In an effort to tackle gender identity-related bullying, the Church of England issued new rules this week saying that kids should be able to “play with the many cloaks of identity.”
In an update to a 2014 report called “Valuing All God’s Children” published yesterday, the church said that the elementary-aged children in its 4,700 schools should be free to embrace the unshackled joys of childhood without a fear of bullying. Some 1 million students attend Church of England schools in the UK; one in four primary schools in England are run by the church.
“For example, a child may choose the tutu, princess’s tiara and heels and/or the fireman’s helmet, tool belt and superhero cloak without expectation or comment,” the church said in the report. “Childhood has a sacred place for creative self-imagining.”
The changes were endorsed by Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the spiritual leader of all Anglicans worldwide.
“All bullying, including homophobic, biphobic and transphobic bullying causes profound damage, leading to higher levels of mental health disorders, self-harm, depression and suicide,” Archbishop Welby wrote. “Central to Christian theology is the truth that every single one of us is made in the image of God. Every one of us is loved unconditionally by God. This guidance helps schools to offer the Christian message of love, joy and celebration of our humanity without exception or exclusion.”
The issue did not go over well with more conservative factions of the church, who view the protections a breach of power and a political statement.
“We are all against bullying, but the church is using these guidelines to pursue an agenda that runs counter to the church’s teaching,” Andrea Minichiello Williams, chief executive of the evangelical group of Christian Concern told the Daily Mail. “The anti-bullying agenda is aimed against people who step out of line—the anti-bullies are becoming the bullies.”
The latest guidance will likely intensify strong divisions within the Church of England, and highlight its awkward position on gay marriage. In February, it voted to maintain its policy that marriage in a church should only be between a man and a woman, and services could not be held to bless same-sex relationships (while at the same time calling for a “culture of welcome and support” for gay Christians). Same-sex marriage was legalized in most parts of Britain in 2014.
Welby, a former oil trader, has tried to push the church towards a more inclusive stance. But he has often run into conservative opposition. In 2014, the Church of England voted to allow women to become bishops after a long and tumultuous battle.
Welby’s statements, and the report, illuminate how the toxic combination of bullying and gender identity can harm children, and the critical role community institutions—like church and school—can play in supporting children.
“We must avoid, at all costs, diminishing the dignity of any individual to a stereotype or a problem,” Welby wrote in the foreword to the report. “Church of England schools offer a community where everyone is a person known and loved by God, supported to know their intrinsic value.”
Amen to that.