Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Book Notes: Transgender by Vaughan Roberts

Many years ago the noted Anglican clergyman John Stott issued a book which went through many editions and updates called, "Issues Facing Christians Today". Over the decades, the issues he discussed changed, with early versions being more weighted towards matters such as industrial disputes, and Trades Unions, and the latter to more individual or personal concerns such as medical and sexual ethics. How much issues facing Christians have changed again since Stott's demise is perhaps seen no more clearly than in the new series of issues-based ethics introductions being published by The Good Book Company called Talking Points. I have just been sent a copy of the first of them, a slim 70-odd page booklet called Transgender by Vaughan Roberts.

So short a book, can obviously not do justice to the ethical, political, medical, theological, psychological, and pastoral areas associated with this contemporary debate. In fact, Roberts restricts himself to only addressing a few aspects of the discussion, with a significant reading list for people who wish to explore various aspects of the subject in greater depth. What Roberts does attempt to do is the following, (i) provide Christians with an understanding of the contemporary debate, including accurate definition of terms such as gender dysphoria, transitioning, non-binary, and so forth. (ii) Roberts identifies two responses which he regards as emotional and inadequate, which are rejection or discrimination against people with any of these gender identity issues, and at the other extreme, uncritical acceptance of the current transgender movement's claims. (iii) Roberts seeks then to use the Bible as a model for developing an understanding of gender which is essentially binary, but damaged by the fall. His aim is to reach a point which is both compassionate, loving, embracing of all people, but yet faithful to Christian/biblical orthodoxy. This is no small challenge, and there will no doubt be angry responses from people to his 'left' who will be dismayed by his understanding of the Bible, and from his 'right' from those who would want to use scripture to stir up discrimination, exclusion and disgust towards people who Roberts insists are precious bearers of the image of God, like everyone else.

Roberts is an interesting choice of author for the Good Book Company to ask to kick off this series of booklets. While he is a leading voice within conservative evangelical Anglicanism, he has spoken openly over the last few years about his personal struggles with his sexuality. He has been criticised heavily, especially by some gay Christians because of the traditional/conservative conclusions he has come to  about sexuality; but it does mean that his writing about issues relating to human sexuality or gender rather wonderfully lacks the harsh tones and angry judgementalism that mars some writing. One of the most compelling descriptions of Jesus is found in the fourth gospel which says that he is "full of grace and truth". So often, the church has felt that it has to choose to be one or the other of those things. There have been those who have made finding 'truth' the whole of the Christian life, and have little compassion for people, in the difficulties and complexities of their struggles and messy lives. On the other hand, others of a different disposition, have found that accepting people like Christ did, has led to an abandonment of the search for truth, and a collapse into a weak, relativist basis for ethical reasoning. People will no doubt criticise Roberts for this book (it is after all a deeply emotive topic), but critics from within the churches should at least give him credit for making a deliberate and concerted effort to approach the matter in a Christlike way, "full of grace and truth".

Where Roberts does not venture is into the problematic world of public policy. As this is written as a thought-provoking primer for churches, he doesn't go anywhere near the debates which are raging about bathrooms, membership of sports teams, or other aspects of human rights law. That's hardly a criticism of a tiny booklet, but there is clarity needed for Christians on the relationship between what Christians privately believe and practice, and what they would vote for the secular state to pursue. LibDem leader Tim Farron, is widely thought to have conservative personal ethical views, but thinks that the state should be very liberal and permissive of all choices, for example. Perhaps a future title in this series of booklets could address the relationship between the Christian voter and the secular state.

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