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Book review: Vile Bodies: The body in Christian teaching, faith and practice by Adrian Thatcher

by
16 February 2024

A voice to attend to in ethics, says Robin Gill

PROFESSOR Adrian Thatcher taught theology at Plymouth (Marjon) University for 25 years, before retiring in 2004 and becoming an Honorary Professor at the University of Exeter. For eight years (1966-74), he was also a Baptist minister, before becoming a lay Anglican.

A champion of liberal Christian ethics and, doubtless, the bane of many church leaders, he is extremely well read, articulate, and productive, focusing specifically on the vexed territory of sexuality and marriage. His books include: Liberating Sex (1993), The Savage Text: The use and abuse of the Bible (2008), Making Sense of Sex (2012), Redeeming Gender (2016 for OUP), and Living Together and Christian Ethics (2002), and Gender and Christian Ethics (2020) — and I should acknowledge that the final two books were for the CUP series that I edit.

So, clearly, I am a fan. I do not agree with everything that he writes, but I am convinced that his voice needs to be heard by the Anglican Churches — challenging its leaders to be more nuanced in their handling of the Bible on issues of sexuality and to respond compassionately to changing sexual mores. Vile Bodies contains both challenges in abundance. It is relentless, pellucid, and wonderfully woke.

Its central thesis is that abusive theology, often based on faulty biblical exegesis, can result in abusive practice. He argues, for example, that a doctrine of male headship based on Ephesians 5.22-23 soon resulted in patriarchy and the subordination/abuse of women within both marriage and the Church. Or, again, texts such as Matthew 27.24-25 encouraged centuries of Christian supersessionism and anti-Semitism. Similarly, the absence of any critique of slavery in the New Testament allowed centuries of Christian support for slavery.

Of course, there were other political and cultural factors involved here, which Thatcher tends to minimise, but he surely has a point. When church leaders pontificate on, say, the ordination of women or same-sex marriage, they would be wise to take his challenge seriously — not least because of the mounting evidence, which he sets out at length, about their egregious failure over many years to safeguard the vulnerable from clerical abuse: “We have worked through many instances where violence has been justified both in, and on the basis of, scripture: where a male hierarchy has subordinated women and slaves; where the purity criterion has demeaned the bodies, lives, roles and careers of women; where deeply religious men have conducted an agonized war against their own bodies; where slavery is a natural fact factored deeply in Christian social understanding; where queer bodies are shown no mercy.”

Some readers may find his detailed and unflinching discussion of past purity attitudes to menstrual blood, nocturnal emissions of semen, masturbation, and anal sex distressing. Vile bodies are everywhere in his overview of church history.

Thankfully, though, he does offer glimpses of something else as well, including a fine chapter on the Synoptic Jesus, seeing him as someone who mixed with vile bodies and seemed relatively unconcerned about people’s sexuality. He also concedes that it was Anglican bishops in 1930 who pioneered acceptance of barrier forms of contraception within marriage (still not accepted by the Vatican, but widely used by lay Roman Catholics), even though they were slow to accept either marriages after divorce or public prayers for same-sex couples.

Drawing, perhaps, from his Baptist experience, he is a sharp critic of scriptural literalism, arguing that “religious fundamentalism abhors complexity.” When literalists claim that “liberal Christians have no alternative than to rely on their private experiences,” he exclaims: “What a relief it is to be delivered from the urge to dominate, to pretend always to be right! What a relief it is to embrace complexity instead of fearing it! Renewal of faith becomes possible when we realize that certainty is unachievable.”

The label “liberal” may be unhelpful. Even he is not liberal about everything: he is critical of the growing pornography culture; he has had a long and happy marriage; and he remains a practising Christian. Perhaps “critically informed” and “compassionate” may better fit his style of theology.

This is a book especially for younger Christians who are either gay or simply troubled by their sexuality (most of us have been there). Or perhaps they are disturbed by some of the more shocking features of the Bible after reading it in its entirety (as I did as a teenager) and have concluded that scriptural literalism is absurd. Thatcher’s is a necessary voice.


Canon Robin Gill is Emeritus Professor of Applied Theology at the University of Kent and Editor of
Theology.

 

Vile Bodies: The body in Christian teaching, faith and practice
Adrian Thatcher
SCM Press £35
(978-0-334-06360-5)
Church Times Bookshop £28

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