Presentation of Alex Clare-Young on the Situation of the United Reformd Church in the UK and his Life as a Trans Christian
Ecclesia Reformata semper Reformanda – A Reformed Church is always Reforming. This reformation maxim is at the center of everything the United Reformed Church – the URC – stands for, says and does. Like most denominations, a lot of what I say today might not always happen in practice in every local church. However, I believe that freedom that allows the local church to make its own decisions about how it responds to denominational identity is key to what it means to be protestant.
I am incredibly privileged and grateful to be training for ministry in the URC. In fact, I do not believe that I could live out my unique ministry in any other denomination in the United Kingdom. I hope that the spirit of continual reformation and protest, which is after all the spirit of Protestantism, will speak through my words today.
The United Reformed Church was formed in 1972, by an act of parliament, an unusual beginning for a reformed denomination. It was made up, at first, by Presbyterian and some Congregational Churches and, later, joined by the Churches of Christ. The URC was initially an ecumenical project, that always hoped for more mergers. At the moment, this unfortunately seems unlikely.
The URC is not the only protestant denomination in the UK. Other free church denominations include the Methodist and Baptist churches. There are also two protestant state denominations, the Church of England and the Church of Scotland. Free church denominations such as the URC, however, protest the ties between church and state.
The beliefs of the United Reformed Church can be described with five elements of our beliefs: unity, word, change, diversity and politics. I will also talk about ministry.
The United Reformed Church was founded with a passion for church unity. This is emphasized in our statement of faith which starts with the words ‘With the whole Christian Church’ and ends with a commitment to continue working ‘for the visible unity of the Church in the way Christ chooses’. It has become increasingly clear that that unity may not be structural. Nor is it likely to be founded on identical systems of belief. Instead, the URC has developed a strong sense of unity in diversity, which is strongly biblical. One only needs to look at the letters of the Apostle Paul and his body imagery in order to notice the call to unity in diversity.
The imperative of unity is a practical one for the URC, that plays out throughout our denominational life. Most matters are decided by consensus voting, which means that everyone has to at least agree to disagree in order for a step to be taken. This is a complex way of deciding things, that does have its downfalls. On the positive side, it really does prompt us to listen to what the Spirit is calling the church to do, over and above our own personal opinions.
Diversity, for the URC, goes hand in hand with unity. In our statement of faith, we affirm that ‘we rejoice in the diversity of the Spirit’s gifts and uphold the rights of personal conviction.’ For me, this is a key reformation value. Each individual, whether a minister or a lay member, should be equally valued and celebrated as a part of the church.
In practice, this means that anyone can lead a service, apply to attend any of the decision-making councils or do pretty much anything in the life of the Church. It also means that we are theologically very diverse. There are no top-down decisions rather, each congregation operates as it chooses.
I feel that our diversity is one of the major missional characteristics of the URC. Anyone can find a URC congregation where they feel at home. We are not restricted by the opinions of bishops or politicians. Rather, we welcome the stranger and feed the hungry.
Diversity can sometimes seem like chaos; but that chaos is good soil for planting the seeds of faith. It also allows us to debunk some of the myths and bad press that circulate about the church in contemporary culture and public life.
Of course, as a reformed denomination, the Word is central to the URC. However, I think that our understanding of Word is quite distinct. In order to understand the URC, it is really essential to understand what we mean when we say the Word.
Our statement of faith says this:
‘The highest authority for what we believe and do is God’s Word in the Bible alive for his people today through the help of the Spirit.’
Let’s unpack that a bit.
We start by saying that ‘The highest authority for what we believe and do is God’s Word’. The Word is central. Sola Scriptura. However, we go on to qualify that statement. The first qualification is that Word is spelt with a capital W. In other words, Word refers to that in the Bible which witnesses to Jesus; and only that. That is not to say that we devalue the Hebrew Scriptures, or prioritise the Gospel accounts. Rather, we read the whole of scripture with an eye on the Gospel trajectory.
We further qualify the centrality of Scripture by saying that the ‘Word in the Bible [is] alive for God’s people today through the help of the Spirit’. There are three important words here ‘alive’, ‘people’, and ‘Spirit’. We believe that the Word is alive. It is tangible and shifting. It needs to be understood contextually and carefully in each new age.
The Word is to be read by all people. Every individual’s understanding of Scripture, as different as they might be, is equally valid and important, regardless of tradition or theological knowledge. Finally, the Word is read with the help of the Spirit. It must be interpreted and understood afresh through the creative whispers of the still small voice.
That brings us to change. The URC, as a modern denomination, was able to write the need for change into its polity. Our statement of faith notes that ‘we affirm our right and readiness, if the need arises, to change the basis of union and to make new statements of faith in ever new obedience to the Living Christ.’
The URC is committed to listening to Christ today and, if change is necessary, tradition will not be a barrier. We are learning how to be Church every day.
In a final word on our beliefs, I want to mention politics. Of course, as a diverse church, our members hold many different political beliefs, and some would even say that church and politics should not mix. Having said that, the URC is a strongly political denomination. Our statement of faith directly notes politics, stating that ‘In things that affect obedience to God the Church is not subordinate to the state.’
Not only are we not subordinate, we are also more than willing to critique the state, and to call them to pay increased attention to God’s will of justice and peace for all humankind. This can be seen in the letter that we send right to the queen, who is the head of state in the UK, each time that we meet in general assembly. The letter is always complimentary and polite, but it also contains strong critique of unjust policy. Recent themes for protest have included the benefits system, care for the poor and homeless, and mental health stigma.
Another area in which you can witness the political stance of the URC has been that of same sex marriage. Same sex marriage was brought into law in the UK in 2013. Church denominations were asked to make a yes or no decision on whether or not they would hold same sex marriages.
The URC, uniquely, declined to make a decision. Instead, we voted to allow each individual congregation to make their own decision. This did not imply that the URC as a whole was either for or against same sex marriage. Instead, it allowed us to witness to our diversity. Some URC congregations have since registered for and held same sex marriages.
We also campaign for social justice together with other denominations through a joint working group called the Joint Public Issues Team, which provides resources and makes many important public statements on political issues.
I would now like to talk a little bit about ministry, before telling you my own story.
URC ministers promise to ‘live a holy life, and to maintain the truth of the gospel, whatever trouble or persecution may arise’. That might sound fairly obvious, but interestingly no one qualities what a holy life, or indeed the truth of the gospel, might look like. Instead, our freedom of conscience allows us to make up our own minds.
For me, living a holy life and maintaining the truth of the gospel is about integrity. It is about being entirely honest about who I am, and who God calls me to be, and refusing to hide those truths, regardless of the trouble that I might face, both from within the Church and outside it. It’s a challenging call, but an extraordinary one.
CHURCH RELATED COMMUNITIES
I would also like to draw your attention to Church Related Community Work Ministry. The type of ministry that I am seeking ordination in is Ministry of Word and Sacraments, which is the ordinary meaning of ministry. However, we have an additional type of ministry, which is equal and is explicitly community focused.
Church related community work ministers promise to challenge and pray for the community, as well as to prompt the church to live its calling to proclaim the love and mercy of God. Their role is, undoubtedly, a political one; affirming the calling and right of the church to have a voice in the public square, and challenging the Church to use that voice for the good of the oppressed.
Before I conclude my presentation, I would like to tell you a little bit about my journey and calling. I believe that my story shows the progressive, thoroughly protestant, inclusive, diverse and missional edge of the URC. I also hope that it might help some to rethink their understandings of church and ministry.
I am transgender. Let me explain: When I was a child, I felt like an alien. It sounds funny, looking back. Could I have really thought I was an alien? It is the only way I can describe how I felt as a child, though. I just didn’t fit. Apparently, I was a little girl, but I didn’t feel like one. I attended an all girls’ school, and everyone there was different than me; and seemed to be the same as each other.
The thing about feeling like an alien is that, when you are a child, it isn’t funny. It is no accident that alien is the root of the word alienated. I was completely alienated and alone; with no-one to talk to who could understand me.
I was even alienated from my body; terrified of anyone else seeing it and constantly trying to hide or look ‘different’ than I did. The idea of the changes of puberty terrified me; whilst sex was a fascinating concept, but one that I absolutely couldn’t understand. I thought that one day I would be zapped up and taken back to where I belong. I think that, in my own child-like way, I didn’t really want to live as I was.
The feeling of alienation, along with a talent for music led me, at age 13, to a new school that was much better for me. I had some friends, and started to find myself. You could say that I was beginning to hear God’s call to transition. I knew I couldn’t, though. I might have felt like a boy, but it was the one feeling in the world that I could not articulate. Because surely it meant I was crazy?
This hiddenness made me feel more and more alienated, and I gradually withdrew. I stopped sleeping or eating properly, began to self-harm, and lost contact with good friends, preferring to hang out with people who skived school to drink and smoke away the pain. Eventually, I got myself chucked out of church and developed a severe anxiety disorder. I stopped talking to my parents, and even tried to run away from home.
When I was 17, I moved away from home to begin a degree in music. The first year at university was one of the hardest years of my life. I with three other girls; who were constantly ‘helping’ me to be more girlie. They did my makeup, taught me about pre-drinking, and encouraged me to date boys. I resisted this, and gradually became more and more masculine. This eventually led to a horrific attack by a guy who wanted to, in his words, ‘turn me straight’. Things were dreadful, and I felt like I was unravelling.
In my second year, though, things started to change. Two communities became the foundation for my transformation; my local church, and my local LGBT youth group.
I knew at this point that I was definitely not heterosexual, and I was beginning to explore what it meant to, possibly, be gay. At the same time I was starting to test the waters at the university church, as I was desperate to reconnect with my faith. The local lLGBT youth group and the university church became the two hubs of my social life. I started to gain real friendships, real relationships, and to be able to talk openly about who I was. I met church members who were fine with people being gay; ministers who actively encouraged me to read Scripture for myself; and, most astoundingly, people who were in the process of gender confirmation; who were transitioning so that their internal gender identity was visible to the world.
I could have been overwhelmed but, instead, I was incredibly excited. I started talking whenever I could, and listening whenever I couldn’t. I found myself putting together sentences that I had been taught made no sense.
“I can’t work out how to be a normal girl.”
“I don’t feel like a normal girl.”
“Maybe I’m not a normal girl.”
“Maybe I’m a boy-girl.”
“I feel like a boy.”
“Could I be a boy?”
I began to transition, I began to transform. I burst out of my cocoon and began to live.
I moved through music college learning to be myself and learning to listen God’s calling to me. Initially, my transition was closed, I was going to ‘be a man’, whatever that might mean. I was going to be a professional musician. I was going to… God breaks open our expectations. I became an ordinand. I became a husband. I became a dog-owner. I became a craftsperson. But, most importantly, I became, and am becoming, myself.
Most people think that transition has a clear start point, and a clear end point. In my experience, that is often not the case. It took me a long time to accept but I now realise, and celebrate, the fact that I will always be trans. Some people transition from female-to-male. Some people transition from male-to female. Some people transition part-way. Other’s move around the scale. All of those identities are ok. What is essential is that we allow others to define and describe themselves. I like to describe myself as transmasculine. I move in social circles as male; but ‘man’ will never fully describe my reality. Being open to the continuing growth of my identity in response to God’s call has been an amazing experience. I hope that I never think that I am ‘done’ transitioning.
God reshapes and recreates us every day and, to me, that recreation is the most loving and grace-filled relationship that we can experience. This recreation isn’t only available to those of us who are trans; all people can be reformed and remolded throughout their life in a fantastic spiral of growth, if we would only allow it. Who you are today does not determine who you can be tomorrow.
I feel that I am caught in a web or a matrix of creativity and growth; and I love it. I can access the whole of who I am, and the most important part of that identity is two-fold; my relationship with God and my relationships with others.
The URC is enabling me to research, write and work in the area of transgender theology. I am currently undertaking an mphil, and will then progress to a PhD. I am also starting work on a book and resources on transgender theology. My ministry will include working with people who are trans as well as people and churches who want to understand what it means to be trans and Christian. I am blessed to be part of a denomination which supports me in this calling.
WALKING THE WAY
I have told you my story as what I hope is a powerful example of the direction in which the URC is moving. Having recognized that more ecumenical mergers is not a current option, the URC has changed direction to focus intentionally on discipleship. We have named this focus walking the way. We believe that mission starts from the grassroots, and want each of our members to feel able to tell their own Gospel story.
Walking the way includes resources on holy habits such as eating together and sharing stories. It also encourages members to share their stories of hope through online material and social media. Finally, it provides training opportunities for all members of the denomination, not just ministers.
I hope that, through walking the way, everyone will be enabled to share stories of hope, of transformation, of faith and of protest. We are becoming a denomination that has a strong identity and witness as people who follow the way of Christ without agendas or barriers; instead living out the beatitudes in our daily walk. May it be so. Amen.