Gender Fluidity, Chronological Snobbery and Grace


Revd Dr David Hilborn, Principal, St John’s School of Mission, Nottingham and Chair of the Evangelical Alliance Theological Advisory Group

Paper presented at the ‘New Directions in Sexualities and Christianity’ forum, convened by Chester University and held at Chester Cathedral, Saturday 11th February 2017

Fellow speakers: Dr Adrian Thatcher, Revd Dr Mark Vasey-Saunders, Dr Susannah Cornwall

This is the full text prepared for the Forum, a slightly shorter version of which was delivered live due to constraints of time

Thank you, Chester University and thank you to the Cathedral for this opportunity to dialogue with Adrian, Mark and Susannah, and to engage with all of you on this highly contentious but crucial topic. I’m sure there’ll be some robust debate, but my prayer is that we’ll listen to and learn from each other as we seek God’s truth together. In fact, it’s very much in that spirit that I want to start with some critical reflections on the title of this Forum, and on the rubric that was sent to me and the other speakers for today. Having done that, I’ll more specifically address three key dimensions of Christian approaches to sexuality and gender, which reflect the ‘three publics’ for theology identified by the American scholar David Tracy. Tracy defines those dimensions as society, the academy, and the church, but here I’ll present them as the socio-cultural dimension, the hermeneutical dimension, and the ecclesial dimension.

So, as for our title and speaker rubrics: we’ve been asked to explore ‘New Directions in Sexualities and Christianity’, and in relation to that we’ve been guided to ‘look into the future’ and ‘anticipate and speculate on what developments in gender and sexuality there may be (taking a cue from the present trends towards gender fluidity), and how those might influence and affect Church thinking, theology and biblical interpretation.’ More specifically we’ve been asked to consider how far the Genesis creation ordinance ‘male and female he created them’ might be ‘challenged by developments in understandings of gender and sexuality’.

At first blush this seems a fairly neutral brief. But on closer inspection I do want to challenge one potential inference from its emphasis on ‘new directions’ and ‘developments in understanding’, and from its questioning of whether the ‘binary’ reading of sexuality in the early chapters of Genesis might play ‘any role in future discussions on sexuality’ (my emphasis). There seems to me to be a slight whiff here of what might be called a ‘Whig Interpretation’ of sexual mores, and of the theology of sexuality and gender that might flow from it. Another way of expressing this would be through C.S Lewis’ telling phrase ‘chronological snobbery’. Herbert Butterfield famously cast the ‘Whig Interpretation’ of history as a tendency to view it as a tussle between between ‘progressives’ and ‘reactionaries’, in which the progressives – the Whigs or latterly the liberals – inevitably prevail, and so advance society to a supposedly higher state of enlightenment and moral refinement. Like Butterfield, Lewis was sceptical of this approach, and ‘chronological snobbery’ described for him ‘the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age, and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited’. Lewis added that in place of this false assumption, it was vital also to regard our own present age as a particular “era” or “period” – one that, like all ages, has ‘its own particular illusions’.

I sound these notes of caution not least with regard to the first main aspect of sexuality and gender I want to explore – namely the social-cultural aspect. No doubt, statistics suggest that in Britain and the West at least, we’re on a pretty steep trajectory of growing sexual permissiveness and diversity, and of increasing acceptance of gender plurality and fluidity. When I edited the Evangelical Alliance report Faith, Hope and Homosexuality in 1998, more than two-thirds of men and more than half of women in Britain thought homosexual practice to be essentially wrong. In 2013, a Pew Research Centre survey showed 76% of Britons affirming that homosexuality should be accepted by society, and just 18% stating that it shouldn’t. What’s more, the legal landscape has shifted in line with these fast-changing public attitudes. As Adrian notes in his Introduction to the Oxford Handbook of Theology, Sexuality and Gender, in most First World countries ‘a single generation has known homosexual intimacy to be a criminal offence; then it has seen it partially decriminalized and tolerated; then in some countries [like Britain in 2001] the age of consent was reduced to 16; then discrimination against any person on the ground of sexual orientation became a crime; then civil partnerships and finally marriage for couples of the same sex has been or is being introduced.’ The pace and direction of change has, indeed, been quite staggering.

Longitudinal studies of social attitudes to bisexual and transgender people are rarer, but what evidence there is points to a kindred liberalisation of attitudes in the west, albeit from a lower base and at a slower speed. Legislatively, here in the UK moves towards gender self-definition – in particular, last summer’s announcement by the government that it would grant new passports to transgender people without medical evidence of permanent change – have again reflected rapidly liberalising public opinion on sexuality and gender.

Now in Christian terms it might seem that such growing socio-cultural permissiveness presents a strongly concerted and ever-more pressing challenge to traditional church teaching – the teaching which holds, in the words of the Evangelical Alliance’s more recent report, Biblical and Pastoral Responses to Homosexuality (2012), that marriage, defined as an ‘exclusive relationship for life’ between ‘one man and one woman’ is the ‘only form of partnership approved by God for sexual relations today, and that all other forms of sexual relationship are ‘incompatible with his will as revealed in Scripture’. For all its acknowledgement of differing approaches to gay and lesbian partnerships within the Church of England and the wider Anglican Communion, and for all its desire for a ‘fresh tone and culture’ in the debate, this is the same positon as has been reaffirmed in the new House of Bishops’ report on Marriage and Same Sex Relationships. Despite the three years of ‘shared conversations’ following the Pilling Report of 2013, this new document records ‘little support’ among the bishops ‘for changing the Church of England’s teaching on marriage as expressed in Canon B.30’ – that is, the teaching that ‘marriage is in its nature a union permanent and lifelong, for better for worse, till death them so part, of one man with one woman, to the exclusion of all others on either side’, defined as such by its generic procreative potential.

Clearly, in England and the UK in 2017, such reassertions of traditional teaching on sex and marriage become increasingly counter-cultural. Whereas the so-called ‘Higton Motion’ at General Synod in November 1987 and the landmark Bishops’ Report issues in Human Sexuality in 1991 disavowed ‘homosexual genital acts’ and same-sex partnerships against a background of majority social disapproval of these phenomena, as we’ve seen the traditional view is now not just increasingly a minority view within society at large; it’s come to be seen as increasingly outmoded, unacceptable, and prejudicial. That, of course, raises acute questions for the Church’s ministry and mission in 21st Century Western society – questions which I shall address shortly.

In our brief, it was suggested that the speakers here today might think ‘5, 15 and 50 years ahead’ as part of our assessment of new directions in sexualities and Christianity. For my part, as things stand it’s hard to see anything other than a growing general liberalisation of social attitudes and law-making with respect to LGBTQI people over the next 5 to 15 years. Over the next 50 years, however, I would not want to be so sure. And this, more particularly, is where I would reiterate my warnings about Whiggish progressivism and chronological snobbery…

It wasn’t an evangelical theologian but a lesbian second wave feminist, Camille Paglia, who proposed in her 1990 magnum opus Sexual Personae that increased sexual pluralism and gender fluidity might not necessarily bespeak inexorable cultural progress, but might instead be indicators of cultural decadence, fragmentation, and decline. Most especially, in that book and since, Paglia recounts several instances from history in which blurring of male-female sexual differentiation presages the ‘last phase’ of particular societies and civilisations – from ancient Greece and Rome through the Renaissance to late Victorian Romanticism and the end of the British empire – Oscar Wilde, Pre-Raphaelitism et al. Moreover, after that final phase there might follow a period of conservative retrenchment in the next era, as happened in the transition from pagan to Christian Rome, or from a relatively licentious late 18th century Britain to the relative public moral rectitude of the early-mid Victorian age. My point here is not to argue the finer merits and demerits of Paglia’s thesis, but to stress that it’s not only conservative Christians who question the idea that a proliferation of transgenderism and gender fluidity will ipso facto correlate to unqualified social advance.

More specifically, Paglia is just one of a prominent group of second-wave feminists like Germaine Greer and Julie Bindel, who have questioned both the claim of male-female transsexuals to genuine female identity, and more acutely still, the growing provision of gender reassignment surgery to children and teenagers. This latter trend was highlighted in the recent BBC2 documentary Transgender Kids – and again, Evangelicals and Catholics were hardly the only ones to question the sexual ethics and gender-definitions implicit within it. Bindel has written that as a teenager beginning sexually to be attracted to women, she temporarily equated her feelings with wanting ‘to be a boy’. Yet, whereas she then came to a realisation that the two things need not be linked, ‘If I were a teenager today, well-meaning liberal teachers and social workers would probably tell me that I was trapped in the wrong body…And terrifyingly, I might easily be recommended for gender reassignment surgery…just because I didn’t like the pink straitjacket imposed on girls.’

The issue here is not whether transgender adults should have the ‘right’ to present as a member of the opposite sex, or undergo gender reassignment surgery if they choose to do so. We might debate how much public funding should be devoted to such surgery, but in a plural democracy in which I’m in a minority of those who think such surgery wrong on religious grounds, it’s a quid pro quo of my right to preach and practise my faith that I should acknowledge others’ freedom as adults to choose such surgery if they desire it. The more pressing concern, however, is for minors who might not be developmentally or psychologically ready for so decisive a procedure – and as I say, that’s hardly a traditionalist Christian concern. In a society that has otherwise become increasingly dedicated to the protection and safeguarding of children, it seems almost paradoxical – if not perverse – to allow the known hormonal volatilities of adolescence to be fixed so drastically in time by so invasive a medical procedure. It could be that the widespread confusion and contention around this issue is symptomatic of a wider socio-cultural malaise – one that prefers sexual self-definition and even solipsism to authentic engagement with a ‘given other’. Arguably, a similar trend can be detected in the explosion of online pornography, and the damaging effect that Spencer B. Olmstead and others have shown it having on young people’s relationships. Longer-term, advances in wearable computer technology look likely to facilitate ever-more sophisticated forms of autoeroticism that could have a similarly negative relational impact: an icon of Augustine’s image of the fallen humanity as incurvatus est – estranged from God and others and ‘turned in’ on itself. Certainly, my hope is that in 15 years’ time, such trends will have been and gone.

One of the key underlying tensions in all of this is a tension that I’ve so far named but not explained – the tension between ‘sex’ and ‘gender’. This is worth unpacking, particularly in relation to feminism.

So-called First Wave Feminism developed in the nineteenth century, and assumed an essential biological difference between male and female sexes, based on what would become known in 1905 as XY and XX chromosomes. The most famous campaigners of first wave feminism were the suffragettes, who distinguished sexual difference from social and political equality, and argued vigorously for the latter. Second Wave Feminism – the feminism of Betty Friedan, Greer, Paglia and Bindel – arose in the ‘60s and maintained the concept of essential biological duality, but developed a distinct notion of ‘gender’ to define the apparently ‘natural’ but in fact socially-constructed roles assigned to men and women on the supposed basis of their sexual differentiation – roles typically accorded less status, and less financial reward. Even so, distinctions of sex as such remained crucial in this Second Wave’s lobbying for abortion rights, and against domestic violence and rape.

By contrast, Third Wave feminists like Judith Butler and Rebecca Walker question the sex/gender distinction and see sexual differences and relationships as themselves socially constructed through language and cultural performance. In that context, it’s not difficult to see how transgenderism and gender reassignment has burgeoned. If language can shape sexuality, then so can the surgeon’s knife! Yet the concern of Second Wave feminists like Paglia and Greer is that this conception might allow male-female transsexuals to appropriate women’s essential sexual identity, just as in the past they have appropriated women’s labour, bodies and motherhood for their own patriarchal ends. As Greer famously expressed it, it’s ‘not fair’ that ‘a man who has lived for 40 years as a man and had children with a woman and enjoyed the unpaid services of a wife…then decides to be a woman.’.

Notwithstanding the distinct biological complexities of intersex conditions, the widespread opprobrium heaped on Greer and Paglia on this matter suggests that gender constructionism is eclipsing gender essentialism as the dominant means through which to construe sexual identity in Western culture. In our second key dimension of hermeneutics, this is typically echoed in ‘liberal’ and ‘radical’ approaches which prioritise reason and experience in the interpretation of Scripture, as compared to Evangelical readings which emphasise its ‘plain sense’, and more Catholic approaches which regard tradition as a prime guide for biblical exposition.

As I mentioned, in our brief we were asked to focus particularly the male-female relationship as presented in the Genesis creation narratives, so I will use this as an illustration of where things have got to with biblical and theological interpretations of sexuality and gender, and of where they might be headed. I so doing, because of time-constraints I’ll focus on Paul’s use of male-female language in Romans 1, precisely because of its indebtedness to the Genesis creation stories. I’ll then trace the possible implications of ongoing differences of interpretation for the church – that is, for our third, ecclesial dimension of the debate on gender and sexuality.

In Romans 1:26-27 Paul writes of men and women ‘exchanging natural intercourse for unnatural’, and thereby bringing ‘degradation’ and ‘punishment’ upon themselves. This is in fact the third of three vital ‘exchanges’ – exchanges which precisely demonstrate a healthy and an unhealthy construal of creation. In v.23 Paul states that the wicked characteristically ‘changed (ēllaxan) the glory of the immortal God into images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles’. One thinks of the Israelites’ golden calf (Ex. 32), and clearly the Decalogue’s prohibition against ‘graven images’ looms large here (Ex. 20:4). But Paul quickly broadens his conception of idolatry to take in the First Commandment, too: ‘they exchanged (ēllaxan) the truth about God for a lie’, he says, ‘and worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator’ (v.25, cf. Ex 20:1-3). Thus, Paul also casts same-sex sexual practice against the backdrop of the ‘creation ordinances’ of Genesis 1-2, with their picture of humankind made ‘male and female’ in God’s image, and of the union of male and female in ‘one flesh’ (1:27; 2:24). Granted, John Boswell notes that no full-blown system of ‘natural laws’ was institutionalised in civil society until ‘more than a millennium after Paul’s death’, but the absence of such a system doesn’t in itself denote the absence of laws in a more implicit sense, or of an outlook which might see creation order as coincident with God’s prescription for sexual relationships.

It should be clear by now that that an essentialist, creation-theological reading of male and female sexuality in Romans 1: 26-7 derives from the broad contours of Paul’s discourse, and not, as is often alleged by ‘pro-gay’ apologists like Victor Paul Furnish, from a dogmatic eisegesis of the single words ‘nature’ and ‘natural’ (phusin, phusikēn). Nor can those contours plausibly be limited to specific, context-bound practices like temple prostitution or pederasty. Granted, these words do carry other meanings in Scripture, but given the strength of Paul’s wider ‘argument from creation’, it would take a quite extreme form of special pleading to divorce ‘nature’ from his understanding of God’s eternal intent for humans (cf. v.20). Besides, the notion of homosexual practice as ‘against nature’ or para phusin, is found in several contemporary Graeco-Roman sources, and especially in that Hellenistic Jewish tradition with which Paul himself was associated.

Thus, since Romans 1 is the most thorough text on same-sex sexual relations in the biblical canon, and since after 30 years of considering whether any other texts might endorse such relations I have been unable to find them, it seems unlikely that I or most of the 1 billion or so evangelicals and Pentecostals around the world who take a similar view would find a ‘hermeneutical key’ that leads them to a contrary conclusion – whether 5, 15 or 50 years hence. Unlikely…but not impossible. Indeed, it’s important that all of us in this wrenching debate are prepared to say, ‘we see but “through a glass, darkly”; and we might have got it wrong.’ Or as Paul puts it in Romans 2:1: ‘You have no excuse, whoever you are, when you pass judgement others, for in passing judgment on another you pass judgement on yourself.’

This last principle, I’d suggest, should inform the final dimension of our take on gender and sexuality here – the ecclesial dimension. While we must surely keep striving for mutual comprehension in forums like this, we might at the same time need to accommodate what Jean Francois Lyotard calls an ‘incommensurability of judgements’. In other words, we might ultimately have to concede that rapprochement on sexuality and gender issues within the church is impossible this side of glory, and that the kind of union that still pertains – albeit precariously – in the Church of England and the Anglican Communion is no longer workable. Whether that means an extension of alternative episcopal oversight, the creation of non-geographical provinces, or a straight division of the communion – and even of the CofE – along confessional lines, I cannot say. What I can say for myself is that I have no desire for separation, and would not leave unless the current position of the CofE changed substantively from that articulated in the House of Bishops’ report. Even then, I might well need to be told by others the leave rather than leaving of my own volition.

In any case, I’d want to say that it’s essential to balance biblical sexual morality with biblical grace. I’d want to say that doctrinal truth on its own can be presented as occupied more with the letter than the spirit of the law. I’d want to say that the heart of the gospel is that truth finds its fulfilment in God’s offer of repentance, forgiveness and new life to people of all backgrounds and situations. And I’d want to say that such truth is not compromised when compassion and respect are shown to an individual; nor that such responses are a seal of approval on wrong behaviour. I’d want to say instead that they are a sign of God’s love. That is an observation not just for 5 years, or 15, or 50, but for all time, and for everywhere.

David Hilborn


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