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.

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