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Purity, lust, and marriage

14 June 2013

Adrian Thatcher on three new books in the field of sexuality

Bible, Gender, Sexuality: Reframing the Church's debate on same-sex relationships
James V. Brownson
Eerdmans £19.99
Church Times Bookshop £18 (Use code CT124  )

Theology and Sexuality (SCM Core Text)
Susannah Cornwall
SCM £25
Church Times Bookshop £22.50 (Use code CT124  )

Transcendent Vocation: Why gay clergy tolerate hypocrisy
Sarah Maxwell
Christian Alternative £11.99

JAMES V. BROWNSON is a New Testament scholar who tells us that he was a "traditionalist" about gender and (homo)sexuality until his 18-year-old son told him that he believed he was gay. That changed everything. The book is earthed in biblical scholarship (there are four chapters on Romans 1.24-7), and proves beyond doubt that minute attention to the biblical text need not, and should not, result in the crass ideological claim that homosexual practice is incompatible with scripture.

A microscopic examination of biblical texts concludes that there is no hierarchical complementarity of male and female in the Bible. There is instead, similarity, so that the modern dogma of complementarity cannot legitimately be used against same-sex unions. The "one flesh" of both Testaments refers to "the common bond of shared kinship"; so, while the Bible assumes that such unions take place between a man and a woman, it does not require it. Procreation requires marriage, but marriage does not require procreation, and so cannot be refused to same-sex partners on that basis. Compulsory celibacy for lesbians and gays "stands in some tension with the affirmation - of both Jesus and Paul - that lifelong celibacy is a gift for some but not for all".

Paul thought of homoeroticism as excessive, self-centred lust, not as the result of a sexual orientation. Committed same-sex relationships fall well outside the catalogue of sins in Romans 1 and Paul's explanation of them. Exploration of the purity/impurity distinction connects impurity to excessive desire and lack of restraint. Same-sex unions cannot, therefore, be regarded as impure on these grounds. The Bible invites us to imagine a new creation, "a deeper vision of 'nature' as the convergence of individual disposition, social order, and the physical world . . .". Same-sex unions in the new creation need not be seen as "contrary to nature".

Bible readers should ask "not only what is commanded . . . but why". They may find that answers to "why questions" may no longer be applicable. The distinction between "normal" and "normative" is commended to readers. For example, it is undoubtedly normal that marriage takes place between a woman and a man: whether it is also normative is a different question. Any attempt to "reframe the Church's debate on same-sex relationships" will require more attention to theology and history, but this book deserves to be successful in convincing conservative readers (if anything can) that the biblical passages on which the "traditional" case depends need to be read differently.

Susannah Cornwall has quickly established herself as a leading theologian in the area of sexuality, and her book is an exemplary addition to the SCM Core Text series. She draws on a variety of different theological authors and positions, and describes and interrogates them with scrupulous fairness, often referring to official Anglican and Roman Catholic teaching. She introduces readers to key terms (aided by a glossary) and some key ideas of modern secular authors. The text includes activities and question boxes, useful both in the classroom and in private reflection.

The list of topics covered is comprehensive. It includes incarnation, desire, body and body theology, Trinity, types of love, gender complementarity, virginity, celibacy and asceticism, queer theologies, and much more. There are full chapters on the meanings of marriage (together with its suitability for same-sex couples) and on same-sex relationships. Cornwall is already the global authority on intersex. This and the subject of transgender are sympathetically introduced.

Cornwall engages with contem-porary students' sexual agendas, and these include topics that an earlier generation would have considered theologically unreachable. The chapter "Sex Outside Marriage" contributes to theological reflection not only on cohabitation and masturbation, but on polyamory, "open fidelity", prostitution, and paid sex work. A later section - "Complex Sex" - even handles BDSM practices (if readers need to look it up, the glossary tells them that it means "bondage, domination, sadism and masochism"). A fine neologism is coined - "sex-chatology" - to express our "future hope for a new creation" in which sexuality is "so fully and rightly integrated into human being that it's no longer a site of pain, tragedy, violence, jealousy, doubt, shame and self-loathing as it sometimes is in the present world".

Sarah Maxwell has two aims: to expose "the many forms of hypocrisy operated by the Church of England in its approach to gay clergy"; and to find out how gay clergy managed to transcend all the negativity and stigmatisation directed towards them. The title of the book is the answer to that question. Readers will feel the pain and frustration of her interviewees "from the inside". Perhaps, more impressively, they will admire the "transcendent vocation" of those priests who continue to minister despite the disgraceful prejudice shown to them. Their testimony deserves to be listened to most by the people who are most unwilling to hear it.

I commend all three books. They confirm Maxwell's contention that "as society's attitudes have become more liberal, so official Church of England pronouncements have become more determinedly conservative." What passes today as official teaching is shown to belong to another era altogether. 

Dr Thatcher is Visiting Professor of Theology at the University of Exeter. His latest book is Making Sense of Sex (SPCK, 2012).

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