Speaking of sexuality, continence and pretense

Of course when I say ‘speaking about sexuality’ I don’t mean that at all. What I actually mean is ‘speaking about sex.’ For the last few decades sexuality has been the church’s preferred term when ever it feels the need to talk about sex. Maybe this is out of a sense of politeness, or maybe plain and straightforward embarrassment. In former, 1662 times, the church was less restrained.

Marriage, according to the preface to the Book of Common Prayer’s Solemnization of Holy Matrimony is ‘secondly….ordained for a remedy against sin, and to avoid fornication that such persons as have not the gift of continency might marry, and keep themselves undefiled members of Christ’s body.’  Marriage, according to the B.C.P. preface can never be regarded as a celebration and affirmation for that which is already deemed to be good. Marriage exists first and foremost for procreation, secondly for the avoidance of sin (fornication) and thirdly for ‘mutual solemnity, help, and comfort.’ 

How our view of marriage has changed! But let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water because the B.C.P. preface contains a real nugget of wisdom: the majority of us are not able to live a life of ‘continency.’ The Church of England accepted this basic fact way back in 1662! (Okay its preoccupation was with the male of the species, but…….)

So why do large swathes of the Church of England pretend that some people, okay gay people, are able, uniquely, to live a life of continency if, ever since 1662, it has been accepted that the vast majority of heterosexuals are unable to live without sex? Just a thought. And, yet the thought remains the Church of England’s ‘official’ position.

In 1662 the Church of England acknowledged, through her liturgy, that continency is a special gifting, a grace from God and not simply an obtainable ethical standard. The current and ‘official’ position of the Church of England would seem to support a view that suggests that LGBTIQ+ people are either uniquely graced or capable of a higher ethical standard than us straight folk, and that’s just plain bizarre! As Marcus Green in his wonderful new book ‘The Possibility of Difference’ puts it: ‘Celibacy, the single life, requires an ability to live alone that some people have and some others do not. It’s a gift – a divine charism – given to some and not to others,’ he adds, ‘that’s St. Paul’s understanding.’ 

The Book of Common Prayer stresses that continency isn’t the norm. If this is true to seek to impose celibacy, or to offer it as some kind of therapy, must be just plain cruel; surely? And, if all LGBTIQ+ Christians are called to celibacy, or to fast forward and borrow a word used by Archbishop Carey in the preface to Issues in Human Sexuality, a life of pretense, what does this say about the very nature of God? It begins to look as though God has created a sub species – what Marcus calls a ‘moral underclass’– to who God then, through the church (or at least a branch or two of the church) says ‘go on prove your worth.’ It begins to start looking awfully like a theology of salvation by works and not by faith through grace.

In the Preface (prefaces are important texts!) to Issues in Human Sexuality – a discussion paper which seems to have mysteriously morphed into doctrine – Archbishop George Carey wrote that: “It is our hope that this statement – which we do not pretend to be the last word on the subject – will do something to help forward a general process, marked by greater trust and openness, of Christian reflection on the subject of human sexuality.”

The key phrase in this sentence must surely be which we do not pretend to be the last word. The tragedy of the last twenty-seven years is that many have regarded ‘Issues’ as the last word. I was able to assent to Issues in Human Sexuality prior to ordination based on this one simple phrase: ‘which we do not pretend to be the last word.’ Without this key phrase I couldn’t in all conscience have made my assent.

Ongoing pretense is an awful, inauthentic, state of being. If the church pretends that continency is within everyone’s grasp it risks ridicule from all critical observers, be they insiders, or outsiders. Ultimately what the church will risk is irrelevance. However, if the church insists that LGBTIQ+ Christians pretend they are something other than who they truly, gloriously are, it runs an even greater risk. It runs the risk of causing harm and pain to those who the church should be loving and embracing. The church should, must, be a place where all may flourish and none need fear. The church should be a place where there should be no pressure to pretend. As Marcus puts it:

‘It’s not good enough to produce an ethic and call it biblical when basically is says – it’s OK to be gay if you bear the pain alone and no one can tell. It’s OK to be gay if you face life by yourself. It’s OK to be gay if you look like a straight person, speak like a straight person, act like a straight person. It’s okay to be gay if you pretend.’

So what should be the last word, or guiding thought, as discussions progress, and as yet another document is written. I would simply suggest this:

‘That we do not pretend that there are groups of people who are uniquely graced to live a life of continence.’ 

If we accept this basic principle then maybe, just maybe, we can make real headway when we speak about sex. If we can’t accept this basic, foundational, and yes liturgical principle, then we will be talking about sexuality (sorry sex) for years to come.

 

 

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2 thoughts on “Speaking of sexuality, continence and pretense

  1. I have always thought George Carey’s words in the preface to ‘Issues … ‘ one of his more enlightened moments! And I, too, have always used them in a ‘keeping fingers crossed’ sort of way, when dealing with the unwise development of the document into a ‘proof text.’ But it feels as though there has been no such helping forward of a general process that he envisaged. And I, for one, shall be glad to retire in the not too distant future, not to take up PTO, but live with my partner a life of greater honesty than I have over what will have been 44 years of public ministry.

    • Thanks Peter. I read your response with both sadness and joy. Joy that you will be able to live an honest life, sad that for 44 years you have been forced to live in a certain way, Andrew

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