Category Archives: Sexuality

Disagreeing about Marriage – and Gender

Following on from my previous post, I wanted to begin delving into some of the earlier documents relating to the Church of England’s response to same sex marriage – and I’m going to start with ‘A Response to the Government Equalities Office Consultation – “Equal Civil Marriage” – from the Church of England‘.

It seems to me that the document makes two moves that are at least partially independent. It argues that the proposed legislation is contrary to the ‘intrinsic nature of marriage’, and it argues that there will be legal problems with its implementation, and in particular with any guarantee that the Church can continue to refuse to celebrate same-sex marriages. I’m going to focus almost entirely on the first of these strands: the argument about the intrinsic nature of marriage. Strange as it may seem, I think that the core of this argument is not directly about same-sex sexual relationships – so that the claim made in §5 of the document is true, at least to a first approximation – the claim that ‘our response to the question of same-sex marriage does not prejudge the outcome of that continuing theological and ethical debate’.

Instead, it is all about gender.


Summarising the argument

The argument of the document (which, let me stress, is not my argument!) can, I think, be set out as follows.

1. There is an essential complementarity between men and women.

2. The acknowledgement and expression of this essential gender complementarity is necessary for the flourishing of human society.

This complementarity has been recognised and expressed in societies down the ages; it is ‘enshrined in human institutions throughout history’ (Summary), and this acknowledgment serves ‘the common good of all in society’ (§4).

3. Acknowledging and expressing this complementarity is central to the purpose of marriage.

‘Marriage benefits society in many ways, not only by promoting mutuality and fidelity, but also by acknowledging an underlying biological complementarity which, for many, includes the possibility of procreation.’ (Summary.) This is what the document means when it speaks of the ‘intrinsic nature of marriage as the union of a man and a woman’ (Summary), and says that ‘marriage in general – and not just the marriage of Christians – is, in its nature, a lifelong union of one man with one woman’ (§1): the emphasis falls firmly on ‘man’ and ‘woman’. Of course, there are other goods proper to marriage – mutuality and fidelity – but these are not at issue in this debate, nor are they unique to marriage (§9). ‘[T]he uniqueness of marriage – and a further aspect of its virtuous nature – is that it embodies the underlying, objective, distinctiveness of men and women’ (§10). This understanding of marriage is ‘a matter of doctrine’, ‘derived from the teaching of Christ himself’ (§1), ‘derived from the Scriptures’, and ‘enshrined within [the Church of England’s] authorised liturgy’ (§2).

4. Marriage is the primary social institution by which our society acknowledges and expresses this complementarity.

‘Marriage has from the beginning of history been the way in which societies have worked out and handled issues of sexual difference. To remove from the definition of marriage this essential complementarity is to lose any social institution in which sexual difference is explicitly acknowledged.’ (§11)

5. If marriage ceases to be a way for our society to acknowledge and express this complementarity, our society’s capacity to acknowledge and express at all will therefore be seriously reduced, and society as a whole will be harmed.

This is why the problem can be seen as the government’s attempt ‘To remove the concept of gender from marriage’ (Summary). And this is what is meant by the claim that the proposals would ‘change the nature of marriage for everyone’ (Summary). It’s not that the authors of the report think that the strength of my marriage will be undermined if other people enter into a union of which I disapprove. Rather, they think that marriage as an institution will be less capable of performing one of its most important social functions if it ceases to be clearly defined in gender terms. And this is also what the authors of the report mean when they say that the legislation will involve ‘imposing for essentially ideological reasons a new meaning on a term as familiar and fundamental as marriage’ (Summary). The ideology in question is one where ‘men and women are simply interchangeable individuals’ (§12) – which is the only alternative the report imagines to its own account of essential gender complementarity. And all of this is why the report can plausibly say that this is not (directly) an issue about the acceptability of homosexual sexual activity, but about the fact that ‘the inherited understanding of marriage contributes a vast amount to the common good’, and that this will be lost, ‘for everyone, gay or straight’, if ‘the meaning of marriage’ is changed (§5). ‘We believe that redefining marriage to include same-sex relationships will entail a dilution in the meaning of marriage for everyone by excluding the fundamental complementarity of men and women from the social and legal definition of marriage’ (§13) and ‘the consequences of change will not be beneficial for society as a whole’ (§8).

6. The essential complementarity is biologically grounded, but it is not reducible to, capacity for procreation

It is, according to the report, fundamental to the definition of marriage that the couple be ‘open to bringing children into the world as a fruit of their loving commitment’ (§25); it quotes the Common Worship liturgy to the effect that marriage is the ‘foundation of family life in which children may be born’ (§2). More precisely, marriage relies upon a ‘biological complementarity with the possibility of procreation’ (§6); more precisely still ‘This distinctiveness and complementarity are seen most explicitly in the biological union of man and woman which potentially brings to the relationship the fruitfulness of procreation’ (§10; my emphasis). ‘And, even where, for reasons of age, biology or simply choice, a marriage does not have issue, the distinctiveness of male and female is part of what gives marriage its unique social meaning’ (§10).

7. Properly acknowledged, this complementarity will be expressed in specific and distinctive contributions from men and women in all social institutions.

The report states that ‘a society cannot flourish without the specific and distinctive contributions of each gender’ (§12). After all, this is a fundamental reason for supporting ‘the deeper involvement of women in all social institutions’ (§12). In other words, marriage is the means by which we recognise and celebrate an essential gender complementarity, which needs to be recognised and affirmed for the sake not just of marriage but the sake of ‘all social institutions’, which will flourish more fully if the ‘specific and distinctive contributions from men and women’ are given full expression in them.


Understanding the present debate

This is only one document, and I don’t want to build to much on it at this stage.  I’m therefore going to limit myself at this stage to two comments on this.

The first relates to my previous post. I assume that it is not unfair to think that something like this thinking is being expressed both in the House of Bishops’ promulgation of their Pastoral Guidance, and in its defenders’ reaction to the question posed by Linda Woodhead. And, as I suggested in my previous post, I think grasping this point helps to make sense of their reaction.

We are, such a person might think, dealing in this debate with a fundamental structure of creation, and of society – and of our law’s relation to that. We might all agree that questions about fidelity and mutuality go as deep as this question of gender complementarity, but nothing else comes close. In particular, questions about remarriage after divorce and questions about the precise circle of people you can’t marry are clearly not even in the same league as this question. We are dealing with a fundamental structure of creation, and therefore with the very possibility of flourishing in a society that has to live in harmony with creation. That’s clearly what was really being said when the bishops talked about there having been no fundamental divergence between civil and religious understandings of marriage until now – and all this fuss over secondary details is a mischievous smokescreen.  It’s all about gender – and this criticism from the likes of Woodhead, her colleagues, and now Higton – well, it dramatically misses that point.

Have I got that right? Is that a fair representation of the source of the impatience with Linda’s question that I’ve been hearing? I realise I’m putting words into mouths here, but I hope I haven’t slipped into caricature?


Thinking about gender

My second comment, however, is – well – Wow!

Because we’ve all been (understandably) focused on the foreground issue of same-sex marriage, and the long-running disagreements in the church about homosexual practice, haven’t we missed something else very important going on here? Because it looks to me like we’re seeing here the publication, at least in outline, of a whole massively controversial social theology of gender, as if it were unproblematically and straightforwardly the Church’s teaching – and it is happening without debate and without serious scrutiny. (I mean, yes, there’s been loads of scrutiny of this document and other related documents, but not much of it has focused on this issue.)

Let me put it this way. Suppose that we were to hear that the Church was putting together a commission to work, over the next couple of years, towards the production of a report on ‘Gender in Church and Society’. Suppose this commission were asked to state the Church’s understanding of how gender works – how our understanding should be shaped by scripture, how it should be shaped by engagement with tradition, how we should relate to our tradition’s many failures in this area, how we should understand gender to relate to biology, how gender should be acknowledged in our accounts of roles in the church, what we have learnt about gender in our debates about priesthood and epsicopacy, how gender should function in society more generally, and where we stand on questions of complementarity and equality in every sphere of society, how we should respond to other accounts of gender alive in our society, and so on.

Suppose such a commission were created. What kind of work do you think we would expect that commission to do, whom should we expect it to consult, what would we expect its members to read, with which debates would we expect them to engage, if we wanted them to carry out their task well, and with integrity?

Have we, as a Church, done that work together?  Are we putting forward the account of gender outlined above because, after careful and prayerful deliberation together, asking all the relevant questions and listening to all the relevant voices, we have concluded that this is what we have to say about gender as part of our witness to the gospel of Christ?

If not – well, don’t we have some rather urgent thinking to do?


Disagreeing about Marriage

As you might possibly be aware by now, especially if you’re a member of the Church of England, there has been some fuss about the House of Bishops’ Pastoral Guidance on Same Sex Marriage over the past few days.

That guidance was published on February 15th, and was followed by a flash flood of reaction from all sides.  If you want to explore those reactions, get your waders on and head over to the  Thinking Anglicans blog, where they’ve been collecting links.

In amongst all this, there has been one very specific bit of fuss which has been dominating my Twitter feed , because it involves quite a few of my friends and colleagues.

It arose in this way.  The Pastoral Guidance contains the following paragraph:

9. The Government’s legislation, nevertheless, secured large majorities in both Houses of Parliament on free votes and the first same sex marriages in England are expected to take place in March. From then there will, for the first time, be a divergence between the general understanding and definition of marriage in England as enshrined in law and the doctrine of marriage held by the Church of England and reflected in the Canons and the Book of Common Prayer.

This prompted Linda Woodhead and others to raise a question about whether this was historically accurate.  After all, they said (quite rightly) haven’t civil law and church teaching diverged before?  There was a divergence over the question of marriage to a deceased wife’s sister, and again over the remarriage of divorcees.  Doesn’t that make the Guidance’s claim inaccurate?

Linda raised the question first on Twitter, then in email correspondence (for which see here and here), and finally in a formal letter, signed by 24 academics, including several heavyweight church historians.  And the raising of these questions, and the Church’s response, have generated a torrent of comment and discussion.


Mutual Incomprehension

The more I have thought about these exchanges, the more it has seemed to me that there is a case of genuine mutual incomprehension at the heart of them.

Of course, you should immediately distrust me when I say something like that, because it involves me pretending to an airy overview, as if I can see more clearly and truly than all those poor saps down in the trenches – and because it might allow me to adopt an avuncular neutrality that refuses to make judgments about the actual arguments and evidence involved.  So let me say immediately that I am broadly with the 24 who signed Linda’s letter.  I think that paragraph 9 of the Bishops’ Guidance will continue to be misleading unless replaced with a more carefully qualified statement. And I think that it does matter, and that it would have been far, far better had there been a quick and cheerful admission of inadequate drafting, and the promise of a speedy revision.

I am  more interested, however, in trying to understand why such a speedy resolution of the issue didn’t happen, and why (if I am right) it was always unlikely to happen.  And, as I say, I begin to suspect that there is a case of genuine mutual incomprehension here – and the more I think about it, the more revealing I think it is.


Criticising the bishops

On the one hand, there is incomprehension from the side of the letter-writers as to how the House of Bishops could say what they said, and then fail to see that it needed revising once the error was pointed out.

To provide some context to this, look back to the ‘Response to the Government Equalities Office Consultation – “Equal Civil Marriage” – from the Church of England‘, published in June 2012, and note two things about it.

First, one of the fundamental criticisms of the proposed legislation made in that response was that civil and religious law are not separate institutions (‘The consultation paper wrongly implies that there are two categories of marriage, “civil” and “religious”‘), and that the legislation will have the effect of ‘introducing such a distinction for the first time.’  This claim is made in one of only two bold paragraphs in the central section of the response, ‘The Church’s understanding of marriage’.  It has undeniably been, therefore, presented as a central argument in the Church’s response to this whole issue.

Second, note that in the opening of that section, the response states that ‘In common with almost all other Churches, the Church of England holds, as a matter of doctrine and derived from the teaching of Christ himself, that marriage in general – and not just the marriage of Christians – is, in its nature, a lifelong union of one man with one woman.’  The word ‘lifelong’ appears right there in the general definition of marriage used in the report.

Now to Linda, to the twenty-four signatories of the letter, and to me, it seems perfectly clear from an examination of the relevant legal history that there has at times in the past been some kind of distinction between civil and religious law relating to marriage, and that when this has had to do with the remarriage of divorcees it  has had at least something to do with lifelong nature of marriage – and therefore with the ‘the doctrine of marriage held by the Church of England’.  It therefore seems perfectly clear (a) that anyone who wants to say that there has been no divergence in the past ‘between the general understanding and definition of marriage in England as enshrined in law and the doctrine of marriage held by the Church of England’ is going to need to qualify that statement quite carefully, if it is not to be misleading, and (b) that this is not a peripheral issue, but has to do with the strength of one of the pillars used to support the Church’s public response to the same-sex marriage issue.

If this is where you are coming from, the refusal to admit that there’s any problem with the wording of the Guidance, and the willingness to portray those making the criticism as mischief-makers seeking to score a cheap point for ideological reasons – well, that is bound to look like unjustifiable and brittle defensiveness, a form of leadership by bluster that refuses to take serious responsibility for the accuracy of what it says.  It is hard to see it as anything else.


Criticising the critics

There is, however, another side to this story.  I think that at least some of the response to this criticism  really does emerge from a vantage point from which this criticism of the Guidance looks like a wilful missing of the point – an attempt to create a fuss about a detail for the sake of calling into doubt an argument that does not materially depend on that detail.  I think it really does emerge from a vantage point from which this criticism looks like deliberate mischief-making which is itself barely honest or at least lacking in integrity.

To get the clue to this, look back again at the Church’s ‘Response to the Government Equalities Office Consultation’ – which I assume can be taken to represent the views of at least some of those responsible for the current Pastoral Guidance.  The section on ‘The Church’s understanding of marriage’ is the heart of the report, and before it gets to the two brief paragraphs on civil and religious marriage and their possible divergence, it has thirteen paragraphs that make a rather different point.  The centre-piece of this part of the Response is the other paragraph that is put in bold, paragraph 13:

We believe that redefining marriage to include same-sex relationships will entail a dilution in the meaning of marriage for everyone by excluding the fundamental complementarity of men and women from the social and legal definition of marriage.

My suggestion – which I can only make very sketchily here, but will fill out in a subsequent post – is that, for at least some of those who have rejected Linda’s criticism, this is the central issue, and its centrality is so obvious, so luminously blatant, that to pretend that other aspects of the Church’s definition of marriage might be as central – especially issues about which there has been all sorts of complex and detailed disagreement for as long as we’ve been a church – can only be deliberate obfuscation, akin to the claim that the whole structure of the Bishops’ argument should be called into doubt because there is a misplaced semicolon in a footnote somewhere.

In other words, I think I can see that, for someone who inhabits the views set out in that Response to the government consultation, the criticism that Linda and her colleagues made, and that I like them would like to see taken seriously, must look like such a stark case of missing the point that it can only be a deliberate missing of the point.


Where next?

I have already said that I’m not a neutral observer on this.  I fall quite firmly into the former camp.  I think the Guidance contained an error, the error mattered, and that the document should be revised.  I think that the response to the criticism has been a damaging PR own goal.  But I think that very fact gives me an obligation to try to understand the point of view from which this could genuinely and obviously look like irrelevant mischief-making.  I’ve only gestured towards that understanding below; doing the job properly is going to take a bit more time.

So, in the next post, I plan to dig a bit more deeply into that 2012 ‘Response to the Government Equalities Office Consultation – “Equal Civil Marriage” – from the Church of England’.  It’s not the only document I need to examine, but it’s not, I think, a bad place to start.  And I’m going to look a bit harder at what it says about the complementarity of men and women, because that, I think, is the issue right at the heart of our current disagreements.

On ‘The Body’s Grace’ (13): Concluding Questions

I’m sorry that the pressures of an unexpectedly full and fraught academic term have completely derailed my blogging. I imagine that any momentum left in the readers of this series on Williams has vanished just as surely as has the momentum of the writer. Still, there’s a job to finish, and it only needs one post to do it – so here it is.

I simply want to end with a series of five questions with which this exploration has left me.

  1. I can’t help wondering whether the Nagelesque description of sexual desire, whilst it works well for the situation he describes in his paper – the initial awakening and recognition of such desire, might have less direct purchase on the long term of an ordinary sexual relationship. There is at least a job to be done in showing how this kind of description can do justice not just to the agonic and the vulnerable in sexual relationships, but to the friendly, the funny, the sweet and touching, the pleasurable and the uncomplicated.
  2. There’s a cousin to that first question. We live in a culture in which we regularly meet the claim that sexual activity can truly be casual – i.e., precisely the claim that sexual activity can take place without the complex of emotional involvement that Williams and Nagel describe. Clearly, one of the ways of speaking to this culture that ‘The Body’s grace’ holds out to us is the message that there is so much more to be discovered in the context of mutuality, faithfulness and faith. I find myself wondering, however, about the extent to which the agonic tinge of Williams’ descriptions of sex means that this call necessarily comes wrapped in the initial message, ‘You’re not really having any fun, are you?’ And I wonder how truthful and effective that is.
  3. My third question is whether the sexual ethic set out in ‘The Body’s Grace’ hasn’t focused down too closely on the couple alone. What happens if, recognising that a sexual relationship is not simply an encounter between two independent individuals, we bring families, friends, rivals, and communities back into the picture?
  4. The sexual ethic set out in ‘The Body’s Grace’ calls for processes of attentiveness and discernment, looking at the problems of power and manipulation that hover around sexual relationships. It is not clear, however, who is to do that discerning, in what contexts, and on what scale. Given the habit urgent desire has of clouding delicate discernment, I take it that we’re talking about more than an on-the-spot reflection by the protagonists – but what more? What ecology of pastoral process might ‘The Body’s Grace’ call for – from individual reflection via the counselling of particular couples in their specific situation through to public teaching from the pulpit?
  5. Lastly, I worry about the question of Scripture. I am not saying that Williams’ position needs to be more scriptural (I think it is already formed by deep engagement with Scripture). But – for the sake of recognition, for the sake of the conversation – it needs to display its Scriptural rootedness at greater length (despite all the undoubted difficulties of doing so adequately). It needs to take it for granted less ¬– not in order to be captured by some naïve game of knockdown proof or disproof, but in order to show more clearly the forms of obedience by which it is shaped.

‘The Body’s Grace’ is simply one lecture. However interesting its vision, however provoking its arguments, it is at best a single contribution to a conversation that has much more territory to explore. Any hagiographic approach that suggests that this lecture somehow gets Christians sexual ethics, and that the rest is simply a matter of application, would be a betrayal of the wider ecclesial vision with which the lecture itself coheres. I’ve dallied here long enough; it’s time to move on.

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.

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.

On ‘The Body’s Grace’ (10): Biblical Foundations

So, what roles does the Bible play in all this?

  1. The first thing to say, I think, is that the throwaway comment I quoted last time (about a ‘fundamentalist deployment of a number of very ambiguous texts’) may have been enough in the context in which the lecture was originally delivered, but was bound to sound decidedly inadequate and dismissive once the lecture migrated beyond that context. Here more than anywhere else we need to supplement ‘The Body’s Grace’ with some of Williams’ other writings.
  2. Next, it’s important to realise the primary biblical groundings for the account of sexuality that we have been exploring are not any collection of biblical texts about sexuality; they are texts about the good news of Jesus Christ, the love of God, the demands of discipleship. So, if you want to probe the scriptural roots of Williams’ vision, go and read the biblical chapters of The Wound of Knowledge, read Resurrection, read Christ on Trial, and so on: that’s where you’ll find the biblical roots of this vision of sexuality.
  3. The advice in the previous point makes sense because, as Williams put it in a 1996 sermon,

    there isn’t really very much in the way of what we should think of as sexual ethics in the New Testament. There are meditations and recommendations to do with marriage, and there are some stark observations about celibacy; there are a few scattered remarks about vaguely defined ‘impurity’ or ‘uncleanness’ of behaviour, porneia, which seems to refer to anything from adultery to prostitution; there are, in the writings ascribed to St Paul, three disparaging references to sexual activity between men. Jesus is recorded as following a strict line on the admissibility of a man deciding to dissolve his marriage (not exactly a discussion of divorce in the modern sense), and refers in passing to porneia as one of the evils that come from the inner core of the self. And that’s about it. The overall impression is certainly that sexual activity is an area of moral risk, and that nothing outside marriage is to be commended. But it is, when you look at the texts, surprisingly difficult to find this spelled out in any detail, explored or defended.

    If we therefore, in the words of another of his sermons,

    want to know whether Christian discipleship makes identifiable claims on this vast and complex area of experience; whether sexuality is an area where you need thought, judgment, discrimination, and, if it is, whether the gospel is of any use in forming your thought and discrimination

    – well, we’re going to need to set the Bible’s limited explicit teaching on sexual ethics within the context of its broader teaching on the Christian life, and ask what connections there are between sexuality and discipleship. (Although we should first, perhaps, recognise the significance of the difficulty: ‘We come to the New Testament eagerly looking for answers, and we meet a blank or quizzical face: why is that the all-important problem?’)

    [The first and third quotes are from ‘Forbidden Fruit’, a sermon delivered at Christ’s College, Cambridge in 1996, printed in Martyn Percy (ed.), Intimate Affairs: Sexuality and Spirituality in Perspective (London: DLT, 1997), pp.21–31: pp 23, 26; the second is from an undated sermon, ‘Is there a Christian Sexual Ethic?’ in Rowan Williams, Open to Judgment: Sermons and Addresses (London: DLT, 1994), 161–167: p.161.]

  4. Looking more directly at the material on sexuality that we do find in the Bible, there are various other general comments Williams makes. For instance, there’s the material I’ve already discussed: Williams believes that

    if we are looking for a sexual ethic that can be seriously informed by our Bible, there is a good deal to steer us away from assuming that reproductive sex is a norm, however important and theologically significant it may be. (Emphasis mine).

    We are not going to arrive at a Christian sexual ethic primarily by focusing on the proper conditions for procreation.

  5. More positively, in a reflection on 1 Corinthians 6, Williams insists that

    my policy about sexual behaviour isn’t just my business: it is part of that vast and obscure network that gives us our new being as Christians, our being-for-each-other in the Church. The community thus has an interest in what I decide about sex. Not a prurient and gossipy interest; and not that (God forbid) it should be instituting inquisitions into sexual behaviour; but it has a legitimate claim to put before believers their responsibility to the whole body, and thus to ask that sexual commitments be open, a proper public matter, supported by the community and in turn nourishing the life of the community. (‘Forbidden Fruit’, p.29; emphasis mine)

  6. Then there are all the hints that Williams finds of a positive vision of sexuality connected to the life of God and the life of discipleship. He finds in 1 Corinthians 7 an image

    in which partners renounce the idea that they have rights to be exercised at each other’s expense, and are able to entrust themselves to the care of another. My right is to be honoured, not coerced, by my partner, but I can only express that by allowing that my own ‘power’ in this relationship is given purely for the purpose of returning the same honour. Neither is free from the other; each is free for the other. (‘Forbidden Fruit’, p.27)

    (In ‘The Body’s Grace’, he suggests that this passage implies ‘a more remarkable revaluation of sexuality than anything else in the Christian Scriptures.’) He finds Ephesians 5 making a connection between sexuality and ‘the way God in Christ deals with us: by self-gift and self-sacrifice’, and reflects that

    Christians are meant to reflect the form and style of divine action in all they do; sexual activity is no exception. If God acts for us by letting go of a divine power that is abstract and unilateral and comes in Jesus’ life to set us free for working with Jesus and praying with Jesus, this suggests strongly that a sexual partnership that is unequal, that represents power exercised by one person trying to define the other, would fail to be part of an integrated Christian life. (Ibid, p.28)

    In other words, the kind of vision Williams has been sketching of a Christian sexual ethic is one that he finds adumbrated in some of the New Testament’s passages about marriage.

It is in the context of all this – and only in the context of all this – that we can turn and ask what Williams makes of the passages he was referring to in the quote I gave in point 1. So, in the next post, I’m going to look at what Williams does with Romans 1.

On ‘The Body’s Grace’ (9): Homosexuality

First of all, it is important to note that the purpose of Rowan William’s lecture was to sketch a Christian theology of sexuality in general – i.e., an account that can say something about any and all sexual relationships or encounters. It is only towards the end of his development of such a general account that he asks whether this sketch has anything to say about the specific issue of homosexuality.

I don’t say this in order to brush what he says aside, or in order to insulate it from scrutiny, but simply because I think this ordering matters. Williams does not try to sketch a theology of homosexuality, and then use that to shape what he says about sexuality in general. He works the other way round.

The next thing to note is that the question Williams addresses in detail in the lecture is not, ‘Are same-sex sexual relationships legitimate?’
Rather, he asks why it is that the question of same-sex relationships produces such ‘massive cultural and religious anxiety’. That’s the only question regarding homosexuality that he tackles directly, the only one where he shows us how his general sketch of a theology of sexuality might have something to say about homosexuality. The wider question of the legitimacy of same-sex sexual relationships only becomes his explicit focus of attention in passing, and we will have to do some work to understand what the lecture implies for that wider question.

The third thing to note is that it is quite possible to find the answer that Williams offers to this specific question less than convincing, without that affecting one’s opinion of the general theology of sexuality from which it is drawn. I offer myself as a case in point. Williams’ tentative answer to the question about ‘massive cultural and religious anxiety’ (and it is framed tentatively) is that same-sex relationships get us so worked up because they ‘oblige us to think directly about bodiliness and sexuality in a way that socially and religiously sanctioned heterosexual unions don’t.’ When we are thinking about those socially and religiously sanctioned unions, we can tie questions about what sex is for – what the good of sex is – to questions about the production of children. That procreational context can allow us to avoid thinking about sexual relationships in and of themselves (the ‘inner logic and process of the sexual relation itself’, as Williams puts it). Same-sex sexual relationships might be hard for us to think about clearly and calmly, he suggests, precisely because they force us to ask what there is to sex outside the context of procreation.

My own reaction? On this specific point, I don’t get much beyond a rather sceptical, ‘Well, maybe…’. I rather suspect that Williams is all too aware now that the sources of our anxiety on this question are more varied and more tangled than this – though this may indeed be one of the deep currents.

Nevertheless, although I find the basic claim somewhat implausible, I don’t have any problems with where Williams goes next. He moves on to note that there are strong biblical roots for a non-procreation-centred understanding of the good of sex. The way that the Bible uses marital and sexual imagery to talk about God’s relationship to Israel, or Christ’s relationship to the church; the way Jesus and Paul discuss marriage without placing procreation central to what they say – all these lead Williams to say that ‘if we are looking for a sexual ethic that can be seriously informed by the Bible, there is a good deal to steer us away from assuming that reproductive sex is a norm, however important and theologically significant it might be.’ He notes that this point should be uncontroversial in a church that has accepted the legitimacy of contraception – and I think that’s probably a little optimistic, but true in principle.

Then comes the controversial bit.

In fact, of course, in a church which accepts the legitimacy of contraception, the absolute condemnation of same-sex relations of intimacy must rely either on an abstract fundamentalist deployment of a number of very ambiguous texts, or on a problematic and non-scriptural theory about natural complementarity, applied narrowly and crudely to physical differentiation without regard to psychological structures.

This is, in context, quite clearly a throw-away comment to an audience who could be expected to agree. Williams does not argue for it, nor does he expect to have to. Nor does he stop to give any precision or clarity to what he means. It’s not what the lecture is about.

Nevertheless, I think it is possible to discern an unstated argument that must underlie what Williams says here – an argument that does connect to the rest of the lecture. I think the form of the comment that I have quoted only makes sense if Williams can see nothing inherent in the nature of a same-sex sexual relationship which would automatically place it somewhere specific on the gradient from darkness to light – from bad to good sex – that he has been describing. That is, the comment suggests that Williams can see nothing that would automatically make a same-sex sexual relationship less (or more) capable than a heterosexual one of proclaiming the gospel, nothing that would make it less or more capable of answering the call to loving mutuality, nothing that would make it less or more capable of answering the call to faithfulness, nothing that would make it less or more capable of answering the call to faith. If he’s right about the nature of the good of sex – if sexual relationships really are fundamentally about the production not of children but of ‘embodied person[s] aware of grace’ – why should it matter what sex the partners are?

Except, of course, that plenty of people think that it does matter, and matters a great deal. And they are unlikely to be satisfied by the extraordinarily brief treatment that their objections receive in this comment. I’ve not got much to say, I’ll admit, about Williams’ rejection of the ‘natural complementarity’ argument. (At it’s crudest, he’s thinking of the claim that a moment’s reflection on human plumbing will tell you that same-sex sexual relationships are obviously wrong – but he also probably has in mind somewhat more sophisticated arguments that try to start with the basic facts of human biology, and argue up to the claim that sex is naturally only proper to heterosexual pairings.) I don’t recall any place where he talks about this in more detail, and in any case it does not seem to be at the centre of the Anglican church’s disagreements about this matter, so I’ll leave it on one side.

There’s much more to say, however, on the other branch of Williams’ comment – and so it is to his handling of the Bible that I turn in the next post.

On ‘The Body’s Grace’ (8): Love, faithfulness, faith

It seems to me that there are two rather different ways in which one might take the argument of my previous section – the argument that it is sometimes possible, with the spectacles that the Gospel provides, to see gleams of good even in some quite lightless sexual relationships or encounters.

  • On the one hand, some will probably take this to be an instruction to look for such gleams and then simply to celebrate them, as if Williams were saying, ‘Look – even in that dreadful encounter that Sarah Layton has, she discovers the body’s grace. How wonderful.
  • On the other hand, it seems to me that Williams’ lecture leaves the attentive church not so much with the task of celebrating as with the task of calling: the task of pointing people who might have some partial or limited experience of the good of sex (people inside and outside the church) in the direction of the fullness of that good.

There are three ways in which Williams’ lecture specifies the nature of the call that the church will issue.

1. The first of these is the most generic, and it is the call we have been exploring all along. As I have repeatedly said, Williams’ strategy rests on identifying what is good about sex – what good sex (good in Gospel terms, that is) really looks like. If I may risk some shorthand, relying upon what I have said in earlier posts to give the fuller content: this is a call to loving mutuality, a call to what Williams has been calling ‘the body’s grace’. So the first way in which the church issues a call to the fullness of the good of sex is simply by holding up such a picture of good sex. (Don’t take that recommendation too literally, or your church will make it onto the television news.)

2. Second, though, the call that the church issues will be a call to faithfulness. Faithfulness is, says Williams, a ‘context in which grace can abound’: and so the church will call people to ‘unconditional public commitments’, and will ‘bless sexual unions’ in order to help

give them a life, a reality, not dependent on the contingent thoughts and feelings of the people involved … so that they might have a certain freedom to ‘take time’, to mature and become as profoundly nurturing as they can…. [T]he promise of faithfulness, the giving of unlimited time to each other, remains central for an understanding the full ‘resourcefulness’ and grace of sexual union.

Here, it seems, the ‘gradient’ from darkness to light – from sexual relationships devoid of grace to those bathed in grace – has a significant ‘step’ in it: the existence of unconditional public commitment does mark a significant boundary on that gradient, and it is the church’s job to maintain that boundary, and to issue a clear call to people to the good that is to be found beyond it – and, yes, a critique of what lies outside it (Williams speaks of the need to ‘identify certain patterns as sterile, undeveloped or even corrupt’).

And yet, in line with all that I have been saying in the last two posts, Williams makes it clear that the maintenance of this boundary does not in and of itself ensure that everything within it is ‘good’ (it does not let us off the hook), and he also makes it clear that the church has no business (if it abides by the gospel criteria it has been given) declaring that everything outside that boundary is simply and only bad. As Williams says, ‘an absolute declaration that every sexual partnership must conform to the pattern of commitment or else have the nature of sin and nothing else is unreal and silly.’ (My emphasis) (That sentence needs careful parsing. In particular, don’t read the ‘must’ without carrying on to the ‘or else’. That is, don’t think that Williams is saying that it is silly for the church to issue a clear and consistent call to faithfulness. Rather, he is saying that when the church does so – and does so without ‘weakening or compromising’ – it should at the same time recognise that the people it is calling might nevertheless have experienced limited but genuine goods in sexual relationships that don’t conform to that call.)

3. Beyond the first call (the call to loving mutuality) and the second call (the call to faithfulness), there is a third call in Williams’ lecture – and it is the most radical.

[T]he body’s grace itself only makes sense if we have a language of grace in the first place; and that depends on having a language of creation and redemption. To be formed in our humanity by the loving delight of another is an experience whose contours we can identify most clearly and hopefully if we have also learned or are learning about being the object of the causeless loving delight of God. (Emphasis mine.)

In other words, the third call is a call to faith, because the good of sex can be most clearly and hopefully identified within the life of faith. And yes, that does mean that to get the most out of sex, you have to be a Christian… More soberly put, when it comes to sexual relationships, the deepest call that the church issues is a call to conversion.

It is here, incidentally, that Williams places his analysis of the call to celibacy – and the lesson that Christian celibates have to teach us. Devoted to learning about ‘being the object of the causeless loving delight of God’, they are directly concerned with, and are living signs of, the deepest context that makes sense of sexual relationships. They are, precisely as celibate, connected to sexuality’s deepest meaning – and they remind those of us who are not called to celibacy of that deepest meaning. ‘[P]aradoxical as it sounds, the celibate calling has, as one aspect of its role in the Christian community, the nourishing and enlarging of Christian sexuality.’)

On ‘The Body’s Grace’ (7): Light in the darkness

Sorry to have been so slow recently: I’ve been distracted by a combination of going on holiday and finally getting some concentrated research time (and so getting absorbed in questions completely unconnected to this series of posts).

Where had we got to? Well, Williams has defined what is good about sex, in the light of his understanding of the Christian gospel – arguing that sex can indeed be part of God’s sanctifying work (so sex does matter). In the light of that, he has also defined what can be bad about sex: how it can work against the Gospel. Yet, despite the clarity with which he identifies the good and the bad, we have seen Williams acknowledge that actual sexual relationships are nearly always mixed. Last time, I discussed his insistence that marriage – or any legal framework within which a sexual relationship might be generically defined as ‘proper’ – is not enough to guarantee the good of sex. Such frameworks do not let us off the hook.

However, if Williams insists that the sexual relationships that the church has habitually thought of as ‘permitted’ might still be contexts for (and sometimes guarantees of) bad sex, he also insists that there can be good to be found on the other side of those boundaries. There might be ways in which sexual relationships that the church has habitually regarded as inappropriate might nevertheless be contexts for the good of sex.

That’s the point, after all, of the long re-description of events from Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet at the start of the lecture. Williams finds there a powerful and convincing portrait of a particular sexual relationship, enmeshed in its larger psychological, social, and political context. He finds a portrait, in fact, of a pretty dark relationship: one which clearly has very little about it that speaks of the good of the Gospel. And yet he finds that, in the portrayal of that particular relationship, there is a faint glimmer of the real good of sex, a glimmer that refuses to be blinked away. The ‘relationship’ is in many ways a repulsive one – go read the novel, you’ll see what I mean – and Williams doesn’t suggest that it is somehow as a whole redeemed by the fact of this faint glimmer. Nevertheless, it is not all bad, not quite pitch dark through and through.

If the Church’s vision of sex is defined by the Gospel, such that it allows the Gospel to tell it what is good about sex, then it is put in a position where it might – where it must – recognise glints and gleams of good even in some sexual relationships that are genuinely and properly objectionable. To suggest that everything on the wrong side of the boundaries that the church draws is entirely and only wrong, so that no good at all can come of it, is a betrayal of the primary criterion by which Christians are called to identify the good.

There are several clarifications to make at this point

  1. This is not to say that all bad sex will have something of the good about it. Williams’ deliberately examines one very specific sexual relationship – and whilst the attentiveness that he demonstrates can and should be generalised to other relationships, what he finds cannot. This is not a facile sexual version of the claim that ‘There’s a little bit of good in everyone, you know.’
  2. Williams is not allowing his ethics to be dictated by Paul Scott, as some have suggested. As a first approximation you could say that he simply uses the novel as an illustration of a point established on quite other grounds. More accurately, one could say that he finds in the novel an enigmatic hint (Scott’s delineation of Sarah’s entry into her ‘body’s grace’), and asks what if anything he can make of it in the light of the gospel. Scott plays a role not entirely dissimilar to that played by Nagel.
  3. More accurately still, we could say that the use of the novel ends up being deeply fitting. Williams suggests that discovery of the patterns of good and harm in a sexual relationship requires a sustained and insightful attentiveness to the complex psychological, social, political reality of a relationship. His ethic requires, one might say, a novelistic level of attentiveness.
  4. The discovery of light in the darkness does not mean that the church will make no rules, have no policies, draw no boundaries. Williams does not say, for instance, that the church will stop insisting on faithfulness as the proper form of a sexual relationship (that’s something we will be coming back to). But it does mean that the church will have to operate its policies, police its boundaries, in the recognition that (a) it does not thereby create a sterilised environment within which everything is okay, and that (b) it does not thereby erect a fence beyond which everything is bad and only bad.
  5. Lastly, the bit of the argument I have been examining in this post not – absolutely not – secretly about homosexuality. Williams’ quite separate argument about homosexuality (which we have not yet come to) is very different. So he does not – absolutely not – argue that despite the real problems with such relationships, there is nevertheless a gleam of good, strong enough to suggest that the church should bless them anyway. His argument about homosexuality is not that the church should shift where precisely on the gospel-driven gradient from acceptable to unacceptable it draws its line, so as to take in a broader territory. Those who disagree with Williams on homosexuality can afford to take the present part of his argument seriously, without worrying that they are thereby leaving open the door through which he will bring same-sex relationships.

On ‘The Body’s Grace’ (6): Not legalist but rigorist?

One of Williams’ targets in ‘The Body’s Grace’ is an attitude that me might hesitantly label ‘legalism’: the attitude that says that as long as we stick to the rules, we’re absolved of all further enquiry – the kind of legalism that would say, for instance, that sex within marriage is right, and sex outside marriage is wrong, and that that is all that needs to be said.

Yet the primary note that Williams sounds in his criticism of such legalism is not that it is too restrictive, but that it is altogether too permissive. A legally constituted heterosexual marriage, for instance, could well be the context within which a deeply broken form of sexual relationship grows – one in which, say, the wife is simply treated as the sexual property of the husband – and the very fact of the marriage’s legality might well make that abuse harder to identify and call to account. Indeed, such brokenness might, in some cultural contexts, be built in to the nature of marriage: one of the most controversial sentences in the lecture is not about homosexuality, but about heterosexuality:

Incidentally, if this suggests that, in a great many cultural settings, the socially licensed norm of heterosexual intercourse is a “perversion” – well, that is a perfectly serious suggestion…

The problem with the legalism that contents itself with asking whether a sexual relationship is on the right or wrong side of the boundary is, as Williams sees it, that

The question of human meaning is not raised, we are not helped to see what part sexuality plays in our learning to be human with one another, to enter the body’s grace, because all we need to know is that sexual activity is licensed in one context and in no other. (Emphasis mine)

To give a more trivial example which might help illuminate this, consider driving. Some drivers think that being a good, responsible driver is defined by obeying the Highway Code. I’m driving up to a T-junction, and see that another car is driving along the road that I’m about to reach. I know that, according to the code, I have to give way, so I stop. I’m a good driver, and know how long it takes me to stop, so I let myself drive up to the junction fast before pushing the break down hard and stopping dead just behind the white line. I’ve obeyed the code, to the letter – but I have ignored what my behaviour communicates, how it will be read – and the other car swerves so as to avoid what it thinks I am about to do. To be a good driver, one must know the code, certainly – but if ‘the question of human meaning is not raised’, one has not gone far enough: one must also recognise that one’s driving speaks a language, and take pains over what one speaks in that language.

Characteristically, one of the central insistences of Williams’ lecture is that we should not let ourselves off the hook too easily. ‘Getting it right’ is not so easy. Legalism does not go far enough, if the question of human meaning is not raised: our sexual activity speaks a language, and we must ask what story it is telling.

I do find myself with a question, at this point. This refusal to allow that there is an easy space in which sexual relationships are simply fine, and can be exempted from further ethical scrutiny, is clearly hugely important – and I hope it is obvious why that is so. Yet I am left with the beginnings of a question that we’re going to be coming back to, about the location of the kind of theological and ethical scrutiny that Williams is suggesting. After all, one way of reading the lecture (a misleading way, I think) would be to see it as advocating some kind of anxious self-scrutiny, a refusal to lose oneself in the rhythm and dynamic of sexual activity because one is always mentally standing to one side, trying to see how one’s actions might be read. It could all too easily be read as advocating some kind of heroic moral agonising about sex – one that has little connection with the deeply unheroic ordinariness of good sexual relationships – the fun, the tenderness, the pleasure of it all. I’m reminded of a truly disastrous piece of relationships advice that I was once given: Don’t ever act in such a way that you would be unhappy for Jesus to be in the same room.

I don’t think this is what Williams’ is advocating, but it is certainly the case that his lecture is a world away from any kind of lazily permissive attitude: there’s no such thing as entirely safe sex, for Williams. In the next part, however, I want to look at how this refusal to let us off the hook – what one might call the rigorist trajectory in his argument – is balanced by his attention to the surprising sexual places where grace might be found.