While women still can’t become priests in the Catholic Church, they can in many provinces (the “dioceses”) of the Anglican church. But not all of them, which has led to schisms in the Anglican church and breakaway sects that limit the position of bishops, priests, or even deacons, to men. This discrimination against women is based on the tradition of Jesus having chosen only male apostles.
How do you argue against that discrimination? The simplest way is on moral grounds: it’s unfair to have a church hierarchy dominated by one sex, and there’s no moral reason why women shouldn’t be allowed equal access to the priesthood. Those, I think, are the reasons why many Anglican provinces allow ordination of women.
The worst way to do it is to argue that there isn’t a strong distinction between the male and female gender, that Christ could have been a hermaphrodite or intersex, and therefore that drawing sharp gender distinctions for the priesthood is unjustified.
But sadly, that’s the way that Susannah Cornwall argues. She’sa postdoctoral research associate at the Lincoln Theological Institute of the University of Manchester—the university of my pinch-blogger Matthew Cobb (Matthew: what are they putting in the water there?). The argument, reported in many places (the Telegraph and HuffPo, for example), is that a dichotomous model of sex and gender is not adequate to deal with this theological problem. Ergo, we need female priests. Cornwall supports her argument by vetting the possibility that Jesus, born of a virgin, could have been of ambiguous sex.
Her paper, “Intersex and Ontology: A response to The Church, Women Bishops and Provision” (download a pdf from that link) is a response to a previous paper by the Latimer Trust (a theological think tank) arguing that, “In this debate, there is finally no middle ground. We will argue that it is not possible to affirm gender distinctions and, at the same time, implement complete interchangeability of gender functions.”
Cornwall says there is a middle ground: intersex individuals whose gender is ambiguous. And Jesus could have been one of them! As she notes:
But in actual fact, it is not possible to assert with any degree of certainty that Jesus was male as we now define maleness. There is no way of knowing for sure that Jesus did not have one of the intersex conditions which would give him a body which appeared externally to be unremarkably male, but which might nonetheless have had some “hidden” female physical features. He might have had ovarian as well as testicular tissue in his body. He might, in common with many people who are unaware of the fact, have had a mixture of XX and XY cells. Indeed, as several scholars have pointed out with their tongues both in and out of their cheeks, if the doctrine of the Virgin Birth is taken as scientific fact, then Jesus certainly had no male human element to introduce a Y chromosome into his DNA, and all his genetic material would have been identical with that of his mother (that is, female) (see e.g. Mollenkott 2002, 2007: 115-7). There is simply no way of telling at this juncture whether Jesus was an unremarkably male human being, or someone with an intersex condition who had a male morphology as far as the eye could see but may or may not also have had XX chromosomes or some female internal anatomy. The fact that, as far as we know, Jesus never married, fathered children or engaged in sexual intercourse, of course, makes his “undisputable” maleness even less certain.
The point is whether all this conjecture and appeal to statistical improbability “from below” matters. I would argue that it does matter if Jesus’ undisputed maleness is deemed crucial to his Christness, to his sacerdotal function and the sacerdotal function of the priestsand bishops who minister in his stead – which the authors of The Church, Women Bishops and Provision insist is the case. But that Jesus was male is simply a best guess – a kind of sexual docetism on which ecclesiological truth and essentialist ontology is now being madeto rest. It is no accident, maintain the authors, that Jesus was male: his authority required (and bishops’ authority continues to require) physical maleness (Beckwith et al 2011: 45), because of the “creation order” in which it is given to males to have governance over what is taught. However, since we cannot know for sure that Jesus was male – since we do not have a body to examine and analyze – it can only be that Jesus’ masculine gender role, rather than his male sex, is having to bear the weight of all this authority.
Genetically, if Jesus was born of a virgin, he would have either had to be produced parthenogentically (from a nonreduced gamete of Mary), in which case he’d be a normal XX female—a clone of Mary. Alternatively, if he was produced by a haploid egg that was unfertilized, then he would have been inviable—no Jesus at all! If you analyzed the Bible in the light of modern genetics, there’s no way that Jesus could have been male. (There are some XX hermaphrodites who appear male but have ambiguous genitalia, but those—victims of de la Chapelle syndrome—require a corporeal father who contributes an X chromosome carrying a bit of his Y).
But this is all nonsense, of course. There was no virgin birth, and may well have been no Jesus. And if there was an itinerant apocalyptic rabbi of that ilk, he would almost certainly have been male. If you argue that he had some XX and some XY cells, then you are saying Jesus had a corporeal father, for only a real male father could have introduced a Y chromosome into Jesus’s genome. And in that case there was no virgin birth, so why argue about this in the first place?
It’s even because, according to Cornwall, “It is estimated that about 1 in every 2,500 people is born with some kind of physical intersex condition.” So even if Jesus had a corporeal father (in which case he wasn’t divine), the odds are very strong that Jesus was a straight-up male. (I doubt that the lack of Jesus’s kids adds probability to his intersexuality.) Yes, it is formally possible that any itinerant rabbi who was the nucleus of the Jesus legend was a hermaphrodite, but I’d bet 2000-1 odds against it. Sadly, there’s no way to decide.
This kind of theological hair-splitting is what Jews call pilpul. Let’s not base questions of morality on assertions about reality which cannot be subject to empirical investigation, and indeed, are not even questions that are coherent in the first place. Women should be ordained in the Anglican church simply because there is no moral basis for discriminating against them. But, as Eric MacDonald has discovered, there’s not much reason to be an Anglican priest in the first place.
Like all theology, this navel-gazing and groundless speculation is a complete waste of time. Is there any reason for a secular university to have a school of theology, or hire even one theologian?
UPDATE: Reader Kevin notes below that a peevish Anglican priest has responded in the Telegraph: the Rev. Dr. Peter Mullen angrily asserts, “Jesus was a man: look at the evidence, Dr Cornwall.” It’s all hilarious: Mullen says that we know Jesus was a man because the Bible tells us so. But he’s ignoring genetic evidence, which tells us that Jesus must have been a woman!