A Third Sex? Gender Anxiety and Midlands Clergy

Canon Moore Darling felt that 'immense harm had been done to the Christian faith by the “stained glass window version of Christ”'.
Photo by Walwyn (Flickr)

The concept of a ‘third sex’, or a gender identity other than male or female, is well established in many cultures around the world; these include Hijra in India, Two-Spirit in Native American cultures, sworn virgins (burrnesha) in Albania, Fa’afafine in Samoa, and Māhū in Hawaiian and Tahitian cultures1. However, conventional wisdom seems to suggest that mainstream Western culture has only recently begun to recognise non-binary genders.

A discussion that reaches Warwickshire sermons

But is this the case? If we explore historic British newspapers, we find that the concept of a ‘third sex’ (or even a ‘non sex’) was discussed throughout the 19th and 20th century, and even mentioned in sermons in Warwickshire churches.2

Intriguingly, some of these discussions of a third gender seem to have centred on the Christian church and clergy. In the 19th century Sydney Smith, a wit and cleric, described the clergy as a ‘third sex – neither male nor female, but effeminate’.3 The concept was not new; some historians argue that even in medieval times, the clergy ‘were trying to establish two genders for the male sex: masculinity for the layperson and emasculinity for celibate clergy’.4

However, in later centuries the church actively sought to overcome this image. In Birmingham in 1929, Dean Inge explicitly argued that ‘we do not wish to make the priesthood a kind of third sex’.5 In the 1950s, Canon E. Moore Darling of the Coventry diocese felt the same. He stated that ‘immense harm had been done to the Christian faith by the “stained glass window version of Christ”’ and that ‘there must be no question of a “third sex” among the clergy’.6

Although likely intended as a witticism rather than a genuine assertion, Sydney Smith’s suggestions might seem surprisingly forward-thinking. They embrace the prospect of a gender outside of the male-female binary. However, they were grounded in an assumption, increasingly rejected in modern society, that certain traits or characteristics are inherently ‘gendered’. That is, the idea that being caring, timid, physically weak or ‘extraordinarily good with the Mother’s Union’ made a person somehow more female.7

Warwickshire counter-arguments

The counter-arguments preached in the Warwickshire churches were grounded in the same assumptions. Instead of arguing that the clergy (and Jesus himself) could demonstrate ‘feminine’ characteristics whilst remaining male, they opted for a rebranding exercise. Preaching at an ordination service in Kenilworth church, Canon E. Moore Darling said that a parson was to be ‘a man amongst men’, ‘sanctified but sensible’ and ‘efficient’ (implying that these were masculine traits).8 The following year at Barford, he said that Christ was not a ‘weak sort of person of some sort of third sex’, but ‘had a keen sense of humour, was physically strong and had great courage’.9

Underlying all of these discussions, there seems to have been an anxiety that clergymen who displayed stereotypically ‘feminine’ traits would be inherently off-putting, and would cause damage to the reputation of the church.

So, it’s not quite a nuanced cultural identity like Two-spirit or Fa’afafine, but these discussions of a ‘third sex’ can develop our understanding of how gender was viewed in Warwickshire churches, over the 19th and 20th centuries.

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