A Gendered Practice

How can CMN conference January 2019 be summed up? 

It was a relatively small number of us that gathered for the 24 hour conference at Selly Oak, coming from England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Island and representing a range of churches and other organisations; some new faces, some more familiar and some (like me) in between. The winter’s cold did nothing to reduce the warmth of the fellowship and laughter abounded throughout. 

We began with worship, led by Gail, in which we thought about attention to small detail within the big picture and the description “God made it – God loves it – God preserves it”. Each participant had a piece of a picture which could be combined with two others to make a whole and we were challenged to find the matching pieces and sit together with the other two people to discuss where we see God in the picture. A good opportunity to tune in to the conference as a whole and chat with someone a bit different as well as praying together. 

That was the easy bit. 

Then began our attempt to wrestle with the topic of the conference: Gender Identity. Everyone came with different hopes and expectations as to what we might get out of the sessions which were led by the delightful and irrepressible Natalie Collins, but the two most uniting themes were the need to feel confident pastorally and the appreciation that this conference was going to bring up as many questions and challenges as answers and recommendations, if not more. And these two expectations were well met!

It was a good feeling to tackle such a contentious subject (especially within the Christian context, sadly) in an environment where we were given space to work out our own feelings, to discuss in a safe environment without fear of judgement, and especially to do so through the medium of laughter for much of the time as well as serious discussion. There was no sense of a hidden agenda, just an objective exploration of an issue in which we were encouraged to identify our own subjectivity as well. 

Natalie began by giving an introduction of the context in which we were discussing this – a scary context of increasing emphasis on gender stereotypes and sexualisation/objectification, especially of women but also to a lesser extent of men. The group felt quite shell-shocked by the barrage of images and statistics which emphasised the extent to which this is true. It definitely threw up a sense of swimming against the tide as we began to contemplate what we understood as “typical” of particular genders and where these opinions came from. 

After a very welcome hot lunch of roast turkey dinner (with vegetarian option, of course) and apple pie and crumble, the second session took us a step deeper into considering the compass of ideologies connected with transitioning. We were given a crib sheet of terminology: only nine pages of vocabulary which will undoubtedly be out of date by the time we’ve finished reading it, but useful as a starting point nonetheless. We were introduced to four ideologies: medicalisation, gender critical, biological essentialism and trans ideology and then Natalie took us through how each of these ideologies would interpret certain issues. Some people found their own standpoint changing through this exercise, others found it easier to identify with one of the ideologies and felt validated by this, all found the insight enlightening into the spectrum of opinions and views and began to understand where people were coming from in their reaction to the question of transitioning gender. Most telling was the overriding theme: the need for non-judgemental and sensitive pastoral care for all affected by this issue. 

By this point my head was spinning and I was far from alone in this. So much to think about and process. It was the perfect time for a break for tea and opportunities to socialise and network for the rest of the evening. With a small group we had the luxury of moving into the lounge. An emergency delegation had been sent forth from the conference on the important mission of fetching drinks and nibbles for the evening and our amazement at the speed in which this mission was accomplished was only slightly diminished when we realised that they had brought corked bottles and no corkscrew. By the wonders of technology, google and youtube, and the ingenuity and bravery of Penny Fuller (trust a Methodist to be able to crack open a bottle of wine under difficult circumstances) the problem was overcome and we settled to a hilarious game of Scattergories (we all identified as winners, regardless of our actual score). Story sharing abounded – indeed, I think I shall never forget someone’s tale of showering outdoors up a mountain, modesty protected only by the fog. Some noteable quotes from our discussions and activities that evening:

  • “Do you want to slap it with a shoe?” “No, it’s OK, I have a knife.” 
  • “It’s a sparrow that identifies as a longhorn toucan”
  • “Get your knickers on, there’s a man on a donkey heading this way.” 

Thursday morning was the final session of training and discussion on gender identity, first thinking about theology and then moving on to consider several different case studies, all of them proving just how challenging and complex an issue this can be. A frequent consideration was that of safeguarding and we all became aware of how vitally important a strategy/policy document is for our organisations to ensure that decisions are made on the basis of policy rather than personal reaction. NO right answers, just good practice and sensitivity to the needs of all parties. But I think I can say that everyone felt far better informed and given the basics to feel more confident in the situations that may arise in the future. 

Sadly many of the group had to leave fairly early so it was a small select group that gathered for the business session at the end of the conference and still fewer who were able to stay for the final lunch. 

It was good to gather with friends and new friends from different denominations and share together our joys and our challenges, to pray for each other as we move forward together and individually, and to identify our common ground far more than our differences. I left inspired, and with a smile as I remembered many of the comments and conversations I had shared. My first act on returning to the office was to raise awareness of the need to include trans* issues as an agenda item at our upcoming committee meeting and request that a standard policy be written together with a request to our safeguarding department for inclusion of gender identity as part of our good practice guidelines which are currently being revised. 

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