Justin Welby says Church of England clergy can 'ignore' transgender guidance

Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby interviewed by Premier on Sunday, January 20, 2019. | YouTube/Premier on Demand

Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby tried to allay concerns about the Church of England's rededication guidance for trans-identified members by saying in a recent interview that it's not “a change of doctrine” and those opposed to it can “ignore it.”

Last year, the Church of England’s House of Bishops released a guidance for churches interested in marking a person’s "gender transition," rejecting an earlier idea to create a baptism-style service.

In a lengthy interview with Premier’s Justin Brierley that was posted online Sunday, Welby was asked about the transgender baptism controversy.

Welby responded by explaining that the guidance is “not binding,” and noted that “people can take it or leave it. This is not an instruction and there is no change of doctrine.”

He added that the guidance shouldn't be considered “a new baptism” since “you’re only baptized once,” he said, but a way for people to “affirm their identity in Christ.”

“In the same way as somebody being baptized finds faith in Christ in a new way, sometimes they will have an affirmation of their baptism, a reaffirmation of their baptismal vows, which will look quite like a baptism, will say the baptismal promises, but as a way of saying ‘this is who I am,’” said Welby.

Welby stressed yet again in his comments that the guidance is “not a rule. People are free to ignore it. And it’s not a change in doctrine in any way at all.”

Brierley then asked what it was like for Welby, as head of the Church of England and the global Anglican Communion, to be “in the midst of those competing views” on theological issues.

Welby replied that it was “difficult” and admitted that it does “keep me awake at night,” while noting that as a Church, “we’re not meant to be dis-united.”

“For that reason, whichever way you like to take it, the Reformation was a tragedy because it fractured the Church of Christ, as was the Great Schism in the 11th century,” continued Welby.

“But it’s the reality we live in. What Christians have to do is live in the reality of today. We all like to imagine a world in which everything works the way it should. The Church is united, everyone agrees … its fantasy.”

Last January, church leaders agreed to issue a guidance modeled off the existing rite, known as the Affirmation of Baptismal Faith, which is designed to celebrate those who have already been baptized.

"The Church of England welcomes transgender people and wholeheartedly wishes for them to be included in the life of the Church," the Rt. Rev. Graham James, bishop of Norwich, said in a statement released at the time.

"On the matter of whether a new service is needed, the House of Bishops has decided that the current service that is used to affirm baptism can be adapted. Clergy always have the discretion to compose and say prayers with people as they see fit."

The guidance was released last December, leading theological conservatives within the denomination, like Christian Concern's chief executive Andrea Minichiello Williams, to denounce it.  

In a statement released last month, Williams called the new guidance further evidence that the Church of England was continuing its "devastating trajectory toward an outright denial of God and His Word."

"There is no need for Christians to sacrifice truth in a misguided attempt to be loving. It is not loving to mislead people — and wider society — into the falsehoods and myths of transgender ideology," said Williams.

“Very sadly, the guidance colludes with the unproven and untrue notion that a person can be ‘born in the wrong body,’ rejecting the truth that God saw His own creation of humans as male and female as ‘very good.’ As God is eternally the God of truth — not lies — Christians cannot and must not fall over themselves to accommodate transgender ideology.”

Welby’s interview touched base on a series of other topics, including an emphasis on the “Thy Kingdom Come,” a global prayer initiative meant to take place between the liturgical calendar dates of the Ascension and Pentecost.

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