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?


20 Thoughts on “Disagreeing about Marriage – and Gender

  1. “Gender” is a social construct whose *principal* focus, historically, has been the subjegation of women. All the (IMO) rot you describe above, flowing out of

    “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”

    comes from this idealogy of “gender complementarity”.

    Even in chromosomal and/or morphological “Sex”, not all of us fall neatly into “Either M or F”. How much less so in the artificial (though often IMPOSED) framework of “Gender”!

  2. Mike Higton on March 2, 2014 at 12:26 pm said:

    JCF – I absolutely agree that ‘complementarianism’ is far from being the obvious and benign account of gender that it is often supposed to be, or presented as being – even when it is run in apparently non-subjugationist ways. At very least, I want to say, ‘Hang on, things are a *lot* more complicated than that!’ – and I am convinced that this complexity, if attended to seriously, will take us somewhere rather different. So I’m disturbed both by the complementarian content of this document, but also by the fact that (as far as I can make out) there is no sign of serious engagement with that complexity – despite the fact that there’s a lot of good theological and non-theological work out there that could have informed that engagement. And, yes, this is only one document, but I think it’s part of a pattern.

  3. This is excellent, thank you. I look forward to reading more.

  4. Seems to me it’s vital that we get to grips with this question: did not Jesus himself, when challenged on one of the complex issues around marriage under Jewish law, declare that in the world to come, no one would marry or be given in marriage? Marriage, then, according to Jesus, is a temporary estate, part of the present world order; but in Christ, we are all one and the gender differences that we tend to be so precious about are done away with.

    If that’s the world we’re heading towards, then is not abolishing the gender-based definition of marriage part of what we pray for every day in the Lord’s prayer, for God’s kingdom to come and God’s will to be done on earth as in heaven?

    Lord have mercy and grant us the grace to see with your eyes!

  5. I suspect that there is more than one account of gender that leads to a definition of marriage that is exclusively male-female; I further suspect that in the numerous documents the Bishops’ letter referenced several different accounts of gender were at play…

    Phil, the question of whether the abolishing of marriage leads to an eschatological relativising of sexed (not gendered) bodies is a fascinating one, and disputed in the tradition. Gregory of Nyssa thought it did; Augustine struggled with it for years, but eventually decided it did not – in the Kingdom we do not marry, but remain irreducibly male/female. Chris Roberts and Beth Felker Jones have written the go-to books on the history of the debate – both well worth reading – although both in my view in need of a supplementary chapter addressing intersex bodies.

  6. Many thanks for this Mike. I agree with your assessment about the underlying significance of gender in relation to the Church of England’s stance on equal marriage. This is is why transgender and intersex people were effectively excluded from the remit of from the Pilling Report (though the working group did meet some Christian trans folk) because their lives and experience would require a total review of current assumptions about gender. By the way, I think they tend to be society’s default position on gender as well, judging by the problems trans people have had, even when legislation is intended to work in their favour. I’ve written about this in a forthcoming article for ‘Modern Believing’ (April 2014) entitled, ‘Love is a many gendered thing: gender roles, relationships and trans people.’

  7. Mike Higton on March 2, 2014 at 5:05 pm said:

    Steve: yes, there’s probably more than one account of gender in play in that lot…

    Part of my worry is that we in the CofE have quite recently, and as it were by accident (because it was not actually the main thing we were talking about), started talking in some of our official documents as if our tradition gives us one fairly straightforward theological account of gender, which we all really understand well enough to be able to use it without further discussion to resolve other problems.

    And give the way that official deliberation works, that could now dog us for years or decade or even longer – because we’ll always be able for refer back to these documents and say, ‘Look, there is our official teaching on gender!’…

    • OK, I imagine you are right – I don’t know your official documents well enough to comment really. When we agreed on Twitter that we needed to start talking more about gender, what I meant by that was something rather different – perhaps I will blog on it myself…

  8. Simon Nicholls on March 2, 2014 at 6:05 pm said:

    Thank you so much for this, Mike. I’ve been sitting for so long listening to this being batted back and forth, thinking “yes, but” to both sides of the argument. It has always felt as if there has been a dimension missing in the seeming mutual incomprehension. I feel more you may have hit upon what this is. I look forward to further consideration of this issue.

  9. Tony Bryer on March 2, 2014 at 6:57 pm said:

    This discussion is really helpful. As I read the initial arguments, I thought I was going to disagree with the conclusions(!) – but I see that you have actually uncovered the assumption made in the official CofE documents that ‘complementarity’ is THE historic position of the church, an assumption I was questioning as you wrote about it.

    Not only is it questionable that it IS the long held traditional view; the way it has been used in opposing the ordination of women to the priesthood and episcopate should have rung alarm bells. On one side there is the headship argument – perhaps the most extreme example of gender difference, whilst still claiming men and women are ‘equal’. On the other side, there is the argument that because of (gender) difference, it is just not possible for women to receive the holy orders of priesthood and episcopacy.

    For me, both these arguments which have appealed, implicitly or explicitly, to complementarity, show how much our notions of gender are social constructs.

  10. David Shepherd on March 3, 2014 at 8:03 am said:

    Commendations on a brilliantly incisive piece.

    In respect of gender, you yourself said: ‘It’s not a map of two territories.’ That comparison might make nationality a good analogy.

    For instance, consider the situation in the Ukraine, where their Parliament decided that President Viktor Yanukovych had to go.

    Now for many living in Crimea and the Eastern part of that country, Russia and the Ukraine do not form a simplistic map of two territories.

    That is, there are many there who self-identify as Russians first, in spite of the fact that they are ostensibly Ukrainian citizens. They would happily see militant posturing re-organise the map of two territories.

    Of course, any change to these boundaries will undermine the meaning of national sovereignty for all Ukrainians, but militants are more concerned about their demands for independent recognition than what national sovereignty might mean to others.

    Some might say that national solidarity leads to prejudices that are as bad as gender solidarity. By way of contrast, look at what will happen to the region if Ukrainian national solidarity is completely undermined by Russia.

    The reality is that nationality is no less a social construct than gender. However, they are *important* social constructs. Splintering those constructs for the purpose of social affirmation only serves to undermine their public policy benefits.

    In both cases, the myriad bases upon which a person may self-identify is not a firm or efficient basis for implementing public policy for a whole nation.

    The social affirmation theory of public policy appears to completely miss that fact.

    • Mike Higton on March 3, 2014 at 8:25 am said:

      I don’t think that our options reduce to accepting current regnant social constructions of gender in our society, or splintering them in favour of a blanket affirmation of self-affirmation. I think that a good Christian theology of gender will be deeply challenging of the former, while not heading in the direction of the latter.

      I don’t pretend to have made that case, however. And my point in this post is one step back from it. There *is* a rich and fascinating debate about these things – a debate in which there is no consensus, but a lot of interesting and important work, and in which the account you outline would be one important position.

      But I don’t see any sign that documents like the one above from the CofE have been shaped by engagement with that debate. The authors of this response reached for this account of the social importance of gender while their real focus was elsewhere, and I think we now need to say, ‘Hang on a minute – is that really adequate?’

  11. David Shepherd on March 3, 2014 at 9:33 am said:

    ‘But I don’t see any sign that documents like the one above from the CofE have been shaped by engagement with that debate.’

    You’re right and +Ian Dorking admitted this much in his explanation at Guildford Diocesan Synod on Saturday:

    This is a holding statement on the part of the House of Bishops in a new
    situation. It reflects our history and our teaching. Yet the longer
    conversation goes on. We were aware that in the past the Church has
    had to come to terms with understanding changes in society. The
    Church has made statements in the past about matters which later saw a
    change or development e.g. divorce in the 19th century and in the 20th
    century the remarriage of divorcees and their status in the Church (NB
    the letter from David Martin, Linda Woodhead & Diarmuid McCulloch
    in The Telegraph this week). We knew this statement would cause hurt
    and dismay to some. I and my fellow bishops have received emails both
    from those who felt the bishops had been far too lenient and
    progressive and from those who understandably felt this was just
    another kick in the teeth to gays and another example of the Church’s
    homophobia. It is a no-win situation. And that is the point. It is not
    about one side winning, hence the need for the facilitated conversations
    which Pilling has recommended and the House of Bishops are
    committed to.

  12. Mike, I think the ciritical point to which Steve Holmes alluded may be that the position of the House of Bishops does not in fact require the adoption of any particular view on the complementarity of men and women. It only requires a beliefe that sexual (biological) difference matters. This is obviously because historically the church has grouped sexual activity, procreation, marriage and the bringing up of children firmly together.

    (This does not, in my view, require that each individual sexual act must be designed for procreation. Nor does the marriage of elederly or infertile couples undermine this concept; falling short of an ideal is not the same as contravening it.)

    Because our society, by and large, has severed the bonds that as the ideal and pattern held sex, procreation, marriage and the nurture of children together, it becomes incomprehensible to ask for marriage to embody sexual difference.

  13. Pingback: Mike Higton on the Bishop’s Statement | An Exercise in the Fundamentals of Orthodoxy

  14. James Byron on March 3, 2014 at 10:41 pm said:

    This parses the bishops’ arguments superbly, my complements.

    Important to bear in mind, however, is the bishops’ ulterior motive. They’re driven by a desire for unity, and would enlist most any argument to that end. I doubt most of them care less about the theology of gender or social theory. They’re pragmatists, realpolitik their guiding star. What they care about is rich evangelical congregations leaving, and the Anglican Communion breaking apart if they affirm gay relationships. So, in their mind, they can’t.

    The argument is fitted to the conclusion.

  15. What James said. In about 40 years, I have seen pretty much any argument levelled against same-sex activity. Complementarianism is just the latest. When one is rebutted, another argument is picked up. It’s not a principled debate. Arguments fitted to a political conclusion indeed.

  16. Pingback: The House of Bishops’ Pastoral Guidance on Same-Sex Marriage Part I – Engaging with the Critics | Fulcrum Anglican

  17. ‘Marriage, then, according to Jesus, is a temporary estate, part of the present world order’. Yes indeed…just like sex. We will be ‘like the angels.’

    So the logically corollary of this is NOT same-sex marriage, but celibacy—which in fact has been part of the historic teaching of the church.

Post Navigation