Yvette Cooper, Labor’s Home Secretary, dodged the question of what defines a woman on Times Radio this week, in the contentious debate over transgender rights. She said she wasn’t going to go down “rabbit holes on this one”.
She’s not the only one. Anneliese Dodds, Labour’s shadow minister for women and equality, also dithered on BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour, saying somewhat vaguely that “there are different legal definitions around what a woman really is…you have the biological definition, the legal definition, all sorts of things.”
Labor leader Keir Starmer has come down hard on his neck for stating unequivocally that a transgender woman is indeed a woman, in law, who one would expect as a former Director of Public Prosecutions , he knows something. With Starmer in her sights, JK Rowling pressed the nuclear tweet button, saying it was “another indication that the Labor Party can no longer be counted on to stand up for women’s rights”. No wonder Cooper and Dodds, unmistakably women, put on their tin hats.
Rowling has a passionate form on the matter. It started with her post about two years ago, satirizing those who have embraced euphemisms to avoid binary gender definitions: “People who menstruate. I’m sure there was a word for these people. Someone help me. Wumben? Wimpund? Woomud? »
It’s like the sarcastic phrase “If only there was a name for…”. This is the trick used by those who claim the answer is blindingly obvious. And let those who can’t see it make a huge category mistake, the mistake of attributing to something the characteristics of something quite distinct.
In gender policy, the Church of England has been accused of making two such massive category errors. The first was the ordination of women priests in the 1990s. The category error arose as a result of a campaign conducted primarily on issues of equality – in ministry and before God. But conscientious opposition to the female priesthood of Catholic traditions, both Anglo and Roman, is not based on equality. Instead, his argument is grounded in an interpretation of scripture and views regarding created order and apostolic succession. It is not a question of equality (they say), it is a question of difference – and to claim that the genders are the same in this respect is to deny the created order and, therefore, to commit a category error.
Like Labor women ministers, the Church refuses to address difficult gender policy issues until it is forced to make mistakes
I respect that point of view, but I don’t buy it. Not least because the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth is radical enough to repeatedly make clear that the imago dei, the image of God that humanity bears, is not gender specific. And all-male apostolic succession doesn’t make much sense on Easter morning in a few weeks when the greatest apostolic mission in the history of creation is entrusted to a woman, Mary Magdalene, to whom the risen Christ says d go and tell her siblings what she witnessed.
There is a clue to the status of his mission in his conferred title of “Apostle of Apostles”. So, again, it would seem that denying his holy priesthood is actually the category error.
The second thorny issue of gender policy in the Church is same-sex marriage. This was again conducted on the ground of social equality rather than that of theology. David Cameron would have needed a social issue a decade ago on which to strut his liberalism to appease his coalition partner and leader of the Liberal Democrats, Nick Clegg, who then went on to enrich himself in this bastion of liberal thought , Facebook.
Those who oppose same-sex marriage have their strongest argument in the created order and their weakest in tradition. For the Church, marriage is a gift of God in creation, a sacrament, by which a man and a woman recreate the divine conjugality as outlined above. It is that and it ceases to be if we decide that it is something else – as the cynic would say, “if only there was a name” for a man and a woman who come together like this.
Again, this is about making a category mistake rather than solving an inequality problem. The Church would have spared itself the agony it now endures in conducting same-sex marriages if it had had a liturgy to bless such unions – as it should be, being in the realm of the blessing of God’s love everywhere where he is. Equal in the eyes of God, but different. As things stand, we are plagued by uniformity rather than equality.
The problem with our Church is that, like Labor women ministers, she refuses to address the difficult issues of gender policy until she is forced to make mistakes. It should help secular society at large to avoid category errors. Because rabbit holes can be theological as well as political, and we have a responsibility to explore both.