Intersex conditions undermine the assumptions about the clear delineation between male and female which underpin the theology of Christians that oppose women bishops.
This is the argument of a new paper, Intersex and Ontology, by Dr Susannah Cornwall, a researcher at the Lincoln Theological Institute at the University of Manchester.
She is writing in response to the Latimer Trust-sponsored publication The Church, Women Bishops and Provision, which argues against women bishops from an Evangelical standpoint. Dr Cornwall says that many contemporary theological accounts of sex, gender, and sexuality take too little heed to the existence of physical intersex conditions.
“The important question is what definition of maleness the authors of The Church, Women Bishops and Provision are using, and what it is in which they believe that maleness inheres,” she writes. “Intersex disturbs the discreteness of maleness and femaleness, and might therefore also disturb the gendered roles which are pinned to them.”
It is estimated that about one in every 2500 people is born with some kind of physical intersex condition, where there is physical ambiguity of the genitalia or a “mismatch” between the genitalia and other physical characteristics. Dr Cornwall believes that “very little” has been written about the impact of such conditions on theology and the Church’s ministry.
“Generally, there has been a growing awareness that intersex exists but not specifically theological reflection,” she said. “The pastoral concern is the big impetus for my project, but I don’t think it’s possible to do that without thinking about the theological considerations.”
Dr Cornwall’s paper argues that “there is simply no way of telling at this juncture whether Jesus was an unremarkably male human being”, and suggests that he may have had an intersex condition. This matters, she suggests, if his maleness is deemed “crucial to his Christness” and the priestly function of the priests who minister in his stead.
In the light of what is now known about intersex conditions, it might be “of discredit” to the Church, she writes, if it failed to re-examine its beliefs about maleness and femaleness.
The Church, Women Bishops and Provision, published in November, calls for better provision for those opposed to women bishops in the Church of England. It argues that the draft legislation “displays a startling lack of regard and sense of mutuality towards others within the Church, who believe their consciences to be governed by biblical authority and ancient practice”.
It says: “When we stop receiving Christ in his essential maleness, his humanity becomes obscured and a subject of endless interpretation, as intellectual fashions of human self-understanding come and go.”
Its concern about the practice of reception as a means of discernment — a “Trojan horse for the values of the ambient culture” — is challenged by Dr Cornwall. She said last month: “Everyone who reads the Bible at any time is always doing that in the light of their own culture and own social assumptions. . . Sometimes we assume that maleness and femaleness are so self-evident that the biblical writers would have meant the same thing [as we do].
“They were operating with a particular anthropology and we also operate with a particular anthropology, but that is not identical; so at every time the best scientific and best knowledge of every age needs to be brought into dialogue with the way we read the Bible.”
Dr Cornwall is hoping to speak to Christians with intersex conditions. More information about her project is at www.religionandcivilsociety.com/intersex-identity-disability.