personal history that fuels that work. The story is not simply psychological, however. My story takes the form it does in part because of the way intellectual work is perceived in our culture – which means it is very common for people to arrive at academic power trailing stories of outsiderdom. My story takes the form it does in part because of the way the academic community I entered systematically hides its own power, the better to exercise it – the result not so much of individual scheming and manipulation, but of the long-term emergence of self-protective structures by something like institutional natural selection. My story takes the form it does in part, perhaps, because of the way that the whole university sector is set up to reproduce our societal status quo while fostering the ineffective development and expression of critique. We are a safety valve that keeps business as usual from boiling over.

Nevertheless, the point of writing all this is to help myself think through the workings of privilege in my own particular case – and perhaps to help others who recognise parallels in their own cases to do the same. And the point of doing that is simply to encourage us to do something about it: to encourage us to work to find out how to inhabit differently the power that goes with our position, to take more notice of what it is that we are helping to reproduce, to challenge the exclusions and the gradients of respect and attention that shape our academic world, to listen to a wider range – a much wider range – of voices.

That work is already being undertaken by a huge number of people. It is varied, complex, deep, and ongoing. And so the next step for someone like me is not particularly to initiate or to innovate, but to learn – and to join in. I have put myself at the centre of this particular piece of writing, but nobody (including me) should think that this places me anywhere near the centre of the ongoing endeavour to make the academic world more diverse, more welcoming, and more open.

I am, as I said at the start, playing catch-up – and I know I have a very long way to go.

A Critique of ‘Transformed’ 6

This is the last of six posts on the Evangelical Alliance’s Transformed report. See the first, second, third, fourth, and fifth.


This is a bad report – and it is bad not just when judged from the position of someone like me, who happens to disagree with nearly everything in it. It is bad in its own terms.

The report insists that ‘Love requires empathy and compassion – listening and understanding the otherness and challenge to someone else’s identity’ (p.15). Well, judged by that standard, this is a loveless report. It talks the talk about compassionate listening, but the voices of transgender people are all but excluded from its pages. The report does nothing at all – and I really do mean nothing – to help its readers learn seriously about trans people’s experience, their views, their lives, their questions, their needs. It hides them from view, while pretending to have done them justice.

The report intends to root itself in the bible. But it will not allow the picture it paints of the biblical big picture to be disturbed by the awkward details of the particular texts that it cites. The authors seem simply not to have noticed that their own exegesis shows the text to be significantly less neat than their argument needs it to be: their hard-edged ‘big picture’ steamrollers everything in its path, regardless of who is in its way.

The report wants us to be serious about bodies. But it itself shaped by a deep dualism, which doesn’t entertain the possibility that transgender experience might be rooted in the body. And it is shaped by inattention to the actual variety and complexity of real human bodies. In fact, it isn’t serious about real human bodies at all: it is serious about a stylised, binary representation of bodies. And when the authors do have to face real bodily complexity, in the shape of intersex conditions, they’re the ones willing to resort to surgery to bring those bodies back into line with their diagram.

In these and other ways, this is a bad report. The Evangelical Alliance sought to offer us ‘A brief biblical and pastoral introduction to understanding transgender in a changing culture’. Instead, they have given us an extended exercise in bad faith.

This is the last of six posts critiquing this report.

1. Whose stories?
2. The varieties of trans experience?
3. Listening to the Bible
4. Confused bodies
5. The rest of the report
6. Conclusion

A Critique of ‘Transformed’ 5

This is the fifth of six posts on the Evangelical Alliance’s Transformed report. See the firstsecondthird, and fourth.

The rest of the report

We have now covered most of the theological substance of the report – and most of the arguments that I wanted to analyse. There’s quite a bit more material in the report, but rather than go through it in the same detail as in my earlier posts, I simply want to point out a few things that struck me, none of which do much to change the basic argument – or to explain why the authors take the negative stance they take.

Pastoral responses

The initial material on pastoral application seems at first to be surprisingly open, given the arguments earlier in the report. That is, it seems for a moment to hold open possibilities of welcome, even of the celebration of transgender people who have transitioned, despite everything the report has already said to condemn them. So the report mentions a variety of frameworks, including a ‘diversity framework’ in which transgender experience would be ‘celebrated and honoured as part of normal human diversity’ (p. 13). Instead of, as one might have expected by now, simply ruling out such a response, the authors instead briefly advocate an ‘integrated’ response that can ‘draw on the best each framework offers’ – including this diversity framework (p.14).

That door is quickly closed, however. The report moves immediately to use the story of Jesus and the woman at the well (p.15) to illustrate the only kind of compassionate welcome that they are willing to offer to transgender people. In other words, the model we are offered is of Jesus challenging the woman at the well about her five husbands, and her living with a man who is not her husband. There is no hint of celebrating or honouring here: the model we are offered is of challenging someone’s sinful life. The authors want to stress, of course, the gentleness and compassion with which this challenge should be offered, but they are still bluntly declaring transgender people in the wrong, depicting their decisions and their lifestyle as sin. The rest of the pastoral advice (which I’m not going to analyse here) is governed by that conviction.

What does science say?

The report carries on into a discussion of ‘Science, statistics, medicine and therapeutic interventions’. The summary is meant – I assume – to be fair-minded and balanced. After all, we have been urged (p. 15) to ‘rise above the sex and gender culture wars’. Yet every sentence in the summary provided of the science on p. 18 – literally every single sentence – is framed negatively: ‘Limited reliable statistics’, ‘significant debate’, ‘unforeseen or unintended side-issues’, ‘harm’, ‘horrendous results’, ‘not well-enough understood’, ‘untested interventions’, ‘extremely limited evidence’, ‘lack of long-term data’, ‘a turn towards darkness’, ‘poverty of research’.

Anyone reading only this (and the pages that follow) would conclude that all the relevant science supports only the report’s point of view – which is simply not true (or even close to being true).[1] The authors aren’t even trying to present a balanced view; they display no commitment whatsoever to the balance and fairmindedness that they appeared to have promised.

The law

I don’t have anything much to say about the material on ‘law, education, and free speech’. Given that I don’t agree with the arguments at the heart of the report, I’m hardly going to agree with the implications set out here, and I’m not sure there’s much to be gained by running through the ways in which I find the descriptions offered biased, and the prescriptions misplaced.

I would note, though, that the comment on p. 23 that ‘There are proposals to change the law across the UK to let people decide their own gender’ (which echoes an earlier comment on p. 5), is, if it is meant to refer to the proposed changes to the Gender Recognition Act, not at all an accurate summary – though it does echo the way in which the Act has been caricatured by other opponents. Once again, the authors of this report haven’t made any real effort to ‘rise above the sex and gender culture wars’.

Cultural trends

The last bit of the report that I want to point to is the final substantive section, on ‘The Cultural Trends’ (pp. 27–28). I hope I have managed, in my discussions in my earlier posts, to take the report seriously, and to discuss it on its own terms, even if I have done so in order to explain how badly I think it is mistaken. By the time we get to this section of the report, however, I’m afraid I think it has descended into farce. The transgender movement, it turns out, is the product of every malign influence that haunts the authors’ bad dreams: relativism, post-Christendom thinking, individualism, Gnosticism, dualism, feminism, post-structuralism, queer theory, cultural Marxism, and consumerism. This is not serious cultural analysis; it is not even close. It is little more than a series of lazy caricatures and tired sermonic tropes.

It is, for instance, simply not true that we are surrounded in this discussion by people who think that there are no absolutes, and no right way to understand the world or ourselves; it is simply not true that we are surrounded by people who insist that we are free from all obligations – any more than it is true that we are surrounded by resurgent Gnostics. I can’t think of a single one of the people I know who are transgender or supporters of trans people for whom any of this would be remotely accurate as a description – and you only need to give a few minutes’ thought to (to pick just one example) the convictions about ‘consent’ that are deeply embedded in these discussions to begin seeing that this description just does not stand up.

This is not the kind of account you would come up with if you were – as the authors have insisted that we need to be – committed to careful engagement with the people with whom you disagree, attentive to their voices, and determined even in your disagreement to understand them charitably. It is lazy and dismissive, and unworthy of the serious organisation that has put its name to this report.


[1] As a corrective, you could look at a systematic review of ‘all peer-reviewed articles published in English between 1991 and June 2017 that assess the effect of gender transition on transgender well-being’, which provides links to all 73 studies that it discusses, and explains its search methodology so that you can judge for yourself whether it is cherry-picking. See ‘What does the scholarly research say about the effect of gender transition on transgender well-being?‘, What We Know, Cornell University. They found 52 studies which showed gender transition improving the well-being of transgender people, and 4 with mixed or null findings. The remaining 17 they cite were literature reviews or guidelines.

This is the fifth of six posts critiquing this report.

1. Whose stories?
2. The varieties of trans experience?
3. Listening to the Bible
4. Confused bodies
5. The rest of the report
6. Conclusion

A Critique of ‘Transformed’ 4

This is the fourth of six posts on the Evangelical Alliance’s Transformed report. See the firstsecond, and third.

Confused Bodies

On the next couple of pages, still within its treatment of the biblical ‘big story’, the report moves on to talk about bodies (pp. 11–12). The authors’ positive argument is that what we think and say about gender should rest on what we know about bodies – and, in particular, on what they say is the clear biological differentiation of bodies into male and female. ‘Throughout the Bible’, they say, ‘biological sex is binary and integral to personhood – biological sex should reveal and determine gender’ (p. 11). Their negative argument is that transgender thinking rejects this proper ordering, and that it does so because it is not serious about bodies – believing that ideas or feelings are more important than bodies, and that our bodies can be remade to fit them.


Let’s begin with that last claim. Trans thinking involves, according to this report, a form of dualism: a downplaying of bodies and matter in favour of ideas and the ‘inner self’. In fact, the report labels trans thinking a form of ‘Gnosticism’ (p. 12), tying it to a range of movements from the early church that were ultimately declared heretical by catholic Christianity. Now, I have been trying hard (whatever my level of success) not to be dismissive in my critique of the report, but this accusation of Gnosticism in itself is nonsense. Even if the report’s analysis of trans thinking were correct, there would still be only a vague similarity, and no significant historical connection, between that thinking and one aspect of Gnosticism. The comparison is, to be fair, not their invention; I’ve heard it said in a number of other contexts – but it is in the end a nasty little bit of historical name-calling, which enables people in this debate implicitly to label those they disagree with as heretics, and it has no credible historical or conceptual basis behind it.

Look past this silliness, however, and there is a very serious point being made: we need, the report is insisting, to avoid a dualism in which bodies are devalued.

The first problem with this analysis should be obvious to anyone who has spent time reading in the area. One of the most obvious characteristics of the theological literature in which one is most likely to find arguments supportive of transgender people – including theological discussions of queer theory – is a rich and pervasive concern with bodies. Bodies in all their complex, messy, and glorious biological reality are taken with an attentive seriousness that has rarely been so prominent in the Christian tradition. It is just plain odd to think that this is a context in which the body is regarded as unimportant.

There is, however, a much deeper problem. In order to make their accusation stick to its target, the report’s authors themselves need to adopt a dualism of just the kind they deplore. That is, they need implicitly to deny that the deep-seated patterns of feeling and experience involved in gender dysphoria are themselves bodily. Their accusation works by drawing a sharp dividing line between these patterns of feeling or experience on the one side, and the biological reality of the body on the other. They want to claim that trans thinking devalues the latter (the body) for the sake of the former (the feelings and ideas). They want to claim that true Christian thinking allows the former (the feelings and ideas) to be determined by the latter (the body). In other words, in order to work at all, the report’s authors need to make dualistic assumptions: assumptions that divide mind from body.

What if, alternatively, one thinks of transgender people’s deep patterns of feeling and experience – patterns such as gender dysphoria – as bodily realities? What if these patterns of experience and feeling are rooted in a person’s body: in (to put it colloquially) the way their brains are wired, in facts about their bodies that could be traced with various forms of medical scanning and chemical testing? What if, more generally and less reductively, we recognised that our deepest patterns of self-perception and the intractable shapes of our affections happen in our bodies by means of our bodies? The question faced by a person experiencing dysphoria would not then be ‘Can I remake my body in the light of my ideas?’ but perhaps ‘How am I to respond to a body divided against itself?’[1]

‘Biological sex is binary’?

The report’s argument in this sub-section can only get going because it assumes the very dualism that it seeks to deny. That realisation might drive us back to look at other aspects of this stretch of the report. The report confidently tells us, for instance, that ‘Throughout the Bible, biological sex is binary’ (p.11). In the previous post, I pointed out that the report itself shows us that this isn’t quite true, presenting Jesus himself as ‘making space in our thinking for people and situations which do not fit neatly into that pattern’. But I want to think about a different problem with this claim now.

The biblical texts that the report cites speak about God creating men and women, and the authors note that the Bible speaks persistently about men and women from then on. But in order to summarise the import of this, the report makes some decidedly non-biblical distinctions: the Bible is telling us, they say, that ‘biological sex is binary and integral to personhood – biological sex should reveal and determine gender’. Now, the Bible doesn’t distinguish ‘sex’ and ‘gender’; it doesn’t speak about biology, or explain what biological features constitute femaleness or maleness. It simply talks, quite straightforwardly, about men and women. We, however, now make distinctions that Biblical authors did not make. We distinguish gender and biological sex (as the report notes), but we also distinguish a whole range of things that are involved in biological sex. We speak about chromosomes; we speak about genitalia; we speak about hormones; we speak about brain connections and chemistry – and so on, and on. And, as the report’s authors know, these things don’t always line up neatly. (The fact that they don’t always line up neatly is one of the things you can discover if you pay serious attention to real human bodies, in all their messy diversity.) We are coming back to talk about intersex in just a moment, but suffice it to say for now that the report acknowledges the plain fact that, for some people’s bodies, speaking about ‘biological sex’ gets very multi-layered and complex.

If, at the report’s own insistence, we refuse dualism – and if we therefore refuse the report’s own dualism that would separate from the body the patterns of feeling and self-apprehension involved in dysphoria or other kinds of trans experience – we simply add more layers of complexity to this picture of the body. The various different components and layers that go into what we think of as biological sex and gender simply don’t always match up, and that is a fact about bodies. Gender transition involving hormones or surgery would, if we thought this way, not look like a form of dualism (still less of ‘Gnosticism’); it would be a change made to the body in order to respond to a bodily situation.[2]


It is worth drawing in at this point, by way of contrast, what is said later in the report about intersex people. These are people who are born with bodies that are not unambiguously either male or female, but that have some characteristics of both, or that fit neither category. There are many kinds of intersex condition, which can involve chromosomes, genitalia, hormone balances, brain structure – any number of different aspects of bodily life. And intersex people experience and respond to those conditions in a wide variety of ways.

Look at how the report suggests that we respond. ‘Doctors, in conjunction with the parents, often make a decision as to the most likely or best sex for the child to be raised, but the circumstances are often complex and painful for the individuals concerned. Surgical intervention is kept to a minimum at a young age, though there may need to be corrective surgery as the person matures’ (p. 19).

Here, then, when a person’s body does not fit neatly into the male–female pattern, the report’s authors are willing that the body should be changed by surgical interventions, even at a young age (and perhaps with the decisions made by doctors and parents, rather than the young person themselves). An such intervention might be undertaken not, it appears, simply in order to deal with medical problems that might arise from someone’s intersex condition; it can be undertaken in order to fit the intersex person into ‘the most likely or best sex’ for them – i.e., in order to make sure they are fitted into either the category ‘male’ or the category ‘female’. The report’s authors seem to want those intersex people’s bodies to be assimilated as much as possible, and by surgery if necessary, to what they believe is the biblical ‘big picture’.

The authors acknowledge that this can be a complex matter. The main aim of the brief section devoted to intersex people, however, seems to be to minimise any challenge that intersex conditions might present to the ‘big picture’ of male–female existence. Don’t worry, we are told, intersex conditions only affect a ‘tiny proportion of the population’ (p. 18) – and don’t worry, most of these exceptions can be pushed back into the normal pattern by wise professionals and caring parents. There is no real acknowledgment of the many intersex conditions that can’t be treated in this kind of way, no mention of the differences between those intersex people who would want if possible to be assimilated to typical gender patterns and those who would not, and no mention of the bad outcomes that we know can follow form the kind of decision and medical intervention described – and specifically by the desire to identify ‘the most likely or best sex’ in too wide a range of cases.

Here, it seems, the authors of the report are perfectly content to see bodies being altered to conform to a pre-determined set of ideas. Real bodies, it seems, only matter when they look like the authors of this report think they ought to look.


[1] I’m treading gingerly at this point. I am both wary of the kind of analysis that would reduce what we are talking about to the level of, say, brain chemistry, and that might push us to adopt too exclusively a medical framing for the whole discussion. On the other hand, I’m aware of some scientific work suggesting that the brains of transgender people do tend to differ from those of cisgender people, and resemble those of the gender with which they identify. I don’t have the competence to evaluate those scientific discussions, but it is at least worth asking the ‘what if’ question: what happens to dualistic arguments of the kind made in this report if such claims turn out to be correct?

[2] The report at one point in this section says that ‘God does not rescue us from suffering but redeems us through it. In the new heavens and the new earth we will enjoy the restoration of our bodies and minds’ (p. 10, emphasis removed). This is clumsily phrased. Taken at face value, the first sentence seems not only wrong but horrific. Jesus, faced with people whose bodies needed healing, did not say ‘Sorry; God does not rescue you from suffering but redeems you through it. You’ll get better in heaven!’ However, I think the authors are talking about situations in which we have desires that don’t align with God’s will: we might have the capacity to act on those desires, but obedience to God will lead us to refrain, even though the frustration of those desires might cause us suffering. Barring a miraculous changing of our desires by God, we simply have to endure the associated suffering as part of our discipleship – one of the ways in which we ‘work out our salvation’ in a fallen situation. (I’m pretty sure that, even so, we should not say that we would be redeemed through such suffering; but let’s be charitable and say that the authors were speaking very loosely at that point). This in itself does not add anything to the report’s case against gender transitioning: it simply says that the bare fact that refusing to transition might cause some suffering doesn’t necessarily make transitioning right.

This is the fourth of six posts critiquing this report.

1. Whose stories?
2. The varieties of trans experience?
3. Listening to the Bible
4. Confused bodies
5. The rest of the report
6. Conclusion

A Critique of ‘Transformed’ 3

This is the third of six posts on the Evangelical Alliance’s Transformed report. See the first and second.

Listening to the Bible

The section of the report on the Bible (pp. 10–12) comes in two parts. There’s a brief section on specific passages, and then a somewhat longer one on ‘the big story’.

Particular texts

The first of these sections mentions five passages. Deuteronomy 22:5 and 1 Corinthians 6:9 are mentioned very briefly – I presume because it’s a real stretch to think the latter has anything at all to do with trans people, and perhaps because the former verse, from Deuteronomy, comes from the same rather bewildering group of laws that includes not yoking an ox and donkey together (Dt 22:10) and not wearing clothes made of wool and linen woven together (Dt 22:11). I don’t say that to be dismissive, simply to note that it is not obvious what one is to do with such passages, and that Christians have not habitually taken them as straightforwardly determinative for righteous behaviour. It’s no surprise that the report moves past quickly.

Matthew 19:12, Acts 8, and Isaiah 56:4–5 get a slightly more extended treatment – two or three sentences each. The Matthew passage has Jesus talking about eunuchs. The report interprets this in the following way: Jesus is talking about ‘three different types of eunuchs, those born that way (intersex), those made that way (castrated) and those celibate for the kingdom’. It comments ‘The passage is an example of Jesus upholding the divine pattern while making space in our thinking for people and situations which do not fit neatly into that pattern’ (p. 10, emphasis mine). This reading is confirmed in the report’s brief commentary on the other two passages, both of which show people who do ‘not fit within a binary understanding of gender’ being welcomed into God’s people.

Because of what happens next, I want to pause to emphasise that. The report tells us that there are people who do not fit neatly into the male–female pattern portrayed by scripture, and that Jesus makes space for them in his kingdom. The report’s authors don’t suggest that Jesus by doing this is in any way rejecting the male–female pattern; they go on in fact to say that this verse is part of a longer passage in which Jesus reaffirms it. But Jesus, on their reading, recognises that not everyone fits into that binary pattern – and he makes space for those who do not.[1]

The big picture

The report then turns to what it calls ‘the big picture’. I’ll cover some of this material in a later post, but it begins (p. 10) by claiming that there is in scripture a clear and insistent pattern ‘of two distinct and compatible biological sexes’ – and then it says something about people who don’t fit neatly into that pattern. And what it says is, rather sternly, that any deviation from that pattern is a result of the fall, and that it is a matter of disordered desire from which God promises ultimately to redeem us.[2]

In other words, the report’s analysis of ‘the big picture’ – of the overarching story told by scripture – sits rather oddly in relation to the earlier exegesis of Jesus’ words. Jesus, in their portrayal, affirmed the male–female pattern while frankly acknowledging that there are exceptions to it; he offered no condemnation of those exceptions, rather (in the report’s words) ‘making space’ for them in the kingdom. The report’s big picture analysis, on the other hand, quickly calls that space into question: any such space, they tell us, can only be understood as a distortion of the biblically revealed pattern, and as a space that God wills to close. It’s almost as if they know better than Jesus how gender is supposed to work.

Let me put that another way, in acknowledgment that I have allowed myself to phrase that last sentence rather polemically. Consider just two possibilities. (There are others, which left to my own devices, I’d want to discuss; but let me stick to these two for now, for the sake of sticking close to the report’s own patterns of thinking). Scripture talks about God making humanity male and female. You could read that as meaning that God meant every single person to be either male or female, and that any exception to that is a problem that God will one day solve. (That’s not what the text says, but you could read it that way.) Or you could equally well read that as meaning that God has made humanity such that most people are pretty straightforwardly male or female, but not everyone. (That’s not what the text says, either, but you could read it that way too.) Proponents of either of these possibilities can affirm that God made human beings male and female, and can mean it quite seriously – it’s just that they understand differently exactly what kind of claim that is.

Now, with those two possibilities in mind, read this page of the report (p. 10) again. What the report says about Jesus seems to push towards the second possibility (i.e., the one that says that not everyone fits the male-female pattern, even if most people do). By contrast, what the report says about the ‘big picture’ pushes very firmly towards the first (the one that says that God wants absolutely everyone to fit the pattern). No argument is presented as to why this first possibility should be the only proper way to read the text. The possibility of reading it the second way (the ‘there can be exceptions, and there’s space for them in the kingdom’ way) doesn’t seem even to be imagined by the report’s authors, and it is certainly not explored. And yet this seems to me to be a missed opportunity: such exploration is, after all, what, in the report’s own reading, Jesus seems to point us towards.

Encouraging obedience?

Rather more tentatively, I want to point out one additional thing about the report’s handling of particular texts. The authors cite Isaiah 56:4–5, and suggest that it should be read as ‘encouraging churches today to make room for the marginalised, whilst encouraging obedience’.

In its context in the report, and given all that they go on to say, I think it’s likely that most people will read that last clause as directly qualifying the welcome that churches can appropriately offer to trans people. That is, I suspect people will read it as meaning that Isaiah was, as it were, welcoming the eunuch while expressing disapproval of the decisions or lifestyle involved in being a eunuch. And so, by analogy, churches are being encouraged to make room for trans people, while calling them away from some disobedience involved in being trans. To put it another way, I think many readers will hear this as a version of the old line, ‘love the sinner, hate the sin’.

Isaiah’s passage, however, does not make that connection: It is addressed ‘To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant’. That is, it says that eunuchs, too, can be followers of God’s law, in matters like keeping the sabbath. You could, I suggest, read the passage as saying, ‘Nothing about being a eunuch – or, by analogy, a trans person – means that you can’t be obedient to the law.’

It seems to me that the report’s authors don’t know how to leave open the spaces that scripture leaves open.


[1] I’m working here with the way the report reads these passages, and what seems to be implied by that reading. I’m not trying to tell you how I read them, or how I think Christians should live in response to them. That would be a different and lengthier task.

[2] I am going to talk quite a bit about this male–female pattern in what follows. I have questions about that whole way of talking, and would be dubious about using it for myself. In this context, however, I’m trying to work with the ideas that the report employs.

This is a revised version of this post. The ‘encouraging obedience’ section was originally a footnote, that has now been promoted to the main text and slightly rewritten.

This is the third of six posts critiquing this report.

1. Whose stories?
2. The varieties of trans experience?
3. Listening to the Bible
4. Confused bodies
5. The rest of the report
6. Conclusion

A Critique of ‘Transformed’ 2

This is the second of six posts on the Evangelical Alliance’s Transformed report. The first is here.

The varieties of trans experience?

After Tim’s story, the report proper begins. We get a section called ‘Trans?’ (p.9) which is meant, I think, to help readers gain an initial understanding of what being transgender might mean. It begins (in an echo of the introduction) with the sentence, ‘There is no one trans experience’ – reminding us that the report is, in effect, promising to help us pay serious and compassionate attention to the actual and diverse experience of trans people. Here, as in my first post, I ask how well the report does at helping us understand this experience.

The report distinguishes people with intersex conditions (to whom we will be returning later) from trans people, and then divides trans people into people who it describes as having a particular medical condition and those who are part of what it calls a ‘wider ideological movement’.

The report turns to discussion of those whom it describes as having the medical condition of gender dysphoria. Two things happen in the report’s brief description of these people, which pull in different directions. The first is something you could call ‘medicalisation’. The only description offered of people in this category is the formal medical language offered to define dysphoria. There is no attempt to convey the variety of experience that this language might cover; there is no attempt to say whether many of the people involved think that their gender experience can be described primarily as a medical condition; there is no mention made of the widespread idea that being trans is a human variation rather than a pathology. The medical diagnosis in its bluntest terms is all that we are given.

The second thing that the report does with this first category, however, undermines that first move. The next sentence is ‘Despite various claims about “scientific evidence”, there is no agreed understanding as to how or why gender dysphoria occurs, nor are there clear diagnostic criteria’ (p. 9). Look at those quotation marks about ‘scientific evidence’. You only put quotes around a phrase like that to indicate that these are not words you are comfortable using for yourself in this situation, though you acknowledge that other people do use them. We are, in other words, being invited to question whether there is any real evidence – anything really deserving the name. And we are meant to question whether the blunt medical diagnosis we have just been offered is a valid one: there are no ‘clear diagnostic criteria’. In a following sentence, we are told that very few people indeed fall into this category. The report states – choosing a figure that deliberately minimises the numbers[1] – that 0.02% of the population have been diagnosed and are receiving treatment. Everything we are told either queries or minimizes the gender dysphoria diagnosis.

I’ll come back in a later post to some comments about the report’s relentlessly (and misleadingly) negative depiction of the relevant science. For now, what I want you to notice is very simple. For this first category of trans people, we have not been given any help to understand their experience – what it is like for them, or what they’re responding to, or how they would describe themselves. We have instead been led to believe that they are simply people with a very rare medical condition – that might in any case not be real.

For the second category (which, if I understand correctly, is meant to cover anyone who identifies as trans but who either does not experience, or who has not gone through the lengthy and difficult process of being formally diagnosed with, gender dysphoria) we are given a very different kind of description – and it is worth stressing that, once again, this is the only description we’re given of trans people who don’t fit into that misleading 0.02% figure given above. It begins when they are first mentioned: ‘Secondly, trans is used to describe …those who are part of a wider ideological movement.We need to distinguish good intentions from bad ideas’ p. 9, emphasis mine). The experience of these other trans people is, we are going to be told, a matter of ideology (a word we’re going to be hearing a lot), and of bad ideas. 

This is a movement, we are told, ‘heavily influenced by queer theory and prior ideological commitments about the pliability of gender’. We are not told anything about what queer theory is, and I’m assuming that the main likely audiences for this report won’t have heard much about it, and won’t have positive associations with the word ‘queer’. In context, I suspect that the main message that most of this report’s readers will hear at this point is that these trans people are simply folk who have been infected by distorted, sinful thinking. We are also told that the movement ‘has fed into issues surrounding identity politics and led to the “no platforming” of those who disagree’ (p. 9). Finally, we are told is that this is a movement that ‘includes many contradictory ideas’ – such as a mismatch between elements of binary and non-binary thinking.

All in all, the main picture we have been given of this second category of people is even more dismissive than the picture painted of the first category: we have been led to believe that they are nothing more than people infected by bad and contradictory ideas, that their approach to gender is determined more by these ideas than by anything real in their experience, and that they are unwilling to listen to alternative views. And that, so far, is the only description we have been offered of their experience.

Still, by this point, we have not heard trans people’s own stories at all; we have not heard how they might describe their own experience. We have not been shown the variety of ways in which they make sense of that experience, the questions they ask, the resources they draw upon to help them understand the possibilities open to them and decide between them. They have been set up to be belittled and dismissed – and, despite the report’s own promises, we have not had to face them at all.

A note on the 0.02% figure

[1] Of course, even if the figures given here were accurate, that would not for one moment diminish the need to treat all the people involved with well-informed respect and compassion. In one sense it makes no difference at all. But the report’s choice of which figure to give is revealing. The authors confidently state that ‘there are approximately 15,000 gender identity patients in the UK – this equates to 0.02 per cent of the population.’ The reference they give for this claim is to a Guardian article (Kate Lyons, ‘Gender identity clinic services under strain as referral rates soar’, The Guardian, 10 July 2016), which mentions both the 15,000 figure, and the 0.02%.  The latter is mentioned in passing, and clearly described as (emphasis mine) ‘the most conservative estimate’ in studies in this area.

The Guardian article itself points to the charity GIRES (Gender Identity Research and Education Society) as the source of that figure; it comes from a 2009 report of theirs, funded by the Home Office, that estimated that, in 2007, the estimated prevalence of those presenting for treatment of gender dysphoria was 0.02% – but the same report explains that this figure is growing significantly year on year. (Bernard Reed et al., Gender Variance in the UK: Prevalence, Incidence, Growth and Demographic Distribution, GIRES 2009, p. 4; it is unclear to me where the 15,000 figure comes from, even though I have seen it several times attributed to this report). GIRES explain in a 2011 follow-up report that the number has indeed continued to grow markedly since 2009: it appears, in fact, that ‘the number who have presented is doubling every 6 1/2 years’ (‘The Number of Gender Variant People in the UK – Update 2011’, GIRES 2011, p. 1). That strong upward trend is confirmed by the data presented in the Guardian article, which suggests that the increase has continued since 2011. GIRES also carefully explains that (as should be obvious, given how difficult and painful a step it can be to seek medical care in this area, and how patchy the availability of treatment has been) the numbers seeking medical care ‘emerge from a large, mainly invisible, reservoir of people, who experience some degree of gender variance’ (p. 1).

So, the authors of the EA report have done two things, here. First, they have given as a statement of simple fact a figure of 0.02% which they know (because they were told this in the source they cited) is the most conservative estimate in the field – and when I say that the authors are deliberately minimising the numbers, this is what I mean. Second, though, the authors appear not to have done the five minutes of extra research needed to show that this figure is out of date, and thoroughly misleading when presented in isolation.

This is the second of six posts critiquing this report.

1. Whose stories?
2. The varieties of trans experience?
3. Listening to the Bible
4. Confused bodies
5. The rest of the report
6. Conclusion