Things we cannot bear

Andrew Goddard’s article in Fulcrum lucidly sets out the challenge presently faced by our Bishops as they seek to adjust to the new social reality which is gay marriage. As Ian Paul points out, this is the end of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’. The church is going to have to move in one direction or another.

The inherited position, still maintained by the Roman Catholic church, is that the telos of sexuality is procreation; and therefore all sexuality that isn’t inherently open to the procreative is objectively disordered and sinful. The insitution of marriage is the structure that the wider society has put in place in order to regularise sexuality. Any sexuality which is non-procreative or extra-marital (NPEM) is to be forbidden.

The fundamental shift that has taken place within our wider society is that the telos of sexuality is no longer seen as purely about procreation. As Rowan Williams has pointed out, once you accept contraception, all the other elements of the traditional position are also undermined. From that point on there are no coherent grounds on which to claim that a sexually expressed homosexuality as such is sinful.

This change in the understanding of sexuality has been going on for an extremely long time. Indeed, the language of the 1662 marriage service, in talking about the mutual society, help and comfort of the marriage, and not just simply referring to the right ordering of procreation, is part of the opening up (this is somewhat ironic in the light of the Bishop’s statement). The end-point of this development is our present worldly situation, whereby the ‘quality’ of the romantic relationship is what justifies sexuality and marriage, rather than marriage justifying sexuality and romance.

The contradiction takes form in the House of Bishops’ advice and so they shout ‘stop the world I want to get off’. They do not wish to accept the consequences of what they have already agreed to. The CofE really has to decide whether NPEM sex is inherently sinful, and then commit itself to working out and implementing the conclusions that flow from such a decision. It may be worth pointing out – although it is not necessarily a defect, it might be a virtue – that to say that NPEM sex is sinful is to adopt a minority position within the culture of today. After all, if the church commits to a re-affirmation of the traditional position, that trajectory does not simply rule out an acceptance of same-sex marriage, it will also commit the church to ruling out, inter alia, the remarriage of divorcees.

If we wholeheartedly accept that NPEM sex is not inherently sinful, then this opens up all sorts of other questions – questions which we have really only begun to wrestle with. Part of the answer will involve something like covenanted relationships – which is what civil partnerships could be, and blessed by the church – but is there a stable place to rest at the end of the progressive path?

What, after all, is the sin involved in NPEM sexuality? What is the sin involved in consensual non-monogamy? Or polygamy? Do people have to be assorted into one of two clearly marked out boxes in order to have non-sinful sex, and then only with someone from the other box?

A quick sketch of my own thinking would be: there are profound sins, which the church must be more actively engaged in denouncing, to do with the raising of children and the breaking down of family homes, the betrayals of trust and so on. Yet on the question of NPEM sexual relations, beyond a clear teaching about the difference between I-Thou and I-It relating, I do not see any scope, apart from the tradition, for saying anything beyond ‘All things are permitted, but not all things are edifying’ and ‘It is not good for the human being to be alone’ and then leaving it to the individual conscience of the believer. In other words, it involves a radical non-judgement, and a taking seriously that baptism confers both a new creation and an authority to decide what is good (what can be ‘loosed on earth‘).

This might apply especially to the clergy, for whom the 39 Articles reserve the authority over whether a marriage is of God for them or not. The two options that the CofE will therefore end up choosing between – or, more realistically, splitting over – are therefore a re-establishment of the conservative position or an embrace of a progressive path, and this latter option will, in the terms of Andrew Goddard’s article, mean removing any understanding of marriage from Canon Law and leaving the assessment of any and all sexual relations to the conscience of the individual believer. As I intimated back in 2009 I do not see this as representing a major threat to any form of Christianity. Tobias Haller articulated this well:

“Marriage is not a proper subject of dogmatic theology, but at most of moral or pastoral theology. There is no core doctrine concerning marriage, and it is doubtful that the subject warrants a doctrine at all, and at least some of the efforts to construct a theological defense of marriage do more harm to theology than help to marriage. The church did very well without much doctrinal reflection on marriage for centuries. The creeds and classical Anglican catechisms are silent on it. The Articles of Religion refer to it as an estate allowed, and available to clergy as they see fit. There is no settled doctrine of marriage, only changing rules, laws, rites and ceremonies — all of these, as the Articles also remind us, subject to amendment by the church.”

I believe this is something that we cannot yet bear, and yet, it seems to be where the Spirit is leading the church.

3 thoughts on “Things we cannot bear

  1. “The CofE really has to decide whether NPEM sex is inherently sinful”

    Yes, this is the bottom line I find myself coming back to as well. If we refuse to answer this question then we end up with untenable contradictions such as gay marriage being morally ‘not ideal’ for lay Christians but definitely morally wrong for gay clergy.

    When I have discussions with those who feel that equal marriage has come ‘too fast’, I often find myself asking “well, is a life-long committed intimate gay relationship sinful or holy?” If it’s holy then affirming that in the church cannot come soon enough to end years of wicked injustice. And if it’s sinful, then the church should say so and have done with it, as per the Church in Uganda and Nigeria and the Catholic and Orthodox churches everywhere. (And, as you say, remarriage after divorce and any hint of premarital or extra-marital sex should be equally vigorously condemned and remarried bishops and clergy should resign and repent etc).

    A secondary point: I wonder if it might be an over-simplification to group your NP and EM into one acronym NPEM. One might have no problem with NP but still argue that sexual relations should morally be restricted to formally recognised life-long partnerships, whether or not children are involved, because of the hurt that can arise from broken fidelity after deep intimacy.

    Your point about how accepting contraception undermines all other aspects of the traditional position is very interesting. This hadn’t occurred to me before but yes I can see how that would be the case. Once sex is not for procreation, the one inherent difference between hetrosexual and homosexual sex is removed, as is much of the moral case for life-long commitment in marriage.

    Personally, I am a child of my generation (X). For me it is natural to assume that Romantic Love is the prerequisite foundation that may eventually find expression in marriage and sex and perhaps children. For others, physical pleasure is the prerequisite from which may come romantic love etc. I don’t think I know anyone my age who sees procreation as the key thing – something which requires ordering and supporting in marriage and which may lead to romantic love (though that’s not all that important). And yet this remains the traditional view of the Church.

    These days that view is expressed as the less tenable position that marriage is both for raising children *and* for intimate mutual love and support. It’s less tenable because by making pair-bonding romantic intimacy part of marriage, it creates an injustice against other humans who long for the pair-bonding but feel no call to procreation, if they themselves are excluded from marriage. So either marriage is solely for procreation (and if you can’t procreate you’ve no business being married), or marriage is a moral good for all who seek life-long pair-bonded intimacy with another human being, whatever their gender. Everything else just seems like another domino to be toppled along the way.

    Whether we stop at gay marriage (or go on to recognise polyamorous marriages and incestuous marriages et al) is surely a question for later generation… Certainly such things have been the fare of some scifi writers for decades…

  2. Thanks Tess. I think NPEM has some use – not at all perfect obviously! – but it includes the remarriage of divorcees, which brings home the scriptural/philosophical contradiction. I can’t see them going back to the RC position with respect to divorce (for which I’m grateful ;) I’m more and more coming to the view that the progressive end-point is very simple – a radical non-judgement, and acceptance of the priority of the individual conscience. The tradition can give lots and lots of extremely valuable guidance about how sin infects and destroys relationships, sexual and otherwise, but I think we are now committed to that radically non-judgemental path. Perhaps I am just speaking for myself…

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