Category Archives: Gender

Disagreeing about Marriage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Mutual Incomprehension

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

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

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


Criticising the bishops

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

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

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

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

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

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


Criticising the critics

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

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

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

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

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


Where next?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

What do I really think?

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

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

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