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Angela Tilby: Addressing the purity question

07 July 2017


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.

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