Shame and shamefulness

In June 2001, a friend (now a Church of Scotland minister) forwarded me an email from the Evangelical Alliance (EA) advertising the appearance of Joel Edwards (who was at the time their General Director) on the weekly BBC TV programme Question Time (which was at the time something I might have considered watching). By this time, I was increasingly uncomfortable with the ‘evangelical’ label that was associated with my church. I felt particularly uneasy about the position of the EA, of which I think my church was a member, and I was almost certainly disinclined to watch Question Time that week.

Triggering a recollection

Undivided: coming out, becoming whole, and living free from shame
Vicky Beeching’s new book: criticised by the Evangelical Alliance

I don’t remember every email that I receive, and that one certainly hadn’t left its indelible mark on me. I only came across it as I was trawling through my email archives in search of references to the Evangelical Alliance. (When I say ‘archives’, I just mean old email messages that I happen never to have deleted.) I was looking for evidence of a discussion I recall from around the beginning of the present millennium.

This was all prompted by Christian songwriter Vicky Beeching’s recent tweet in which she said that her opinion of the EA’s approach to including people of minority sexualities and gender identities was ‘at an all time low’:

She followed up the next day with a couple of Facebook posts, the first of which said how she had supported the EA in her teens but been saddened by their dismissive, and indeed uncaring, attitude towards her, both when she came out as gay in 2014, and more recently on the publication of her book Undivided. (Her second post responds to a particularly bitter open letter from Free Church minister David Robertson, seemingly endorsed by many in the EA community, in which he accuses her of being an attention-seeker, idolater and hypocrite!)

Jettisoning my evangelicalism

I have written before (Then was not the time) about how I came to faith in my twenties and how, in the light of this, I saw attitudes and behaviours which the church viewed as sinful as temptations that I should pray about and seek to avoid. The church I was in at the time was unashamedly evangelical (and, as I’ve said, was probably a member of the Evangelical Alliance). I didn’t think of ‘evangelical’ as a bad word at the time, as I took it fairly literally to mean that we believed in sharing the ‘good news’ with others; I didn’t see at the time that it had all sorts of other connotations. Now, if I’m quite honest, I see it as having become a toxic label, even though I still belong to a church that would profess to being evangelical if someone asked – in fact, my church works in close partnership with at least one other local church that is a bona fide member of the EA.

Back in 2000, anyway – three years into my marriage and a couple of years before our son was born – the Policy Commission of the EA produced an evangelical position statement on trans people, in the form of an 87-page book titled Transsexuality. It is no longer in print, but the EA still has a two-page summary of its conclusions online. I remember reading about this report at around that time and being horrified to hear that the EA had written at length about ‘transsexual people’ without even deigning to consult the people they were writing about.

The Evangelical Alliance’s position in 2000

(Emphases are all mine in the following quotes from the summary.)

Confusing sexuality and gender identity: ‘We recognise that all of us are sinners, and that the only real hope for sinful people, whether heterosexual, homosexual or transsexual, is for wholeness that is to be found only in Jesus Christ.’

Dogmatic adherence to binary sex categories: ‘We affirm God’s love and concern for all humanity, but believe that God creates human beings as either male or female.’

Failure to recognise that a person’s ‘given sex’ may have been wrongly assigned: ‘Authentic change from a person’s given sex is not possible …’

Assumption that being trans is a ‘lifestyle choice’, and a ‘wrong’ one at that: ‘… and an ongoing transsexual lifestyle is incompatible with God’s will as revealed in Scripture and in creation.’

Harmfully opposing effective treatment: ‘We would oppose recourse to gender reassignment surgery as a normal valid option for people suffering from gender dysphoria on a biblical basis.’

Probably supporting conversion therapy: ‘Rather, we believe that acceptance of the gospel of Jesus Christ affords real opportunities for holistic change in the context of non-surgical solutions.’

Affecting concern about irreversibility of surgery (lots of surgical procedures are irreversible): ‘This we regard as preferential to the development of technical cosmetic surgical options that remain essentially irreversible and require lifetime recourse to hormone therapy.’

Conditional acceptance (what-about-the-children-ism): ‘We call upon evangelical congregations genuinely to welcome and accept transsexual people, whilst acknowledging the need for parallel teaching, wisdom and discernment, especially where children are concerned.’

Definitely supporting conversion therapy: ‘… we hope and anticipate that transsexual people will come in due course to accede to the need to reorient their lifestyle in accordance with biblical principals and orthodox church teaching. We urge gentleness and patience in this process, and ongoing care following gender reorientation.’

No sex for a trans person with the same assigned sex as their partner: ‘We would oppose moves within some church circles to accept or endorse sexually active transsexual partnerships where the partners are of the same biological sex as legitimate forms of Christian relationship.’

Actually, no sex for any trans people, since they would have to be married: ‘Additionally, we would resist church services for the marriage or blessing of transsexual partnerships on scriptural grounds, whether the partners are of the same biological sex or not.’

Absolutely supporting conversion therapy: ‘We commend and encourage those transsexual Christian people who have determined to restore their birth sex identity as a consequence of biblical conviction, and/or who have decided to resist gender reassignment surgery. We would seek to prayerfully to support their reorientation through the grace of God.’

Celibacy for those who aren’t yet ready for conversion therapy: ‘We further commend and encourage those transsexual Christian people who are willing, but do not yet feel able, to re-adopt their birth sex identity, but who nevertheless have committed themselves to chastity and celibacy.’

Thinking of the suffering trans people put others through: ‘We prayerfully affirm and encourage those family members who are subjected to the impact of transsexuality.’

Opposing legal recognition on grounds of perceived deceit: ‘[We] believe the case for transsexual people to be allowed to amend their birth certificates to be fundamentally flawed, open to abuse, and tending to undermine accepted realities by condoning illusion and denial. In particular, we believe it would lead to unacceptable legitimisation of currently illegitimate ‘marriage’ relationships, and remove protection against deception.

Repressing my self

Although I didn’t find anything in my own ‘archive’, I did find a couple of discussions on the slightly irreverent – and still-extant – UK Christian website Ship of Fools, where I used to hang out quite a bit in the days before Twitter! I’m pretty sure I remember reading both this thread on transsexual marriage, sparked by Christine Goodwin’s landmark victory in the European Court of Human Rights, and this post on transsexuality and the EA’s lack of integrity, part of an interminable thread on homosexuality.

I remember that the Evangelical Alliance’s report (or at least the discussion that ensued on Ship of Fools and elsewhere) made me distinctly wary from then on of anything that came out of the EA. At the same time, though, it almost certainly painted a picture in my mind of ‘transsexual people’ (people I had some abstract sympathy for) as freakish, perverted and to be pitied – not the kind of person I wanted to be seen as. (I suppose it stirred up some kind of internalised transphobia within me, which I have hopefully now excised.) If the closet door was ever-so-slightly ajar for me at that time, this report was a gentle nudge that pushed it firmly to, ensuring that no chink of light would get in again for some time.

In fact, it would be more than 15 years before I would practically fall out of that closet, pushed out by the enormous weight of all the stuff I’d been keeping in there with me.

Guilt, shame and fear had kept me in the closet, but the Evangelical Alliance’s attitude was far more shameful. By its own public pronouncements, and more insidiously by the influence it had on church and society at large, it sent a wrecking ball through my life (and into the lives of those around me).

Time for some basic humanity

Transsexuality was published nearly 18 years ago. A lot has happened since then, not least the introduction of UK legislation like the Gender Recognition Act 2004 (hopefully soon to be refurbished), the Equality Act 2010, the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013 (for England and Wales) and the Marriage and Civil Partnership (Scotland) Act 2014. Public attitudes towards LGBTQIA+ issues have shifted too (although there is still a very long way to go on that front).

Sadly, though, it seems the EA hasn’t changed one jot. The summary that I quoted from is still available on their website, with no indication that it is no longer reflective of their attitudes today (or even that it uses outdated language). They continue to produce ill-informed, uncaring and dehumanising articles about transgender people, such as Neither male nor female? (2014) and Redemptive relationships: How should Christians respond to Caitlyn Jenner? (2015). Even the latest article on their website, Transformed (28 June 2018), although it claims to be pastorally concerned, actually seeks to drive a wedge between people with the ‘rare medical condition’ of gender dysphoria (it’s just part of normal human diversity) and the ‘wider transgender movement’ (whose members, they say, need not ‘have any intention of permanently transitioning’). Have they spoken to any of us yet?

I remain unimpressed by the Evangelical Alliance and their seeming lack of basic humanity, which surely ought to be a prerequisite of calling yourself a Christian. I have no doubt that there are member churches that don’t hold such hardline views, and I have still less doubt that within those churches there are many members who are just as disgusted as I am by transphobia, homophobia and biphobia.

The Evangelical Alliance, as an influential Christian organisation, should take a step back from dogma and doctrine and actually think before they speak: they have damaged people’s lives in the past, and regret is all very well, but they need to remember that Jesus was far more concerned about people than he was with people’s interpretations of the law. Shame on them if they don’t change.

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