November 22nd, 2016

At this year’s WATCH AGM, we were delighted that Rev Dr Susan Durber, Christian Aid’s Theology Advisor, was our guest speaker. Her speech is below. 

Bringing change…


Thank you for inviting me today. Part of what drew me to the United Reformed Church when I was 14 years old was the knowledge that within it women could be ordained as ministers. Next year we will mark the 100th anniversary of the ordination of Constance Coltman in the ministry of the Congregational Church in England – (congregationalists uniting with Presbyterians to form the United Reformed Church in 1972). But the story of my own church is far from being one of ‘getting there first’. In the 1930s Congregationalists almost changed their mind about women’s ordination because it was so difficult for many women to find a call and there were still only an ‘exceptional few’, women of huge personality and strength like Elsie Chamberlain. And the nonconformist churches in England were still created and formed in a pre- dominantly patriarchal culture, often conservative on issues of gender, often wedded to a kind of Christianity that valued male and muscle over woman and flesh. Now perhaps, we are all of us in a different moment. Between and among our celebrations and our struggles, it’s good to reflect on what we really want the world to see as the church explores what we have come to call ‘gender’. What I would like to  do today is to suggest some things that belong to the deepest traditions of Christianity in relation to gender, things from our foundations that, I think, we seem to find it consistently hard to hear.

Christianity as an apparently conservative voice on gender:

I suspect that many people in the world, if you asked them, would see churches and church leaders as those who are often conservative and what we often call ‘binary’ on gender issues. It’s taken for granted in many circles that you wouldn’t look to the church for a radical word on what it means to be male and female. We have a world that is opening up about gender in all sorts of ways, or being deeply questioning about gender conventions and cultures, exploring or advocating gender fluidity, moving on and beyond sexuality discussions to issues of gender identity and transition, while the church appears either to say little or to re-assert a foundational sense of difference, complementarity and fixity.

We live in a world in which legal frameworks and social understandings of gender are moving very fast. You can find schools in the UK developing a ‘gender neutral’ school uniform. It is no longer normal, in some settings, to ask people to name their gender or to choose from the traditional two. In many contexts the discussion about sexuality has already ‘moved on’. And the language is constantly shifting, so that even beginning a conversation becomes fraught as the vocabulary itself seems insecure. In such a setting, the faith voice often seems to be the one simply reasserting old and traditional certainties, the kind of certainties that will say that there is male and there is female and that secure community, family and society is built on this recognition. When Barak Obama recently made a visit to Kenya there was a march planned at which hundreds of people were going to walk naked, ‘to show Obama that there are men and there are women’. Though the march was cancelled, the story of its planning speaks powerfully of a depth of feeling, and a profound suspicion or unease about what is happening about gender in the world. While some communities push the boundaries hard and even want to demolish them, other communities seem to be seeking to reestablish and entrench the old binaries. We also live in a world of contradiction, in which shifts are far from stable. At the same time as many of our teenagers want to choose how they are gender defined and how they speak of and name their sexuality, the aisles of our shops for children’s toys are much more gender defined than they were a generation ago.

In the global church now, the most immediate things that threaten to divide the church gender and sexuality issues, as one church ordains women to the episcopate, or another celebrates same sex marriages. There are those who simply see a situation in which the church is ‘behind the times’ and needs to catch up, in which the church continues to be binary about gender and conservative about sexuality, while the wider world is discovering a much more exciting and liberating landscape.

To take an example; in the recent, and truly wonderful, encyclical on creation from Pope Francis, Laudato Sii, there was much of importance for theological anthropology, particularly, of course, about our relationship to the rest of created world. But there were a few lines in the encyclical about gender. Paragraph 155 of Laudato Si says that;

‘valuing one’s own body in its femininity or masculinity is necessary if I am going to be able to recognize myself in an encounter with someone who is different. In this way we can joyfully accept the specific gifts of another man or woman, the work of God the creator, and find mutual enrichment. It is not a healthy attitude which would seek to ‘cancel out sexual difference because it no longer knows how to confront it.’ (ii)

Here is an assertion of the important of the distinctions of gender, along with an interesting recognition of secular culture’s present puzzlement before gender.

In a recent document from the Anglican-Orthodox dialogue there is a similar kind of assertion of the difference of gender. In a document published in 2015 called In the image and likeness of God. A hope-filled anthropology we read;

‘Within the human race there is a basic difference between male and female……While there is no gender or sexuality in God, our human gender – the distinction within humanity between male and female – is blessed by God. In virtue of the incarnation of God in Christ, gender difference instead of being divisive, invites and presupposes relationship and unity; both to our Creator and to each other.’ (iii)

The document goes on to talk about marriage as that which reflects our original creation by God as ‘male and female’. We read that

‘In marriage man and woman join in God’s creative work.’ (iv)

In both of these important texts for the church, the presumption is that the difference between male and female is fundamental to our human nature, and (in the second text) that this is also the basis of sexual relationship – and therefore the foundation of understanding sexuality. The Anglican-Orthodox text offers pastoral concern for those whose experience is different, but does not suggest that their experience might lead us to question this fundamental theological conviction. And in both texts there is a sense of speaking out against a cultural trend in another direction on gender, and indeed sexuality. This seems to be where a kind of consensus lies, in some places.

But, what does the Tradition of the Christian faith say about gender?

But that there is a profound irony about all this. Because at the very heart of our Christian faith, deeply embedded in our very roots, is a view of gender that completely overturns the traditional binary understanding. Christians ought to be more radical on gender than anyone else in the world right now.. what’s puzzling is that we are not.

A theology that really takes seriously the Bible and the Tradition should be saying that our redemption is transforming any way of living gender that oppresses some at the expense of others or that takes a pride in a complementary ‘two’ or that wants to preserve ‘male’ and ‘female’ as foundational. The Judaeo-Christian faith has actually spoken out for an understanding of gender over against cultures in the world with a fixed and binary sense of how we are ‘made’. Christian faith has presupposed an understanding that gender is far less significant than many cultures have made it, that the former ‘twoness’ of humanity is radically challenged and relativized by baptism and that redemption involves a re-booting of gender in ways that change it and the way we live it absolutely fundamentally. So we ought to find it puzzling that Christianity seems, at the moment, to be defending a default view of gender that it once challenged so deeply.

Genesis 1:27

The text most often cited to support the view that we are fundamentally different, created ‘male and female’ by God in a way that fixes two opposite and complementary (or at lest foundational) genders is Genesis 1:27.

‘So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.’

This sounds, to contemporary ears, like a text that (like Laudato Si) says that we shouldn’t tamper with any sense of the difference or even the the fixedness of gender. However, I think that it says something quite radically different from that. The thing that makes this text stand out from its context in the ancient world, the thing that makes it really astonishing, is that ‘female’ is also in the image of God. It may be difficult for us to feel today quite the force and ground- shaking impact that it must have had in its original context – but is this shock that we need to hear. Male and female are not two completely different ‘kinds’ of human being, but both have the same dignity and meaning.

There were cultures in the ancient world, like the Mesopotamians, the Egyptians and even the Romans, who believed that human beings could be made in the image of God. But most often they believed that the King, the Pharaoh or the Emperor might have that privilege. Men might be shadows of the King, and even slaves might be shadows of free men, but women were not mentioned at all. In that context, this verse from Genesis is very far from being a slogan of the obvious. To say, so long ago, that male and female were made together in the image of God and were blessed by God, was to say something all but unthinkable. It was to say that male and female, though different, have something very profound in common, and that what they have in common is such that they can, together, image God. This was such an unusual and astonishing idea for the ancient world that its full significance is hard to grasp. The traditional or default binary view of gender is radically overturned. Can you imagine the impact of this within a gender divided culture, in which people believed that women and men were almost different species? It would have been profoundly world changing. So how is it that, in many of our contemporary theological anthropologies, we have returned to the very default and binary kind of view that the biblical witness was overturning?

The early Christians:

I think it’s just as true that, in Jesus and in the movement that arose in response to him, the default view of the gender that framed the ancient cultures into which he came was profoundly overturned. Early Christianity seems actually to have been characterized by a change in understandings of gender (and sexuality). There are many examples of Gospel stories that speak of Jesus as a man who does not accept, and indeed transgresses, the accepted gender norms. He was celibate and called some of his disciples to leave family behind. In a break with the traditions of both Jewish tradition and Roman culture, the new community of Jesus encouraged people to step outside of the norms of sexual practice and partnership. This was not a conventional community in terms of either gender or sexual practice.

Galatians 3: 28

 In a striking part of Paul’s letter to the Galatians he writes, ‘There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus’ (Galatians 3:28). The early Christians saw that in Jesus, something very new had begun to happen in the world. They believed that the old ways in which gender marked, divided and oppressed human beings were overcome in Christ. This is not some late modern secular ideology, but something absolutely fundamental to Christian faith. I think that means that paragraph 155 of Laudato Si should be challenged, not from secular modernity at all, but from the heart of our faith.

A faith that has a new anthropology

There has consistently been a thread through Christian faith and practice that is profoundly radical and transformational in its assertions about gender (and, it could be argued, sexuality). Christians actually have a very long history of wrestling with and reframing the way we live as men and women in relationship before God. And this is something far more than raising up a few women to the place of men – it’s about a much more radical change for how we understand the humanity of all of us.

From scriptural and extra-scriptural sources, we can see that many of the earliest Christians thought that the old ways of living as men and women had been overcome. There are hints either that the distinction between male and female had become irrelevant, or that women were to ‘become male’ in a newly envisaged kind of androgynyv. The second suggestion sounds particularly strange to modern ears, but it was a move sometimes made by marginal religious groups in the ancient world (and indeed sometimes later in revival movements), founded on an understanding that gender relations needed to change and that God is redeeming them.

People believed that a new way of being men and women needed to be found in the light of a new and unique irruption of God into the world. The earliest Christians had women as leaders in their communities. But some communities pushed this much further: people abstained from sexual relations in some places, and gender difference was no longer considered decisive or significant. The idea that the present way of being men and women needed to change was a strong thread through early Christianity.

Getting more radical:

I confess that, at one time, my own understanding of what it meant to change the world in terms of gender was limited to my own sense of calling to be ordained, and my own ambitions to escape the constrained world in which my mother and grandmother had lived. I relished the opportunities of a world in which women could aspire to satisfying and important work, could make choices about fertility and could be affirmed as servants of the church. When I went to work for Christian Aid I was confronted in a new way with the reality of how gender works in the world. I discovered that gender is the one thing in this world that will most strongly determine whether or not you are poor; whether you have access to food or money, the power to make decisions about your own body or to take part in political decision making – or whether you are hungry, powerless to change anything and powerless to resist violence. I discovered that I had never learned how to be radical enough about gender.

I found myself wanting to celebrate gender as a gift from God, but finding that impossible while gender has become the most insignificant way for people to exploit, oppress and injure others in the world. I learned that ‘poverty has a woman’s face’ – and I needed a theology and a faith that would be able to stand up to that and change it. I began to see why Paul wrote as he did to the Galatians. He saw that any way in which we divide up the human race to hurt one another needs to be transformed by God. That’s why he mentioned the division of the world into slave and free, or Jew and Gentile too. If we have made gender a way of oppressing others, then it has to be remade by God’s grace. Gender, as all our living, is in need of God’s gracious redeeming


 We really do have something uniquely radical and life affirming to say to our world about gender. In a world defined by the pink and blue aisles of ToysRUs, the Christian faith offers a radically counter-cultural message. There are points at which our faith almost says (perhaps it does) that gender is not really significant at all in itself – it’s twoness has been overcome. Have we really ever found a way to think that through or begin to live by it? I really do believe that there is hope that within the deepest reaches of our faith, we might find what we have sometimes missed and always longed for. To think of gender that is not fixed in a particular and conventional way, not a way of oppression and a determinant of poverty, not the source of our most unoriginal sins, but as something that may be redeemed is a profoundly hopeful possibility. It allows us to move beyond the tired and stereotyped debates into which we sometimes fall, and it offers a new kind of vocabulary for what has become a very difficult conversation. Could we find ways to ask one another again what our faith really does say about our being made ‘male and female’?


i Pope Francis, Laudato Si’, St Paul’s Publishing, 2015

ii ibid, p.116

iii In the Image and Likeness of God. A Hope-Filled Anthropology. Anglican Consultative Council, 2015, pp.50-51

iv ibid, p.58

v See the final verse of The Gospel of Thomas