There’s been quite a response to the Telegraph’s report about my paper, "Intersex and Ontology: A Response to The Church, Women Bishops and Provision". The Telegraph itself is carrying a blog post today written by Revd Dr Peter Mullen, a priest of the Church of England and former Rector of St Michael, Cornhill and St Sepulchre-without-Newgate in the City of London. It’s entitled “Jesus was a man: look at the evidence, Dr Cornwall”.
Peter Mullen writes,
“Well, the gospels were written in Greek and they always use the male pronoun to refer to Jesus. Not once do they use the equally available feminine or neuter pronouns. So the gospel writers seem to have assumed that Jesus was a man. And if masculinity is recognised by particular characteristics, there is a pretty huge pile of circumstantial evidence. In the infancy stories, Jesus is referred to as a male child. On his ritual pilgrimage to the temple when he was twelve, he is described as a boy.”
Unfortunately, it seems unlikely that Dr Mullen has actually read my paper (which he describes as a “racy tract”), or he would know that I never argue that Jesus was not a boy and man. Indeed, that’s precisely part of my point.
In fact, I argue that we can’t know for certain that Jesus was male as we currently define maleness. This is an important distinction. Sex (biological, physical attributes of someone’s body) and gender (someone’s sense of being a man, a woman, or something else) are not the same thing.
Whilst most people who are biologically male also identify as men, and most people who identify as men are biologically male, this is not universal. For one thing, there are transgender people whose gender identity does not “match” their physical sex in the way we usually expect. For another thing – and this is the point I make in my paper – there are many people who identify as men but who have some intersex variation in their physical sex.
About 1 in every 2,500 people is born with an intersex condition which means that their body varies from the typical male or female pattern. Whilst some people have intersex conditions which manifest in genitals which look unusual, other intersex people have no external visible ambiguity. It’s therefore possible that Jesus – in common with many other people whose sex is never called in question – had a hidden or “invisible” intersex condition.
Dr Mullen is right to observe that those who met and interacted with Jesus seem to have had no doubt that he was a man – but, crucially, this is not the same as certainty that he was biologically male. Most of us will meet people on a regular basis who identify as completely unremarkable men or women, but who also have an intersex condition. There will hardly ever be any need for us to know about the specificities of someone else’s chromosomes, gonads, hormone levels or sex cells – but if we did, we might be surprised by the number of people whose physical sex varies in some way from what we consider “normal”.
Some of those who argue that women should not be consecrated as priests or bishops do so because they believe that there is something intrinsic to maleness which makes males able to govern and lead in a way females cannot. Others who oppose women priests and bishops argue that a priest or bishop somehow participates in Jesus’ own priesthood, standing in Jesus’ place, and that since Jesus was male, a female cannot take on this role.
However, I believe that most people who argue in this way never make the distinction between sex and gender which I have outlined above. They do not believe it is really possible that someone who identifies as and is recognized as a man can be anything other than biologically male.
But, as I argue in my paper, the existence of intersex makes it abundantly clear that this is not the case. There are plenty of people – including priests – whose biological sex is not clearly and exclusively male or female, whether or not they ever know it.
It is therefore difficult to argue that priesthood – or the capacity to be legitimately consecrated as a bishop – rests in biological male sex. It might rest in being recognized socially as a man, but that is something different.
For a more accurate account of what I argue in the paper, see the Church Times article by Madeleine Davies, a journalist who has actually both read my paper and spoken to me about it (neither of which seem to be true of either Peter Mullen or of John Bingham, who wrote the original Telegraph article).
Other responses include: