Sexual difference is obviously not sufficient to guarantee complementarity; and it seems, empirically, that it is not even necessary: not if the word “complementary” is taken to refer to something real in the world.
Complementarity rests on more than sexual difference. As with similarity and difference, it is worked out on many levels – many more than the bishops acknowledge. It matters which experiences and traditions a couple share, for instance, and which they do not. The otherness that a woman finds in a man is not exhausted by his maleness: there is also the fact that he is a Scot while she is English, that he tends to think in concrete terms while she tends to be abstract-minded, and so on. Similarities between a man and a woman are also important. Our own experience confirms that a certain irreducible difference exists between any two people, in any kind of relationship. The difference of one person from another is more profound than a difference of sex,even in an opposite-sex relationship. When a man finds comfort in his female partner, for instance, her femaleness is not a matter of indifference, but she also matters as another human being: as someone to talk to, someone to rely on, someone to share responsibilities with. Adam’s first response to the creation of Eve was to her similarity with him – “This at last is bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh” – not to her difference.
So many elements of similarity and difference are interwoven in a heterosexual relationship that picking out just one sort of difference – sexual difference – as if it were all that mattered for complementarity is remarkably short-sighted. No one loves someone else simply as a man or simply as a woman, and not also as funny, or serious, or Welsh, or practical, or tall, or dark-haired, or a hundred other factors. A collapse of difference into male-female difference, which so undergirds current Church of England formulations, reduces our vision of sexual relationships to the level of a budget brothel: you ask for a woman, you ask for a man, and you take the first one who’s free: sexual difference is what matters, not particularity.
You can read the entire piece here. Those interested in the questions raised here might also like to read Eugene Rogers’s essay ‘Same-sex complementarity’, published a few years ago in Christian Century. I found Rogers’s essay, as well as his book Sexuality and the Christian Body: Their Way into the Triune God, to be very helpful resources.
The matter is of particular interest to me at the moment because I’m currently working on a short statement on marriage, by invitation of the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand.