Christopher Smith revisits the matter of self-definition and Christian identity


I see that since my cat declared herself to be the Bishop of Birmingham, self-definition has become all the rage. As it happens, since Bella’s brief flirtation with episcopal office, I have got to know the (human) Bishop of Birmingham a little. I must ask him how he dealt emotionally with being deprived of his see by a cat. She of course got bored of the whole business quite quickly, particularly given that I don’t let her out of the house; in any event, the mouse supply is more plentiful in Holborn than in Harborne. She’s just come back from safari in the basement looking rather pleased with herself.

It was a couple of years ago that I wrote about the increasingly common business of people declaring that they are not the sex everybody thought they were. At the time, it seemed little more than faintly amusing that Germaine Greer had got into terrible trouble for saying ‘If you’re a 50-year-old truck driver who’s had four children with a wife and you’ve decided the whole time you’ve been a woman, I think you’re probably wrong.’ Two years on, people are hounded out of jobs and threatened with violence for saying things far milder than that.

And of course, the government is ‘consulting’ on reform of the Gender Recognition Act 2004. The consultation closes on 19 October should you wish to contribute, but don’t hold out any expectation that your views will be taken into account. Here’s a clue from paragraph 80 of the questionnaire: ‘The Government is keen to use the consultation as a way of gathering evidence about the spousal consent provisions, with a view to amending them in line with the overarching intention of streamlining the legal gender recognition process.’ Those are my italics, and ‘streamlining’ presumably means ‘making quicker and easier,’ just as ‘de-medicalizing’ the process is surely about reaching the point where the legal process for changing sex is nothing more than self-declaration. The question on marriage is (deliberately?) unanswerable: ‘Do you think that the operation of the marriage exception as it relates to trans people in the Equality Act 2010 will be affected by changing the Gender Recognition Act?’ Yes or no? Surely a third option—‘it had better not’—would have been helpful. That exemption is what allows clergy to decline to marry people they reasonably believe were not born the sex they are currently claiming to be.

It’s not funny any more, even if political correctness is eating itself. Men who define themselves as women are threatening women who are anxious that women-only spaces like changing rooms are being used by blokes who have not had any form of surgery and who, underneath their dresses, are unmistakably male. A recent incident in HMP New Hall hammers home the seriousness of the situation. In 2003, a man called Stephen Wood raped a woman, but was not convicted until 2016, when he was also convicted of two subsequent rapes. By then, he was ‘identifying’ as a woman, and calling himself Karen White, on the strength of which he was sent on remand to New Hall, which is a women’s prison. There, he sexually assaulted two more women, resulting in the publishing of the following preposterous sentence in a national newspaper: ‘The alleged victim… said the remand prisoner stood close to her and touched her arm while her erect penis was sticking out from the top of her trousers.’ The way we live now.

Meanwhile, I find the following sentence in another national newspaper: ‘“I don’t want young girls or young boys to hear us constantly refer to God as he,” said Rt Revd Rachel Treweek, the Bishop of Gloucester, “because that might alienate people.”’ The doctrine of the Trinity sold for a mess of pottage. So we must begin to ask what it might mean for the future Christian community to live in a non-Christian world. ‘You are the Body of Christ, and individually members of it’ wrote St Paul to the Corinthians and to us, struggling on in the imperfect unity of the Church, the Body of Christ in the world. And members of the Body of Christ must engage with the secularized order, but not neglect to live the supernatural life of the Body of Christ in the midst of the secularized world. That is our principal social service in the world and one which, to quote Eric Mascall, ‘can be performed by no other agency.’ What we are (or ought to be) striving to do is to live ‘the Church’s life as the redeemed sacramental community in the midst of a civilisation whose activities, whether beneficent or harmful, are for the most part organised for entirely secular ends.’

We need to do some theology on the very subject I touched on last month—what it means to be human—and we must do it on Christian terms, not on terms dictated by the secular world. Then perhaps we can stop behaving as though we are the house dogs under the table looking for crumbs of comfort from a hostile world, and understand that this is God’s world, and that the Christian faith will be true whatever the world outside the Body of Christ thinks. And then we will see that the grace of God, and the activity of the Body of Christ, are not limited by the visible boundaries of the Church. As Mascall put it elsewhere, ‘The grace which God pours into the Church through the sacraments overflows the Church’s visible boundaries and floods the whole of creation with its regenerative power. It brings under the eyes of God all human misery and suffering, it claims for God every act of human love, it pleads God’s mercy for every act of human selfishness and hate, it claims all God’s creation as his possession.’ In God’s creation, we are not the outsiders.