The latest policy document from the Church of England Education team has created sensationalist headlines. The Daily Mail’s front page this morning was ‘Church: Let little boys wear tiaras’. Is this really true? Or are we missing the meat of the matter by focussing on dramatic stories?
Valuing All God’s Children is the second edition of a document first published three years ago. It is specifically an anti-bullying policy guidance document, focussing on the key area of LGB and T children who experience higher than average rates of bullying than the norm.
Some estimates are that almost half of all children who identify as LGBT are bullied at some point, and nearly one in ten children who experience gender dysphoria have had death threats while at school. It’s in the context of this that the document exists.
Valuing All God’s Children lays out how wider anti-bullying policies fit into the Church of England’s general framework for education. There are then specific sections exploring the legal and regulatory frameworks in this area before offering specific guidance for all schools and then specifically primary and secondary sites. This is followed up by a list of key recommendations and an appendix full of useful action flowcharts, policy pro-formas and further resources.
While some might complain that the report is promoting a particular liberal gender theory, Valuing All God’s Children is actually short on political agenda and long on care and concern. Distinctions are made between the different developmental stages children have at primary and secondary school age, and within the context of a safe and nurturing environment discussion about varying views on gender and sex are positively encouraged.
Half of all children who identify as LGBT are bullied
The infamous “tiara” issue is actually within a wider pastoral example of how primary age children should be able to safely move from one item to another in a dressing up box without comment. We know that in the early Key Stage 1 years, children wearing clothes from the other sex is actually a healthy process often associated with affirming their own biological sex (“see how silly I look wearing girls clothes”). Longer term gender non-conformity can often be part of that process. All the research indicates that upwards of 90% of children who are gender non-conforming as pre-pubescents go on to identify as their biological sex as they enter puberty.
The struggle for conservative Christians is how to engage with a liberal society that seems alien to our moral framework. The best way to do this is to show the same kind of compassionate hospitality that we would expect to receive. For the overwhelming majority of us we can never understand what it feels like to live in a body that isn’t the gender we think we are. However, as Christians many of us know what it feels like to be “a stranger in a strange land” and to sometimes experience being a bullied or misunderstood minority, we should be the first people to defend others who feel on the outside and ostracised.
The latest scientific research indicates that the brains of teens and adults who experience gender dysphoria or identify as trans have some key differences to “normal” male or female brains. This means that gender dysphoria is not just a psychological issue that someone can “snap out of” but rather is a fundamental biological part of someone. Even when we disagree with how to respond to that difference, research like this should guide our pastoral and theological response, especially when dealing with young people.
Organisations like Diverse Church provide incredibly safe and supportive spaces for teens and young adults struggling with gender and sexual identity issues and we should look to support those who work in these areas, not condemn them.
If the wider Church is going to engage coherently with the identity issues of the 21st Century, the first priority is to demonstrate that we are to be trusted to speak into this area. Making sure our schools are places where those who are different feel secure and included has to be a given and this document helps to do that. We can have a discussion about what it really means to be male, female, straight or gay in the light of the cross and the empty tomb, but first we have to show that we’re not going to put up with anyone in our schools bullying anyone else because they’re different.
The Revd Peter Ould is a Church of England priest, a consultant statistician and a Primary School Governor. He has been writing and broadcasting on issues of Christianity, sex and gender for almost two decades. He writes here in his personal capacity.