As the issue of gender identity and how to handle it has become more prevalent over the recent years, churches in the United States have been forced to make decisions about their ideologies regarding these individuals. As was the case with homosexuals before them, transgender and non-binary persons have long faced discrimination from religious groups, in large part due to the church struggling with how the concept of transgender persons fits in with the traditional idea of the creation of man and woman. The changing societal views on these individuals has caused more acceptance by some, but many are still hesitant to adapt to the changing landscape and are facing their share of criticism..
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One of the issues religious groups have struggled with the most in recent years regarding transgender persons is their place, or lack thereof, in religious leadership positions. One group that has been more willing and more proactive to change has been the Episcopal Church. Long known as one of the most liberal and accepting Christian denominations, the Episcopal Church announced in 2012 that discrimination against transgender persons in the ordination process was prohibited (The Episcopal Church, “”LGBTQ in the Church,”” n.d.). Other groups have allowed transgender persons into these positions, but with stipulations. The United Methodist Church, for example, appointed a transgender deacon in 2017, yet the rules of the Church maintain that clergy members must either be celibate or in a heterosexual marriage. The decision to appoint a transgender deacon was not met with universal praise by members of the church, either. One prominent Methodist reverend stated that he would “probably draw the line at leadership, seeing transgender persons as not qualified for leadership” (Zauzemer, 2017). The Catholic Church also ordained a transgender priest in 2014, a year after Pope Francis’s “Who am I to judge?” statement in reference to the idea of gay men becoming priests. In 2018, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales posted a message on their official Twitter page acknowledging the “”Transgender Day of Remembrance”” and expressing an acceptance and sympathy for those affected by discrimination. This message was met by backlash from many Catholics, citing concerns over the direction of the church (McLean, 2018).
The question of which individuals should be allowed in leadership positions is not the only issue churches in the United States are facing on the topic. The overall acceptance and understanding of the concept of transgenderism, as well as how or whether to adapt their terminology to appease transgender persons are both constantly pressing concerns in today’s social climate. Many groups are making efforts to educate their members on the subject, including the often-criticized Southern Baptists. The 2016 Christian Standard Bible includes gender-inclusive terminology, an unusual move by the very traditional denomination known for a literal interpretation of the Bible and a strong belief in traditional gender roles (Merritt & Robinson, 2017). A less surprising change came from the Unitarian Church, which in 2017 voted to change a core bylaw to read “people” in place of the previous “men and women,” which was met by no opposition at the vote (Kapitan, 2017). The Unitarian Church has repeatedly advocated for the rights of transgender and non-binary members, in large part thanks to the involvement of the Transgender Religious professional Unitarian Universalists Together (TRUUsT) group. TRUUsT, founded in 2004, has advocated for the rights of transgender persons within the church as well as provided the church with recommendations for ways to integrate transgender persons in the church.
Other groups have taken the approach of using programs designed to better educate their members on transgenderism as well as how they should feel about and approach the issue. A 2016 symposium hosted by the Catholic Women’s Forum was one such attempt, as members attempted to assist in bridging the gap between church teachings of “man and woman” and the concept of transgenderism. The symposium, however, stressed that the church’s traditional approach needed to be maintained, and provided a framework for those in attendance to apply those traditional ideologies to the issue (Liedl, 2017). Another group, the Evangelical Alliance, published a booklet aimed at educating their members on transgender persons as well as how to approach the issue. The Evangelical Alliance represents thousands of Christians and claims on their website to be the “oldest and largest evangelical unity movement in the UK.” The booklet, published in November 2018 and titled Transformed, stressed the importance of the traditional “maleness and femaleness in creation,” but also called for a celebratory outlook on the diversity of human nature (Lynas, 2018). This idea of maintaining the group’s core values while also adapting to the social climate and being able to integrate the transgender community is crucial to surviving in the current world.
The attitudes and responses by various churches to the rising issue of transgender persons and gender identity has had a harmful impact on the image of the institutions. A 2013 survey indicated that more than seventy percent of LGBT persons felt that Catholics and evangelicals were unfriendly to people like them. This number increased to eighty-four percent and eighty-three percent when asked about Islam and the Mormon Church, respectively, indicating that the conflict between religion and transgenderism are not confined to Christianity, but are much broader. Due to the church’s reluctance to adapt on this issue among others, the number of people that do not claim a religious affiliation is rapidly increasing, both in LGBT communities and in the general public. While the study found that eighty-seven percent of the general public and sixty-one percent of LGBT adults aged fifty and older still claimed a religious affiliation, those numbers plummeted to sixty-nine percent and forty percent, respectively, for people between the ages of eighteen and twenty-nine (Sandstrom, 2015). As it becomes the social norm to accept and respect individual’s sexualities and gender identities, churches in America must make the decision to grow with the times or see their presence dwindle further.
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