The Church of England’s new guidelines on anti-bullying in schools encourage students to “play with the many cloaks of identity,” an approach that would be well-suited for Roman Catholic schools as well.
The Church of England Education Office released the document, “Valuing All God’s Children,” to help its 4,700 schools address homophobic, biphobic, and transphobic bullying. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, offered his endorsement in the document’s foreword. NPR reported on the document’s contents:
“The 52-page document Valuing All God’s Children outlines 10 recommendations for schools such as training for faculty and staff so they are ready to offer pastoral support for students who experience homophobic, biphobic and transphobic bullying as well as writing curricula that ‘offer opportunities for pupils to learn to value themselves and their bodies.’
“Teachers are also advised to learn how to properly identify and document bullying behavior.
“In addition to the concrete guidance, the document goes out of its way to highlight ‘primary and secondary schools as places where students can explore their identity in any form it takes.'”
The New York Times quoted one such passage in its report about allowing students safe spaces to do such exploration:
“‘[Children] should be at liberty to explore the possibilities of who they might be without judgment or derision. . .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. . .Childhood has a sacred place for creative self-imagining.'”
In another section, rooting itself in Scripture, the document sets out a vision for the Church of England’s educational programs to help students live “life in all its fullness” (John 10:10). Parts of that vision to help every student flourish include:
- “Pupils have the hope of being free to be themselves and can fulfill their potential without fear of being bullied.”
- “Within a loving and hospitable community pupils can explore their identity without fear of harm, judgement or being ostracized.”
- “Pupils are helped to work out how to live fulfilled, embodied lives: how to be happy with the skin they are in. They are also encouraged to celebrate the wonderful variety of different ways of being human.”
- “Pupils understand how bullying effects people and the legal context of people’s rights in this country. They learn how to navigate difference wisely and compassionately. They can discern when to stand up for justice.”
The first edition of “Valuing All God’s Children” was released in 2014, and this updated edition reflects the seriousness with which Church of England officials engage anti-LGBT bullying.
Roman Catholic officials have been less forthcoming when it comes to the issue of bullying and support for LGBT youth. There have been some initiatives by church leaders and Catholic educators, including the bishops of England and Wales. Their Catholic Education Service, in conjunction with St. Mary’s University, Twickenham, released a guide on how to address anti-LGB bullying earlier this year, titled “Made in God’s Image: Challenging homophobic and biphobic bullying in Catholic Schools”. This document is excellent in many ways and is a milestone in Roman Catholic guidance for dealing with LGB issues. New Ways Ministry sang its praises when it was released earlier this year, and Francis DeBernardo, our executive director, provided a very positive analysis of it in an essay for The National Catholic Reporter. It focused less on transgender students’ needs, however, and it did not go so far as to offer the positive vision of gender/sexual diversity that is present in the Church of England’s document.
Given that Roman Catholic hierarchical discussions of gender identity have hypothesized that some educational curricula are encouraging children to choose their gender, it is important to note that this is not what the Anglican document does. Allowing children to adopt gender non-conforming behavior is not the same thing as encouraging them to make a choice about their identity. Instead, it is allowing children the freedom to express themselves in appropriate and accurate ways, without fear of condemnation.
The Anglican document is laudable. Acknowledging that children play with gender expression and engage in “creative self-imagining” draws from the very best of contemporary knowledge. The further acknowledgement that this play and imagining is sacred gives the document strong theological underpinnings, drawing from the very best of contemporary spirituality. Roman Catholic leaders should read their Anglican peers’ work to inspire them to make sure every student in Catholic education feels safe to discover who God created them to be and to be welcomed as that person.
—Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, November 14, 2017