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Gender: what difference does it really make?

04 April 2014

The same-sex marriage row has sparked a debate about what is judged acceptable. Andrew Davison sifts through the arguments

SAME-SEX marriage has come to England and Wales, and in response Churches are invoking the term "complementarity". Before using a word, we should think about it carefully. What might complementarity actually look like, in either same- or opposite-sex relationships?

I should like to offer some philosophical tools for thinking it through. Philosophy need not lead us into abstraction, but can help us to understand real lives and relationships. I also want to consider how complementarity features in marriage: not so much, here, within a marriage, but - more provocatively - between different kinds of marriage.

The Church of England holds that marriage is all about the complementarity of men and women. That conviction underlies its official position on same-sex marriage, as Professor Mike Higton recently pointed out (Comment, 21 March). The appeal to complementarity is at the heart of the Church of England's submission to the Government's 2012 marriage consultation, and it explains the "no change" approach in the recent episcopal Pastoral Guidance on same-sex marriage, as Professor Higton also argued.

Is sexual difference the key?

COMPLEMENTARITY is central to any marriage. The Church, however, holds that sexual difference is the foundation of that complementarity.

What sort of claim is being made, here? Are we saying that sexual difference is enough, by itself, for us to know that two people complement each other, just as having a pulse is enough, by itself, for us to know that someone is alive? (Philosophers would call this a "sufficient condition": the pulse clinches it when ascertaining life; and sexual difference clinches it when assessing complementarity.)

Writers of church documents cannot mean that. Or, if they do, then they are wrong. Any random woman and any random man would not make for a complementary couple, just on the basis of their sexual difference. Something else must be in view. Although sexual difference might not be enough for complementarity, it is claimed as a necessary starting-point, a sine qua non: if complementarity is what we are after, then man-plus-woman is the only place to start. (Philosophically, that would make sexual difference a "necessary condition", not a "sufficient" one, just as having a heart is a necessary condition for a human being to be alive, but not a sufficient one, since a corpse might have a non-beating heart.)

If opposite-sex partners are not automatically complementary, then the only way to judge whether they are is to see whether their relationship works in practice. Such a shift towards the empirical is perilous for opponents of same-sex relationships, since it is plain that some same-sex couples are complementary, are compatible. The two people work together, which is why their relationship lasts.

Sexual difference is obviously not sufficient to guarantee complementarity; and it seems, empirically, that it is not even necessary: not if the word "complementary" is taken to refer to something real in the world.

Complementarity rests on more than sexual difference. As with similarity and difference, it is worked out on many levels - many more than the bishops acknowledge. It matters which experiences and traditions a couple share, for instance, and which they do not. The otherness that a woman finds in a man is not exhausted by his maleness: there is also the fact that he is a Scot while she is English, that he tends to think in concrete terms while she tends to be abstract-minded, and so on. Similarities between a man and a woman are also important. Our own experience confirms that a certain irreducible difference exists between any two people, in any kind of relationship. The difference of one person from another is more profound than a difference of sex,even in an opposite-sex relationship. When a man finds comfort in his female partner, for instance, her femaleness is not a matter of indifference, but she also matters as another human being: as someone to talk to, someone to rely on, someone to share responsibilities with. Adam's first response to the creation of Eve was to her similarity with him - "This at last is bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh" - not to her difference.

So many elements of similarity and difference are interwoven in a heterosexual relationship that picking out just one sort of difference - sexual difference - as if it were all that mattered for complementarity is remarkably short-sighted. No one loves someone else simply as a man or simply as a woman, and not also as funny, or serious, or Welsh, or practical, or tall, or dark-haired, or a hundred other factors. A collapse of difference into male-female difference, which so undergirds current Church of England formulations, reduces our vision of sexual relationships to the level of a budget brothel: you ask for a woman, you ask for a man, and you take the first one who's free: sexual difference is what matters, not particularity.

In this way, our discussions are being carried out in terms of categories of people rather than in terms of individuals. Consider, in contrast, Luther's perspective: that ideally women per se should not interest him sexually, but rather his wife would do so, in her particularity - as if his response to temptation might be, "Yes, yes, she's remarkably beautiful . . . but she's just not Katharina" (Commentary on the Sermon on the Mount, in the section beginning at Matthew 5.27).

The etymology of the word "complementarity" might help here. Its roots are in what makes for the completion or fulfilment of something, or someone; it does not come from anything to do with either difference or similarity. God affords a measure of completion and fulfilment through a life-long, faithful sexual relationship; this is found in and through the particularity ofthe other person, in the unique and concrete interweaving of many similarities and differences.

Here the phenomenon of bisexuality becomes significant. This, we might note, is also a dimension of human sexuality which has become increasingly prominent in cultural discussions, for instance in newspaper opinion-pieces. Think of the celebrities who have recently either chosen to identify themselves as bisexual, or who have wanted to focus on the person with whom they are in a relationship rather than talk about attraction to any class of people: the diver Tom Daley, the actor Angelina Jolie, the rapper Frank Ocean. A person is singled out above a category to which they belong. We ought to have something theological to say about this.

Growing towards Christ

AGAIN moving on, consider how our current discussions of complementarity buy into a static vision of who we are, and therefore into a static account of similarity and difference. Of course, no theologian should advance or celebrate a sense of complete human malleability, but no account of our humanity is properly Christian if it fails to see life as a process. We are each a work in progress, and on a journey: "We do not know what we shall then be," we read in 1 John.

In a relationship that lives up to what Christians might most value, however, it is that how two people are similar or different is understood within the call for each to change, and to grow into the likeness of Christ. Plato recognised something of this dynamic: consider the Lysis, where problems of "same" and "different" are ably laid out. A friend cannot be the same as you, because then we have one, not two; but neither can a friend be completely different, since that would be a recipe for tension and antagonism. In that dialogue, but even more in the Symposium or the Phaedrus, Plato suggests a way through this conundrum, not by resorting to some bland average, along the lines of "a good friend is kind of similar and kind of different", but with the proposal that true friendship is a common journey to the Good. Any such journey is a transformation; both of us will start from where we are and both of us will change. We might wish that something of this perspective animated our discussions of what "same", "different", and "complementary" mean.

All marriages are not identical

PROFESSOR HIGTON remarked that marriage was "a complex historical reality, which has always been evolving and appearing in divergent forms". Marriage itself is always on something of a journey, but perhaps "divergent" goes too far. Tracing the category of marriage through history, we see a range of human relationships that are closely aligned, but not identical.

Consider marriage in the Old Covenant and in the New; the marriages of unbaptised people and of the baptised; a consummated marriage and an unconsummated one. They are all marriages, but they are not identical. An unconsummated marriage, for instance, is a marriage that can be annulled. In earlier times, further categories were in play, such as morganatic and dynastic marriages. In the Middle Ages, the remarriage of a widow or widower was seen as somewhat different from that of people who had not been married before. The Orthodox Churches today consider marriages after divorce to be somewhat different, again, from those where neither party had been married previously.

To tease this out, three fearsome-looking philosophical words may be useful: univocity, equivocity, and analogy. "Univocity" simply means using a word in two different situations, and meaning exactly the same thing in both cases: a terraced house is a "dwelling", and a mansion is a "dwelling". But if we use a word in two different senses, that is "equivocity": the "bark" of a tree and the "bark" of a dog.

Christian debates over same-sex marriage have become stuck in either univocity or equivocity. For conservatives, same-sex relationships are so different from heterosexual ones that using the word "marriage" in the phrase "same-sex marriage" is an example of equivocity: "same-sex marriage" is no more connected to "opposite-sex marriage" than the bark of a dog is connected to the bark of a tree. In the opposite corner, liberals claim that same- and opposite-sexual relationships differ in no fashion at all: "gay marriage" and "straight marriage" deploy the word univocally. The house and the mansion are both dwellings.

These two positions back themselves into corners because they ignore the more fruitful concept of analogy. In contrast to what we have seen so far, analogy weaves together similarity and difference. We use a word analogically in two different situations if we mean neither exactly the same thing in each case, nor something completely different: a builder "made" a house; a poet "made" a poem; a bishop "made" someone a deacon. The concept of analogy offers some of the best fruit from the Christian philosophical quest. This makes our unwillingness to think about sexuality and mar- riage that way particularly poignant.

As we have seen, there are various forms of marriage which are analogously related to one another: under the Old Covenant and in the New, between the baptised and the unbaptised, consummated and unconsummated, and so on. Parliament has now put one more our way: same-sex marriage.

Against the liberal urge, we need not suppose that same-sex marriage is exactly the same as what we have known hitherto, and indeed it is not: annulment and adultery feature differently, for instance, from the way they do in opposite-sex marriages.

Against the conservative urge, we need not suppose these differences prevent same-sex marriages' being marriages, since marriage is not one monolithic thing. Nor need recognising same-sex marriages undo previous definitions of marriage, as conservatives also argue.

We might put it like this: there has always been more than one species within the genus we call marriage; and admitting a new species to a genus does not change the definition of the other species. Species Y can differ from species X, in the same genus, without changing the definition of species X.

The theological angle

I WOULD like to end in a resolutely theological mood, with our attention directed towards God. Theologians often invoke analogy to talk about ways in which an image, or trace, of God's goodness is to be found in the world. That reminds us to take God as the exemplar, as the foundational case (or what a philosopher might call the "primary analogate", if we are being technical).

So, for instance, we see an analogical relationship between different human languages, but all speech rests on God's "speech", first of all: the utterance of his eternal Word.

Similarly, we see an analogy between the beauty of the landscape, the mathematical equation, and the statue, but all of that rests on the same foundation: whatever is beautiful in the world has some likeness to the beauty of God.

The emphasis needs always to be on God. So, if two examples of human love are analogous, their similarity will rest on the even more fundamental, and common, participation of human love in divine love. That chimes with the proposal, found in Ephesians 5, that Christians understand marriage through its likeness to something divine: its likeness to the relationship of Christ to his Church.

Remembering this, any claim that different forms of marriage are related analogically need not subordinate one to another. We are not necessarily saying that one is an imitation of the other. A distinctively Christian vision of marriage - whatever it is, whatever form it takes (and that is clearly under debate) - sees marriage as an imitation of something about Christ and his relationship with the Church, and as a participation in the life and love of the Trinity.

That is ultimately where we must look for the source and meaning of complementarity.

The Revd Dr Davison is Starbridge Lecturer in Cambridge University.

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