Category Archives: Sexuality

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.


I’m going to be away from the blogface for a week or so, so the series of posts on ‘The Body’s Grace’ will be interrupted. I’ll get back to it towards mid August. I hope then to get round to the question of biblical moorings for RW’s argument, to a few criticisms I have, and – probably right at the end – to the claim that, as far as RW’s theology goes, you can’t have ‘The Body’s Grace’ without the ecclesial stance that he has taken to the sexuality debate since becoming Archbishop: to see the latter as a betrayal of the former is to misunderstand both.

On ‘The Body’s Grace’ (5): Black, white and grey

So, where have we got to so far? Well, one way of summarising what I have said so far is to say that, for Williams – it’s all about love. Sex matters because it is deeply bound up with love. Sex is good when it builds up love. Sex is bad when it works against love. It’s that simple.

Simple? Well, yes – as long as we are willing to pay attention to two big difficulties.

  1. We are very good at misunderstanding ‘love’. The real nature of love is something we are taught (painfully and slowly) by the gospel: by God’s love winning us gradually away from the distortions we have taken for love, and winning us into Christlike love. That’s why I’ve delayed focusing on the language of love until now, and instead spent my time talking about the gospel, and about sanctificiation – in the (no doubt vain) hope that readers will recognise that by ‘love’ I mean something you learn on the way of the cross, not something you learn by watching romantic comedies. And this creates a real pastoral problem: how on earth do you say, ‘It is all about love!’ without people hearing, ‘It’s all about how you feel!’?
  2. Perhaps the strongest message of ‘The Body’s Grace’ is that the connection between sex and love is deeply fraught. It is messy, complicated, and risky – and it is hugely tempting for us to fall into deeply misleading platitudes of one kind or another (and, as we will see, Williams wants us to avoid liberal platitudes just as much as conservative platitudes). And that has important implications for the kind of moral clarity one might expect in this area. It is possible to be extremely clear about what ‘good’ and ‘bad’ mean in this context, and about why the good is good and the bad is bad. But that doesn’t mean that the job of discovering where on the ground the good and the bad are actually to be found is going to be at all easy. (Think of a analogous example: suppose I were advocating an ethical position that said: what really matters is whether you do x out of selfish or out of selfless motivations. That is, on the face of it, a very clear distinction; there’s real moral clarity there. But that doesn’t for a moment mean that the job of examining one’s motivations, and of discerning whether one is being selfish or selfless, is easy.)

    Put it this way. Conceptually, what I have been discussing so far is Williams’ description of what is black and what is white in sexual relationships. Building up love? Good. Undermining love? Bad. How much more black and white a description do you want? But, when Williams talks about the actual existence of sexual relationships in the world, things are not so neat. Of course, there are some kinds of sexual activity that he is, using these paint pots, happy to colour exclusively black: rape, paedophilia, and so on. And the analysis he has given of the connection between sex and the gospel enables him to give an account of why rape, say, is always and only wrong. But far from finding that outside these blackspots everything is white, he finds elsewhere only differing shades of grey. There’s no place on the map of real sexual relationships where we can simply breathe a sigh of relief and know for certain that we are safe. Sex is always more complicated, and more risky than that.

On ‘The Body’s Grace’ (4): Thomas Nagel, handmaid

Thomas NagelOne of the accusations that is sometimes levelled at ‘The Body’s Grace’ is that Williams, abandoning the sources of properly Christian ethics, turns instead to a secular philosopher, Thomas Nagel, for his inspiration. The lecture, read that way, is a gift to anyone looking for confirmation of a standard caricature of liberal theology: drop God’s revealed command because you don’t like what it says, and cast around for some man-made substitute that you find palatable. Thankfully, that’s not really what’s going on here. In fact, if you want confirmation of a standard caricature from this lecture, the one it gets closest to providing is of philosophy as the ‘handmaid of theology’.

Williams begins with his already-established theological understanding of the Christian gospel; that’s a point I’ve laboured enough in the earlier parts of this discussion. And he begins with an interest in seeing how sexual relationships might connect to that gospel. He also begins with a sense (to which we will be returning) that the Bible does not actually tell us a great deal about the character of sex itself: what it is, and how sexual relationships work.

What he finds in Thomas Nagel is an attempt to describe as clearly as possible the nature of sexual desire and of sexual activity – am attempt that happens to work in a way that enables Williams to make the connection between sex and the gospel very directly.

Nagel’s paper (‘Sexual perversion’, Journal of Philosophy 66.1 (January 1969), republished in Mortal Questions (Cambridge: CUP, 1979), 39-52) argues against any account of sexual activity that starts by saying ‘Sexual desire is simply one of the appetites, like hunger and thirst’, and that the different ways of satisfying this appetite should no more trouble us than do the different ways of satisfying hunger and thirst (40). Nagel tries to show that all such accounts are failures, because they simply don’t do justice to the specific nature of sexual desire – to its psychological complexity.

He develops his argument by describing a fictional scene between two characters he calls Romeo and Juliet, designed to capture this inherent complexity (45-46). It starts simply enough, but as Nagel adds layer upon layer of description it quickly spirals into intense complexity – but that’s the point. He begins with Romeo regarding Juliet with sexual desire, and being aware that he does so; Romeo is aware, to some extent, of this as something taking place in his body, and also (very) aware of her body). Juliet, it so happens, also regards Romeo with similar sexual desire, and Romeo notices this. Noticing this both sharpens Romeo’s desire for Juliet (sharpening his sense of her bodily presence still further), but also makes him aware of himself as a bodily object for her desire, and of her as a bodily subject of her own desire, not just as an object of his desire. Juliet now notices Romeo’s desire for her, and she too finds her desire for him sharpened, and in the same way becomes more aware of him as a subject and herself as object. And, says Nagel, things can get still more complex: Romeo might see that Juliet not only desires him, but that she has seen (and been aroused by) his desire for her – and this itself might further feed his own desire; and similarly Juliet might be aroused not just by Romeo’s desire for her, but by the very fact of his arousal at her desire for him. At this point Nagel’s conceptual description begins to boil over; as he says, beyond this ‘It becomes difficult to state, let alone imagine, further iterations, though they may be logically distinct’ – and one might be tempted to think that even this last iteration is pretty difficult to isolate in the actual experience of sexual desire. He continues, however,

Ordinarily, of course, things happen in a less orderly fashion – sometimes in a great rush – but I believe that some version of this overlapping system of distinct sexual perceptions and interactions is the basic framework of any full-fledged sexual relation and that relations involving only part of the complex are significantly incomplete. (46).

What does Williams do with all this? Well, as a first approximation we could say that he takes it at face value – accepting it as Nagel presents it: an attempt at a neutral description of sexual desire, rather than a normative account of what sexual desire should be like. Its usefulness rests upon some kind of recognition: yes, that’s the sort of thing that happens. Yet Williams finds in Nagel’s descriptive account resonates very deeply with his own understanding of sanctification:

All this means, crucially, that in sexual relation I am no longer in charge of what I am. Any genuine experience of desire leaves me in something like this position: I cannot of myself satisfy my wants without distorting or trivialising them. But here we have a particularly intense case of the helplessness of the ego alone. For my body to be the cause of joy, the end of homecoming, for me, it must be there for someone else, be perceived, accepted, nurtured; and that means being given over to the creation of joy in that other, because only as directed to the enjoyment, the happiness, of the other does it become unreservedly lovable. To desire my joy is to desire the joy of the one I desire: my search for enjoyment through the bodily presence of another is a longing to be enjoyed in my body. As Blake put it, sexual partners “admire” in each other “the lineaments of gratified desire”. We are pleased because we are pleasing.

If Nagel’s description is a plausible one, it shows us how sexual relationships can be part of the process by which we are called out of egocentrism and called into community: called into a recognition that our action is not simply the gratification of our own appetites, but is a language that we speak to others – and that it therefore catches us up into webs of responsiveness and responsibility: we have to ask whether we are hearing the other person, and whether we are speaking so as to be heard. What calls us out into this responsiveness and responsibility is the other’s desire for and delight in us – as object and as subject; our being called out involves our desire for and delight in our partner – as object and as subject. Sex, if Nagel’s description of how it works is a good one, is inherently and unavoidably tangled up with the most basic themes of sanctification.

This is fine as a first approximation – but a second, more precise approximation is possible. Ultimately, it seems to me, Williams does not actually accept that Nagel’s account is as neutral as he claims. Nagel claims that this is the ‘natural’ form that sexual relation takes, and (implicitly) that it can be identified as such by any reasonable human being. Yet Williams says that all this ultimately

only makes human 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, being the object of God’s love for God through incorporation into the community of God’s Spirit and the taking-on of the identify of God’s child.

In other words, Williams does not accept that there is a neutral, non-theological, purely philosophical route to the declaration that this form of sexual relationship (rather than something more asymmetrical) is the natural paradigm against which all sexual relationships can be judged. He privileges this description of sexual relations on theological grounds.

That in turn means that he can broaden the focus of his account much more easily than can Nagel from individual sexual encounters to ongoing patterns of relationship, and to the questions of faithfulness and commitment that they raise. It may be difficult to see how to get directly to those questions simply from a phenomenological account of how sexual desire happens to work: could we really claim in some neutral sense that a long-term, faithfully committed relationship is the ‘natural’ outworking of the patterns of mutual desire that Nagel describes? Yet as soon as Nagel’s account has been given its fuller theological grounding within an account of sanctification, the connections follow easily.

This theological recontextualisation of Nagel’s ideas also means that Williams can include a much greater sense of the fragility and difficulty of this kind of sexual relationship: a sense, perhaps, that far from this being the ‘basic framework of any full-fledged sexual relation’, as Nagel puts it, it is seldom realised in actual sexual relations in anything like the symmetrical and complete form that Nagel describes.

In other words, Nagel’s account provides a stepping stone – and not the first or the last – in the development of Williams’ account. It helps him to articulate his sense of how sex is (or can be) caught up in sanctification, and so of how it can be (and often is) caught up in its opposite. Nagel does not act as an authority for Williams: the structure of Williams’ argument cannot at all be reduced to the claim that certain kinds of sexual relation are okay because Nagel says so, or wrong because Nagel says so. No; Nagel acts as handmaid, and only as a handmaid, providing conceptual tools that Williams borrows, and bends to his own use.

On ‘The Body’s Grace’ (3): Sex and sanctification

In the first post in this series, I claimed that Rowan Williams’ purpose in ‘The Body’s grace’ was to ask what the connection was between sex and the gospel. In the second post, I pointed to the brief sketch he gives in the lecture of the content of that gospel. That gospel, in Williams’ view, has to do with the good news that God freely loves us, and that God’s love calls us to (and frees us for) love of God. It also has to do with the ‘fellowship of Christ’s body’, in which we learn of God’s love for us, and in which we communicate God’s love for others.

Asking how sex relates to this gospel therefore means two things.

  1. Williams’ concern is above all with the connection of sex to sanctification – to the processes by which people are, by the grace of God, drawn into holiness. Holiness is a matter of being called out of, and freed from, all that stands against the love of God. It is a matter of being called to, and freed for, that love. It is a matter of being crucified, and of being raised to new life in Christ. ‘Holiness’ is, in Williams’ theology, a fundamentally dynamic category: to ask about holiness is to ask about whether a particular path leads deeper into the love of God, or leads away. Luther defined sin as a matter of being ‘curved in on oneself’ (incurvatus in se): a matter of being so focused on one’s own gain that the gifts of God (and even God Godself) are turned into objects subordinated to that purpose. Holiness is a matter of being untwisted from this sinfulness, and opened up to worship: to an outward-facing delight on God’s gifts and on God’s self. Williams does not use the language of ‘sin’ or ‘holiness’ in the lecture – quite deliberately, I suspect, in view of the fact that it is so easy to assume that we know what these terms mean in the realm of sexuality – but the concepts he uses here to describe sexual relationships are the ones that he elsewhere uses to describe the whole Christian life as a life of growth towards God. ‘The Body’s Grace’ would not, for instance, be out of place as an appendix to Williams’ The Wound of Knowledege.
  2. Williams concern is also fundamentally ecclesial. One could say that the question of Christian ethics is, ‘Does this build up the body?’ or ‘What makes this body more the body of Christ?’ To ask about the connection between sex and the gospel is to ask about the role of sexual relationships in the formation of the body of Christ – that body in which we learn of God’s love for us, and communicate God’s love for others. One (possibly surprising) way to get a grips with this aspect of Williams’ lecture is to notice his talk about communication (as when he says, for instance, that ‘the moral question … ought to be one of how much we want our sexual activity to communicate’), and mentally to translate it into Barthian terms. Barth opens his Church Dogmatics by saying:

    The Church confesses God as it talks about God. It does so first by its existence in the action of each individual believer… But as it confesses God the Church also confesses both the humanity and the responsibility of its action. It realises that it is exposed to fierce temptation as it speaks of God, and it realises that it must give an account to God for the way in which it speaks. (CD I/1, p.3, emphasis mine.)

    Williams’ lecture draws sexuality firmly into this realm: it too is part of that ‘action of each individual believer’ that ‘talks about God’. Williams’ question is not simply whether our sexual activity somehow conforms to or obeys the gospel, but whether in our sexual relationships we proclaim that gospel.

One of the claims of the lecture is that sex is not a topic we can ignore or treat casually, nor is it an aspect of our lives that we can easily tidy away, or ‘get right’ and then ignore. And that is not because Williams has bought some post-Freudian picture where everything is really about sex, but because he sees that sex is caught up in powerful and complicated ways in these matters of sanctification and proclamation – and those are the most serious games in town.

On ‘The Body’s Grace’ (2): The Gospel

In ‘The Body’s Grace’, I have said, Rowan Williams asks what sex has to do with the Christian gospel. What does sex have to do, that is, with the God of Jesus Christ, and with how this God relates to God’s world?

After the long discussion of incidents from Paul Scott’s The Raj Quartet (to which we will be returning, never fear), there are two paragraphs in which Williams begins to show us how his answer to this question is going to work:

The whole story of creation, incarnation and our incorporation into the fellowship of Christ’s body tells us that God desires us, as if we were God, as if we were that unconditional response to God’s giving that God’s self makes in the life of the trinity. We are created so that we may be caught up in this; so that we may grow into the wholehearted love of God by learning that God loves us as God loves God.

The life of the Christian community has as its rationale – if not invariably its practical reality – the task of teaching us this: so ordering our relations that human beings may see themselves as desired, as the occasion of joy.

Later on he speaks about

learning about being the object of the causeless loving delight of God, being the object of God’s love for God through incorporation into the community of God’s Spirit and the taking-on of the identify of God’s child

I will have more to say about the content of this in due course, but for now I simply want to draw your attention to two aspects of it.

  1. This is, for Williams, a fairly straightforward retelling of the Christian gospel – the Christian good news. Anyone who knows his work even moderately well will recognise the familiar outlines of his account of the difficult gospel, costly grace, the free gift that demands everything. You could think of this as a rehearsal of the ‘rule of faith’: a sketch of the basic plot or framework that, as Williams sees it, holds the whole Christian story together. Trinity, creation, incarnation, incorporation into the body of Christ, the work of the Spirit, God’s unearned love, our growth into love – this, according to Williams, is the basic palette of colours from which the Christian picture is painted. Now, rhetorically, Williams assumes that this account of the Gospel is one that his audience will reocgnise – a bedrock on which he and his audience stand, and on which he can safely build his argument, rather than a platform to which he must hoist them by argument.
  2. This brief sketch of the gospel is not, however, simply an identical repetition of Williams’ standard presentation of the Gospel. It is a variation on a theme, or a riff played on a familiar melody. Williams chooses his words, his metaphors, so as to highlight the connections he is about to make to sexuality. Nevertheless, he does not present himself as importing those connections, but as drawing them out: the first quote I’ve given above, for instance, continues, ‘It is not surprising that sexual imagery is freely used, in and out of the Bible, for this newness of perception’. The connection to sexuality is already there in the scriptural and traditional material on which this sketch is based.

These two aspects suggest two further reflections:

  1. I suspect that, whatever might have been true of the lecture’s original audience, for many readers of this essay the sketch that Williams gives of the Christian message here will not be very familiar. Used to other frameworks for the telling of the Christian story – other plot summaries, in different idioms – those readers will perhaps suspect that this way of expressing the gospel is driven by the material on sexual relationships elsewhere in the article. That is, some readers might not recognise that William is anchoring his argument in an account of the gospel that precedes any of his reflections on sexual ethics – and that his description of sexual ethics is driven by his theology, rather than the other way around.
  2. It’s important to clear that first point up before moving on to the second, which qualifies it. I’m going to be coming back to this rather more at a later point (if all goes according to plan), but it seems to me that whilst Williams’ retelling of the gospel in this context follows the familiar lines of his theology without demur, the precise colour and tone given to that retelling by his wider discussion of sexual ethics does show us (and perhaps Williams) that familiar gospel in a new light. In other words, whilst the major movement of the article is to examine sexual relations in the light of the already known gospel, there is a minor reverse movement as well: an exploration of the gospel in the light of this investigation of sexual ethics. That’s going to prove to be important later on.

One last caveat before I close this post. I don’t mean to say that Williams is right. I’m not yet asking that question, and when I do I will have some questions to put to him. But – particularly in the current situation – it seems to me that the prior task is to strive for a charitable understanding of what Williams is saying, how his argument goes together, what the assumptions are, and so on. So you can expect quite a few more posts simply of exposition before we get to the questioning – but please don’t assume that this is intended as hagiography.

On ‘The Body’s Grace’ (1): God’s command

This is the first part of a planned series on homosexuality and the church. I’m planning to start with a sequence of posts on Rowan Williams’ famous essay, ‘The Body’s Grace’, and then walk slowly towards more ecclesiological matters.

Over on Faith and Theology, when Ben Myers suggested that Rowan Williams’ ‘The Body’s Grace’, was an example of a life-changing essay, one of the blog’s regular visitors, Shane, commented, ‘What was so great about “The Body’s Grace”? … I was disappointed by this essay – there is one central question in the debate about homosexuality (whatever one’s anwer to it): What does God command me to do? Williams spends the entire essay attempting not to raise that question.’ In a comment to another post, he put the same point again, ‘As far as I’m concerned it’s a straightforward example of why the Anglican church is in the crisis it is in today – Williams is just dodging the central question over and over again. The central question is this: Is homosexuality good, bad or indifferent from God’s perspective?’

Those comments are not the main reason for starting this series of posts, but they do provide a useful starting point – by being exactly wrong.

Williams opens ‘The Body’s Grace’ with the questions, Why does sex matter? and, What does it have to do with God? As he goes on, it becomes clear that he is asking, What on earth do sexual relationships have to do with the Christian gospel?

Albeit in a different theological idiom, Williams is precisely asking, What does God command? He is asking, What difference does it make to see sexual relationships in the light of God’s word to the world in Christ? How does seeing sexuality in that light allow us to understand both what can be right about sex, and what can be wrong? How does the gospel enable us to get a truly Christian clarity about sexual ethics?

This strategy is, it seems to me, based on several related assumptions.

  1. The gospel – the good news spoken by God to the world in Jesus Christ – is God’s command. To put it the other way around, the command of God is not extraneous to the gospel – as if God, while saving us in Christ by the Spirit, said, ‘Oh, and there’s another, unrelated thing I wanted to talk to you about…’
  2. The connection between gospel and command is intelligible. That is, it is possible for us by attending to the Gospel to understand how and why we are commanded – and such understanding is the fundamental task of Christian ethics.
  3. The gospel so understood provides the criterion by which we discover what truly is a binding command upon us. Faced, for instance, with a range of biblical commands about slavery, women, usury, polygamy, and sexual relationships, the fundamental theological question is not, ‘Which of these is culturally conditioned?’ but ‘How, if at all, do these matters relate to the gospel?’ Theological ethics is a matter, we might say, of taking every thought captive to Christ.
  4. Because this attention to the gospel is the fundamental task of Christian ethics, any approach that simply stops with the apparent demands we find in Scripture, without asking whether and how they connect to the gospel, fails to take the command of God seriously.
  5. If there is some intelligible connection between the gospel and sexual relationships, there would be a binding Christian sexual ethic (a command of God regarding sexual behaviour) even if there were no passages in Scripture that explicitly treated sexual matters.

I realise that I have as yet left the term ‘gospel’ vague. But we’re only just getting started…