The revelation is contained in a document sent in response to a consultation about extending the reach of “hate crime” law in Northern Ireland.
The document was sent by the Church and Society Commission, a body set up by the general synod to “develop areas of living today where the mission of the church can be active”.
However, the church’s central communications office has contradicted the commission, saying traditional church doctrine recognising only male and female people remains unchanged.
It is just the latest twist in a developing controversy within Christian culture, which goes far beyond issues like gay marriage to question the very existence of men and women as separate categories.
The consultation asks whether the scope of what constitutes a hate crime should be broadened by adding “gender” and “gender identity” to the list of protected characteristics (alongside things like race and religion).
The church commission responded to the this question as follows: “Yes. In addition it is worth considering the definition of gender used in this characteristic.
“It should be sufficiently defined as to recognise the existence of and protect cisgender people but also intersex, transgender and non-binary people.”
It adds that “for many people gender is a spectrum made up of many different, fluctuating societal norms”.
The church’s communications office was asked when the church leadership had come to recognise non-binary people, and – assuming they had – how many different “non-binary” genders there are.
It responded: “The Church of Ireland’s teaching recognises two genders – male and female – and is unchanged.
“The commission would further clarify that when it expresses concern for those who may not agree with the Church’s teaching, this is based on the Christian example of the Good Samaritan.
“In this case, the consultation identifies certain groups as being particularly at risk and asks if they should be protected from hate crime.”
The church communications office was asked how it defines “man” and “woman”. It did not offer a definition of either.
The communications office also said the commission “exists as an advisory group ... views expressed by [it] only become representative of the church as a whole when given approval by the general synod of the Church of Ireland”.
Rev Tim Anderson is rector of St Elizabeth’s in Dundonald, east Belfast.
He is also the chair of the Irish wing of GAFCON, a major conservative-leaning Anglican group.
Commenting in his own personal capacity (not for GAFCON), he noted the commission’s inclusion of “non-binary identities” and said: “As a Christian and a Church of Ireland rector, I beg to differ.
“To begin with this does not sit easy with the CoI’s historic and doctrinal position on gender. This position is that gender is binary – male or female – and defined biologically, not by personal preference.
“Also, including gender and transgender identity within hate crime legislation raises issues to do with free speech.
“In this day and age certain groups are quick to find offence whenever someone disagrees with them.
“To give legal protection to these identities could well deny Christians their right to free speech.”
He was clear however that “no person or group, however they identify themselves, should be the victim of hate crime,” adding: “And that includes Christians who hold to the Biblical definition of gender.”
STRONG FEELINGS ON BOTH SIDES:
The issues of transgenderism and non-binary identities have emerged from relative obscurity into the mainstream in just a few years, and are hotly contested.
They fundamentally rest on the idea that a person’s “gender” is independent from their biological sex.
The Church of England last year blundered into a massive controversy after announcing guidance on celebrating people’s gender transition.
It sparked a petition of protest from almost 3,200 clergy, other office-holders, and lay people within the church, who said it lacked “any consideration of the enormous and often traumatic impact of gender transition by an individual on immediate friends and family, including spouse and children”.
Also last year Belfast held its first-ever transgender pride parade, at which lord mayor John Finucane of Sinn Fein lamented the lack of options for citizens to express non-binary identities.
As well as discussing gender, the church commission’s submission ranges over a lot of other ground, including what it dubs “anti-feminist reactionary movements... which bear all the hallmarks of more traditional hate groups”.
The church was asked to specify what groups it had in mind, but it did not name any.
The consultation response also addresses issues like “intersectionality” (which, crudely speaking, refers to the idea that if someone is both Asian and gay for instance, then they are doubly disadvantaged), and “dog whistling” (the idea that politicians are sending out signals which on the surface do not avow hatred, but which will be understood by extremist groups as doing just that).
These are all terms which have come to be associated with leftist activism, and conservatives have tended to be sharply critical of them.
You can read the full consultation response yourself here:
UNPICKING THE TERMINOLOGY:
• The church commission refers to “intersex, transgender and non-binary people”.
The NHS says “intersex” refers to people whose sex development is different than normal (for example, someone who may have male or female genes but their “reproductive organs may look different from usual”).
The South African athlete Caster Semenya is sometimes described as having intersex characteristics, for instance.
• Transgender is more complicated.
It is a common misconception that it refers to people who have had a “sex change”. Not necessarily.
What it has come to mean, in the views of many activists, is anyone who “self-identifies” as male or female.
Under this definition “transgender” status is not dependent on surgery or hormone treatment.
Instead it is within the gift of any man to declare “I am really a woman”, and the declaration makes it so (or vice versa for females).
Such people should then be given full access to women and girls’ facilities like changing rooms and toilets (or male facilities for “trans men”).
Many activists hold that denying such people access or questioning the validity of their claims is ignorant, transphobic or “not inclusive”.
• Non-binary is different from the medically-recognised condition of being intersex.
It refers to people who say their true self is neither male or female, but rather some “other gender” (examples of which include “agender, bigender, womxn, gender diverse, gender fluid, gender queer, or pangender” according to the New York City Commission on Human Rights).
Other terms often used include “two-spirit” or “neutrois”.
• The church document also refers to “cisgender” people.
These are people whose "gender identity" matches their biological sex.
For instance a "cisgender woman" is someone who was born a woman and who still identifies as a woman.
FREEDOM OF SPEECH UNDER THREAT?:
In addition to asserting there are multiple genders, the church commission also explicitly rejects the idea of offering Christians certain protections from hate crime law on the grounds of freedom of expression.
Its consultation response stands in radical contrast with the one submitted by the Presbyterian Church in Ireland.
The Presbyterian submission expresses deep concern about the possibility of using hate crime laws to shut down debate and even criminalise Christians – so much so that it called for an explicit assurance that quoting the Bible will not become illegal.
The Church of Ireland submission takes a different tack.
At one point the consultation document asks about whether legal protection for people to engage in “discussion, criticism or expressions of antipathy, dislike, ridicule, insult or abuse of particular religions” should be added into The Public Order (NI) Order 1987.
On the face of it, this would seem to guarantee Christians’ right to reject and challenge other faiths.
It also asks the same thing about guaranteeing people’s right to engage in “discussion or criticism of sexual conduct or practices or the urging of persons to refrain from or modify such conduct or practices” – something which would seem to guarantee Christians’ right to criticise what the Bible calls “sexual immorality”.
In both cases the commission rejects such freedom of speech protections.
However, it does go on to call for “retention of the defence of freedom of expression in relation to discussions around same-sex marriage” (something which is contained in the aforementioned act), saying it “allows for discussion which, while potentially hurtful to some, is an important aspect of any democratic debate while not offering a blanket protection to any who wish to use the discussion as a vehicle to abuse or threaten others”.
The church commission is based in Dublin and its chairman is Dr Kenneth Kearon, the bishop of Limerick.
The hate crime review to which it submitted its response began last June at the behest of the Department of Justice, and is led by judge Desmond Marrinan.
Its consultation closed at the start of May.
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