Monthly Archives: September 2008

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On ‘The Body’s Grace’ (12): Sex and the church

There’s an important question hovering in the background that I have not yet asked. Why am I bothering with all this? This is, after all, now my twelfth blog post on a single article by Rowan Williams, and you may well be wondering why on earth I have taken the time to walk through it so slowly – and so laboriously. Part of the answer, of course, is that I’m an anally retentive academic. Yes, I’m afraid it’s true. I like trying to set things out in order, all the edges lined up. I like my books in alphabetical order and experience physical pain when they are disarranged. And I like dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s when expounding someone else’s ideas.

But there is more to it than that, I promise. You see, with all this clotted verbiage I’ve been trying to model something. I have been trying to show how one might give a charitable reading of Williams’ lecture, and one that is charitable in a very specific sense: I have been asking, as seriously as I know how, whether the lecture is a serious attempt at obedience to the gospel. As I’ll explain in a moment, I think there’s something quite important about such charitable looking for obedience in another’s position.

‘Obedience to the gospel’ is, however, a surprisingly difficult idea to get at. It’s difficult because, of course, there is in Rowan Williams’ work (as in that of any other theologian) a particular construal of what ‘gospel’ means, and so a particular construal of what obedience to that Gospel involves. So there’s a difference between asking whether, in Williams’ own terms, he is trying to be obedient to the gospel, and asking whether he is trying to be so in my terms. Yet if I contented myself with asking whether Williams’ understanding of the gospel, and of the nature of obedience to that gospel, agrees with mine, I would be insulating myself against any deep challenge or insight that his understanding may have to offer to me: I would be declaring in advance that I am right, that anyone who differs is wrong, and that I am not open to reconsidering that assumption. Clearly something more subtle is needed.

Now, there are several ways of striving for that greater subtlety. The most obvious is to make some attempt to set out the absolutely central points on which one is not willing to compromise, and to ask about someone else’s agreement only with those central points – combining that adamant stance with a flexible willingness to learn on all other matters. And some such attempt to set out what is central is, I think, an inevitable part of the mix – though it has perhaps not played quite as central a role in Anglicanism as it has in other traditions where a detailed ‘Confession’ of some kind has been central to the ongoing theological conversation.

However, Williams suggests, elsewhere in his work, a rather different way of thinking about this question. We can ask, when we are seeking to discover whether his or some other theological claim is obedient to the gospel, whether that claim is recognisably a contribution to a common conversation about obedience. That probably sounds irremediably vague, but stay with me for a moment. What I think he means is that, rather than asking a static question (‘Does your position agree with mine, or does it agree with the points I have identified as central to mine?’) Williams is suggesting that we ask a dynamic question: ‘Having heard what you say, can I recognise the possibility of being called to deeper obedience to the gospel (given what I currently understand that obedience to mean) by what you say, and can I see the possibility (given what you currently understand that obedience to mean) of calling you to deeper obedience?’

With a question like this in mind, we might move from a picture of the world divided into those with whom I agree (wholesale, or on the fundamentals) versus those with whom I disagree, to a more complex picture in which, around the brittle circle of those with whom I agree, there is the company of those with whom I disagree but with whom I share a conversation: the wider circle of a community not in possession of consensus but in serious pursuit of it, hoping and working for it.

The boundary of this wider circle is, inevitably, much more difficult to discern than are the boundaries of consensus – though boundaries there certainly are. And those boundaries are not defined simply by the forms of obedience – by the bare fact that my opponent appeals to the same scriptures, say, or tells a broadly recognisable salvation-historical story. Even where those forms of apparent obedience are in place, I might find myself called to the tragic recognition that this opponent and I do not share a recognisable conversation, that I cannot call him to obedience (or he me) except by standing against him, in prophetic denunciation of one kind or another.

Let me illustrate this. Imagine that Williams were speaking to a Christian community that regarded ‘obedience to the Gospel’ as quite straightforwardly defined by unmediated appeal to the plain sense of the scriptures. By ‘mediation’, I mean the kind of arguments that we’ve been exploring all along – where the emphasis falls on the attempt to develop a broader theological view on the basis of the scriptures, and then to read particular passages in its light even when that means going beyond the plain sense. In other words, I’m thinking of the kind of theological–ethical argument where the quotation of particular biblical texts seldom, on its own, settles anything. The community that rejects such mediation of scripture might find that, except to the minor degree that they found the plain sense of certain scriptures elucidated by Williams’ readings, his arguments were largely irrelevant to their way of doing sexual ethics – or, worse, that they seemed like nothing more than sophisticated attempts to sidestep the scriptures. They would not be able to see his arguments as, in any direct way, calling them to deeper obedience (as they currently understand obedience). And they might find in return that they simply could not call him to deeper obedience, because the means by which they might do so – pointing out once again the plain sense of the scriptures in question – was consistently met with a ‘Yes, but…’ In such a situation, we might have to conclude that there is not a common conversation about obedience. The attempt at conversation would stutter to a halt.

Where it does not stutter, however, we have at least the possibility of what I just called ‘a community not in possession of consensus but in serious pursuit of it, hoping and working for it.’ Now, I want to suggest – and this is one of the central points of this whole series – that such a community will be characterised by the same threefold call that I have identified in Williams’ sexual ethics:

  1. the call to loving mutuality,
  2. the call to faithfulness, and
  3. the call to faith.

So, by analogy with Williams’ Nagelesque analysis of sexuality, we are dealing with a community in which I seek your deeper obedience, but in which I also seek your seeking of my deeper obedience (if you see what I mean): I see that I can call you to deeper obedience, and I long for that, but I also see that you can call me to deeper obedience, and I long for that. We are, in other words, talking about a community capable of sustaining an interlocking economy of desire: I desire Christ; you desire Christ; I desire your desiring of Christ; you desire my desiring of Christ; I desire your desiring of my desiring of Christ; you desire my desiring of your desiring of Christ … and so on. This is what, by inadequate shorthand, I have been naming the call to loving mutuality.

The call to faithfulness comes into play when we recognise the time-taking holding on to one another that is required by the pursuit of this desire. To borrow the language that Williams used in the context of sexual ethics, this is a matter of unconditional public commitment, commitment that recognises the existence of the kind of economy of desire just described, and that gives itself the time needed to sustain and pursue it. To be a community not in possession of consensus but in serious pursuit of it, hoping and working for it requires such commitment: it requires the safety that comes from being able to trust that you will not walk away from this conversation simply because we do not yet agree. Of course, it is not that divorce is impossible – but to walk into this with a prenuptial agreement that assumes the inevitability or propriety of divorce is already to betray the commitment involved.

Yet it is also important to say that this faithfulness is not a matter of ‘unity for unity’s sake’ or of ‘unity at all costs’. The faithfulness is there as the proper context for the pursuit of ‘loving mutuality’, the operation of the economy of mutual desire. The whole of this life is directed to the deepening of obedience to the God of Jesus Christ, obedience to the gospel. The call to loving mutuality and the call to faithfulness are inseparable from the call to faith.

So, there you go. If we’re after a relationship with the Rowan Williams of ‘The body’s grace’, we shouldn’t be surprised if we find ourselves shacked up with the Rowan Williams of the 2008 Lambeth Conference. After all, the actions of the latter Rowan Williams are predicated on his belief that both ‘conservatives’ and ‘liberals’ – as well as a lot of people in between – are recognisably part of the same communion, because they are still capable of calling each other to deeper obedience. In that context, his task as Archbishop is and can only be to call them deeper into loving mutuality, to call them deeper into faithfulness, and to call them deeper into faith. And his single-minded focus on issuing those calls, rather than on advocacy of the particular position on homosexuality that he set out in ‘The Body’s Grace’, is exactly what one should have expected from the author of that lecture – unless one expected his ecclesiology to be based on a different gospel from the one that undergirds his sexual ethics. Whether one agrees with the specific ways in which he has pursued these calls – and there is, of course, endless scope for serious questioning on that front – one should be able to recognise that his ecclesiological manoeuvrings do not involve the unexpected abandonment of a previously principled position, nor are they desperate attempts to shore up institutional unity at the expense of Gospel truth. They are fundamentally a matter of hope and labour for the discovery of more of the truth of the gospel, by the main means available to us of such discovery – the Body’s grace.

*     *     *

I know that sounded like the peroration – but I haven’t quite finished. There is one last post to come in this series. Given the theology we have been exploring, it would be entirely inappropriate to finish in a way that appeared to smother conversation in a fluffy blanket of pious words about consensus. And since the motor of ongoing conversation is disagreement, that’s where I’m going to finish.

In memoriam

Andor GommeOn Friday afternoon, my father-in-law, Andor Gomme, died at home. This isn’t the place for proper reminiscences, but I wanted to post a brief note on one tiny part of what we have lost. Amongst all the other things that he was, you see, he was a quite remarkable academic, and he taught me more about what it means to be one than, I think, anyone else. I can’t imagine, though, that anyone will ever say of me what must certainly be said of him: No-one who met him could ever think the word ‘academic’ a synonym for ‘narrow’ again. With seriousness, with delight, with a vast store of carefully culled detail, and with spacious clarity, he wrote on Dickens, on D.H. Lawrence, on Jane Austen, on Shakespeare, and on literary criticism in general; he edited several Jacobean tragedies; he taught his way through the works of Doris Lessing and Paul Scott; he wrote standard works on the architecture of Glasgow and of Bristol, a masterwork on the architect Francis Smith, and (most recently) on the development of the English country house; he produced an edition of Bach’s St Mark passion – the list goes on and on. I’m not sure universities make people like him any more.

Gone quiet

Sorry for the blog silence. I’ve only got a little bit more to do on the Rowan Williams series, but there just has not been the brain space to do it at the moment. It’s not so much the absolute lack of time (though that’s been true for much of the last week or so), but the difficulty of changing mental gears after a day of wearing my Head of Department hat and worrying about undergraduate admissions, departmental handbooks, and assessment and feedback strategies. And now, just when I have a bit of time, I realise that my notes for the remaining posts are on the laptop, and the laptop is off with Hester who is currently away from any internet connection…

Watch this space – but it’s probably best if you don’t hold your breath whilst doing so.


I’ve finally caught up with the fact that Akismet is doing a great job of catching comment spam on this blog – so I haven’t had to deal with the stuff manually for quite a while. So – if I’ve ticked the right boxes – I’ve turned off the need to register, and the need to get your comments individually moderated by me before they appear. Hope that makes it a bit easier.

On ‘The Body’s Grace’ (11): Reading Romans 1

‘The Body’s Grace’ itself contains no discussion of the biblical passages that explicitly address same-sex relationships, but we can go some way to plugging that gap by turning to another piece by Williams: ‘Knowing myself in Christ’ in The Way Forward? Christian Voices on Homosexuality and the Church, ed. Timothy Bradshaw (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1997), 12-19 – one of a set of responses to ‘The St Andrew’s Day Statement’ – which is available as an rtf document here.

The portion of the paper that concerns us begins when Williams poses the question,

Is [homosexual desire] always and necessarily a desire comparable to the desire for many sexual partners or for sexual gratification at someone else’s expense – comparable, more broadly, to the desire for revenge or the desire to avoid speaking an unwelcome or disadvantageous truth? (14)

He suggests that the St Andrew’s statement answers this question in the affirmative, and that it does so in large part on the basis of Romans 1 – specifically Romans 1:26-27.

For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.

He then draws attention to the fact that same-sex relationships or practices are described here as involving

the blind abandonment of what is natural and at some level known to be so, and the deliberate turning in rapacity to others. (16)

I take it that the first part of this statement connects Romans 1:26-27 to verses 19-25 (‘For what can be known about God is plain to them … [but] … they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator’), and that the second part of the statement relates verses 26 and 27 to what comes after in 29 to 31 (‘They were filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, they are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious towards parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless.’)

Williams then claims that it is ‘quite possible’ to ask whether the desires, relationships and activities condemned by Romans 1:26-27 include everything that we now know as homosexuality.

Is it not a fair question to ask whether conscious rebellion and indiscriminate rapacity could be presented as a plausible account of the essence of ‘homosexual behaviour’, let alone homosexual desire as it may be observed around us now? (16)

Williams asks what happens if, as we ask this question, we are faced with phenomena that seem to match one part of this description (in that they involve same-sex desire and sexual activity) but do not match the rest. He imagines us confronted with a homosexual person who says

I want to live in obedience to God; I truly, prayerfully and conscientiously do not recognise Romans 1 as describing what I am or what I want. I am not rejecting something I know in the depths of my being. I struggle against the many inducements to live in promiscuous rapacity – not without cost.

It is vital to note that he is not asking us to imagine someone who does not like the harsh truth that the passage is proclaiming, or who regards it as unfair. This is not about disagreeing with the passage; it is about claiming that there are forms of homosexuality that are simply not imagined by this passage – forms which its descriptions do not capture, and which its condemnations therefore do not reach.

He then imagines the person going on to say

I am not asking just for fulfilment. I want to know how my human and historical being, enacting itself through the negotiation of all sorts of varied desires and projects, may become transparent to Jesus, a sign of the kingdom. I do not seek to avoid cost. But for the married, that cost is worked out in the daily discipline of a shared life, which, by the mutual commitment it embodies, becomes a means of grace and strength for the bearing of the cost.

Williams asks,

How does the homosexually inclined person show Christ to the world? That must be the fundamental question.

If the homosexuality of Romans 1:26-27 is condemned because, ultimately, it cannot but be a betrayal of the God of Jesus Christ – a setting up of idols in the place of that God – then Williams’ claim is not simply the negative one that there are forms of homosexual relationship not captured by that critique, but the positive one that there are forms of homosexual relationship capable of witnessing to that same God. We are back to the claim implied by ‘The Body’s Grace’, which I discussed two posts ago: Williams can see nothing that would automatically make a same-sex sexual relationship less capable than a heterosexual one of proclaiming the gospel.

*     *     *

Now, this is as it stands no more than the sketch of an argument, but I think it is possible to see how it might be filled in. So I offer you here a more detailed Williams-ish reading of the Romans passage. I am making this up; I have not cribbed it from anywhere in Williams’ writings – nevertheless, it is my attempt to imagine a more detailed account consistent with Williams’ arguments.

In the first place, it is clear that Romans 1:26-27 does not simply describe homosexuality as one more vice in a list of vices. It is presented as a vice which, along with idolatry, somehow cuts to the heart of what sin is like. Verses 19-25 describe the loss of a right ordering of life – a life centred upon true worship. Romans 1:26-27 suggest that this right ordering is also, perhaps fundamentally, a right ordering of desire, an ordering centred upon God, but within which there is a place for proper (‘natural’) sexual relationships. Sexual relationships matter in this ordering, and receive such prominent billing in the story of its destruction, because they are one of the key places where the ordering of our desires is writ large.

Sin fundamentally involves the breakdown of this proper ordering, and so although it will have many symptoms, the disordering of specifically sexual desire will loom large amongst those symptoms – it will, in some sense, be (along with explicit idolatry) the characteristic sin.

But – and this is crucial – the passage also goes on to describe in more general terms the character of disordered life: it is malice, covetousness, envy, it is haughty, boastful, proud. Recalling another famous Pauline passage, one might say that disordered life is fundamentally life devoid of that Christlike love which is patient, kind, not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.

It only makes sense for Paul to put a description of homosexual desire in the centre of this passage if, for him, homosexual desire unlike heterosexual desire automatically means a form of sexual desire in which the individual’s gratification has become the central, the all-consuming element – if, for him, homosexual desire automatically means a form of sexual desire which by its very nature is incapable of the kind of loving mutuality that we have been discussing all along. If that is not what Paul is assuming, his argument makes no sense. (Of course, it might not be too difficult to see how the most visible forms of homosexual relationship in Paul’s context may well in his eyes have confirmed that supposition).

To say that, nevertheless, we have learnt that there are other forms of homosexuality – that there are forms unimagined by Paul which can, as easily as heterosexuality, answer the calls to loving mutuality, to committed faithfulness, and to faith that I have discussed earlier – is not to deny the fundamental thrust of the passage. It does not deny that sin is fundamentally characterised by rebellion against God and by rapacity, that sexual relationships are one place in which that disorder is particularly clearly displayed, and that it is understandable that Paul in his context should single out the forms of homosexual relationships he knew of as particularly clear and dramatic examples of that. It can affirm all that, and yet say ‘Nevertheless…’

*     *     *

There is one fly in this ointment, however, and Williams acknowledges it towards the end of his paper as a point on which further discussion is needed (19). This argument has not yet touched upon one aspect of the passage which might seem to undercut (or at least to complicate) the reading I have just given. The disorder of sexual desire described in Romans 1 is presented as an abandonment of natural desire – and the assumption is clearly that heterosexual desire is natural in a way that homosexual desire is not and cannot be. (We’re clearly not a million miles away from the ‘God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve‘ argument…)

My instinct, at this point, is simply to say that, yes, the discovery that there are forms of homosexual relationship that are not rapacious in the way Paul assumes is also the discovery that there are forms of homosexual relationship that are just as natural as heterosexuality can be. And that this recognition, strange though it may sound, is a profoundly important one: it helps us realise that ‘natural’ does not for Christians mean anything different than ‘capable of proclaiming Christ; capable of displaying Christlike love’. It helps us take the ‘natural’/’unnatural’ distinction captive to Christ, and recognise that it is precisely the same as the distinction between the sense in which the world to which the incarnate Word came was his own, and the sense in which it did not recognise him. And, yes, I don’t deny for a moment that this goes beyond what is envisaged in this particular passage – but I would argue that to take the passage in this direction is profoundly in line with the gospel as a whole.

I know that this will sound to some like I’m not taking the passage seriously. But I think most of those who reject this position will actually play just as loose with its words. That is, I suspect that most of those who say that Romans 1 teaches us that homosexual sexual relationships are wrong because they violate the natural male-female ordering of creation will go on to downplay the equally clear implication of the passage that such homosexual relationships are inherently and obviously incapable of anything other than rapacity, that they are inherently and obviously incapable of loving mutuality, that they are inherently and obviously incapable of sustaining anything other than gratification. And yet such downplaying is going to be unavoidable if, following the insistence of Lambeth 98’s resolution 1.10, we ‘listen to the experience of homosexual persons’ as Williams has suggested we should. In the light of that listening, I don’t think there’s any way forward with this passage that doesn’t involve going beyond it in some way.

*     *     *

You still disagree. I can tell.

In the remaining sections of this series, I’m going to ask where that disagreement leaves us.