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Sex and religion: When it all started to go wrong/right (delete as applicable)

17 July 2020

In fact, neither of the narratives about sex is right, argues Jessica Martin


Couples kissing at the Golf-Drouot in Paris in 1964

Couples kissing at the Golf-Drouot in Paris in 1964

IN THE Church of England, competing accounts of religion’s place in the great sexual rule-change of the past 60 years slug it out endlessly.

There is a progressive version, in which the world shakes off the chains of prejudice, conformity, and stultified gender roles, establishing an essentially sacred change for the better with which the stuffy old Church must catch up.

In this version, the gendered constraints and hypocrisies of the pre-permissive world are exposed as a spent violence. The Church should embrace change, ushering in a renewed, more generous, and more mutual relationship between faith and the secular world. It should hallow a wider range of sexual relationships than the current offering of monogamous, heterosexual marriage.

Along with this would go (though this bit is talked about less than you would imagine) the tolerance of a wide range of relationships/sexual encounters before marriage, or between marriages for those whose marriages have failed, as part of the search for a viable long-term hallowed relationship which works.

Nadia Bolz-Weber has recently told an American Lutheran version of this narrative (Books, 22 February 2019; Features, 30 August 2019), with considerable eloquence and with more honesty than is usual for the Church of England version, but set in a different world, a world in which religion has unimaginably more clout than in the UK. But we have UK versions, too.

Other storytellers offer a more nostalgic account. Once upon a time, they say, people knew the meanings of commitment and self-control, but have now forgotten them, to society’s spiritual detriment.

In this version, the Church is also gradually forgetting the importance of commitment, the sacredness of marriage, the virtue of sexual continence, true family values which put the nurture of children at the centre, the need to re-establish neater, more complementary ways of understanding right relationships between men and women. The Church’s readiness to forget its moral roots is dangerous, not least because it collapses the boundary between the ethics of Church and world, and therefore courts the already clear and present danger of rendering the Church redundant.

Some of these accounts theologise their nostalgia in the light of a strikingly unitary reading of the Bible. For them, the patriarchal nuclear-marriage values of the post-industrial West are God’s primary channel for teaching his creatures about the divine/human relationship.


EACH of these competing accounts strikes me as synthetic, polemical, and highly selective — or, to put it more directly, untrue. The “progressive” version doesn’t consider the cultural pressure upon individuals to be sexually active and successful, or the anxiety that builds around the constant presence of the erotic as a commodity, even as sexual permission takes other kinds of pressure off.

It seems bound to a vision of “progress” which doesn’t seem entirely borne out by events. How children are nurtured, who does the nurturing, and how families can put children’s thriving at their centre are all matters rightly seen as urgent, but their potential competition with adult claims to fulfilment are less often acknowledged.

The liberal position has genuine difficulties distinguishing between secular-led fashions of sexual behaviour and an authentically Christian sexual ethic. There is too small a space for ideas of mutual service and sacrifice for the sake of a communal good — whether that is a good of a particular household, of church, or of a wider vision of society. The “progressive” vision is reluctant to admit that different individuals’ rights may be in competition, even though (or, perhaps, because) a diversity of rights is central to its principles.

Meanwhile, the “conservative” version seems over-neat, with impossibly tiny boxes for “male” and “female” social and sexual roles, deliberately woven into a — distinctly strained — scriptural master narrative of “God’s plan”.

The conservative solution to the social difficulties of competing individual rights is patriarchal authoritarianism, or “male headship”. This attempts to re-establish pre-liberation male authority, softened by female domestic influence.

And the conservative view has virtues. It is rather a good thing to acknowledge that for communities to flourish there must be a mutual commitment to personal sacrifice for the greater good; and that a discourse that is only of competing individual rights will hurt people and impoverish society.

And it is certainly true that societies look as if they will be easier to run when only a few of their members get executive power. When families were embodied and directed by fathers, they were a stable social and political unit in a way that the negotiated alliance of two individuals which makes up modern coupledom is not. But there was an enormous amount of buried misery in those male-headed units, and, in the end, that model also wastes lives, hurts people, and impoverishes societies and households.


I DO realise that it is not quite fair to dispatch a major debate in a short space. But I suspect that my caricatures are recognisable. And, although I’ve complained that the liberal and conservative narratives are “untrue”, “untruth” of that kind isn’t really the problem that I have with them. Overarching narratives are always made by being ideologically selective. Each of these has clear claims as well as clear difficulties.

My problem with them is that they have been in political opposition for so long that their opposition seems sometimes to be much of their point. And they don’t seem to be thinking about faith itself, exactly, or even the character of Christian relationships, but what these groups think faith’s markers ought to look like in relation to the big, powerful, secular world.

Here is a thought experiment. Suppose that the lives of those Christians committed enough to take any notice of our internal battles are being treated as a kind of necessary collateral damage for an ecclesial civil war that is essentially about something else. Suppose that the rift over sexuality, which in the Church of England has found its highest tension over same-sex relationships, is only a stalking horse for an underlying issue, which is the question what the Church is called to stand for in wider public life.

Suppose that our division was itself handed to the Church on the back of a general cultural idolisation of sex as transcendent liberation, and that the Church has ever since been reflexively breaking itself in pieces on a rock carved with the features of a secular idol.

One party saw one set of dangers and decided that the Church should mark its identity through a defiant purity code drawn from a mix of scripture and myopic, male-dominated cultural nostalgia. (This was itself partly imported, like creationism, from the very different culture wars of the United States.) Perhaps, in the process, they also found themselves worshipping the purity-code version of sexuality, as if it was all that God had to say to his children.

Meanwhile, their opponents read the features of the idol as the next outworking of the Kingdom’s establishment on earth.

They saw it as another move towards the greater kindness and civility to which they understood the world to be inevitably travelling in the long master-narrative of human progress, in which the good of any particular lobby group represented the good of all, no problems, no contradictions — a world-turned-upside-down revolution in which the marginal would sing Mary’s song and yet in which, strangely, at the same time, the secular tellers of the story of improvement would continue quietly to decide who deserved to sing it next, and when. (The causes that deeply challenged the “mighty in their seats”, or that too obviously involved competing goods, would always be further down the list than the causes that they could more easily accommodate.)

For this group, the blending of Christian and secular ethics would show only that history was doing what it should; what might happen to the Church’s distinctiveness would be a decidedly secondary issue.


BEHIND these, in turn, lie very different visions of what the Church is, visions that are themselves — in the UK, at any rate — tied up with the history of Reformation and of Establishment. Faced with a terrifying loss of social influence — indeed, with the threat of effective disappearance as they haemorrhage congregations and are increasingly ignored in Government — the “puritan” and the “Anglican” traditions within the Church of England (always uneasily and precariously held together) reach for solutions characteristic of their differing histories and identities.

The “Puritans”, with a vision of Christian community based on the set-apartness of the “holiness” code, and with separatism deeply driven into Calvinistic foundations, favour a sharp-edged division between a gathered holy people and the wilderness of the wickedly immoral world.

Meanwhile, the “Anglicans” read the whole world as God’s field, in which sinners and saints mingle undetected, the Spirit blows where it wills, and only God can distinguish wheat from tares. This vision is, especially in England and Wales, underpinned by the ecclesiastical polity of establishment, which assumes that all in the nation belong, by default, to the assembly of the saved, and leaves ultimate judgement to God.

The incompatibility of these ecclesiologies has been a problem for the Church of England more or less since that Church was invented in the 16th century. And, in relation to sexual behaviour and relationships, their usual solutions don’t cope all that well with modern social realities.

The quasi-separatist solution, dependent though it is on its selective harmonisations of New Testament behavioural advice, also relies both on the remaining social reach and resources of establishment and on secular retrospection. “Holiness” looks like a mythically simpler world that resembles the 1950s more than it resembles biblical models. For quasi-separatists, there is no place to go outside establishment except to become a gathered cult — but, as the Established Church becomes itself more and more gathered, the advantages of full separation sharpen.

And the establishment default (you can’t really call it a solution) takes no real account of the loss of Christendom, so that the generosity of its state ecclesiology tips into absurdity.

When the cultural sense of belonging has disappeared from a significant percentage of your nation, how can you tell anyone anything at all about their behaviour and expect them to listen? Parish priests struggle with this problem every day, and not only in the area of sexuality. A generous elision of Church and world (especially in a world that is forgetting church) means the disappearance of both the distinctiveness and the authority of any religious voice. There is nothing left to do but to go with the new normal for the culture with which you have merged.


THIS is, of course, another cartoon of a complex situation. An awful lot has happened since the tense alliance of the Church’s tribes split apart in the 17th century; there are a mass of sub-groups not factored in to this account; sex is not our only current problem.

But, when frightened tribes quarrel, they need something to quarrel about, a profound difference that diplomacy cannot mend. For the Church, it is sexuality, and how it is defined and understood: as sinful or liberating, dangerous or generous. Yet, both sides agree that sexuality is central to what the Church stands for — and, in doing that, we have chosen to remake ourselves around an image with which, ironically, the world outside the Church is already at least partly disenchanted.

If these irreconcilable differences continue to be the competing stories governing our dis-ease, then we have let the real Lord of all our doings, directing all our pathways and all our dissension, all our understanding of the body of Christ and its institution in the big world, be the — already more than a little publicly tarnished — idol of sex itself.


The Revd Dr Jessica Martin is a Canon Residentiary of Ely Cathedral. This is an edited extract from Holiness and Desire: What makes us who we are? (Canterbury Press, £16.99; Church Times Bookshop £15.30). Another edited extract was published on 3 July.

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