IN THE Church of England's debates about same-sex marriage,
disagreements about homosexuality are not the whole story. Our
debates are also shaped by disagreements about gender -
and because that has received less attention, I fear we are
sleepwalking into some very worrying terrain.
Assumptions about gender often lurk just below the surface of
our arguments. Take the recent spat about the House of Bishops'
Pastoral Guidance (
News, 21 February; Letters, 21 and
28 February). The Guidance claimed that there will now, "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."
The accuracy of this statement was challenged by Linda Woodhead
(Professor of Sociology of Religion at Lancaster University), and
then by a wider coalition of academics, who pointed to other
divergences in marriage's recent legal history.
Why did this fight - obviously in itself no more than a crack
leading off from the deeper fissures that afflict the Church -
evoke such passion?
ON THE one hand, there were the critics who demanded that the
Bishops' Guidance be corrected or qualified. In part, this was no
doubt driven by the academic habit of questioning claims such as
this - we academics are, after all, professional pedants. But, for
at leastsome of the critics, there was clearly more to it. Some of
their passion came from the conviction that marriage is a complex
historical reality, which has always been evolving and appearing in
When some critics accused the Bishops of historical illiteracy,
their real accusation was not that the Bishops had got one fact
wrong, but that this was a symptom of a wider failure to take
history - and specifically the messiness and complexity of the
history of marriage - seriously.
On the other hand, the defenders of the Guidance asked how the
critics could make such a fuss about a secondary detail, without
realising that it left untouched the obvious point that the Bishops
were making. For at least some of the defenders, the central fact
of the new legislation on same-sex marriage is that it denies the
centrality of the fundamental complementarity of men and women to
the definition of marriage.
Questions about remarriage after divorce or about dead wives'
sisters (both cited by critics as earlier areas of divergence in
the understanding of marriage) are, for them, clearly not in the
same league as this question - and neither are broader questions
about the complex historical evolution of marriage as an
institution. We are, they might say, not dealing with messy
historical relativity, but with a fundamental structure of
So this was not simply a tiff about a detail. It was the flick
of a seismograph's needle, alerting us to a deep clash of
intuitions about the relationship between what some see as "the
fundamental complementarity of men and women" and the messy
historical evolution of the institutions in which men and women
Deep down, it was all about gender.
OUR tendency not to notice how central questions about gender are
to our disagreements about same-sex marriage has led us into some
worrying territory. Take the Church's official response to the
Government Equalities Office Consultation on "Equal Civil
Marriage", from 2012.
The framers of that document rightly noted that their response
to the question of same-sex marriage was not directly
about homosexuality, but rather had to do with "the fundamental
complementarity of men and women" - although very little of the
ensuing debate focused on that fact.
Yet the main argument of that 2012 church response runs as
1. There is an essential complementarity between men and
2. The acknowledgement and expression of this essential gender
complementarity is necessary for the flourishing of human
3. Acknowledging and expressing this complementarity is central
to the purpose of marriage.
4. Indeed, marriage is the primary social institution by which
our society acknowledges and expresses this complementarity.
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 it at all will be seriously reduced, and
society as a whole will be harmed.
(This, by the way, is what was meant by the response's claim
that the proposals would "change the nature of marriage for
everyone". The authors did not think that my marriage would somehow
be undermined if other people entered intoa union of which I
disapproved. Rather, they thought that marriage as an institution
would be less capable of performing one of its most important
social functions if it ceased to be defined in gender terms.)
6. The essential complementarity of men and women is
biologically grounded, but it is not reducible to capacity for
7. Properly acknowledged, this complementarity will be expressed
in specific and distinctive contributions from men and women in
all social institutions.
The report says that marriage is the means by which we recognise
and celebrate the essential complementarity of men and women, and
that we need to recognise and celebrate that complementarity not
just for the sake of marriage, but the sake of our whole society,
which will flourish more fully if the distinctive contributions of
men and women are given full expression in all its parts.
I FIND it troubling that we as a Church could publicly proclaim
that this is our undisputed theology of gender, without
qualification or cautionary gloss.
If you cannot see why I am troubled, ask yourself what would
happen if we were to declare that we now need complementary
accounts of the ministry of male bishops and female bishops, or
male priests and female priests. Imagine, that is, that we were to
insist that there is male ministry and there is female ministry,
and that they are fundamentally different, even if equal in dignity
- and that we stand against any account of ministry that refuses to
distinguish the genders in this way. Think of the controversy that
Suppose, for a moment, that we had heard that the Church was
putting together a commission to write a report on "Gender in
Church and Society". (I am not saying that this would be a good
idea; I am pretty sure that the world does not need another church
report in this area.)
Suppose that this commission were asked to clarify the Church's
understanding of the nature of gender - how our understanding
should be shaped by our reading of scripture, our engagement with
tradition, our attention to biology and to experience, and by our
listening to the many other accounts of gender alive in our
Think of the agenda such a commission would need to tackle, if
its work were to be taken seriously. It would need to ask what it
means to repent of the Church's toxic collusion in patterns of
sexism over the centuries, and right up to the present day. It
would need to explore the roles that the Church can and should play
in fighting for gender justice.
It would need to look at what we have said, and what we should
say, about the ministry of women and men at all levels in the
Church. It would need to think through what happens to our accounts
of gender when we set them fully in the context of our account of
the gospel, and of the Spirit's work in and through our
MY FEAR is that, because our attention has been elsewhere, we as a
Church have not been engaging in such deliberation together, before
stating our position on gender. We have therefore been sleepwalking
into a minefield. And now that we are here, we urgently need to
wake up, to look about us, and to start treading much more
carefully. The consequences if we do not could be messy.
Taking these questions more seriously will not lead to
agreement, of course. Rich and careful thinking about gender can be
found in all sorts of places in and beyond the Church, and serious
attention to those varied voices certainly will not push us in a
single direction. It will teach us that we do not have to choose
between a blunt "complementarianism" (like that of the Consultation
Response on same-sex marriage) and an equally blunt individualism
that ignores sexual difference - because these are not our only
It will teach us that we have not inherited any simple consensus
about gender from the Christian tradition. And it will teach us,
above all, that these are genuinely complex matters that require
nuanced, cautious, and pastorally sensitive responses. But it will
not lead us to agreement even about the nature of gender and of
gender justice, let alone about same-sex marriage or
I do not have my sights set on consensus, however. I would
settle for our learning to do more justice to each other's
arguments, more justice to the richness of the scriptures and the
tradition, and more justice to the complexities of our biology and
our experience. When I see what we have been saying about gender, I
do not want us to disagree less - I want us to disagree
Mike Higton is Professor of Theology and Ministry at Durham