Monthly Archives: August 2008

You are browsing the site archives by month.

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.


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.