One sex, two sexes, and Christians

The wonderful Twitter just drew my attention to this article I’d missed on the OUP blog when it was published in July: ‘The influence of premodern theories about sex and gender’ by Adrian Thatcher.

Thatcher asks great questions about why the world and the church still haven’t given women equality, why we don’t just accept intersex and transgender people ‘as they are’, and why ‘millions of straight people’ have ‘visceral reactions’ to same-gender attraction. To answer these questions, he outlines a historical shift away from ‘the ancient world’, which he presents as functioning with a continuum model of gender with women located at the weak/cool/less rational/less perfect end of that continuum. He doesn’t give any references but the main ancient Greek statement for the continuum model comes in a treatise called On Seed/On the Nature of the Child (some extracts here) and the underlying theory applied by Thatcher comes straight from Thomas Laqueur’s Making Sex (1990). Like Laqueur, Thatcher goes for an early modern shift (Laqueur called it a ‘watershed’) between this more fluid model and the emergence of the idea of ‘two “opposite” sexes’, and he links it to ‘advances in anatomy and microscopy’ meaning that ‘the basis of biological differences began to be better understood’.

Bodies ancient and modern

I should be sympathetic to Thatcher’s argument that most people read back the ‘two-sex model’ of difference into the Bible, without realising that it’s a model that only goes back a few centuries. And I am, sort of, and I like his initial caution in presenting this – ‘But there are answers! This is how one of them goes’ (my italics). Despite that caution, however, he still seems to buy into his own/Laqueur’s binary, the idea of a one-sex model (‘the ancient theory’) and a two-sex model (‘the modern theory’). Thatcher presents ‘the ancient theory’ as one which ‘asserted a common humanity’ – hmm, not necessarily, and there’s no reference here, for example, to the influence of Hesiod’s Pandora as the first of the ‘race of women’, which doesn’t major on ‘common’ anything. Continue reading

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Temple prostitution for Christians

Sex in the ancient world: it’s all about temple prostitutes, depraved emperors and orgies, right? Wrong.

As readers of this blog will have noticed, now that the Shared Conversations in the Church of England appear to be over, I’ve moved towards using it to reflect on where my life and faith meet: where the day job in classical studies collides with/illuminates current discussions on sexuality. Today, I’d like to argue for a more balanced view of ‘pagan worship/pagan practices’ in the Greco-Roman world within which Christianity spread. It feels slightly odd to be standing up for ancient paganism, but I’ll try anyway. Specifically: from reading recent online discussions, I want to point out, first, that the hypersexed pagan temple is a myth – priestesses ‘routinely’ having sex, auctions of brides and temple prostitutes are all equally imaginary (see Beard and Henderson) – and second, ancient Greek and Roman paganism was nowhere near as wild as it comes across in some contemporary Christian imaginations; indeed, it majored on monogamy.

By Henryk Siemiradzki -, Public Domain,

Henryk Siemiradzki, Roman orgy at Caesar’s time, 1872 (

Continue reading

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Sharing the knowledge


Can we see each other properly? And can we stay together? These are challenging questions which have come to the fore for me this week.

All of us who took part in the regional Shared Conversations signed up – literally signed – the St Michael’s House Protocols, which set the parameters for the safe space in which we talked. I found this was a very solemn moment. For me, it marked the point at which it all became very serious indeed.


As well as committing us to protecting the identities of others in our Conversation, looking for shared interests, separating people from the problem, actively listening to others, and telling our stories, the Protocols encourage us where possible to share our knowledge and understanding  from taking part. I see this blog as part of that; so far it’s had over 3000 views. I also offered to speak to my deanery synod, an offer that was welcomed, and earlier this week I spoke to an evening event in my parish, open to anyone in our team ministry.

Talking in the parish

Many of those who came along to this event were members of a particular home group where the leader had encouraged them to read one of my earliest posts as part of their reflections on ways of reading the Bible. Others were individuals who, I know, have found the blog interesting. I kept the event deliberately ‘safe’, opening with a description of what the Shared Conversations were for, and what had happened at the one I attended. I then did an exercise based on the one I described in ‘Fruit or Chocolate?’ to illustrate the point that people take up a position in a debate, or embrace a label, for very different and often unpredictable reasons. After that, we had a discussion.

I found the event very interesting, and I’ve had positive feedback. In keeping with the spirit of the Protocols I won’t say anything about individuals. But, generalizing from the evening and from comments from one of those attending about how they hadn’t found much interest in it from those in their church, a couple of points became clear.

Seeing the invisible

First, in many pretty standard parishes of the C of E, our response to LGBT+ people and in particular to same-sex couples, married or in civil partnership, just isn’t thought worth discussing. Not because of any negative reactions, not from any theological position, but just because such people aren’t visible to us. It’s ‘not our problem’. And maybe that’s why there are still people in our parishes who, despite various newspapers featuring the Shared Conversations, have never heard of this process. Of course, when it comes to couples seeking to have their union blessed, the known opposition of the C of E means that they’re not likely to come near their parish church in this particular situation.

Yet many people are aware of LGBT+ people in their families or among their friends. Others, interestingly, aren’t, and say they don’t know anyone like this. Some of us see: others don’t. And this brings me to my second observation. I no longer believe in ‘gaydar’, that firm sense that someone ‘must be’ gay, but I’m still surprised that the undoubted presence of gay people in our congregations somehow isn’t seen by everyone.

Those who came to the event this week were interested to hear things they didn’t know about the C of E, for example the rules about clergy not being allowed to be in same-sex relationships. This made me wonder why we don’t all know this already. They wanted to reflect further on what we mean by ‘sexuality’; how far are our identities fixed, and how flexible are they? As we fall in love with a person because of who that person is, can we fall in love with someone of the same sex when we identify as heterosexual – and vice versa? It’s great that the current debates have made it possible for Christians to think about these questions.

Better together?

On the Big Question, will the C of E find a way to hold together or will it split, I found surprising one of the articles on the Shared Conversations in Christian Today earlier this week. The journalist presents the SCs as a ‘desperate programme’ to hold the church together – but something which has been going on in every diocese over the course of a full year doesn’t meet my definition of ‘desperation’. He interviewed separately two of my fellow Shared Conversationalists from Oxford diocese, Jayne Ozanne and Andrew Symes, and despite their very different views on LGBT+ issues both are quoted as saying that they think a split is inevitable.

While I appreciate Jayne’s “Quite frankly I do not want to be breaking bread with someone who thinks I am going to hell”, in the C of E nobody with access to transport has to put herself in that situation. There’s a long history of people moving to the next parish along, whether that’s set off by a new vicar, a change to the pattern of services,  the presence or absence of a choir, or reordering of the building. As I said at the parish event this week, I came away from the Shared Conversations feeling strongly that I didn’t want to lose my fellowship with some of the lovely people I’d met who disagree with me completely and passionately on the inclusion of LGBT+ people, both those with ‘same-sex orientation’ and those in full relationships.

There are people in the C of E who still won’t accept the ministry of women priests, the authority of women bishops, or women of any kind preaching. I wouldn’t flourish in a church where this was the norm. Yet when I’m volunteering as a Street Pastor, I work in teams including members from churches where women are not given authority to lead. Is the current issue really so different? Is a similar accommodation possible?


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Pausanias and Agathon: a ‘same sex relationship’?

Thinking Anglicans notes that the Evangelical Group of the General Synod, EGGS, has issued this briefing document to its members and friends ahead of General Synod’s shared conversations, scheduled to start on 10 July. The document proposes that “The ideas/opinions/statements expressed (in bold) are amongst those that members might hear articulated and which we believe can (and need) to be responded to. The thoughts/responses offered are a resource from the (elected members of) the Committee to help reflection on the likely issues and questions.”

Like other commentators on this document, I’m not sure the ‘if you hear that, respond like this’ format is very helpful; if you’re listening out for the trigger words of a particular dodgy statement, will you really hear what someone is saying to you? But I’ve a deeper concern, and that regards something I’ve commented on already in this blog: the use of the ancient Greeks without any sense of historical context. This, I think, is systematic of the casual use of history by some Christians, and it contributes to a rejection of Christianity, as something requiring believers to leave their brains outside the church door.

The section of the document I have in mind is a potential response to someone expressing the view that ‘Scripture isn’t clear on a number of issues regarding human sexuality’ and it goes like this: “Some have suggested that faithful same sex relationships were not known in (pre) biblical times and therefore the bible is silent on this matter. This is not true: such relationships are acknowledged by Plato and others, and it is likely that Alexander the Great was in a same sex relationship with Hephaestion, as was Pausanius with poet Agathon.” Continue reading

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Gender at the Shared Conversations

There’s been quite a lot of reflection on sexuality on this blog already, but here I want to turn to gender and to focus on my experience in the Regional Shared Conversations, as a woman. My thanks to the various friends whose questions about it all have helped me to think this aspect through!

Gender: what’s changed?

When we think about our church’s response to the varieties of human sexuality, I do think it’s useful to keep in mind today the debates around the ordination of women. I was involved in those as a lay woman, as a member of the Movement for the Ordination of Women, and as a member of the C of E’s decision-making body, the General Synod. Two aspects of my experience stand out for me: first, the need to overcome a view of myself as somehow inferior just by being embodied as a woman, and second, the need to make it clear that my commitment to the ordination of women was not motivated by any personal ambition. Ambition, of course, is a Bad Word in the church, to be denied at all costs.

Historically, and even now, women’s bodies have been represented as impure and carrying taint. During the time when the ordination of women question was live, a debate was broadcast on television from All Souls, Langham Place. I’ve tried and failed to find any reference to it beyond my own memory, which includes hearing a speaker propose that women could never be priests, because they menstruate. Continue reading

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The Greeks didn’t have a word for it


A lot of statements about the ancient Greeks, the Romans, and sexuality can be found on Christian websites. They give the impression that there’s complete certainty surrounding their comments, for example on the Greeks ‘tolerating homosexuality’, phrasing which implies a historically-consistent ‘thing’. But in fact there’s still plenty of debate in the scholarly community, where the statements that travel round the web originate. As part of the Day Job, earlier this week I attended the launch event for a re-issue of one of the most influential books from my student days: Sir Kenneth Dover’s Greek Homosexuality, first published in 1978. The cover of the re-issue, shown here, uses the same image as the original, Ganymede with a hoop (and a cock – yes – it’s a gift from Zeus), but zooms in on it; the hoop invites the viewer through to look at the boy’s genitals, but this new edition conveniently covers them with an ‘O’. That in itself is an interesting comment on what we can, and can’t, ‘see’ in the past.

In terms of whether the Greeks ‘had a word for it’, they had a lot of words for whichever ‘it’ we have in mind. Continue reading

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Behind closed doors


This image is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License.

So, next stop for the Shared Conversations: General Synod in July, as discussed at the last meeting of GS. This will be the third stage, following the conversations in the House of Bishops and then the Regional conversations, in one of which I took part. Last week’s Church Times announced the imminent General Synod ones with the snappy headline “York Synod will close its doors to talk about sex”. What this seems to mean is simply that the campus will be closed; no press, no visitors observing proceedings. Simon Butler, the Prolocutor of the Lower House of the Convocation of Canterbury, expressed the hope that “people will talk together over meals and in the bar, which is why the shared conversations worked so well regionally, as we had the time to engage with one another as people rather than as representatives of a particular party line.”

From my point of view, though, as someone who served on General Synod and who took part in the Regional Shared Conversations, it’s not easy here to apply ‘why the shared conversations worked so well regionally’. Continue reading

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Meanwhile, back in the toilet…

This is the third in a series of reflections after the Shared Conversations (edited 31 March)

In a previous post, I’ve commented on how wonderful it was to get to the loo and sit alone in a space where nobody was talking and where the walls were plain, rather than being covered with posters of questions and answers. And now I’m back to that topic again – but from a rather different angle.


Yes, this is a gents’ toilet: well spotted.

In the central part of the three days of the Regional Shared Conversations format, we were asked to go away into the grounds of the conference centre, or find a spot in one of the lounges, and reflect on our lives in terms of sexuality, preparing to tell our stories in the groups of three. For many of us, we already had experience of thinking back and reconstructing our story in different ways; I’ve certainly done it as part of the discernment process of my own vocation, where the focus was on identifying those times when I’d felt most alive, most confident that I was where I should be. But this theme gave it all a different spin. Continue reading

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How we communicate

This is the second in a series of reflections after the Shared Conversations

Following my experience of the Oxford/St Albans Regional Shared Conversations, I’m going to reflect here on one of the sessions on the first day. The facilitators explained to us that the three-day process forms an hourglass structure, narrowing in on the second day to personal stories and then expanding out on day 3 to the wider church again.


While I knew the focus was on conversation – and as I’ve noted elsewhere there were a lot of words, not just spoken ones but all the words our ‘table groups’ wrote on posters and giant post-it notes which went up around the walls –  I’d somehow imagined that the very first session, on using language, would be more like a lecture on the import of different words. For example, in an earlier report, the CofE used the term ‘homophile’, which doesn’t get used today but which I suppose implies orientation Continue reading

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Come and have breakfast


This is the first in a series of reflections after the Shared Conversations

Now that they’re over, there will be several posts here on the Shared Conversations as I process what happened. Let’s start with something that only occurred to me after the event.

At one point we were asked to share our favourite verse from the Bible with a small group, before discussing how the Bible affects our views on human sexuality issues. Only since I came home have I realised something I’d not previously considered about my chosen verse, which was John 21:12, ‘Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast”‘. I chose that, as I explained at the time, because of the generous simplicity of the invitation. Food: a basic human need. Fresh-caught fish, cooked on the beach. As I say or write those words, their sensory power is such that I can almost smell the fish! The invitation is directed at the disciples, but was soon to be extended to all of us. The meal echoes the Last Supper, which in turn was prefigured in the feeding of the 5000, the account of which echoes the miraculous feedings in the Hebrew Bible. Continue reading

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