Can you introduce yourself to our readers and give us an idea of what you do?
My name’s Susannah Cornwall and I’m a Christian theologian based in the Department of Religions and Theology at the University of Manchester. My work mainly focuses on contextual theologies of various kinds, bringing queer, feminist, postcolonial, liberation and other reading methods into conversation with Christian ethics and the constructive theological tradition. I’m also interested in other questions to do with disability, bodies and sexualities, and in contextual Bible study and theologies of art.
– You lead the ‘Intersex, Identity, Disability: Issues for Public Policy, Healthcare and the Church’ a Lincoln Theological Institute-funded project.
Could you summarise for our readers what the aims/ideology of this project are/is?
My first book, Sex and Uncertainty in the Body of Christ: Intersex Conditions and Christian Theology, was an examination of the theological and ethical questions stemming from the existence and treatment of intersex conditions – conditions where someone’s body can’t be classified as male or female. I was particularly interested in the questions raised by the early corrective surgery paradigm, whereby children with unusual-looking genitalia would undergo surgery to alter them, sometimes without their parents’ knowledge or consent. In my current project, I’ve been talking to intersex Christians in Britain about their understandings of the overlaps and tensions between their intersex identity and Christian identity, and about their experiences of talking about intersex with other Christians. I’ve also been talking to medical doctors and healthcare chaplains, to think through some broader questions raised by how intersex is treated and thought about, and how best to respect all the interests of intersex people and the parents of intersex children.
Your research looks at the theological and ethical responses to transgender, variant gender and homosexuality. Do you think the findings of your research could help to reduce the ever-present tensions between the LGBTQ community and faith communities?
Intersex certainly raises some important questions, because it makes very clear that not everyone is clearly and unambiguously male or female. That has implications for theologies based in the assumption that God created everyone either male or female and that they should have a gender identity and a sexual orientation to “match”. Intersex disturbs the whole idea that biological sex is simple, straightforward, binary, and self-evident. Faith communities which have strict teachings about appropriate roles for males and females – for example, in the family and in faith community leadership – have rarely acknowledged that maleness and femaleness might themselves be less certain than is often assumed. More broadly, my work on queer theologies (including my book Controversies in Queer Theology) has looked at some of the tensions involved with being a person of faith who identifies as LGBT or queer: What happens to your faith and spiritual well-being if your faith community tells you that you’re intrinsically disordered? Is it better to leave and make a stand, or stay and try to change things from the inside? How can queer and other postmodern reading strategies shed new light on sacred texts?
Do you believe LGBTQ and the Bible should be discussed together (under the same platform)?
Yes, absolutely. There are many faithful people who believe, often with regret, that the Bible forbids same-sex relationships; however, there are also many, many Christians, Jews, Muslims and other people of faith who believe that there is no contradiction between their religion and their conviction that same-sex relationships and variant sexes and genders can be sites of God’s revelation and blessing. The media often portrays all people of faith as being bigoted or homophobic, but that’s far from being the case, and some of the most creative and incisive work in theology and biblical studies is being done by LGBT and queer people who are negotiating the problems and potentials of maintaining critical but constructive relationships with their faith traditions. After all, religions are not static, but dynamic, and take place in the real world with its ongoing shifts and developing conversations.
How will you ‘bring the Bible out of the closet’ at the festival on 1 June?
I’m going to be drawing on my current research with intersex Christians in Britain, discussing the idea that although intersex is more common than most people realize (about 1 in 2,500 people has a condition causing unusual genitalia, and there are plenty more intersex conditions which cause no external physical ambiguity), it’s often “hidden in plain sight”: both because it’s been deliberately erased via corrective surgery, and because in popular parlance, and even more so in Christian theology, it’s rarely taken into account as a possibility. I’ll be looking briefly at the biblical figures of the eunuchs, whom some commentators associate with present-day intersex and trans people. I’ll also be discussing the fact that plenty of intersex people are happy to pass unnoticed, and don’t necessarily want to be seen as harbingers of a genderless world or take part in political campaigning around sex and gender.