Desire and Discipline

This is the third of my posts on the Faith and Order Commission’s report, Men and Women in Marriage. See the first and second. I’m planning one more, on procreation, at some point in the next couple of weeks.

1. The Argument of the Report

I said last time that the heart of the report – and the aspect of it that I most wanted to affirm – was its claim that flourishing human life requires an attentive response to our bodiliness. In that sense, flourishing human life involves working with what we are given. So far, I have focused on what the report has to say about what it is that we have been given; I now want to focus on what it says about how we work with that given material.

The report presents marriage not as a static fact, but as a form of patient labour and slow growth, in which the participants and the relationship between them can be transformed. And it describes this labour, growth and transformation in the language of Christian discipleship. It speaks of ‘The “hallowing and right direction of natural instincts and affections”’ (§36, quoting Canon B30). It says that the disciplines of married life ‘are not a mere constraint, a form we must accept and conform to somehow’, but that instead marriage ‘is a “vocation to holiness”, a path of discipleship by which we are opened to the life of the Spirit of God in the context of material existence’ (§30, quoting Resolution 113 of the 1958 Lambeth conference).

The fullest expression of this strand of the report comes in its discussion of the sacramental nature of marriage. It quotes the Common Worship marriage service to the effect that ‘as man and woman grow together in love and trust, they shall be united with one another in heart, body and mind, as Christ is united with his bride, the Church’ (§39) and then expands that to say, ‘The encounter of man and woman in marriage affords an image, then, of the knowledge and love of God, to which all humans are summoned, and of the self-giving of the Son of God which makes it possible’ (§40). A little earlier, it had spoken of marriage attaining ‘a permanence which could speak to the world of God’s own love’ and of this as a matter of our species’ ‘spiritual vocation’ (§33).

In other words, marriage can be a means by which human beings learn to embody and to communicate God’s love – in fact, marriage can be a sharing in, a participation in, a love that is prior to it: God’s own Christlike love. God’s love is marriage’s context and goal, and that love therefore defines marriage. Marriage is, fundamentally, ordered towards Christlike love.

2. Evaluation

a. Affirmation

The central idea here is one I want to affirm, enthusiastically and insistently. We are not simply called to live in attentive response to our bodiliness, but to live in attentive response to our bodiliness in the light of God’s love for the world in Jesus Christ. Christian ethics, that is, is not simply about conformity to creation, but about participation in redemption – though to put it this way is already to divide these two aspects too sharply. Redemption is the fulfilment of creatureliness, so that the route to true response to our created nature is by participation in redemption. Redemption does not abolish or override but brings to fruition our creatureliness. Creation and covenant belong together, because the Creator is also the Redeemer.

The call to live in response to out created natures is not, therefore, to be thought of primarily as the imposing of a constraint – an imprisoning within a static given that can only curtail our freedom. It is the call to discover together the possibilities of growth and transformation that our created natures give us, the particular forms of flourishing that they make possible – and to discover the particular ways in which we, as these particular bodies, can become by the Spirit’s work conformed to Christ, and so become particular icons of God’s love, communicating that love in a way that no other bodies could.

And that transformation is rightly thought of as a matter of discipline – but the discipline in question is that of a craft, working with the grain of the material at hand to make something beautiful, something that speaks ever more clearly of God’s love. It is a transformation that happens under the discipline of the material and under the discipline of the word that we are called to let that material speak, the word of love – and it is rightly seen as a matter of spiritual discipline, and of growth in holiness.

b. Questions

I think this strand of the report has a great deal going for it.  I do, however, have one big question and one big caution in relation to it. The question is, ‘Why isn’t this theology of transformation the heart of the report? Why isn’t the report arranged around this as its centre?’ The caution is, ‘Isn’t this language of discipline nevertheless rather dangerous, in this context?’

It may seem, for the next few paragraphs, as if I’ve turned away from this agenda to something more technical and methodological. There’s some truth in that, even though all the questions I pose in this post are really versions of that one central question that I’ve just mentioned. Nevertheless, if you’re not interested in the pros and cons of the report’s adoption of a ‘natural law’ approach to ethics, you might want to skip ahead to the next section – the one headed ‘The Sharp End’.

(1) The fact that Christian ethics is a matter of creation and redemption poses a question about method. The report answers this question in one specific way. The appeal to natural law, to the apparent facts of biology as confirmed by history, does nearly all the work in establishing the ethical guidance that the report gives. Discussion of what can be made of all that we are given – or, better, of what God, by Word and Spirit, can make of all this – takes up a secondary place. That is why the argument about natural order takes centre stage, and the argument about love can only play a supporting role.

In approaching its subject matter this way, the report stakes out one controversial option amongst the ways in which Christians have argued about ethics – even amongst the ways in which Anglicans have argued about ethics – and it declares in effect that this is obviously the proper Anglican form of ethical argument in this area. Yet there are other ways of approaching these questions, and this decision does have important consequences – such as the relegation of love to the ‘also starring’ credits.

It is perfectly possible to be no less committed than this report to the continuity of creation and redemption, and yet to be much less confident that we can know the order of creation – ‘nature’ – independently of the gospel. That is, it is possible to be no less committed to the continuity of creation and redemption, and yet to insist that here too we must resolve to know nothing but Christ and him crucified – and that we will only discover what our ‘nature’ is as we learn how our lives can be taken up and transformed so as to speak of God’s Christlike love. Our nature simply is the particular possibility that we have been given of communicating the love of God, and we discover it as we discover how to communicate that love.

So this is another item on the agenda for our deliberation posed by this report. What are the implications of placing ‘natural law’ arguments centre stage – and is that really a stance we have taken because we as a church have settled to our corporate satisfaction that this is the best way to proclaim the gospel?

(I should point out, before anyone gets too excited, that there can be versions of a natural law approach that lead to conservative conclusions, and versions that lead to liberal conclusions, and that there can be versions of a more love-centred ethic that lead to conservative conclusions, and versions that lead to liberal conclusions. The difference between these approaches does not map in any simple way on to the difference between liberal and conservative – which to my mind makes it a debate even more worth having.)

(2) Let me offer one specific way of focusing this broader question in relation to this report. What does the recognition of Jesus as the image of God do to our reading of male and female as the image of God? Does it supplement it or relativise it?

If we tend more towards the latter (and, yes, of course the range of options here is very much more complex than my simple binary suggests), might we be rather less ready to valorise the heterosexual couple as the normative form of human life (speaking of it as so easily as the ‘paradigm of society’)?

On the one hand, might we not instead tend to valorise celibacy – and regard (with St Paul) all marriage as some kind of ‘pastoral accommodation’? On the other, might we take the Body of Christ, the community of disciples caught up on the journey of discipleship and united in love, as the proper Christian ‘paradigm of society’ – and order our thinking about other human institutions, including marriage and the family, around that centre?

These sound like rhetorical questions, but they’re not really; the answer to each of them is quite likely to be a genuine, ‘Well, it’s complicated . . .’ And I realise that a public report is not the place to try to go into many of these complications. But if we ask what agenda the report sets for further deliberation, I think these questions need to be on the table – and possibly rather more prominent on the table than questions about biology.

The Sharp End

As I mentioned, my other worry about the report’s approach comes from a rather different direction (though it will ultimately leave us in much the same place).

If we do want to say that the transformation to which we are called is a matter of discipline, we will need to proceed with real caution – because this is an area in which we in the church have been all too ready to impose discipline, in ways that have done anything but lead to flourishing.

Our approaches to sexuality, to marriage, to ministry, to discipleship, to every area of life, have been distorted by the idea that it is above all women’s unruly power that needs controlling for the sake of good order – and we have justified that discipline by appeals to nature and to history. There is hardly any form of discipline – physical, social, mental – that we have not inflicted on women in our supposed pursuit of holiness. That history of such misbegotten discipline is far from over – and that’s the context in which we write our reports.

Our approaches to gender have been marred by our willingness to discipline those who do not conform to our expected patterns of ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’. We have exercised that discipline in forms destructive for both men and women, even if the forms of harm we have created have not been identical. (Part of the damage inflicted on men has involved our being given forms of freedom and power that we should not have, and that is certainly not the same as being denied forms of freedom and power that we should have – but it is still a distortion, a constriction upon true flourishing.) I have two children, a boy and a girl, and it is all too distressingly evident that they are living in the midst of an immensely complex and sophisticated machinery that squeezes them into specific gender roles, and doles out rewards for conformity and punishments for erring. This discipline is not a distant fact of history or of other cultures, it is here, all around us, and its strength is not obviously weakening. That’s the context in which we write our reports.

Our approaches to biological sexual differentiation have been marred by our willingness to enact discipline upon the bodies of those who do not conform to our biological templates for ‘male’ and ‘female’. We have been willing to enact our discipline on the minds, the appearance, the behaviours, and the relationships of intersexed persons – and, surgically, on their bodies. We have denied their existence as we have drawn our maps of sexual difference, and built our gendered culture – and, again, this is not a fact about long ago and far away, but is what we do now. (Go and read Susannah Cornwall’s critique of this very report, especially her last three paragraphs, if you want an illustration.) That’s the context into which we send our reports.

If we are going to talk about the disciplining of desire, the ‘hallowing and right direction of natural instincts and affections’, the ongoing patient transformation of what we have been given, we will need to tread with real and visible trepidation.

That does not mean that I am advocating an abandonment of all talk of discipline. It does not mean that I am giving up on all talk of what might actually be demanded of as as disciples, or all talk of obedience. But it does mean that I believe that I should be very wary of talking about that discipline in such a way that the hammer blow clearly falls first on those people over there, whereas I barely need to worry about whether it affects me.

I am, after all, a white, male, heterosexual, married, middle class, middle aged westerner with two children, a large income, and a Skoda estate. The closest I’ve been to being in a marginalised group was being a Mac user back before the advent of the iMac. I think it’s probably a good rule of thumb to say that I shouldn’t start talking about the spiritual disciplining of desire unless it’s clear that this discipline is going to be as much of a challenge for me as it is for anyone else. Otherwise, I’ll be like someone reading Romans 1 without realising that it leads straight on into Romans 2.

And that is why I think that the report actually points the right way forward here, albeit with a slightly shaking finger, when it turns to this talk about love. It suggests that the primary form of discipline we should be talking about is the discipline of love – the discipline by which we come to participate in and communicate Christlike love, the mutual love of disciples.

The discipline of love is not any kind of soft option. Taken seriously, it is the hardest teaching, the most counter-cultural teaching, that the church has available. It leaves nothing – no ‘natural instinct’, no tendency, no pattern of relationship – unaffected, and it is certainly not a discipline that lets me (or any of us) off the hook.

I suggest that we need to take this secondary strand of the report, and make it absolutely central. Everything else we say about the nature of marriage, about permissible forms of sexual behaviour, about sexuality, is secondary to this: the discipline of Christlike love.

We may also need to go on to say other things (and we will certainly continue to disagree about whether we do, and about what they are), but I am pretty sure that we will get those disagreements in the right perspective only if we keep the demands of love at the front and centre of everything we say.


I said when I began the evaluation of my second post, that ‘good, rich, complex and interesting work has been done on all the questions I am about to raise’. I want to say that again here. My frustration in reading this report did not stem from believing that my own brilliant ideas had not been given the consideration that I believe I am due. It stems from knowing that really good work on gender has been done by so many people – quite a few of them my friends and colleagues – and that many of the insights and challenging questions present in that work have become common currency in the circles in which I move, to our great enrichment. If Men and Women in Marriage had been written in serious engagement with that work, it would inevitably have been written differently – not necessarily because the conclusions would have been different, but because it would have had to respond to those questions and do justice to those insights along the way.

I am writing these posts not because I’m an expert in this area (I’m not), but because I happen to find myself standing on the overlap between two worlds – an academic world in which these questions and insights in relation to gender have rightly become unavoidable, and a world of church report writing in which they barely appear on the agenda. All I’m doing, in effect, is saying to the latter world, ‘Hey, you should talk to these other people, because they taught me everything I know about this, and they’re really worth listening to!’ So if you’ve got this far, and want to find the good stuff – well, go and read Susannah Cornwall, Rachel Muers, Sarah Coakley, Steve Holmes, Eugene Rogers, Christopher Roberts, Rowan Williams, Beth Felker Jones, James Brownson, for starters. They don’t all agree (to say the least), and they won’t all back up what I’ve said above, but they’ll certainly change how you approach these questions.

One Thought on “Desire and Discipline

  1. Thanks Mike for another really helpful and insightful piece. I was re-reading the earlier pieces last night, so good to find the next installment today!

    I do think that there have to be questions about the origin of the report itself. Your writing and that of Charlotte Methuen reveal that the members of the Commission are far from happy with what was released. It’s not about minor details, nor that you wouldn’t write it that way, but that the whole report is deeply flawed.

    Until, as a Church, we can at least have proper conversations in bodies that are tasked with having conversations, we cannot hope to have better conversations in the Church as a whole!

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