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In Laqueur’s melting-pot

19 August 2016

Robin Gill considers a theory about gender


Redeeming Gender
Adrian Thatcher
OUP £25
Church Times Bookshop £22.50



THIS is an unusually well-written and well-structured book by an established liberal Anglican theologian.

Adrian Thatcher (Comment, 12 August) has already produced a CUP monograph, Living Together and Christian Ethics (2002), edited The Oxford Handbook of Theology, Sexuality and Gender (2014), and written several other more popular books on sex, gender, and the use of the Bible.

His more conservative critics will find nothing in this new book to dispel their accusation that he has “sold out” to the spirit of the age, but they will discover, if they look carefully, that he has added a new twist to his argument by starting from the radical theories of Thomas Laqueur (well known to classicist historians, but less known to theologians).

Laqueur argued in Making Sex (1990) that until the 18th century most people assumed that there was a single sex, “man”, and that females were lesser, inferior, or undeveloped males. The radical change that happened in the 18th century was the assumption that there are two distinct sexes, albeit with women still inferior to men in terms of their rationality.

Thatcher adopts this critical framework and argues that the Bible strongly reflects a “one-sex” theory, subordinating women to men, and the Church today reflects a polarised two-sex theory of men and women (as in its opposition to same-sex marriage) and female subordination in its continuing opposition to the ordination of women (especially in the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches).

The first half of this new book sets out the details of this critical analysis and applies it to Christian history. The second part is more theological, arguing that, at their best, the New Testament and Christian doctrine envisage the redemption of gender — seen in the Synoptic Jesus’s response to women, the Pauline concept of “no longer male and female”, and Trinitarian notions of communion. For him, the one-sex and the polarised two-sex theories both need to be replaced with a concept of the “human continuum”. This, he believes, best represents Christian faith and the more fluid scientific concepts of gender today.

Is all of this just too programmatic? Perhaps it is. I get the same worry when I read Michel Foucault’s sweeping historical claims about changing concepts of sex and gender. Yet Thatcher’s thesis is still an important corrective to the dogmatic theological claims of some of those who defend female subordination, reject same-sex marriage, or despise openly transgender people.

Why is it that some Anglicans, of all people, seem to have become so intolerant in recent years in these areas — just when society at large is becoming more inclusive? D. S. Bailey and Peter Coleman once represented a gentler Anglicanism.


Canon Robin Gill is the Editor of Theology and Professor Emeritus of Applied Theology at the University of Kent.

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