Two Pioneering Women

Bishop Libby LaneBy Elaine Sommers, Co Chair of Accepting Evangelicals

On January 26 the Revd Libby Lane hit the headlines when she was consecrated as the Bishop of Stockport, and the first woman bishop in the Church of England. There was much rejoicing as the Archbishop of York presided over this milestone event in the inclusion of women, albeit with a brief interruption from a protestor. It was a great day for all who support full equality in church leadership.

A somewhat less publicised event, which took place on the same day, was the funeral of the Revd Carol Stone, who died in December after a short illness.  She was the vicar of Upper Stratton, near Swindon, in the diocese of Bristol, a post which she had held since 1996.

Bishop MRev Carol Stoneike Hill published a beautiful tribute to her on his diocesan website, describing her as

‘a diligent, thoughtful and compassionate parish priest. She was both loved and valued by her ordained colleagues, but equally was loved by the people she served within and beyond the Church. She was in many senses an old fashioned parish priest who loved the Church of England, its worship and its people. It could truly be said that her ministry spanned all age groups.’

What he didn’t mention (possibly in honour of Carol’s wishes) was that she had started her ministry as a man, and subsequently transitioned to being Carol. According to a recent Church of England Newspaper report, she was the first transgender parish priest in the Church of England to do so.  Although we never met, we had corresponded a little and I had come to appreciate what a remarkable individual she was. The fact that she confided with her congregation about her trans nature, and that they in return supported her through and beyond her transition, says a lot about her courage, but also about the degree of love and acceptance shown by her parishioners, something which many of us would envy.

Other trans clergy have followed in Carol’s footsteps, and I don’t expect Libby will be the only woman bishop for long.  But being the first in anything is special.  So let us celebrate two pioneering women, on very different journeys, one ending, another beginning – separate paths, now drawn together by the same day.  May their lives be an example to us all, and for those who experience discrimination in the Church just because they are different, a source of encouragement and hope.

Libby and Carol, we salute you!

 

Listening to T

Heath Adam AckleyPublished in the Church of England Newspaper – 6th June 2014

Last summer, an evangelical university professor in the USA was asked to leave his post after coming out as transgender.

Heath Adam Ackley (formerly Heather Clements) was a member of faculty at Azusa Pacific University for 15 years and has been Chair of Theology and Philosophy as well as being ordained in her church, but when he asked the University to recognise his new name and gender he was asked to leave.

“People assumed that I’ve done something – some sex act,” he said. “I’m not violating any sexual conduct and it’s embarrassing that it’s implied. I live a very chaste life.”  Despite vocal support from students at the University, other members of staff were immediately asked to cover his classes.

“I tried to be the best Christian woman I could be… but I have to accept something difficult about myself,” he said. “I’ve never been fully myself; I’ve always been living a lie.”

Sadly, such a reaction is not uncommon among evangelicals and is just as prevalent here in the UK.  As Elaine Sommers writes, “Whilst there are some wonderful examples of ordained transgender people in the Church of England, they are few and far between.  Lay people face problems too. I know of organists, choir directors and others whose positions have been terminated when they disclose that they are trans.  Others are excluded from communion or may be asked to leave, which is devastating for them.”

Elaine continues, “There are also many trans people, and I am one, who have no desire to live permanently as the opposite gender.  If such a person decides to be more open about it, this can bring a strongly negative reaction, especially in a more conservative church, where transgender may be seen as a moral issue.  My decision to come out was therefore difficult, but I didn’t anticipate just how dramatic the response would be.  Having served as a worship leader, songwriter and in overseas mission over many years, news about my transgender identity resulted in me being excluded from all positions of responsibility with immediate effect.  And after many months of discussion, negotiation and prayer, the situation did not improve. With heavy hearts and a sense of rejection, my wife and I left our church of over thirty years, but by God’s grace we found a fellowship which welcomed us with open arms and surrounded us with love, in full knowledge of my trans nature. This was a lifesaver.”

So what can church congregations do to help and encourage trans people?  First of all, don’t assume that there are no transgender people in your midst.  If your church is of medium size, say one to two hundred, you probably have several already, but they are keeping quiet for fear of rejection or ridicule.

The Church has become accustomed to hearing the voice of gay and lesbian people. Sexual orientation has been debated at length, but how often do we consider transgender?   The common response from trans Christians who have tried to share their story is: ‘no one listened.’   When Accepting Evangelicals wrote to the Evangelical Alliance to offer our help in considering transgender issues, the reply we received was sobering:  ‘I note that you feel that it is a subject that merits more dialogue, study and understanding. Whether or not this may be the case I can advise you that the Alliance has no plans to conduct such a study in the near future.’

On the other hand, groups such as Accepting Evangelicals have sought for many years to encourage acceptance of gay, lesbian and bisexual people in the Church, and are now speaking out with transgender people as well.  Last year, when the new Archbishop of Canterbury met with a number of LGBT people, including trans representatives, he indicated a willingness to listen.

For others who are ready to listen, there is now a Transgender section on the Accepting Evangelicals website – www.acceptingevangelicals.org/transgender -or you could listen to Heath Adam Ackley’s ‘coming out sermon’ on YouTube – see below.

Written by Benny Hazlehurst & Elaine Sommers

What about T ?

Trans symbol‘We are an open network of Evangelical Christians who believe the time has come to move towards the acceptance of faithful, loving same-sex partnerships at every level of church life, and the development of a positive Christian ethic for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.’

That is the purpose statement for Accepting Evangelicals.

But although we have been campaigning for almost 10 years on LG&B issues, we have said very little on T – Transgender issues.

The reason for that is partly the task of identifying someone from the Trans community who would like to join us in our work, and partly comes from the fact that for some Evangelicals, Trans issues are even more difficult to engage with than Gay issues.  If we are to actively talk about T, we need to do it well in a way which will help conversations, rather than alienate.

So we are delighted to have found Elaine Sommers – a Trans person with a strong Evangelical background who has agreed to join our Steering Group.

As a result, we will be developing a Trans section to our website over the next few months as a resource for and everyone who wants to understand better the issues which we need to face in the Church.

Next Monday, Elaine is going to be a Keynote Speaker at a conference in Taunton, Somerset entitled ‘Transformational Conversations’.  The aim of the day is ‘To provide an open and safe environment for people from LGB and Trans communities and religious and belief communities to come together and explore issues of identity and understanding.’

If you want to know more or want to register, follow this link: http://www.equalitysouthwest.org.uk/events/view/94

Otherwise watch this space…