Tom Sutcliffe on truth in an age of revisionism

I recently found myself having an argument on Facebook with my wife’s publisher about gender differences. Like me, he is now in his seventies, and he was maintaining almost as an article of faith that women are identical to men apart from anatomical differences. I did not hear that said about women priests and bishops; but it is a view held by quite a few LGBT enthusiasts, among others.

The truth in this case does tend to depend on which way you look at things. Despite all the writing about episcopacy in recent years, nobody has categorised usefully or exactly what makes bishops better or worse than average. One positive reason for feeling women might have something to offer as priests, and even as bishops, is that what we all need in our pastors, administrators, and teachers is almost invariably and precisely what we are not looking for or cannot see – a perception reiterated often by Jesus in the Gospels.

It would make sense, all things considered, for gender differences to be a major factor in life. I would say women and men are different in almost every way, which is an extremely good thing. Women and men are more different from each other than men can be from other men and women from other women. These are ingrained distinctions that have good reason behind them, and obvious explanations. They have nothing to do with equal rights in social and other contexts, starting with baptism.

I am in agreement with the influential feminist (and Roman Catholic) Germaine Greer in maintaining that transitioning from one gender to another is impossible: one can have bits cut off or encouraged to grow to enable one to attain the semblance of the ‘opposite gender’ (a useful truthful phrase), but unless one is a hermaphrodite one cannot in fact become a woman if one is a man because one lacks the essence of womanhood, a womb. And a woman cannot acquire gonads, the essence of maleness – as demonstrated by the primitive evidence that defeat in battle used almost always to mean for fighters either death, or castration and slavery.

Revisionism is rife in the current age. Modern minds are labouring to wipe out truth that is complex. The latest examples in Britain are fairly depressing. Our national hero Lord Nelson, for example, has now been found guilty by the Guardian of having endorsing slavery. Did the writer not grasp that everybody who made serious money in Great Britain and Ireland in the 18th century owed it to slavery, or robbery, or dispossession in some shape or form? What was the British Empire but the consequence of organised robbery and warfare?

To convict people of living in times when such things were routinely celebrated seems to me not to acknowledge sensibly the sins of our forefathers in which we all, to some extent, share – just as we share each other’s sins. Harewood House was built with the profits from sugar plantations in the West Indies, as were many of the great country houses which the National Trust and English Heritage want us all to enjoy and appreciate. The enslaving of Africans was not invented by the British, or French, or Spanish; but had been practised for thousands of years by Arab, Indian, and Chinese conquerors, over whom we Brits then lorded it for a while.

BBC TV’s arts skull, Will Gompertz, has enthused about the new actress-boss of the touristy and slightly authentic Globe Theatre on the South Bank. Michelle Terry will be sticking to the Globe board’s authenticity-policy of not using amplification or artificial lighting tricks. But she is also, having herself played the role of Henry V at Regent’s Park, adopting total gender- and race-blind casting in all Shakespeare plays. “The whole season will be 50/50,” she says. “I know it works, and also that Shakespeare didn’t worry about gender. He had men playing women.”

My wife and I were educated at single-sex schools; and we sent our children to similar establishments. All my schools have since become co-ed. As such they are completely different, and for me almost unrecognisable: what was in their past and mine is now dead. Mutability is unavoidable. But is transitioning real? A friend of mine who knows Sophie-Grace Chappell – and was at Magdalen with Timothy Chappell – says that she is much nicer and just as clever as she was when she was Timothy (up to the age of 50) – and there has been no surgery.

I am not confused, though I loved ballet from the age of about 5, and trained then for two years at Miss Mary Tonkin’s school in Southsea – only stopping because we moved to Emsworth. I soon became a chorister, but for some time I would dress up and dance when friends of my parents were there to entertain them all. I loved dancing, and the kind of dancing I did was quite feminine. I think Shakespeare did worry about gender; and I do too, though I’m happy in my own skin. I think realism and truth both matter in the theatre, and in life. But aren’t we learning a lot about tolerance – and isn’t that a big part of our religion?