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Rowan Williams' stance on "trans" issues undermines Christianity

Rowan Williams' stance on "trans" issues undermines Christianity

By Gavin Ashenden
April 7, 2022

Ecumenical civility requires the published views of a former and much-esteemed Archbishop of Canterbury to be taken seriously. But when Dr Rowan Williams signed a letter urging the government to include the "trans experience" in the repudiation of so-called "conversion therapy" the letter justified with a bold and pugnacious phrase: "to be trans is to enter a sacred journey of becoming whole."

This is both an ambitious claim and a disturbing one.

It is ambitious because it moves mental illness from a psychiatric condition of impairment onto a platform that fuses together sanctity and therapeutic integration. That in itself is a very bold claim. And it's disturbing because it doesn't explain why what was universally recognised as a mental illness up to only a few years ago, has suddenly become a badge of social honour and a profound existential achievement.

It does also raise the awkward question of whether or not everyone, including the medical establishment, up until 2015 (say) was wildly incompetent in labelling gender dysphoria as a mental illness; or we have become disturbed or incompetent in our sudden (and highly politicised volte face) in celebrating it as an achievement and a highly-valued goal. One set of judgements is seriously impaired. They can't both be right.

By what route have we turned the claims of biology and our mental maps upside down?

A generation ago, when children were asked what they wanted to be when they grew up, the question had a familiar framework. There were a few well understood sub-divisions; class, sex and competence.

I was always a little resentful that I knew if I answered that I wanted to be train driver, I would be betraying my class. My father had been a naval officer on the North Sea convoys, and then a barrister; so from an early age I wondered too if I should join the Navy, or try my hand at being a lawyer. Train driving was not what our family did. I ended up trying lawyering and academia (but I still miss trains).

As for sex, there were of course some professions where the majority were men, such as the North Sea Oil rigs, and some where the majority were women, such as nursing. But on the whole, the issues were those of class and competence.

The real question was what were you clever or competent enough to do?

The advent of feminism began to change the categories of social ambition.

Feminism began to change the patterns of expected behaviour. If you set biology to one side and just concentrated on individuals in search of money, opportunity and power, the significance of what it was to be a man or a woman began to change.

Perhaps it was birth control that made the most fundamental difference. The advent of birth control morphed sex into something one does for recreation and pleasure. The pursuit of the erotic began the great disconnect between sex and the creation of children and made biology an adjunct of the erotic rather than key to the survival and rebuilding of the community.

Catholics have winced under the uncompromising teaching about birth control for decades, but it is beginning to look as though there were some cogent reasons underlying the moral analysis promoted by its theologians.

The price of pleasure was going to be high. It was paid in the emergence of a cult of infertility and death. The growing legitimization of gay relationships was served by the dialing down of the link between sex and the creation of children. Fewer babies were conceived, and so many of those that were conceived were disposed of before they ever left the womb naturally. The sanctity of human life was increasingly dissolved by a grasping after gratification, and ended up with the notion of the disposable embryonic child.

Who could know that fresh waves of feminism would build on the cultural meme of "you can be whatever you want" to create a world where gender displaced biology and the mind repudiated the body?

Gender would become the new world where wishful thinking became a new reality. "Being whatever you wanted to be" would suddenly include the opportunity to slip free of the building blocks of biology.

And yet the human wreckage this new enterprise is being built on should give pause for thought.

Doesn't offering a veto to the imagination over the body constitute a new Gnosticism? Wasn't preferencing the mental discontinuities with empirical reality always a sign of some kind of personality disorder?

Should not the astronomic increase in the number of adolescent girls disturbed and distressed by their understanding or even mis-understanding of what it is to be a woman seeking a solution in masculinity, being bombarded by hormones and artificially reconstructed by genital mutilation give us pause for thought?

Might not the aggressive and uncompromising threatening and cancelling of feminists trying to protect the rights they fought for by mobs of once biologically male trans activists provoke second thoughts? When was terror, threats and the closing down of free speech signs of holiness and wholeness?

Shouldn't the destruction of womens' sports and athletic records by trans men evoke issues of justice and equity? When were injustice and the abuse of power signs of holiness and wholeness?

When the MP Jacob Rees-Mogg was asked recently if he knew what a woman was, he referred to the Book of Genesis as offering a template for sanity and virtue. He was right. Does the faith have anything to offer here?

Catholicism has long believed that sanity and sanctity mutually inform each other. In which case, if the present pressuring to conform to the eradication of the categories of biologically determined men and women constitutes some form of spiritual anarchy, it might leave ripples of disorder, danger and disturbance in its wake; and indeed it does.

The secular terror of conversion therapy seems to be based on two misunderstandings. In the Catholic tradition conversion involves a trajectory of turning in a different direction and therapy the process of being healed. They are embodied in the confessional. They are founded and boundaried by the exercise of free will. No government should attempt to make it illegal to change direction or alter one's hierarchy of values. No government should attempt to make it illegal to seek and achieve peace for the body and stability for the mind and conscience.

For any clergyman, however eminent, to support a government passing laws that undermine Christian culture, threaten freedom of conscience, restrain the exercise of free will and the pursuit of peace of mind and body, and claim he is doing it in the name of sanctity suggests a category error of such proportions that others might want to urge him to think again.


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