Some Reflections on the Church of England's "Men and Women in Marriage"

In the recent document by the Church of England’s Faith and Order Commission entitled Men and Women in Marriage (Archbishops’ Council 2013), a defence of the inherently and irreducibly heterosexual nature of marriage against those who would expand it to include same-sex couples, we are told,

“The sexual differentiation of men and women is a gift of God, who ‘created humankind in his image… male and female he created them’. It is on male and female that God gives his blessing, which is to be seen not only in procreation but in human culture, too (Genesis 1.27-8).” (Archbishops’ Council 2013: 1)

These verses from Genesis are often appealed to as proof of the non-negotiability of sex as male and female: what is sometimes termed its “givenness”. The same report exhorts, “Not everything in the way we live … is open to renegotiation. We cannot turn our back upon the natural, and especially the biological, terms of human existence” (Archbishops’ Council 2013: 4).

Elsewhere, theologians have used exactly the same kind of logic to argue that sex reassignment surgery for transgender people is wrong: it is rejecting the God-givenness of their bodies, rejecting how God has made them and intends them to be. This argument is laid out, for example, in a 1982 book by Oliver O’Donovan who was, perhaps not coincidentally, also a member of the Faith and Order Commission responsible for Men and Women in Marriage in 2013. For O’Donovan in the 1982 text, transgender surgery is going beyond what it is reasonable for humans to do with their bodies, rejecting their irreducibility as sexed (O’Donovan 1982: 15).

But interestingly, O’Donovan does not have such a problem with corrective surgery for intersex people or “hermaphrodites”: “Surgery … is appropriate to resolve the ambiguities of the hermaphrodite … The resulting sex … is the real sex of the hermaphrodite. That is to say, it is the sex to which, in view of the ambiguity, it is sensible to assign him” (O’Donovan 1982: 13). So here we seem to have the curious double logic that bodily sex is God-given, irreducible, and must not be changed – except where it is atypical, as for intersex people, in which case it is appropriate to “resolve” it along putatively male or female lines. What else is this but turning our back upon the natural, biological terms of human existence and renegotiating something we have encountered and do not like?

It is perhaps significant that there is no acknowledgement in Men and Women in Marriage that biological sex can, in fact, be anything other than male or female. The logic is that God created humans solely and exclusively male or female and that their identities as men, women and parents must map onto that. Indeed, insists the document,

“Biological differences do not simply cease to matter at the level of personal relationship; persons are not asexual, but are either male or female. Their sex attains a personal meaning, as relationships are built constructively on the endowments and strengths it offers. The relationship of marriage is more personal, not less, as the partners come to it in receptiveness of what only the opposite sex can bring to their own.” (Archbishops’ Council 2013: 9)

We could, if we were so inclined, critique the apparently uninformed use of terminology here: the authors seem to be conflating asexuality (i.e. the state of not experiencing sexual arousal or attraction to other people – which is increasingly claimed as an orientation akin to homosexuality, heterosexuality and bisexuality) with being somehow non-sexed or neutrally sexed biologically.

But more importantly, the fact is that it is simply not true to say that “persons … are either male or female”. Humans are indeed sexed, and the majority are indeed sexed male or female, but maleness and femaleness are not the only options available, even at a biological level. Intersex people have a combination of male and female biological characteristics, meaning they cannot be slotted into either the male or the female category. As P.-L. Chau and Jonathan Herring note, “It is not that it is hard to find out whether an intersexual is male or female, but rather that even knowing everything there is to know about them, they do not fall into the accepted description of male or female” (Chau and Herring 2002: 332). Intersex is rare, but not as rare as all that: intersex people account for as many as 1 in 2,000 of the population.

It seems to me that there are only two conclusions to be reached from the statement that “persons … are either male or female”, neither of them pleasant ones: first, that the authors are simply not aware of the existence of persons whose biological sex is neither male nor female (or who have characteristics of both male and female), and have therefore taken no account whatsoever of this category of persons in the theological anthropology which underlies their arguments on marriage (which surely brings its veracity into question); or, second, that they are aware of such people, but do not consider them persons. In other words, something about the sex of those who are not male or female renders them non-persons.

For this reason among many others, I cannot be content that the anthropology underlying Men and Women in Marriage is adequate. Intersex people have long spoken about their feelings of being obliterated and erased by medical paradigms which cannot allow atypical genitalia to remain “unfixed”: the medical profession is now exercising humility in reconsidering its protocols to take account of the existence and testimonies of intersex people. The Church of England, sadly, does not appear to be doing the same.


Archbishops’ Council (2013), Men and Women in Marriage: A Document from the Faith and Order Commission Published with the Agreement of the House of Bishops of the Church of England and Approved for Study, London: Church House Publishing

Chau, P.-L. and Jonathan Herring (2002), “Defining, Assigning and Designing Sex”, International Journal of Law, Policy and the Family 16, 327-367

O’Donovan, Oliver (1982), Transsexualism and Christian Marriage, Nottingham: Grove Books