On ‘The Body’s Grace’ (8): Love, faithfulness, faith

It seems to me that there are two rather different ways in which one might take the argument of my previous section – the argument that it is sometimes possible, with the spectacles that the Gospel provides, to see gleams of good even in some quite lightless sexual relationships or encounters.

  • On the one hand, some will probably take this to be an instruction to look for such gleams and then simply to celebrate them, as if Williams were saying, ‘Look – even in that dreadful encounter that Sarah Layton has, she discovers the body’s grace. How wonderful.
  • On the other hand, it seems to me that Williams’ lecture leaves the attentive church not so much with the task of celebrating as with the task of calling: the task of pointing people who might have some partial or limited experience of the good of sex (people inside and outside the church) in the direction of the fullness of that good.

There are three ways in which Williams’ lecture specifies the nature of the call that the church will issue.

1. The first of these is the most generic, and it is the call we have been exploring all along. As I have repeatedly said, Williams’ strategy rests on identifying what is good about sex – what good sex (good in Gospel terms, that is) really looks like. If I may risk some shorthand, relying upon what I have said in earlier posts to give the fuller content: this is a call to loving mutuality, a call to what Williams has been calling ‘the body’s grace’. So the first way in which the church issues a call to the fullness of the good of sex is simply by holding up such a picture of good sex. (Don’t take that recommendation too literally, or your church will make it onto the television news.)

2. Second, though, the call that the church issues will be a call to faithfulness. Faithfulness is, says Williams, a ‘context in which grace can abound’: and so the church will call people to ‘unconditional public commitments’, and will ‘bless sexual unions’ in order to help

give them a life, a reality, not dependent on the contingent thoughts and feelings of the people involved … so that they might have a certain freedom to ‘take time’, to mature and become as profoundly nurturing as they can…. [T]he promise of faithfulness, the giving of unlimited time to each other, remains central for an understanding the full ‘resourcefulness’ and grace of sexual union.

Here, it seems, the ‘gradient’ from darkness to light – from sexual relationships devoid of grace to those bathed in grace – has a significant ‘step’ in it: the existence of unconditional public commitment does mark a significant boundary on that gradient, and it is the church’s job to maintain that boundary, and to issue a clear call to people to the good that is to be found beyond it – and, yes, a critique of what lies outside it (Williams speaks of the need to ‘identify certain patterns as sterile, undeveloped or even corrupt’).

And yet, in line with all that I have been saying in the last two posts, Williams makes it clear that the maintenance of this boundary does not in and of itself ensure that everything within it is ‘good’ (it does not let us off the hook), and he also makes it clear that the church has no business (if it abides by the gospel criteria it has been given) declaring that everything outside that boundary is simply and only bad. As Williams says, ‘an absolute declaration that every sexual partnership must conform to the pattern of commitment or else have the nature of sin and nothing else is unreal and silly.’ (My emphasis) (That sentence needs careful parsing. In particular, don’t read the ‘must’ without carrying on to the ‘or else’. That is, don’t think that Williams is saying that it is silly for the church to issue a clear and consistent call to faithfulness. Rather, he is saying that when the church does so – and does so without ‘weakening or compromising’ – it should at the same time recognise that the people it is calling might nevertheless have experienced limited but genuine goods in sexual relationships that don’t conform to that call.)

3. Beyond the first call (the call to loving mutuality) and the second call (the call to faithfulness), there is a third call in Williams’ lecture – and it is the most radical.

[T]he body’s grace itself only makes sense if we have a language of grace in the first place; and that depends on having a language of creation and redemption. To be formed in our humanity by the loving delight of another is an experience whose contours we can identify most clearly and hopefully if we have also learned or are learning about being the object of the causeless loving delight of God. (Emphasis mine.)

In other words, the third call is a call to faith, because the good of sex can be most clearly and hopefully identified within the life of faith. And yes, that does mean that to get the most out of sex, you have to be a Christian… More soberly put, when it comes to sexual relationships, the deepest call that the church issues is a call to conversion.

It is here, incidentally, that Williams places his analysis of the call to celibacy – and the lesson that Christian celibates have to teach us. Devoted to learning about ‘being the object of the causeless loving delight of God’, they are directly concerned with, and are living signs of, the deepest context that makes sense of sexual relationships. They are, precisely as celibate, connected to sexuality’s deepest meaning – and they remind those of us who are not called to celibacy of that deepest meaning. ‘[P]aradoxical as it sounds, the celibate calling has, as one aspect of its role in the Christian community, the nourishing and enlarging of Christian sexuality.’)

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