An Extra-ordinary Service

by Mark Rees

from Signs of the Times, No. 18 - Jul 2005

Last summer the Church Times published a letter I had written, 'Reproaching opponents of the Gender Recognition Act'. The MCU secretary, Jonathan Clatworthy, immediately invited me to submit a piece for Signs of the Times, which appeared in the October issue under the heading, A Cause for Shame?

A few days after Jonathan's letter arrived, I received one from another reader of the Church Times. Linda had been outraged by the attitude of certain Christians towards transgender people. Her anger was undoubtedly exacerbated by the fact that her sister was transgender. Although formerly a church-going Christian, Linda had been so distressed by the opposition to the Gender Recognition Act from some bishops and other more vociferous and condemnatory religious people, that she felt unable to 'go to church... any church at present'. Referring to my very tentative idea for a church service for transgender people, Linda urged me to go ahead with this, adding, 'I think that until I attend such a service I will not be able to set foot in a church again.'

Her moving letter spurred me on although I knew that this project would take me into uncharted waters. One of the first problems was to make the proposed event known without the media, our fundamentalist opponents or the few detractors within the transgender community learning of the plan. Nonetheless, my idea gradually spread amongst friends, transgender individuals and groups.

I mentioned it to an Anglican woman priest acquaintance, the Revd Clare Herbert. To my delight she offered the use of her church, St Anne's in Soho. Its small size and warm intimacy made it an ideal venue.

Things then gathered momentum: a professional musician offered his services as organist and the Gender Identity Research and Education Society and several individuals made generous donations towards expenses. I had great support from my home parish. The vicar, Canon Bob Whyte, agreed to preach, he and others checked and encouraged my attempts at writing a suitable liturgy and the parish administrator expertly produced the Order of Service booklets. Bishop Hugh Montefiore, who had been a patron of our campaigning group, Press for Change, for many years, wrote that he would be very happy to give the blessing - if he were in the country, or for that matter, in this world! On 13th May, a week before the service was due to take place, Bishop Hugh died, which saddened us all. Yet, three serving bishops kindly send messages of goodwill to us.

'Thanksgiving for the Gender Recognition Act' was the overt purpose of the service, but as far as I was concerned its main function was to help people who had been very badly hurt by the Church, as exemplified by Linda and even more so by 'John' mentioned in my previous article. I announced the event as 'Reflection and Thanksgiving', a title that would also cover the necessary penitence, forgiveness and healing. It was also my intention to use the service as a way of expressing our gratitude to those who had supported us, both professionally and personally. That support was made obvious by the fact that they outnumbered the transgender members of the congregation.

Although it was to be held in an Anglican church with Anglican clergy and probably the majority of the congregation likewise, it was essential for the service to be as inclusive as possible. I knew that there would probably be at least two Roman Catholics, two atheists, two Buddhists and probably some agnostics present. In spite of the fact that at an Anglican Eucharist people from other churches are often welcome to receive communion or a blessing, I feared that the above-mentioned people would exclude themselves from this. For that reason I substituted an Agape, in which everyone participated of the bread. As something of a dogma-anarchist myself I kept the liturgy as simple as possible and made love the focus of the whole service. Someone remarked afterwards that I had made history. Certainly as I drafted the liturgy, it was clear that there were few, if any, precedents from which to draw.

It began with penitence for the pain we may have caused others, prayers for freedom from bitterness towards those who have hurt us and healing for us all. We commemorated those transgender people who had died in the Nazi death camps then gave thanks for the support we had received from families, friends, colleagues and professionals. Lastly we gave thanks for the Gender Recognition Act. We prayed for those whose anger against the church or fear of disclosure had kept from joining us.

The service contained three readings. One, from Dorothy McCrae-MacMahon's Liturgies of Life, could have been written specifically for transgender people. The second was George Herbert's Love and the final reading was 1 John 4:7-12.

Although we had no choir and only about fifty people present, they sang with enthusiasm. Whilst I was not very keen on some of the words it seemed important to have hymns which were familiar to people in such a diverse congregation, so chose Praise my Soul and Love Divine. (One of the congregation said that as she sang she replaced 'Father-like' with Mother-like!') The final hymn met the criterion of familiarity of tune, (Londonderry) although the words were new. Written by June Boyce-Tillman, they were exceptionally suitable for such an event.

Refreshments were supplied immediately after the service. I regarded this as important as the liturgy because it enabled people to meet each other, especially as some had travelled a great distance.

We were fortunate in having three very supportive priests leading the service. The Rector, Clare Herbert, gave us a very warm welcome that set the tone of the whole event. My own vicar, Canon Bob Whyte, preached a powerful sermon, condemning the behaviour of certain Christians who treated transgender people with lack of compassion. He directed his ire at the literalists who used the bible to justify themselves. Bob was especially angry with the 'religious bodies' which had pressed for a Statutory Instrument to amend the Gender Recognition Act and was now in force. This means that the existing exemptions, which permit churches to refuse us employment, goods and services, marriage, access to church functions and worship has been strengthened. A religious body may now also seek disclosure if it suspects an individual is transgender. Bob concluded by referring to the reading that preceded his address (1 John 4). He declared that the church must learn to love.

The Revd Ruth Howe, presided over the Agape then gave the final blessing in place of Bishop Montefiore. She admitted that she felt unworthy a substitute for such a good man. As a former hospital chaplain in Newcastle, Ruth had encountered and still supports transgender people.

Her support is such that she travelled to London from Newcastle for our service. Of these three priests, one friend later wrote, 'Would that they were more typical of the C of E clergy as a whole.' Without them my self-appointed task would certainly have been more difficult than it was.

The congregation included Linda and her transgender sister. After the service the latter wrote to me,

'The feeling of acceptance and inclusion was wonderful...'

That alone had made it all worthwhile.

Mark Rees is an associate lecturer at a college of further education and an associate student at the South East Institute for Theological Education.