The story of Rev. Sally / Selwyn Gross neatly encapsulates the challenges of intersex people to Roman Catholic rules on the ordination of women. Male-identified at birth, Selwyn was raised as male, and became a Catholic priest. When medical tests revealed that internal biology was primarily female, Sally transitioned - and was forced out of the priesthood.
In the Anglican church, there is no problem with the ordination of intersex people, as there is no bar to women's ordination in the first place, nor are there barriers to promotion - up to the rank of bishop. Then the stained - glass ceiling is struck, for intersex people and for women. We know from science that the intersex phenomenon is entirely natural and complex, including a small but significant proportion of the human population. The absolute division of us into a neat two-part binary, is simplistic and a dangerous ground on which to base rules for ordination (or for marriage, for that matter).
The theologian Dr Susannah Cornwall has specialised in the intersex challenge to theology, notably in her book "Sex and Uncertainty in the Body of Christ" . In a new paper, reported on in the Church Times, she applies these considerations to the debate raging in the English Church over women bishops. The trigger for her intervention came in a paper by those opposed to women bishops,"The Church, Women Bishops and Provision"which argued “When we stop receiving Christ in his essential maleness, his humanity becomes obscured".
Intersex conditions undermine the assumptions about the clear delineation between male and female which underpin the theology of Christians that oppose women bishops.
Dr Cornwall says that many contemporary theological accounts of sex, gender, and sexuality take too little heed to the existence of physical intersex conditions.“The important question is what definition of maleness the authors of The Church, Women Bishops and Provision are using, and what it is in which they believe that maleness inheres,” she writes. “Intersex disturbs the discreteness of maleness and femaleness, and might therefore also disturb the gendered roles which are pinned to them.”Dr Cornwall believes that “very little” has been written about the impact of such conditions on theology and the Church’s ministry.“Generally, there has been a growing awareness that intersex exists but not specifically theological reflection,” she said. “The pastoral concern is the big impetus for my project, but I don’t think it’s possible to do that without thinking about the theological considerations.”- full report at Church Times
In her paper “Intersex & Ontology, A Response to The Church, Women Bishops and Provision”, she argues that it is not possible to know “with any certainty” that Jesus did not suffer from an intersex condition, with both male and female organs.
In an extraordinary paper she says: “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.”
Dr Cornwall argues that the fact that Jesus is not recorded to have had children made his gender status “even more uncertain”.
She continues: “We cannot know for sure that Jesus was male – since we do not have a body to examine and analyse – it can only be that Jesus’ masculine gender role, rather than his male sex, is having to bear the weight of all this authority.”
Cornwall, Susannah: Sex and Uncertainty in the Body of Christ: Intersex Conditions and Christian Theology (Gender, Theology and Spirituality)
Cornwall, Susannah: Controversies In Queer Theology (Controversies in Contextual Theology Series)
Mollenkott, Virginia Ramey: Omnigender: A Trans-Religious Approach
Thatcher, Adrian: God, Sex, and Gender: An Introduction
- Beyond Male and Female: Gender Trouble, Biology Trouble.
- How a Woman Became a Dominican Priest, and Teacher of Moral Theology.
- LGBT History Month: Queer Icons, in Faith – Jesus Christ.
- “T and Conversation”: Beyond Binary Pronouns
- Jesus 'May Have Been Hermaphrodite', Says Researcher (ibtimes.com)
- Orchids sheds light on the secrecy surrounding intersex (kallmannssyndrome.wordpress.com)
- Gender Character and Intersex Conditions (socyberty.com)
- Women bishops and the February General Synod (thinkinganglicans.org.uk)
- Jesus may have been a hermaphrodite, claims academic (telegraph.co.uk)