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.

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