I am in the main sympathetic to those who have struggled with their gender or sexual identity, especially those who have done so within the context of the Christian churches. After all, especially in mainline Protestantism, as “inclusive” and “diverse” as we like to think we are, there is still the standard of “married with children” lurking in the shadows–and the single are a sexual identity group that is grudgingly tolerated more than fully welcomed and affirmed. I can only imagine how difficult a time people who have been historically villified–the gay, lesbian, bisexual–have had in embracing a faith that does not always hug back. And it’s only in the last few decades that the churches have been faced with the question of the transgendered.
I’m a sympathetic non-expert. But an article appears on today’s Guardian website, asking how a Church of England priest may respond to a transgendered parishioner’s request for (re) baptism under a new identity. And that raises, for me at least, theological questions about the nature of this initiatory sacrament, that must be balanced by appropriate pastoral care. What follows is more a reflection than a formal theological treatise.
I’ve always understood that baptism is something that only needs doing once–at least for Anglicans. Reaffirmation of the baptismal vows is appropriate at every baptism, and at certain other points in the liturgical year (such as Easter or Pentecost), but once done, it is indelible, and travels with the person throughout his or her life, regardless of the changes and chances undergone by the body.
The question becomes, is this a new person, or a continuation of the transgendered person who (finally) has the opportunity to feel that body and soul are in greater concord? If the former, then a new baptism is probably in order. But a person who has been baptized, has been formed by a Christian faith and tried to live that faith with integrity, who undergoes the long transition to changing their gender–I am not so sure.
I admire the responses of those clerics cited in the article. They found pastorally appropriate ways of saying that baptism continues with the person while at the same time acknowledging that there has been a change in identity. I agree that there needs to be some way to acknowledge this in the community of the church, and that it needs to be discussed by those responsible for the worship, discipline, and doctrine of the Church of England–sooner rather than later.
A celebration of new identity, perhaps. A reaffirmation of the baptismal covenant, and a certificate issued in the new name. It seems to me that integrities need to be acknowledged, and to live one’s identity with integrity–especially when it involves significant challenge– is worthy of celebration in the community.
But it is not a new initiation into commitment to the Christian faith, such as baptism has historically implied. Just as the person’s knowledge and experience does not need to begin again, neither does the spiritual journey.
Celebration and welcome of the new identity, yes. But rebaptism–which has never really been part of Anglicanism–seems unnecessary, and theologically inappropriate.