Do we have a better story about sexuality and faith?

Are you confident about orthodox Christian teaching about sex, sexuality and marriage? Are you happy talking about it, and find it easy to communicate it persuasively in our contemporary culture with its approach to gender identity? Do you understand how Western culture reached its current position, and see both the positives and the problems in that? And are your area, episcopal and denominational leaders in the same position? In which case, read no further.

If, on the other hand, you feel more like most other Christians and Christian leaders—baffled at the bewildering changes in culture, hesitant about making sense of biblical teaching, and confused about connecting what seem to be two very different worlds—then you probably need to read Glynn Harrison’s recent book A Better Story: God, Sex and Human Flourishing. Glynn was formerly Professor and Head of Department of Psychiatry, University of Bristol, UK, where he was also a practising Consultant Psychiatrist, and was for many years a member of the Church of England’s General Synod, so he is well qualified to address this complex area. But the book is very accessible, and Glynn practices what he preaches, by illustrating big ideas through telling some simple but memorable stories.

The first part of the book explores how we have arrived at the position we are in within Western culture. He notes that the changes we now see, which appear on the surface to be sudden and fast-moving, are in fact the working out of a long process of cultural change that goes back to the period following the Second World War. In particular, he identifies the growth of belief in radical individualism as the key social, epistemological and ethical driving force—and does so persuasively, with several attractive features to his argument. First, he does not suggest that there is simply some malignant ideological force at work here, in that he recognises both the power of ideas but also practical social and economic realities which have had an impact, for example on the power balance between men and women. Secondly—and rather strikingly—he does not see these changes as all negative, but recognises the positive aspects of these changes, and refuses to believe that there was some halcyon period of ‘Christian Britain’ to which we must strive to return. (If the book was longer and more detailed, it might here be interesting to explore the dynamic between periods of chaos and unpredictability, usually followed by periods of conformist moralism as a reaction, often then leading to a reaction against these constraints.)

But the most notable feature of this section is Glynn’s use of well researched ideas and the ‘big thinkers’ of history to explain quite directly the practical reality we are in. After mentioning Marx and Nietzsche, drawing insights from C S Lewis and making a valid connection between gnosticism and contemporary attitudes (which some will question), he draws on Jonathan Haidt’s model of the six psychological foundations by which we make moral decisions. Glynn explains this clearly, and illustrates it beautifully through two narrative scenarios—an imagined situation of a traditionalist grandmother who quickly changes her view when her grandson comes out as gay, and a less-than-hypothetical situation of a leading politician who was in the past pressured into an embarrassing induction ritual for a dining society (!). Glynn uses such stories very artfully. He perfectly prepared to argue that an apparently ‘traditional’ ethical position might simply be based on visceral disgust, and if so then it is of little value and, despite appearances, does not in fact find its place in Christian ethical thinking. (Again, in a longer work it would be interesting to explore further the significance of such ‘disgust’ mechanisms within our understanding of human flourishing.) But he also confronts the reader with her or his own reflection on ethical thinking. If we do buy into the individualist framework of ‘it’s fine if it does not harm anyone else’ (which seems so universally persuasive as a moral position) then on what basis do we object to things which have been widely objected to within Christian ethics? The question exposes the shallowness of much contemporary popular Christian ethical thinking.

Glynn goes on to explore other aspects of contemporary culture, including the power of the ‘narrative arc’ of the individual hero which is so prevalent not only in film but in the debates that we have about sexuality and the sexual revolution (if you don’t believe me, consider recent debates in General Synod!). I was also glad to see Glynn make use of the insights of the sociologist Peter Berger and his idea of ‘plausibility structures’ which explains so much about why we buy into certain explanations of reality, and the way pressures to do so are magnified by the growth of social media. (I have been left with a particularly vivid illustration of the dynamics of shame from a simply illustration: in the past, a girl trips up in from of a group of boys, and has a moment of shame to contend with; now, her fall is captured by a phone-camera and circulates in perpetuity.) The story of Peter Tatchell’s protest during a sermon by George Carey on p 62 is particularly powerful, illustrating why so many bishops and other Christian leaders are terrified of being made to look foolish in public on this issue.

These sections will not only open your eyes to what has been going on around us, but also opens our eyes to the way that we collude with this, and the forces which are really shaping our outlook and convictions.

The middle section of the book is quite short, but it does a couple of important things. First, it points to the failure of past expressions of Christian ‘traditional’ sexual ethics, noting both the unhelpful focus on shame as well as the ineffectiveness in practice of much of what was said and done. But it also points to the way that the sexual revolution has failed—and is failing more and more—children in our society as they grow up, and how we are investing in problems for the future as a society. He also touches on the problems of self-identification in relation to self-esteem—though that is really the focus of his previous book, The Big Ego Trip.

The final section is where Glynn does some positive theology on the question of sex, sexual desire and Christian ethics. He connects the importance of relationships with the relational nature of God as Trinity—and I think manages to steer clear of the mistake of making the Trinity our social programme. He also picks up on the work of James A K Smith and the theological significance of human desire as ultimately an expression of our desire for God. (I would always like this language to be highly qualified, in part because of the negative view of ‘desire’ in the NT, and the way it expresses such longings using quite different language—and because contemporary discussion of this sometimes fails to match NT dispositions on sexual ethics.) Glynn gives away his own ‘conservative’ position at a number of points, and particularly in the statement on p 161, that ‘Human flourishing is tied to human obedience and the law of consequences’ which some readers might question—but which is hard to escape when reading the story of God’s dealings with his people in Scripture. His final chapter offers a summary of the key aspects of what the ‘good story’ of the biblical vision of human sexuality as it might engage with contemporary issues, and he offers his own narrative of the task of engagement as a reply to his earlier characterisation of the narrative of the sexual revolution. It includes these paragraphs:

The huge changes wrought by the sexual revolution over the past few decades have made us think long and hard about what we really believe. We realise that we had often allowed a deficient, sub-Christian view of sex to dominate our communities and shape our attitudes. This made us look harsh and judgemental, and many people felt diminished and excluded…

Sexual revolution has been a wake-up call for us, and we want to turn back from these failures. The revolution has challenged us to acknowledge, and deal with, shame we feel about her sexuality, and we owe it a debt of gratitude. But as time passes by, it’s becoming ever more clear that the sexual revolution has failed as well…

Faced with these realities, we have rediscovered our vision for sex and marriage, a vision rooted in the big story of God’s love for the world. As Christians today, we come in all shapes and sizes, different sexualities and from all kinds of ethnic backgrounds. But our real story begins with our name – Christians. For us, identity isn’t something we discovered within ourselves, or something shaped by our ever-changing culture; it is something that God has given us…

We don’t want to repeat the mistakes of the past. While we can’t stop advocating for ways of life we believe bring flourishing, we won’t try to impose them again, because people must be free to make their own choices. Instead, regardless of circumstances or background, we want to invite anyone and everyone to join us in this adventure and prove it for themselves.

So this is a hopeful book, but it will take you on a journey of facing some harsh realities of where we are as a culture, and the challenge that we face in making a plausible case for the biblical vision of human sexuality that leads to genuine human flourishing. Glynn is confident that it can be done, but is also aware of what it will demand. And, in any case, what is the alternative? He begins the book (p xv) with a poignant but accurate depiction of the situation we are in, particular those in Christian leadership who avoid the issue:

You have to sympathise with them. High-profile Christian leaders and evangelists don’t want their entire ministry hijacked by a slip of the tongue that brings down the wrath of the Twitter mob shouting ‘hate-filled!’ But if this is how the shepherds behave, think about how the sheep must feel. They smell their leaders’ fear. Confused and ashamed, some young evangelicals have already begun salami-slicing their convictions about the authority of the Bible. Others, like their leaders, are keeping their heads down, hoping and praying that the whole dreadful business will somehow go away. But it won’t. It just keeps on coming.

If that rings any bells with you, then it is time to buy and read this book!

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21 thoughts on “Do we have a better story about sexuality and faith?”

  1. Looks like a great book, thanks for reviewing it.

    The roots of the sexual revolution go back well before the Second World War! To at least the 1920s and Freud, Bloomsbury Group, Frankfurt School, contraception (e.g. 1925 Lambeth Conference) etc. And really back further to Marx, Nietzsche, Mill, Bentham…. It was brewing a long time.

    Isn’t shame underrated? Aren’t we supposed to feel shame about doing things wrong? Isn’t a bigger problem in our culture a surfeit of shamelessness? I know I’m glad that I feel shame when I do things wrong (though not at the time obviously).

    • Its sinful. End of.

      Recognising that we were born into a spiritual warzone, and that our identity is shaped by our creator (rather than something we dream up ourselves) helps us to understand the context of our existence.

      Spiritual warfare, which is a huge part of every human’s existence, whether they realise that fact ot not, and we have a subtle and active enemy who seeks our destruction. One of the chief weapons used against us is temptation.

      Sadly, we have not been born into a creation where God’s sole concern is our physical comfort and erotic satisfaction.

      So just as it is sinful for a heterosexual person to engage in heterosexual sex outside of a heterosexual marriage, it is equally sinful for a person to engage in homosexual acts. In both instances, the sinfulness of such acts is not mitigated by the strength of desire the individual feels to commit the sin.

      The flesh is constantly at war with spirit – this is a lifelong battle every believer must face and win in order to have a deeper walk with the HS. Simply throwing your hands up and saying “I fancy that person so what can I do?” is absurd.

  2. What does he say about the truth (as I argue from Ephesians 5:18-33, 1 Corinthians 11:3-16 and Genesis 2) that ‘the man is kephale of the woman’ is a feature of God’s ‘very good’ creation of humanity before the Fall, and about the implications of that truth for the ordination of women as set out by Paul in 1 Timothy 2 and 3.
    In answer to James Byron’s question, I hope he argues that the compelling argument, based mainly but not exclusively on Romans 1 and that God-man, Christ-church, Man-Woman asymmetry, that the inclination to same-sex attraction and practice is a sinful inclination like any other sinful inclination and like any other sinful inclination it is a result of the Fall. This is indeed a hard doctrine for those who have such an inclination and for those who are close to those who have such an inclination. For we are all called to put to death whatever sinful inclinations we have and to resist the temptation to obey them. And those of us who believe that hard doctrine should be aware of the beam in our own eyes. For instance have I, have we, tried, really tried, tried to the point of agony, to resist the inclination, the temptation, to disobey the command to be content with food and clothing and (by implication) to give the money saved to those in need?

    Phil Almond

    • You’re right, Philip, “sinful inclination” is the heart of the opposition: and is why the traditional position will never be good news for LGB people. However much its PR dept. tries, the church can’t spin such an inherently negative position. Polish the surface as it likes, the interior remains rotten, a whited sepulchre that cannot stand.

      • James
        The Fall and Original Sin, the wrath and condemnation of God which we all face, is bad news for us all. These are terrible and hard truths for us all. But to ignore/disbelieve these truths is to throw the whole Bible, Old and New Testaments alike, into the bin. From your posts I perceive, correct me if I am wrong, that you are ready to do just that – because these truths are evident throughout. We all have to fix our minds, as Vernon and Brian have said, on the day of judgment and on that wonderful sincerely offered deliverance which, when embraced, will in the end present those who embrace it, whatever their sinful inclinations, ‘unblemished before his glory with exultation’.

        Phil Almond

      • Inclination and attraction aren’t themselves sinful, otherwise it would be sinful to be tempted.

        The same-sex attracted who also experience natural sexual attraction are of course able to get married, and often do, including some who previously identified as gay or lesbian.

        Those who experience no natural sexual attraction are in effectively the same position as others who never marry. Like them, their only moral choice is to commit to a chaste life, but there is always grace for those who in weakness fail and repent.

        • Will
          Just to clarify. I think Article 9 needs rewording to make it fully accurate – but – nevertheless – I do think that the final clause is true: ‘yet the Apostle doth confess, that concupiscence and lust hath of itself the nature of sin’. According to Griffith Thomas (p161-162, Principles of Theology) this clause is directed against the Roman Catholic doctrine of Original Sin. And, as I keep saying, the Article is right that we are all faced from birth onwards with the wrath and condemnation of God and we are all born with a nature inclined to evil.

          Phil Almond

          • Lust/concupiscence cannot mean all sexual desire as the desire for sex and sexual pleasure cannot be sinful as it is involuntary. If you asserted that you would have to assert that temptation was sinful (or draw some kind of arcane distinction between sexual temptation and sexual desire which wouldn’t stand up), for Christ was tempted in every way as we are but without sin.

            Sin is a moral fault, which is a fault of the will (we need to distinguish ordinary sin here from original sin to avoid getting confused). Merely experiencing desire for sinful things cannot be sinful as that is temptation and it is involuntary (though if your free actions have placed you in a situation where you were knowingly more likely to face temptation and succumb then you may be culpable on that score).

            Lust, in the sense of Matthew 5:28, must mean indulging in active sexual fantasy of a sinful kind rather than merely experiencing sexual attraction to a woman, which is involuntary and not morally culpable and thus not sinful.

          • Will

            I agree that heterosexual attraction is not a sin; it becomes a sin when it is yielded to in thought or action with respect to anyone other than husband or wife. But I am not sure from your reply whether you are agreeing or disagreeing that because of the Fall we are all born with a nature inclined to evil, and that inclined to evil means inclined to sin, and that we all have an inclination to sin and that for some people that includes an inclination to homosexual attraction, (for some an inclination to be selfish, or to be cruel etc.) and that we are all called to put to death whatever sinful inclinations we have and to resist the temptation to obey them.

            Phil Almond

          • No not disagreeing with that. Just pointing out that experiencing same-sex attraction and inclination is not itself sinful. Experiencing the desire for sin is not sinful, though it is a result of original sin.

          • Will
            Just to clarify again: you are disagreeing with ‘concupiscence and lust hath of itself the nature of sin’. And you are saying that the inclined to evil nature, the inclined to sin nature, with which we are all born, is not itself sinful. Is that right?
            Phil Almond

          • No, I’m denying that lust is the same as mere sexual desire or inclination. Lust is obviously sinful. But sexual desire as such is not lust.

            The fact that we are inclined to sin is a consequence of original sin. But the inclination itself is not itself sinful in the ordinary sense. Otherwise you make temptation sinful, which can’t be right.

      • If you are going to talk of’whited sepulchres’, you might want to consider that Jesus, when Jesus used the metaphor, he unleashed it upon the Hillelite Pharisees.

        Despite their religious heritage and painstaking obsession with ritual observances, they were contemptuous of John the Baptist’s austere life (Matt. 11:18).

        They also had no problem with setting aside their differences and joining with the Herodians (who supported Antipas) in trying to discredit Jesus’ ministry, including His insistence on the enduring applicability of the Genesis narrative to the nature of marriage.

        So, if anything, what characterises the ethos of ‘whited sepulchres’ is respectable religiosity on the outside coupled with corruptive self-serving permissiveness on the inside…which pretty much sums up modern-day sexual revisionist churchgoers.

  3. I heard him speak at the Langham insitute John Stott lecture last year, he was very good, I bought the book and read it. and I have since encouraged clergy to buy the book as well as giving some away to clergy too.

    It’s a good approach that Glyn proposes. and has certainly helped me to think through how I can communicate what I think is the Biblical view on human secuality.
    I think communicating what we are for and why is much better than always being pushed to say what we are against. But this is a a difficult issue as as soon as you are not in tune with the new orthodoxy of inclusion and equal marriage then you face a full frontal verbal assault. Our local MP (Tim Farron) had a torrid time on this issue during the general elction.

    It makes me reflect on my time at Holy Trinity Wall street New York during a sabbatical in 2006, I came away reflecting that while the Gospel was inclusive, inclusiveness was not the gospel.
    I wonder how much of the church’s malaise on this issue is in part due to our embarrrasement at talking about the judgement after death and the loss of an end time perspective. We have become a very contextual focused church which has narrowed not just our ecclesiology but also our Christology.

    Vernon Ross
    Archdeacon of Westmorland and Furness

    • “I wonder how much of the church’s malaise on this issue is in part due to our embarrrasement at talking about the judgement after death and the loss of an end time perspective. We have become a very contextual focused church which has narrowed not just our ecclesiology but also our Christology.”

      I think there is a lot of truth in that. Throughout most of history there was an expectation that life for very many would be painful and uncertain and the consolation of faith was largely focused on the joys of heaven. Increasing wealth, better medicine and the proliferation of painkillers, along with secularisation and critiques of religion from science, have led to churches redefining their role as in the first instance as giving psychic balance and congruity to people (counselling the bereaved, helping the addict, strengthening marriages etc) and acting as a conscience to politics (remember the poor, be fair, oppose war). The ‘prosperity gospel’ has also stressed physical healing and financial security. All good things in themselves – but not the gospel itself – but in the modern world this was the social space granted the Church. And Anglicans have happily gone along with this arrangement because they want a place at the table in a post-Christian Britain. To step outside those bounds is to risk the wrath of the stung conscience of modern white people who define themselves by their sexual desires and equate happiness with the fulfilment of their desires. It is not hard to understand why Muslim communities (for all their enormous hypocrisies and the suppressive violence within) have rebelled against the sexualisation of public life in the west and the threat this poses to their traditional (and patriarchal) order of life.

      • Brian,

        Thanks for this brilliantly summarised explanation of how the established Church has surrendered to marginalisation as consequence of liberal Western political movements lobbying for legislation to protect absolute sexual autonomy as a quasi-ethnicity.

  4. Hi Ian,

    While Glynn Harrison’s book is worth reading, there’s cause for listening to more of what’s society is actually saying and paying less attention to the pessimistic reverberations within the ecclesiastical ‘echo chamber’.

    Despite recent Church scandals and most politicians capitulating to secular values, MORI’s 2016 Veracity Index showed that clergy continue enjoy public trust with only nurses, doctors, teachers, judges, scientists and the police ranking higher.

    In fact, the credibility of following professions and roles all ranked below the clergy: civil servants, lawyers, pollsters, managers in the NHS, economists, charity chief executives, trade union officials, local councillors, bankers, business leaders, estate agents, journalists, government ministers and politicians generally.

    In contrast, the Autumn 2016 nfpSynergy Trust in Charities research revealed that, as an institution, the Church’s credibility ranks below the supermarkets, the mass media and the legal profession.

    If the Church wants to ‘make a plausible case for the biblical vision of human sexuality’, it has much more to do with re-building Church’s reputation as a public institution for the common good (which has been terribly marred by its scandalous previous connivance at historic abuse) than with this endless hand-wringing over the most effective evangelical rhetoric by which the ‘wrath of the Twitter mob’ can be averted.

  5. I strongly agree with Vernon Ross and Brian. On David’s ‘it has much more to do with re-building Church’s reputation as a public institution for the common good’ I comment: Ultimately the ‘common good’ is repentance and submission to God and Christ and embracing the offered salvation from wrath and condemnation. Only God in his love,grace and mercy can bring that about. But the Church’s responsibility is to proclaim that terrible warning and wonderful message of deliverance In general, that is not happening.

    Phil Almond

    • Hi Philip,

      I’d agree that, ultimately, the common good is ‘repentance towards God and faith towards our Lord Jesus Christ’, but, in that context, St. Paul knew and warned of the scandalous behaviour by which that message of reconciliation could be obscured by the Church.

      For people to make sense of the gospel, they must learn by both precept and example. This is amply demonstrated by the witness of Thessalonian converts to Christianity:
      ‘The Lord’s message rang out from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia—your faith in God has become known everywhere. Therefore we do not need to say anything about it, for they themselves report what kind of reception you gave us. They tell how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead—Jesus, who rescues us from the coming wrath.’ (1 Thess. 1:8-10)

      By comparison, the CofE has become characterised by a culture of connivance and equivocation which provides a platform for liberal bishops and high-profile activists to broadcast and insinuate unwarranted change without hindrance, or regard for catholicity and due process.


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