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Church of England: No Definition of ‘Woman’ by Hélène de Lauzun

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Church of England: No Definition of ‘Woman’

The Ghent Altarpiece: Virgin Mary (detail) (between 1426 and 1429), an oil on panel by Jan van Eyck (ca. 1390–1441).

For many years, the Church of England has sent recurrent signals of conforming to the injunctions of progressive thought, by gradually discarding the pillars of traditional Christian morality, and changing age-old practices related to the priesthood. 

In 1992, it allowed the ordination of women. For many years after, it has dithered on the issue of recognising homosexual unions. Although ‘same-sex marriage’ as a religious ceremony is not permitted in Anglicanism, the Church’s position remains very flexible towards same-sex couples who have entered into a civil partnership. Since 2013, those in such a union have been eligible for the episcopate—provided they promise to practice abstinence. These developments have caused great tension within the Church of England, for both the faithful and the clergy, and have even prompted some to return to the Catholic Church.

The latest statement from the Church of England will not fail to disturb the spirits. It has just publicly stated that there is “no definite definition” of what a woman is. This follows a written question to a bishop in the General Synod, when the thorny issue of transgender rights was being discussed. The General Synod is the deliberative body of the Church of England, established in 1970 and responsible for ruling on matters of both liturgy and doctrine.

Adam Kendry, a lay member of the Synod and a representative of the Royal Navy, asked a very simple question: “What is the Church of England’s definition of a woman?” The answer was given by Dr. Robert Innes, Bishop in Europe: “there is no official definition.”

The clergyman completed his response to this solicitation by stating that although the meaning of the word ‘woman’ was previously “thought to be self-evident,” “additional care” was now needed. 

The statement was warmly welcomed by the more progressive fringe of the institution, but puzzled others in the Church. Opponents of the Church of England’s progressive drift sensibly pointed out that the definition of what a woman is cannot come from anything but biology, or from the Bible—and therefore remains unchanged. “The concepts of male and female did not need to have a formal official definition” because “they are older than human life itself,” declared Maya Forstater, executive director of the Sex Matters campaign group, whose aim is to clarify positions on sex and gender in British public policy and laws. She described the Bishop’s answer as “shocking.”

Some of the reactions to Dr. Innes’ statement are indicative of the degree of mental confusion in the minds of Anglican clergy. Language precautions and a deep-seated concern about crossing the boundaries of political correctness clearly distort common sense. One senses that every word is weighed—to say as little as possible and not to hurt anyone. Rev. Angela Berners-Wilson, the first woman to be ordained a priest in England in 1994, when contacted by The Telegraph, gave this roundabout response: “I’m not totally happy with it. I mean, I do think certain things like men can’t have babies, just to say the complete obvious thing. But I think we need to be very sensitive and maybe we need to reexamine our boundaries.”

These words reflect both her natural discomfort—intuitively, as a woman, she knows there is something absurd about not being able to define a woman—and an Orwellian obsession with controlling her words. The subject is deemed “very sensitive,” and calls for self-criticism: “we need to reexamine our boundaries.” One might retort to Rev. Berners-Wilson that in the light of transgender activism, even the “completely obvious thing,” that is, that men can’t have babies, is not so obvious. Apple created an emoji with a pregnant man, and a month ago the fashion Brand Calvin Klein displayed in its advertisement a pregnant male model

Such a statement from the Church of England is, of course, absurd. Progressivism ends up, once again, sawing off the branch on which it sat. What is the point of having made the ordination of women a conquest and a progress, if it is only to come to the conclusion, a few years later, that there is no official definition of what a woman is?

From heaven, there is one woman who must be saddened by all this. Mary, thou among women, you who carried Christ the Saviour in thy womb, put some sense into all these misguided minds!

Hélène de Lauzun studied at the École Normale Supérieure de Paris. She taught French literature and civilization at Harvard and received a Ph.D. in History from the Sorbonne. She is the author of Histoire de l’Autriche (Perrin, 2021).

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