Preparing a talk for deanery chapter, I was reading again some of the stranger by-ways of the Gender Recognition Act. Section 23 gives the Secretary of State powers to ‘modify statutory provisions’, i.e. to change laws without reference to Parliament (very New Labour). As it explains, ‘This power is provided due to the entirely novel nature of this legislation.’

So novel and so radical is this legislation that the full extent of the unfolding consequences cannot yet be fully imagined, other unexpected effects, as it says, ‘may come to light in the future’; so rather than be forced to issue a new Act every couple of years, a Minister has the power to make changes on behalf of us all. How reassuring.

It is the tiresome weight of history and tradition that creates these problems. The Act again: ‘Legislation has made distinctions on the basis of gender for centuries, and the use of gender-specific terms, through it has reduced, nevertheless continues in some contexts.’ To the evident annoyance of the modernizers.

Not all the consequences will be matters for legislation, but rather of social or psychological adjustment. Consider the provisions of Section 12, The fact that a person’s gender has become the acquired gender under this Act does not affect the status of the person as the father or mother of a child. One can see the intention behind this, and its desire not to disrupt the expectations of a child. All the same, a female father or a male mother is indeed an ‘entirely novel’ idea.

The way round the paradox, merely hinted at in the Act, is to think in terms not of mothers and fathers, but of parents. The core of the family unit should be understood not as father and mother but simply as two parents, of whatever sex or none. The social, nurturing unit is androgynous (gender-blind). There is no problem about male mothers or female fathers if ‘parent’ is the sole concept that matters.

To my surprise, many of my deanery colleagues positively warmed to the idea. There is a certain logic. If there is no significant difference between mothers and fathers within a family, there can be little difference between male or female bishops within a church.