This article was originally published in the journal Theology and Sexuality on the 6th of August. The copy of record can be accessed here: https://doi.org/10.1080/13558358.2021.1954864 [Clare-Young, A. ‘Living in love and faith? The construction of contemporary texts of terror’ in Theology and Sexuality, 27:1]
Content warning: This article contains details descriptions of anti-trans speech used against me.
Denominational responses to sexuality and gender can lead to the construction of contemporary texts of terror. In this article, I draw on theory around identity, dialogue, and safety, as well as my own lived experience, to examine the creation of, and responses to, texts of terror in three elements of the construction of and response to Living in Love and Faith (2020). Firstly, I highlight the unequal power dynamics of the LLF process’ membership. Secondly, I critique the use, by Christian Concern, of personalizing argument as a tool wielded against both theology and the individuals whose identities they critique. Finally, I argue that a paradigmatic shift is necessary if LGBTQ+ people are to live in hope, rather than fear. Throughout, the ways in which conversation partners perform, signal, and control both identities are considered and critiqued.
KEYWORDS: LGBTQ+ Church of England, theology, ecclesiology, identity, Living in Love and Faith.
‘Texts of terror’ or ‘clobber texts’ are often seen as ancient biblical texts that are easily deconstructed, and argued against.1 For the purpose of this article, I use the term ‘texts of terror’ to refer to religious texts, both scriptural and otherwise, that create division between members of the body of Christ and fear for people who hold particular characteristics for which they are maligned or oppressed.
In Texts of Terror Trible posits four biblical texts as texts of terror because they portray misogyny that inspires direct harm to women.2 Both the misogyny and the resulting harm go unchallenged by the narrator of each text and, by extension, by God. In other words, texts of terror portray biases against people who hold a particular identity characteristic; inspire direct harm; do not contain any challenge to the aforementioned biases and/or harm; and accordingly suggest, either implicitly or explicitly, that God supports said biases and/or harm. Monroe argues ‘the historical and contemporary rhetoric that accompanies [anti-LGBTQ+ biblical texts] functions in our culture as a paradigmatic biblical “text of terror” against LGBTQ people’.3 Monroe’s move suggests both that anti-LGBTQ+ texts can be seen as texts of terror and that these texts need not be biblical. Rather, the way in which religious and cultural commentators use biblical and theological understandings in the public square in order to play into the dynamics of this culture war creates new texts of terror.
The construction of new texts of terror is a contemporary reality which affects the lived experiences of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning (LGBTQ+) people every day. In this article, I consider the culture of fear which surrounds public discussion of LGBTQ+ identities, and its role in the discernment, response, and engagement of Christian organizations on topics of gender and sexuality. Furthermore, I consider the effects of unequal power and coercive normativity on these conversations. Specifically, I consider Living in Love and Faith (LLF) which is the Church of England’s latest suite of resources on gender and sexuality.4 Rather than reviewing the contents of LLF, however, I attend to some of the structures and processes through which they were created. In this analysis, I focus on gender, sexuality, and ecclesial position. I contend that representation of trans people should have included people who identify as transmasculine, transfeminine, and non-binary. Furthermore, I contend that representation of LGB people should have included people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer, celibate, and same-sex-attracted.
I then explore one response to LLF, a video released by the charity Christian Concern, and show the harm that this response caused, with reference to my own lived experience as a subject of Christian Concern’s video. I suggest that identity politics and boundary fencing of both self and other are the genuine motivations of this response and are self-proliferating. I use the term ‘identity politics’ to refer to the re-enforcement of ideologies in which particular identities are seen as normative and to the gatekeeping of identities that are seen as atypical. I use the term ‘boundary fencing’ to refer to the practice of normalizing one’s own identity whilst defining the identity of the other.
I finally consider the paradigmatic shift necessary in order to shape a more hopeful narrative. There is a need, I suggest, for a move from monological communications, communications which prioritize identity politics and boundary fencing, to dialogical communications, communications which are rooted in lived experience and prioritize listening to the other.
Throughout, I refer to processes and understandings of power, communication, and narrativity, with reference to the work of Judith Butler and Alistair I. McFadyen. I use Butler’s work on gender as performance to expose power-play, normativity, and attempts to disrupt narrative identity.5 McFadyen’s theological anthropology suggests that the image of God is found in dialogue with God and with the other, and that the recognition of God’s image is disrupted by monological communication in which one’s own biases disrupt and deny the narrative of the other.6
My engagement with LLF began in February 2019, but its history stretches back much farther. The Church of England has been discussing topics of human sexuality and gender since the Reformation. The beginning of contemporary responses, however, was the House of Bishops publication of Issues in Human Sexuality.7 Since then, the House of Bishops of the Church of England has repeatedly restated its traditional teaching that marriage is exclusively between one man and one woman.8 Each subsequent report ignored, or only made a passing reference to, trans identities.9 The House of Bishops Working Group on Human Sexuality report, commonly referred to as ‘The Pilling Report’, also largely ignored trans identities, though a rationale was given.10 The rationale given was that difficulties raised by trans participants were ‘not primarily about sexuality as such’.11 Beardsley points out that this rationale ignored the fact that trans and non-binary people are, in fact, affected by conversations around sexuality and marriage, including same sex marriage.12
There were two exceptions to the omission of trans identities from Church of England documents; guidance on homophobic, biphobic, and transphobic bullying issued by the Education Office, and a motion that was brought to the General Synod regarding trans naming ceremonies.13 It is notable, however, that these reports are not considered to be official teaching of the Church of England regarding trans identities.
The publication of the Pilling Report was followed by a process of shared conversations.14 Following this process, a report, which reiterated the teaching of exclusively heterosexual marriage, was brought, by the House of Bishops to the General Synod of the Church of England.15 The General Synod did not take note of the report.16 This highlighted the clear need for a new mode of engagement.17 The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, called for a ‘radical new Christian inclusion’ which led to what is now known as the LLF process.18
Power, monologues, and silencing: the construction of LLF
I was invited to join the LLF Co-ordinating Group in February 2019, following the resignation of Revd. Christina Beardsley.19 I was approached because I am a trans person and because I am researching trans identities and theology. I was an ordinand when I joined the process and have since been ordained as a Minister of Word and Sacraments in the United Reformed Church. I remained as a member of the LLF process until its completion in November 2020. It was my understanding throughout that LLF meetings were confidential spaces. As such, I do not wish to comment on the particulars of process. I do, however, think that it is essential to consider the demographic make-up of the LLF groups, and the way in which that has affected the perceived power dynamics of the process.
The construction of LLF was facilitated by the Co-ordinating Group, and also involved four working groups with foci on Biblical Studies, Theology, History, and Sciences. In response to criticisms regarding the diversity of the groups, the Church of England has written the following:
‘For the LLF working groups priority was given to finding people with the appropriate subject expertise, while also paying attention to achieving a balance of theological perspectives and representation by LGBTI+ people. In forming the individual groups, it was not always possible to find both – although, across the groups, there is a good balance. Understandably, not all members wish to disclose publicly their personal stories, their identities or even perspectives, so face value conclusions about representation cannot be drawn’.20
Some clear, factual observations can be made both about representation and about expertise. I would like to note that these observations do not undermine the contributions or reputations of the individuals involved. I think, however, that it would have been possible to obtain better representation while retaining a high level of expertise. I also think that the demographic make-up of these groups was, and is, highly relevant and should have been considered more carefully by those who appointed their members. As a non-episcopal member of the Co-ordinating Group, who was invited to join long after the start of the LLF process, I did not feel that I had the power to affect the make-up of these groups, though I did repeatedly raise the issue.
The Co-ordinating Group
The Co-ordinating Group (in its final, 2020, composition) was made up of 13 people, 8 of whom were Church of England Bishops. It was chaired by a male, cisgender, heterosexual Bishop of the Church of England. Just over half of the members were male. One member was an out transmasculine non-binary person. One member was an out gay person. In other words, as far as I know, 85% of the Co-ordinating Group was cisgender and heterosexual. There was no out female LGBTQ+ representation. While presenting identities may not fairly represent a person’s authentic identity and experiences, it was clear that only myself and the out gay member of the co-ordinating group were able to speak openly from an LGBTQ+ perspective and, as a result, we were frequently asked to do so. I felt very strongly that the LGBTQ+ representation in the co-ordinating group was tokenistic. It also put a heavy burden on LGBTQ+ members to be a part of every single process and sub-group as an educator. This often meant that out LGBTQ+ members were expected to speak about our own experiences, from a position of vulnerability, whereas the significant majority of members were predominantly speaking about opinion or theory about LGBTQ+ people, from a position of power.
As a non-episcopal member, who was also the only non-Church of England member of the co-ordinating group, my appointment felt particularly tokenistic. Although I was ordained in 2019, for the first six months of my participation I was one of only two lay members. My agreement to participate was predicated on the comment, made to me by several people who held considerable power both within and outside of the LLF process, that there would be no trans representation at all if I did not agree to participate. Later, Jo and I also volunteered to take part in one of the LLF story films.21 We made this offer when it became clear to us that there were no other transmasculine voices, or non-binary voices, or young trans voices in the films, and that there was a strong leaning toward a narrative of trans-ness causing difficulty in relationships.
While it could be argued that the inclusion of a trans representative in the LLF Co-ordinating group satisfied the cry of ‘nothing about us without us’, the representative nature of the role informed the power dynamics and limited any potential benefits of my contribution. Lester C. Olson addresses this issue in the field of communication studies, explaining that power is often enacted in subtle, surprising, and intersectional ways, which include ‘foregrounding certain components of an identity while effacing others that may be as germane to a message if not more so’.22 In the case of LLF, contributions relating to my sexuality, my academic knowledge, my ecclesial experience, and my contextual skills were ignored and, at times, actively silenced. My gender identity was foregrounded to such an extent that everything else about me became irrelevant in the view of those who held more power in the process.
The Working Groups
In total, the four working groups contained 32 members over the course of the LLF project.23 Again, just over half of the members were male. None of them were openly trans or non-binary. There is no evidence as to how many members were LGB. The statement by the Church of England, above, regarding the make-up of these groups suggests that expertise was prioritized over diversity. There was, however, a lack of expertise in relation to LGBTQ+ identities in every working group.
Academic specialisms of the members of the Biblical Studies Working Group did not include queer biblical interpretation or LGBTQ+ identities and biblical studies. The two LGBTQ+ representatives, identifying as gay and same-sex-attracted, do not hold doctorates in the field of biblical studies, whereas all other members did. That does not undermine their invaluable participation nor their lived-experience expertise. It does, however, speak to the power dynamics of the group.
In the Theology Working Group, only one member out of seven was a specialist in the area of queer theology. The History Working Group did not contain any specialists in the area of queer history. The specialisms of the Social and Biological Sciences Working Group did not include queer theory, endocrinology, or genetics. This is especially concerning considering the un-nuanced statements that the LLF book makes about science in these areas without rigorous research, particularly concerning the treatment of trans people. The LLF book uses controversial studies from the U.S.A., the Netherlands, and Australia to argue that clinical transition-related treatments are controversial and are not properly managed.24 This is not the case. Robust standards of care, informed by the expertise of the World Professional Association for Transgender Health (WPATH), are followed.25 These are not discussed in the LLF book. I suggested additional, more balanced, scientific sources, but these were not included. I suggest that the group did not have the appropriate expertise to make statements about trans causation or treatment that could affect attitudes toward the treatment of trans people in the future. I felt that my particular knowledge in this area was entirely ignored. In this case, statements of opinion regarding trans healthcare in the book are treated as academic sources. If taken seriously, this could have concrete damaging effects on the lives of trans people.
I do not accept the claim that the lack of diversity on these working groups is, in part, related to the need for expertise. As Gerard Loughlin expresses in relation to theological discourse around sexuality and gender more broadly, if the ‘talking, writing, and publishing’ of LGBTQ+ experts ‘has seemed like silence, it is not for want of speaking’.26 The expertise exists, but the experts have not been included in this process. While each member of the groups is an expert in their own right, there only seems to be one expert in queer theory among the thirty-two members of the working group. I am deeply concerned that the overall lack of expertise in relation to LGBTQ+ biblical studies, theology, history, and science has led to the LLF book making statements that do not reference relevant, up to date biblical, theological, historical, and scientific studies. My concerns are heightened by the fact that the Church of England has claimed that such expertise was included.27 I have not seen any rationale evidenced as to why it was not possible to recruit experts in the areas being studied and written about.
The Next Steps Group
The Next Steps Group is responsible for encouraging and managing engagement with the LLF resources, ensuring dialogue and discernment regarding sexuality and gender across the whole of the Church of England, and making recommendations to the House of Bishops regarding future steps.28 The Next Steps Group does not contain members of the LLF Co-ordinating Group and is comprised entirely of Bishops. This means that it does not include a single trans or non-binary person, and that it only includes one out gay person.
The Next Steps Group will recruit an ‘advisory group of diverse people across dioceses’.29 At the time of writing, this group does not yet exist, despite the fact that the LLF Co-ordinating Group has concluded its work. As such, there is currently little attention to LGBTQ+ identities in the leadership of the processes following LLF. It is not clear whether the diversity of sexuality and gender will be considered in the formation of this advisory group. It is clear, however, that this group will be subsidiary to the Next Steps Group. As such, it cannot be claimed that there is, or will be, an equal power balance for LGBTQ+ people in the next steps following the publication of LLF.
The Next Steps Group is likely to suffer from a lack of meaningful dialogue with LGBTQ+ people, given the lack of LGBTQ+ voices in the group. This has been reframed as a process of listening. Monological speaking and listening are not, however, as potentially transformative as participatory dialogue. Saba Mahmood explains that critique ‘is most powerful when it leaves open the possibility that we might also be remade in the process of engaging another’s worldview, that we might come to learn things that we did not already know’.30 Furthermore, Cindy L. Griffin and Karma R. Chávez suggest that attempts to separate groups into definitive categories, such as a grouping together of bishops, is ‘an act of power, a colonial logic’.31 In narrowing the active, decision-making participants in the LLF project to a small group of bishops, the ‘colonial logic’ of both the project and the Church of England’s teaching regarding sexuality and gender has been re-enforced. Sadly, the possibility for ‘remaking’ has been limited.
LLF was intended to be a dialogical, transformational device. The Church of England’s website suggests that the purpose of LLF is:
to enable the Church of England churches across the country to participate in a process of learning and praying together as part of discerning a way forward in relation to matters of identity, sexuality, relationships, and marriage.32Its professed aim was to move the Church of England toward a ‘radical new Christian inclusion’, with the potential of speaking into a new future for LGBTQ+ church members based on justice and safety.33 There was a clear lack of attention to inclusion, however, in the construction of the LLF Co-ordinating Group, Working Groups, and Next Steps Group. This has undermined the process and turned attention away from dialogical transformation and toward monological power-holding. Some critics have suggested that LLF was intended to be a silencing device.34 This seems to be, in part, due to the unequal power dynamics of the LLF process.35
Accusations of silencing are a reasonable assumption, due to the power imbalance and identity politics involved in the construction of the LLF working groups. Attempts to balance members’ opinions regarding LGBTQ+ identities were prioritized above members’ lived experiences of holding those identities. While out LGBTQ+ voices within the groups were not silenced, the statistical reality of our under-representation is structurally silencing.36 The creation of the LLF resources was organized in such a way that LGBTQ+ voices were the minority. It would have been possible to recruit a more representative cohort. This implicitly affected what could and could not be said and by whom. There was a sense in which out LGBTQ+ members were expected to share our personal stories and lived experiences, whereas our academic expertise was largely silenced. I was frequently asked for my personal opinion. I was rarely asked about my academic work in this area in LLF meetings, nor have any of my academic understandings been referenced in the text or the online LLF library. Instead, questions focused on my lived experiences. Furthermore, the lack of any meaningful safer space agreement limited what could and couldn’t be said safely by LGBTQ+ participants, out or otherwise.
Texts of terror portray biases against people who hold a particular identity characteristic; inspire direct harm; do not contain any challenge to the aforementioned biases and/or harm; and accordingly suggest, either implicitly or explicitly, that God supports said biases and/or harm. I have shown, above, that the biases inherent in the demographics of LLF’s authorship have meant that biases are carried into the text. I have, further, shown that these biases may contribute toward actual harm to LGBTQ+ people by informing attitudes toward, and societal and political treatment of, sexuality and gender. While LLF does offer a variety of views, harmful biases are not explicitly deconstructed and are allowed to remain unchallenged. Understandings and opinions are held in parallel tension, rather than being inter-related in dialogue.
LLF’s critics rightly call for a focus on safe space and safeguarding in the ongoing processes of discernment.37 At the time of writing, no safeguarding or safe space proposals have been made or enforced by the Next Steps Group. Anecdotal evidence seems to suggest an assumption that safe space and safeguarding in relation to LLF can be managed locally, rather than nationally. My own experiences following LLF’s publication, however, suggest that this isn’t the case. There is a real danger that, by landing into a culture of fear without a safety net, LLF will increase LGBTQ+ people’s vulnerability to ridicule, abuse, oppression, and being silenced. As I will show, one early response to LLF shared its skewed power dynamics and highlighted the potential for one subset of Christianity to control norms, individuals, and institutions.
A new text of terror: the response of ‘Christian concern’ to LLF
I had hoped that, with the publication of the LLF resources in November 2020, my role in LLF would be over. I had argued that the discernment process following the release should be an internal dialogue within the Church of England. Unfortunately, one of the most prominent early responses to LLF made gracefully backing-out impossible. I am referring to a video entitled ‘Ben John reacts to the Church of England’s Living in Love and Faith trailer’, released by the charity Christian Concern on their website and YouTube channel, and presented by Ben John, on the 13th of November 2020.
Christian Concern is a registered charity in the UK which claims that ‘it’s becoming harder to be a Christian in the UK today’ and whose aims are ‘to make Jesus and his ways known, to protect the freedom to live and speak for him, and to empower Christians to be compassionate and courageous ambassadors’.38 These are aims which I would ordinarily applaud. Unfortunately, their response to LLF does not meet these aims. Rather, it is an example of identity politics, boundary fencing, and othering that has serious consequences for the individuals it targets and for dialogue around LGBTQ+ identities in churches and beyond.
The video to which I refer above was composed in the style of comment. The LLF trailer video39 was spliced with sections of comment by Ben John, who is an employee of the Wilberforce Academy – an educational establishment linked to Christian Concern.40 The first section of the trailer, to which Mr John responds, is a video of my wife and I in which we are wearing clerical collars, are seen next to landmarks in our hometown, and are fully identifiable. This heightened the present climate of fear in the U.K. for us, personally.
As the original video has since been removed, it is not possible to reference it directly. John was, however, quoted in an article in The Times as saying in the video:
In reality if transgenderism is a false ideology, which it is, then what we’re actually seeing here is a lesbian couple. This man isn’t really a man. She’s a woman. So whilst the Church of England might say yes we haven’t changed the doctrine of marriage, they have changed the practice. Not only that, they were both clergy. These weren’t lay people. These were leaders in the church. Should we be ordaining transgender people? Is this the message we want to be sending?41Later in the video, John states that trans identities ‘should not be accepted or tolerated’, adding ‘that there are some views that we need to condemn’ and describing LGBTQ+ marriages, including my marriage, as ‘the result of “evil and wickedness”’.42
Why? Potential motivations
The question of why Christian Concern chose to release this video as their only response to the publication of the LLF materials is perplexing to me personally and has not been answered directly by Christian Concern. They have, however, suggested rationales in some of their statements, both in print and on social media, regarding the video. These rationales bring to mind the theory of identity as performance.43 Butler argues as follows:
The deconstruction of identity is not the deconstruction of politics; rather, it establishes as political the very terms through which identity is articulated. This kind of critique brings into question the foundationalist frame in which feminism as an identity politics has been articulated. The internal paradox of this foundationalism is that it presumes, fixes, and constrains the very ‘subjects’ that it hopes to represent and liberate.44Words that are used to describe identity are political. The paradox that Butler describes is precisely that the feminist argument for gender essentialism that is said to liberate women, in fact, limits them to a narrow and stereotypical definition.
Like feminism, Christianity claims to liberate people.45 Christian Concern claim that their intention is to liberate Christians, who they believe are oppressed and marginalized.46 Their approach, however, limits Christians to a narrow and stereotypical understanding of Christianity. John’s construction of Christianity as oppositional to trans identities constrains trans Christians to a limited narrative. John’s treatment here attempts to hold LGBTQ+ people to the specific understandings and performances of personhood which he sets up as norms against which to judge people’s value in ecclesial processes of dialogue and discernment. He rewrites my personal narrative by denying my identity and my legal gender and, instead, labels me as ‘lesbian’. Going further still, he suggests that there is no possible narrative of being both lesbian and Christian. He is attempting to define and control definitions and norms not only of sex, gender, and sexuality but also of personal faith and of religious bodies by implying that there can be no LGBTQ+ narrative of Christianity.
This intention to control understandings and, by extension, people is apparent in Christian Concern’s responses to the video. Andrea Williams, the chief executive of Christian Concern, made a statement to The Times, in which she is quoted as saying that the video ‘simply calls on the Church of England to uphold its Biblical understanding of sex and gender’.47 Williams also tweeted suggesting that, in the video, John ‘genuinely seeks to uphold traditional Biblical teaching’ and is ‘engaging in genuine Biblical reflection’. Williams, later, wrote ‘our motivation is always one of love for God & people’.48 William’s responses were re-tweeted by Christian Concern. Ben John has not given a rationale for his comments.
The first rationale given by Williams (see above) is ecclesial accountability. This rationale assumes the right and need to control ecclesial, and by extension societal, norms. Williams suggests that John is ‘call[ing] on the Church of England to uphold’ a particular set of norms.49 Instead of appealing directly to the Church of England regarding the specifics of those norms, however, John responds specifically to each individual person featured in the LLF trailer. Furthermore, he publishes his response publicly on the Christian Concern YouTube Channel, which has viewership figures in the millions, rather than corresponding privately with those within the Church of England who are responsible for its teaching.50 The public and polemical nature of this response positions it within the so-called ‘culture wars’.51 This is a vastly different arena to the ecclesial one in which a church might hope to discern God’s will.
Ecclesial processes generally involve prayer and dialogue in response to reports which might include expert analysis, in an attempt to discern the Spirit’s guidance.52 Ecclesial decision making takes place within the context of meetings of the church, in this case the General Synod of the Church of England, and not in the public square. If John and/or Christian Concern had intended to inform ecclesial decision making in the Church of England, they could rightly have done so via the processes of its General Synod, of which Andrea Williams was a member at the time of writing. As such, this very public response can be seen as an attempt to control not only church, but also culture and politics.
The second and third rationales given are, respectively, biblical exegesis and theological reflection. These rationales expose the (mis)use of scripture as a tool in the reinforcement of norms. Scripture is barely mentioned in the video, which contains no exegesis. The sections of the video, which I have described, discuss LGBTQ+ identities, ideology, gender, ethics, the doctrine and practice of marriage, and the practices of ordination and leadership. John does not reference scripture in relation to any of these topics. Instead, he makes normative statements, such as ‘This man isn’t really a man’, with no reasoning given.53 No biblical texts or exegetical texts are referenced.
This is a clear reinforcement of sex and gender norms, wherein gender is essentially correlated with sex regardless of identity or narrative, rather than biblical exegesis. To claim that it is the latter is to misuse scripture as a mono-vocal tool with which to assert normativity. In other words, John suggests that scripture undeniably and uniformly asserts the norm of gender that is directly correlated with dimorphic biological sex, with no exegesis and no reference to exegetical work on this topic. Furthermore, theological reflection generally brings scripture, tradition, and reason into conversation with experience, with a view to changing one’s own praxis.54 The video briefly mentions tradition, but does not engage with scripture and reason. Rather than reflection, John demonstrates the fixity that Butler critiques,55 both in relation to the Christian faith and in relation to personhood more generally.
Responses and consequences
I have experienced the Christian Concern response to LLF as a contemporary text of terror. My experience of the text relates to its content – it is deeply upsetting and unsafe to be misgendered so completely in a public forum. However, the responses to, and consequences of the video, as well as the context into which it landed, also contribute to the potential for terror. As explored in both the introduction to this article, and the section considering LLF itself, texts of terror portray biases against people who hold a particular identity characteristic; inspire direct harm; do not contain any challenge to the aforementioned biases and/or harm; and accordingly suggest, either implicitly or explicitly, that God supports said biases and/or harm.
The Christian Concern video portrayed bias against a particular characteristic, in this case trans identity, and inspired direct harm. Furthermore, the bias and the resulting harm were unchallenged by the narrator which, given that the narrator is Christian with a relatively large platform, may contribute to viewers’ understanding of God’s perspective regarding trans people. When the Christian Concern video was released, I received a message from a colleague who was deeply concerned about the video and some of the comments that it had already received on YouTube, only a few hours after its publication. Having watched the video and recognizing its contents as hate speech,56 I turned to the comments. There is an often-heard plea in social justice circles, ‘Don’t read the comments!’, which alludes to the polemic and hateful content that comments on social media and news articles often contain.57 There is a risk, however, that in ignoring comment sections for the sake of our own mental health and wellbeing, we miss warnings of real danger.
In this case, comments contained threats to my home, my vocation, and my life as well as threats to members of my church. I also received several threatening emails. I have received hate mail before, but some of the extreme language and plausible threats in these emails were deeply concerning, particularly as one such correspondent mentioned living near to me. As a minister my address is a matter of public record. Taking the threats seriously, I was concerned that doing nothing could put myself and my partner in physical danger, cause members to feel unsafe in our churches, and lead to calls for us to lose the offices that we hold in the Church – in other words, our jobs.
Due to these concerns, I submitted a report to a hate crime reporting service, who confirmed my suspicion that I had been the subject of repeated instances of hate speech and that the video which was causing all of this harm should be removed. It was also suggested that I make an official statement to the police and formally report the video as a hate crime, which I chose not to do. The hate crime service forwarded my case to my local police service, as they too were concerned regarding the risk of harm. The video was finally removed in late December 2020, having been online for almost two months, and viewed tens of thousands of times.
The video also fed into negative historical and contemporary rhetoric about trans people. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the media were interested in the Christian Concern video and, in particular, in the fact that it had been reported to the authorities. I received a phone call from BBC Radio Four, informing me that they were going to be interviewing both a Bishop from the Church of England and a representative of Christian Concern regarding the video, and asking if I also wished to be interviewed. I agreed.58 In the end, Christian Concern pulled out of the interview and submitted the same statement which they would go on to send out to the print media. Unfortunately, this led to a cycle of reporting, initiated by The Times, that while polite was less helpful.59
The Times article highlighted the fact that I was not named in the video, failing to mention that I was clearly identifiable. It also quoted the police as stating that ‘the matter was being investigated as a hate crime’.60 The matter was, in fact, being investigated as a hate incident. This fact was somewhat less sensational and may have calmed the brewing storm. Most unfortunately, the article ended with the Christian Concern statement, given by Andrea Williams, which stated that the video ‘does not contain personal attacks’ and alleged that ‘It is, in fact, revisionists in the church who have resorted to personal attacks by waging a campaign of intimidation to try and silence people in the debate. This is neither edifying nor honest’.61 This led to both comments and further articles suggesting that I was attempting to challenge free speech and oppressing Ben John.62 Tweeting about the topic, Williams further alleged that ‘anyone who genuinely seeks to uphold traditional Biblical teaching, no matter how gently it is put is castigated by slurs & name-calling’.63 There have been no evidenced or reported incidents of hate-speech against John, Williams, or Christian Concern regarding this video. In her responses to attempts to keep LGBTQ+ people safe, Williams intentionally ignored the Christian norm of truth in order to further the polemical anti-LGBTQ+ claims of those who engage in culture wars.
As explored above, texts of terror portray biases that inspire direct harm. The biases in John’s video were repeated by the print media. This increased the related harm. Hate speech was conflated with free speech, suggesting that John was being silenced when the reality was that his views were amplified by both media and social media. The frequent conflation of hate speech and free speech by the media is concerning.64 Those who oppose trans identities often suggest that people responding in kind to their hateful comments threaten free speech.65 The focus on free speech is, however, a straw-person argument that belies the identity policing that Christian Concern and other organizations and individuals engage in. None of those, who make this argument, have been silenced. Claims that Christians are being silenced on the topic of gender suggest that every Christian holds a conservative, dimorphic, and binary understanding of sex and gender.66 In fact, there is a wide range of theological ideas regarding sex and gender, including understandings that are supportive of trans and non-binary identities.67 The potential consequences for missiology, ecclesiology, and theology are deeply worrying. There is a risk that churches will be seen as increasingly irrelevant and the potential that theology will continue to be skewed in favor of the experiences, opinions, and knowledge of those with the most privilege.
Beyond the ecclesial damage caused, I am concerned that this incident is yet another example of the hate incidents and microaggressions that trans people experience when they engage with media. Worryingly, Trans Media Watch found that 70% of trans people felt that media portrayals of people like them were negative and 78% found that they were inaccurate. 67% said that negative items in the media made them feel angry and over half said that these items made them feel unhappy. 35% felt excluded, and 20% felt frightened. Furthermore, respondents attributed negative media attention to the anti-trans attitudes and actions of their families, colleagues, and associates.68 Christian Concern’s polemic and personal approach led to incitements of hatred and harm and the othering of trans people both on social media and in mainstream newspapers.
As well as the treatment of trans people in the media, I was keenly aware of the ongoing political discourse around trans identities. The human rights of trans people are at a worrying cross-road in the United Kingdom. Our rights, as defined by the Human Rights Act, rely on the Gender Recognition Act.69 Calls to reform the act have led to a toxic debate regarding the concept of gender recognition more generally.70 It can be argued that this has also had a detrimental effect on court cases around trans rights.71 As the holder of a Gender Recognition Certificate, in accordance with the Gender Recognition Act, it is important that I assert my right to not be misgendered, given that I am legally male.72 By stating that I was female, John advanced the harmful narrative that the Gender Recognition Act is irrelevant, and, further, that it is acceptable to talk about trans people using their birth gender, as opposed to their actual, and in many cases official, gender. Given the entanglement of the Gender Recognition Act and the Equalities Act,73 some feel that this increasingly common narrative may contribute to the high number of transphobic hate crimes and the low percentage of convictions in relation to the former.74
I believe that the Christian Concern video was inspired by a desire to enforce gender cultural norms and to police and control the identities of those who are seen as other in relation to those norms. The creation of the video displayed the same unequal power dynamics as the LLF process, whereby opinions were prioritized over lived experience, those who held normative identities assumed positions of control, and a wide range of academic understandings were ignored. Furthermore, the video acted as a new text of terror. The video portrayed bias against a particular characteristic, in this case trans identity, and inspired direct harm. The bias and the resulting harm were unchallenged by the narrator which, given that the narrator is a Christian with a relatively large platform, may contribute to viewers’ understanding of God’s perspective regarding trans people. Finally, the video fed into negative historical and contemporary rhetoric about the people who hold the maligned characteristic, people like me. When people who hold power define the identities and lie about the actions of those who are marginalized their voices become monological, they control the narrative. There is a clear need for a shift to a model of dialogue, in which all voices might be free to be equally heard.
A paradigmatic shift: from monologue to dialogue
The creation of contemporary texts of terror might seem like a barrier to any meaningful process of discussion and discernment regarding LGBTQ+ identities, hermeneutics, inclusion, and justice. I would like to use the final section of this paper to explore the potential for moving forward from oppositional and dangerous monologues to respectful and safe dialogues.
Underlying all of the preceding analysis is my observation of one simple problem: neither the ongoing processes related to LLF nor the response of Christian Concern to LLF are dialogical. Rather, they are monological. The importance of dialogue, as a key component of humans imaging God, is explained by Buber in I and Thou and is taken up by McFadyen in The Call to Personhood.75 This theological understanding has undoubtedly influenced ecclesial praxis, perhaps most notably in the methods by which denominations discern God’s will and make decisions. This is evident in the text of LLF, which contains over one hundred uses of the word ‘conversation’.76 In both the opening ‘Invitation’ and the closing ‘Appeal’ the House of Bishops stresses the importance of asking questions, listening to each other and to the Holy Spirit, and discerning a way forward together.77
If LLF asserts the value of ‘dialogue’ as a theological imperative and ecclesial praxis, why are both its processes, and some early responses to it, including but not limited to the Christian Concern video, monological?78 McFadyen explains that:
In distorted communication (monologue) one is not trying to communicate one’s self-understanding but to achieve a goal. The commitment in the relation and to the other is of a very different quality from that in dialogue. Because one is not giving one’s real ‘self’ to the other, there is no need to attend to the independent reflection of oneself from the other. Neither, of course, will there be a seeking of the other’s independent self-understanding, but only of her or his compliance.79Right communication, dialogue, relies on gift: the gift of oneself to the other. It also relies on grace: the reception of the other’s gift of themselves. There is no room in dialogue for coercion, control, or normativity. Diversity is a given. Authenticity is a requirement. Change is expected in order to achieve a goal without enforcing compliance. Problematic communication, monologue, relies on control: the attempt of one person to determine the identity of another. It normalizes and prefers one’s own identity, reconstructing the narrative of the other in one’s own image. There is no room for gift, grace, diversity, or authenticity. Change is out of the question.
In the Christian Concern response to LLF, John does not outline and explain his own understanding of gender identity and sexuality but, rather, attempts to achieve his apparent goal of controlling the teaching of the Church of England regarding these topics. He does not give anything of himself, because he does not use expressions such as ‘I am’, ‘I think’ or ‘I feel’. Rather, opinions are posited as statement of fact, showing a lack of vulnerability. Furthermore, no attention is given to a differing viewpoint. John does not seek to hear or understand the other to whose identity he is responding but, rather, seeks our compliance.
In response to the video, Bishop Sarah Mullaly and Bishop Christopher Cocksworth, as respective Chairs of the Next Steps Group and of the LLF Co-ordinating Group, condemned the ‘specific and harmful targeting’ of individuals, highlighted the Christian calling to ‘respect, love, grace, kindness and compassion’ and asserted that ‘it is vital that our ongoing conversations and processes of learning and discernment take place in as safe a way as possible’.80
Similarly, Revd. Clare Downing and Mr. Peter Pay, as moderators of The United Reformed Church, the denomination within which I serve, responded with attention to diversity and reference to the URC’s ‘Commitment on Human Sexuality’ which suggests that unity relies on genuine dialogue and on ‘treat[ing] one another with respect, and [seeking] God’s gifts of unity, harmony, wisdom and deeper understanding’.81 Downing and Pay also highlight the fact that we are ‘called’ together into the Church, our unity is not a matter of personal ‘choice’.82 These responses are concurrent with McFadyen’s foundational claim that ‘a relation which conforms to Christ and images God is a dialogical structure of call and response’.83
If the church is to learn to talk about sexuality and gender, and to talk to LGBTQ+ people, in ways which don’t contribute to texts of terror, hostile debate, and actual harm, a paradigmatic shift from monologue to dialogue is essential. Dialogue, however, is not a nebulous practice. Rather, it must be informed by theory and held within robust understandings of the differences between dialogue and monologue. Furthermore, safer space guidelines must be widely applied, understood, and regulated in order to allow all conversation partners to become equally vulnerable and enter into genuine, authentic dialogue rather than performative, defensive monologue. This shift is not only essential for the survival of the Church and the safety of LGBTQ+ people but is also vital if God’s people genuinely intend to image God in the way that we think, communicate, and act.
The construction of LLF was, unfortunately, hindered at the outset by an unsafe and unequal power dynamic, which created an environment of silencing, fear, deceit, and control. This article has shown that, unfortunately, some early responses to LLF were more related to the processes of its construction and reception than its contents. The same culture of fear, acceptance of deceit, and desire to control norms evident in the construction of LLF underlies the response by Christian Concern to it, which I suggest is a new text of terror and has been, and will continue to be, used to clobber LGBTQ+ people. Finally, I have argued that a paradigmatic shift from performative monologue to authentic dialogue is necessary in order that Christians might continue to honor God’s call to unity in all of our diversity.
The question which has troubled me, throughout, has been, ‘How, in the light of the power dynamics of LLF and the responses to it, may what follows be a time of discernment and transformation, rather than an unsafe, and far from Christian, power struggle?’ It is essential that LGBTQ+ theologians and people of faith, and our allies, work together to move, with fulsome critical attention to power imbalances and to safety, to praxis. In my argument, summarized above, I have shown that, in the case of LLF, the Christian Concern response to LLF, and the constructs and motivations that underlie that response, have had as much, if not more, effect than the content of the published LLF materials. They have, further, echoed the problematic power dynamics of the process itself. There is an abundance of material that defends LGBTQ+ identities from a theological perspective. There is a lack, however, of safety, respect, and freedom for LGBTQ+ people in the church.
Texts of terror portray biases against people who hold a particular identity characteristic. They inspire direct harm, do not contain any challenge to the aforementioned biases and/or harm, and accordingly suggest, either implicitly or explicitly, that God supports said biases and/or harm. Texts of hope, therefore, portray unbiased, expansive information presented by people who hold a wide range of identities; inspire safety and wellbeing; challenge biases and the direct and indirect harm caused by them; and do not claim to speak for God, but rather attempt to image something of God in their dialogical form. Neither LLF nor ‘Ben John Responds’ meet the criteria of texts of hope. Such texts are urgently needed if LGBTQ+ people are to experience any degree of safety, respect, and freedom in both church and in society more widely.
1 See Trible, Texts of Terror; Dillen “Good News for Children.”
2 Trible, Texts of Terror.
3 Monroe, “Taking Theology to Community,” 185.
4 House of Bishops, Living in Love and Faith.
5 Butler, Gender Trouble.
6 McFadyen, The Call to Personhood.
7 House of Bishops, Issues in Human Sexuality.
8 House of Bishops, Issues in Human Sexuality; House of Bishops, Some Issues; House of Bishops, “Civil Partnerships.”
9 For example, see House of Bishops, Some Issues, 8, 14, 32, 34, 36.
10 House of Bishops, “Working Group Human Sexuality.”
11 Ibid., 7.
12 Beardsley, “The Pilling Report.”
13 Education Office, “Valuing All God’s Children”; General Synod, GS2071A: “Welcoming Transgender People.”
14 Church of England, “Shared Conversations.”
15 House of Bishops, “GS 2055 Marriage.”
16 Mortimer, “Church of England Votes.”
17 See Bashir, “Church of England’s Rejection”; Farley, “Shock Rebuke”; Sherwood, “Turmoil as Synod Rejects.”
18 See Farley, “Radical New Christian Inclusion.”
19 Beardsley, “Why I Left”; see also Handley, “Project Loses Transgender Member.”
20 Church of England, “About.”
21 Archbishops’ Council, “Alex & Jo.”
22 Olson, “Intersecting Audiences,” 128.
23 Church of England, “Group Members.”
24 E.g. House of Bishops, Living in Love and Faith, 111–12.
25 WPATH, “Standards of Care Version 7.”
26 Loughlin, “Gay Affections,” 620.
27 Church of England, “Group Members.”
28 Church of England, “Next Steps.”
30 Mahmood, “Agency, Performativity, and the Feminist Subject,” 209.
31 Griffin and Chavez, “Introduction: Standing at the Intersections,” 8.
32 Church of England, “About.”
33 Farley, “Radical New Christian Inclusion.”
34 Bell, “Break the Silence”; Hensman, “Careless Talk Needless Silence.”
35 Bell, “Break the Silence”; Coward, “Heterosexual Fragility”; Thatcher, “Living in Love and Faith.”
36 See Arribas-Ayllon, “Foucauldian Discourse Analysis.”
37 Butler, “History Repeating Itself”; Ozanne, “LLF: That Video”; King, “Connect the Dots.”
38 Christian Concern, “About.”
39 Church of England, “Introducing.”
40 The Wilberforce Academy, “About.”
41 Ames and Bannerman, “Police Investigate.”
43 Butler, Gender Trouble.
44 Ibid., 203.
45 E.g. The Holy Bible, 2 Cor. 3:17, Acts 13:39, Gal. 5:1, Isaiah 58:6, Jeremiah 34:14, John 8:36, Luke 4:18, Rom. 8:2.
46 Christian Concern, “About.”
47 Ames and Bannerman, “Police Investigate.”
48 Williams, Twitter.
49 Ames and Bannerman, “Police Investigate.”
50 Christian Concern, YouTube.
51 See Cassalicchio, “Britain’s Culture War Extends”; Lewis, “Culture Wars Cross Atlantic.”
52 See The Church of England, “Leadership and Governance.” See also The United Reformed Church “General Assembly.”
53 Ames and Bannerman, “Police Investigate.”
54 Graham, Walton, Ward, “Theological Reflection: Methods.”
55 Butler, Gender Trouble.
56 UK Government, “Hate Speech: A Dialogue.”
57 Searles, Spencer, and Duru, “Don’t read the Comments.”
58 BBC Radio 4, “The Sunday Programme.”
59 Ames and Bannerman, “Police Investigate.”
62 See Cole, “Evil and Wicked”; Campbell-Jack, “We’ll Call the Police”; Kelleher, “Evangelist Investigated”; Christian Today, “Evangelical Christian Reported”; Christian Institute, “Biblical View Reported.”
63 Williams, Twitter.
64 See Cathcart, “Free Speech Hate Speech”; Watkins, “Freedom of Speech Thriving.”
65 See Bindel, “Triumph of Trans Lobbyists”; Clements, “The Transgender Threat”; Grove, “Life on the Front Line”; Muir, “Why I Joined Protest.”
66 See Ames and Bannerman, “Police Investigate”; Williams, Twitter.
67 E.g. Beardsley and Dowd, This is my Body; Beardsley and Dowd, Trans Faith; Beardsley and Dowd, Trans Affirming Churches; Chalke, The Gender Agenda; Clare-Young, Transgender. Christian. Human; Hartke, Transforming; Lowe, “From the Same Spirit”; Mollenkott, Transgender Journeys.
68 Trans Media Watch, “Why it Matters.”
69 UK Government, “Gender Recognition Act.”
70 See Haynes, “Government Has Finally Responded”; Parsons, “Trans People Feeling Ignored”; Tominey, “Transgenderism Becomes Persuasive”; Rodger, “Morally Repugnant Profile Boost.”
71 See Gollancz, “The Right to Respect”; Parsons, “Trans Man Breaks Silence”; Jones, “Why is Transphobia Rampant”; WPATH, “Statement Regarding Puberty Blockers.”
72 UK Government, “Gender Recognition Act.”
73 Cf., UK Government, “Gender Recognition Act”; UK Government, “Equalities Act.”
74 Home Office, “Official Statistics: Hate Crime”, figure 2.8, cf. Milton, “Hate Crimes Convictions”; Yeung, “Transphobic Hate Crimes Rise.”
75 Buber, I and Thou, McFayden, The Call to Personhood.
76 House of Bishops, Living in Love and Faith.
77 Ibid., 1–7, 420–4.
78 See also Church of England Evangelical Council, “The Beautiful Story.”
79 McFadyen, The Call to Personhood, 126.
80 Cocksworth and Mullally, “Learning Together Different Experiences.”
81 Downing and Pay, “United in Christ”, cf., General Assembly, “Commitment on Human Sexuality.”
82 Downing and Pay, “United in Christ.”
83 McFadyen, The Call to Personhood, 126.
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