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Speaker spotlight: The Reverend Dr Christina Beardsley

The Revd Dr Christina (Tina) Beardsley is a Church of England priest and hospital chaplain who has worked for over three decades in pastoral ministry. She is the author of The Transsexual Person Is My Neighbour: Pastoral Guidelines for Christian Clergy, Pastors And Congregations. From 2006 to 2014 Tina was a Changing Attitude, England Trustee for Transgender people. She co-leads the Sibyls workshop ‘gender, sexuality and spirituality’.

Revd Dr Beardsley will be taking part in the event Rebellious bodies, faithful minds? Religion and gender identity on 26 October with Surat-Shaan Knan, founder of Twilight People, and chaired by Duncan Dormor, St John’s College.

CFI: What challenges have there been for you as a transgender chaplain?

CB: I don’t see myself as ‘a transgender chaplain’. I’m a chaplain. I also happen to be a woman with a transsexual history. The work of a hospital chaplain can be incredibly challenging – the main challenge being to focus unconditionally on the needs of the other person. When I transitioned ‘on the job’ as a chaplain in 2001, I had to work especially hard at boundaries, to ensure that my own needs – which were considerable at that time due to the rigours of transition – did not undermine my attention to my work. I’d been in healthcare chaplaincy about a year then, and the structured character of the chaplain’s role (e.g. not ‘living over the shop’ in the vicarage as I had as a parish priest) was conducive to that aim. I also had the support of my line manager and the equal opportunities policies that operate in the NHS. The major challenge then was my bishop who wanted me to surrender my licence to practice, which I declined to do. Later on my new bishop acknowledged that I was ‘in the right place’ – that was said in connection with my work as a chaplain but could equally have applied to my gender transition.    

CFI: Does your faith tie into how you experience your gender?

CB: ‘Gender, sexuality, and spirituality’, the workshop I co-founded with my friend Michelle O’Brien, explores the interplay between faith, gender and sexuality. It developed from our recognition that transgender people often experience a mismatch between their faith and their gender identity, expression and role. I became a priest in the Church of England when men alone could be ordained as priests. Unconsciously perhaps, this ‘resolved’ the issue of my gender identity for a while – ‘I was a priest, priests are male, so I must be male’ – but once women were admitted to the priesthood the question of my gender identity resurfaced. Looking back I think my approach to ministry had always been more feminine than masculine, though that poses the question what we mean by those terms and the risk of gender stereotyping.  

CFI: Do you think faith provides a source of strength (or conflict) for many individuals going through transition?

CB: Our Humanist chaplaincy volunteer has helped me to appreciate that faith is not solely the preserve of religious people, but I guess this question is about the role of religious belief in transition. Statistics indicate that transgender people are a high risk group for both suicide and depression, so I do wonder if my trust in God’s unconditional love, and my prayer life as a priest, has kept me optimistic even when the Church was treating me as a problem and trying to control and discipline me. My friend Chris Dowd’s research demonstrates the paradox that, while religious faith can be a source of strength to those who transition, it is often most needed in their struggles with official representatives of their own faith community who object to their gender journey.

CFI: Is religious discrimination against transgender individuals improving? And in what ways is it not?

CB: It is improving. In the late 1990s, when I joined the Sibyls, Christian spirituality for transgender people, many members could only receive Holy Communion at Sibyls’ meetings as their own churches had rejected them. This kind of exclusion is far less common today as there is greater awareness and acceptance of trans people. The media has helped, as have legal changes, especially the Gender Recognition Act 2004, which enabled trans people to change their birth certificates, and thus to marry someone of the opposite sex. This law applies to Church of England churches, and I was married in church in 2006. What was unacceptable was that someone who was already married could only obtain full gender recognition if they first divorced their partner, an anomaly that was only recently removed with the passing of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013, but that legislation has introduced spousal consent (to full gender recognition) which could be problematic and is much resented.

CFI: Do you think there should be a special ceremony, similar to Baptism, for Christians who undergo transition?

CB: Churches are already hosting services to mark people’s gender transition, and I support the Blackburn Diocesan Synod motion – for which I wrote the briefing paper http://changingattitude.org.uk/archives/8542 – that has been sent to the Church of England’s General Synod, and requests the House of Bishops to authorise rites and prayers for trans people for use throughout the Church of England. Baptism, once administered, can’t be repeated, but the rites envisaged could refer to the person’s baptism, and the fact that they now have a new name. Even if it is not (legally) possible to amend baptism registers, churches need to understand that someone who was baptised as a child and has now transitioned will want to have a baptism certificate that has their current name rather than their birth name. I found it very healing to be given such a certificate following a celebration of baptism for transgender Christians.

CFI: Well-known transgender women, such as Caitlyn Jenner, may have brought transgender issues to the forefront, but does greater awareness also equate to greater understanding?

CB: Caitlyn and others have raised the profile of trans people enormously, while being careful to acknowledge the harsh reality of some trans people’s lives, including the shocking murder statistics, especially, but not exclusively, among trans women of colour. Earlier this year, a (Mexican) trans woman was murdered in the area of London where I live. Awareness is one thing, but understanding probably depends on relationships with actual trans people. Trying to understand gender is worth doing, as its social expression affects everyone, yet it also remains elusive which is no doubt why we find transgender icons so intriguing.

CFI: What might be the implications of trans identities for religious faith?

CB: The ordination of women, first to the priesthood, and just recently as bishops, has been an almighty struggle in the life of the Church of England, and its implications for the institution are not yet clear. Recently, the Church of England’s teaching about marriage has become increasingly gender stereotypical and restrictive. Trans identities can serve to question narrow and limited assumptions about gender expression and roles. For too long, the church has developed its theology about trans people without us. Trans substantiations: hearing the theology of transgender Christians (to be published by DLT in 2016), a collection that Michelle O’Brien and I are currently editing, should help to redress that imbalance.

CFI: What advice would you give to transgender people who want to feel acknowledged in their faith and gender?

CB: I always worry when someone says, ‘I took your advice’. As a chaplain I’m not supposed to offer advice, but apparently I do! In these particular circumstances, I would advise people to remain positive, self-confident, and firm in their conviction that their own awareness of their gender identity is God-given. I’d also warn them to be prepared for opposition, and to remember that they are not the first person to have made this journey, and that there are plenty of resources out there to help them, both with transition and as a person of faith. The journey may seem daunting to begin with, but one must step out in faith if one is to live authentically, rather than as a shadow of one’s true self, trusting in Christ’s promise of ‘Life in all its fullness’.