THE BISHOP OF BRISTOL (perhaps in his eagerness to gain double notoriety as the first bishop to admit women to the priesthood and the first diocesan admit men to the womanhood) declared on the subject of the transgendered priest the Rev Carol Ann Stone that he had been advised that there were no canonical objections to one who had ‘changed sex’ functioning in the priesthood.
Certainly the Canons of the Church of England do not envisage such a possibility and do not therefore provide for it. But the Canons of the Council of Nicea [325 AD], which as canons of the undivided church continue to have authority in the Church of England, do consider a very similar possibility. They deal with voluntary castration (such as that undergone by Origen [c.185-c. 254]).
Some commentators have dismissed the Nicene canon as a piece of Patristic superstition: an insistence that the possession of a membrum virile is necessary to priestly function. (A thought so politically incorrect as to be intolerable in today’s church.)
But not so.
The canon provides that those who have been castrated against their will may be ordained and may function as priests. The prohibition is against those who are willingly castrated.
The reason generally given by early canonists is that voluntary castration was an attempt to achieve the virtuous state of sexual continence by illegitimate means. The Fathers of Nicea were maintaining that one’s given sexuality is what one is saved in and not from. To seek to alter one’s given sexual identity is to subvert the purposes of God – a crime, you might say, against both nature and the divine providence.
The Nicene Canon, then, does seem to bear directly on the case of Carol Stone. Did Bishop Rogerson consider its implications when making his decision? It would be interesting to know.
That the Canons of Nicea are alive and well (with respect to other matters) in the Church of England is clear from the appeal made to Canon VIII of the same council to rule out parallel episcopal jurisdictions – and so a Free Province.