On ‘The Body’s Grace’ (6): Not legalist but rigorist?

One of Williams’ targets in ‘The Body’s Grace’ is an attitude that me might hesitantly label ‘legalism’: the attitude that says that as long as we stick to the rules, we’re absolved of all further enquiry – the kind of legalism that would say, for instance, that sex within marriage is right, and sex outside marriage is wrong, and that that is all that needs to be said.

Yet the primary note that Williams sounds in his criticism of such legalism is not that it is too restrictive, but that it is altogether too permissive. A legally constituted heterosexual marriage, for instance, could well be the context within which a deeply broken form of sexual relationship grows – one in which, say, the wife is simply treated as the sexual property of the husband – and the very fact of the marriage’s legality might well make that abuse harder to identify and call to account. Indeed, such brokenness might, in some cultural contexts, be built in to the nature of marriage: one of the most controversial sentences in the lecture is not about homosexuality, but about heterosexuality:

Incidentally, if this suggests that, in a great many cultural settings, the socially licensed norm of heterosexual intercourse is a “perversion” – well, that is a perfectly serious suggestion…

The problem with the legalism that contents itself with asking whether a sexual relationship is on the right or wrong side of the boundary is, as Williams sees it, that

The question of human meaning is not raised, we are not helped to see what part sexuality plays in our learning to be human with one another, to enter the body’s grace, because all we need to know is that sexual activity is licensed in one context and in no other. (Emphasis mine)

To give a more trivial example which might help illuminate this, consider driving. Some drivers think that being a good, responsible driver is defined by obeying the Highway Code. I’m driving up to a T-junction, and see that another car is driving along the road that I’m about to reach. I know that, according to the code, I have to give way, so I stop. I’m a good driver, and know how long it takes me to stop, so I let myself drive up to the junction fast before pushing the break down hard and stopping dead just behind the white line. I’ve obeyed the code, to the letter – but I have ignored what my behaviour communicates, how it will be read – and the other car swerves so as to avoid what it thinks I am about to do. To be a good driver, one must know the code, certainly – but if ‘the question of human meaning is not raised’, one has not gone far enough: one must also recognise that one’s driving speaks a language, and take pains over what one speaks in that language.

Characteristically, one of the central insistences of Williams’ lecture is that we should not let ourselves off the hook too easily. ‘Getting it right’ is not so easy. Legalism does not go far enough, if the question of human meaning is not raised: our sexual activity speaks a language, and we must ask what story it is telling.

I do find myself with a question, at this point. This refusal to allow that there is an easy space in which sexual relationships are simply fine, and can be exempted from further ethical scrutiny, is clearly hugely important – and I hope it is obvious why that is so. Yet I am left with the beginnings of a question that we’re going to be coming back to, about the location of the kind of theological and ethical scrutiny that Williams is suggesting. After all, one way of reading the lecture (a misleading way, I think) would be to see it as advocating some kind of anxious self-scrutiny, a refusal to lose oneself in the rhythm and dynamic of sexual activity because one is always mentally standing to one side, trying to see how one’s actions might be read. It could all too easily be read as advocating some kind of heroic moral agonising about sex – one that has little connection with the deeply unheroic ordinariness of good sexual relationships – the fun, the tenderness, the pleasure of it all. I’m reminded of a truly disastrous piece of relationships advice that I was once given: Don’t ever act in such a way that you would be unhappy for Jesus to be in the same room.

I don’t think this is what Williams’ is advocating, but it is certainly the case that his lecture is a world away from any kind of lazily permissive attitude: there’s no such thing as entirely safe sex, for Williams. In the next part, however, I want to look at how this refusal to let us off the hook – what one might call the rigorist trajectory in his argument – is balanced by his attention to the surprising sexual places where grace might be found.

One Thought on “On ‘The Body’s Grace’ (6): Not legalist but rigorist?

  1. Bob Macdonald on August 14, 2008 at 11:54 pm said:

    Thank you for these posts. I too had a brief holiday between your posts 5 and 6. In NYC I picked up two of RW’s books at St Thomas’ 5th avenue – Resurrection and Anglican Identities. Again and again I find he allows reflection to consider that there may be other answers than the obvious to common questions. I may blog about these books later to help my own understanding and memory.

Post Navigation