Anglicans have a transgender priest dilemma

Last week, Sorel Coward finally confronted her Archbishop.

In a strange coincidence, Geoffrey Smith – who is Archbishop of Adelaide – was the bishop who ordained Coward as a priest (minister) years ago.

Sorel Coward is a transgender woman, who wants Smith’s permission to act as a priest in Adelaide. Anglican ministers need the permission of their bishop or regional leader to preach, or hold holy communion. This often is called a PTO, or “permission to officiate”.

Archbishop Smith has responded to Coward by refusing to give her a PTO.

Smith also is the Primate (or titular head) of Australia’s Anglicans who, right now, are engaged in a complicated decision about same-sex marriage. The Church Appelate Tribunal (the church’s Supreme Court) is deciding whether a rule change, that allows blessings of civil marriage by a rural diocese (region), is valid.

Coward wishes her situation did not get mixed up with the same-sex marriage debate. “The problem for [Smith] is that no one ever anticipated the fact that they would end up being a transgender priest in valid Holy orders, and sacramentally married” she tells Eternity, using the language of an Anglo-Catholic and alluding to her marriage with Jane.

“I’ve been lumped in with the same-sex debate, which I’ve never been a part of.” – Sorel Coward

Coward has already put her story on Facebook – and made it clear to Eternity she was happy for us to publish it. She was married to Jane in 1992 at St John’s Darlinghurst, Sydney, and ordained as a priest in Holy Trinity Cathedral, Wangaratta, in 1996.

She tells Eternity: “I’ve had a long history of … trying to keep the genie in the bottle … And at the time of my marriage, I knew I was transgender at the time of my ordination, I knew I was transgender.”

Coward continues: “So now, all of a sudden, I’ve been lumped in with the same-sex debate, which I’ve never been a part of.”

“Both Jane and I have a beautiful relationship together, and really resent being effectively labeled as ‘lesbians’ when I’m just not sure that fits our description of our situation.”

Giving her perspective, Coward tells Eternity: “Marriages go through a lot of changes, just like people go through changes all through their lives, but the change that’s happened in our own marriage is radical and unusual. Yet we’ve remained faithful to the commitment to love each other unconditionally. That’s what the church asked of us, what God asks of Jane and I and, as painful as it was for my wife, she has moved through this to continue to enrich our relationship together, and now it’s as better as it ever has been.”

Coward has been working in Adelaide as a psychotherapist, previously serving as a priest in the diocese of the Murray – an Anglo-Catholic diocese that stretches from outer Adelaide to the Victorian border.

Explaining to Eternity why she does not want her situation to be part of a same-sex marriage debate, Coward says: “What the church now has is a [priest] in Holy Orders, who is also sacramentally married, with the contradiction being that there are two females involved now – but they are not homosexual.”

Coward has deliberately made public her conversations with the Archbishop – which stretch back more than a year. In a letter responding to Coward’s plea, Archbishop Smith says that “when we met yesterday, I acknowledged the length of time it has taken to respond to your request.

“When I met with you on the first occasion, I said I wasn’t sure how to respond to your request, and I have spent considerable time reflecting on how I should respond. Yesterday I noted the fact that you are legally married to a woman and that up to this point the Anglican Church of Australia has not authorised the solemnisation of marriage for same-sex couples or the blessing of same-sex couples who are married.

“… It would be inappropriate at this time for me to issue you with a PTO.” – Geoffrey Smith

“I also noted that there are two referrals to the Appellate Tribunal, the outcomes of which may influence [the] understanding and practice of the Church concerning same-sex marriage. The Tribunal has not yet handed down its opinion on the questions before it. I also noted that the General Synod is due to meet next year and is very likely to have before it motions concerning same-sex marriage, generally including the licensing of clergy.

“General Synod was due to meet this year, but that meeting was postponed to 2021 due to COVID-19 restrictions. I said that in the light of the fact that the church was continuing to reflect on its position on same-sex marriage, it would be inappropriate at this time for me to issue you with a PTO.”

Coward regards the Archbishop’s letter as referring to her as a woman.

Smith is regarded as a “centrist” in a church split over same-sex issues. Eternity does not claim to be the Antony Green of church politics but it is likely that there is a conservative majority that will uphold a view of marriage as being for a man and a woman. This will become clear at the General Synod (national council) which  has been COVID-delayed until May/June next year.

Archbishop Smith is upholding a commitment by bishops not to make unilateral changes. Coward believes he is essentially performing a “holding action” while the Anglican Church makes up her mind.

When Eternity examined the official stances of churches towards homosexuality (for the marriage plebiscite), we found two small denominations – the Quakers and the Metropolitan Community Churches – had a “yes” policy, the Uniting Church in Australia (UCA) had a “we won’t tell you how to vote” policy, and all the others had official policies of not allowing same-sex marriages.

Since the plebiscite, the UCA has adopted a two marriage rite (traditional and inclusive). It is likely that the official denomination-level views on transgender relationships are similar if, in contrast with Coward’s viewpoint, they are seen as same-sex relationships.

However, it is clear that at present the Anglican response to a transgender marriage depends on geography. As conservative blogger David Ould has pointed out, in Brisbane priests Penny Jones and Jo Inkpin (Jo identifies as a transgender woman) were able to reaffirm their vows at St John’s Cathedral on their 35th wedding anniversary in July – and the Diocese of Southern Queensland’s Anglican Focus runs a feature on their ministries in the current edition.

Sorel Coward tells Eternity that a third transgender priest will “come out” in the next few weeks in Southern Queensland.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Eternity does not normally indicate when people we approach do not take part in a story. But in this case, we note that several Anglicans with strongly held conservative views chose not to comment. Eternity took this to mean that this very personal story was not the right place to make the points that will be discussed at General Synod and beyond.

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