What does our commitment to inclusion in Episcopal schools ask of us in regard to gender identity? That we replace old theologies, not with progressive and secular orthodoxies, but with radical, boundary-transcending love.
Inspired by the NAES Statement on Inclusion and Episcopal Identity, I would like to describe our school’s vision of how Episcopal schools can play a unique and powerful role in the area of gender inclusivity. Many secular and Christian schools get this one wrong, so Episcopal schools are poised to play a crucial leadership role.
Many Christian schools deny, one way or another, that God creates non-binary identities. In some cases, gay and transgender students may be lovingly supported and protected, but the school’s theology precludes queer identities from being truly affirmed and honored. But is it really such a stretch to conceive that the Creator who made us male and female would exercise some non-binary creativity—just as God does with night/day, land/sea, heaven and earth? Is it a stretch to be inspired by Jesus’s radical and norm-defying love to commit to supporting queer students in their journey of being who they really are? I realize it is hard to ask people to change their deeply held theology, but it is also hard (and cruel) to tell young people questioning their traditional gender identity that they are simply mistaken. The much higher rates of depression and suicide among LGBTQ+ youth bear witness to their pain. Conversely, if those children know we are truly open to seeing God work through them in every way—including through their gender identities—how deeply loved and treasured they may feel!
“I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; that I know very well.”Psalm 139:14
On the other hand, schools both secular and religious risk getting mired in confusion if they rely entirely on the prevailing progressive orthodoxy. Some of the academic theory that informs diversity and inclusion work implicitly or explicitly rejects the notion of a divine ground of being. For example, it is quite common to condemn gender essentialism and state, as settled science, that ‘gender is purely a social construct,’ yet still contend that gender identity is something that is ‘deeply felt’ and not arbitrary. I agree with the last statement but wonder where that depth of feeling comes from, if not from a meditation on how I am “fearfully and wonderfully made?”
As Campbell Hall has become a very safe space for those students and adults questioning their gender identities, we have had to learn to support them and their families lovingly and creatively. The question, ‘What identity runs deep for you?’—prohibited in some progressive circles because it is essentialist—is nevertheless always a good one. The question, ‘What is God calling forth in you in this moment?’ is also a good one, even if unexpected and perhaps suspect in this context. If our theology leads us to deem those exploring queer identities as simply mistaken, then such questions would be manipulative at best, harmful at worst. If we are as excited as the student to learn “what God hath wrought,” including perhaps a new expression of queer identity, then we may be good friends together on the journey.
The Rev. Canon Julian P. Bull is the third head of school of Campbell Hall, an Episcopal school in Los Angeles, California with 1130 students in grades K-12.