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Made in the image of God

29 May 2015

Rod Garner celebrates the work of a great Anglican social reformer


Guiding star: Josephine Butler, photographed by Elliott & Fry, London; date unknown

Guiding star: Josephine Butler, photographed by Elliott & Fry, London; date unknown

DESPITE the growing literature associated with her life and work, Josephine Butler remains largely unknown or forgotten.

She is commemorated in the Common Worship calendar on 30 May, a 19th-century social reformer who confronted a sphere of human activity which lurked in the shadows and prompted hypocrisy and hardness of heart on the part of religious and political leaders.

As the leader of a long and bitter political campaign, she worked tirelessly to end cruel and unjust legislation that allowed women suspected of prostitution to be arrested and forcibly subjected to painful and dangerous examination.

Since her death in 1906 - when the obituaries paid tribute to her astonishing achievement - much has changed in the buying and selling of sex, and the attitudes of those within the industry. The internet is making the sex trade both safer and easier. Although some prostitutes are exposed to trafficking and exploitation, many make mutually satisfactory deals with people who, for a variety of reasons, seek their services. As sex workers, they view themselves as neither sinners nor victims, and reject the identification of prostitutes with abjection or shame.

This change in self-understanding has helped to mitigate the stigma associated with prostitution over long centuries. The Church played a significant part in this process of condemnation, viewing fallen women as penitents primarily in need of rescue and conversion from "unpardonable" transgressions.

The selling of sex remains, however, a morally complex business. At one extreme, it encompasses women and men freely engaging clients through the internet at agreed prices; at the other, street sex, offered by vulnerable individuals driven by addictions, poverty or fear, who have little or no control over their lives or choices.

There is an important moral distinction here. With regard to the latter, and in the face of sustained opposition from the Church and Parliament of her day, Butler refused to condemn prostitutes. At the House of Rest she established in Liverpool in 1867 to accommodate women from the degradation of the streets and the workhouse, penance was never a prerequisite to admission. There was no talk of sin, only love and acceptance, and the offer of Christ, who defended a woman from stoning, and released a woman from "bonds of infirmity" (Luke 13. 10-17).

Butler remains a guiding star for any Christian seeking to understand or help prostitutes. Her example reminds us that they are individuals, made in the image of God. They are our equals, inviting neither our condescension nor our calculated compassion. By entering their very different world, the possibility of change and human solidarity can emerge through ministries of hospitality and presence.

By contrast, the emerging world of internet transactions that provide ready access to prostitutes raises real difficulties. Online services of this kind treat participants as objects, and reduce human intimacy to the promotion of economic sexual exchanges. Within the Christian vision of relationships, people are not a means to an end, nor even ends in themselves. They are instead to be signs of the liberating Kingdom of God - what Butler described as "the reign of righteousness" - in which the fullness of our God-given humanity can be revealed.

It is difficult to detect signs of such flourishing in an industry that sometimes places women in humiliating, frightening, and potentially dangerous situations, even when freely contracted.

Furthermore, the claim that sex work is based on women's freedom of choice, and their right to decide what they do with their bodies, owes much to the relativism that defines our age. It has little to do with the religious notion that individual choice should not be pursued without regard for harmful consequences - such as the destructive effect that extra-marital sex has on couples or families. Such choices contribute nothing to the "good and wise ends" that Butler envisaged as the proper vocation of lives whose deepest desire rested in the love and service of God.

Prostitution remains the world's oldest profession, and technology is providing it with a new impetus. The challenge to the Church is to demonstrate that it has a better vision of relations between women and men than sex work provides, without resorting to judgement or reproach.

To do this, it will require the moral clarity that is the consequence of hard thought and, not least, the compassion and courage that enabled the prostitutes of Josephine Butler's day to see in her the face of Christ. 

Canon Rod Garner is the Vicar of Holy Trinity, Southport, Theologian to the diocese of Liverpool, and author of
Josephine Butler: A guide to her life, faith and social action (DLT, 2009).

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