Daily Archives: September 23, 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.