LONDON — In new rules to counter bullying in its 4,700 schools, the Church of England said on Monday that children should be able to “play with the many cloaks of identity” in the classroom, fueling a debate over the handling of gender among the very young.
The discussion has illuminated deep divisions between Anglican conservatives defending traditional values and those seeking a more liberal approach.
In a directive called “Valuing All God’s Children,” the church said elementary school students “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,” it said. “Childhood has a sacred place for creative self-imagining.”
The Most Rev. Justin Welby, the archbishop of Canterbury, who leads the Church of England and is the spiritual leader of the world’s 80 million Anglicans, endorsed the guidelines.
The Church of England issued rules to curb homophobic bullying in its schools in 2014, but the latest guidelines greatly expand the reach of its concerns.
“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. “This guidance helps schools to offer the Christian message of love, joy and celebration of our humanity without exception or exclusion.”
While Britain has many kinds of schools, ranging from fee-paying to state-run, those affiliated with the Church of England are often prized by parents for offering a high standard of education.
But, in an era of increasingly vocal opposition to discrimination against people on the basis of sexuality or identity, the church itself is in turmoil over its handling of such issues.
The rules were broadly welcomed by groups that campaign for the rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and other people, including the nonprofit group Stonewall, which described the new guidelines as a “clear signal that homophobic, biphobic and transphobic bullying must never be tolerated.”
But traditionalists took issue.
“These rules are unkind, unloving and lacking in compassion,” said Andrea Minichiello Williams, chief executive of the evangelical group of Christian Concern. “We are all against bullying, but the church is using these guidelines to pursue an agenda that runs counter to the church’s teaching.”
“We are getting to the point where if you are not careful, the slightest slip from the correct agenda in a Church of England school will get you punished,” she told the tabloid The Daily Mail. “The anti-bullying agenda is aimed against people who step out of line — the anti-bullies are becoming the bullies.”
When he was appointed in 2012, Archbishop Welby said he was “always averse to the language of exclusion.”
“Above all, in the church, we need to create safe spaces for these issues to be discussed in honesty and in love,” he said. “We must have no truck with any form of homophobia in any part of the church.”
But despite his appeals for inclusiveness, and despite the legalization of same-sex marriage in most parts of Britain in 2014, Anglican doctrine still forbids priests from performing or blessing those marriages in church.
*This article was originally posted on The New York Times