Author Archives: Mike Higton

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: www.anglicancommunion.org/media/103502/anglican-oriental-orthodox-agreed-statement-on-christology-cairo-2014.pdf (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.

Power 

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.

Privilege

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.

Obliviousness

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.

Conclusion

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.


Footnote

[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.

Gnosticism?

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]

Intersex

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.


Footnotes

[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.


Footnotes

[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

A Critique of ‘Transformed’ 1

Whose stories?

Back in November, the Evangelical Alliance released a report called Transformed:  A brief biblical and pastoral introduction to understanding transgender in a changing culture; it is available for download from their website. The lead author was Peter Lynas, though others also contributed.[1]

I am going to argue across several posts that it is in various ways a bad report. And I will argue that not just because I disagree with its arguments and its conclusions (though I certainly do disagree with them), but because I judge that it fails on its own terms. That is: in various ways, this report tells you what to expect from a good answer to the questions it is tackling, and then it fails – quite dramatically – to give an answer that meets those expectations. It fails to do what it says on the tin.

That does mean that in most of what follows, I’ll be working with the report’s language and arguments, rather than using my own. Left to my own devices, I would want to approach the whole topic very differently.

‘We must start by listening to their stories’

The report begins with a quotation: ‘If you have met one transgender person you have met one transgender person. No two experiences are the same’ (p.5). (It’s a quotation from ‘a participant in a conversation conducted by the author with a transgender support group’). The introduction then stresses that readers should keep clearly in mind the people whose lives are being spoken about, and face them with love, compassion, and welcome. Later (p. 13), the need to offer trans people a pastorally sensitive welcome in church is stressed again; later still (p. 17), we are reminded of the need to meet the people involved ‘where they are at’. In the conclusion, we are told that ‘It is necessary for each of us as individuals and part of gathered communities to understand, love and relate to transgender people’, and that ‘If we want to understand those who are wrestling with gender dysphoria, we must start by listening to their stories’ (p. 29, emphasis mine).

I think we can, then, fairly ask whether this report lives up to this. Is it written in such a way that it will help readers understand some of the diverse stories of transgender people – to understand what it is like for them, what their journeys have been like, and why they have chosen the courses that they have followed? I think we can fairly – holding the report to the standard it sets for itself – expect it to be written in such a way that a wide range of transgender people might recognise themselves in its pages. I don’t mean that the report needs to come to conclusions that all trans readers would agree with, but that it should be a report that helps all its readers understand and relate lovingly and attentively to people with a wide range of transgender experience.

That, then, is the first and main lens with which I’m going to read this report – because it is a standard that the report sets for itself.[2]

Tim’s story

One story is told in detail, and it is told right at the start of the main body of the report. It is Tim’s story (pp. 6–7) – the story of how Tim reacted when his dad, who had previously been known as Stephen, transitioned to become Stephanie. Now, to get a rich picture of how people are affected by transgender experience, it is certainly important to hear a wide range of people’s stories, including the stories of family members of trans people, stories where some of the outcomes of transitioning for the transgender person involved are ambivalent or negative, and stories where the reactions of those around them are difficult. Those are amongst the pastoral realities to which churches will need to respond in attentive and compassionate ways. This, however, is the only story that we are told in detail in this report, and it is the story that gets to frame the whole argument. In emotionally powerful ways, it sets the tone and the terms for the whole of the rest of the discussion. It is worth asking, therefore, what kind of framing this story gives to the report’s argument.

The first and simplest thing to notice is that this is a relentlessly negative story. It is a story in which the transgender person’s transition breaks relationships: the relationship between Stephanie and her children has clearly been damaged; the relationship between Stephanie and her wife of many years is broken; we are told that Stephanie has lost touch with all her old friends. We are told that ‘Nothing has changed’ for Stephanie (p. 7) – meaning, I think, that transition has (in Tim’s view) resolved none of the problems that led Stephanie to it. We are told, in Tim’s words, that Stephanie’s transition was ‘self-harm at the highest level’. A story has been chosen to frame this report that paints a relentlessly bleak picture of trans experience – and in the absence of any other story, this gets to be the whole story.[3]

The second thing to notice is that Stephanie doesn’t get to appear in her own right. We are (as the title suggests) being told Tim’s story, and we are given fairly extensive quotations in Tim’s own words. We are given some of Tim’s mum’s own words. We don’t, however, get to hear Stephanie. There is not a single word of direct speech from Stephanie, and it is unclear whether the small amounts of reported speech that we get come from the authors’ conversations with her, or whether they are mediated through Tim. We don’t get to know in any serious way how Stephanie would tell her story; we only know how that story is told by other people. That is reinforced by other details, like the fact that it is Tim’s choice of pronouns for Stephanie (‘he’ and ‘him’) that are used throughout, not Stephanie’s. This is a story that leaves out the experience of the transgender person at the heart of it.

The third thing to notice is that the story is written in such a way as to foreground and approve Tim’s theological commentary, without opening it do discussion or critique. Tim is portrayed as someone with a strong, clear faith, who sometimes ‘has truth conversations’ with Stephanie, even if at other times he ‘leads with grace’ (so we are already being told that ‘truth’ runs counter to the path chosen by Stephanie, even if ‘grace’ will mean continuing to engage with her). And we are told, in Tim’s stark words, that gender reassignment is definitely against God’s plan, and that it is chosen mistakenly by people who should instead be finding their identity in Christ. The mix of direct and reported speech means that it is hard to tell where Tim’s voice stops and the authors’ voice starts: Tim’s perspective is implicitly endorsed and owned by the report. Before the report has given any theological arguments or discussion of its own, before it has given its readers any tools with which to make sense of trans experience, before it has introduced any nuance or complexity into its discussion, it has handed readers a stark theological condemnation.

Contrast the way in which the report distances itself from Stephanie’s theological perspective. We get (p.7) a brief description (again, with what is presumably Tim’s choice of pronouns rather than Stephanie’s): ‘Stephanie has a faith and says that he asked God to take being trans away and when that didn’t happen, he decided it must be for him. He has been involved in a number of faith communities and has engaged in different ways but has always struggled.’ To say that Stephanie has a faith – some kind of faith, something that should probably be called faith? – sets us up to question what she is reported as saying. We are told that Stephanie’s decision is made in the absence of guidance from God, rather than being a response to God’s guidance. We are left with the impression that she has struggled with church and with faith, and that her decisions have made full Christian participation difficult for her. And these brief sentences are followed immediately by Tim’s confident and articulate theological condemnation. The report does everything it can to insinuate that, in relation to Christian faith, Stephanie’s decision was as rootless as Tim’s faith was deep-rooted.

Remember: I am not for a moment denying that this is an attentive portrayal of Tim’s perspective on his experience. Nor am I denying that stories like Tim’s are important, and need to be heard and understood. The authors of this report have, however, made the decision that the only substantial story of trans experience in the report, the story that will frame their whole approach, should be one that unequivocally condemns transitioning as a theological error, that paints the consequences of transitioning in the worst possible light – and that does not allow the person who transitioned any space to speak for herself.

‘We must start by listening to their stories’, the report’s authors said – but they are not practicing what they preach.


Footnotes

[1] I am grateful to Susannah and Hope for their comments on an a draft of these posts.

[2] Note that I am not asking whether the authors talked to transgender people while preparing the report: they clearly did. I’m asking about what the report’s words communicate to its readers about the stories of trans people.

[3] There is also a quote from a trans person on p.14 (comparing their trans experience to cancer or schizophrenia), and a snippet of a story from ‘Sarah’ on p. 15 (who suggests that in transitioning she ‘may have sinned’). These are tiny in comparison to the telling of Tim’s story – and they also serve to frame trans experience negatively.


This is the first 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

Making our minds up

Why can’t Justin Welby make his mind up?

I am referring, of course, to the recent interview with Welby in GQ, in which he was asked by Alastair Campbell whether gay sex was sinful. He said, ‘I haven’t got a good answer to the question. I’ll be really honest about that. I know I haven’t got a good answer to the question. ‘ And a little later, asked whether one aspect of his answer was ‘morally a cop out’, he answered, ‘Yes. I am copping out because I am struggling with the issue.’

Inevitably, the publication of this interview generated a lot of comment. Among those who (predictably) disagreed with the substance of Welby’s comments, and those who (predictably) were disappointed that he wasn’t giving a stronger lead in one direction or another, and those who (predictably) disparaged his wisdom in agreeing to the interview in the first place, there were several responses that caught my eye. They came from people who were incredulous that Welby had not yet made up his mind.

That indicates, they suggested, a worrying lack of seriousness, of effort, of diligence; it suggests he’s not given the topic the attention one would expect – especially from someone who has ended up as Archbishop. Why has he not already made his mind up?

And – for reasons I’m about to explain – I find those reactions odd.

Now, I know Welby a bit, and have  over the past few years had opportunities to talk to him about quite a few topics, but (as far as I can recall) I have never talked to him about this one – and I have absolutely no extra information to pass on about his thinking. This post contains no revelations about the archiepiscopal mind. Indeed, it is not really about Welby at all. It’s about the state of the Church of England, and the difficulties we all face in making up our collective mind.

Ways of making up our minds

We have particular ways of making up our minds. There are things we find salient, and things that we don’t; there are things that make a difference to how we think and feel about something, and things that don’t. Some of this is conscious: we have particular ways in which we think things through. Some of it even includes explicit arguments: we have certain kinds of reasons we acknowledge, certain kinds of argumentative moves we habitually make. There are ways of talking about matters that make sense to us, and that can reinforce our position or sway us – and there are ways of talking that can’t. We have ways of making up our minds.

The problem is that in the Church of England we don’t share a single way of making up our minds. This is not a new situation; it has very deep historical roots. Nor is it by any means unique to the Church of England; it’s pervasive in church history. It is nevertheless a deep feature of our current situation. We inhabit a set of different ways of making up our minds (you could call them theological traditions, or traditions of argument, if you like – but only at the risk of making them sound more formal, explicit and organised than they typically are).

The actual picture is very messy, but a plausibly simplified version would suggest that the Church consists of several such ‘ways’ or ‘traditions’, sitting alongside one another. The considerations that are telling for members of one such way might not be for members of another; the arguments that seem natural in one seem forced or irrelevant in another – and so on. Our problem is not just that we come to differing conclusions (though we obviously do that); it’s that we reach them in such differing ways.

Crucially, there is no meta-tradition, no meta-way. That is, there is no overarching ‘way of making up our minds’ that we can appeal to when members of differing ways come to different conclusions. Our deepest disagreements can’t be resolved by our normal ways of making up our minds, because we are in part disagreeing about how we should make up our minds.

Yes, we have all sorts of things in common still – all sorts of shared ideas and practices, so that it is not at all ridiculous to say that we share a common life. But that doesn’t mean we share ways of making up our minds when faced with disagreement.

Living in between

This picture is too simple of course. I’ve spoken as if there were neat divisions into which everyone in the Church could be sorted: either you’re a member of one ‘way’ or you’re a member of another. But many people (perhaps most?) actually inhabit the grey areas between ways. They are aware of, they are schooled in, they are formed to recognise differing ways of making up their minds, and most of the time they are not pressed to see the incompatibilities between them or to worry about how to resolve questions where these different ways yield different answers. It takes a deep controversy to bring these fractures to the surface – to turn this complex inhabitation of multiple ways into a felt perplexity.

Diligent effort to make up one’s mind makes sense only within a way. It makes sense within a way to look harder and more seriously at the things that are salient, to follow the proper patterns of argument more carefully. But, in the absence of a meta-way, there is no form of diligence that can lead to resolution if one inhabits multiple ways, and have discovered that they yield divergent answers to a pressing question. The intellectually responsible reaction in such a situation is – bewilderment.

To urge someone to resolve such perplexity by an act of will, as if what is needed is simply a stiffening of sinews, might make sense if that person mostly inhabits a single way – if one way has, in effect, become that person’s home. They might then steel themselves to throw off the tendrils of the other ways that they have also inhabited – which they can now, in some situation of controversy, see, and recognise as alien to their proper ‘way’. But that relies on being pretty firmly situated within a single way. It makes no sense to demand it of someone poised between ways.

I have no idea whether Welby’s perplexity is of this form. But if it is, it would not be lack of diligence, or weakness of will, that is his problem. His perplexity would be a reflection of the deeper perplexity of the Church of England – a perplexity for which there is no simple cure.

Arguments between ways

This perplexity is reflected in various features of our arguments as a Church, many of which are frustrating and dispiriting. Some of the frustration that our arguments produce flows from our failures to acknowledge, or to know how to respond to, the diversity of our ways of making up our mind.

So, half aware that someone else’s way is not my way, I may end up arguing on what I take to be that other person’s grounds. And quite often, I will therefore end up arguing in a way that lacks integrity – in the sense that nothing really rests for me on the arguments that I have put forward. My arguments do not reflect the way I actually made up my mind about these things, so my position is not going to be disturbed by their defeat. To my opponents, I will seem to have a position supported only weakly, and when I hop to another set of borrowed arguments I will seem to be slippery, to be inconsistent and perhaps dishonest. I will certainly seem to lack seriousness: I will seem all to clearly not to be fully committed to the argumentative game that I have joined.

We carry on as if we had a shared tradition of argument, while actually lacking one. We carry on as if there were knock-down arguments (the kind of argument that will lead one’s opponent into one’s own position, if only they are diligent and serious enough to follow it), when in fact there are none. And as we do so, we become more and more convinced of each other’s obtuesness and lack of integrity –  because that is what arguing across divisions between ways typically produces.

Nil desperandum

This is, nevertheless, not a counsel of despair. There remain forms  of conversation possible in such a situation (especially if we acknowledge that this is our situation) – though they are both harder and yield fruit more slowly than the knock-down arguments possible within a shared way.  There remain ways of swaying one another, and seeking greater agreement. The answer is not simply to stop talking, or blandly to agree to differ.

More than that, there are still ways of understanding our life as a shared life, despite such disagreements as these – indeed, of recognising that the church has always been marked by this kind of disagreement. To recognise the deep differences in our ways of making up our minds does not mean declaring de facto schism.

Nevertheless, all this might make one look at the present argumentative landscape of the Church of England with weary bemusement – and it can definitely give a certain eager edge to the hope that we might, in time, learn to disagree better.

A Shared Vision?

We recently published ‘A Vision for Theological Education in the Common Awards’ on the Durham website. It was the product of a year-long process of consultation around the Common Awards partnership and beyond, and in its final form it secured wide agreement around that partnership. Inevitably, however, the agreement wasn’t universal, and I thought it important to make sure that some of the questions that had been raised about the statement were also visible online. David Nixon, Dean of Studies at the South West Ministry Training Course, kindly agreed to discuss some of his questions about the statement with me by email, and then to have that discussion posted here on my blog. His questions focus on the opening sections of the statement, particularly §§4–7. Here’s that opening section:

Beginning with God.

  1. The Common Awards institutions have different approaches to theological education for Christian ministry, but these approaches are held together by our worship of one God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit; creator and sustainer of all things; victor over death and source of life, the One who is above all and through all and in all. The mortar that holds our vision for theological education in place is confidence, trust and delight in this God, and the horizon of our vision is the fullness of life and love that God has prepared for all things, towards which God is drawing all that God has made. Our vision for theological education begins and ends with delight in the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.
  2. We therefore focus on God’s activity before considering our own. We focus upon the eternally active life of the triune God, and upon the activity by which God shares this life. We focus on God’s action in creating and lovingly sustaining the world, in reconciling creatures to Godself and to one another, and in healing, fulfilling, and perfecting what God has made, drawing all things into the knowledge and love of God. It is God who establishes the Kingdom, God who draws all God’s children into that Kingdom, God who ministers and educates.
  3. When the activity of God’s creatures serves God’s purposes, it is because God is active in them, drawing them into God’s mission in the world together, and making their action bear fruit. The first note in our vision of ministry, and of theological education for ministry, should therefore not be our own effort, determination, or commitment, but our confidence in God’s work in the world, our thankfulness as recipients of God’s grace, our trust in God’s bounty, our assurance of God’s enlivening presence, and our resting in God’s strength.
  4. The activity of God in which we are called to rest is a triune activity. It is the activity of the Spirit, conforming God’s creatures to Christ and to Christ’s ongoing action in the world, and so drawing them to share together in Christ’s relationship to his Father, who sends us out in the power of the Spirit as Christ’s witnesses in the world. It is a work that the triune God begins, continues, and will complete.

David:

I really like the flow of words, images, sentences here, and I do understand that you have to produce something of manageable length overall (not another article or book), but in terms of Beginning with God, I would ask two questions: Why do we begin with God? and Who says that we should begin with God?

You say that ‘We … focus on God’s activity before considering our own’, but I can’t readily find anywhere else in the statement where our own activity is given much weight, especially our own activity in relation to working out who/what/how God is to us.

It might be okay to begin with God, but the assumption then is of a dialogue, a Jacob-like wrestling with God and theology, as to just what this God is. The wider picture is of context, and the way that context informs our theology (not dictates) – this would certainly be the emphasis of various missional initiatives, linked to a liberation theology overview.

I wonder if too much weight is being placed on God’s story almost independently of our own existence, a criticism made of Barth at one point?

Mike:

Thanks for these questions; they’re important ones. Before attempting some answers, though, I should perhaps start by saying that I can’t, of course, answer for anyone but myself. The text was a collaborative production, and I can only speak about the way I understand what we produced together.

Beginning the piece with God is a decision made in a specific context, and by specific people – in this case, it was the initial working group, though it’s been affirmed by most (not all!) of the feedback received from then on. For me, that decision sprang from a feeling that theological educators in the churches today are often pushed towards performance anxiety, made to feel that the future of the church depends on our action, our leadership, our entrepreneurial success, and if we don’t measure up (and we’re subject to constant measurement) we’re failures. It was in that context that it seemed good to emphasise trust in God. I guess we could have begun with a description of this context, to make sense of the focus on God – but it’s difficult to do that without making that context itself the focus.

I hope that the focus on God’s action before our own is not a focus on God’s action instead of our own. It’s meant, I think, to be a way of framing our thinking about our own action, and there’s quite a bit later on about people being called and empowered in all sorts of different ways. For me, this is quite an affirming and supportive way for all of us involved in theological education to think about our action, the action of those we teach, and the actions of those amongst whom they minister. I’d want to say that even wrestling with God like Jacob or Job or the Psalmist is something that God draws us into and sustains. I don’t think there needs to be a competitive relationship between a focus on God’s story and a focus on our stories – and hope we haven’t fallen into that.

It would, however be all too easy to slip from saying ‘God’s action is the sustaining context for our action’ to saying ‘My authoritative account of God sets the limits upon your action’. This piece leaves open the question of how authority and discernment work – not least, I think, because they’re issues on which we (the theological education community) differ. I hope it does at least leave the question open, rather than close down the kind of approach you sketch. It does, after all, insist that this God is at work in the world beyond the church (§9), that we need to discern and respond to that work (§10) and to name and celebrate it (§18), and that all our learning takes place ‘in the whole course of our interaction with one another and our presence and engagement with the world’ (§25), and so on. Does that leave the door open to what you want to say?

David:

Thanks for the clarification in your first paragraph here. Perhaps parish ministry has insulated against this as I don’t particular feel it (and resist it when I do), but I would fully support this resistance.

This is of course the usual danger of some more ‘liberation’ methodologies, (a kind of pelagianism isn’t it?) that it’s all down to me/us. However it does seem a little bit of a paradox that the context has inspired a universal approach! I need to think that out a bit more.

I don’t think the way the statement relates our stories and God’s story is competitive, and your ‘drawing into and sustaining’ is again a useful clarification, but I am mindful of Gerard Loughlin’s comment that where you begin here deeply affects where you end up. As you know he favoured starting with God, but I always think it’s a useful experiment to see where you end up if you start at the other end (and I don’t think it’s ever quite as black and white as it appears). There’s so much bad history, and bad current practice, which illustrates the value of such an experiment in the ‘other direction’. So you haven’t slipped into anything too difficult, but you don’t seem to have excluded that either – i.e. it might still be possible (unfairly) to interpret this as constricting others’ actions based on my account of God. Am I being unfair here?

This also links with another concern which is the emphasis on ‘witness’. I wonder if it’s helpful to relate this to Rowan Williams’ lecture on ‘The Christian Priest Today’? If so, what has happened to the images of watchman and weaver? It strikes me again that ‘witness’ is rather a passive approach, non-participatory, or at least that it has that risk. The action happens, and at best I am at one remove. You can see why this, combined with my other concerns, still asks the question how do we really enter a very tight (closed?) circle about our relations with God, and who holds the keys to the door? So this might open up the whole question of authority – or is that unfair too?!