Category Archives: Gender

Desire and Discipline

This is the third of my posts on the Faith and Order Commission’s report, Men and Women in Marriage. See the first and second. I’m planning one more, on procreation, at some point in the next couple of weeks.

1. The Argument of the Report

I said last time that the heart of the report – and the aspect of it that I most wanted to affirm – was its claim that flourishing human life requires an attentive response to our bodiliness. In that sense, flourishing human life involves working with what we are given. So far, I have focused on what the report has to say about what it is that we have been given; I now want to focus on what it says about how we work with that given material.

The report presents marriage not as a static fact, but as a form of patient labour and slow growth, in which the participants and the relationship between them can be transformed. And it describes this labour, growth and transformation in the language of Christian discipleship. It speaks of ‘The “hallowing and right direction of natural instincts and affections”’ (§36, quoting Canon B30). It says that the disciplines of married life ‘are not a mere constraint, a form we must accept and conform to somehow’, but that instead marriage ‘is a “vocation to holiness”, a path of discipleship by which we are opened to the life of the Spirit of God in the context of material existence’ (§30, quoting Resolution 113 of the 1958 Lambeth conference).

The fullest expression of this strand of the report comes in its discussion of the sacramental nature of marriage. It quotes the Common Worship marriage service to the effect that ‘as man and woman grow together in love and trust, they shall be united with one another in heart, body and mind, as Christ is united with his bride, the Church’ (§39) and then expands that to say, ‘The encounter of man and woman in marriage affords an image, then, of the knowledge and love of God, to which all humans are summoned, and of the self-giving of the Son of God which makes it possible’ (§40). A little earlier, it had spoken of marriage attaining ‘a permanence which could speak to the world of God’s own love’ and of this as a matter of our species’ ‘spiritual vocation’ (§33).

In other words, marriage can be a means by which human beings learn to embody and to communicate God’s love – in fact, marriage can be a sharing in, a participation in, a love that is prior to it: God’s own Christlike love. God’s love is marriage’s context and goal, and that love therefore defines marriage. Marriage is, fundamentally, ordered towards Christlike love.

2. Evaluation

a. Affirmation

The central idea here is one I want to affirm, enthusiastically and insistently. We are not simply called to live in attentive response to our bodiliness, but to live in attentive response to our bodiliness in the light of God’s love for the world in Jesus Christ. Christian ethics, that is, is not simply about conformity to creation, but about participation in redemption – though to put it this way is already to divide these two aspects too sharply. Redemption is the fulfilment of creatureliness, so that the route to true response to our created nature is by participation in redemption. Redemption does not abolish or override but brings to fruition our creatureliness. Creation and covenant belong together, because the Creator is also the Redeemer.

The call to live in response to out created natures is not, therefore, to be thought of primarily as the imposing of a constraint – an imprisoning within a static given that can only curtail our freedom. It is the call to discover together the possibilities of growth and transformation that our created natures give us, the particular forms of flourishing that they make possible – and to discover the particular ways in which we, as these particular bodies, can become by the Spirit’s work conformed to Christ, and so become particular icons of God’s love, communicating that love in a way that no other bodies could.

And that transformation is rightly thought of as a matter of discipline – but the discipline in question is that of a craft, working with the grain of the material at hand to make something beautiful, something that speaks ever more clearly of God’s love. It is a transformation that happens under the discipline of the material and under the discipline of the word that we are called to let that material speak, the word of love – and it is rightly seen as a matter of spiritual discipline, and of growth in holiness.

b. Questions

I think this strand of the report has a great deal going for it.  I do, however, have one big question and one big caution in relation to it. The question is, ‘Why isn’t this theology of transformation the heart of the report? Why isn’t the report arranged around this as its centre?’ The caution is, ‘Isn’t this language of discipline nevertheless rather dangerous, in this context?’

It may seem, for the next few paragraphs, as if I’ve turned away from this agenda to something more technical and methodological. There’s some truth in that, even though all the questions I pose in this post are really versions of that one central question that I’ve just mentioned. Nevertheless, if you’re not interested in the pros and cons of the report’s adoption of a ‘natural law’ approach to ethics, you might want to skip ahead to the next section – the one headed ‘The Sharp End’.

(1) The fact that Christian ethics is a matter of creation and redemption poses a question about method. The report answers this question in one specific way. The appeal to natural law, to the apparent facts of biology as confirmed by history, does nearly all the work in establishing the ethical guidance that the report gives. Discussion of what can be made of all that we are given – or, better, of what God, by Word and Spirit, can make of all this – takes up a secondary place. That is why the argument about natural order takes centre stage, and the argument about love can only play a supporting role.

In approaching its subject matter this way, the report stakes out one controversial option amongst the ways in which Christians have argued about ethics – even amongst the ways in which Anglicans have argued about ethics – and it declares in effect that this is obviously the proper Anglican form of ethical argument in this area. Yet there are other ways of approaching these questions, and this decision does have important consequences – such as the relegation of love to the ‘also starring’ credits.

It is perfectly possible to be no less committed than this report to the continuity of creation and redemption, and yet to be much less confident that we can know the order of creation – ‘nature’ – independently of the gospel. That is, it is possible to be no less committed to the continuity of creation and redemption, and yet to insist that here too we must resolve to know nothing but Christ and him crucified – and that we will only discover what our ‘nature’ is as we learn how our lives can be taken up and transformed so as to speak of God’s Christlike love. Our nature simply is the particular possibility that we have been given of communicating the love of God, and we discover it as we discover how to communicate that love.

So this is another item on the agenda for our deliberation posed by this report. What are the implications of placing ‘natural law’ arguments centre stage – and is that really a stance we have taken because we as a church have settled to our corporate satisfaction that this is the best way to proclaim the gospel?

(I should point out, before anyone gets too excited, that there can be versions of a natural law approach that lead to conservative conclusions, and versions that lead to liberal conclusions, and that there can be versions of a more love-centred ethic that lead to conservative conclusions, and versions that lead to liberal conclusions. The difference between these approaches does not map in any simple way on to the difference between liberal and conservative – which to my mind makes it a debate even more worth having.)

(2) Let me offer one specific way of focusing this broader question in relation to this report. What does the recognition of Jesus as the image of God do to our reading of male and female as the image of God? Does it supplement it or relativise it?

If we tend more towards the latter (and, yes, of course the range of options here is very much more complex than my simple binary suggests), might we be rather less ready to valorise the heterosexual couple as the normative form of human life (speaking of it as so easily as the ‘paradigm of society’)?

On the one hand, might we not instead tend to valorise celibacy – and regard (with St Paul) all marriage as some kind of ‘pastoral accommodation’? On the other, might we take the Body of Christ, the community of disciples caught up on the journey of discipleship and united in love, as the proper Christian ‘paradigm of society’ – and order our thinking about other human institutions, including marriage and the family, around that centre?

These sound like rhetorical questions, but they’re not really; the answer to each of them is quite likely to be a genuine, ‘Well, it’s complicated . . .’ And I realise that a public report is not the place to try to go into many of these complications. But if we ask what agenda the report sets for further deliberation, I think these questions need to be on the table – and possibly rather more prominent on the table than questions about biology.

The Sharp End

As I mentioned, my other worry about the report’s approach comes from a rather different direction (though it will ultimately leave us in much the same place).

If we do want to say that the transformation to which we are called is a matter of discipline, we will need to proceed with real caution – because this is an area in which we in the church have been all too ready to impose discipline, in ways that have done anything but lead to flourishing.

Our approaches to sexuality, to marriage, to ministry, to discipleship, to every area of life, have been distorted by the idea that it is above all women’s unruly power that needs controlling for the sake of good order – and we have justified that discipline by appeals to nature and to history. There is hardly any form of discipline – physical, social, mental – that we have not inflicted on women in our supposed pursuit of holiness. That history of such misbegotten discipline is far from over – and that’s the context in which we write our reports.

Our approaches to gender have been marred by our willingness to discipline those who do not conform to our expected patterns of ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’. We have exercised that discipline in forms destructive for both men and women, even if the forms of harm we have created have not been identical. (Part of the damage inflicted on men has involved our being given forms of freedom and power that we should not have, and that is certainly not the same as being denied forms of freedom and power that we should have – but it is still a distortion, a constriction upon true flourishing.) I have two children, a boy and a girl, and it is all too distressingly evident that they are living in the midst of an immensely complex and sophisticated machinery that squeezes them into specific gender roles, and doles out rewards for conformity and punishments for erring. This discipline is not a distant fact of history or of other cultures, it is here, all around us, and its strength is not obviously weakening. That’s the context in which we write our reports.

Our approaches to biological sexual differentiation have been marred by our willingness to enact discipline upon the bodies of those who do not conform to our biological templates for ‘male’ and ‘female’. We have been willing to enact our discipline on the minds, the appearance, the behaviours, and the relationships of intersexed persons – and, surgically, on their bodies. We have denied their existence as we have drawn our maps of sexual difference, and built our gendered culture – and, again, this is not a fact about long ago and far away, but is what we do now. (Go and read Susannah Cornwall’s critique of this very report, especially her last three paragraphs, if you want an illustration.) That’s the context into which we send our reports.

If we are going to talk about the disciplining of desire, the ‘hallowing and right direction of natural instincts and affections’, the ongoing patient transformation of what we have been given, we will need to tread with real and visible trepidation.

That does not mean that I am advocating an abandonment of all talk of discipline. It does not mean that I am giving up on all talk of what might actually be demanded of as as disciples, or all talk of obedience. But it does mean that I believe that I should be very wary of talking about that discipline in such a way that the hammer blow clearly falls first on those people over there, whereas I barely need to worry about whether it affects me.

I am, after all, a white, male, heterosexual, married, middle class, middle aged westerner with two children, a large income, and a Skoda estate. The closest I’ve been to being in a marginalised group was being a Mac user back before the advent of the iMac. I think it’s probably a good rule of thumb to say that I shouldn’t start talking about the spiritual disciplining of desire unless it’s clear that this discipline is going to be as much of a challenge for me as it is for anyone else. Otherwise, I’ll be like someone reading Romans 1 without realising that it leads straight on into Romans 2.

And that is why I think that the report actually points the right way forward here, albeit with a slightly shaking finger, when it turns to this talk about love. It suggests that the primary form of discipline we should be talking about is the discipline of love – the discipline by which we come to participate in and communicate Christlike love, the mutual love of disciples.

The discipline of love is not any kind of soft option. Taken seriously, it is the hardest teaching, the most counter-cultural teaching, that the church has available. It leaves nothing – no ‘natural instinct’, no tendency, no pattern of relationship – unaffected, and it is certainly not a discipline that lets me (or any of us) off the hook.

I suggest that we need to take this secondary strand of the report, and make it absolutely central. Everything else we say about the nature of marriage, about permissible forms of sexual behaviour, about sexuality, is secondary to this: the discipline of Christlike love.

We may also need to go on to say other things (and we will certainly continue to disagree about whether we do, and about what they are), but I am pretty sure that we will get those disagreements in the right perspective only if we keep the demands of love at the front and centre of everything we say.

Coda

I said when I began the evaluation of my second post, that ‘good, rich, complex and interesting work has been done on all the questions I am about to raise’. I want to say that again here. My frustration in reading this report did not stem from believing that my own brilliant ideas had not been given the consideration that I believe I am due. It stems from knowing that really good work on gender has been done by so many people – quite a few of them my friends and colleagues – and that many of the insights and challenging questions present in that work have become common currency in the circles in which I move, to our great enrichment. If Men and Women in Marriage had been written in serious engagement with that work, it would inevitably have been written differently – not necessarily because the conclusions would have been different, but because it would have had to respond to those questions and do justice to those insights along the way.

I am writing these posts not because I’m an expert in this area (I’m not), but because I happen to find myself standing on the overlap between two worlds – an academic world in which these questions and insights in relation to gender have rightly become unavoidable, and a world of church report writing in which they barely appear on the agenda. All I’m doing, in effect, is saying to the latter world, ‘Hey, you should talk to these other people, because they taught me everything I know about this, and they’re really worth listening to!’ So if you’ve got this far, and want to find the good stuff – well, go and read Susannah Cornwall, Rachel Muers, Sarah Coakley, Steve Holmes, Eugene Rogers, Christopher Roberts, Rowan Williams, Beth Felker Jones, James Brownson, for starters. They don’t all agree (to say the least), and they won’t all back up what I’ve said above, but they’ll certainly change how you approach these questions.

Gender, Nature, Culture

This is the second of my posts on the Faith and Order Commission’s report, Men and Women in Marriage. For the first, see here.

1. The Argument of the Report

Men and Women in Marriage is arranged around a very clear central vector. It begins with creation, and moves towards culture. That is, the report begins with sexual difference as a feature of the natural world – a defining feature of human biology – and then argues that human behaviour (our relationships, our institutions, our culture) should respect and respond to this feature.

The report is, in other words, an exercise in ‘natural law’ ethics (§9) – an exercise in describing how our behaviour should be regulated so that it will do justice to our (physical, biological, ecological) nature. ‘Not everything in the way we live, then, is open to renegotiation’, it says. ‘We cannot turn our back upon the natural, and especially the biological, terms of human existence’ (§10).

This argument begins with a claim made about marriage found in the Church of England’s marriage liturgy: that it is ‘a gift of God in creation’ (§2, 5, 6). Or, in the words of an earlier report (the Bishops’ 2005 Pastoral Statement on Civil Partnerships, quoted in §2) marriage is ‘a creation ordinance.’

What does this mean? It means that marriage is underpinned by, and gives expression to, a structure of the natural world (§8). And that means that it is underpinned by, and gives expression to, a fact about us human beings that runs deeper than our politics, economics, and culture (§6). It is underpinned by, and gives expression to, something beyond all the relativities of history – a biological fact.

What is this fact, according to the report? It is that we are, naturally, sexed creatures. Our sexual differentiation is cultural as well as biological, but its biological aspect is fundamental, underpinning all its other aspects. This biological aspect is not restricted to (though it certainly includes) our capacity for differentiated involvement in the process of procreation (§3).

Marriage is, according to the report, given to us as a way of acknowledging and expressing this natural differentiation. The report does not use the word ‘natural’ to describe marriage itself. Rather, marriage is an institution that responds to nature. Nevertheless, the report makes it clear that to form lifelong, monogamous, and exogamous male–female relationships, for the sake of reproduction and the nurture of children, is a primary way in which we can live in accordance with our nature.

When discussing the nature of marriage as lifelong, monogamous and exogamous, the report says that ‘Most developed traditions give these three structural elements a central place in their practices of marriage’ (§18) and that the exceptions ‘have tended to be of limited scope’ and ‘hardly amount to a significant challenge to these structural foundations’ (§19). I think the idea here is that history reveals nature – that we can look at the patterns of relationship that have prevailed and flourished across multiple human societies, and see in them clues to the underlying natural structure to which they are responding. And the idea underlying that is that cultures can only truly flourish if they are shaped in accordance with that natural structure.

The report therefore argues that ‘we need a society in which men and women relate well to each other’ (§12), where the word ‘well’ clearly means ‘in accordance with nature’. Marriage is our central means of ensuring that relationships between man and women achieve this goal – it is ‘a paradigm of society, facilitating other social forms’ (§13). Marriage (in the sense of a lifelong, monogamous, and exogamous male-female relationship, ordered towards procreation and family life) therefore ‘enriches society and strengthens community’ (§15, quoting Common Worship), and is ‘central to the stability and health of human society’ (§2, quoting the 2005 Civil Partnerships statement).

2. Evaluation

I said in the previous post that I ask was going to take seriously the Archbishops commendation of this report for study, and ask what agenda it suggests for further deliberation. In this post, I am going to point to a central facet of the report that I think should provide some shared ground between those who accept and those who reject its conclusions – before turning to a range of questions that the report’s detailed arguments have raised for me, which I think provide an agenda for further deliberation.

I am very aware that saying ‘We need to discuss x!’ can be a way of saying ‘You all need to agree with me about x, and if you thought just a little more clearly, you would do!’ It can also be a way of saying ‘None of you have been thinking about x. I am the first person to whom these ideas have occurred. Bow before me and my brilliance!’ So let me say right away that I know that good, rich, complex and interesting work has been done on all the questions I am about to raise – and that some of it has been done elsewhere by people involved in the writing of this report. And let me say that I do not think that further deliberation will lead to agreement, or even that it will lead to a general drift towards more liberal (or less liberal) conclusions. I have thoughtful, intelligent, well-read friends who occupy all sorts of different positions on these matters, and many of them know a very great deal more about them than I do.

Here, as elsewhere, my hope is not for consensus, but for a better quality of disagreement – and for more helpful public expressions of those disagreements.

a. Affirmation

Let me begin with the positive. The aspect of the report’s argument that I am most readily able to affirm is its insistence that to live well involves responding attentively to our bodiliness – and that we are not bodily in the abstract but always as particular sexed bodies. And we receive that particularity, that differentiation, as a gift from God. ‘Persons in relation are not interchangeable units, shorn of whatever makes one human being different from another. They are individuals who bring to the relationship unique experiences of being human in community, unique qualities, attributes and histories’ (§25).

Of course, I do not for a moment think that our options reduce to some kind of simple complementarianism (the belief that to respond adequately to our bodiliness primarily means acknowledging and distinguishing the distinctive contributions of men and women) or some kind of free-flowing and effectively disembodied individualism (in which the constraints and possibilities yielded by our differently sexed bodies play no appreciable role) – but the basic point still stands.

That very affirmation, however, gives rise to nearly all my questions.

b. Questions

Nature

First of all: I have questions about what it is that we are given in our ‘nature’ – and how we know what we have been given.

The report’s stress on the biological underpinnings of marriage suggests that what we are given is fundamentally our biological constitution, and that this can be known by means of natural science. The words ‘biology’ or ‘biological’ turns up six times, mixed in with the thirteen occurrences of ‘nature’ or ‘natural’, and there’s an explicit mention of the way in which ‘The marvellous ordering of the created world’ is discovered in ‘physics and biology’ (§8). The sexual differentiation of humans is related to that of ‘many animal species’ (§11). This report was intended to communicate the Church’s understanding of marriage to a wide public audience, and I think the strongest message we have conveyed about how we arrive at that understanding is that it is squarely based on the basic facts of human biology.

Of course, attention to biology can without too much fuss yield the idea that procreation requires the involvement of someone with male reproductive organs and some with female reproductive organs, and that is certainly not a trivial matter – and I intend to turn in a later post to a more extensive discussion of the role that procreation plays in this report. And yet it is – to say the least – questionable whether attention to biology will underpin the broader claims of the report in quite the way it seems to claim. After all, attention to the facts of human biology doesn’t yield a neat differentiation of male and female characteristics (see my earlier post on this); it doesn’t yield the idea that all the human beings that God has created can be neatly divided into ‘men’ and ‘women’; and it doesn’t yield the idea that lifelong, monogamous, exogamous relationships are biologically natural in a way that other patterns of relationship are not. More appears to be being built on biology in the report than it can bear – and biology on its own would seem to push us to rather more complex conclusions than this report allows.

One item for further discussion on the agenda set by this report is therefore the role of attention to biology in our reasoning about sex and gender – especially since we have, in effect, by publishing this report, said quite firmly to the wide public audience for whom this report was written that our position is based on the biological facts.

History

I’ve argued in my description above, however, that the report does not only rely on an appeal to biology. There is also a kind of appeal to history. The report suggests, in passing, that we can look at the patterns of relationship that have prevailed through history, and see in them clues to the underlying natural structure to which they respond – a structure that is itself beyond the relativities of history. I don’t want to make too much of this, because this argument is far less extensively and clearly laid out in the report than are the claims about biology. I do, however, think it is worth digging into this point a little.

At the most abstract level, I both agree and disagree with this kind of argument. That is, I think that history both reveals and conceals nature.

Let me try to explain that gnomic comment. I do think, as the report says, that we are called to respond attentively to our bodiliness – and that we are not bodily in the abstract but always as particular sexed bodies. I do think that true flourishing requires some such responsiveness. And I do think that we only know the nature of our bodiliness, including our sexed bodiliness, through the ways in which we have responded to it through history. That is, we know the constraints it imposes upon us and the possibilities it creates for us only by knowing how it has been registered as constraint and as possibility in specific ways by human beings in our history together.

And yet I also think that all of those responses are inadequate, and open to challenge – that we can’t point to any historical example and say, ‘Look, that’s where we see the constraints and possibilities of sexed bodily existence registered truly and completely.’ Out history is in large part a history of the misidentification of the constraints and possibilities that our sexed bodily existence yields – whether we are claiming that having a female body obviously means a moral and intellectual incapacity for the serious business of voting, or that girls are naturally interested in pink toys and boys in blue.

The brief reliance in the report upon the history of our responses to sexed bodily nature seems to me to suggest that they tend very largely to fall into one groove – they are canalised by the shape of the underlying biological landscape over which they are flowing.

I am deeply unconvinced by this kind of appeal to history, for two reasons which are somewhat in tension with one another. First, I am not convinced that the diversity and complexity of our history reduces to the canalised form suggested in the report. The idea that there is one main groove into which marriage has fallen in human history, and that the various exceptions to that groove have been ‘of limited scope’ – well, that simply seems wildly implausible to me. Second, I am fairly sure that where, for large parts of our history, our marriage practice has fallen into a groove, that has not always been something to celebrate – and that the grooves into which we have fallen have very often been deeply problematic.

So that’s another item for further discussion on the agenda set by this report. What kind of appeal to the history of marriage is involved in our reasoning about sex and gender?

c. The Sharp End

I am aware that the report doesn’t simply rely on appeals to biology and to history. Those appeals are part of a wider structure of argument, which includes discussion of the ways in which our biological nature can be taken up and worked on, in such a way as to speak more clearly of God’s love. The report has things to say about what we, in all our particular sexed embodiment, can become, as well as about what we have been given as the material for that becoming. I intend to turn to that aspect of the report more fully in my next post. For now, however, I want to keep the focus on these questions about biology and history.

These questions matter. They are not technical questions of interest only to academic theologians. They have sharp edges that intrude deeply into everyday life.

We have, after all, a very, very bad history – as human beings, as Christians, as Anglicans – of appealing to nature and to history when speaking about the proper roles and relations of men and women. We have a toxic, death-dealing history. We have used appeals to the ‘obvious’ facts of biology, and appeals to the ‘obvious’ lessons of history, to oppress and to abuse. And that history is not a tale of long ago and far away; it is all around us still.

We live in a world – we continue to make a world – in which we restrict the lives of women and of men by telling them fables about what is naturally appropriate to them thanks to their gender. We continue to build a world in which toxic myths about ‘normal’ family life are used to exclude and to demean – to underwrite our poisonous profligacy in naming others’ relationships as inadequate or dysfunctional or unnatural or malformed. We continue to build a world in which we use our valorisation of marriage, as a bond forged from links that are prior to law and culture, to mark out spaces in which violent abuse can hide.

That disastrous world is all around us. And I think it imposes urgent demands upon us when we speak about marriage, and about family life – especially when we speak to a wide public.

If we are aware that there is oppression and abuse all around us in the way that our society handles sex and gender, and if we are aware that much of this oppression and abuse is held in place by means of appeals to nature and to history, it seems obvious to me that we should tread very, very carefully when making our own appeals to nature and to history. I think it means that we need to speak with penitent acknowledgement of our church’s long complicity in gendered oppression and violence. I think it means that we need to speak with penitent acknowledgement that we have got exactly these things – our ways of reasoning about the roles of women and men in marriage and society – so badly, so shockingly wrong, so much of the time. And I think it means that we need to be very careful to name and to guard against the ways in which the arguments we make now could be taken up and used to perpetuate this oppression and abuse.

That, in the end, is the most urgent reason I have for thinking we need to debate these matters further, and to debate them better.

I happen to disagree with several of the claims that this report makes about sex and gender – but that in itself is not very interesting. I don’t expect that further deliberation will necessarily lead those who support those claims to change their minds, nor that it will be likely to lead us in the direction of any kind of consensus, and in any case I accept that in the corporate production of reports you win some arguments and you lose others.

I am, however, unhappy that in our report we waded into these waters with no acknowledgment of the harm that we have done in the past, nor of the harm that we could still do. I am unhappy that we spoke as if the church’s tradition of teaching and practice in this area were a straightforwardly positive inheritance, providing a moral high ground from which all we need to do is to reaffirm our position with confident clarity.  I do not think that was an adequate response to the situation we face, and I think we – inadvertently, and largely because the real focus of our attention was elsewhere – spoke in a way that is potentially harmful.

That is why I think we urgently need to talk about these matters further.

Men and Women in Marriage

In an earlier post, I provided a brief analysis of the Church of England’s 2012 Response to the government’s consultation on same-sex marriage. I now want to provide a similar analysis of its more detailed 2013 follow-up: the Church’s Faith and Order Commission (FAOC) report on Men and Women in Marriage.

This time, however, the context for my analysis is rather different. I am myself a member of FAOC, and I was a member when the report was proposed, when it was discussed, and when it was published. As a member, I share responsibility for the report, even if (as is always the way with reports produced by committee) it is not what I would have written had I been left to my own devices.

Men and Women in Marriage was ‘commended for study’ by the Archbishops in their Foreword, and it seems to me that the best way for me to accept my responsibility for it is to take that commendation very seriously – to study the report, to ask what agenda it suggests for further deliberation, and to seek to promote that deliberation as vigorously as I can.

If you are looking for criticism of the people involved, or gossip about the process by which the report was produced, or salacious revelations about the Commission’s discussions after publication, I’m afraid that these posts will (in all these ways, as no doubt in others) be disappointing.

An analysis of this report is the natural next step for my argument, however. The report is explicitly presented as a follow-up to the 2012 document. In the Foreword, the Archbishops say that it aims to provide a ‘short summary of the Church of England’s understanding of marriage’ and, more fully, that

It sets out to explain the continued importance of and rationale for the doctrine of the Church of England on marriage as set out in The Book of Common Prayer, Canon B30, the Common Worship Marriage Service and the teaching document issued by the House in September 1999 [The reference is to Marriage: a Teaching Document from the House of Bishops of the Church of England, Church House Publishing]

That description could be misconstrued, however. Our report did not provide an evenly balanced summary of all the main things that the Church of England has wanted to say about the nature and purpose of marriage, but was an attempt to set out more fully the background in the Church of England’s thinking to the specific arguments made in the debate about same-sex marriage. So nearly everything in the report is (as the title says) about the necessity of marriage taking place between a man and a woman – and about ‘how the sexual differentiation of men and women is a gift of God’ (§3). Other topics (including such central topics as faithfulness and public commitment) appear only briefly, and only insofar as they relate to that central topic.

Like the original response to the government consultation, then, this is a report about gender – specifically about the importance of gender difference to marriage, but also more broadly about the wider importance of gender in society. And that’s where my analysis, spread over the next two or three posts, is going to focus.

Disagreeing about Marriage – and Gender

Following on from my previous post, I wanted to begin delving into some of the earlier documents relating to the Church of England’s response to same sex marriage – and I’m going to start with ‘A Response to the Government Equalities Office Consultation – “Equal Civil Marriage” – from the Church of England‘.

It seems to me that the document makes two moves that are at least partially independent. It argues that the proposed legislation is contrary to the ‘intrinsic nature of marriage’, and it argues that there will be legal problems with its implementation, and in particular with any guarantee that the Church can continue to refuse to celebrate same-sex marriages. I’m going to focus almost entirely on the first of these strands: the argument about the intrinsic nature of marriage. Strange as it may seem, I think that the core of this argument is not directly about same-sex sexual relationships – so that the claim made in §5 of the document is true, at least to a first approximation – the claim that ‘our response to the question of same-sex marriage does not prejudge the outcome of that continuing theological and ethical debate’.

Instead, it is all about gender.

 

Summarising the argument

The argument of the document (which, let me stress, is not my argument!) can, I think, be set out as follows.

1. There is an essential complementarity between men and women.

2. The acknowledgement and expression of this essential gender complementarity is necessary for the flourishing of human society.

This complementarity has been recognised and expressed in societies down the ages; it is ‘enshrined in human institutions throughout history’ (Summary), and this acknowledgment serves ‘the common good of all in society’ (§4).

3. Acknowledging and expressing this complementarity is central to the purpose of marriage.

‘Marriage benefits society in many ways, not only by promoting mutuality and fidelity, but also by acknowledging an underlying biological complementarity which, for many, includes the possibility of procreation.’ (Summary.) This is what the document means when it speaks of the ‘intrinsic nature of marriage as the union of a man and a woman’ (Summary), and says that ‘marriage in general – and not just the marriage of Christians – is, in its nature, a lifelong union of one man with one woman’ (§1): the emphasis falls firmly on ‘man’ and ‘woman’. Of course, there are other goods proper to marriage – mutuality and fidelity – but these are not at issue in this debate, nor are they unique to marriage (§9). ‘[T]he uniqueness of marriage – and a further aspect of its virtuous nature – is that it embodies the underlying, objective, distinctiveness of men and women’ (§10). This understanding of marriage is ‘a matter of doctrine’, ‘derived from the teaching of Christ himself’ (§1), ‘derived from the Scriptures’, and ‘enshrined within [the Church of England’s] authorised liturgy’ (§2).

4. Marriage is the primary social institution by which our society acknowledges and expresses this complementarity.

‘Marriage has from the beginning of history been the way in which societies have worked out and handled issues of sexual difference. To remove from the definition of marriage this essential complementarity is to lose any social institution in which sexual difference is explicitly acknowledged.’ (§11)

5. If marriage ceases to be a way for our society to acknowledge and express this complementarity, our society’s capacity to acknowledge and express at all will therefore be seriously reduced, and society as a whole will be harmed.

This is why the problem can be seen as the government’s attempt ‘To remove the concept of gender from marriage’ (Summary). And this is what is meant by the claim that the proposals would ‘change the nature of marriage for everyone’ (Summary). It’s not that the authors of the report think that the strength of my marriage will be undermined if other people enter into a union of which I disapprove. Rather, they think that marriage as an institution will be less capable of performing one of its most important social functions if it ceases to be clearly defined in gender terms. And this is also what the authors of the report mean when they say that the legislation will involve ‘imposing for essentially ideological reasons a new meaning on a term as familiar and fundamental as marriage’ (Summary). The ideology in question is one where ‘men and women are simply interchangeable individuals’ (§12) – which is the only alternative the report imagines to its own account of essential gender complementarity. And all of this is why the report can plausibly say that this is not (directly) an issue about the acceptability of homosexual sexual activity, but about the fact that ‘the inherited understanding of marriage contributes a vast amount to the common good’, and that this will be lost, ‘for everyone, gay or straight’, if ‘the meaning of marriage’ is changed (§5). ‘We believe that redefining marriage to include same-sex relationships will entail a dilution in the meaning of marriage for everyone by excluding the fundamental complementarity of men and women from the social and legal definition of marriage’ (§13) and ‘the consequences of change will not be beneficial for society as a whole’ (§8).

6. The essential complementarity is biologically grounded, but it is not reducible to, capacity for procreation

It is, according to the report, fundamental to the definition of marriage that the couple be ‘open to bringing children into the world as a fruit of their loving commitment’ (§25); it quotes the Common Worship liturgy to the effect that marriage is the ‘foundation of family life in which children may be born’ (§2). More precisely, marriage relies upon a ‘biological complementarity with the possibility of procreation’ (§6); more precisely still ‘This distinctiveness and complementarity are seen most explicitly in the biological union of man and woman which potentially brings to the relationship the fruitfulness of procreation’ (§10; my emphasis). ‘And, even where, for reasons of age, biology or simply choice, a marriage does not have issue, the distinctiveness of male and female is part of what gives marriage its unique social meaning’ (§10).

7. Properly acknowledged, this complementarity will be expressed in specific and distinctive contributions from men and women in all social institutions.

The report states that ‘a society cannot flourish without the specific and distinctive contributions of each gender’ (§12). After all, this is a fundamental reason for supporting ‘the deeper involvement of women in all social institutions’ (§12). In other words, marriage is the means by which we recognise and celebrate an essential gender complementarity, which needs to be recognised and affirmed for the sake not just of marriage but the sake of ‘all social institutions’, which will flourish more fully if the ‘specific and distinctive contributions from men and women’ are given full expression in them.

 

Understanding the present debate

This is only one document, and I don’t want to build to much on it at this stage.  I’m therefore going to limit myself at this stage to two comments on this.

The first relates to my previous post. I assume that it is not unfair to think that something like this thinking is being expressed both in the House of Bishops’ promulgation of their Pastoral Guidance, and in its defenders’ reaction to the question posed by Linda Woodhead. And, as I suggested in my previous post, I think grasping this point helps to make sense of their reaction.

We are, such a person might think, dealing in this debate with a fundamental structure of creation, and of society – and of our law’s relation to that. We might all agree that questions about fidelity and mutuality go as deep as this question of gender complementarity, but nothing else comes close. In particular, questions about remarriage after divorce and questions about the precise circle of people you can’t marry are clearly not even in the same league as this question. We are dealing with a fundamental structure of creation, and therefore with the very possibility of flourishing in a society that has to live in harmony with creation. That’s clearly what was really being said when the bishops talked about there having been no fundamental divergence between civil and religious understandings of marriage until now – and all this fuss over secondary details is a mischievous smokescreen.  It’s all about gender – and this criticism from the likes of Woodhead, her colleagues, and now Higton – well, it dramatically misses that point.

Have I got that right? Is that a fair representation of the source of the impatience with Linda’s question that I’ve been hearing? I realise I’m putting words into mouths here, but I hope I haven’t slipped into caricature?

 

Thinking about gender

My second comment, however, is – well – Wow!

Because we’ve all been (understandably) focused on the foreground issue of same-sex marriage, and the long-running disagreements in the church about homosexual practice, haven’t we missed something else very important going on here? Because it looks to me like we’re seeing here the publication, at least in outline, of a whole massively controversial social theology of gender, as if it were unproblematically and straightforwardly the Church’s teaching – and it is happening without debate and without serious scrutiny. (I mean, yes, there’s been loads of scrutiny of this document and other related documents, but not much of it has focused on this issue.)

Let me put it this way. Suppose that we were to hear that the Church was putting together a commission to work, over the next couple of years, towards the production of a report on ‘Gender in Church and Society’. Suppose this commission were asked to state the Church’s understanding of how gender works – how our understanding should be shaped by scripture, how it should be shaped by engagement with tradition, how we should relate to our tradition’s many failures in this area, how we should understand gender to relate to biology, how gender should be acknowledged in our accounts of roles in the church, what we have learnt about gender in our debates about priesthood and epsicopacy, how gender should function in society more generally, and where we stand on questions of complementarity and equality in every sphere of society, how we should respond to other accounts of gender alive in our society, and so on.

Suppose such a commission were created. What kind of work do you think we would expect that commission to do, whom should we expect it to consult, what would we expect its members to read, with which debates would we expect them to engage, if we wanted them to carry out their task well, and with integrity?

Have we, as a Church, done that work together?  Are we putting forward the account of gender outlined above because, after careful and prayerful deliberation together, asking all the relevant questions and listening to all the relevant voices, we have concluded that this is what we have to say about gender as part of our witness to the gospel of Christ?

If not – well, don’t we have some rather urgent thinking to do?

 

Disagreeing about Marriage

As you might possibly be aware by now, especially if you’re a member of the Church of England, there has been some fuss about the House of Bishops’ Pastoral Guidance on Same Sex Marriage over the past few days.

That guidance was published on February 15th, and was followed by a flash flood of reaction from all sides.  If you want to explore those reactions, get your waders on and head over to the  Thinking Anglicans blog, where they’ve been collecting links.

In amongst all this, there has been one very specific bit of fuss which has been dominating my Twitter feed , because it involves quite a few of my friends and colleagues.

It arose in this way.  The Pastoral Guidance contains the following paragraph:

9. The Government’s legislation, nevertheless, secured large majorities in both Houses of Parliament on free votes and the first same sex marriages in England are expected to take place in March. From then there will, for the first time, be a divergence between the general understanding and definition of marriage in England as enshrined in law and the doctrine of marriage held by the Church of England and reflected in the Canons and the Book of Common Prayer.

This prompted Linda Woodhead and others to raise a question about whether this was historically accurate.  After all, they said (quite rightly) haven’t civil law and church teaching diverged before?  There was a divergence over the question of marriage to a deceased wife’s sister, and again over the remarriage of divorcees.  Doesn’t that make the Guidance’s claim inaccurate?

Linda raised the question first on Twitter, then in email correspondence (for which see here and here), and finally in a formal letter, signed by 24 academics, including several heavyweight church historians.  And the raising of these questions, and the Church’s response, have generated a torrent of comment and discussion.

 

Mutual Incomprehension

The more I have thought about these exchanges, the more it has seemed to me that there is a case of genuine mutual incomprehension at the heart of them.

Of course, you should immediately distrust me when I say something like that, because it involves me pretending to an airy overview, as if I can see more clearly and truly than all those poor saps down in the trenches – and because it might allow me to adopt an avuncular neutrality that refuses to make judgments about the actual arguments and evidence involved.  So let me say immediately that I am broadly with the 24 who signed Linda’s letter.  I think that paragraph 9 of the Bishops’ Guidance will continue to be misleading unless replaced with a more carefully qualified statement. And I think that it does matter, and that it would have been far, far better had there been a quick and cheerful admission of inadequate drafting, and the promise of a speedy revision.

I am  more interested, however, in trying to understand why such a speedy resolution of the issue didn’t happen, and why (if I am right) it was always unlikely to happen.  And, as I say, I begin to suspect that there is a case of genuine mutual incomprehension here – and the more I think about it, the more revealing I think it is.

 

Criticising the bishops

On the one hand, there is incomprehension from the side of the letter-writers as to how the House of Bishops could say what they said, and then fail to see that it needed revising once the error was pointed out.

To provide some context to this, look back to the ‘Response to the Government Equalities Office Consultation – “Equal Civil Marriage” – from the Church of England‘, published in June 2012, and note two things about it.

First, one of the fundamental criticisms of the proposed legislation made in that response was that civil and religious law are not separate institutions (‘The consultation paper wrongly implies that there are two categories of marriage, “civil” and “religious”‘), and that the legislation will have the effect of ‘introducing such a distinction for the first time.’  This claim is made in one of only two bold paragraphs in the central section of the response, ‘The Church’s understanding of marriage’.  It has undeniably been, therefore, presented as a central argument in the Church’s response to this whole issue.

Second, note that in the opening of that section, the response states that ‘In common with almost all other Churches, the Church of England holds, as a matter of doctrine and derived from the teaching of Christ himself, that marriage in general – and not just the marriage of Christians – is, in its nature, a lifelong union of one man with one woman.’  The word ‘lifelong’ appears right there in the general definition of marriage used in the report.

Now to Linda, to the twenty-four signatories of the letter, and to me, it seems perfectly clear from an examination of the relevant legal history that there has at times in the past been some kind of distinction between civil and religious law relating to marriage, and that when this has had to do with the remarriage of divorcees it  has had at least something to do with lifelong nature of marriage – and therefore with the ‘the doctrine of marriage held by the Church of England’.  It therefore seems perfectly clear (a) that anyone who wants to say that there has been no divergence in the past ‘between the general understanding and definition of marriage in England as enshrined in law and the doctrine of marriage held by the Church of England’ is going to need to qualify that statement quite carefully, if it is not to be misleading, and (b) that this is not a peripheral issue, but has to do with the strength of one of the pillars used to support the Church’s public response to the same-sex marriage issue.

If this is where you are coming from, the refusal to admit that there’s any problem with the wording of the Guidance, and the willingness to portray those making the criticism as mischief-makers seeking to score a cheap point for ideological reasons – well, that is bound to look like unjustifiable and brittle defensiveness, a form of leadership by bluster that refuses to take serious responsibility for the accuracy of what it says.  It is hard to see it as anything else.

 

Criticising the critics

There is, however, another side to this story.  I think that at least some of the response to this criticism  really does emerge from a vantage point from which this criticism of the Guidance looks like a wilful missing of the point – an attempt to create a fuss about a detail for the sake of calling into doubt an argument that does not materially depend on that detail.  I think it really does emerge from a vantage point from which this criticism looks like deliberate mischief-making which is itself barely honest or at least lacking in integrity.

To get the clue to this, look back again at the Church’s ‘Response to the Government Equalities Office Consultation’ – which I assume can be taken to represent the views of at least some of those responsible for the current Pastoral Guidance.  The section on ‘The Church’s understanding of marriage’ is the heart of the report, and before it gets to the two brief paragraphs on civil and religious marriage and their possible divergence, it has thirteen paragraphs that make a rather different point.  The centre-piece of this part of the Response is the other paragraph that is put in bold, paragraph 13:

We believe that redefining marriage to include same-sex relationships will entail a dilution in the meaning of marriage for everyone by excluding the fundamental complementarity of men and women from the social and legal definition of marriage.

My suggestion – which I can only make very sketchily here, but will fill out in a subsequent post – is that, for at least some of those who have rejected Linda’s criticism, this is the central issue, and its centrality is so obvious, so luminously blatant, that to pretend that other aspects of the Church’s definition of marriage might be as central – especially issues about which there has been all sorts of complex and detailed disagreement for as long as we’ve been a church – can only be deliberate obfuscation, akin to the claim that the whole structure of the Bishops’ argument should be called into doubt because there is a misplaced semicolon in a footnote somewhere.

In other words, I think I can see that, for someone who inhabits the views set out in that Response to the government consultation, the criticism that Linda and her colleagues made, and that I like them would like to see taken seriously, must look like such a stark case of missing the point that it can only be a deliberate missing of the point.

 

Where next?

I have already said that I’m not a neutral observer on this.  I fall quite firmly into the former camp.  I think the Guidance contained an error, the error mattered, and that the document should be revised.  I think that the response to the criticism has been a damaging PR own goal.  But I think that very fact gives me an obligation to try to understand the point of view from which this could genuinely and obviously look like irrelevant mischief-making.  I’ve only gestured towards that understanding below; doing the job properly is going to take a bit more time.

So, in the next post, I plan to dig a bit more deeply into that 2012 ‘Response to the Government Equalities Office Consultation – “Equal Civil Marriage” – from the Church of England’.  It’s not the only document I need to examine, but it’s not, I think, a bad place to start.  And I’m going to look a bit harder at what it says about the complementarity of men and women, because that, I think, is the issue right at the heart of our current disagreements.

Men’s brains, women’s brains, and complementarianism

Let’s suppose I believe that God has made men and women biologically different, and that this simply and directly fits them for differing but complementary roles in society and in the church.

I don’t believe this. I really don’t. But let’s suppose I did, just for the sake of argument.

So let’s suppose, purely in order to give this idea some handy labels, that I believed that God has made men for focusing, and women for multitasking. (Feel free to substitute whatever other labels you prefer, that name the supposed biologically-derived differences between male and female aptitudes, that supposedly fit them for different roles.)

And then let’s suppose that I think that giving men social (and ecclesial) roles that require focus, and giving women social (and ecclesial) roles that require multitasking, is justified precisely because it does justice to the different biological constitutions that God had given them.

And let’s even suppose that I believe that there is something natural, something fitting, about pairings of men and women, above all other kinds of pairing, precisely because it means the bringing together of God-given focus and God-given multitasking – the bringing together of the complementary expressions of the God-given biological differences between men and women.

And then, finally, let’s suppose that I believe that the kind of research recently splashed all over the headlines – research showing the differentiation in brain structure between men and women – is true in an unproblematic way, and that it identifies precisely the kind of differences between men’s and women’s biological make-up that I have been talking about, and demonstrates that they are real, in a scientifically verified kind of way.

If I were to think like this, I would (I think) be well on my way to coming unstuck.

What the research appears to show, after all, is that men’s and women’s brains tend to differ. Even if we take it at face value, all this research shows is that on average men will have brains better fitted for certain kinds of cognitive task than women, and on average women will have brains better fitted for other cognitive tasks than men. Even if we took it on face value, this research would only allow us to talk about tendencies, about averages, about overlapping bell curves of likelihood.

Take any given man, and unless you happen to have picked the most extreme of the extreme, at the deeply eccentric far end of the male spectrum, you will be able to find women who are more focusy and less multitasky than this man. Similarly, take any given woman, and unless you have once again managed to hit the nether regions of the female twilight zone, you will be able to find men who are more multitasky and less focusy than this woman.

In other words, if I did think that people should be given different roles in society and in the church, and that the reason for this was that God had given different biological constitutions, and that these differences were the kind of thing captured by this research – if I did think, in effect, that people should be given different roles in society and in the church according to whether they were more biologically focusy or more biologically multitasky, this research would suggest that my ‘more focusy’ roles should go to both men and women and my ‘more multitasky’ roles to both women and men – just that the proportions of men and women would be likely to differ in each case.

And if I really did think that there was something fitting about pairing a focusy human being with a multitasky human being – that these pairings were for this very reason natural in a way that focus-focus and multitask-multitask pairings could not be – if I thought, that is, that they were natural because of the natural complementarity of the focusing and multitasking roles – well, this research would suggest that my ‘natural’ focus-multitask pairings were likely to come in male-male, male-female, female-male, or female-female varieties – just that I might expect somewhat more of them to fall into the male-female pattern than fell into the other three patterns.

I don’t think any of this, of course. But if I did, I think my views would be well on the way to unravelling.

* * *

What do I really think?

Well, in a discussion on Facebook with Ian Paul, I first commented on the way the research had been presented as identifying essential differences between men and women. I said, ‘Let’s take a large sample of people, divide the sample roughly in half, systematically treat one half very differently from the other from birth onwards in ways that we know will alter the connections their brains develop, and then see whether their brain connections differ at the end of the process… Well, what do you know!’

Then, when Ian asked whether I denied any ‘essentialist element to gender identity’, I said, ‘Amongst the many differences that shape the development of our identities, biological differences associated with sexual differentiation are bound to be important. But I do think you would have to be very brave to say we could reliably isolate those effects from others; and I do think that, given the ways in which our societies (and our churches) are still afflicted by disastrously simplistic nonsense about the different roles and treatment appropriate to men and women, I think we could probably do with exercising some caution in this area.’ [Quote corrected slightly for clarity]

I should perhaps add, given that I’ve just dropped his name into this post, that am not at all claiming that my thought experiment above captures what Ian Paul thinks. I’m pretty sure he has a considerably more complex view than the one I set out here.