Amongst the rush of responses to the report from the House of Bishops last week, one of the more considered came from Miranda Threlfall Holmes (vicar of Belmont and Pittington on the outskirts of Durham, but soon to move to Liverpool Diocese) and it was widely circulated on social media. It offers (along with other comments) some insight into the different approaches to this issue, and the nature of the chasm between the viewpoints in the debate.
MTH makes two opening observations. The first is that the process we have been engaged in has strong parallels with the process undertaken in the discussion about women’s ordination as bishops. There seems to be an assumption that ‘we all know where we are going to end up’, suggesting an inevitability about the final decision, as well as the implication that the issues are the same, despite the evidence to the contrary. The second observation is that you cannot ‘change tone’ without ‘changing underlying assumptions, doctrines and rules.’ In other words, anything short of change in doctrine will not be enough. MTH then goes on to offer ten suggestions for the planned teaching document which might make it useful beyond the Church, in response to the invitation in the report.
1. ‘Stop talking about sex outside marriage being inherently sinful’. Because heterosexual couples coming for marriage are mostly already living together, so don’t see sex outside marriage as sinful, we should not only stop saying this, we should stop believing it. This seems an odd way to do our theology of the body—determined by the contemporary morals of those outside the Church. It ignores the biblical theological vision of humanity as a psychosomatic unity, so that what we do with our bodies both expresses and reinforces our beliefs and commitments, an idea which lies behind not only Paul’s understanding of sexual ethics (1 Cor 6.16) and Jesus’, (Matt 19.5, debates about indissolubility notwithstanding), but also Anglican liturgical language about marriage (‘may the joy of their bodily union strengthen the union of their hearts and minds’). MTH also seems oblivious to the impact of the sexualisation of relationship, not least on girls and women who are consistently disadvantaged by it.
2. To claim that ‘Marriage isn’t primarily creating something new…’ is very odd indeed. Apart from creating something new in law (contrary to popular belief, there is no such thing as Common Law Marriage in England), a basic understanding of speech act theory tells us that when we make promises, something does actually come into being that did not exist before. Marriage vows create a commitment and security that was not there before—as both the statistics on break-up of cohabitation, and the reluctance of many (usually men) to enter a marriage commitment testify. Again, it is more often the women (and children) who benefit from the increased sense of permanence that marriage affords.
3. MTH is quite right to point to the historical use of marriage—but (like others in the debate) she is in danger of assuming that marriage law and marriage practice equal marriage theology, which they clearly don’t. For example, on the question of property, both the BCP marriage rite and its modern translation in Common Worship are remarkable and consistently egalitarian—which suggests that the historical problem was not with the theology, but with the lack of it.
4. Recognising that ‘perceptions, images and understandings of marriage are historically, geographically and socially context-bound’ doesn’t imply that absolutely everything is ‘changeable’—unless you sign up to a critical dogma that no person or text can ever speak beyond his, her or its historical context. If you do sign up to this, then you end up with some rather large problems with orthodox Christology, since you have decided that God cannot speak with transcendent significance in a particular historical context.
5. I have no real idea why MTH thinks that the idea of ‘biblical marriage’ is jeopardised by the narrative depiction of faulty and failed marriages throughout Scripture. It suggests a bizarrely wooden way of reading narratives and their theology, as if what is depicted is what should be, and an ignorance of how biblical texts actually have functioned in theological debates about the nature of marriage.
6. If MTH thinks that concern about sex outside of marriage prevents discussion about other issues in sexual relations, I would like to invite her to the next New Wine seminar that I offer on a biblical theology of sexuality, where these other things are addressed specifically. Or could it be that she relies for her information on one particular online debate without actually engaging in what goes on in other parts of the ecclesial world?
7. The question of sex difference is a contested one, but part of that contesting is some odd denials of demonstrable differences between the sexes, as if interchangeability was necessary for equality. Where is the vision for women’s equality which does not depend on women ‘leaning in’ like men would do? Why do we not seek to value activities more highly in which women excel rather than men, and instead allow a male employment scenario to set the agenda for women?
8. ‘Taking love seriously’ in a fallen world must involve taking seriously both the fact that we look to God to know what love looks like (so that Christian ethics cannot abandon deontology in favour of situation ethics) and that simply giving me what I think I want cannot define loving action. Ask the parents of any spoilt child. In this area, as any other, human life might act as a mirror of God’s life, but it is a distorting mirror, and we need to know by God’s revelation of himself what the truth really is that will set us free.
9. I would love MTH to point me to a single ‘conservative’ commentator who believes that ‘we need to be perfect to be acceptable’. Is this a wilfully ignorant statement, or just ignorant? Most observers would note the opposite problem: that ‘conservatives’ talk too much about how sinful we are, and continue to be, and so ever in need of grace and forgiveness. I would also be interested to hear MTH’s comment on Jesus’ demanding ethic of holiness: ‘Be perfect, just as your Heavenly Father is perfect’ (Matt 5.48).
10. MTH would like us to use the Bible ‘more intelligently’—and then dismisses the theological reading of the creation narratives as an aetiological myth outlining a theology of marriage as nothing more than seven-day creationism. Perhaps, then, we need to add ‘Read those who read the Bible intelligently with some intelligence.’ The least intelligent reading of Scripture we were offered in Synod was the idea that same-sex sex, which is everywhere in Scripture spoken of in the strongest and most negative terms, was in fact the eschatological goal towards which marriage and sex in the Bible were pointing—but the problem was that not one of the Bible authors or characters (including Jesus and Paul) had quite got round to spotting this marvellous insight which we, with the assured results of modern scholarship, can now see as plain as the nose on our face. More intelligent reading? I am up for that!
(Even if you disagree with the agenda, do look at Martin Davie’s observations for some more serious theological substance.)
Implicit in all this seems to be an assumption that we all knew where this was going, and that the HoB report is unexpected because it is not continuing on the same journey. This was sometimes expressed in the language of ‘direction of travel’—despite the fact that those who were concerned about pre-emptive change were repeatedly assured that there was no assumed ‘direction of travel’, and that the conversations were about listening to one another for greater mutual understanding, with no particular outcome anticipated. That was directly contradicted by Vicky Beeching, who explained that ‘we shared our experiences on the understanding that this would lead to change in the church.’ If the SCs were set up with the promise to one group that change would result, and to another group that there was no assumption about changed, it was surely inevitable that one side or other was going to be bitterly disappointed by the outcome, and raises a serious question about the integrity of the process.
I remain hopeful about the next moves, and the idea of a teaching document. In answer to MTH’s question about its value, I think that it is perfectly possible for a teaching document to articulate a biblical theology of sexuality and look like good news to many people. For me, it would need to include:
- Sex is God’s good gift in creation. The Church has often struggled with that but, as Diarmaid McCulloch pointed out, that was often because the Church paid too much attention to Greek philosophical ideas, and too little to the teaching of Jesus and Paul.
- Human life is bodily, and our bodies are inherently good. We are not spirits (or internet browsers) trapped in an unfortunately material world.
- Sex differentiation is a normal, natural and inevitable part of this bodily life.
- Our sexual lives should form one part of an integrated physical, emotional, relational, communal and spiritual life.
- Sex is powerful—powerfully good when used right, and powerfully damaging for so many people when it goes wrong.
- Humanity is fallen, and this affects all aspects of our sexuality as well as every other area of our life.
- Sexual activity is therefore bounded, not because sex is bad, but because sex is powerful and we are fallen. The boundaries God has put in place are, rightly understood, there for our flourishing and well-being, and in particular serve to protect the weak from exploitation by the strong.
- Sex is penultimate—it is not the most important thing about us, and there are more important ways to understand who we truly are.
There is much here which offers good news to a world and a culture in which the misuse of sex does so much harm.
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