Commentators at the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times may decry the Episcopal Church as a place offering pet funerals but nothing for the faithful or failing to provide anything one cannot get from purely secular liberalism. These traditionalists appear to bemoan the loss of a 1950s-era church that promoted an Eisenhower-era civil religion replete with the cross draped in the American flag.
While they wax nostalgia over a past that largely existed only in TV Land, the Episcopal Church made history at its 77th triennial General Convention by passing two gender nondiscrimination resolutions. Led by a grassroots coalition including, TransEpiscopal, IntegrityUSA, the Consultation, and the Chicago Consultation, the General Convention granted transgender people protection against discrimination in the ordination process and in lay leadership in the Episcopal Church. Such protections remain unavailable in the vast majority of religious and secular institutions as well as in most states and municipalities (only 16 states have transgender nondiscrimination laws on their books.
In an effort to educate those deputies who would be voting on these measures, prior to General Convention, they received copies of documentary “Out of the Box.” This film puts a human face on this topic by telling the stories of both ordained and lay transgender Episcopalians. Also, the presence of a gender neutral bathroom at General Convention afforded those present the opportunity to engage in a discussion of gender identity and expression. (Those looking to further their education about the intersection of transgender issues and faith can posts at the blog of the Interfaith Coalition for Transgender Equality.)
After six members of the South Carolina deputation left the convention in protest, the Right Rev. Mark Lawrence penned a letter designed to be read in all parishes in his diocese. In this letter he claims:
“To embrace an understanding of our human condition in which gender may be entirely self-defined, self-chosen is to abandon all such norms, condemning ourselves, our children and grandchildren, as well as future generations to sheer sexual anarchy.”
Lawrence and the rest of the South Carolina deputation might have walked out in protest though they have not left the Episcopal Church. However, the vast majority of deputies voted overwhelmingly in support of resolutions regarding gender identity and the blessing of same-sex unions.
Lost in this discussion are the developments in theology, science, psychology and other disciplines around this topic that inform the work of academics like as the Rev. Dr. Cameron Partridge, a transman who is the Episcopal chaplain for Boston University and a lecturer at Harvard Divinity School. He notes how those with bodies perceived as “different” can make us feel uncomfortable about our own bodies. But transgender clergy bring embodiment into the conversation in an exploration of “what does it mean to be human?”
For now, this appears a question that those commenting about the changes transpiring in the church don’t appear willing to address. After a slight flurry of articles about these trans friendly resolutions in outlets such as the Chicago Tribune and Anglican newspaper Church Times , once a trial rite for same-sex blessings passed, the media coverage shifted to focus solely on this particular LGBT related resolution.
Commentators such as John Meacham focus rightly on the significance of the church’s changing attitudes on marriage equality noting that “Given that sexual orientation is innate and that we are all, in theological terms, children of God, to deny access to some sacraments based on sexuality is as wrong as denying access to some sacraments based on race or gender.” However, his reflections fail to note the significance that the vote to include transgender clergy and lay people will have on the future of the church.
Once again, discussion about the “T” part of the LGBT equation became silenced. But the battle for transgender rights continues to move forward.