“There is no longer male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” – Galatians 3:28
I preach most Sundays, so the days when I have a chance to sit in the pews and worship are few and far between. They are also most welcome. I need to sometimes step off the chancel, join my voice with the congregation, and hear another preach the Word.
But several times in the recent past, while I’ve been deep in worship, I’ve suddenly come across something in the liturgy that has made my prayers jerk to a halt. It seems innocuous enough, but every time I see it, it completely stops me in my track. It comes up in calls to worship and joint liturgies, and it looks something like this:
In other words, men are asked to read one line, and then women the next. And like I said, this may not seem like it should be a problem. After all, I’m all for looking at liturgy in a new way. Dividing a room between different voices can help to hear the story in a more powerful way. But, dividing it by binary gender may have some unintended consequences, particularly for trans* and gender non-conforming individuals.
I attended a worship service at a longtime ONA church recently. This is a congregation that goes out of its way to publicly welcomes trans* individuals. And I sat next to another friend who, like me, is also gender non-conforming. Worship was great until we hit that one litany:
And then we weren’t sure what to do.
Popular opinion holds that there are two genders: male and female, men and women. But the reality of gender is that many people live between the two.
The progressive church has started to make good and necessary strides towards affirming trans* folks, but too often still falls into a gender binary while doing so.
We might accept that some people transition female-to-male, or male-to-female, but we are still wrestling with the fact that for others, living between binary genders is our final destination, not some sort of indecision.
Worship is particularly difficult for us in those moments when the liturgy is split between male and female. I generally keep silent. And I’ve known others, who were in the midst of a transition, and who were not out to others in the congregation, who felt torn between reciting the lines for the gender they are known by, and the gender they know themselves to be.
To do one is to deny a self-truth. To do another is to out yourself at a time not of your own choosing.
And worship isn’t the only challenging time for gender non-conforming Christians. Even my own very progressive denomination struggles with non-binary gender. For instance, several years ago a denomination form asked for one box to be checked for gender: male, female, FTM, or MTF. The first problem was that a trans man is a man, and a trans woman a woman. They shouldn’t be required to say anything more. But the second was that for some of us, there wasn’t a box.
In another example, in my denomination, national leadership positions are often times rotated by gender. A man holds an office for one term, and a woman the next. This pattern is repeated. This is even written into the bylaws of some parts in my church. I know the reason this came to be. Women were often not included in church leadership, and this was a way to remedy it. But the unintended outcome has been that those with non-binary genders are either left out, or forced to declare one gender or another in order to be included.
So how do we break our dependence on gender binaries in the church? With just a little awareness, respect, and creativity.
If you want to try out that two-part liturgy or song in worship, come up with a non-gendered way to split the voices. Try high voices and low voices. Or right side and left side. Or balcony and floor.
If you want to achieve gender diversity in leadership roles, lose the forced binary and ask instead that leadership reflect gender diversity in different ways. Look past two terms, to three or four, and make sure that leadership can be inclusive of men, women, and those who might identify in other ways.
And finally, look at the ways your church life might inadvertently leave others out, or signal to visitors that there are no places for them.
Are members divided into the men’s fellowship and women’s fellowship? Sure, sometimes those spaces are welcome for some, but do these divisions leave others out? Do you have gender neutral restrooms available? Are we all “brothers” and “sisters”, or are we all simply “beloved”?
When you talk about equal marriage do you use same-sex and same-gender interchangeably without realizing they are not always the same thing, and that neither is more accurate than the other?
And when concerns about these things are raised, are they laughed off or dismissed as “politically correct” or “not important”? Or are they seen as part of the fundamental welcome that each church, and each church body, should be extending to all of God’s children? Because the reality is that if we really want to be an “open and affirming” movement, this is the next big frontier. How your church responds will matter for years to come.
Emily C. Heath is Senior Pastor of The Congregational Church in Exeter, New Hampshire.
Rev. Heath is a Christ-follower, displaced Southerner, binary-smasher, PhD dropout, former religious “none”, ambivert, fly-fishing enthusiast, progressive evangelical, fountain pen devotee, gender non-conformer, amateur genealogist, recovery believer, Sox fan, Trinitarian, bow tie aficionado, marriage equality advocate, LEGO lover, prepster not hipster, blogger, Reformed theologian, fantasy football fanatic, 13th generation New Hampshirite, church lover, and spouse of an amazing woman.