THE bishops have given themselves two years to produce their teaching document on sexuality (News, 30 June). Meanwhile, one of the most pertinent questions raised by Canon Andrew Davison and Simon Sarmiento is about the meaning of “purity” for Christian theology and ethics (Comment, 23 June).
When I was a teenager, in the 1960s, “purity” was already out of fashion. We all knew about impure thoughts and where they might lead; but we were also told that thoughts and feelings about sex were natural and non-alarming. From our point of view, generations of Christians were over-concerned about sexual purity. But we find it difficult to give the term any meaning at all. Scripture and tradition condemn premarital sex as fornication; today we find that mildly embarrassing.
Meanwhile, we are pretty tolerant of broken marriages. Former partners often marry again with celebration and without censure. Even those who are most critical of gay marriage on scriptural grounds are sometimes remarkably tolerant about the failure of heterosexual marriage.
Increasingly, it seems, even in church circles, that heterosexual sex is a private matter that has little to do with God. Homosexual sex, on the other hand, continues to divide and trouble us. The question of purity is, therefore, a disturbing one, because it involves all of us: gay or straight, married, celibate, or something other.
It takes a theologian of the stature of Canon Sarah Coakley to illuminate our dilemma. In The New Asceticism: Sexuality, gender and the quest for God (Bloomsbury, 2015; Books, 29 January 2016), she invites us to think again about what we mean by desire, a word that applies to both our search for God and to our strivings for sexual fulfilment.
What we all need, she suggests, is a recognition that desire is fundamental to what it is to be human, and that it is possible to find a middle path between repression and the disordered desire of promiscuity. This involves what she calls “a new asceticism”, a contemplative awareness that the Christian spiritual journey involves a progressive purification of desire.
This is what purity is all about, and it traditionally involves a process of personal discernment by which we come to find fulfilment by limiting our choices and living within them. If the debate about homosexuality is considered in this light, it is surely rather important that, after centuries of being condemned as beyond all bounds of purity, some gay couples are seeking to live a vowed, faithful, and accountable life, taking on the asceticism, if not always the name, of marriage.
The Bishops should reflect deeply on the moral significance of this.