ONE of the arguments that used to be made in favour of the ordination of women was that the risen Christ had transcended gender, and could therefore be represented as well by a woman as by a man. I never found this convincing. First, I never thought that representatives of Christ had to be male; and second, I could not make sense of how the risen Christ could suddenly be detached from his earthly experience of being male. It is as gendered beings that life affects us.
Yet some of the arguments about gender today seem to depend on the view that gender is so mutable as to be irrelevant to personal identity. Gender is simply what you want it to be. You may also choose not to identify yourself as gendered at all.
This makes me profoundly uneasy. I accept that a few people are born with indeterminate gender. I also accept that some people feel a dissonance between the gender they were born with and their sense of self, and seek treatment, including surgery and gender-reassignment. But this is not an easy option. It comes at a cost both physically and psychologically, and the results, although they may be much better for the individual than staying as he or she is, cannot be said to produce a man or a woman who is the quite the same as those who were born male or female.
What really worries me is that children are sometimes encouraged to think that they can change gender at will. It is not unusual for a little boy to go though a phase of wanting to be a girl, or a girl of wanting to be a boy. It may herald a deep problem of identity, or it may more simply be jealousy because the other gender seems to have more fun.
I was a tomboy as a child, to the extent that when we were acting out the Famous Five, I made the boy down the road play Anne, so that I could be the boyish George. No one thought this was odd, and nor did I. I never wanted to become a boy. Today, if a boy wants to be girlish, or a girl boyish, parents and teachers become concerned. In spite of our apparent liberalism, society is much more bound by gender stereotypes than it was in my childhood. Think of all that hideous, compulsory, girly pink.
The Revd Eric James used to have a prayer that thanked God for the masculinity of women and the femininity of men. The fluidity of gender is one of God’s gifts, but if there is no maleness or femaleness to measure ourselves against, even the mildest form of gender-bending becomes meaningless.
The Revd Angela Tilby is the Diocesan Canon of Christ Church, Oxford, and the Continuing Ministerial Development Adviser for the diocese of Oxford.