Innies, outies, complementarity and other mind boggling foolishness about men and women

The Church of England has produced a very odd paper on marriage and the reasons for having marriage be about men and women and not other relationships. Titled, not too cleverly "Church of England responds to PM’s same sex marriage statement"  it includes a number of references to something called "complementarity."  This notion includes the following: (underlines mine).  Following each I have a comment or two.

"However, the uniqueness of marriage is that it embodies the underlying, objective, distinctiveness of men and women. This distinctiveness and complementarity are seen most explicitly in the biological union of man and woman which potentially brings to the relationship the fruitfulness of procreation."

The marriage service, at least in the Episcopal Church usage, does not dwell on the distinctiveness of men and women from each other, but rather on the equal nature of the two in making this commitment / contract / covenant, noting that together, if it be God's will there might be procreation and raising of children. "Biological union" is called a variety of things, but it is, let us say fleeting and not particularly a useful model for committed relationship. Biological union has little or nothing to do with the union of man and woman in marriage, except to say that sexual activity is part of the package. The pledge of being "faithful" only to the partner in marriage is the only reach into the question of the biological union and the marriage union.  This first proposition also equates the distinctiveness and complementarity. It makes it seem that our distinctiveness is that we are different puzzle pieces that can be fit together. Ho hum. (see diagram below)  

"To remove from the definition of marriage this essential complementarity is to lose any social institution in which sexual difference is explicitly acknowledged." 

I confess that I once went to several social institutions in which sexual differences were explicitly acknowledge: an athletic club in New Orleans, where women were only allowed in the members and visitors dining room; a church where women were not allowed to be at the altar except as cleaning ladies, politely called the altar guild; a para-military organization in which women were excluded from particular activities because of the biologically determined average difference in muscular strength between men and women. All of these social institutions have gotten over the need to explicitly acknowledge sexual difference in their organizational behavior, which is not to say that they have overcome sexism.

I think it would be quite useful to remove sexual difference from the expectations and oaths taken in marriage. So does the church, which somehow determined that it was something of a biological stretch to say that the woman will obey the man, and not the other way around. Maybe the official BCP that everybody thinks is so great still thinks that one of the major reasons for marriage is to put a stop to fornication and that women are meant to obey men but not the other way around, but times have moved on.

While we are at it, it is time to stop saying this nonsense (which we in the Episcopal Church do all the time) of saying that "The bond and covenant of marriage was established by God in creation, and our Lord Jesus Christ adorned this manner of life by his presence and first miracle at a wedding in Cana of Galilee." This pushes so many buttons in the realm of both biblical studies and biblical theology as to make them laughable.  

Still, it is true that men and women are differently made as per plumbing, chemical make up, distribution of facial hair and body fat, and so-forth.  It's enough to make us Venus and Mars, I suppose. But if we buy this complementarity business we have to buy the rest:  if the two candidates for marriage are not complementary enough they can't get married. What are we going to include? What exclude? Well, we've tried this and mostly it has turned out to be about cultural and familial norms. Sometimes the attempt to fulfill such norms have worn women out or lead to their death or divorce. (Try having to produce a male heir as part of expectations.) 

"To argue that this is of no social value is to assert that men and women are simply interchangeable individuals.We believe that redefining marriage to include same-sex relationships will entail a dilution in the meaning of marriage for everyone by excluding the fundamental complementarity of men and women from the social and legal definition of marriage." 

This whole thing is brought to you by someone who knows logic chopping and rhetoracle slight of hand. Complementarity is introduced. The straw-man opposition is introduced, "if you don't hold to our position you believe that 'men and women are simply interchangeable individuals'..." and then saying, "see, do that and you exclude the complementarity we are supporting." Well, sure. But two little things: (i) denying the social value of maintaining marriage as being between one man and one woman is not necessarily or always to assert that men and women are "simply interchangeable individuals." There are lots of reasons to take delight in the differences, and celebrate the joys of connecting (wink, wink) across those differences. But (nudge, nudge) that's always there, because we are all different.  (ii) The complementary character of two persons as they live, love and die together is a reality that has little to do with their being a man and  a woman. It is a reality that has to do with their being  --- get this --- two people. Allowing same sex marriage may change our understanding of what marriage is, but there is no convincing argument that it dilutes it's meaning. 

The upshot of all this "complementarity" business is a rather weak argument based on the realities that most people come with a  package deal in which sex organs are well defined and psychological and physiological interests, abilities and urges are all ordered so that some are called men and other women and somethings about their bodies suggest they may be "complementary." "Complementary" means of course that the sex organs "fit" together for a clear biological purpose. 

But that nifty sexual complimentarian "fit" is not enough to justify an institution like marriage as being only about one man and one woman. Marriage also requires a wide range of complementary "fits" such that men and women are made for each other psychologically, physiologically and socially. Most of what marriage supports are cultural expectations of men and women, expectations that for a particular culture may have served it well. The question is not then if the concept of marriage is diluted by allowing for same sex marriage, but if marriage is enhanced by understanding that complementarity is not about sex organs but about life hopes, vocation, desires, etc.

So here we have it. The document notes with some wonder that there are two sorts of people, innies and outies. As in:


Innies and Outies

To this rather simple observation is appended to a rather large cultural lump of what marriage entails. The social, financial, cultural and spiritual aspects of marriage have little or nothing to do with this assumed "fundamental" of complementarity. But you can't tell that from this paper.

The whole of the CofE paper on marriage falls apart as we see more and more clearly that the writer, polite as can be, confused the peculiars of outward and visible signs of difference for the realities of inward and spiritual signs of difference and complementary characteristics that really make for success in union and common life. 

I have a fine life in a marriage where the external observation is one of us is an innie and the other an outie.  Fortunately the real differences are shared by the two of us in ways that have little to do with being a man and a woman, but have to do with love and respect, delight, sorrow... you know the full range of the life only those committed to each other have. 

This paper neither addresses marriage as I have experienced it or marriage as I support it.  Read the paper again. Here is the link. Does it for you?  


  1. The Church of England paper is an embarrassment, to the English church, and, as long as we are somehow connected, to Anglicans everywhere.

    Of course, the church may simply not have taken its theology to its logical conclusion. Perhaps we should allow people to marry only after we determine that their puzzle pieces fit together especially well, a consideration that would take in genital morphology, height, weight, and other such factors. And surely the church should consider likes and dislikes. Complementarity demands that if one person is a fan of classical music, the potential spouse must be addicted to hip-hop. Guaranteeing that people whose union is blessed by the church are as complementary as possible will surely eliminate the need for divorce.

  2. Mark, the "Church of England's" response does not do it for me. My goodness! The church office should be ashamed to put out such mindless drivel. No wonder it's anonymous. Still, the person or persons responsible should own up.

    Thanks for your brilliant, illustrated rebuttal.

  3. I don't think you just want the chorus cheering you on, Mark?

    Your piece amounts to,
    Here is a case for minimising to the point of almost zero the characteristic of marriage which is summed up in the word 'complementarity'.
    Someone disagrees with me.
    They are being very silly.

    The weakness in your case is that you can only minimise the element of complementariness, not do with it away completely. In seeking to minimise I suggest you become absurd. For those of us who experience complementariness as the distinctive core of marriage (viz a viz other relationships in our lives), your words cut no ice. Further, your case involves absurd analogies to gender exclusive situations.

    How about offering an appreciative case for the importance of complementariness in marriage and thus some respect for the good intentions of the C of E case? You could show some respect, even as you disagree, not only to the C of E, but to your fellow Christians who hold a different view to you on the importance of complementariness.

    I suggest it would not be absurd for such respect to be given.

  4. "Complementarity"

    Call it "Natural Law", same diff, and Ordinariate yourself out the Anglican doors. It's a ridiculously medieval conception ("Now, w/ humunculus!")

  5. Mark: Rachel Held Evans has much to say on complementarity and complementarianism--and little of it in a positive light. Our brothers and sisters on the fundamentalist side have been riding this particular horse to enforce patriarchy for millennia, so I'm not exactly convinced Anglicans should go there, to put it mildly. Here is a link to Rachel's series of posts:


  6. Peter Carrell: You are right of course. I should give some respect to the view that there is something about men and women and relating and complementary connection, etc, that is of real importance. I believe the whole thing is a mysterious and wonderful world in which the word "marriage" can and does carry special meaning. I don't believe marriage is silly and I don't believe men and women on a variety of levels complement one another. I do believe that the fact that they do so is about so much more that biological and physiological facts that it is strange to see the argument reduced to what the CofE page suggests.

    As to respect, dear friend, I have a great deal of respect for the CofE, people I disagree with, etc. Not so much for the centrality of a notion of complementarity in either defining marriage or defining it as about men and women only.

    still, my sin of occasional rant is always before me.

  7. Peter,

    The issue isn't "complimentarity". The issue is EQUATING "complimentarity" to *sex chromosomes* (or genital plumbing!), and then making a stipulated "complimentarity" a necessity for the spousal covenant of marriage! An interesting (if rather arbitrary and arcane) philosophical concept used as a PRETEXT for Power-Over. Plain and simple: that's sin.

  8. It is precisely 'complementarity' of plumbing which gives rise to the disproportionately excess of desire which leads to marriage. Without that desire I would still be down at the pub drinking with my mates. If within marriage, created by complementarity, I wield power by virtue of my biological excess of muscular strength, or by developing an ideology which invokes other complementarity (me man lord - you woman submit), then sin intrudes. But their is no sin in the complementarity of men and women being joined in holy wedlock.

    PS It is a sin to misspell key words in debate!

  9. I'm sorry, Peter, but I find several things about your last comment troubling.

    You write, "It is precisely 'complementarity' of plumbing which gives rise to the disproportionately excess of desire which leads to marriage." First, I hope that you're speaking only about yourself, and not about humanity. We have plenty of evidence that folks whose "plumbing" is not different, and so not "complementary," who experience "the disproportionately excess of desire that leads to marriage." It we didn't have that evidence, we wouldn't be having this conversation.

    And what a sad understanding of marriage! I've had my share of desire in my marriage (and I don't think of it at all as "excess!"), but my marriage is about so much more than that, and was from the beginning. There was a whole lot more than desire that made a relationship with her much more compelling than being "down at the pub drinking with my mates."

    I agree that "there is no sin in the complementarity of men and women being joined in holy wedlock." But, that wasn't Mark's point, nor the point of those of us who believe in marriage equality.

  10. Hear, hear Marshall. Thank you.

  11. Hi Marshall
    I didn't make it clear that I was responding to JCF's comment which, IMO, minimised the importance of complementariness to marriage.

    Desire is not only about sexual desire (if that is what is implied by your disturbance at my comment ).


OK... Comments, gripes, etc welcomed, but with some cautions and one rule:
Cautions: Calling people fools, idiots, etc, will be reason to bounce your comment. Keeping in mind that in the struggles it is difficult enough to try to respect opponents, we should at least try.