UK

Should church introduce transgender baptism?

Baptism font Image copyright Thinkstock

A vicar has asked the Church of England to debate introducing a ceremony akin to a baptism to mark the new identities of Christians who undergo gender transition.

The Reverend Chris Newlands, of Lancaster and Morecambe Deanery, has proposed a motion to the General Synod, the ruling body of the Church of England, asking it to debate the issue.

The idea came after a young transgender person approached him, seeking to be "re-baptised" in his new identity. Similar ceremonies are already happening in some other Anglican churches.

This weekend, Nick Benn and his friends gathered at his church for a service to mark one of the most significant events in his life so far: the transition from his previous identity as a young woman, to a new life as a man.

The 20-year-old student had told his parents of his plans earlier in the year.

Later, Nick discussed with his vicar the idea of a ceremony in church to mark the move.

"For me, being part of a church community is really important - and to be who I am. So when I first came out, it was very important for me to have a service to mark that change," says Nick.

"And while it couldn't be another baptism, it could be an affirmation of the person I am."

Nick and his vicar formulated their own simple service, around 20 minutes long, held on Saturday evening.

Surrounded by friends, the ceremony acknowledged Nick's birth name and honoured the name that his parents had given him, before acknowledging his new name, with prayers and readings.

Official liturgy

At Lancaster Priory, Chris Newlands is keen for the Church to have an official liturgy to guide the clergy on such occasions.

Image copyright Twitter
Image caption Chris Newlands says the church should help transgender people

He wants the Church to be able to demonstrate its acceptance and love, and to help mark a milestone for someone transitioning from one gender to another.

"The reality is that transgender people are a part of our community, and if the Church can help people to make that transition well, they can be full participants in the life of the Church rather than suffering irreparable damage from people who make judgements based on ignorance," says Mr Newlands.

"We have to be explicit that everyone is welcome here - and that we're doing the welcome on God's behalf, and God doesn't reject, so neither should the Church."

He also wants the Church of England to show that it welcomes members of the congregation who often suffer from high levels of discrimination. So what does his congregation think of the idea?

Image copyright Lancaster Priory
Image caption Chris Newlands works at Lancaster Priory

"Often the bit Christians miss is that we have to love one another and we have to be tolerant," says Don Gilthorpe.

"Actually, if somebody wants to come to Christ, the love of God isn't selective so this is perfectly sensible.

"If somebody wants to be re-introduced in their new identity, then they should be enabled to do so by the Church."

Parishioner Lois Curtley agrees. "If a ceremony will reinforce the understanding that they are known and loved by God, that is a very small thing to offer.

"I doubt that there will be a huge number of people asking for it, but if it is something that will help somebody, the Church should be able to offer it freely."

For Nick, the service at his church was a real affirmation that he was welcome and recognised in his new identity as a man.

"I think for me to actually have my vicar offer the service and say, 'We want to be there and design a service and write prayers, and welcome you and your friends to speak at it', meant a lot to me because it meant that the Church extended the hand that had been missing for a long time."

Critics

Nonetheless, there are critics of the idea, on social media and elsewhere, and many within the Church remain to be convinced.

Susie Leafe is director of Reform, a campaigning network on the evangelical wing of the Church.

"I think it's quite a complex idea," she says.

"The Bible gives us the notion that there is one baptism, so the idea of 're-baptising' people is certainly something that would go against a lot of the deep theology of the Church and would be confusing."


Church of England liturgy:

The centrepiece of the Church of England's worship is the Book of Common Prayer, first published in 1662. It cannot be altered without the approval of parliament.

This was supplemented in 2000 by the publication of Common Worship: Services and Prayers for the Church of England, which includes services and prayers in diverse styles, with most of the material in contemporary language.

These are based either on those in the Book of Common Prayer, incorporating adaptations and additions that have become customary, or on services originally included in an alternative prayer book which were finally given official approval in 1966 after a long battle to get them sanctioned.


So should the Church of England in the 21st Century debate and perhaps create such a ceremony as part of the official liturgy?

Nick Benn hopes it will. He is in no doubt of how important the service was for him.

"My faith in God is there and is growing as I become more of who I am, because for so long I was someone who was a shadow of me, and not what I truly was.

"For people to come some way to accepting it, and the response of my church - and the way they have been so gracious and say, 'We support you, you are a member of our congregation, we can't turn that away, and we can't turn you away because of who you are,' that means a lot."