Church Statements: Listening to an Ongoing conversation
From New Directions in Sexual Ethics by Kevin T. Kelly, Geoffrey Chapman, 1998, Ch. 5
Though some writers of Church statements on moral matters might believe that they are producing ‘timeless moral guidance’, it is probably truer to say that they are joining in a conversation sparked off by contemporary concerns at a particular moment in time. Today, for instance, a whole variety of new developments and possibilities are opening out. In response to this situation the underlying question that needs to be faced by the Churches is; ‘How far are these developments humanly transforming or deforming and how can we ensure that this new knowledge and technology is used in a way which will be humanly beneficial?’
Admittedly, some Church leaders may not see their statements as joining in a conversation. They may believe they are ending the conversation by issuing a definitive moral judgement on the issue under discussion. However, people skilled in the art of good conversation are able to cope with that kind of intervention. Consequently, although such statements may be uttered in a definitive, tone, they can be interpreted by any skilled conversationalist in the group as being expressions of concern, highlighting issues of importance which the speaker feels might be in danger of being overlooked. Interpreted in this way, even very authoritarian statements can contribute rich insights to the conversation without unduly disrupting its flow.
An image similar to that of conversation is the ‘weaving’ image which is used by Elizabeth Stuart in her book Just Good Friends. This is the image which is particularly attractive to many women. In the following passage Stuart applies the weaving image to theology. This image can also be applied to ethical statements coming from the various Churches. Her comments about theology can help us see the differences between the Churches on sexual ethics in a more positive light:
I think the metaphors of spinning and weaving are helpful here. We take our own experience, share it, analyse it and spin it into threads of knowledge which can be woven with the threads of others. We cannot know whether a pattern will emerge. If it does, we may claim it as a moment of revelation, a pattern, a map, a trace of the divine . . .
I always think that Christian debate on issues like sexuality might be much more constructive if both sides began every book, every speech, every conversation by acknowledging that they might be wrong. We can only weave what we find, but we might be weaving a false trail – our neighbour may be right. This is why we must always be prepared to listen to our neighbour and why we have a duty to scrutinize our neighbour’s tapestry and speak out if we are convinced that it will lead not to a God of justice but down a road of injustice . . .
When we weave our webs of theology we are not weaving shrouds to wrap the dead body of God in, nor are we capturing her, sewing her into the patterns we create. In a very real sense we are weaving the tracks of a God who has already moved on, the trails of a trail-blazer. So all our theology is partial, transitional and at best but a shadow of the truth . . . We also believe that the Spirit has been blowing through history for thousands of years, inspiring the spinning and weaving of tapestries of theology . . . There are undoubtedly many who like to raid their ancestors’ store cupboard and hold fast to their tapestries. They prefer a religion dead, a Spirit pinned down like a butterfly. Anything to avoid having to take the risk of spinning and weaving for themselves . . . We are forever the early Church, incarnating the mighty wind or the gentle breath of God, forever running to catch up with it, forever weaving theological meaning out of our experience, (pp. 12-16)
Stuart adds the comment that ‘theologians are spinsters and weavers’ (p. 16). Perhaps the same could be said of those who try to weave the differing convictions of their Church members into one comprehensive report.
Our reading of Church statements on sexual ethics will also be affected by who we consider to be legitimate participants in the conversation. Some would restrict the conversation to a Church’s own members while others would want it to be ecumenical. Many, myself included, would see it as involving everyone in society. There is a hint of this in a sentence in the Church of Scotland’s Panel of Doctrine report, On the Theology of Marriage, presented to their 1994 General Assembly: ‘We affirm that God is God of the whole world, and that understanding of his truth comes in a process of unfinished conversation between the Church and world as we seek to understand the Word of God in Scripture, tradition and current Church practice’ (n. 6.6). In the same vein the Vatican II Pastoral Constitution, The Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes), is presented as the Church’s contribution to a conversation with the modern world. In this view the Churches arc trying to understand the lifestyle of people today so that they can appreciate whatever good there might be in it. Their question, ‘What is going on here?’, would not be spoken in the tone of an investigating police officer but in an enquiring voice, signalling a desire to understand.
Naturally, determining what are the criteria for discerning what is transforming from what is deforming is bound to be itself part of the conversation. What was said in Chapter Two about social construction is relevant here. The fact that certain concrete ethical norms for sexual behaviour are found in the Bible or in tradition does not automatically provide us with a satisfactory answer to today’s problems. The way to show due respect for these norms is not by giving them absolute value and treating them as unchangeable, but by understanding them in their social context so that we can appreciate how they might have served human transformation at that time. Such a critical analysis is not aimed at destroying the old. In fact, it wants to make sure that the enduring richness at the heart of traditional wisdom is not lost in the process of leaving behind patterns of thinking which were considered correct in their day but which have now been superseded by our new knowledge and deeper understanding. This renewal process is very different from the attitude of extreme liberals for whom anything goes as long as it ‘feels’ right for a person. They also disrupt the conversation since for them there is nothing worthwhile to discuss. Criteria for what is transforming or deforming have gone out of the window, since all that matters is an individual’s inner conviction.
In chapter 1 of his book, Religion and the Making of Society: Essays in Social Theology (Cambridge University Press, 1994), Charles Davis insists that real conversation is impossible without all the participants agreeing on certain basic ground-rules for the conversation. He suggests two such ground-rules. One is that we can attain truth about reality. So our conversation is worthwhile. We have something to talk about. The second is that we can never attain absolute truth about reality. So I can never absolutize my approximation of the truth and so call a halt to the conversation. This implies that participants in the conversation must be open to pluralism but must not confuse pluralism with relativism.
The conversation I am exploring in this chapter is limited to some twentieth century statements on issues of sexual ethics emanating from Churches in the UK or North America or from their international central bodies. Hence, it does not claim to be an exhaustive study. It looks at a number of statements which either seem to have had a greater impact or whose content seems more substantial and interesting for our exploration. It is remarkable how many of these statements have suffered the fate of being received but not accepted by their Churches. I have not interpreted that to mean that they lack all authority. In fact, they have been produced by groups of people whom these Churches have judged to be both competent and conscientious and to whom they have felt they could responsibly entrust this important work. Perhaps it could even be argued that, as a general rule, these reports are more likely to represent the belief of those in the Churches who are more theologically literate or who have thought more deeply about their faith and its implications for life in the contemporary world. The non-acceptance of these reports is often the result of a desire to avoid polarization in the Church in the face of an intransigent opposition to any change. As we have seen in the previous chapter, the roots for this opposition can sometimes be found in a more fundamentalist reading of Scripture, allied to an a-historical approach to natural law or the theology of creation.
THE CONVERSATION BEGINS: BIRTH CONTROL – DISAGREEING ABOUT THE RELEVANCE OF THE HUMAN CONTEXT FOR MORAL EVALUATION
Birth control, though a concern for women over the centuries, first came to major prominence on the Churches’ agenda early in the twentieth century. This was due to the new possibilities opening out as a result of the increased understanding of human reproductive processes. During the early decades of the century, it was becoming more accepted by all Churches, including the Roman Catholic Church, that the mutual love of the couple was a basic good of marriage and not simply a functional good to serve the procreation and upbringing of the children. This was not seen as diminishing in any way the basic good of procreation which still tended to be referred to as the ‘primary’ good of marriage.
The conversation began to focus on birth control because many couples were no longer content to leave the size of their families to the chance workings of ‘nature’. Now that ‘nature’ seemed less mysterious, and so less ‘divine’, they began to take measures to make sure that they did not have more children than they could responsibly cope with. Although primitive, and often very unenlightened and ineffective, forms of birth control had been practised over many centuries, it was only now that people began to understand the processes of procreation much more accurately. The era of more knowledgeable and scientific birth control had dawned. So the question was posed: What do the Christian Churches say about contraception: is it morally acceptable? Two early interventions came from the Anglican Church and both were opposed to it. In 1908 the Lambeth Conference declared:
The Conference regards with alarm the growing practice of the artificial restriction of the family, and earnestly calls upon all Christian people to discountenance the use of all artificial means of restriction as demoralising to character and hostile to national welfare,
It reiterated its position in 1920 when it issued ‘ … an emphatic warning against the use of unnatural means for the avoidance of conception, together with the grave dangers – physical, moral, and religious – thereby incurred, and against the evils with which the extension of each use threatens the race’.
Both these statements assumed that artificial contraception was wrong and concluded from this that it was bound to have deforming effects on individuals and society in general. However, neither statement offered any ethical or theological justification for its position.
By a vote of 193 to 67, with 46 abstaining, the 1930 Lambeth Conference changed its stance on contraception. However, no ethical or theological justification was offered for this change of mind. It seems to have based its position on a respect for the consciences of its members. Hence it was prepared to accept the decisions of those who responsibly chose to use contraception:
Where there is a clearly felt moral obligation to limit or avoid parenthood, the method must be decided on Christian principles. The primary and obvious method is complete abstinence from intercourse (as far as may be necessary) in a life of discipline and self-control lived in the power of the Holy Spirit. Nevertheless, in those cases where there is such a clearly-felt moral obligation to limit or avoid parenthood, and where there is a morally sound reason for avoiding complete abstinence, the Conference agrees that other methods may be used, provided that this is done in the light of the same Christian principles. The Conference records its strong condemnation of the use of any methods of conception control from motives of selfishness, luxury, or mere convenience. (Quoted in John Noonen, Contraception: A History of Its Treatment by the Catholic Theologians and Canonists, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, 1965. p. 409)
Noonen comments that this change of stance came ‘after the fact’. Birth control was already widely practised. The 1930 Lambeth statement provoked Pius XI to issue his encyclical Casti Connubii (1930). The Pope certainly did not see his intervention as a tentative comment to fellow conversationalists in an ongoing dialogue. His intention was to call a halt to the conversation, since he believed that it was contributing to the moral chaos in the world:
The Catholic church, to whom God has committed the task of teaching and preserving morals and right conduct in their Integrity, standing erect amidst this moral devastation, raises her voice in sign of her divine mission to keep the chastity of the marriage contract unsullied by this ugly stain, and through Our mouth proclaims anew: that any use of matrimony whatsoever in the exercise of which the act is deprived, by human interference, of its natural power to procreate life, is an offence against the law of God and of nature, and that those who commit it are guilty of a grave sin. (n. 56)
The encyclical looked at the whole of marriage and examined contemporary threats to it. Within this wider context Pius XI tried to offer ethical and theological grounding for his position. Nevertheless, his interpretation of natural law and his use of the Bible and tradition would hardly be acceptable to Catholic scholars today:
The conjugal act is of its very nature designed for the procreation of offspring; and therefore those who in performing it deliberately deprive it of its natural power and efficacy, act against nature and do something which is shameful and intrinsically immoral.
We cannot wonder than, if we find evidence in the Sacred Scriptures that the Divine Majesty detests this unspeakable crime with the deepest hatred and has sometimes punished it with death, as St Augustine observes: ‘Sexual intercourse even with a lawful wife is unlawful and shameful if the conception of offspring is prevented. This is what Onan, the son of Juda did. and on that account God put him to death.’ (nn. 54—55)
All these interventions seem afraid of change, even though the 1930 Lambeth statement was prepared to register and respect the experiential decisions of those practising birth control. Perhaps both Churches were resisting any change because they could not envisage how they could alter their teaching on birth control without shaking the theological foundations of a Christian approach to marriage and sexual ethics. It was still too early in the conversation for anyone to suggest that such a shaking of the foundations might not be a bad thing. It might even provoke a courageous and committed theological investigation which could renew and enrich our whole theology of sexuality and marriage. However, that would have meant widening the agenda far beyond the question of artificial birth control.
The setting up of the Papal Birth Control commission by Pope John XXIII in 1963 was the Roman Catholic Church’s first tentative move towards this kind of theological investigation. However, the Anglican Church had already moved a few years earlier. The report The Family in Contemporary Society, commissioned by the Archbishop of Canterbury in preparation for the 1958 Lambeth Conference, stated that ‘there are very strong moral-theological grounds for regarding the responsible use of contraception by married persons as morally right’ (p. 147). In its Appendix 1 (n. 8, pp. 120-54) it elaborates for the first time a substantial theological argumentation for a positive approach to contraception. It offers a three-pronged line of argument.
First of all, it gave a wider ethical interpretation of the meaning of ‘procreation’:
It would now be generally agreed that procreation implies co-operation with God in his creative work – that it is really creation on behalf of God. It would also be agreed that such co-operation in the divine work of creation involves the education of the child to maturity, and not merely its begetting and birth. Consequently the procreative task of parenthood is not completed until the last child is fully adult. To this task, the parent’s coitus makes a valuable contribution. Once conception has occurred, it plays an important part in the maintenance of harmonious relationship between the couple, and thus promotes the well-being of the child, first before birth, and then during the whole period … of growth towards maturity, (p. 139)
Secondly, it argued that the meaning of any particular act of intercourse within marriage is not self-contained but is bound up with the total pattern of relationship — ‘Each act of coitus between husband and wife must be seen as part of a total pattern of relationship . . . The morally good act of coitus is really that which forms part of a pattern of relational acts consistent with the “proper two-fold end” of sexual intercourse in marriage’ (p. 141).
Thirdly, it tackled the issue of ‘nature’ and argued that, while a couple do not have unlimited dominion over ‘nature’, they do have the right and responsibility to ‘modify and adjust’ the natural cycles of fertility and infertility in the interests of their relationship and the wider needs of the community:
The fact that man in his freedom stands above nature, and is therefore at liberty to interpret sex in terms of personality and relation and to use it for the achievement of personal and relational ends, leads to the conclusion that contraception is morally right in certain circumstances. Thus man may legitimately extend the range of non-generative coitus as it exists in nature, by the use of contraceptive devices, but only so long as this is done in obedience to relational or social needs. In other words, contraception must always represent a responsible use of human freedom in the interests of personal relationship or of the community. The relational needs of man and woman in marriage may demand that coitus shall be independent of natural cycles of fertility and infertility; yet man’s liberty of spirit allows him only to modify and adjust, and not to abolish the natural unities of physical sexuality . . . Coitus is only ‘natural’, or consonant with man’s true nature, when it exhibits all the characteristics of a responsible personal act expressive of a certain integral relationship between the man and woman concerned, (pp. 145-6)
It will be noticed that this three-pronged line of argumentation remains within the traditional theology of marriage. It is committed to ‘the proper “two-fold end” of sexual intercourse in marriage’ (p. 141). It accepts that we cannot ‘abolish the natural unities of physical sexuality’ and seems implicitly to identify these with the relational and procreational ends. Hence, it states that ‘contraception must always represent a responsible use of human freedom in the interests of personal relationship or of the community’. By situating the individual acts of coitus within ‘the total pattern of relationship’ and by extending the meaning of ‘procreation’ to include nurturing and education, this line of theological reasoning is able to argue that even physically contraceptive acts can be humanly (and so. morally) truly procreational and life-giving.
In 1961 the Methodist Conference adopted a similar position in the Addenda they attached to their 1939 Conference statement, The Christian View of Marriage and the Family. Provided the means of birth control are mutually acceptable to husband and wife and cause no physical or emotional harm, they see ‘no moral distinction’ between the practice of continence, the use of the infertile periods and artificial methods of contraception. In support of their position they argue that:
In the biblical revelation the relational and the procreative functions of sex are equally rooted in the creative purpose of God, and neither is subordinated to the other … It is important to recognise that continence may frustrate the relational ends of marriage. Contraception., on the other hand, can assist both the relational and the procreative ends of marriage by promoting marital harmony and enabling parents to space their children. (p. 77)
In 1966 the Papal Birth Control commission arrived at a conclusion similar to that of the Anglican Communion and the Methodist Conference. Although its report was never officially published, the text was leaked to The National Catholic Reporter in the United States and was also printed in The Tablet and in Peter Harris et al., On Human Life: An Examination of ‘Humanae Vitae‘ (London. Burns & Oates, 1968), pp. 216-44. Despite its ponderous language, the following passage, drawn from the accompanying explanatory paper by the sixteen theologians involved in the final report, shows a marked similarity with the theological position presented in the Anglican report. It is commenting on the Vatican II statement that responsible parenthood must be conformed to ‘objective criteria’ which safeguard both the procreational and relational meanings of marriage ‘in the context of true love’ (The Church in the Modern World, n. 51):
(a) The meaning of sexuality in marriage. ‘The responsible procreative community’ is always ordered towards procreation; this is the objective and authentic meaning of sexuality and of those things which refer to sexuality (affectivity, unity, the ability to educate). So we can speak of the ‘procreative end’ as the essential end of sexuality and of conjugal life.
But this procreative end does not have to be realised by a fertile act when, for instance, parents already have children to educate or they are not prepared to have a child. This obligation of conscience for not generating springs from the rights of the already existing child or the rights of a future child. A child has a right to a ‘community of life and unity’ so that it can be formed and educated. Therefore the procreative end is substantially and really preserved even when here and now a fertile act is excluded; for infecundity is ordered to a new life well and humanly possessed. Man is the administrator of life and consequently of his fecundity.
(b) The meaning of mutual giving. On the other hand, sexuality is not ordered only to procreation. Sacred Scripture says not only ‘increase and multiply’ but ‘they shall be two in one flesh,’ and it shows the partner as another helpful self. In some cases intercourse can be required as a manifestation of self-giving love, directed to the good of the other person or of the community, while at the same time a new life cannot be received. This is neither egocentricity nor hedonism but a legitimate communication of persons through gestures proper to beings composed of body and soul with sexual powers. Here intervention is a material privation since love in this case cannot be fertile; but it receives its moral specification from the other finality, which is good in itself, and from the fertility of the whole conjugal life. (Harris et al., On Human Life, p. 213)
This line of thought is also found in the ‘Theological Report’ section where we read:
The morality of sexual acts between married people takes its meaning first of all and specifically from the ordering of their actions in a fruitful married life, that is one which is practised with responsible, generous and prudent parenthood. It does not then depend upon the direct fecundity of each and every particular act. Moreover the morality of every act depends upon the requirements of mutual love in all its aspects, (p. 232)
This conclusion and the line of argument supporting it were not accepted by the Pope. In 1968 Paul VI issued his encyclical letter, Humanae Vitae. Although its first half laid great emphasis on the personal dimension of marriage and the importance of the couple’s loving relationship, the Pope insisted on ‘the inseparable connection, established by God, which man on his own initiative may not break, between the unitive significance and the procreative significance which are both inherent to the marriage act’ (n. 12). Although he claims to be arguing from ‘laws written into the actual nature of man and woman’ (n. 12), in fact, his focus seems to be more on the nature of the sexual act itself rather than on the nature of the human person.
Consequently, he insists that interference with nature at this level is outside human dominion: ‘Just as man does not have unlimited dominion over his body in general, so also, and with more particular reason, he has no such dominion over his specifically sexual faculties, for these are concerned by their very nature with the generation of life of which God is the source’ (n. 13).
Clearly this intervention breaks the natural flow of the conversation. It seems to be going back over old ground and disagrees with the interventions of the other three interlocutors mentioned above. Though its tone is less autocratic than that adopted by Pius XI in Casti Connubii, it still sees itself as a definitive ruling which should bring the discussion to a close. However, a number of Roman Catholic Bishops’ Conferences from different parts of the world soon join in the conversation. None of them express outright disagreement with the Pope. That would break the internal conversational rules usually observed by bishops within the Roman Catholic community. However, quite a number of them inform the members of their local Churches that, if, after serious study and reflection, they find they cannot accept what the Pope has said, they should not look upon themselves as second-class Catholics because of that. In other words, they are implicitly toning down the definitive tone of the Pope’s letter. This is very helpful to the other participants in the conversation.
Something similar has happened more recently. Pope John Paul II has spoken out against contraception in even stronger language than Paul VI. However, the impact of his utterances has been softened by various semi-official interventions. A very striking example is the 1994 ARCIC II Agreed Statement, Life in Christ: Morals, Communion and the Church, a statement which is still under consideration by the relevant authorities in both Churches. This statement examines the disagreements between the two Churches on certain particular moral issues, including contraception. It sums up the disagreement very clearly:
The disagreement may be summed up as follows. Anglicans understand the good of procreation to be a norm governing the married relationship as a whole. Roman Catholic teaching, on the other hand, requires that each and every act of intercourse should be ‘open to procreation’ (n. 80)
The commission are quick to perceive that the real point at issue would seem to be ‘the moral integrity of the act of marital intercourse’ (n. 81). Both traditions accept that this moral integrity means that the husband and wife hold together the two basic goods of marriage, that is, their loving relationship and the procreation of children. They go on to state: For Anglicans, it is sufficient that this respect should characterise the married relationship as a whole; whereas for Roman Catholics it must characterise each act of sexual intercourse’ (n. 81). What is most interesting for the ongoing conversation, however, is the next paragraph which reads:
The Roman Catholic doctrine is not simply an authoritative statement of the nature of the integrity of the marital act. The whole teaching on human love and sexuality, continued and developed in Humanae Vitae, must be taken into account when considering the Roman Catholic position on this issue. The definition of integrity is founded upon a number of considerations: a way of understanding human persons; the meaning of marital love; the unique dignity of an act which can engender new life; the relationship between human fruitfulness and divine creativity; the special vocation of the married couple; and the requirements of the virtue of marital chastity, (n. 82)
If the paragraph ended at that point it would be tantamount to saying that the Roman Catholic position has much deeper foundations than the Anglican position and that is why they are different. However, the paragraph goes on to state:
Anglicans accept all of these considerations as relevant to determining the integrity of the marital relationship and act. Thus they share the same spectrum of moral and theological considerations. However, they do not accept the arguments Roman Catholics derive from them, nor the conclusions they draw from them regarding the morality of contraception.
If I interpret the commission correctly, the import of this paragraph would seem to be as follows. The Roman Catholic position has tended to be presented by authority as a matter of major importance since it is bound up with some fundamental truths drawn from the theology of marriage and sexuality. In other words, the Roman Catholic intervention is saying: ‘We cannot accept contraception because, if we do, all these other basic truths are threatened.’ The Anglican reply is: ‘But we are able to accept contraception and we do not find this puts at risk the fundamental truths of the theology of marriage and sexuality which we hold to just as firmly as you do.’
The two Churches are saying more than that they agree to differ. The Catholics, for instance, are not saying to the Anglicans: ‘You say you accept these basic truths about marriage, but I know you don’t really. If you did, you would not come to the practical conclusion you do.’ Quite the contrary. Both sides are actually agreeing to accept the integrity of their two positions. This means that the Roman Catholic participants are implicitly recognizing that these basic truths are not necessarily bound up with a rejection of contraception. Put more simply, the issue of contraception is not the major issue the Catholic Church tends to claim it is. This seems to be implied even in the opening section of the statement:
The widespread assumption . . . that differences of teaching on certain particular moral issues signify an irreconcilable divergence of understanding, and therefore present an insurmountable obstacle to shared witness, needs to be countered. Even on those particular issues where disagreement exists, Anglicans and Roman Catholics, we shall argue, share a common perspective and acknowledge the same underlying values, (n. 1)
The disagreement between the two Churches on the issue of contraception provides an interesting example of disagreement between Churches on a particular moral issue. The fact that such disagreement exists can affect how we receive a particular piece of teaching in our own Church. I drew attention to that in an article on the moral teaching of the 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church:
Since Vatican II, any presentation of Catholic faith must have an ecumenical dimension to it. This entails more than a longing for the unity for which Christ prayed. It also involves a recognition that God’s Spirit is at work in other Christian churches. It is in this spirit that the moral section of the Catechism needs to be read. This implies that, when there are particular issues of moral disagreement between the major Christian churches, the Catechism’s presentation of the current authoritative Catholic teaching should not be presumed to be the final and definitive Christian position on this topic. The Catechism offers a helpful ecumenical service in presenting the authoritative Catholic position. However, it would be ecumenically harmful if such a presentation was understood to carry such authority that any other position must be rejected as unchristian. (‘The Catechism and moral teaching: 10 tentative tips for readers’, in The Month, July 1994, p. 267)
WIDENING THE AGENDA OF THE CONVERSATION:
GIVING MORE IMPORTANCE TO RELATIONSHIP – A QUAKER VIEW OF SEX
All the above statements see the procreation and education of children and the faithful love of their parents as equally important – and inseparable, at least within the overall context of a marriage. They also recognize that marriage alone provides the setting needed to attain these two basic goods of sexual loving.
However, in practice the scene has been changing. The co-equal status of these two goods is no longer being taken for granted – and so their inseparability is being questioned. The experience of a loving sexual relationship is assuming more importance in the eyes of the young – and even the not so young. The couple’s relationship is seen to be important in its own right and not just for the sake of the children. Couples marry because they love each other and not just because they want children. Awkward questions such as the following begin to be raised once the focus changes from the procreational to the relational and a loving relationship is seen as a good thing in its own right, quite apart from providing a loving context for the upbringing of children:
1. What about a marriage where there has never been such a loving relationship or where it has ceased to be loving and has, in fact, become destructive and deforming? Is any Christian witness given by staying faithful to such a relationship? If not, and if the couple divorce, is any Christian witness given by refusing the possibility of a new loving relationship, if such an opportunity presents itself?
2. If a loving relationship is so important, would it not seem to need as much testing before final commitment as does religious life, for instance? Could not living together before marriage be better described as ‘living in responsibility’ rather than as ‘living in sin’?
3. What is so sacred about a formal marriage ceremony? If cohabiting couples enjoy a truly loving and committed relationship, are they not. being faithful to the heart of what Christians believe about sexuality and love?
4. What about such a loving relationship between two homosexual persons, especially if it is granted that their homosexual orientation is natural for them and if experience seems to show that a faithful homosexual loving relationship can be a grace-filled transforming experience?
5. Is it possible to sustain only one such loving relationship? Or does such a loving relationship also include the possibility of lesser loving relationships which do not threaten the major relationship?
6. What about loving relationships in the lives of people who choose to live single or celibate lives? Are deep loving relationships for such people possible and even desirable? Or are they incompatible with their chosen lifestyle?
The first ‘Church’ statement to acknowledge, and even welcome, this kind of challenge to traditional sexual ethics was Towards a Quaker View of Sex, published by the Society of Friends in 1963. It is headed ‘An essay by a group of Friends’, thus indicating that its views ‘do not necessarily reflect the attitude of. . . the Religious Society of Friends’.
This document caused a furore when it first appeared. Its lasting significance is indicated by the fact that it is still in print today over thirty years since its publication. It began with an open acknowledgement of the changing lifestyle of contemporary society. The tone of this acknowledgement is not one of decrying the modern age but simply registering it and even acknowledging that many of those involved would seem to be people of integrity. Its authors write:
These appear to be the developments we are faced with today:
a. A great increase in adolescent and pre-marital sexual intimacy. It is fairly common in both young men and women with high standards of general conduct and integrity to have one or two love affairs, involving intercourse, before they find the person they will ultimately marry.
b. It is even more common for those who intend to marry to have sexual intercourse before the ceremony. This is true, probably, of a very large number of young people in all classes of society, including often those who have a deep sense of responsibility.
c. The incidence of extra-marital intercourse is great, but it is not possible to estimate whether there is an increase. There must be very many instances which do not lead to divorce or obvious harm and which are kept secret.
d. A wider recognition, and probably acceptance, of the ‘homosexual way of life’, and a greater awareness of sexual deviations of all kinds, (p. 8)
The authors believe that sexuality is a fact of nature, powerful but in itself morally neutral. As Christians they rejoice in it as a gift of God, though they recognize that it can be misused (p. 12). They locate the basic moral criterion for judging whether sexual behaviour is transforming or deforming in the quality of the relationship and not in the physical nature of the act of intercourse (p. 41). They suggest that three qualities characteristic of Quakers might add something distinctive to their contribution to the ongoing conversation about sexual ethics: (1) their belief in the equality of men and women; (2) how they see the ongoing conversation; (3) their refusal to make any distinction between the sacred and the secular and so, as a consequence, their recognition of the intrinsic sacredness of the sexual relationship itself:
There are certain historical characteristics of the Society of Friends that ought specially to lead us to a clear and wholesome understanding of the significance of the sex relationship. The Society has upheld throughout the three hundred years of its history the personal and spiritual equality of the sexes. It has an attitude to authority that enables it to say in the words of John Robinson’s farewell to pilgrims setting off for the New World in 1620: ‘The Lord has yet more light and truth to show forth’ – and on every conceivable question. For Friends, God’s will for man can never be circumscribed by any statement, however inspired; the last word has never yet been spoken on the implications of Christianity, and every religious expression is open to critical examination. Quakerism involves a continuous search; and, because it is a genuine and not a formal search, it may lead to surprises and unexpected demands. Lastly, Quakerism has never accepted a distinction between the sacred and the secular … In sexual matters the unity of the sacred and the secular involves this implication: that the sacramental quality of a sexual relationship depends upon the spirit and intention of the persons concerned, not upon any atmosphere or circumstance provided from outside, (pp. 10-11)
Chapter IV of the report carries the title ‘A New Morality Needed’. The new morality they are looking for is one which recognizes the primacy of love over external rules of conduct:
Nothing that has come to light in the course of our studies has altered the conviction that came to us when we began to examine the actual experiences of people – the conviction that love cannot be confined to a pattern. The waywardness of love is part of its nature and this is both its glory and its tragedy. If love did not tend to leap every barrier, if it could be tamed, it would not be the tremendous creative power we know it to be and want it to be. (p. 45)
Nevertheless, the authors are aware that such an emphasis on the primacy of love could easily be interpreted as a carte blanche for an ‘anything goes’ approach to morality. This could be interpreted as implying that private judgement reigns supreme, that the responsibilities of marriage and family mean nothing and that sin no longer features as a possibility in the sphere of sexual behaviour. They make it quite clear that they reject all of these implications:
Although we cannot produce a ready-made external morality to replace the conventional code, there are some things about which we can be definite. The first is that there must be a morality of some sort to govern sexual relationships. An experience so profound in its effect upon people and upon the community cannot be left wholly to private judgement. It will never be right for two people to say to each other ‘We’ll do what we want, and what happens between us is nobody else’s business.’ However private an act, it is never without its impact on society, and we must never behave as though society – which includes our other friends – did not exist. Secondly, the need to preserve marriage and family life has been in the forefront of our minds throughout our work. It is in marriage that sexual impulses have their greatest opportunity for joyful and creative expression, and where two people can enter into each other’s lives and hearts most intimately. Here the greatest freedom can be experienced – the freedom conferred by an unreserved commitment to each other, by loving and fearless friendship, and by openness to the world. In marriage, two people thus committed can bring children into the world, provide them with the security of love and home and in this way fulfil their sexual nature. Finally, we accept the definition of sin given by an Anglican broadcaster, as covering those actions that involve exploitation of the other person. This is a concept of wrong-doing that applies within marriage as well as outside it. It condemns as fundamentally immoral every sexual action that is not, as far as is humanly ascertainable, the result of a mutual decision. It condemns seduction and even persuasion, and every instance of coitus which, by reason of disparity of age or intelligence or emotional condition, cannot be a matter of mutual responsibility, (p. 46, italics in text)
Though written over thirty years ago, this essay by a group of Friends still makes very challenging reading. As a contribution to the ongoing conversation, reactions to it varied from outright condemnation to qualified support. The 1966 report Sex and Morality, by a British Council of Churches (BCC) Working Party, followed the Quaker agenda to the extent that it paid more attention to the possibility of an approach to sexual ethics which placed less emphasis on hard and fast rules and left more room for personal moral judgements in specific situations. Perhaps the report which accepted most fully its ‘quality of relationship’ criterion was the report of another BCC Working Party published fifteen years later, God’s Yes to Sexuality (Rachel Moss, ed., London, Collins, 1981).
None of these reports deny the goodness of marriage. In fact, the Quaker report is very lavish in its praise of the marriage relationship. However, they insist that it is the quality of the relationship which is the ultimate norm. In fact, the final sentence of the later BCC report makes explicit something which is only implicit in the Quaker report. That is that even the marriage relationship itself is to be judged according to the ‘quality of relationship’ criterion. ‘We have rejected the idea that marriage is the normative pattern of relationship against which all other possibilities are to be measured’ (p. 172), Once this point is made in the conversation, it is natural that attention is directed towards those marriages where the relationship has broken down and the relationship has begun to take on a destructive quality.
MARRIAGE BREAKDOWN: A CHURCH OF ENGLAND CONTRIBUTION
Because of the importance now being given to the human relationship, the issue of marriage breakdown began to occupy the attention of the Churches. Couples were getting divorced because they found that their relationship had broken down and was proving mutually destructive. There was a move to change the divorce laws in the United Kingdom since they seemed to be adding to the negative impact of marriage breakdown on couples and their children.
In 1966 the Church of England joined in the debate with the report of a group set up by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Putting Asunder: A Divorce Law for a Contemporary Society. The first of a series of major reports on marriage and divorce from the Church of England, it made an important contribution to civil divorce law in the UK by its advocating that the main ground for divorce should be moved from matrimonial offence to irretrievable breakdown of the marriage. The main concern of most of the subsequent Church of England reports was whether, in the light of the apparently clear prohibition of divorce by Jesus, divorcees could be remarried in church. In exploring this question, the 1972 report by the Church of England Commission on Christian Doctrine of Marriage, Marriage, Divorce and the Church, tried to balance the ‘relationship’ and ‘institution’ dimensions of marriage.
Of even greater importance was the 1978 report Marriage and the Church’s Task from the Church of England Marriage Commission. It accepted that the commitment given in marriage is ‘unconditional’. Consequently, it saw ‘the task facing the Church’ as being one of fashioning ‘a discipline which holds before those who are married, and those about to marry, the challenge of unconditional love, while offering to those who have failed in their marriage the possibility of a new beginning’ (n. 266). Crucial to this report is what is meant by the marriage bond. The commission sees different dimensions to this bond and states that it is the ‘personal bond’ based on ‘mutual love’ which weaves together all these various strands (n. 95). The commission is even prepared to acknowledge an ‘ontological character’ to this personal bond:
The marriage bond unites two flesh-blood-and-spirit persons. It makes them the persons that they are. It binds them together, not in any casual or peripheral fashion, but at the very centre of their being. They become the persons they are through their relationship to each other. Each might say to the other: ‘I am I and I am you; together you and I are we’. Since the marriage bond is in this way a bond of personal being, it is appropriate to speak of it as having an ‘ontological’ character, (n. 96)
While the commission rejoiced that ‘there actually occur such ontological unions between man and wife, unions which, as a matter of fact, nothing can dissolve’ (n. 97), they tried to face the problem of relationships which had broken down. Only one member of the seventeen-person commission interpreted the notion of ‘ontological’ bond as meaning that it ‘was impervious to time and change, participating in the eternity of being’ and so ‘once made, could not be unmade’ (n. 98). The rest of the commission saw this unbreakable union as something which the couple were committing themselves to bring about rather than as a reality in existence from the moment they entered marriage:
the bond which was established by consent and commitment was not to be identified outright with the ontological bond which united two persons at the centre of their being and which, in its perfectness, was in fact unbreakable. This latter bond was not simply a bond of commitment grounded in promise and obligation. It was a relational bond of personal love, a compound of commitment, experience and response, in which the commitment clothed itself in the flesh and blood of a living union. The commitment looked forward to this deeper union of love. Indeed, in faith it anticipated and proclaimed it. Nevertheless, this deeper union had still to be realised… In one sense, the commitment made, the marriage already existed. But in another sense, the making of the marriage was a continuing process. The bond of commitment had to realise itself as a bond of love. (n. 99)
The commission were not prepared to accept marriage breakdown simply as a fact of life with no ethical relevance. They recognized that something deforming had happened. Without necessarily imputing personal guilt to the couple themselves, they acknowledged that ‘human failure and sin’ are part of the picture in the tragedy of marriage breakdown:
There is something radically wrong when a marriage does break down. Marriages ought to be indissoluble! However, most of us reject the doctrine that marriages cannot by definition be dissolved. It is only too possible for men and women in particular cases to break the bond which God, in principle and in general, wills to be unbreakable, and to put asunder what God, in his original purpose, has joined together. Therein lies the measure of human failure and sin. (n. 100)
The latest report from the Church of England on this topic, An Honourable Estate, 1988, looked at the problem of how far clergy are obliged to celebrate the marriages of all who ask, regardless of their understanding of marriage.
A ROMAN CATHOLIC CONTRIBUTION -VATICAN II
An important Roman Catholic contribution to the conversation was made by the bishops assembled for the Second Vatican Council. The Pastoral Constitution, The Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes), promulgated in 1965, marked a major development in the Roman Catholic Church’s approach to sexuality and marriage. The relevant paragraphs (nn. 47-52) need a fuller commentary than is possible here to bring out their richness and carefully nuanced meaning. Perhaps the main developments found in them could be summed up in the following eight points:
1. They adopt a new vocabulary for speaking about marriage, preferring to speak of marriage in terms of covenant or relationship rather than in the language of contract (n. 48);
2. They drop the use of the terminology of ‘primary and secondary ends of marriage’; preferring a more ‘personalist’ approach to marriage, even defining marriage as a relationship in which the couple ‘mutually bestow and accept each other’ (n. 48);
3. Faithful married love has its source in God’s love and when expressed in ‘mutual self-bestowal’ is ‘caught up into divine love’ (n. 48). By implication, therefore, the expression and deepening of this love by sexual intercourse is also ‘caught up into divine love’, something which many Christian writers down through the centuries would have found difficult to accept!;
4. The life-long character of marriage is based principally on the nature of the couple’s loving relationship rather than on the needs of children (n. 48);
5. Children are the ‘supreme gift’ of the love relationship rather than the primary end of marriage (n. 50);
6. Limiting the size of their families can be a responsible (even, at times, necessary) decision for Christian couples (n. 51);
7. Not being able to express their love sexually for each other can be harmful to a couple’s marriage: ‘Where the intimacy of married life is broken off, it is not rare for its faithfulness to be imperiled and its quality of fruitfulness ruined’ (n. 51);
8. There is nothing wrong in a married couple making love even when their intention is not to have children, since that maintains ‘the faithful exercise of love and the full intimacy of their lives’. The actual ‘means’ of birth regulation adopted are to be judged ethically not simply in the light of the couple’s intention but according to ‘objective criteria’ based on ‘the nature of the person and the person’s acts’ (n. 51).
THE JOY OF MARRIED SEXUAL LOVE: A METHODIST CONTRIBUTION
The God-given goodness of the sexual expression of human love (cf. n. 3 above) is taken a stage further in the 1980 Methodist report, A Christian Understanding of Human Sexuality. As we saw in the previous chapter, due to disagreement over its use of Scripture in its treatment of homosexuality, this report was sent back to the circuits for further discussion. The ongoing conversation between the Churches is enriched by this report’s recognition that the joy of sexual love is God-given and something to be celebrated. A married couple’s mutual sharing in this joy is a vehicle for their expressing deep feelings of love, forgiveness, support, and self-giving which help to build and affirm their personal relationship:
Sexual love, including genital acts when they express that love, shares in the divine act of loving with every human activity which is creative, dedicated and generous. Yet until recently Western Christian attitudes have shown little enthusiasm for the idea of sexual love as an element of Christian living . . . (A28) Despite the biblical references to the joy which God gives to his children, most Western traditional Christian attitudes have not accepted enjoyment as an essential part of God’s design for mankind. Physical pleasures have been frequently equated with sin. Since sexuality provides some of the greatest pleasures, it has therefore been most suspect. This rejection of joy warps the Christian understanding of the love of God, the goodness of his creation and the wholeness of human nature . . . Sexuality is not merely useful. It is enjoyable, purposeful and fulfilling. It is a means whereby man and woman may glorify God and grow in the fulfilment of one another. (A29)
Every physical expression of love from the most tentative to the most complete brings new dimensions to the loving relationship. A glance, a touch, an embrace, a kiss, increasing physical intimacy and genital encounter – the value of each lies in the quality of meaning and emotional response which it conveys together with the appropriateness of the action to the fundamental relationship of love in terms of the commitment of the persons in any given situation. (A36)
When it is the appropriate expression of love and mutual discovery, coitus is the physical enjoyment of a present union and a symbolic anticipation of that fuller union with the other which belongs to the kingdom of heaven . . . The passion and ecstasy which may accompany true love-making — especially in genital encounter — are to be seen as total self-giving and not regarded as simply a loss of control. (A38)
Largely thanks to the work of Dr Jack Dominian, the truth of the above position is now widely accepted even within the Roman Catholic Church.
A later Methodist document, Report of Commission on Human Sexuality, presented to Conference in 1990, goes still further in celebrating the goodness of sexual joy in the love-making of a married couple. It recognizes that ‘the context for sexual intercourse is much wider than the strength of the former link with procreation suggested’ since its purpose is to ‘form, develop, reinforce and renew a bond of love within the context of a committed, personal, loving relationship, and to give and receive mutual pleasure in one another’. It links this insight to the advent of effective contraception;
In recent years, advances in contraception have helped heterosexuals to celebrate sexuality and to engage in sexual activity for itself and not only for its procreative purpose. It is this separation of sexual intercourse from procreation which has brought about a freedom, known already to lesbians and gay men, to value sexual activity for itself… This separation has invited heterosexuals to ask the question: if a sexual act is not for procreation only, what else is it for? The answer for all of us is that this act is but one expression of our sexuality, and that our very sexuality belongs integrally to our being human. Sexuality is essential to our humanity, (nn. 14—15)
TWO CONTRIBUTIONS ABOUT HOMOSEXUAL RELATIONSHIPS
To accept, as the above statement does, that sexual loving does not need to be justified by any procreational purpose but that it is good ‘as an expression of unity between two persons . . . within the context of a committed, personal, loving relationship’ leads the conversation to look at another question. Should it not follow from this that sexual love in a ‘committed, personal, loving homosexual relationship’ should also be regarded as good? In Chapter Four we have already listened to what the Methodist and Roman Catholic Churches have said on this issue. Here we will listen to contributions from two other Churches. Though this might seem to be giving inordinate attention to the issue of homosexuality, we would be missing out on some of the richness of the conversation if we overlooked them. The first speaks about the theology of creation in a very challenging way and the second gives a very helpful summary of alternative Christian positions.
1. The Church of England
The Church of England looked at homosexuality in two of its reports. Although Homosexual Relationships (1979) is in some ways the more substantial of the two, Issues in Human Sexuality (1991), from the House of Bishops, makes a more interesting and provocative theological contribution to our on-going conversation. That is the report considered here.
When they consider the issue of homosexuality, the bishops set out ‘two fundamental principles of equal validity and significance’:
The first is that homophile orientation and its expression in sexual activity do not constitute a parallel and alternative form of human sexuality as complete within the terms of the created order as the heterosexual . . . Heterosexuality and homosexuality are not equally congruous with the observed order of creation or with the insights of revelation as the Church engages with these in the light of her pastoral ministry. (5.2)
(The second is that) homosexual people are in every way as valuable to and as valued by God as heterosexual people. God loves us all alike, and has for each one of us a range of possibilities within his design for the universe. (5.4)
Part of their argument in favour of their first principle lies in their belief that ‘the physical order is sacramental’:
If the physical differentiation between the sexes is not only relevant to the biological process of reproduction but is also integral to the personal spiritual realities of mutual self-giving, parenthood and complementarity, then this is a major instance of a principle that lies at the heart of the Christian world-view: that the physical order is sacramental . . . Our bodies can be the means of forwarding a spiritual and, where there is a living relationship with God, a divine purpose in our lives. For this to happen, however, there has to be a harmony between the physical and the spiritual. When we think of our bodies in this light, we see that they need to be used in a way that is both proper to themselves and in harmony with the spiritual realities we are trying to express and foster. Psychologically, this corresponds to the ideal of an integrated human personality, where body, feelings, mind and spirit work fully together. Theologically it corresponds to the desire that every aspect of ourselves should be aligned with God’s will. (4.19)
However, the bishops’ positive pastoral attitude towards Christians living in a gay or lesbian relationship and expressing their love for each other sexually seems to by-pass this principle altogether. Instead, it is based on respect for the conscientious decisions of such homosexual persons rather than on any possibility that their homosexual orientation and behaviour might have any goodness in itself:
Of Christian homophiles some are clear that the way they must follow to fulfil this calling is to witness to God’s general will for human sexuality by a life of abstinence … (5.5)
At the same time there are others who are conscientiously convinced that this way of abstinence is not the best for them, and that they have more hope of growing in love for God and neighbour with the help of a loving and faithful homophile partnership, in intention lifelong, where mutual self-giving includes the physical expression of their attachment. In responding to this conviction it is important to bear in mind the historic tension between the God-given moral order and the freedom of the moral agent. While insisting that conscience needs to be informed in the light of that order, Christian tradition also contains an emphasis on respect for free conscientious judgement where the individual has seriously weighed the issues involved. The homophile is only one in a range of such cases. While unable, therefore, to commend the way of life just described as in itself as faithful a reflection of God’s purposes in creation as the heterophile, we do not reject those who sincerely believe it is God’s call to them. (5.6)
The compromise character of this pastoral approach led the bishops to insist that their acceptance of a homophile lifestyle on grounds of conscience did not apply to clergy living in ‘sexually active homophile relationships’ (5.17).
This report has been criticized for its inconsistency. For instance, Michael Banner, in his article, ‘Five Churches in search of sexual ethics: A short commentary on a statement from the House of Bishops and some other recent reports’, in Theology, 1993, pp. 276-89, remarks that, unlike Paul to the Corinthians, the word from this report ‘certainly seems like Yes and No – or rather No and Yes’ (p. 276). However, he gives two cheers to the bishops for their treatment of the order of creation, seeing it ‘as at the very least indicating a sense of the importance of a theme in Christian ethics which the present era is inclined to forget’ (p. 281). As we shall see a little later, he himself is firmly wedded to a Barthian interpretation of the doctrine of creation.
In their ethical evaluation of homosexuality the bishops’ position is very similar to the official Roman Catholic position, though their pastoral approach is very different. They insist that a homosexual orientation is contrary to God’s order in the world. Hence, in no way is it a gift from God. They are implicitly saying to gay men and lesbian women: ‘You are wrong in what you believe about yourselves, but we recognize your sincerity. Since we respect your conscience, erroneous though it is, you may be part of our church fellowship provided you are not part of the ordained ministry’ Theologically, the main argument on which they base their stance seems to be that heterosexuality, understood as ‘man—woman complementarity’ (4.17), is a fundamental dimension of God-given creation. Hence, for the bishops one of the special difficulties for homosexuals is the fact that ‘their sexuality can be a barrier rather than a help toward full man-woman complementarity’ (4,19).
2. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
The 1993 report The Church and Human Sexuality came out of an ongoing discussion of sexuality over four years within the American Lutheran community. It bears the sub-title, ‘First Draft of a Social Statement’. This is because the writers found among Church members three different positions, all supported biblically and theologically. Consequently, they judged that their community needed to continue talking and listening to each other on this issue: ‘Because of the differences present in our church, we are challenged to listen respectfully to the witness of those whose perspectives differ from our own’ (p. 16). This ‘first draft’ was never voted upon and did not result in any official policy position of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Nevertheless, its very succinct summary of three different stances on gay and lesbian relationships found among Lutherans is worth quoting in toto since it reflects the different, positions found within most Churches involved in the ongoing conversation:
Among members of our church, three responses are common:
Response 1 To love our neighbour who is homosexual means to love the sinner but to hate the sin. The church should be loving and accepting of persons who are homosexual, welcoming them as members, but clearly oppose their being sexually active. All such activity is contrary to God’s Law. Negative moral judgements should be upheld and homosexual persons expected to abstain from sexual activity. Repentance should be expected from those who do not abstain, trusting that out of divine grace God will forgive them, as God does all repentant sinners.
Those who hold this position tend to view homosexuality as a disease or a serious distortion resulting from the Fall. Because of this disease or distortion, such persons cannot responsibly live out their Christian freedom through sexual activity, even in a committed relationship. Some believe that homosexual persons can be changed in their sexual orientation, so that the loving response is to encourage and help them to change. Others believe that a homosexual orientation is basically given, that change is unlikely, and that lifelong abstinence is the only moral option.
Response 2 To love our neighbour means to be compassionate toward gay and lesbian persons and understanding of the dilemma facing those who do not have the gift of celibacy. It is unloving to insist upon lifelong abstinence for all persons whose homosexual orientation is an integrated aspect of who they are. To tell them they will never be able to live out who they are as sexual beings is cruel, not loving. Thus, the loving response is to tolerate, perhaps even support mutually loving, committed gay and lesbian relationships.
Those who hold this position tend to view homosexuality as an imperfection or example of brokenness in God’s creation. Although homosexuality may not reflect what God intends for our sexuality, in an imperfect world we must respond realistically to the situations in which people find themselves and promote what will be less harmful to individuals and communities. It is more in keeping with God’s intentions to live out one’s homosexuality in a loving, committed relationship than through loneliness or casual sexual activity. This is somewhat analogous to how remarriage following divorce is viewed today: as a necessary accommodation in a broken world.
Response 3 To love our neighbour means open affirmation of gay and lesbian persons and their mutually loving, just, committed relationships of fidelity. Such relationships are the context for sexual activity that can be expressive of love for one another. Prohibiting this expression of love is incompatible with the love of God we know through Jesus Christ, who challenged religious rules that hindered love for the neighbour. God’s redemptive and sanctifying activity empowers gay and lesbian Christians to live lives of responsible freedom, including through faithful, committed sexual relationships. It is untenable to maintain that those who are gay or lesbian should have to live lives of secrecy, deception, or loneliness, alienated from self, others, and God.
Those holding this position tend to view homosexuality as another expression of what God has created. Homosexuality should be lived out with ethical qualities, boundaries, and structures consistent with those that apply to heterosexual persons. The church should move toward a practice of blessing committed same-sex unions, (pp. 15-16)
THE CHURCH OF ENGLAND AND COHABITATION: INTRODUCING ‘DIVERSITY OF LIFESTYLE’ AS A NEW TOPIC IN THE CONVERSATION
If the quality of the relationship is the major factor to be considered, the conversation among the Churches could not fail to face up to the issue of cohabitation. What is so sacred about a formal marriage ceremony? If a cohabiting couple are truly living a committed and faithful personal relationship, are they not honouring the heart of what Christians believe about sexuality and love? Clearly, this is not just an abstract debating issue. Young couples in Britain and across Europe seem to be voting with their feet. In a relatively short period of time cohabitation seems to have become an acceptable practice.
In its 1995 report Something to Celebrate: Valuing Families in Church and Society, the Church of England was the first to raise cohabitation as an issue in the conversation between the Churches. This report, focusing principally on the family, was written by a Working Party of the Board of Social Responsibility. It soon came under fire in the Synod, including a broadside from the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Carey. The objection was that it was undermining the institution of marriage. This seems rather unfair. The foreword, written jointly by the Bishop of Liverpool and the Bishop of Bath and Wells, states clearly that ‘the vision of the Report is to affirm marriage as the basic framework’ (p. ix). Moreover, the section on cohabitation, which occasioned much of the criticism, reiterates the Report’s emphasis on the centrality of marriage:
The Christian practice of lifelong, monogamous marriage lies at the heart of the Church’s understanding of how the love of God is made manifest in the sexual companionship of a man and a woman. The increasing popularity of cohabitation, among Christians and non-Christians, is no reason to modify this belief. On the contrary, it is an opportunity and a challenge to the Church to articulate its doctrine of marriage in ways so compelling, and to engage in a practice of marriage so life-enhancing, that the institution of marriage regains its centrality. (p. 118)
For our purpose what is of greatest interest in this report is its treatment of the diversity of family structures. This is linked to one of the three main themes of the report highlighted in its Introduction, namely, diversity and respect. There it insists that ‘we cannot assume that a particular shape of family, to the exclusion of all other, is God- given’, though it is also careful to note that ‘diversity, like uniformity, should not be accepted uncritically’ (p. 6). As the Introduction implicitly notes, this respect for diversity links in with the notion of learning from experience how God is working in people’s lives:
Welcoming diversity implies a respect for differences. It is important to be open to how God is working in people’s lives as they are . . . There is no value in telling them that they ought to start from somewhere other than where they are. (p. 7)
Chapter 4, ‘Theological perspectives on families”‘, notes the de facto diversity in family patterns that has existed in the past and continues to exist today. It suggests that the Church will only grow in wisdom in this whole area of life through listening to all the ways God is speaking to us, including the findings of historians and the social sciences:
Christians celebrate the goodness and providence of God both in creation and in the process of history: One dimension of God’s goodness is clearly to be seen in the rich diversity of creation and the variety of ways in which human beings live together in their different cultures and societies. This variety of patterns of human community exists likewise in those primary communities we call ‘families’. The cross-cultural researches of anthropologists and sociologists and the findings of historians of the family help us to appreciate the diversity and to recognise that whatever we affirm as being good and true for family life has to take this seriously. This has important implications. It suggests that no single form of the family is a kind of God-given ideal, in relation to which every other form has to be compared and evaluated . . ,
What is necessary is to develop and practise ways of living together which seek to embody the wisdom which Christians believe comes from God and is revealed in Christ and the Christian way. This wisdom is deep and wide. It draws on biology and what the natural sciences teach us about gender, sexuality, reproduction and human development. It draws also upon history and what the humanities and social sciences have to say about what people past and present have found to be good and life-giving ways to live together and raise children. It draws upon the witness of scripture and tradition to Christ as the wisdom of God who gives life and light to the world. This wisdom is God’s gift to humanity. It is for people in nuclear families and people in extended families. It is for people whose families are dispersed. It is for lone-parent families. It is for people in a cohabiting relationship. It is for people in a same-sex relationship. It is God’s gift to all humanity in all its diversity, (pp. 87-8)
The authors insist that openness to diversity ‘does not mean that “anything goes” in forms of family life’ (p. 88). However, as Christians we should not feel threatened by what we experience as different, as though ‘our own position is the last barrier against a tidal wave either of moral chaos or of moral oppression’ (p. 88). The authors add some wise advice, very relevant in view of the conversation idiom pursued in this chapter: ‘our vocation is not to shout at each other from entrenched positions, but to walk alongside each other so that we can share what wisdom we have about the family in a spirit of humanity and love’ (p. 88).
Against this background, the authors of the report go on to make some challenging statements. For instance, though they agree with the House of Bishops in Issues in Human Sexuality (1991), that ‘the greater the degree of personal intimacy, the greater should be the depth of personal commitment’ (p. 108), they are still prepared to suggest that there might be room in sexual ethics for a positive appraisal of sexual loving on the part of some mature non-cohabiting single people:
We are aware of the many mature single people in contemporary society who do not feel called to be celibate and yet seek to live creatively and ethically in right relationships with others, with themselves, and with God. We believe that one of the tasks facing the Church in the years ahead will be to develop a sexual ethic which embraces a dynamic view of sexual development, which acknowledges the profound cultural changes of the last decades and supports people in their search for commitment, faithfulness and constancy, (p. 109)
The report’s treatment of cohabitation notes that ‘It is expected that by the year 2000, four out of five couples will cohabit before they marry’ (p. 209). The Working Party had been asked to pay particular attention to this issue. They make a number of suggestions as to why cohabitation is so much on the increase in Britain and elsewhere and note a variety of reasons why this development is giving people cause for concern. At a practical level, the authors offer two pieces of advice to the Church. The first concerns the phrase ‘living in sin’:
The first step the Church should take is to abandon the phrase ‘living in sin’. This is a most unhelpful way of characterising the lives of cohabitees. It has the effect of reducing cohabitation in all its complexity of intentions and variety of forms to a single, sensationalist category. Theologically and ethically it represents a serious failure to treat people as unique human beings. It perpetuates the widespread misconception that sex is sinful and that sin is only about sex. (p. 117)
The second piece of advice advocates a more open and less judgemental approach to cohabitees on the part of Church congregations:
Anxiety among church goers about cohabitation is best allayed, not by judgemental attitudes about ‘fornication’ and living in sin’, but by the confident celebration of marriage and the affirmation and support of what in cohabiting relationships corresponds most with the Christian ideal. Being disapproving and hostile towards people who cohabit leads only to alienation and a breakdown in communication. Instead, congregations should welcome cohabitees, listen to them, learn from them and co-operate with them so that all may discover God’s presence in their lives and in our own, at the same time as bearing witness to that sharing in God’s love which is also available within marriage, (p. 118)
By situating them in the general context of its diversity theme, the report’s 3-page discussion of lesbian and gay partnerships, though short, is very positive. However, it adds nothing of real substance to what we have heard already in the conversation. One final point of interest in the report is found in its section on ‘Households’. It warms to the suggestion made in a submission by the Jubilee Policy Group that ‘relational values’ is ‘a more helpful and more inclusive term’ than ‘family values’. Moreover, under the heading of ‘essentially healthy relationship values’ it lists: ‘trust, fidelity, honesty, truthfulness, commitment, continuity, compassion, self-sacrifice, forbearance, kindness, generosity, sharing respect, understanding, loyalty, co-operation, solidarity’ (p. 121).
TWO CONTRIBUTIONS DRAWING TOGETHER THE MANY THREADS OF THE CONVERSATION
1. The Church of Scotland
In 1994 the Church of Scotland General Assembly was faced with two different reports dealing with sexuality and marriage and also touching on homosexuality. ‘On the theology of marriage’ was a report from the Panel on Doctrine. The other report, entitled ‘Human sexuality’, was from the Board of Social Responsibility. (Texts in The Church of Scotland: Reports to the General Assembly, 1994, pp. 257-85; pp. 500-16)
The report commissioned by the Panel on Doctrine was accepted unanimously by the Working Party which prepared it. However, six of the fourteen members of the Panel itself opposed it and insisted on their note of dissent being added to the report. In the light of the issues we have been considering, some of their reasons for dissent are particularly interesting;
4. The Report effectively drains away authority from the Scriptures by diverting the question of what the Bible means and teaches into an endless and drifting ‘conversation’.
6. The Report virtually ignores the doctrine of creation and thus underplays the significance of the male-female distinction as a structure of creation and divine gift and fails to recognise marriage as a God-ordained institution.
7. The Report, in its recommendations concerning same-sex relationships and pre-marital sex, weakens the Church’s ability to speak prophetically by implying that these forms of sexual relationships are morally equivalent to marriage, thereby weakening the normative status of marriage and diminishing the significance of the two-parent family.
Despite these criticisms from six of the Panel on Doctrine, I found this report to be a very well-informed, up-to-date and responsible piece of writing on the theology of marriage. It opens with a discussion of scriptural interpretation which fully recognizes the role played by social construction and the implications of this for theology;
It is an insight distinctive to the 20th century that our interpretation of Scripture is likely to be bound up with our cultural and linguistic presuppositions. Access to wide comparative data from a large number of disciplines, the cross-fertilisation of cultural exchange and interaction, the studies in history and social science which document the impact of social conditioning, all raise general awareness of the way our ideas are embedded in a particular inherited social structure. At a theoretical level, the ‘sociology of knowledge’ suggests that all human understandings of reality are likely to be relative to the specific cultural context in which people operate. (3.3)
Within the churches, there is increasing recognition that all theology is bound to be ‘contextual’ – not just in the sense of addressing a particular situation, but in the sense of emerging from particular patterns of speech, thought and understanding (often unselfconscious) and deeply embedded in structures of social, linguistic or cultural belonging. The idea that there can be an uncontested ‘universal theology’, free from such cultural conditioning and filtering, seems to many implausible. For those who want to claim absolute certitude and authority in matters of doctrine or ethical perception, such recognition of cultural relativism seems threatening to the claim that God reveals himself. It may, however, be seen not as a loss of religious nerve, but as an affirmation of how partial, or even distorted, the human reception of God’s self-disclosure is liable to be; in which case it is seen as proper humility in the face of the variety of ways that God’s truth has been understood within different traditions and at different periods of history. ‘Where pluralism is denied, finitude is forgotten, and faith is corrupted into an idolatrous absolutising of one of its particular expressions.’ (3.4)
After stressing the importance of marriage in a very moving and powerful passage (4.2), the report goes on to speak of marriage in the language of ‘sacramental mystery’, drawing inspiration from the Orthodox sense of the sacramentality of creation;
Marriage at its best is transparent of the goodness of God, offering glimpses of the joy, fidelity and communion which mark the life of the Kingdom, and enjoying the benediction of God’s lovingkindness. This sense of marriage as a sacramental mystery is confirmed by the widespread human experience of the marriage relationship as the most precious and deep exploration people make in their life history. (4.7)
The report also recognizes very realistically the extra strains on the marriage relationship today, including the fact that ‘marriage often assumes structures of an earlier patriarchal society which are no longer acceptable to many people’ (7.4d). It even acknowledges that the Church has colluded in this situation:
We must recognise that the Church has, in much of its traditional utterance and practice, accepted and reinforced a patriarchal account of family structures which makes women subservient to men. This account has treated women, informally if not officially, as domestic servants or possessions, whose time and energy are at the disposal of husband and family with or without consent. (7,7)
When it considers same-sex relationships, the report notes that some Christian gay and lesbian partners see their relationship as ‘God-given and God-sustained’ (9.2). The report then makes a very challenging statement which, in fact, is quite consistent with the flow of the conversation as we have seen it developing between the Churches:
If we wish to suggest that the ultimate vindication of a marriage lies in the free, mutual giving and receiving of selfhood, which makes for the wholeness of the partners, body, mind and soul, there has to be significant reason given for denying a comparable wholeness to people of same-sex orientation. (9.3)
A similar point is made a few paragraphs later:
Since, for us, marriage is no longer tied to procreation but is vindicated by the love and commitment it sustains, and since we believe God welcomes and invites such relationships between men and women for their own sake, the relevant question is whether he may welcome them also for homosexual people. (9.6)
The report answers that question by stating:
Given our increasing understanding of human sexuality in this century, it seems arbitrary and cavalier of the heterosexual majority to deny their gay brothers and sisters the fullness of relationship they themselves enjoy — unless they are sure that such relationship is utterly repugnant to God, or damaging to wider human wellbeing. (9.6)
The final conclusion of the report brings the whole discussion back to the basic focus on the quality of relationships, suggesting that marriage at its best offers a God-given paradigm of a loving and life-long relationship but querying whether that paradigm need exclude the goodness of other relationships involving sexual intimacy:
We believe that the emphasis of our advocacy of marriage must not be about the legitimacy or illegitimacy of specific sexual acts, but about the virtue of cherishing, mutual, communicative, loving relationships. It is these relationships which show what it means that we live, in the image of God, not as self-sufficient units, but in the giving and receiving of life from one another. Marriage is a God-given paradigm of that life-long exchange of life, and we share the desire to affirm that. What divides us in the Church is whether other relationships involving sexual intimacy may also belong, however imperfectly, to that affirmation of self-giving and receiving mutuality, and may be offered to God in good faith as a response to his gifts of human love and sexuality. (10.9)
The second of the two reports to the General Assembly is entitled Human Sexuality, and comes from the Board of Social Responsibility. It concentrates on sexuality in general rather than on marriage. Its main focus is pastoral. Its discussion of homosexuality looks at views about possible causes of the homosexual condition and examines different ways of interpreting the witness of the Bible regarding homosexuality. While the report deliberately refrains from, giving its full support to either side of the debate, in the course of. its treatment it poses two challenging questions to the Church:
Sexuality lies at the heart of our self-hood and sense of identity, developing with us from the beginning of life. In the light of this, how are those who find themselves attracted to someone of their own sex to express their sexuality in their living and relating? Such fulfilment and realisation will follow many pathways including possibly genital satisfaction. In view of the difficulties inherent in this question, it seems logical to ask to what extent those of the minority orientation of homosexuality are to be free to enjoy God’s gift of sexuality. Since sexuality is an essential part of a person’s identity, can this be denied without severe psychological and emotional damage? (8.2.1)
It is the quality of the relationship which is paramount and in this context sexuality plays a significant part. Sexuality, therefore, serves primarily to initiate, cement, and enrich relationships. Procreation is a ‘second order’ function of sexuality, ordained of God but not its main role, which is to do with relationship. It is clear that many human partnerships display valued and sought-for qualities and we must ask whether such relationships, which include the possibility of genital sexuality, are to be denied to those who are of the same sex. (184.108.40.206)
2. The Presbyterian Church (USA)
A very interesting contribution to the conversation is the report of a Special Committee on Human Sexuality presented to the 1991 General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA). It is entitled Keeping Body and Soul together: Sexuality, Spirituality and Social Justice. Like some other officially commissioned reports we have looked at, it was received but not endorsed by the General Assembly. In fact, it occasioned a very heated dispute both prior to and within the Assembly.
Michael Banner, in his article referred to earlier in this chapter, is very scathing about this report, dismissing most of it as ‘mere rhetoric’ (‘Five Churches in search of sexual ethics’, p. 282). He criticizes it for lacking any appreciation of ‘what belongs to the created order and what does not’. This latter criticism reflects Banner’s own Barthian standpoint which, as he himself explains, stands four-square behind a male—female interpretation of gender differentiation which he sees to be an essential element in the doctrine of creation:
To be created in the image of God means for the Book of Genesis, so Barth alleges, to be created male and female, and it is in the creation of woman, with and for the man, that both creation accounts see the completion and perfection of God’s work. Furthermore, he argues, we can assert (on the strength not only of the Book of Genesis but also on the basis of the rest of the Old and New Testaments which find such meaning and significance in the man/woman relationship) that it is in the duality of male and female that humankind is determined in its creaturely being as the covenant-partner of God; that is to say, that this earthly determination of humankind as man and woman corresponds to the divine determination of humankind for covenant with God. (p. 282)
It is this which lies behind Banner’s criticism of the report as being based on a ‘popular and thorough-going individualism’. For him the report ‘baulks at the idea that men and women are made for fellowship and thus are, as individuals arid alone, in some sense incomplete’ (p. 283). In her essay, ‘Homophobia, heterosexism, and pastoral practice’ (in Jeannine Gramick, ed., Homosexuality in the Priesthood and the Religious Life, New York, Crossroad, 1989, pp. 21-35), Rosemary Ruether rejects Barth’s position precisely on the grounds that it is based on a theory of human development that is ‘truncated’ and merely reflects patriarchal social roles:
This condemnation of homosexuality as incomplete and narcissistic is a basic reinforcement of heterosexism. Its doctrine that only heterosexual sex is ‘whole’ is actually based on a truncated human development for both men and women in which both must remain ‘half people who need the other ‘half in order to be ‘whole’. This truncated personality development reflects patriarchal social roles. The male and female stereotypes are asymmetrical and reflect the dominance-submission, public-private splits of the patriarchal social order (Barth, 1961, 116-240).
Against this patriarchal social stereotyping, I would claim that all persons, male and female, possess the capacity for psychological wholeness that transcends the masculine-feminine dichotomy. Once this is recognized, the argument for heterosexuality, based on the genders as complementary opposites, collapses. All sexual relations, all love relations, should be the loving of another person who is complexly both similar and different from oneself. Such relationships should help both to grow into their full wholeness. Complementarity, by contrast, creates a pathological interdependency based on each person remaining in a state of deficiency in relation to the other, (pp. 24-5)
The authors of the report begin by outlining the ‘massive, deep-seated crisis of sexuality’ in contemporary culture:
This crisis shows itself in distorted, often highly negative attitudes, about sex, bodiliness, and intimacy needs. It is also evident in deeply oppressive patterns of sexual abuse and exploitation. At the heart of this crisis are entrenched patterns of unjust and dehumanizing power relations between men and women . . . The crisis of sexuality we are experiencing is, in fact, a massive cultural earthquake, a loosening of the hold of an unjust, patriarchal structure built on dehumanizing assumptions, roles, and relationships. This unjust structure stifles human well-being and stands in contradiction to the gospel mandate to love God and neighbour as self. (Keeping Body and Soul Together, p. 3)
They reject the solution offered by ‘sexual libertarians’ as failing to recognize that human persons are essentially relational and social beings (p. 5). They then shift the conversation in a slightly different direction by insisting that the justice dimension must be at the heart of any sexual ethic (p. 7). Unfortunately, their notion of ‘justice-love’ is never explained with any precision. This probably explains some of Banner’s dissatisfaction. Yet such imprecision does not invalidate what the report is trying to say through its emphasis on justice-love’. Perhaps it should prompt other participants in the conversation to try to give it greater precision and clarity. I find it interesting, for instance, that Professor Enda McDonagh commented recently that the ‘quality of relationships’ criterion might be given more bite if we looked at relationships from a justice angle.
The report tackles head-on the ‘complementary’ approach to gender-differentiation, rejecting totally a gender dualism in which ‘neither partner functions – sexually or socially – as a fully integrated person, but rather as a fragmented complementary half (p. 15). It goes on to insist on the need for a thorough-going structural analysis if the Church is to cope with the challenge of structural injustice entrenched in our culture in the three forms of gender and sexual injustice, racism and economic injustice:
This challenge requires a critique and reconstruction of the dominant sexual code in our culture . . . Understanding this challenge requires shifting to a structural analysis of sexuality and understanding its social construction. Sex and human sexuality are never simply matters of what comes naturally, but rather always culturally encoded. By this code, sex and sexuality are given distinctive shape. To say that human sexuality is socially constructed or coded is to pay attention to how we give social meaning to our sexuality and how those particular meanings shape, to a very great extent, our attitudes and responses … It is our conviction that this patriarchal code, not the persons questioning and deviating from it, is what is morally deficient and unjust. Far from being natural, much less divinely decreed, this elaborate social construction of sexuality is built on two false assumptions: gender inequality and male control of women’s lives and their bodies, (pp. 15-16)
As mentioned earlier, Banner dismisses much of the report as ‘mere rhetoric’. It might be more accurate to say that the report refuses to stand on the side-lines and dispassionately present two sides of the debate without offering any definite conclusion of its own. Its authors are clearly convinced that patriarchy is evil as well as being all-pervasive. They also believe that patriarchy is not a natural phenomenon. It has been constructed by human agency and the only way it can be eliminated is also through human agency. On the other hand, they are convinced that sexual diversity is a natural phenomenon and is not evil. In the light of these beliefs and convictions it is understandable that much of their writing in the report is very impassioned and almost has a campaigning flavour about it. For them, there are major issues of justice involved here. This presents a dual challenge to the Church — first, to put its own house in order and stop colluding with this injustice, and secondly, to become actively involved in the wider movement to right this injustice.
In the overall context of the conversation taking place among the Churches, perhaps a very impassioned intervention like this has an important role to play. For the most part, those actively involved in the conversation tend to be fairly open-minded and well-informed. Their own hesitations may often come from a concern not to alienate the more conservative members of their Church. In their own minds they may actually agree with some, or even most, of the thrust of the Presbyterian report. To hear it voiced so passionately might be a healthy reminder to them that, ultimately, the Church’s mission is not to make sure it keeps all its membership on board but to play its part in forwarding the coming of God’s Kingdom in the world. It cannot be denied that the Presbyterian report loudly proclaims the urgency of this task.
Throughout the conversation between the Churches studied in this chapter, increasingly the main emphasis has been moving towards the quality of the relationship. With the acceptance of the relational significance of human sexuality and the acknowledgement that this is not necessarily or essentially bound up with its procreative function, there has been a growing tendency to make ‘quality of relationship’ the prime criterion in sexual ethics. For instance, in the debate about contraception, it has been argued that individual acts which are biologically contraceptive can be interpreted as humanly/ethically procreative in the light of the procreative quality of the whole relationship. Others have gone further and argued that, since sexuality is primarily relational rather than procreative (children being the fruit rather than the raison d’etre of the relationship), a committed, faithful sexual relationship can be ethically acceptable even without any intention of having children. Provided the couple are open to life and to other people, the quality of such a relationship can be described as creative rather than procreative. A reinterpretation of the ‘inseparable connection’ mentioned by Humanae Vitae seems to be taking place. As sexual persons, created in God’s image, it is the inseparable connection between life and love that we must respect, rather than the ‘unitive and procreative significance which are both inherent to the marriage act’ (Humanae Vitae, n. 12). Our loving relationships must be life-giving in a relational and social sense. This naturally introduces the issue of gay and lesbian relationships on to the agenda. Although they have no procreative dimension, same-sex relationships can also be life-giving and creational and can show all the ‘relational values’ listed at the end of the previous paragraph. Surely, it is argued, their ethical goodness must, therefore, be accepted – and celebrated.
It has also been claimed that this ‘quality of relationship’ focus throws light on the problem of marriages which have broken down because the relationship took on a destructive quality. Are Christians obliged to stay in a relationship which is destroying them as persons? Pushing the argument still further, does such a catastrophic deterioration of quality, if irremediable, indicate that there is no longer any real marriage there at all, since, in terms of interpersonal love, the relationship has ceased to exist? That, in turn, brings into the conversation the question of remarriage after divorce. If the first marriage, precisely as a loving relationship, is dead, why should not the partners be able to experience the life-giving healing of a new loving relationship, if the opportunity presents itself?
Another aspect of ‘quality of relationships’ has found its way on to the agenda after a long and hard struggle by women. For the most part, their voices have not been properly represented in the official Church bodies engaging in the conversation. This explains why, except for the 1991 Presbyterian (USA) report, their position has not been given a major hearing in the conversation. The case being argued by these women is that, very widely, the quality of heterosexual relationships has been corrupted by the all-pervading oppressive influence of patriarchal attitudes and structures. Some are also maintaining that to use marriage, as it exists, as the paradigm for a ‘good quality relationship’ is unacceptable, since the very institution of marriage has been hijacked by patriarchy.
This, in turn, provides part of the explanation for the next item which appeared on the agenda, cohabitation. It is recognized that, in some instances at least, this lifestyle is embraced as a protest against what is seen to be the oppressive quality of the marriage relationship and as an attempt to build a more just style of relationship built on the foundation of equality and mutuality.
In the background of the whole conversation there has been the controversial issue of how far the quality of the relationship legitimates its expression in sexual activity. Once it became clear that every sexual act was not, by its very nature, open to procreation, it became much easier to accept that the principal significance of the human sexual act was relational, rather than procreational. Moreover, when its biological procreative function came more easily under human control and the risk of an unwanted pregnancy decreased, ‘sex is fun’ became the popular theme of a permissive society. So the conversation had no choice but to discuss the ‘recreational’ dimension of human sexual activity. This led to a more explicit acceptance of the joy and pleasure of sex as God-given. However, it also helped the conversation to clarify the Christian position and be able to teach that sexual pleasure and joy is short-lived and delusory if it is separated from its primary context within the full relational dimension of human sexuality. Human sexual joy is personal, not just physical. When it is achieved by reducing one’s partner to the level of a sex object, it is dehumanizing and wounding for all concerned. However, that having been stated, the question still remained. Is there something about genital sexual activity which makes it inappropriate and even self-defeating outside a committed and faithful relationship? This seems to be as far as the conversation among the Churches has reached.
In this chapter, we have limited ourselves to eavesdropping on the conversation taking place among some Christian Churches through the various statements on sexuality they have produced. We have only listened to some snatches of their conversation. Although these snatches have been important, there have been other bits of the conversation, of perhaps equal or even greater importance, which we have missed out on due to lack of space and the limitations of the topics under consideration. Furthermore, the conversation we have been listening to is only part of a much wider conversation among theologians and others, inside and outside the Christian community. To some extent, we have already listened to a little bit of that wider conversation in the previous two chapters.
In the next chapter, in the light of that wider conversation and taking account of the Church statements we have listened to, I would like to offer some tentative signposts pointing us towards new directions in sexual ethics. Despite their deficiencies due to the limitations of this study and my own personal inadequacy, I hope they might be helpful to the Churches and to Christians struggling to discern the way forward in this daunting but exciting area of human life.