Category Archives: Sexuality

Disagreement, conscience, and harm


In the wake of our bishops’ proposals for ‘Prayers of Love and Faith’ for use in the blessing of same-sex couples, there has been a lot of talk in Church of England circles about conscience.

In the ‘Response from the Bishops of the Church of England’ to the Living in Love and Faith process, the bishops speak of those who ‘might not want to use any of the resources [i.e., the new prayers] on the basis of conscience’ (Overview, p. 2), or for whom ‘the Prayers of Love and Faith will go too far: your consciences and theological convictions will not allow you to use them’ (Full response, p. 3). They go on to speak of ‘the disagreement, in conscience, of those who believe [that the blessing of same-sex couples] compromises the Church’s inherited tradition and teaching’ (Full response, p. 4). Later, it becomes clear that consciences on both sides of the debate are in view, and the bishops speak of the church’s disagreements about same-sex relationships as an ‘area where convictions among us differ, and where it is important to create a generous space for one another’s consciences’ (Full response, pp. 6–7, my emphasis). (There is also another reference to conscience in the bishops’ discussion of celibacy, on p. 16, which is not so relevant for my purposes.)

The picture painted is of a church that will hold together people whose consciences pull them in sharply different directions. It is of a church providing a ‘generous space’ that does not require those pulled in either direction to act directly against their own conscience, but does require them to live and work alongside some whose teachings and practices they find unconscionable.

In this post, I ask both what positive sense we can make of such a ‘generous space’ in the life of the church, and what it might cost to hold that space open.

That question of cost will be central, and I am not talking about some emotionally rewarding meaning of the word, involving humble acceptance or heroic self-sacrifice. I am talking about the harm done by our words and deeds, including to vulnerable people. If we do hold together as a church across our conscientious differences, we should do so with our eyes wide open to these harms, and with a fierce determination to minimise them.

Opposed consciences

There are many shades of opinion across the Church of England about the blessing of same-sex couples, but for simplicity’s sake I will talk for much of this post as if there were simply two opposing sides.

Some Anglicans believe that the blessing of same-sex couples is what Scripture demands, such that to do anything less would be a refusal of God’s command. Others believe that obedience to Scripture demands that we refrain from such blessing, and that to go ahead would be contrary to God’s revealed will.

Saying this much ought not to be controversial. It ought to be so obvious as to be banal, but some readers may already be unconvinced. They may believe that only one side in this debate is really seeking to be obedient to Scripture, and that the other is obviously subordinating Scripture to some other principle or impulse, whether that be ‘cultural accommodation’, or homophobia, or something else.

For myself, I think it clear that there are people on both sides who are sincerely convinced that their approach is demanded of them by Scripture. That is not the same as saying that I think these people are all using Scripture well, or that I think their arguments valid. It is not the same as saying that there are no other factors – psychological, cultural, ideological – shaping their conclusions. I am not, at this point, offering any evaluation of the quality of argument on either side, or of the consequences to which they lead. I am simply saying that on both sides there are people who, standing where they stand and thinking as they think, believe that their stance is required of them by Scripture.

Take me, for instance. I am on the affirming side of this debate. I do not think that the planned Prayers of Love and Faith go far enough, and I long for the day when we can marry same-sex couples in church. This is not something that I believe despite what I read in Scripture. I believe that this is what we are required to do by the gospel of Jesus Christ, as that gospel is revealed to us in Scripture. That is my settled conviction.

People on the opposing side are perfectly entitled to refuse my claims. They may think I have been misled. They may find it hard to see how I can say what I have just said with integrity, or how I can carry on saying it after patient attention to all that Scripture has to say. They may think my arguments invalid. The fact remains: I believe this.

We can say more. People on both sides have paid careful attention to the words of Scripture, over long periods of time. Whether we have done so well or badly, whether we have come to plausible or implausible conclusions, it is a fact that we have paid this attention and that we continue to do so. And, more than that, we have done this reading prayerfully and thoughtfully. We have done it in the context of the church’s tradition of worship. We have done it in the light of belief in the same creeds. Our views have been formed though deliberation, conversation, and argument. Our views are, on both sides, shared by a substantial community of fellow Christians. And even after many years of serious argument, neither side has managed to persuade the other.

We can acknowledge all of this even if we think those who disagree with us thoroughly mistaken, their readings of Scripture unjustified, their views distorted by forces and factors alien to the gospel, their conclusions unsustainable. We can say it even if we think that there are strong arguments for our position, arguments that ought to be convincing to all people of good will and open mind. I am not making a claim about ‘good people on both sides’, nor a claim about the equal validity of different pathways, nor a claim that the views proclaimed on both sides are worthy of admiration or even respect. My claim is much more restricted.

Even this limited claim has important consequences, however. Were anyone to demand that I turn away a same-sex couple from blessing, they would be demanding that I disobey what, with settled, deep and tested conviction, I believe the God of Jesus Christ revealed to us in Scripture is calling us as a church to do. They would be demanding that I betray my conscience. And I recognise that if anyone were to demand that those on the other side of the debate offer such a blessing, they would be demanding of them a similar betrayal.

Freedom of conscience?

This is an important fact, but conscience is no trump card. The fact that people on both sides sincerely regard their position as a matter of conscience does not by itself mean that the church must adopt a settlement accommodating both sides.

As things stand in the Church of England, however, I do think that the creation of ‘a generous space for one another’s consciences’ is our only viable way forward together, for now. That is because we find ourselves, for now, in a situation in which

  • for people on both sides of this debate, their stance is a matter of conscience;
  • those consciences have, on both sides, been shaped by diligent engagement with Scripture (and with tradition and reason);
  • that engagement with Scripture, tradition, and reason has happened in the context of the worship and credal affirmations of the church;
  • it has been careful, prayerful, and thoughtful;
  • people on both sides believe that it has been done in the context of serious pastoral concern for all those affected by the discussion;
  • there is no realistic prospect that, with a bit more time, either side is going to persuade most people on the other;
  • the disagreement between these sides is not simply a matter of scattered individuals versus a broad consensus, but of substantial bodies of Christians on both sides; and
  • we are not yet as a church in a position where a broad consensus has emerged that, however deeply held it might be, one or other of these positions is simply unconscionable.

There is more to say about what one might call the recognisability of each side’s engagement with Scripture – about what it means to be able to make the claims above about diligence, faithfulness, and prayerfulness, when one believes that one’s opponents’ conclusions about Scripture are mistaken. I will return to that topic in another post soon.

Most of the bullet points above are saying, however, that when we talk about conscience in this context, we are not talking about just any deeply held conviction, but about convictions that have been formed in the way that Christian conscience is meant to be formed in our shared tradition.

It is, I think, because we are in a situation in which all these points are true – because we are faced with two substantial bodies within one community, exhibiting different but equally ingrained and well tested forms of conscience, both shaped by long, prayerful, worship-soaked engagement with Scripture – that a settlement which permits freedom of conscience on this matter is called for at present in the Church of England.

The case for such a settlement is made still stronger by the recognition that we are not, in fact, a church divided into two discrete camps. There remain many who stand somewhere in the middle. Their consciences, formed by their own long, prayerful, worship-soaked engagement with Scripture, do not pull them sharply in either direction, and they have not been persuaded that either side is proposing something unconscionable.

A mixed church

The last bullet point above – acknowledging that there is as yet no broad consensus that one stance or the other is simply unconscionable – is crucial.

We are not in a position in which there is one clear, well-formed understanding across the church of what the gospel demands, and then a small minority whose conscience has led them to reject that consensus. Were we in that position, we might draw guidance from Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 5. There, Paul tells the Corinthians ‘not to associate with sexually immoral persons’ (5.9), and even to exclude them for now from their fellowship (5.11, 13). ‘Do you not know’, he says, ‘that a little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough? Clean out the old yeast so that you may be a new batch’ (5.6–7). He can give that instruction, however, only because he expects his addressees to recognise and accept his description of the people in question as ‘sexually immoral’. That is, he presumes a basic level of agreement, and then issues instructions about what should flow from that agreement when there are those who reject it.

We are in a different situation. There is, for us, no such basic agreement. Instead, we are in a situation in which substantial groups within the church are teaching different things – a situation much more like that described in 1 Corinthians 3. It is clear there that factions have arisen in the Corinthian church, beholden to leaders with different teachings. Paul does not take this situation lightly. Earlier, he has appealed to the Corinthians, ‘by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you should be in agreement and that there should be no divisions among you, but that you should be united in the same mind and the same purpose’ (1.10). And he does not present the differing teachings that have arisen amongst the Corinthian factions simply as acceptable variations on the gospel. The differences include matters of truth and error, healthy and diseased growth. Some of what is being taught, he insists, is nothing but ‘wood, hay and straw’ (3.12) – and that does not just mean that these teachings are less robust than the gold, silver and precious stones with which others are building. There are teachings destined for destruction when God’s judgment is revealed against them on the last day. Then ‘the work of each builder will become visible, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each has done’ (3.13). In other words, some of the teachings that Paul sees in the Corinthian church are teachings against which God’s wrath will burn, teachings that will have no place in the kingdom of heaven.

Until the Day of the Lord, however, there can be no separation. It is this whole building – built at present of both straw and gold – of which Paul says, ‘Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?’ (3.16). And having just said that the teacher who builds with materials destined for destruction ‘will be saved, but only as through fire’ (3.15), Paul now says, ‘If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person’ (3.16–17). The one who destroys the temple of God is, it seems, not the one whose teaching is straw, but the one who by ‘jealousy and quarrelling’ (3.3) breaks the fellowship of God’s church.

In the Church of England, we are in a 1 Corinthians 3 situation. We are a church in which different teachers and different groups are building differently on the foundation laid in the gospel. Those differences are far from trivial: some are building with gold and silver, but some with materials destined for destruction. And yet we are in a situation in which, as things stand, the only way to remove the flammable material from our life together would be to divide the church down the middle, destroying the temple of God.

Facing harm

And yet, and yet – it is all too easy to say this glibly, and to let a rhetorical flourish in favour of unity drown out the real difficulty of what is being proposed.

If we do, as a church, opt for a settlement that permits freedom of conscience on this matter – permitting some to offer blessings to same-sex couples, and some to refuse – that should not be mistaken for easy tolerance, making space for cheerful coexistence.

Consider how it looks from my side. A central strand of my support for the affirming position comes from the harm I see being done to many LGBTQIA+ people by the church’s current teaching and practice. My desire to see the church develop new practice – and, as a bare minimum, to adopt these Prayers of Love and Faith – is rooted in my understanding of how the God of Jesus Christ witnessed to authoritatively in Scripture calls the church to respond to such suffering.

I am convinced of this, even though I know that those who disagree will interpret the evidence of harm differently, and will disagree sharply with the response that I claim is necessary.

This means, however, that permitting freedom of conscience on this question means two different things to me.

Positively, asking the church to permit the blessing of same-sex couples is not simply a matter of acknowledging a spectrum of permissible teaching. It is a matter of allowing a significant part of the church freedom to respond to a situation of suffering that, in all conscience, we find intolerable, and that we regard it as our gospel-driven, scripturally mandated calling to address. Freedom for us to follow our consciences here is freedom to repent of something we regard as a grave sin in the life of the church.

Negatively, however, freedom of conscience in this context also means freedom for those who take the opposing view. And so, from my point of view, allowing such freedom of conscience also means allowing the persistence of teachings and practices that I believe are sinful – teachings and practices that I believe do real harm.

When I say ‘harm’ here, I am talking about patterns of teaching and behaviour that drive people away from Jesus, and that do real psychological and physical damage. I am talking about patterns of teaching and behaviour that kill.

I also acknowledge that I am talking about forms of harm that do not threaten me personally. I am a straight, cis man in a heterosexual marriage, and the worst I have to face is people disagreeing with my opinions or getting cross about the work I do to advocate for them. The harm that I am talking about falls almost entirely on others, many of whom have already been asked to bear too much. I have no right to speak glibly about such harm, nor to minimise it in any way.

I do think that our current situation as a church calls for freedom of conscience on this matter. But I can’t regard that as anything more than a tragic, temporary necessity. And I say even this reluctantly because I will not be the one to bear the cost, and I’m not sure my voice should have much weight in arguments for or against it. I say what I say only because I think it may be the best we can currently do. I fear that, if we don’t do this, we will do something even worse.

I also acknowledge that many on the other side will think something that closely parallels this, except that their concern will be for the consequences of permitting freedom of conscience for the affirming side. They may think that the affirming position does real harm to people’s health, wellbeing, and perhaps eternal salvation. They may consider this a high price to pay for freedom of conscience, and if they accept such freedom it may well be with a reluctance that echoes my own.

Walking together?

To accept freedom of conscience in this area is not, then, the same as demanding that each of us accept the other’s conclusions or arguments. It is not the same as affirming that both sides are setting out acceptable and habitable versions of the Christian faith – two different but valid integrities. It is not the same as learning to see our differences as part of the wonderful diversity of God’s creation.

Each side might well continue believing that the other’s stance is not only mistaken, but contrary to God’s will. We may continue to believe that the other side’s teaching and practice does real harm, to them and to others, including to many who are vulnerable. We may continue to believe that such harm is unacceptable, and that it has no place in the kingdom of God.

To accept freedom of conscience in this area, therefore, does not require either side to give up the long effort to persuade the other. It does not involve either side giving up on the hope of securing a broad enough consensus in the church finally to rule the other side’s stance out of bounds. It does not mean that we have accepted this settlement as permanent.

And accepting freedom of conscience in this area must not mean that we stop looking for ways to keep people as safe as we can from the harm that may follow from this ‘generous space for one another’s consciences’. It makes it all the more urgent that we look for ways of keeping people safe, and of responding to ongoing harm with whatever protection and healing we can. That is the least we can do, if this ‘generous space for one another’s consciences’ is, for now, the best that we can do.

Walking away or staying put?

For some on both sides, the only way to stay safe from this harm, and the only way to keep others safe, will be to walk away. I don’t fault those LGBTQIA+ people and allies who find that they can no longer remain in the Church of England, and who for their own safety and flourishing find some other part of God’s church in which to rest. Walking away from the Church of England need not mean walking away from the church. It certainly need not mean walking away from Christ.

Neither, however, can I fault those who choose to stay. I am one of them. From where I currently stand, I don’t see that walking away would do much good. It would not stop conservative churches teaching what they teach and practicing what they practice. I suspect that it would, in fact, insulate that teaching and practice from further challenge, and help to cement it in place. It might make it harder for LGBTQIA+ people in those churches to find their way to help. It might force churches that have been muddling along somewhere in the middle of these debates, and that might have been edging in a more affirming direction, to retreat. It would, ultimately, renounce the hope that one day the Church of England as a whole will become affirming.

I recognise that many on the conservative side may have similar reasons for not walking away. They may hope that they can protect people from the error into which they believe those of us on the affirming side have fallen, and they may believe themselves called to continue fighting for the church as a whole to recognise the truth as they understand.

Other factors

There are two other things I want to say in this regard. The first is negative. It seems clear that, for the Church of England to break apart would be a damaging and painful process, likely to drag on for decades and to reverberate for longer. I believe it would be a process in which a lot of people would be harmed.

I say this only cautiously, however, because I certainly don’t want to suggest that the ongoing pain of LGBTQIA+ people in the church is a price worth paying for the avoidance of this other kind of pain. I am not proposing any such horrific bargain.

The second point is more positive. Those with whom I disagree are not defined solely by the respects in which I disagree with them – and I hope that they might be able to say the same of me and those with whom I agree. However deep our disagreements, there remain things we can learn from one another, gifts we can give and receive across the barriers between us, and areas in which we might be able to work fruitfully together.

Here again, however, I say this cautiously: I don’t think this is a good for which we should be willing to throw LGBTQIA+ people under the bus.

The points I am making here are therefore secondary. If we judge that walking together, despite our deep differences, is the best that we can do at present, including being the best we can currently do for the LGBTQIA+ people who are part of our church, then it is worth noting that such walking together might also make possible the avoidance of these other harms, and the realisation of these other goods.

I must, however, add a caveat even to these hedged-about claims. If we do pursue such a settlement, we must not continue to force LGBTQIA+ people into dialogue or engagement with those whose teaching and practice does them harm, as if that were a positive way of expressing our togetherness. If our remaining together does make possible some goods, our accessing of those goods will need to be negotiated around the need to protect the LGBTQIA+ members of our body. It must not be allowed to override that protection.

A broken church

My argument has, I know, become clotted, in a way that reflects a genuine difficulty to this subject matter. To be a church shaped by freedom of conscience of this kind is no simple thing. It is not a simple matter of celebrating our diversity and enjoying the rich fellowship that can be shared across our differences. It involves real danger of harm. It demands of us that we learn how to navigate around that danger as best we can. It involves negotiating a deep brokenness in the Body of Christ.

It is possible to talk about living with brokenness in a way that makes one sound rather noble. One can aestheticize it, as if it were like preferring the poetry of R.S. Thomas to that of Pam Ayres. And yet we are not talking about a willingness to endure an aesthetically astringent bleakness, but about persisting with a church that can do real harm to vulnerable people. We are talking about allowing that harm to continue, because we can’t yet see how to do less harm together.

Such a settlement may, at present, be the best that we can do. I believe that it is. None of us, however, should make peace with it, or face away from what it will cost. We are, for the time being, a broken church.

Questioning the “Ministers’ Consultation Response”

Recently, ‘Over 2500 Christian Ministers and Pastoral Workers’ signed a public response to the government’s consultation on the proposed ban of Conversion Therapies.

The response takes the form of a letter and an accompanying ‘background and analysis’ report. They express the concern that, as currently framed, the proposed ban will (perhaps inadvertently) have the effect of criminalising some ‘normal practices of religion’, in which Christian ministers and parents seek to persuade people to follow common Christian moral teachings.

To anyone who knows me well, it will come as no surprise to find that I disagree with almost everything the letter and report say about gender and sexuality, and their place in Christian morality. In this post, however, it is not my intention to pursue those debates, nor to speak only to those who might take my side in them. My purpose here is much more limited. It is to make a set of claims that I believe might in principle be recognised and accepted even by those who agree with the broad thrust of the theology expressed in the letter and report.

My argument is that (perhaps inadvertently) the letter and report could have the effect of

  • protecting clearly abusive behaviour not just from criminalisation but from censure;
  • promoting ways of thinking that can be used to justify such abuse;
  • making it harder for those who have suffered and are suffering from such abuse to have their testimonies and cries for help taken seriously; and
  • encouraging those who hear such testimonies and cries to blame the victims of this abuse rather than the perpetrators.

These are strong claims, but I will back them up below.

To be clear: my claims are about the words in the letter and the report, not about the authors’ intentions or motivations, still less those of the many signatories. The words the authors have produced are, as they stand, dangerous. They have the capacity to do harm. The authors may not intend this harm; they may not even have seen that their words could be taken this way. Nevertheless, once the danger posed by their words has been pointed out, they have a responsibility to mitigate it. I will therefore argue that those responsible for these words should withdraw or revise what they have written, and that, until they do so, all those who have signed the letter should distance themselves from it.

Note on references: Quotes referenced by a page number are from the letter; those referenced by a paragraph number are from the accompanying report. 

Testimonies of abuse

One of the main drivers for the proposed ban on Conversion Therapy is the weight of testimony from people who have been through such therapies, and who have experienced significant psychological or emotional harm. It is not hard to find such testimonies; large numbers are available in the public domain, as a quick Google search will reveal. They vary widely, both in the descriptions they give of what people underwent, and in their accounts of the damaging done.

There is a lot that, in another context, I would want to say about these testimonies. I would want to make stronger claims in relation to them than I shall here. In the context of this post, however, I will restrict myself to the following minimal claim: There are people – a considerable number – who have been harmed by some practices of Christian ministry that seek to change their sexual orientation or their experience of gender. I am not here talking about those who have experienced physical coercion and abuse (though there are such cases). I am talking about those who have experienced practices of ministry that were emotionally manipulative, that have had deep effects on their mental and physical well-being, and that amounted to psychological abuse.

(For an initial definition of ‘psychological abuse’, see the Church of England’s fact sheet, ‘Types of Abuse’, §3.3.)

The questions I have in mind as I approach the letter and report are: How do this letter and report encourage us to respond to people who have experienced this kind of abuse? And how might they encourage their readers to respond to someone who in future raises a safeguarding concern of this nature? These questions are at the centre of this debate.

Denying the problem

The first response that I find in the letter and accompanying report is denial: denial that such abuse exists, or that it constitutes a serious problem.

The report does raise the possibility that such abuse exists. ‘If there is firm evidence of a real and current problem with coercive and abusive therapies, not covered by existing law,’ the authors say, ‘we have no problem with legislating against them’ (§4, emphasis mine.) Elsewhere, however, this possibility is not taken seriously. The letter suggests that the problem that the proposed ban is trying to tackle is one of ‘evil and disreputable past practices which are already illegal and which Christians are the first to condemn’ (p. 1; my emphasis). The report suggests that it is one of ‘disreputable, cruel and thoroughly unchristian practices of some quack therapies in the past’ (§2; my emphasis). I can find no direct acknowledgement in the letter or the report that there is any current problem in Christian contexts.

The implicit but clear response to those who testify that they have recently experienced abuse, or those who cry out because they are still experiencing it, or any who raise safeguarding concerns in this area in the future, is that they are wrong. There is no serious problem here that needs facing and addressing. It is all in the past.

Claiming compassion

One possible response to the claim I have just made would be to note that, although there is no direct acknowledgment that people in the present are suffering psychological abuse as a result of Christian ministry in this area, there are several references to the idea that such Christian ministry should be ‘loving, compassionate’ (p. 2), and conducted ‘with gentleness and respect’ (p. 1). Doesn’t that implicitly acknowledge, and rule out, forms of ministry that are unloving and lacking in compassion – forms that are abusive and coercive?

Reference to love and compassion could have allowed the authors of the letter to call out patterns of ministry that are emotionally manipulative and damaging in precisely the way that many victims have described. The authors could have used an insistence upon compassion and gentleness to acknowledge and distance themselves from such abusive and coercive practices. As the report goes on, however, it becomes clear that the language of love and compassion are working quite differently.

First, it is claimed that this love, compassion, gentleness and respect already characterise the churches – at least, those churches whose ministers have signed the letter, or that agree with the teachings set out in the report. ‘We always seek to act in love, with gentleness and respect, for the good of all, and never with any form of coercion or control’ (p.1). This language is deployed in such a way as to suggest that there are no serious failings in love, compassion and gentleness in our churches. It is not deployed in such a way as to encourage us to be on the lookout for such failures, or to devote any energy to rooting them out. The talk of love and compassion is not allowed to disturb the insistence that coercion and abuse are safely past, and already safely condemned.

Second, when the report does call out any actions as unloving, they are not the patterns of ministry named in the testimonies of victims. What is ‘supremely compassionate’ (§9), according to the authors, is to pass on the kind of teachings that the letter and report sets out. What is ‘terribly harmful’ (p. 1) is to go against those teachings. And that is all the content given here to either ‘compassion’ or ‘harm’.

I am not here mounting the argument that the authors are wrong to call their teachings compassionate, and the rejection of those teachings harmful. That is an argument I am more than willing to make – but it is an argument for a different day. My concern today is much more specific: it is that, as far as I can see, this is the only kind of harm that the letter and report acknowledge as a danger faced in this area of contemporary Christian ministry.

In other words: far from qualifying what I said earlier, the language of love and compassion is used in the report in such a way that it reinforces its denial that there is a problem of coercive or abusive Christian ministry to tackle in this area.

Raising the stakes

There is a third problem with the idea that the letter and report’s talk of love and compassion qualifies its implicit denial of claims about abuse. As noted, the report claims that ‘Living by, teaching and helping people to follow God’s pattern of marriage is a supremely compassionate thing to do’ (§9). The compassion involved is, as the authors present it, one of rescuing people from a terrible and deadly mistake. The rhetoric of the report is stark.

In relation to gender transition, for instance, the authors are clear that they see themselves as trying to avoid actions that are ‘exceptionally damaging’ (§30), a matter of ‘irreversible damage’ (§30), and tantamount to ‘an appalling crime’ (§31). In the light of that ‘we will do all that is in our power to encourage young people away from’ gender transition’ (§30, my emphasis).

These phrases are deeply chilling, especially in the current climate. One need only consider what is happening in Texas, for instance, to understand how very threatening they sound. 

My point here, however, is this. The stakes, as the authors present them, are very high indeed. The harms that they believe they are seeking to avoid are so serious that they demand strenuous and uncompromising action – and the strenuous and uncompromising nature of this action is precisely what compassion requires. The question is bound, then, to arise: What limits might there be on appropriate action in this area? If, as you see it, you are trying to rescue someone from an ‘appalling crime’, what forms of persuasion are really off limits for you?

Christian leaders are, according to the letter and the report, to ‘urge and assist’ (p. 1), ‘to persuade, to teach and to help’ (p. 2), to ‘teach and train’ (§5). These are part of the ‘normal practice of religion’ (p. 1). Yet I can see no acknowledgment here that these normal practices can and do sometimes take forms that are emotionally manipulative and psychologically abusive – and that they can take these forms, at times, precisely because those engaged in them believe the stakes to be so high, and believe that the primary demand of compassion is that they try ever harder in their urging, persuading and training.

There is no acknowledgment here that, if you make such strong claims about how much this ministry is needed, you need to make claims no less strong about the dangers that attend such zeal, about the need for protection against those dangers, and so about the need for strict limits upon the forms that such ministry can properly take.

Dismissing feelings

At various points, the authors speak dismissively of ‘feelings’. They believe in a God-given plan for people’s identities and relationships, and they present those who disagree with them as believing that ‘their identity is found purely in their feelings’ (p. 1) – their ‘subjective feelings and attractions’ (§11; cf. §18). They make clear that they believe such feelings to be insubstantial and potentially deceitful, and that following God’s plan is likely to involve denying them (§9).

The problem is that this way of talking about feelings provides a framework, whether deliberately or inadvertently, for dismissing claims of psychological abuse. Such abuse is, after all, in significant part abuse carried out in the realm of feelings.

The picture painted in the letter and report is one in which Christian ministers are trying – in their urging, persuading, and training – to convey certain Christian truths, and in which the main thing standing against those truths is ‘subjective feeling’. If that is the framing you have internalised, then when a recipient of such urging, persuading and training reports an experience of emotional manipulation or psychological harm, you will have an easy response ready to hand: ‘That is just your feelings.’ And feelings, in this picture, often need to be overridden, at any cost.

There are significant problems with the way the report uses this language of feelings. It seems to me, for instance, to be a thoroughly inadequate way of talking about the deep-seated patterns of experience involved in gender identity and sexuality. On another occasion, I have also written about the strange dualism involved in the contrast between biology and feelings that the authors deploy. For my present purposes, however, all of that can be left to one side.

My claim here is much more limited: it is that the letter and report provide no counterbalance to the idea that negative reactions to the urging, persuading and training employed by Christian ministers are simply a matter of subjective feelings, and that such feelings have no real weight – or that they are no more than evidence of sinful resistance to the truth. In this framework, it becomes all but impossible to take seriously the idea that such ministry might cause deep psychological harm.

Insisting on malleability

There is one last area that I want to consider, but this one is a bit messier than the others. The phrase ‘Conversion Therapy’ refers to interventions based on the idea that someone’s sexuality or gender identity – or the deep-seated patterns of experience and desire that those terms are used to name – can and should be changed. The process involved is supposed to prompt or produce that change, or be the context in which it is asked for, expected, and welcomed. Such activities are the focus of attempts to outlaw Conversion Therapy, and the heart of many of the testimonies of harm with which I began.

Confusingly, there seem to be two different responses to this basic idea woven into the report. One, fairly conventional in discussions of this kind, distinguishes between identity and behaviour. Along this line, the key claim is that normal Christian ministry is not focused on trying to change the deep-seated patterns of feeling and experience that we might call ‘identity’, but on changing the behaviour that might flow from them. It is how someone acts on their desires and their feelings that matters, and that is the focus of Christian ministry. Along this line, the teaching and urging of Christian ministers is focused on helping people be obedient to Christian teachings as presented in this report, regardless of how they feel about them (§13).

A second strand of the report focuses instead on the underlying patterns of desire and experience. The authors take time to state that neither sexual orientation nor gender identity is ‘an innate aspect of personhood’ (§17); they are a matter, instead, of ‘subjective feelings’ which the authors are confident are not innate (§18). I am not sure why the authors stress this, unless they want to convey that these underlying patterns of desire and experience are malleable, and that seeking to change them can be a meaningful object of Christian ministry.

The crux of this ambiguity lies in paragraph 26 of the report. On the one hand, that paragraph states unequivocally that the authors ‘do not have any “therapy” to offer’ that could change sexual orientation or change people ‘to or from being transgender’. Hearteningly, they say ‘nor do we approve of the attempt’. One might think, therefore, that (as they suggest in §4) they are open to a ban on Conversion Therapy, including in the context of contemporary Christian ministry, if the focus of the ban on such attempts could be more precisely expressed. There are some other parts of the letter and report that could be read in that way: it is, after all, only a plea that that the government’s proposals will be dropped ‘in their current form’ (p. 2).

Yet what is given with one hand seems to be taken away with the other. In the same paragraph, they say that they ‘do not define people in these terms’. That seems to be a reference back to the claim that patterns of desire and experience that people are referring to when they speak about ‘sexuality’ or ‘gender identity’ are not innate. And I am not sure what the point is of repeating that insistence here, unless it is to suggest that the language about changing sexual orientation or gender identity simply doesn’t apply to Christian ministry, even when that ministry is oriented towards the transformation of the deep patterns of someone’s desires and experience – because the Christian ministers involved don’t believe that those deep patterns amount to something innate called ‘sexual orientation’ or ‘gender identity’. And there are other parts of the letter and report – most of those that I have cited above – that appear to reinforce this reading of the paragraph.


In the light of all that, I believe some urgent clarification and restatement is needed. To echo the letter’s own words, ‘I very much hope (and pray) that these documents will be dropped in their current form.’

I very much hope that the authors and their supporters can state more clearly and forcefully their briefly mentioned disapproval of attempts to change the deep-seated patterns of desire and experience referred to by the language of ‘sexuality’ and ‘gender identity’.

I hope they can clearly acknowledge the existence in the present of emotionally and psychologically abusive forms of Christian ministry in this area, decry the harm that they do, and state their resolute opposition to the continuation of such harm.

I hope they can make clear that those who testify to having endured such abuse, or who raise safeguarding concerns in this area, should be listened to, and their accusations taken with full seriousness, even when that means taking a hard look at forms of Christian ministry that align with the theology expressed in this letter and report.

All of this is needed because, whatever the intentions of its authors and the signatories, this response as it stands is dangerous. If taken seriously in its current form, it will make it harder for those who report emotional or psychological abuse in this context to be heard. It will encourage people not to take the testimonies of such victims seriously, and to blame those victims themselves for the psychological harm that they have suffered. It will encourage Christian ministers to think it their duty to urge and persuade people at all costs, and to dismiss the emotional toll of their actions as mere ‘subjective feelings’. It will make it all too easy for those who call out such abuse to be painted as enemies of the gospel. It will encourage people to defend those who are accused of such coercion as if they were defending the gospel.

The Ministers’ Consultation Response is, as it stands, a charter for abuse.

Making our minds up

Why can’t Justin Welby make his mind up?

I am referring, of course, to the recent interview with Welby in GQ, in which he was asked by Alastair Campbell whether gay sex was sinful. He said, ‘I haven’t got a good answer to the question. I’ll be really honest about that. I know I haven’t got a good answer to the question. ‘ And a little later, asked whether one aspect of his answer was ‘morally a cop out’, he answered, ‘Yes. I am copping out because I am struggling with the issue.’

Inevitably, the publication of this interview generated a lot of comment. Among those who (predictably) disagreed with the substance of Welby’s comments, and those who (predictably) were disappointed that he wasn’t giving a stronger lead in one direction or another, and those who (predictably) disparaged his wisdom in agreeing to the interview in the first place, there were several responses that caught my eye. They came from people who were incredulous that Welby had not yet made up his mind.

That indicates, they suggested, a worrying lack of seriousness, of effort, of diligence; it suggests he’s not given the topic the attention one would expect – especially from someone who has ended up as Archbishop. Why has he not already made his mind up?

And – for reasons I’m about to explain – I find those reactions odd.

Now, I know Welby a bit, and have  over the past few years had opportunities to talk to him about quite a few topics, but (as far as I can recall) I have never talked to him about this one – and I have absolutely no extra information to pass on about his thinking. This post contains no revelations about the archiepiscopal mind. Indeed, it is not really about Welby at all. It’s about the state of the Church of England, and the difficulties we all face in making up our collective mind.

Ways of making up our minds

We have particular ways of making up our minds. There are things we find salient, and things that we don’t; there are things that make a difference to how we think and feel about something, and things that don’t. Some of this is conscious: we have particular ways in which we think things through. Some of it even includes explicit arguments: we have certain kinds of reasons we acknowledge, certain kinds of argumentative moves we habitually make. There are ways of talking about matters that make sense to us, and that can reinforce our position or sway us – and there are ways of talking that can’t. We have ways of making up our minds.

The problem is that in the Church of England we don’t share a single way of making up our minds. This is not a new situation; it has very deep historical roots. Nor is it by any means unique to the Church of England; it’s pervasive in church history. It is nevertheless a deep feature of our current situation. We inhabit a set of different ways of making up our minds (you could call them theological traditions, or traditions of argument, if you like – but only at the risk of making them sound more formal, explicit and organised than they typically are).

The actual picture is very messy, but a plausibly simplified version would suggest that the Church consists of several such ‘ways’ or ‘traditions’, sitting alongside one another. The considerations that are telling for members of one such way might not be for members of another; the arguments that seem natural in one seem forced or irrelevant in another – and so on. Our problem is not just that we come to differing conclusions (though we obviously do that); it’s that we reach them in such differing ways.

Crucially, there is no meta-tradition, no meta-way. That is, there is no overarching ‘way of making up our minds’ that we can appeal to when members of differing ways come to different conclusions. Our deepest disagreements can’t be resolved by our normal ways of making up our minds, because we are in part disagreeing about how we should make up our minds.

Yes, we have all sorts of things in common still – all sorts of shared ideas and practices, so that it is not at all ridiculous to say that we share a common life. But that doesn’t mean we share ways of making up our minds when faced with disagreement.

Living in between

This picture is too simple of course. I’ve spoken as if there were neat divisions into which everyone in the Church could be sorted: either you’re a member of one ‘way’ or you’re a member of another. But many people (perhaps most?) actually inhabit the grey areas between ways. They are aware of, they are schooled in, they are formed to recognise differing ways of making up their minds, and most of the time they are not pressed to see the incompatibilities between them or to worry about how to resolve questions where these different ways yield different answers. It takes a deep controversy to bring these fractures to the surface – to turn this complex inhabitation of multiple ways into a felt perplexity.

Diligent effort to make up one’s mind makes sense only within a way. It makes sense within a way to look harder and more seriously at the things that are salient, to follow the proper patterns of argument more carefully. But, in the absence of a meta-way, there is no form of diligence that can lead to resolution if one inhabits multiple ways, and have discovered that they yield divergent answers to a pressing question. The intellectually responsible reaction in such a situation is – bewilderment.

To urge someone to resolve such perplexity by an act of will, as if what is needed is simply a stiffening of sinews, might make sense if that person mostly inhabits a single way – if one way has, in effect, become that person’s home. They might then steel themselves to throw off the tendrils of the other ways that they have also inhabited – which they can now, in some situation of controversy, see, and recognise as alien to their proper ‘way’. But that relies on being pretty firmly situated within a single way. It makes no sense to demand it of someone poised between ways.

I have no idea whether Welby’s perplexity is of this form. But if it is, it would not be lack of diligence, or weakness of will, that is his problem. His perplexity would be a reflection of the deeper perplexity of the Church of England – a perplexity for which there is no simple cure.

Arguments between ways

This perplexity is reflected in various features of our arguments as a Church, many of which are frustrating and dispiriting. Some of the frustration that our arguments produce flows from our failures to acknowledge, or to know how to respond to, the diversity of our ways of making up our mind.

So, half aware that someone else’s way is not my way, I may end up arguing on what I take to be that other person’s grounds. And quite often, I will therefore end up arguing in a way that lacks integrity – in the sense that nothing really rests for me on the arguments that I have put forward. My arguments do not reflect the way I actually made up my mind about these things, so my position is not going to be disturbed by their defeat. To my opponents, I will seem to have a position supported only weakly, and when I hop to another set of borrowed arguments I will seem to be slippery, to be inconsistent and perhaps dishonest. I will certainly seem to lack seriousness: I will seem all to clearly not to be fully committed to the argumentative game that I have joined.

We carry on as if we had a shared tradition of argument, while actually lacking one. We carry on as if there were knock-down arguments (the kind of argument that will lead one’s opponent into one’s own position, if only they are diligent and serious enough to follow it), when in fact there are none. And as we do so, we become more and more convinced of each other’s obtuesness and lack of integrity –  because that is what arguing across divisions between ways typically produces.

Nil desperandum

This is, nevertheless, not a counsel of despair. There remain forms  of conversation possible in such a situation (especially if we acknowledge that this is our situation) – though they are both harder and yield fruit more slowly than the knock-down arguments possible within a shared way.  There remain ways of swaying one another, and seeking greater agreement. The answer is not simply to stop talking, or blandly to agree to differ.

More than that, there are still ways of understanding our life as a shared life, despite such disagreements as these – indeed, of recognising that the church has always been marked by this kind of disagreement. To recognise the deep differences in our ways of making up our minds does not mean declaring de facto schism.

Nevertheless, all this might make one look at the present argumentative landscape of the Church of England with weary bemusement – and it can definitely give a certain eager edge to the hope that we might, in time, learn to disagree better.

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.