Last week, Adrian Thatcher gave us a precis of his new book Redeeming Gender (Oxford, 2016), arguing that Anglicans need to quarry the Scriptures and tradition more thoroughly in order to provide a commendable vision of sex and gender to the world (“Redeem a truly Christian approach to gender,” Church Times, Aug 12). It is sadly behind a paywall.
I entirely agree with Thatcher that Anglicans need to do their homework on sex and gender, instead of incoherently flailing about, rewriting canons and changing the sacraments on the fly. But I was quite puzzled by his article.
For example, Thatcher seems to depend on Thomas Laqueur’s Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud (Harvard, 1990), which argued that a “one-sex model” was prevalent in the West from ancient times until the 18th century. This model, partly dependent on the Roman physician Galen, understood women as deficient versions of men: less hot, full of greater moisture, possessing the same genitals save that they were internal rather than external, and so forth. Then, a “two-sex model” replaced it in the modern period, based upon new advances in science.
What Thatcher does not mention, however, is that the field of sex and gender studies has moved on a great deal, and a number of historians have critiqued Laqueur’s argument. For example, see this publicly available review of Helen King, The One-Sex Body on Trial: The Classical and Early Modern Evidence. The History of Medicine in Context (Ashgate, 2013). Essentially, Laqueur understood neither the ancient nor the medieval nor the modern evidence properly, arguing for too great an influence on the part of the Roman physician Galen. A great variety of views on gender and sex have been current in Western civilization in the past two millennia, all alongside and doing battle with each other.
The other curiosity is that Thatcher does not mention any theological sources when he discusses the apparently flawed views on sex and gender of “the Christian tradition.” Yet various Church Fathers and theologians, such as Augustine, had distinct views of the nature and relationship of the sexes, keenly related to their theologies of creation and resurrection (and not one or the other, as Thatcher would prefer).
Augustine and many medieval Western theologians are significant for arguing that women are in no way defective in their nature, and indeed that the division of the sexes will persist after the resurrection of the dead. This position contrasts with some Eastern Fathers, who argued for a one-sex model along the lines that Thatcher mentions. Take this section from City of God:
Because Scripture says, Until we all come to complete manhood, to the measure of the age of the fullness of Christ (Eph. 4:13), and conformed to the image of the Son of God, some people believe that women will not rise again with their female sex; instead, they claim, all will rise as males, because God made only the man from clay but the woman from the man. But the more sensible view, it seems to me, is the one held by those who do not doubt that both sexes will rise again. For then there will be no lust, which is the cause of shame. Before they sinned they were naked, and the man and the woman were not ashamed. All faults will be removed from those bodies, but their nature will be preserved. And female sex is not a fault but rather a matter of nature, and it will then be exempt from intercourse and childbirth. The female organs will still be present. …
The woman is just as much God’s creation as is the man. But by her being made from the man, human unity was commended to us; and by her being made in this way, as I said, Christ and the Church were prefigured. Thus the one who established the two sexes will restore them both. (XXII.17)
Clearly, we have a late antique “two-sex model” here, which does not see women as defective men. Moreover, this section of City of God influenced the West to a great degree (see Caroline Walker Bynum’s Resurrection of the Body in Western Christianity, 200-1336 [Columbia, 1995] mentioned two weeks ago on this blog, for more details).
This is only one example, but it demonstrates the degree to which Thatcher’s article starts on the wrong foot, attributing too much retrograde uniformity to prior tradition. There are indeed riches in the Christian tradition and in Scripture for talking about sex and gender in a more nuanced and fruitful way than we normally find in contemporary Church debates or in much contemporary social theory.
The key is taking the time to read them.