Church needs to ‘catch up’ as vicar urges gender debate

The vicar of Lancaster the Rev Chris Newlands.
The vicar of Lancaster the Rev Chris Newlands.
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Lancaster’s outspoken Church of England vicar is not one for pulling punches when it comes to speaking his mind.

In a week where the celebrity world has been rocked by the revelation that Kardashian family head Bruce Jenner has changed his gender, and is now known as Caitlyn, openly gay Lancaster vicar Chris Newlands is asking the church to offer services for trans-gender people who “want God to know their new name”.

FILE - In this Sept. 11, 2013, file photo, former Olympic athlete Bruce Jenner arrives at the Annual Charity Day hosted by Cantor Fitzgerald and BGC Partners, in New York. Jenner made his debut as a transgender woman on the cover for the July 2015 issue of Vanity Fair. The image was shot by famed celeb photographer Annie Leibovitz. (Photo by Mark Von Holden/Invision/AP, File)

FILE - In this Sept. 11, 2013, file photo, former Olympic athlete Bruce Jenner arrives at the Annual Charity Day hosted by Cantor Fitzgerald and BGC Partners, in New York. Jenner made his debut as a transgender woman on the cover for the July 2015 issue of Vanity Fair. The image was shot by famed celeb photographer Annie Leibovitz. (Photo by Mark Von Holden/Invision/AP, File)

Rev Newlands, who is in a long-term civil partnership and has been the vicar at Lancaster Priory, in Castle Hill, for five years, was asked to “re-baptise” a trans-gender man, who was originally baptised as a baby girl.

Mr Newlands said: “It started off as a small pastoral encounter at The Priory.

“A young man asked to be re-baptised.

“I said we don’t do that, but we did offer him and then carry out a service.

It’s a special ceremony, I think it’s a positive statement for the church to make

“He was originally baptised as a baby girl, and to him it was about God knowing him by name.

“He was no longer the little girl he was baptised as.

“I then thought the church needs to get this sorted out.

“There’s nothing within the church about doing this, and I wanted to bring it to the General Synod (church ruling council).

This photo taken by Annie Leibovitz exclusively for Vanity Fair shows the cover of the magazine's July 2015 issue featuring Bruce Jenner debuting as a transgender woman named Caitlyn Jenner.  (Annie Leibovitz/Vanity Fair via AP)

This photo taken by Annie Leibovitz exclusively for Vanity Fair shows the cover of the magazine's July 2015 issue featuring Bruce Jenner debuting as a transgender woman named Caitlyn Jenner. (Annie Leibovitz/Vanity Fair via AP)

“It’s not a huge number of people, but all the same it needs to be recognised.”

Last month Keeping Up With The Kardashians star Bruce Jenner revealed he would be planning to live life as a woman, and has appeared on the cover of the latest issue of Vanity Fair alongside the headline “Call me Caitlyn”.

Issues of gender within the Church have been a hot topic over recent years, especially given the introduction of same sex marriage laws by the government last year.

So far the Church of England has refused to allow gay marriages, but some members of the church actively oppose the ruling, with many others themselves being in same-sex partnerships.

Mr Newlands said he wanted to make sure that everyone is welcomed, and no-one was turned away.

He said: “When we’re approached like this, we need to respond in a positive and affirming way.

“It’s about trying to get clergy who may not be so up to speed on this, and getting proper information from the church.

“It’s a special ceremony, I think it’s a positive statement for the church to make.”

Mr Newlands said that when it was discussed in the Lancaster and Morecambe Deanery, 95 per cent were in favour of putting forward a motion to the General Synod.

“When it went to the Blackburn Diocese, which is a comparatively conservative Diocese, it was 70 per cent in favour.”

The responses haven’t all been positive however.

Mr Newlands said that the Twittersphere had gone suitably mad about it.

“A lot of people do not support it, conservative people say it’s a step too far.

“I’m sure that there’s opposition in the General Synod.

“This is a completely new thing, and a lot of people say that God doesn’t make mistakes.

“A lot of the response has been extremely 19th century.

“But medical science has made huge advances, and the Church has got to catch up.

“We’ve got to decide that we’re working with science and not against it.”

Mr Newlands is now proposing a motion to the General Synod, seeking to get the church to prepare information for the rest of the clergy.

The approach could include a new Baptism certificate, but essentially calls on the House of Bishops to consider whether it should introduce a new service to mark the milestone in the life of a trans person.

Mr Newlands, who has been in post at Lancaster Priory for five years, said that “sometimes one had to stick one’s head above the parapet”.

He said: “I’m not looking for promotion, but I’m not frightened of saying what I believe to be true.

“I don’t mind being visible as a gay man in a civil partnership.

The General Synod elections will be coming up in the summer, and I’ll be standing in the elections.

“There are some things that we have to remain constant on, there are the things that are absolutely fixed and unchanging, but how we relate to the world is changing every year.

“We need to understand how society is changing through our social work and our interaction.”

Mr Newlands also said the church was beginning to regain its role as an organisation that worked on behalf of the people.

He said: “I’m quite conservative in my theology and understanding, but nobody wants the church to be irrelevant, we need to be at the forefront of fighting poverty and injustice.

“We’re speaking up against welfare cuts, and working closely with the Trussell Trust on issues surrounding food banks.

“I realise how precarious so many people’s lives are, where people are being forced towards the breadline.

“The church is beginning to regain a role, which is in fact its proper role.

A spokesperson for Blackburn Diocese said: “This debate at our recent Diocesan Synod is about a very sensitive and deeply personal issue.

“The Rev Chris Newlands of Lancaster and Morecambe Deanery produced an enlightening and informative paper on issues surrounding the welcome of transgender people into our churches and a response to their needs for prayer and he opened the debate with a presentation.

“A thoughtful series of speeches followed, before a vote was taken on a motion which calls upon The Church of England General Synod to debate a motion … ‘recognising the need for transgender people to be welcomed and affirmed in their parish church and calling on the House of Bishops to consider whether some nationally commended liturgical materials might be prepared to mark a person’s gender transition’.

“Although there were a variety of views on the motion it was carried by a majority.

“It is important to note however that this is just the first step on a longer road that will, in the first instance, see the motion laid before the General Synod Business Committee for consideration as a potential item for a future debate. We understand it won’t be debated by General Synod for some time due to a very busy schedule this year.”