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


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.


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.

4 Thoughts on “Gender, Nature, Culture

  1. Yes, this, and in the other debate over same-sex relationships as well. I’m always amazed at the unexamined appeal to the unbroken tradition of the church on the matter, considering the appalling fruits it has given through the ages.

  2. Susannah Cornwall on March 20, 2014 at 2:39 pm said:

    Mike, thank you for this. As ever, you sum things up clearly, logically, even-handedly and with good humour.

    I agree that a lot of what seems to underlie this report is a good impulse gone awry: the good impulse being to affirm and endorse the specificity, and goodness in materiality, of human sex; and the gone-awry bit being an overly-emphatic assertion that therefore only maleness and femaleness are how sex can legitimately manifest. What sets out, I think, to affirm the goodness of difference, ends up reinforcing quite a narrow account of human sex, and ironically excludes any difference which is *too* different.

    As you know, I think one of the most egregious bits of the report is a bit you haven’t commented on yet (but perhaps you will), and that’s the assertion that “persons are not asexual, but are either male or female”. Assuming that asexual here doesn’t mean “not experiencing sexual desire”, but rather something like “not having a (male or female) sex”, it just totally ignores the existence of intersex people – despite the report’s repeated appeals to biology. I said in a blog post of last April:

    “It is simply not true to say that ‘persons … are either male or female’. Humans are indeed sexed, and the majority are indeed sexed male or female, but maleness and femaleness are not the only options available, even at a biological level. Intersex people have a combination of male and female biological characteristics, meaning they cannot be slotted into either the male or the female category. As P.-L. Chau and Jonathan Herring note, ‘It is not that it is hard to find out whether an intersexual is male or female, but rather that even knowing everything there is to know about them, they do not fall into the accepted description of male or female”’ (Chau and Herring 2002: 332). Intersex is rare, but not as rare as all that: intersex people account for as many as 1 in 2,000 of the population.

    It seems to me that there are only two conclusions to be reached from the statement that ‘persons … are either male or female’, neither of them pleasant ones: first, that the authors are simply not aware of the existence of persons whose biological sex is neither male nor female (or who have characteristics of both male and female), and have therefore taken no account whatsoever of this category of persons in the theological anthropology which underlies their arguments on marriage (which surely brings its veracity into question); or, second, that they are aware of such people, but do not consider them persons. In other words, something about the sex of those who are not male or female renders them non-persons.”

  3. Thank you, Susannah.

    To make just a quick gloss on my earlier comment on gender complimentarity, whenever someone says “Either male OR female”, it then extends (beyond chromosomes or body morphology) to “expressing maleness or femaleness” …

    …and that “expressing maleness” includes DEFINING both maleness and femaleness! [To the, um, sub-ordination of both females/femaleness, AND males expressing (typical) femaleness]

    I look forward to reading your further thoughts, Mike.

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