Category Archives: Gender

Questioning the “Ministers’ Consultation Response”

Recently, ‘Over 2500 Christian Ministers and Pastoral Workers’ signed a public response to the government’s consultation on the proposed ban of Conversion Therapies.

The response takes the form of a letter and an accompanying ‘background and analysis’ report. They express the concern that, as currently framed, the proposed ban will (perhaps inadvertently) have the effect of criminalising some ‘normal practices of religion’, in which Christian ministers and parents seek to persuade people to follow common Christian moral teachings.

To anyone who knows me well, it will come as no surprise to find that I disagree with almost everything the letter and report say about gender and sexuality, and their place in Christian morality. In this post, however, it is not my intention to pursue those debates, nor to speak only to those who might take my side in them. My purpose here is much more limited. It is to make a set of claims that I believe might in principle be recognised and accepted even by those who agree with the broad thrust of the theology expressed in the letter and report.

My argument is that (perhaps inadvertently) the letter and report could have the effect of

  • protecting clearly abusive behaviour not just from criminalisation but from censure;
  • promoting ways of thinking that can be used to justify such abuse;
  • making it harder for those who have suffered and are suffering from such abuse to have their testimonies and cries for help taken seriously; and
  • encouraging those who hear such testimonies and cries to blame the victims of this abuse rather than the perpetrators.

These are strong claims, but I will back them up below.

To be clear: my claims are about the words in the letter and the report, not about the authors’ intentions or motivations, still less those of the many signatories. The words the authors have produced are, as they stand, dangerous. They have the capacity to do harm. The authors may not intend this harm; they may not even have seen that their words could be taken this way. Nevertheless, once the danger posed by their words has been pointed out, they have a responsibility to mitigate it. I will therefore argue that those responsible for these words should withdraw or revise what they have written, and that, until they do so, all those who have signed the letter should distance themselves from it.

Note on references: Quotes referenced by a page number are from the letter; those referenced by a paragraph number are from the accompanying report. 

Testimonies of abuse

One of the main drivers for the proposed ban on Conversion Therapy is the weight of testimony from people who have been through such therapies, and who have experienced significant psychological or emotional harm. It is not hard to find such testimonies; large numbers are available in the public domain, as a quick Google search will reveal. They vary widely, both in the descriptions they give of what people underwent, and in their accounts of the damaging done.

There is a lot that, in another context, I would want to say about these testimonies. I would want to make stronger claims in relation to them than I shall here. In the context of this post, however, I will restrict myself to the following minimal claim: There are people – a considerable number – who have been harmed by some practices of Christian ministry that seek to change their sexual orientation or their experience of gender. I am not here talking about those who have experienced physical coercion and abuse (though there are such cases). I am talking about those who have experienced practices of ministry that were emotionally manipulative, that have had deep effects on their mental and physical well-being, and that amounted to psychological abuse.

(For an initial definition of ‘psychological abuse’, see the Church of England’s fact sheet, ‘Types of Abuse’, §3.3.)

The questions I have in mind as I approach the letter and report are: How do this letter and report encourage us to respond to people who have experienced this kind of abuse? And how might they encourage their readers to respond to someone who in future raises a safeguarding concern of this nature? These questions are at the centre of this debate.

Denying the problem

The first response that I find in the letter and accompanying report is denial: denial that such abuse exists, or that it constitutes a serious problem.

The report does raise the possibility that such abuse exists. ‘If there is firm evidence of a real and current problem with coercive and abusive therapies, not covered by existing law,’ the authors say, ‘we have no problem with legislating against them’ (§4, emphasis mine.) Elsewhere, however, this possibility is not taken seriously. The letter suggests that the problem that the proposed ban is trying to tackle is one of ‘evil and disreputable past practices which are already illegal and which Christians are the first to condemn’ (p. 1; my emphasis). The report suggests that it is one of ‘disreputable, cruel and thoroughly unchristian practices of some quack therapies in the past’ (§2; my emphasis). I can find no direct acknowledgement in the letter or the report that there is any current problem in Christian contexts.

The implicit but clear response to those who testify that they have recently experienced abuse, or those who cry out because they are still experiencing it, or any who raise safeguarding concerns in this area in the future, is that they are wrong. There is no serious problem here that needs facing and addressing. It is all in the past.

Claiming compassion

One possible response to the claim I have just made would be to note that, although there is no direct acknowledgment that people in the present are suffering psychological abuse as a result of Christian ministry in this area, there are several references to the idea that such Christian ministry should be ‘loving, compassionate’ (p. 2), and conducted ‘with gentleness and respect’ (p. 1). Doesn’t that implicitly acknowledge, and rule out, forms of ministry that are unloving and lacking in compassion – forms that are abusive and coercive?

Reference to love and compassion could have allowed the authors of the letter to call out patterns of ministry that are emotionally manipulative and damaging in precisely the way that many victims have described. The authors could have used an insistence upon compassion and gentleness to acknowledge and distance themselves from such abusive and coercive practices. As the report goes on, however, it becomes clear that the language of love and compassion are working quite differently.

First, it is claimed that this love, compassion, gentleness and respect already characterise the churches – at least, those churches whose ministers have signed the letter, or that agree with the teachings set out in the report. ‘We always seek to act in love, with gentleness and respect, for the good of all, and never with any form of coercion or control’ (p.1). This language is deployed in such a way as to suggest that there are no serious failings in love, compassion and gentleness in our churches. It is not deployed in such a way as to encourage us to be on the lookout for such failures, or to devote any energy to rooting them out. The talk of love and compassion is not allowed to disturb the insistence that coercion and abuse are safely past, and already safely condemned.

Second, when the report does call out any actions as unloving, they are not the patterns of ministry named in the testimonies of victims. What is ‘supremely compassionate’ (§9), according to the authors, is to pass on the kind of teachings that the letter and report sets out. What is ‘terribly harmful’ (p. 1) is to go against those teachings. And that is all the content given here to either ‘compassion’ or ‘harm’.

I am not here mounting the argument that the authors are wrong to call their teachings compassionate, and the rejection of those teachings harmful. That is an argument I am more than willing to make – but it is an argument for a different day. My concern today is much more specific: it is that, as far as I can see, this is the only kind of harm that the letter and report acknowledge as a danger faced in this area of contemporary Christian ministry.

In other words: far from qualifying what I said earlier, the language of love and compassion is used in the report in such a way that it reinforces its denial that there is a problem of coercive or abusive Christian ministry to tackle in this area.

Raising the stakes

There is a third problem with the idea that the letter and report’s talk of love and compassion qualifies its implicit denial of claims about abuse. As noted, the report claims that ‘Living by, teaching and helping people to follow God’s pattern of marriage is a supremely compassionate thing to do’ (§9). The compassion involved is, as the authors present it, one of rescuing people from a terrible and deadly mistake. The rhetoric of the report is stark.

In relation to gender transition, for instance, the authors are clear that they see themselves as trying to avoid actions that are ‘exceptionally damaging’ (§30), a matter of ‘irreversible damage’ (§30), and tantamount to ‘an appalling crime’ (§31). In the light of that ‘we will do all that is in our power to encourage young people away from’ gender transition’ (§30, my emphasis).

These phrases are deeply chilling, especially in the current climate. One need only consider what is happening in Texas, for instance, to understand how very threatening they sound. 

My point here, however, is this. The stakes, as the authors present them, are very high indeed. The harms that they believe they are seeking to avoid are so serious that they demand strenuous and uncompromising action – and the strenuous and uncompromising nature of this action is precisely what compassion requires. The question is bound, then, to arise: What limits might there be on appropriate action in this area? If, as you see it, you are trying to rescue someone from an ‘appalling crime’, what forms of persuasion are really off limits for you?

Christian leaders are, according to the letter and the report, to ‘urge and assist’ (p. 1), ‘to persuade, to teach and to help’ (p. 2), to ‘teach and train’ (§5). These are part of the ‘normal practice of religion’ (p. 1). Yet I can see no acknowledgment here that these normal practices can and do sometimes take forms that are emotionally manipulative and psychologically abusive – and that they can take these forms, at times, precisely because those engaged in them believe the stakes to be so high, and believe that the primary demand of compassion is that they try ever harder in their urging, persuading and training.

There is no acknowledgment here that, if you make such strong claims about how much this ministry is needed, you need to make claims no less strong about the dangers that attend such zeal, about the need for protection against those dangers, and so about the need for strict limits upon the forms that such ministry can properly take.

Dismissing feelings

At various points, the authors speak dismissively of ‘feelings’. They believe in a God-given plan for people’s identities and relationships, and they present those who disagree with them as believing that ‘their identity is found purely in their feelings’ (p. 1) – their ‘subjective feelings and attractions’ (§11; cf. §18). They make clear that they believe such feelings to be insubstantial and potentially deceitful, and that following God’s plan is likely to involve denying them (§9).

The problem is that this way of talking about feelings provides a framework, whether deliberately or inadvertently, for dismissing claims of psychological abuse. Such abuse is, after all, in significant part abuse carried out in the realm of feelings.

The picture painted in the letter and report is one in which Christian ministers are trying – in their urging, persuading, and training – to convey certain Christian truths, and in which the main thing standing against those truths is ‘subjective feeling’. If that is the framing you have internalised, then when a recipient of such urging, persuading and training reports an experience of emotional manipulation or psychological harm, you will have an easy response ready to hand: ‘That is just your feelings.’ And feelings, in this picture, often need to be overridden, at any cost.

There are significant problems with the way the report uses this language of feelings. It seems to me, for instance, to be a thoroughly inadequate way of talking about the deep-seated patterns of experience involved in gender identity and sexuality. On another occasion, I have also written about the strange dualism involved in the contrast between biology and feelings that the authors deploy. For my present purposes, however, all of that can be left to one side.

My claim here is much more limited: it is that the letter and report provide no counterbalance to the idea that negative reactions to the urging, persuading and training employed by Christian ministers are simply a matter of subjective feelings, and that such feelings have no real weight – or that they are no more than evidence of sinful resistance to the truth. In this framework, it becomes all but impossible to take seriously the idea that such ministry might cause deep psychological harm.

Insisting on malleability

There is one last area that I want to consider, but this one is a bit messier than the others. The phrase ‘Conversion Therapy’ refers to interventions based on the idea that someone’s sexuality or gender identity – or the deep-seated patterns of experience and desire that those terms are used to name – can and should be changed. The process involved is supposed to prompt or produce that change, or be the context in which it is asked for, expected, and welcomed. Such activities are the focus of attempts to outlaw Conversion Therapy, and the heart of many of the testimonies of harm with which I began.

Confusingly, there seem to be two different responses to this basic idea woven into the report. One, fairly conventional in discussions of this kind, distinguishes between identity and behaviour. Along this line, the key claim is that normal Christian ministry is not focused on trying to change the deep-seated patterns of feeling and experience that we might call ‘identity’, but on changing the behaviour that might flow from them. It is how someone acts on their desires and their feelings that matters, and that is the focus of Christian ministry. Along this line, the teaching and urging of Christian ministers is focused on helping people be obedient to Christian teachings as presented in this report, regardless of how they feel about them (§13).

A second strand of the report focuses instead on the underlying patterns of desire and experience. The authors take time to state that neither sexual orientation nor gender identity is ‘an innate aspect of personhood’ (§17); they are a matter, instead, of ‘subjective feelings’ which the authors are confident are not innate (§18). I am not sure why the authors stress this, unless they want to convey that these underlying patterns of desire and experience are malleable, and that seeking to change them can be a meaningful object of Christian ministry.

The crux of this ambiguity lies in paragraph 26 of the report. On the one hand, that paragraph states unequivocally that the authors ‘do not have any “therapy” to offer’ that could change sexual orientation or change people ‘to or from being transgender’. Hearteningly, they say ‘nor do we approve of the attempt’. One might think, therefore, that (as they suggest in §4) they are open to a ban on Conversion Therapy, including in the context of contemporary Christian ministry, if the focus of the ban on such attempts could be more precisely expressed. There are some other parts of the letter and report that could be read in that way: it is, after all, only a plea that that the government’s proposals will be dropped ‘in their current form’ (p. 2).

Yet what is given with one hand seems to be taken away with the other. In the same paragraph, they say that they ‘do not define people in these terms’. That seems to be a reference back to the claim that patterns of desire and experience that people are referring to when they speak about ‘sexuality’ or ‘gender identity’ are not innate. And I am not sure what the point is of repeating that insistence here, unless it is to suggest that the language about changing sexual orientation or gender identity simply doesn’t apply to Christian ministry, even when that ministry is oriented towards the transformation of the deep patterns of someone’s desires and experience – because the Christian ministers involved don’t believe that those deep patterns amount to something innate called ‘sexual orientation’ or ‘gender identity’. And there are other parts of the letter and report – most of those that I have cited above – that appear to reinforce this reading of the paragraph.


In the light of all that, I believe some urgent clarification and restatement is needed. To echo the letter’s own words, ‘I very much hope (and pray) that these documents will be dropped in their current form.’

I very much hope that the authors and their supporters can state more clearly and forcefully their briefly mentioned disapproval of attempts to change the deep-seated patterns of desire and experience referred to by the language of ‘sexuality’ and ‘gender identity’.

I hope they can clearly acknowledge the existence in the present of emotionally and psychologically abusive forms of Christian ministry in this area, decry the harm that they do, and state their resolute opposition to the continuation of such harm.

I hope they can make clear that those who testify to having endured such abuse, or who raise safeguarding concerns in this area, should be listened to, and their accusations taken with full seriousness, even when that means taking a hard look at forms of Christian ministry that align with the theology expressed in this letter and report.

All of this is needed because, whatever the intentions of its authors and the signatories, this response as it stands is dangerous. If taken seriously in its current form, it will make it harder for those who report emotional or psychological abuse in this context to be heard. It will encourage people not to take the testimonies of such victims seriously, and to blame those victims themselves for the psychological harm that they have suffered. It will encourage Christian ministers to think it their duty to urge and persuade people at all costs, and to dismiss the emotional toll of their actions as mere ‘subjective feelings’. It will make it all too easy for those who call out such abuse to be painted as enemies of the gospel. It will encourage people to defend those who are accused of such coercion as if they were defending the gospel.

The Ministers’ Consultation Response is, as it stands, a charter for abuse.

A Critique of ‘Transformed’ 6

This is the last of six posts on the Evangelical Alliance’s Transformed report. See the first, second, third, fourth, and fifth.


This is a bad report – and it is bad not just when judged from the position of someone like me, who happens to disagree with nearly everything in it. It is bad in its own terms.

The report insists that ‘Love requires empathy and compassion – listening and understanding the otherness and challenge to someone else’s identity’ (p.15). Well, judged by that standard, this is a loveless report. It talks the talk about compassionate listening, but the voices of transgender people are all but excluded from its pages. The report does nothing at all – and I really do mean nothing – to help its readers learn seriously about trans people’s experience, their views, their lives, their questions, their needs. It hides them from view, while pretending to have done them justice.

The report intends to root itself in the bible. But it will not allow the picture it paints of the biblical big picture to be disturbed by the awkward details of the particular texts that it cites. The authors seem simply not to have noticed that their own exegesis shows the text to be significantly less neat than their argument needs it to be: their hard-edged ‘big picture’ steamrollers everything in its path, regardless of who is in its way.

The report wants us to be serious about bodies. But it itself shaped by a deep dualism, which doesn’t entertain the possibility that transgender experience might be rooted in the body. And it is shaped by inattention to the actual variety and complexity of real human bodies. In fact, it isn’t serious about real human bodies at all: it is serious about a stylised, binary representation of bodies. And when the authors do have to face real bodily complexity, in the shape of intersex conditions, they’re the ones willing to resort to surgery to bring those bodies back into line with their diagram.

In these and other ways, this is a bad report. The Evangelical Alliance sought to offer us ‘A brief biblical and pastoral introduction to understanding transgender in a changing culture’. Instead, they have given us an extended exercise in bad faith.

This is the last of six posts critiquing this report.

1. Whose stories?
2. The varieties of trans experience?
3. Listening to the Bible
4. Confused bodies
5. The rest of the report
6. Conclusion

A Critique of ‘Transformed’ 4

This is the fourth of six posts on the Evangelical Alliance’s Transformed report. See the firstsecond, and third.

Confused Bodies

On the next couple of pages, still within its treatment of the biblical ‘big story’, the report moves on to talk about bodies (pp. 11–12). The authors’ positive argument is that what we think and say about gender should rest on what we know about bodies – and, in particular, on what they say is the clear biological differentiation of bodies into male and female. ‘Throughout the Bible’, they say, ‘biological sex is binary and integral to personhood – biological sex should reveal and determine gender’ (p. 11). Their negative argument is that transgender thinking rejects this proper ordering, and that it does so because it is not serious about bodies – believing that ideas or feelings are more important than bodies, and that our bodies can be remade to fit them.


Let’s begin with that last claim. Trans thinking involves, according to this report, a form of dualism: a downplaying of bodies and matter in favour of ideas and the ‘inner self’. In fact, the report labels trans thinking a form of ‘Gnosticism’ (p. 12), tying it to a range of movements from the early church that were ultimately declared heretical by catholic Christianity. Now, I have been trying hard (whatever my level of success) not to be dismissive in my critique of the report, but this accusation of Gnosticism in itself is nonsense. Even if the report’s analysis of trans thinking were correct, there would still be only a vague similarity, and no significant historical connection, between that thinking and one aspect of Gnosticism. The comparison is, to be fair, not their invention; I’ve heard it said in a number of other contexts – but it is in the end a nasty little bit of historical name-calling, which enables people in this debate implicitly to label those they disagree with as heretics, and it has no credible historical or conceptual basis behind it.

Look past this silliness, however, and there is a very serious point being made: we need, the report is insisting, to avoid a dualism in which bodies are devalued.

The first problem with this analysis should be obvious to anyone who has spent time reading in the area. One of the most obvious characteristics of the theological literature in which one is most likely to find arguments supportive of transgender people – including theological discussions of queer theory – is a rich and pervasive concern with bodies. Bodies in all their complex, messy, and glorious biological reality are taken with an attentive seriousness that has rarely been so prominent in the Christian tradition. It is just plain odd to think that this is a context in which the body is regarded as unimportant.

There is, however, a much deeper problem. In order to make their accusation stick to its target, the report’s authors themselves need to adopt a dualism of just the kind they deplore. That is, they need implicitly to deny that the deep-seated patterns of feeling and experience involved in gender dysphoria are themselves bodily. Their accusation works by drawing a sharp dividing line between these patterns of feeling or experience on the one side, and the biological reality of the body on the other. They want to claim that trans thinking devalues the latter (the body) for the sake of the former (the feelings and ideas). They want to claim that true Christian thinking allows the former (the feelings and ideas) to be determined by the latter (the body). In other words, in order to work at all, the report’s authors need to make dualistic assumptions: assumptions that divide mind from body.

What if, alternatively, one thinks of transgender people’s deep patterns of feeling and experience – patterns such as gender dysphoria – as bodily realities? What if these patterns of experience and feeling are rooted in a person’s body: in (to put it colloquially) the way their brains are wired, in facts about their bodies that could be traced with various forms of medical scanning and chemical testing? What if, more generally and less reductively, we recognised that our deepest patterns of self-perception and the intractable shapes of our affections happen in our bodies by means of our bodies? The question faced by a person experiencing dysphoria would not then be ‘Can I remake my body in the light of my ideas?’ but perhaps ‘How am I to respond to a body divided against itself?’[1]

‘Biological sex is binary’?

The report’s argument in this sub-section can only get going because it assumes the very dualism that it seeks to deny. That realisation might drive us back to look at other aspects of this stretch of the report. The report confidently tells us, for instance, that ‘Throughout the Bible, biological sex is binary’ (p.11). In the previous post, I pointed out that the report itself shows us that this isn’t quite true, presenting Jesus himself as ‘making space in our thinking for people and situations which do not fit neatly into that pattern’. But I want to think about a different problem with this claim now.

The biblical texts that the report cites speak about God creating men and women, and the authors note that the Bible speaks persistently about men and women from then on. But in order to summarise the import of this, the report makes some decidedly non-biblical distinctions: the Bible is telling us, they say, that ‘biological sex is binary and integral to personhood – biological sex should reveal and determine gender’. Now, the Bible doesn’t distinguish ‘sex’ and ‘gender’; it doesn’t speak about biology, or explain what biological features constitute femaleness or maleness. It simply talks, quite straightforwardly, about men and women. We, however, now make distinctions that Biblical authors did not make. We distinguish gender and biological sex (as the report notes), but we also distinguish a whole range of things that are involved in biological sex. We speak about chromosomes; we speak about genitalia; we speak about hormones; we speak about brain connections and chemistry – and so on, and on. And, as the report’s authors know, these things don’t always line up neatly. (The fact that they don’t always line up neatly is one of the things you can discover if you pay serious attention to real human bodies, in all their messy diversity.) We are coming back to talk about intersex in just a moment, but suffice it to say for now that the report acknowledges the plain fact that, for some people’s bodies, speaking about ‘biological sex’ gets very multi-layered and complex.

If, at the report’s own insistence, we refuse dualism – and if we therefore refuse the report’s own dualism that would separate from the body the patterns of feeling and self-apprehension involved in dysphoria or other kinds of trans experience – we simply add more layers of complexity to this picture of the body. The various different components and layers that go into what we think of as biological sex and gender simply don’t always match up, and that is a fact about bodies. Gender transition involving hormones or surgery would, if we thought this way, not look like a form of dualism (still less of ‘Gnosticism’); it would be a change made to the body in order to respond to a bodily situation.[2]


It is worth drawing in at this point, by way of contrast, what is said later in the report about intersex people. These are people who are born with bodies that are not unambiguously either male or female, but that have some characteristics of both, or that fit neither category. There are many kinds of intersex condition, which can involve chromosomes, genitalia, hormone balances, brain structure – any number of different aspects of bodily life. And intersex people experience and respond to those conditions in a wide variety of ways.

Look at how the report suggests that we respond. ‘Doctors, in conjunction with the parents, often make a decision as to the most likely or best sex for the child to be raised, but the circumstances are often complex and painful for the individuals concerned. Surgical intervention is kept to a minimum at a young age, though there may need to be corrective surgery as the person matures’ (p. 19).

Here, then, when a person’s body does not fit neatly into the male–female pattern, the report’s authors are willing that the body should be changed by surgical interventions, even at a young age (and perhaps with the decisions made by doctors and parents, rather than the young person themselves). An such intervention might be undertaken not, it appears, simply in order to deal with medical problems that might arise from someone’s intersex condition; it can be undertaken in order to fit the intersex person into ‘the most likely or best sex’ for them – i.e., in order to make sure they are fitted into either the category ‘male’ or the category ‘female’. The report’s authors seem to want those intersex people’s bodies to be assimilated as much as possible, and by surgery if necessary, to what they believe is the biblical ‘big picture’.

The authors acknowledge that this can be a complex matter. The main aim of the brief section devoted to intersex people, however, seems to be to minimise any challenge that intersex conditions might present to the ‘big picture’ of male–female existence. Don’t worry, we are told, intersex conditions only affect a ‘tiny proportion of the population’ (p. 18) – and don’t worry, most of these exceptions can be pushed back into the normal pattern by wise professionals and caring parents. There is no real acknowledgment of the many intersex conditions that can’t be treated in this kind of way, no mention of the differences between those intersex people who would want if possible to be assimilated to typical gender patterns and those who would not, and no mention of the bad outcomes that we know can follow form the kind of decision and medical intervention described – and specifically by the desire to identify ‘the most likely or best sex’ in too wide a range of cases.

Here, it seems, the authors of the report are perfectly content to see bodies being altered to conform to a pre-determined set of ideas. Real bodies, it seems, only matter when they look like the authors of this report think they ought to look.


[1] I’m treading gingerly at this point. I am both wary of the kind of analysis that would reduce what we are talking about to the level of, say, brain chemistry, and that might push us to adopt too exclusively a medical framing for the whole discussion. On the other hand, I’m aware of some scientific work suggesting that the brains of transgender people do tend to differ from those of cisgender people, and resemble those of the gender with which they identify. I don’t have the competence to evaluate those scientific discussions, but it is at least worth asking the ‘what if’ question: what happens to dualistic arguments of the kind made in this report if such claims turn out to be correct?

[2] The report at one point in this section says that ‘God does not rescue us from suffering but redeems us through it. In the new heavens and the new earth we will enjoy the restoration of our bodies and minds’ (p. 10, emphasis removed). This is clumsily phrased. Taken at face value, the first sentence seems not only wrong but horrific. Jesus, faced with people whose bodies needed healing, did not say ‘Sorry; God does not rescue you from suffering but redeems you through it. You’ll get better in heaven!’ However, I think the authors are talking about situations in which we have desires that don’t align with God’s will: we might have the capacity to act on those desires, but obedience to God will lead us to refrain, even though the frustration of those desires might cause us suffering. Barring a miraculous changing of our desires by God, we simply have to endure the associated suffering as part of our discipleship – one of the ways in which we ‘work out our salvation’ in a fallen situation. (I’m pretty sure that, even so, we should not say that we would be redeemed through such suffering; but let’s be charitable and say that the authors were speaking very loosely at that point). This in itself does not add anything to the report’s case against gender transitioning: it simply says that the bare fact that refusing to transition might cause some suffering doesn’t necessarily make transitioning right.

This is the fourth of six posts critiquing this report.

1. Whose stories?
2. The varieties of trans experience?
3. Listening to the Bible
4. Confused bodies
5. The rest of the report
6. Conclusion

A Critique of ‘Transformed’ 3

This is the third of six posts on the Evangelical Alliance’s Transformed report. See the first and second.

Listening to the Bible

The section of the report on the Bible (pp. 10–12) comes in two parts. There’s a brief section on specific passages, and then a somewhat longer one on ‘the big story’.

Particular texts

The first of these sections mentions five passages. Deuteronomy 22:5 and 1 Corinthians 6:9 are mentioned very briefly – I presume because it’s a real stretch to think the latter has anything at all to do with trans people, and perhaps because the former verse, from Deuteronomy, comes from the same rather bewildering group of laws that includes not yoking an ox and donkey together (Dt 22:10) and not wearing clothes made of wool and linen woven together (Dt 22:11). I don’t say that to be dismissive, simply to note that it is not obvious what one is to do with such passages, and that Christians have not habitually taken them as straightforwardly determinative for righteous behaviour. It’s no surprise that the report moves past quickly.

Matthew 19:12, Acts 8, and Isaiah 56:4–5 get a slightly more extended treatment – two or three sentences each. The Matthew passage has Jesus talking about eunuchs. The report interprets this in the following way: Jesus is talking about ‘three different types of eunuchs, those born that way (intersex), those made that way (castrated) and those celibate for the kingdom’. It comments ‘The passage is an example of Jesus upholding the divine pattern while making space in our thinking for people and situations which do not fit neatly into that pattern’ (p. 10, emphasis mine). This reading is confirmed in the report’s brief commentary on the other two passages, both of which show people who do ‘not fit within a binary understanding of gender’ being welcomed into God’s people.

Because of what happens next, I want to pause to emphasise that. The report tells us that there are people who do not fit neatly into the male–female pattern portrayed by scripture, and that Jesus makes space for them in his kingdom. The report’s authors don’t suggest that Jesus by doing this is in any way rejecting the male–female pattern; they go on in fact to say that this verse is part of a longer passage in which Jesus reaffirms it. But Jesus, on their reading, recognises that not everyone fits into that binary pattern – and he makes space for those who do not.[1]

The big picture

The report then turns to what it calls ‘the big picture’. I’ll cover some of this material in a later post, but it begins (p. 10) by claiming that there is in scripture a clear and insistent pattern ‘of two distinct and compatible biological sexes’ – and then it says something about people who don’t fit neatly into that pattern. And what it says is, rather sternly, that any deviation from that pattern is a result of the fall, and that it is a matter of disordered desire from which God promises ultimately to redeem us.[2]

In other words, the report’s analysis of ‘the big picture’ – of the overarching story told by scripture – sits rather oddly in relation to the earlier exegesis of Jesus’ words. Jesus, in their portrayal, affirmed the male–female pattern while frankly acknowledging that there are exceptions to it; he offered no condemnation of those exceptions, rather (in the report’s words) ‘making space’ for them in the kingdom. The report’s big picture analysis, on the other hand, quickly calls that space into question: any such space, they tell us, can only be understood as a distortion of the biblically revealed pattern, and as a space that God wills to close. It’s almost as if they know better than Jesus how gender is supposed to work.

Let me put that another way, in acknowledgment that I have allowed myself to phrase that last sentence rather polemically. Consider just two possibilities. (There are others, which left to my own devices, I’d want to discuss; but let me stick to these two for now, for the sake of sticking close to the report’s own patterns of thinking). Scripture talks about God making humanity male and female. You could read that as meaning that God meant every single person to be either male or female, and that any exception to that is a problem that God will one day solve. (That’s not what the text says, but you could read it that way.) Or you could equally well read that as meaning that God has made humanity such that most people are pretty straightforwardly male or female, but not everyone. (That’s not what the text says, either, but you could read it that way too.) Proponents of either of these possibilities can affirm that God made human beings male and female, and can mean it quite seriously – it’s just that they understand differently exactly what kind of claim that is.

Now, with those two possibilities in mind, read this page of the report (p. 10) again. What the report says about Jesus seems to push towards the second possibility (i.e., the one that says that not everyone fits the male-female pattern, even if most people do). By contrast, what the report says about the ‘big picture’ pushes very firmly towards the first (the one that says that God wants absolutely everyone to fit the pattern). No argument is presented as to why this first possibility should be the only proper way to read the text. The possibility of reading it the second way (the ‘there can be exceptions, and there’s space for them in the kingdom’ way) doesn’t seem even to be imagined by the report’s authors, and it is certainly not explored. And yet this seems to me to be a missed opportunity: such exploration is, after all, what, in the report’s own reading, Jesus seems to point us towards.

Encouraging obedience?

Rather more tentatively, I want to point out one additional thing about the report’s handling of particular texts. The authors cite Isaiah 56:4–5, and suggest that it should be read as ‘encouraging churches today to make room for the marginalised, whilst encouraging obedience’.

In its context in the report, and given all that they go on to say, I think it’s likely that most people will read that last clause as directly qualifying the welcome that churches can appropriately offer to trans people. That is, I suspect people will read it as meaning that Isaiah was, as it were, welcoming the eunuch while expressing disapproval of the decisions or lifestyle involved in being a eunuch. And so, by analogy, churches are being encouraged to make room for trans people, while calling them away from some disobedience involved in being trans. To put it another way, I think many readers will hear this as a version of the old line, ‘love the sinner, hate the sin’.

Isaiah’s passage, however, does not make that connection: It is addressed ‘To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant’. That is, it says that eunuchs, too, can be followers of God’s law, in matters like keeping the sabbath. You could, I suggest, read the passage as saying, ‘Nothing about being a eunuch – or, by analogy, a trans person – means that you can’t be obedient to the law.’

It seems to me that the report’s authors don’t know how to leave open the spaces that scripture leaves open.


[1] I’m working here with the way the report reads these passages, and what seems to be implied by that reading. I’m not trying to tell you how I read them, or how I think Christians should live in response to them. That would be a different and lengthier task.

[2] I am going to talk quite a bit about this male–female pattern in what follows. I have questions about that whole way of talking, and would be dubious about using it for myself. In this context, however, I’m trying to work with the ideas that the report employs.

This is a revised version of this post. The ‘encouraging obedience’ section was originally a footnote, that has now been promoted to the main text and slightly rewritten.

This is the third of six posts critiquing this report.

1. Whose stories?
2. The varieties of trans experience?
3. Listening to the Bible
4. Confused bodies
5. The rest of the report
6. Conclusion

A Critique of ‘Transformed’ 2

This is the second of six posts on the Evangelical Alliance’s Transformed report. The first is here.

The varieties of trans experience?

After Tim’s story, the report proper begins. We get a section called ‘Trans?’ (p.9) which is meant, I think, to help readers gain an initial understanding of what being transgender might mean. It begins (in an echo of the introduction) with the sentence, ‘There is no one trans experience’ – reminding us that the report is, in effect, promising to help us pay serious and compassionate attention to the actual and diverse experience of trans people. Here, as in my first post, I ask how well the report does at helping us understand this experience.

The report distinguishes people with intersex conditions (to whom we will be returning later) from trans people, and then divides trans people into people who it describes as having a particular medical condition and those who are part of what it calls a ‘wider ideological movement’.

The report turns to discussion of those whom it describes as having the medical condition of gender dysphoria. Two things happen in the report’s brief description of these people, which pull in different directions. The first is something you could call ‘medicalisation’. The only description offered of people in this category is the formal medical language offered to define dysphoria. There is no attempt to convey the variety of experience that this language might cover; there is no attempt to say whether many of the people involved think that their gender experience can be described primarily as a medical condition; there is no mention made of the widespread idea that being trans is a human variation rather than a pathology. The medical diagnosis in its bluntest terms is all that we are given.

The second thing that the report does with this first category, however, undermines that first move. The next sentence is ‘Despite various claims about “scientific evidence”, there is no agreed understanding as to how or why gender dysphoria occurs, nor are there clear diagnostic criteria’ (p. 9). Look at those quotation marks about ‘scientific evidence’. You only put quotes around a phrase like that to indicate that these are not words you are comfortable using for yourself in this situation, though you acknowledge that other people do use them. We are, in other words, being invited to question whether there is any real evidence – anything really deserving the name. And we are meant to question whether the blunt medical diagnosis we have just been offered is a valid one: there are no ‘clear diagnostic criteria’. In a following sentence, we are told that very few people indeed fall into this category. The report states – choosing a figure that deliberately minimises the numbers[1] – that 0.02% of the population have been diagnosed and are receiving treatment. Everything we are told either queries or minimizes the gender dysphoria diagnosis.

I’ll come back in a later post to some comments about the report’s relentlessly (and misleadingly) negative depiction of the relevant science. For now, what I want you to notice is very simple. For this first category of trans people, we have not been given any help to understand their experience – what it is like for them, or what they’re responding to, or how they would describe themselves. We have instead been led to believe that they are simply people with a very rare medical condition – that might in any case not be real.

For the second category (which, if I understand correctly, is meant to cover anyone who identifies as trans but who either does not experience, or who has not gone through the lengthy and difficult process of being formally diagnosed with, gender dysphoria) we are given a very different kind of description – and it is worth stressing that, once again, this is the only description we’re given of trans people who don’t fit into that misleading 0.02% figure given above. It begins when they are first mentioned: ‘Secondly, trans is used to describe …those who are part of a wider ideological movement.We need to distinguish good intentions from bad ideas’ p. 9, emphasis mine). The experience of these other trans people is, we are going to be told, a matter of ideology (a word we’re going to be hearing a lot), and of bad ideas. 

This is a movement, we are told, ‘heavily influenced by queer theory and prior ideological commitments about the pliability of gender’. We are not told anything about what queer theory is, and I’m assuming that the main likely audiences for this report won’t have heard much about it, and won’t have positive associations with the word ‘queer’. In context, I suspect that the main message that most of this report’s readers will hear at this point is that these trans people are simply folk who have been infected by distorted, sinful thinking. We are also told that the movement ‘has fed into issues surrounding identity politics and led to the “no platforming” of those who disagree’ (p. 9). Finally, we are told is that this is a movement that ‘includes many contradictory ideas’ – such as a mismatch between elements of binary and non-binary thinking.

All in all, the main picture we have been given of this second category of people is even more dismissive than the picture painted of the first category: we have been led to believe that they are nothing more than people infected by bad and contradictory ideas, that their approach to gender is determined more by these ideas than by anything real in their experience, and that they are unwilling to listen to alternative views. And that, so far, is the only description we have been offered of their experience.

Still, by this point, we have not heard trans people’s own stories at all; we have not heard how they might describe their own experience. We have not been shown the variety of ways in which they make sense of that experience, the questions they ask, the resources they draw upon to help them understand the possibilities open to them and decide between them. They have been set up to be belittled and dismissed – and, despite the report’s own promises, we have not had to face them at all.

A note on the 0.02% figure

[1] Of course, even if the figures given here were accurate, that would not for one moment diminish the need to treat all the people involved with well-informed respect and compassion. In one sense it makes no difference at all. But the report’s choice of which figure to give is revealing. The authors confidently state that ‘there are approximately 15,000 gender identity patients in the UK – this equates to 0.02 per cent of the population.’ The reference they give for this claim is to a Guardian article (Kate Lyons, ‘Gender identity clinic services under strain as referral rates soar’, The Guardian, 10 July 2016), which mentions both the 15,000 figure, and the 0.02%.  The latter is mentioned in passing, and clearly described as (emphasis mine) ‘the most conservative estimate’ in studies in this area.

The Guardian article itself points to the charity GIRES (Gender Identity Research and Education Society) as the source of that figure; it comes from a 2009 report of theirs, funded by the Home Office, that estimated that, in 2007, the estimated prevalence of those presenting for treatment of gender dysphoria was 0.02% – but the same report explains that this figure is growing significantly year on year. (Bernard Reed et al., Gender Variance in the UK: Prevalence, Incidence, Growth and Demographic Distribution, GIRES 2009, p. 4; it is unclear to me where the 15,000 figure comes from, even though I have seen it several times attributed to this report). GIRES explain in a 2011 follow-up report that the number has indeed continued to grow markedly since 2009: it appears, in fact, that ‘the number who have presented is doubling every 6 1/2 years’ (‘The Number of Gender Variant People in the UK – Update 2011’, GIRES 2011, p. 1). That strong upward trend is confirmed by the data presented in the Guardian article, which suggests that the increase has continued since 2011. GIRES also carefully explains that (as should be obvious, given how difficult and painful a step it can be to seek medical care in this area, and how patchy the availability of treatment has been) the numbers seeking medical care ‘emerge from a large, mainly invisible, reservoir of people, who experience some degree of gender variance’ (p. 1).

So, the authors of the EA report have done two things, here. First, they have given as a statement of simple fact a figure of 0.02% which they know (because they were told this in the source they cited) is the most conservative estimate in the field – and when I say that the authors are deliberately minimising the numbers, this is what I mean. Second, though, the authors appear not to have done the five minutes of extra research needed to show that this figure is out of date, and thoroughly misleading when presented in isolation.

This is the second of six posts critiquing this report.

1. Whose stories?
2. The varieties of trans experience?
3. Listening to the Bible
4. Confused bodies
5. The rest of the report
6. Conclusion

A Critique of ‘Transformed’ 1

Whose stories?

Back in November, the Evangelical Alliance released a report called Transformed:  A brief biblical and pastoral introduction to understanding transgender in a changing culture; it is available for download from their website. The lead author was Peter Lynas, though others also contributed.[1]

I am going to argue across several posts that it is in various ways a bad report. And I will argue that not just because I disagree with its arguments and its conclusions (though I certainly do disagree with them), but because I judge that it fails on its own terms. That is: in various ways, this report tells you what to expect from a good answer to the questions it is tackling, and then it fails – quite dramatically – to give an answer that meets those expectations. It fails to do what it says on the tin.

That does mean that in most of what follows, I’ll be working with the report’s language and arguments, rather than using my own. Left to my own devices, I would want to approach the whole topic very differently.

‘We must start by listening to their stories’

The report begins with a quotation: ‘If you have met one transgender person you have met one transgender person. No two experiences are the same’ (p.5). (It’s a quotation from ‘a participant in a conversation conducted by the author with a transgender support group’). The introduction then stresses that readers should keep clearly in mind the people whose lives are being spoken about, and face them with love, compassion, and welcome. Later (p. 13), the need to offer trans people a pastorally sensitive welcome in church is stressed again; later still (p. 17), we are reminded of the need to meet the people involved ‘where they are at’. In the conclusion, we are told that ‘It is necessary for each of us as individuals and part of gathered communities to understand, love and relate to transgender people’, and that ‘If we want to understand those who are wrestling with gender dysphoria, we must start by listening to their stories’ (p. 29, emphasis mine).

I think we can, then, fairly ask whether this report lives up to this. Is it written in such a way that it will help readers understand some of the diverse stories of transgender people – to understand what it is like for them, what their journeys have been like, and why they have chosen the courses that they have followed? I think we can fairly – holding the report to the standard it sets for itself – expect it to be written in such a way that a wide range of transgender people might recognise themselves in its pages. I don’t mean that the report needs to come to conclusions that all trans readers would agree with, but that it should be a report that helps all its readers understand and relate lovingly and attentively to people with a wide range of transgender experience.

That, then, is the first and main lens with which I’m going to read this report – because it is a standard that the report sets for itself.[2]

Tim’s story

One story is told in detail, and it is told right at the start of the main body of the report. It is Tim’s story (pp. 6–7) – the story of how Tim reacted when his dad, who had previously been known as Stephen, transitioned to become Stephanie. Now, to get a rich picture of how people are affected by transgender experience, it is certainly important to hear a wide range of people’s stories, including the stories of family members of trans people, stories where some of the outcomes of transitioning for the transgender person involved are ambivalent or negative, and stories where the reactions of those around them are difficult. Those are amongst the pastoral realities to which churches will need to respond in attentive and compassionate ways. This, however, is the only story that we are told in detail in this report, and it is the story that gets to frame the whole argument. In emotionally powerful ways, it sets the tone and the terms for the whole of the rest of the discussion. It is worth asking, therefore, what kind of framing this story gives to the report’s argument.

The first and simplest thing to notice is that this is a relentlessly negative story. It is a story in which the transgender person’s transition breaks relationships: the relationship between Stephanie and her children has clearly been damaged; the relationship between Stephanie and her wife of many years is broken; we are told that Stephanie has lost touch with all her old friends. We are told that ‘Nothing has changed’ for Stephanie (p. 7) – meaning, I think, that transition has (in Tim’s view) resolved none of the problems that led Stephanie to it. We are told, in Tim’s words, that Stephanie’s transition was ‘self-harm at the highest level’. A story has been chosen to frame this report that paints a relentlessly bleak picture of trans experience – and in the absence of any other story, this gets to be the whole story.[3]

The second thing to notice is that Stephanie doesn’t get to appear in her own right. We are (as the title suggests) being told Tim’s story, and we are given fairly extensive quotations in Tim’s own words. We are given some of Tim’s mum’s own words. We don’t, however, get to hear Stephanie. There is not a single word of direct speech from Stephanie, and it is unclear whether the small amounts of reported speech that we get come from the authors’ conversations with her, or whether they are mediated through Tim. We don’t get to know in any serious way how Stephanie would tell her story; we only know how that story is told by other people. That is reinforced by other details, like the fact that it is Tim’s choice of pronouns for Stephanie (‘he’ and ‘him’) that are used throughout, not Stephanie’s. This is a story that leaves out the experience of the transgender person at the heart of it.

The third thing to notice is that the story is written in such a way as to foreground and approve Tim’s theological commentary, without opening it do discussion or critique. Tim is portrayed as someone with a strong, clear faith, who sometimes ‘has truth conversations’ with Stephanie, even if at other times he ‘leads with grace’ (so we are already being told that ‘truth’ runs counter to the path chosen by Stephanie, even if ‘grace’ will mean continuing to engage with her). And we are told, in Tim’s stark words, that gender reassignment is definitely against God’s plan, and that it is chosen mistakenly by people who should instead be finding their identity in Christ. The mix of direct and reported speech means that it is hard to tell where Tim’s voice stops and the authors’ voice starts: Tim’s perspective is implicitly endorsed and owned by the report. Before the report has given any theological arguments or discussion of its own, before it has given its readers any tools with which to make sense of trans experience, before it has introduced any nuance or complexity into its discussion, it has handed readers a stark theological condemnation.

Contrast the way in which the report distances itself from Stephanie’s theological perspective. We get (p.7) a brief description (again, with what is presumably Tim’s choice of pronouns rather than Stephanie’s): ‘Stephanie has a faith and says that he asked God to take being trans away and when that didn’t happen, he decided it must be for him. He has been involved in a number of faith communities and has engaged in different ways but has always struggled.’ To say that Stephanie has a faith – some kind of faith, something that should probably be called faith? – sets us up to question what she is reported as saying. We are told that Stephanie’s decision is made in the absence of guidance from God, rather than being a response to God’s guidance. We are left with the impression that she has struggled with church and with faith, and that her decisions have made full Christian participation difficult for her. And these brief sentences are followed immediately by Tim’s confident and articulate theological condemnation. The report does everything it can to insinuate that, in relation to Christian faith, Stephanie’s decision was as rootless as Tim’s faith was deep-rooted.

Remember: I am not for a moment denying that this is an attentive portrayal of Tim’s perspective on his experience. Nor am I denying that stories like Tim’s are important, and need to be heard and understood. The authors of this report have, however, made the decision that the only substantial story of trans experience in the report, the story that will frame their whole approach, should be one that unequivocally condemns transitioning as a theological error, that paints the consequences of transitioning in the worst possible light – and that does not allow the person who transitioned any space to speak for herself.

‘We must start by listening to their stories’, the report’s authors said – but they are not practicing what they preach.


[1] I am grateful to Susannah and Hope for their comments on an a draft of these posts.

[2] Note that I am not asking whether the authors talked to transgender people while preparing the report: they clearly did. I’m asking about what the report’s words communicate to its readers about the stories of trans people.

[3] There is also a quote from a trans person on p.14 (comparing their trans experience to cancer or schizophrenia), and a snippet of a story from ‘Sarah’ on p. 15 (who suggests that in transitioning she ‘may have sinned’). These are tiny in comparison to the telling of Tim’s story – and they also serve to frame trans experience negatively.

This is the first of six posts critiquing this report.

1. Whose stories?
2. The varieties of trans experience?
3. Listening to the Bible
4. Confused bodies
5. The rest of the report
6. Conclusion

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.


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


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.

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?