Telegraph article on Intersex and Ontology paper

The Telegraph has published a story today in response to my Intersex and Ontology paper. Unfortunately, the journalist responsible has picked up only on a small part of what I wrote. The headline is also very misleading, since I did not and do not use the term "hermaphrodite" when talking about intersex.

The context of my paper was the current debate surrounding the consecration of women as bishops in the Church of England.

I noted that a lot of the rhetoric surrounding gender roles in the Christian churches assumes that all humans are clearly and definitively male or female, and should therefore have gender roles which appropriately "match" their physical sex.

However, I noted, the existence of intersex conditions - conditions where people have some physical characteristics usually associated with males and some usually associated with females - makes clear that physical sex is less clear-cut than that.

Toward the end of my paper, I remarked that one of the reasons why some people insist only males may have leadership and governance roles in churches is that Jesus was himself male.

However, I suggested, Jesus' maleness is simply a best guess. We can't analyze Jesus' chromosomes, measure his hormone levels, examine his gonads and so on. The majority of people who live, identify and are recognized as men are male, so in all likelihood, that was also the case for Jesus.

However, there is simply no way of being certain. There are a number of intersex conditions where the person with the condition looks unremarkably male or female, and, unless for some reason they undergo medical tests, no-one (including themselves) would ever know they had an intersex condition. That could also have been the case for Jesus.

Why does this matter? It matters because Jesus' maleness is so often made to bear the weight of an enormous amount of theological assertion about the significance of maleness for leadership. It matters because intersex bodies continue to be ignored and written out of existence by much theological discourse. It matters because being aghast that Jesus' maleness could be in question reinforces the idea that only clear maleness or femaleness are legitimate and good, and that "ambiguous" bodies should be corrected and "disappeared".

It's also important to note that the term "hermaphrodite" is an archaic and stigmatizing one, which I did not use in the paper. In the public imagination, a hermaphrodite is someone with a full set of both male and female genitalia.

In reality, whilst people with intersex conditions might have unusual-looking genitalia, this is more likely to mean a larger-than-typical clitoris, or genitals which look somewhere in between what we usually expect for males and females. Often, people with intersex conditions do not have unusual external genitals at all. People with Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome, for example, have vulvas which look no different from those of any other woman, though they also have testes rather than ovaries and XY rather than XX chromosomes. 

In my first book, I argued that theological and social uncertainty about sex is really uncertainty about lots of other things: about power, authority, perfection, and what bodies really mean. Acknowledging that the sex of all humans is less obvious and self-evident than we often assume means we must also rethink the social and theological norms pinned onto unambiguous sex.

It's simply not the case that humanity is made up solely of clearly-sexed masculine males and clearly-sexed feminine females. God and nature are more creative than that.


  1. Good Morning,
    As a Christian I believe Jesus is God, therefore if this is the case, his/her/its sex is irrelevant. Also, surely if God were going to incarnate in a human body in the Patriarchal environment of 1st century Judea, it would be logical to incarnate as a male - who could operate as a leader and be taken seriously in that society, thereby more easily propogating his/her/its message. For the record, I support Female Bishops (although am quite strongly Orthodox when it comes to Theology - I regard female clergy as an impossibility in the 1st century AD, but this does not necessarily preclude them in our changed society today - for me not having women clergy earlier on was a practical measure, rather than a religious one, as it would have been impossible in the culture of the time - also women played a seminal role in the early church). You make an interesting assertion, and although at first I was a little taken aback by it, I must say that there is no reason - God being non-human and sexless, for him/her/it to incarnate in any form he/her/it wished - to do otherwise would be to put limits on God, which for a believer is nonsense. However, I maintain my objection on practical grounds - why would God choose to be incarnated in a form that would have created difficulties for him in the society of the time? Unless, you don't believe Jesus is God, which in that case we have a human claiming to be the 'Son of God' - who in this scenario is either self-deluded or a liar, could well have been born as any variation of human sexuality. However, if Jesus isn't God, then it doesn't matter about his sexuality, and you can't argue for female bishops on the strength of it as - if Jesus is not God the whole religion is then founded on a lie and falls down anyway - unless you want to recast it as a new religion founded on a 'human teacher' - rather than a divine agent - which makes it more a philosophy akin to Buddhism rather than a religion. I hope you will reply - as I would be interested to hear what you have to say about the practicality issue. The Telegraph article, cast you as 'someone with an agenda', but after reading your post above I believe you have an open mind and are genuinely interested in open debate on the matter (sorry hope that didn't come across as patronizing - if find conferring nuance in written communication, less easy than verbal :) Chris Hewitt (Japan)

    4 March 2012 03:46

  2. Fine, but your argument that Jesus might have been intersex because we cannot be absolutely certain that he was male is too weak to have any bearing on ecclesiology.

    (The distinction between gender and sex is, I think, a red herring here. The 'In persona Christi' objection to female ordination is not making a clear claim about the necessity of the male gender or the necessity of the male sex specifically. Neither is the 'all apostles designated as such were men' argument. You will need to show that Jesus was neither male in gender nor male in sex as the In Persona or All Male Apostles objector can, I think legitimately, retreat to the alternative whichever of these you establish, if you establish only one)

    It is much more certain that Jesus was a man than it was certain that Jesus carried out his miracles, was born of a virgin, or returned from the dead. This is, I think, because of exercising ordinary Humean caution about others' accounts of miracles. If someone reports an ordinary phenomenon occuring (e.g. 'I saw my friend's penis' or 'my friend likes playing Rugby'), we would have a higher level of certainty that the phenomenon they reported really did than if they reported something extraordinary ('I saw a giant pyramid made of stone blocks', 'I saw the sun turn black and the sky go dark'). Being a man (gender/sex - the distinction being irrelevant, see above) is very much more common than returning from the dead, raising others from the dead, and so on. If you do accept the testimony of Christ's miracles, then you probably ought to accept the testimony of Christ's maleness. If you don't, you are going to find it extremely difficult to convince Christians who are not so theologically liberal as to already agree with you on Feminist grounds (i.e. without the need for theological responses to the two aforementioned objections)

    Having raised that (I think we can agree obvious) point, I recognise that your argument is really aimed at the In Persona objector's 'essential masculinity' claim. Your argument seems to be that there is a 1/2500 chance that Jesus was not '100%' biologically masculine, and therefore there is a 1/2500 chance that he was not essentially masculine.

    You raise the question yourself, however, of wherein it is that In Persona objectors claim 'essential masculinity' inheres. I don't think they need to claim that 'essential masculinity' inheres in being 100% biologically masculine (indeed doing so would open up a massive can of undergraduate metaphysical worms as regards hylomorphic properties). I very much doubt any of them do.

    Furthermore, this would still only mean that there was a 1/2500 chance that Jesus did not satisfy all the sufficient criteria for 'essential masculinity'. But would you change the organisation of the Church on the basis of a 1/2500 chance that Jesus was only mainly (perhaps 99?, whatever that would mean) masculine?

    See next post.

  3. If this is your argument, it fails because you have conceded too much theological ground to the In Persona objection: you have suggested that "if Jesus were essentially male, then we should only have male priests". There is then a 2499/2500 chance that Jesus was essentially male, which means that you ought to rule in favour of the In Persona objection and against female ordination, at least until we discover some as yet unknown, yet somehow canonical, gospels which tip the balance to 1200/2500 or thereabouts.

    As regards gender identity, if you are accepting that Jesus' gender identity in the gospels was male but that this does not constitute "essential masculinity" of the kind required by the In Persona objection, the In Persona objector can claim, very easily, that Jesus' gender identity (and by extension gender identity now) does, in fact, constitute 'essential masculinity'. There are pretty good grounds for this position, particularly in terms of the importance for all Christian soteriology that the way in which the disciples perceive Jesus is an accurate representation of what He is ("He who has seen me," etc.). This would allow you to make a case for the ordination of biological females insofar as they self-identified as males, but I doubt this is what you want.

  4. Thank you for your comments.

    Chris Hewitt, as you know, many people do make precisely the argument you gloss: that Jesus was born as a man because, in the time and culture into which he was born, a woman would not have been respected as a teacher and prophet. However, my point is simply that this is not the same as being certain that Jesus was male as we now define maleness. I made no assertion about Jesus' sexuality (i.e. his sexual orientation), merely his physical sex and the lack of certainty it is possible for us to have about it at a distance of 2000+ years.

    You ask, "Why would God choose to be incarnated in a form that would have created difficulties for him in the society of the time?" In fact, I'm not disputing that Jesus was incarnated in a specific body in which, as far as we know, he was recognized as a man. To reiterate, though, this is not the same as knowing that he had XY chromosomes and/or testes and/or produced small sex gametes. My paper therefore raises the question of why this uncertainty is not acknowledged - and why, in fact, Jesus' undisputed maleness sometimes becomes an argument for the maleness of priests and bishops.

  5. The final point you make, Hugh, is actually a very important one. I myself have no problem with the ordination of transgender men (which I assume is what you mean by biological females who self-identify as males). However, I suspect that most of those who object to the consecration of women as bishops (many of whom also object to women being ordained at all) would not be keen on the ordination of transgender men. I'd be glad to be corrected on that, but I suspect it's the case. This is precisely because sex is deemed to be so God-given and thus unchangeable that gender must supervene on it, rather than the other way around. (Oliver O'Donovan makes this argument in his Transsexualism and Christian Marriage booklet, and a similar argument recurs in the Evangelical Alliance's treatments of transgender). What interests me is that O'Donovan and others have not had the same kind of objections to corrective surgery for intersex. In this latter case, surgery has been seen as a legitimate and appropriate way to "resolve the ambiguity" of the intersex person. So in the transgender case, gender identity has to give way to the unchangeable reality of physical sex, but in the intersex case, the body can itself be "refined" in order to render the person's sex "clear".

    All this is to say that, although it wasn't the point of my paper, transgender raises its own questions about the self-evident nature of the way human sex and gender map onto each other.

    People might well argue, as you point out, that it's Jesus' masculine gender identity rather than his male sex which is significant to his nature, and that it's masculinity which is therefore an essential property of priesthood. However, people hardly ever do argue along these lines, precisely because the congruence of sex and gender is so rarely questioned. I think it would be a far more honest argument if they did so.

    However, it would raise further questions of its own, given the argument that gender is at least in part a cultural construct, and that notions of roles appropriate to men and women differ according to time and culture. The point then becomes what it is about being a woman (as opposed to being female) that precludes the capacity to stand in persona Christi.

    Personally, I'm not persuaded by the argument that women should not be (Church of England) bishops because women never have been (Church of England) bishops: there are numerous other issues on which the conscience of Christians has shifted and which have precipitated changed ecclesiologies and clerical structures.

    On another point you make: I'm not especially interested in playing numbers games. That there was a roughly 1 in 2500 chance that Jesus had an intersex condition makes it no more or less significant than if it were a 1 in 10 or 1 in 2 chance. What interests me is that intersex is one thing - not the only thing, just one - which disrupts the certainty of pinning dichotomous gender to dichotomous sex.


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