Category Archives: Editorials

CSCS News, Autumn 2014: Editorial & Contents Guide

Editorial

Anthony Woollard

Shortly after CSCS’ highly successful Embodied Ministry conference at Cuddesdon in July, our sister organisation Modern Church (www.modernchurch.org.uk) held its own conference on Liberal Spirituality.  Unsurprisingly, there was some read-across – certainly in the dramatis personae, with Martyn Percy facilitating both conferences, Emma Percy making a most significant contribution to both (including, at the latter, a memorable talk on breastfeeding as a model of spirituality and ministry), and yet more wise words from Carla Grosch-Miller.  But for me one of the less expected links was the showing of an unusual Swedish film called As it is in Heaven.  It showed how an ailing professional musician took a backwoods church choir to international fame, at the cost of his own life.  There were quite a few (not very explicit) sexual awakenings in the film, including that of a pastor and his wife who came to be confronted by the role of Law in their own lives and the need to rediscover Love.  But it was the moment of the conductor’s death which moved me greatly; as he lay stricken by his fatal heart attack, having just impregnated the girl who loved him, he listened to his choir bringing an international audience to their feet – and died with a smile on his face. Continue reading CSCS News, Autumn 2014: Editorial & Contents Guide

Editorial, Summer 2013

Anthony Woollard

 It seems a long time since our Annual Conference in February, which was one of our most successful ever.  We mustered 30+, our usual modest numbers being amplified by members of The Sibyls with whom the conference was jointly organised.  Transgender issues formed the theme, and we were fortunate to have as our keynote speakers Tina Beardsley and Elaine Sommers.  Below are the notes which Tina used for her PowerPoint presentation (not, alas, reproducible in illustrated and animated form here!) from which readers can gain a flavour of her input; we all sang along with “Getting to Know You” which set the tone for a warm and informative half-hour.  Elaine was more discursive in her approach, not using notes; but much of the material for her contribution can be found in two articles by her on the Changing Attitude website, which I commend.  The session was excellently chaired by one of our Patrons, Bishop John Gladwin.

 There followed our AGM, and I reproduce below the Chair’s report and the accounts.  Unfortunately, no new members came forward for the Committee, which was therefore re-elected en bloc – nor did a new newsletter editor appear, so my job is still open if anyone fancies it!  But it was clear that interest in our activities was increased amongst those who attended, who included a number of non-members. After all these years, our membership and our finances remain just about viable – but too small for the work we have to do.

The day concluded with a panel discussion with a number of transgender people, ably chaired by Susannah Cornwall.  This discussion illustrated the sheer diversity of understandings of gender, from those born male who come to believe “I am not a man, I am a woman” to those who cannot simply identify with either gender.  As Tina pointed out, people who might identify as transgender form a tiny minority – yet we have probably all met some such people, whether we realise it or not.  And they challenge a number of assumptions, not least about the binary male-female divide and “complementarity” which is to be found in conventional readings of Scripture.  That, no doubt, is why they are widely misunderstood and even persecuted within the Churches, particularly those of an evangelical persuasion; we heard many sad stories, which strengthened our resolve to work for a far more generous understanding of gender issues within Christian faith and the interpretation of Scripture.

Since then, we have continued with our work with theological educators.  A wide range of denominations continue to be involved in this, and it becomes ever more timely as the Roman Catholic Church in particular struggles so publicly and painfully with sexual issues.  The dramatic resignation of Cardinal O’Brien, a week or so after our conference, highlights that struggle.  It was most significant that he himself should have bowed out with some radical remarks on clerical celibacy – not that the removal of that burden, should it ever happen, would solve all the Church’s problems, but at least it would open the gates to a more humane understanding of sexuality as an irresistible force in all our lives with which theology must come to terms.

Meanwhile, in the wider Church and world, we have seen the production of a report on marriage, by the House of Bishops of the Church of England, which has received almost universal rubbishing because of its naivete about sex, gender and sexual orientation.  Even the Church Times, hardly the most radical organ, considered that it was “best forgotten”.  This widespread criticism of an apparently impeccably orthodox study of the theology of marriage is of great significance.  It is as if the Church, at a point somewhere nearer the grass-roots than the Bishops are, is finally waking up to the inadequacy of the old theological formulae.

The controversy about gay marriage is clearly the occasion for this publication.  But by purporting to go deeper into marriage and sexual theology generally, the Bishops have “shown their workings” in a way which lays them open to better-informed criticism.  Not the least of its failings is its heavy dependence on the concept of complementarity between women and men.  That concept is not analysed even in theological, let alone psychological, sociological or biological terms.  The most egregious statement is that no human being is “asexual” – all are either men or women.  This is not only a misuse of the term “asexual”, which usually refers to a lack of sexual desire/activity rather than to underlying identity of sex or gender.  It is simply not true, as studies into intersex and transgender (and our own conference) have demonstrated.

I do not think it necessary here to go into more detail about this document now (but note what I say below about the probable theme of our next issue).  I commend the analyses by Susannah Cornwall in her blog, by Jonathan Clatworthy on the Modern Church website, and by Jane Shaw in the Church Times of 26 April.  One of the members of the commission which produced the report, Charlotte Methuen, has written what amounts to a minority report (though her dissent is nowhere acknowledged publicly by the Bishops), and this also is well worth reading.

It is tempting to suggest that CSCS itself should produce an alternative version!  But the seeds of our thinking are well documented – not only in Jo Ind’s Memories of Bliss to which this newsletter constantly refers, but now also in Susannah Cornwall’s excellent SCM Core Text on Theology and Sexuality which we hope to review in a future edition.  What is clear from these books, and the critiques of the report mentioned above, is that “sex”, “gender” and “sexuality/sexual orientation” are three quite different things, all of them immensely complex, and none of them susceptible (beyond the level of the stereotype) of analysis simply by reference to selected Biblical texts and traditional Church teachings.

The widespread negative response to the Bishops’ document gives one hope that our message is at last getting through in at least some places within the Churches.  But that is a slow process.  It must be pursued in the formation of church leaders, which is why CSCS’ work with theological educators is so important – and we hope it could lead to a major conference in 2014.  It must be pursued in the world of academic theology, which is why our journal Theology and Sexuality and the work of our members such as Gerard Loughlin, Adrian Thatcher and Susannah Cornwall need continued support.  And it must be pursued at grass-roots level – so I would welcome many more accounts of local initiatives for discussion such as those which I related from my own parish in the last edition.  Members of the Committee, whether sex educators like Jane Fraser, activists like Martin Pendergast and Rosie Martin, or communicators like Terry Weldon, all have their parts to play.  But so do you, our readers, and we would love to hear from you much more.

As a next step in this process, the Committee propose that both the next edition of this newsletter in the autumn and our Annual Conference next February might be devoted to the theme of “Redefining Marriage?”  Who knows, perhaps this actually will lead to an alternative statement!  In any event, I would particularly invite contributions on that theme.  This is partly about same-sex marriage, but maybe the real point is whether what is on offer, to same-sex or opposite-sex couples alike, should simply be this institution/sacrament/status “as it stands”.  For it has changed, is changing and must continue to change if it is to be “fit for purpose” for society as a whole.  

Gender Varying Faith:  Our Genders – Our Stories Conference Presentation, Christina Beardsley

Prepared for Reality? The slow-moving world of theological education Alison Webster

Poem: So?  Ho Heather Janet

AGM:

Minutes of AGM, 2013

Chair’s Annual Report 2012-13 Martin Pendergast

CSCS Accounts year ending 31 December 2012 Colin Hart

CSCS News 45, Spring 2013: Editorial

Anthony Woollard

As our Annual Conference approaches I am still optimistic that a new editor might be found for this newsletter, as well as more new blood for other aspects of CSCS’ work.  There have been times when my editing task has felt a bit like vanity publishing because of the amount that I have had to write myself – though my fellow Committee members have contributed much also.  Perhaps as I come towards what may be the end of my stint in the editor’s chair, I might be permitted some serious vanity?  It is just possible that some readers may find this not only interesting but useful.

 Last spring, in my own parish, there was a series of discussions on issues of sexuality facing the Church of England (and most other churches) today.  The discussions were led by Canon Andrew Dow, a Conservative Evangelical now retired from paid ministry who is attached to the parish; Daphne Cook, well known to many readers as a former treasurer of CSCS and influential in Mothers’ Union circles; and myself.  As might be imagined, Andrew and I were at opposite poles of the spectrum, and Daphne somewhere in between though a good deal nearer to me than to Andrew!  Up to fifty people attended, and the discussions were at times decidedly painful and exhausting, yet, I believe, rewarding.  If nothing like this has been tried in your church, perhaps of my speaking notes reproduced below might give you some ideas?  To offer only my own contributions is of course rather one-sided, but the other contributors made less use of notes, and mine may be of interest as “a (not the!) CSCS perspective”.

Some of the deeper issues may be much harder to discuss.  The Anglican debate about women bishops and  “headship”, when combined for example with certain articles in the latest edition of Christianity and Sexuality and the extraordinary impact of E L James’ books , convinces me increasingly that we need to look far more deeply at words like “surrender” and “submission”.  This is not just about BDSM – like me, few church people will have read Fifty Shades of Grey, and even fewer would admit to having done so – but may play a much wider role in sexual relationships, and it is also a key issue in some widespread expressions of our relationship to God, and may be additionally sensitive for that reason.  Both Martin Pendergast and I touched on “submission” in the last issue.  There is much, much more to be said, but perhaps it is time that someone else said it.

This is not purely a vanity edition, however.  It includes two contributions from Terry Weldon – one in his capacity as CSCS webmaster, and one an address on the history of the LGBT movement in the Churches which he gave to Quest some months ago.  In some ways the latter, so very encouraging and positive about aspects of our enterprise, parallels my little notes and may equally be of use to local groups.  I commend Terry’s blog Queering the Church as another source of news and views about sexuality especially in the LGBT context.  And over the past few weeks he has been at the heart of renewed controversy in Roman Catholic circles, as the Soho Masses have been suspended whilst the Church’s commitment to pastoral care of people of all sexual orientations has been re-emphasised.

How that decision illustrates the ambivalence of so many of the Churches towards sexuality!  At least there has been a move away from regarding anything other than a marriage-based procreation-friendly vanilla heterosexuality as “intrinsically disordered”, and a recognition that people with other sexual orientations are still, first and foremost, people, with pastoral needs; let us be thankful for small mercies.  Yet putting such orientations into practice is still viewed as mortal sin, and what the critics have seen as the creation of a church-within-a-church for those who practice in that way is now to be outlawed.  What nonsense – what hurtful nonsense.  If ever the continued need for CSCS – to get beneath the superficial theologizing about “the gay thing” to the real issues beneath – was demonstrated, it was here, and now.  But we need new blood to carry the torch forward; and so I end this editorial as I began, with challenge and with hope.

Sexual and gender issues in the Church of England: three notes

“Blessed Are the Queer in Faith”: 60 years into a modern resurrection for queer Christians.

A Poem:  Calling (or how to internalize oppression)

Introducing the new CSCS Website

INTERSEX, THEOLOGY AND THE BIBLE:Notice of another upcoming conference

Editorial (Autumn 2012)

Anthony Woollard

It may seem strange that, when equal marriage, women bishops, and a renewal of the abortion debate are all on the public agenda, this editorial begins with domestic issues such as the CSCS website.  But we do have a new website, with a new address, thanks to the labours of Terry Weldon.    Since Terry has this year been elected to the Committee, we have a duty to our membership under charity law to record that the Committee has decided to pay him for this work, out of a donation given by a member, specifically for the purpose of website update, before the last AGM.

This is the culmination of a long history during which our website suffered, first from the illness of our former webmaster Phil Gardner – though many of the results of his work have contributed greatly to what we now offer – and then from a malware attack.  Recovering the situation has taken a great deal of work, which continues.  The new address http://www.christianityandsexuality.org is not yet public, and we need members to access it in due course (work will be ongoing for some weeks yet) and tell us what they think, before it is opened up to web searchers in general.

The website is key to our work for at least three reasons.

  • First, we need it to attract new members.
  • Second, it should form a point of reference for existing members about all aspects of our work.
  • Third, and perhaps not least, it is an outreach tool – offering to many who may never become members a source of information, comfort and challenge, in their personal pilgrimages and also in pastoral and academic work.

It is really important for us to get feedback on how far these purposes are fulfilled.  The subject-matter of our interests is right at the heart of the life of the Churches and the spirituality of their members, yet it is not easy to communicate this when there are so many other voices, conservative and liberal, addressing similar issues.  So please take a little time to give us that feedback.  Particularly we would welcome any views on the sort of “resources” to which we should draw visitors’ attention; at present this mainly comprises a rather outdated booklist, without classification or commentary, and we would warmly welcome suggestions for additions, deletions and other improvements.

But there is more to be said about our current activities.  CSCS is a little like Shakespeare’s “old mole”.  We work in the earth (though not always very fast) and only occasionally do the fruits of this work pop up above the surface.  One such occasion is our annual conference, which often attracts speakers of the greatest interest on topics of enormous importance, but, alas, rarely an audience of a worthy size.  Our most successful conferences have been those where we have worked with partners, such as the joint conference with Modern Church some six years ago, and, more recently, the local conference in Birmingham jointly with LGCM, Changing Attitude and others.  We have agreed with the transgender Christian organisation The Sibyls to hold a joint conference probably on 16 February 2013, and have invited several contributors from the transgender and related communities including Tina Beardsley.  Issues around gender identity and variance are coming to be of increasing importance in church life, both pastorally and theologically (see the recent work by Susannah Cornwall on intersex, which is also reflected in the work of Adrian Thatcher whose latest book is reviewed below – and Susannah will be with us at our conference too).   Such a conference should therefore be timely, and of interest well beyond the membership of the two organisations.  Perhaps readers know of clergy or other pastoral workers who would benefit from a day on the topic?  Who knows, it might even be relevant to bishops – if only because the idea of a spectrum of gender identities blows out of the water many of the arguments advanced in the women bishops debate.  More details of our February conference will be available over the winter.

 Our work with theological educators is also continuing, and we hope it will in due course also bear fruit in one or more conferences of a wider nature, and certainly in making available via the website some of the growing volume of resources on theological education and formation in the area of sexuality and gender.  If the clergy are not properly equipped in these areas, it is unlikely that the Churches as a whole will be.  Too often, such equipping is ad hoc.  The Church of England in particular has spent the past half-century or more wrestling with issues around the nature of marriage, from contraception, through divorce and remarriage – a particularly long and painful saga – to facing up to the fact of widespread cohabitation amongst couples who seek to be married in church (and others).  This has forced clergy and those who train and form them to ask questions about the very nature of (hetero)sexual relationships, probably not very systematically and with varying degrees of success.  Is the result a coherent theology of sexuality, or an uneasy linkage of old shibboleths and new pastoral realities?  Can it yet be said that those who lead our churches – who are human beings with as many sexual hang-ups as the rest of us – address any of these questions with real theological integrity?  If not, then there is still work to be done.

Those of us who do not belong to the LGBT community owe that community a considerable debt in developing Christian thinking about sexuality and gender in general.  This newsletter includes the sermon given at this year’s Pride service, which as will be clear is of much wider application.  (It is reported that at least one anti-Pride protester has been converted as a result of this year’s attendance.)  Such contributions from other groups, irrespective of the sexual and gender identities represented in them, are always welcome in this newsletter.  One such group is Modern Church, who sponsored the latest book by Adrian Thatcher which is reviewed below (and simultaneously in Modern Church’s own newsletter – so apologies to any who read it twice!)  But there are many other smaller groups and events in which members are involved, and we need to have more news from those.

Any voluntary society – particularly a very small one like CSCS – is only as good and as useful as its members.  We know there have been times when continuing membership has not been an obvious option for everyone.  We apologise to anyone who was affected by the recent brief blip in our charitable status, due to a series of accidents leading to a late Annual Return to the Charity Commission; this may have affected one or two people’s subscription payments.  Please bear with us.  It should be obvious from the above that we continue to do valuable work; but we depend on you.  And we are still looking for new Committee members, and, not least, a new editor for this newsletter.

Ecumenical World Pride Service, Bloomsbury Baptist Church, London, 7 July 2012Sermon by The Revd. Dr. Ruth Gouldbourne, Co-Minister, Bloomsbury Baptist Church

BOOK REVIEW: ‘Making Sense of Sex’, Reviewed by Jane Fraser

 

Editorial, CSCS NEWS 43 Spring 2012

Anthony Woollard

During three eventful days in March, four significant things happened. The Government  announced its consultation on gay marriage in England and Wales. The Archbishop of Canterbury announced his resignation. Three more Anglican Dioceses voted against the proposed Covenant (the instrument designed primarily to bring to heel the sexually liberal churches of North America), thus giving it the kiss of death. And, finally, CSCS held its Annual Conference and AGM.

The first three of these events, although not causally linked, are obviously associated. For some, they will represent the final failure in the Church of England, and in English society, to hold back the tide of an anything-goes attitude to sexuality. For most readers of this newsletter, however, they represent the hope of a greater openness to the realities of sexuality in our land, and perhaps more broadly a sense of promise that the social and theological conservatives are no longer in the ascendant. We may expect resistance, especially in our very polarized Churches, and at the time of writing there is (alas) no reason to hope that a new Archbishop will be appointed who is any more able to bring the Church of England to terms with new realities than our once and future friend Rowan has been. But I am reminded of the Prince in Lampedusa’s novel The Leopard who felt himself isolated as the tide of history flowed around him – and who finally came to the conclusion that, if everything is to remain the same, everything has to change. Continue reading Editorial, CSCS NEWS 43 Spring 2012

Editorial, CSCS NEWS 41, Autumn 2011

Anthony Woollard

I begin with two pieces of rather mundane news about CSCS itself. The first is to apologise or the late and out-of-order appearance of issues of the journal Theology and Sexuality; this is beyond our control but we are working with the publishers to improve the situation. The second is to say that we are still negotiating with a rather outstanding possible speaker for our next Annual Conference, which, to suit the convenience of that speaker, might well be a Saturday in March rather than in February; we will let members know the outcome as soon as possible, but meanwhile please keep diaries as clear as you can.

 This issue of the newsletter is largely devoted to a single theme: the Churches’ attitudes to civil partnerships including the possibility of their being solemnized in religious buildings. The government’s proposals, earlier this year, to allow that caused some fluttering in ecclesiastical dovecotes – not least those of the Established Church, as Bishop Tom Butler explains in his Thought for the Dayon BBC Radio 4, reproduced below, and as our patron John Gladwin, still fairly newly retired from the bishops’ bench, also admits. CSCS responded to the consultation and Martin Pendergast has summarized that response.

 We are in a rather strange place here, and it has been made all the stranger by the lawyers’ suggestion that the Equalities Act prohibits a church from ruling out a candidate for office, even a major leadership role, purely on the ground of sexual orientation, though apparently it is still OK to cite “scandalous” sexual practice (presumably including any kind of homosexual practice) as a bar to appointment.

After all the horrors of Section 28, the State seems to have thrown its weight behind genuine equality for people of all sexual orientations, including the possibility of legally sanctioned non-heterosexual relationships which have most of the features of marriage. This may be seen – and was certainly seen by many in the Churches – as an exclusively secular turn, from which many Christian groupings claimed exemption on grounds of faith, and which was to be kept firmly in its place in the secular sphere, with not even the slightest reference to religion permitted in civil partnership ceremonies. But the boundaries between faith and the secular world are too permeable to permit such a neat distinction. Faith – not just Anglicanism or indeed Christianity – is a real factor in society, as it is in the lives of many individuals not all of whom are heterosexual. Now the new, more open social culture is spilling over into the Churches and other faith groups.

 Some may fear the implications of this; but they are not to be compelled to give religious blessing to gay relationships, nor to accept “practising” gays into leadership positions (despite the fact that, as we all know, practice makes perfect!) For others it will be seen as an opportunity to bring a deeper dimension into human relationships through acts of acceptance and blessing. It is common enough for clergy to bless everything from pet dogs to nuclear submarines. The latter (and, a few dog-haters or anti-pet militants might argue, the former) raise considerable theological and moral issues, yet a great many Christians would feel that prayer and blessing on human endeavours are appropriate even where thereis scope for debate about the rights and wrongs of those endeavours. Perhaps there are lines to be drawn; most clergy would not, I think, be happy to bless a brothel. But it does seem odd that in most denominations they should be unable to bless two people in love, if those two people happen to be of the same sex. .

What about the distinction between the “legal” and the “spiritual/sacramental” dimensions of civil partnerships? Some would argue that the former is strictly the business of the State, and the latter that of faith groups. But within Anglicanism the two are firmly fused by both civil and canon law. Martin’s response to the consultation raises an interesting issue within Roman Catholicism, where heterosexual marriage as seen as a sacrament (and hence under the jurisdiction of the bishop of each diocese, whether it occurs in churches under his direct control or otherwise) whereas civil partnership, not being seen as a sacrament, may escape that jurisdiction in the churches of religious Orders and the like which are outwith full diocesan control.. That may or may not offer an interesting opportunity for flexibility. The situation in other denominations and faith groups will obviously be very different. Yet in the end of the day, a public commitment between two people has both a legal framework and also deeper dimensions which might be seen by many as sacramental (whether marriage is considered as technically a sacrament or not).

 In another journal which I edit, a lively debate has been going on about whether (heterosexual) marriage in church is being forced by the Anglican authorities too far down a “churchy” road when it might be better seen as a “sacrament of creation” and not the possession of the Church in any sense. All one can say here is that public commitment will mean different things to different couples. An exchange of specifically Christian vows, perhaps even within the context of a Christian Eucharist, might be right for some (gay or straight), whilst something else on the spectrum between “explicitly Christian” and “fully secular” is right for others. Where the Church, the clergy, and the use of religious language, symbol or ritual fits in will differ according to theologies and traditions. And all that is of course made even more complicated when the beliefs and practices of other faith groups are brought into play.

Meanwhile, in the USA, an interesting situation is arising in those States where full gay marriage has been legalized. Some bishops in the Episcopal Church, that hotbed of liberalism, are suggesting that those clergy in civil partnerships (which that Church of course recognizes) should convert their partnerships into marriage as soon as possible because marriage is the proper Christian exemplar of a sexual relationship. Are they right? There is no doubt that Scripture and tradition hold out marriage as an ideal. There is equally no doubt that human relationships are infinitely complicated; that the concept of marriage has acquired over the millennia a great deal of baggage which some good Christian people – no doubt including clergy – find alienating; and that it is a pastoral priority to show that the Church recognizes this, at the same time as being ready to encourage and celebrate committed relationships in all their forms. I have written before of the campaign of Sharon Ferguson of LGCM and her partner, with others, to give both straight and gay people a choice between marriage and civil partnership. Are they right, or is this insistence on choice just another example of postmodern consumerism which Christians should resist? I should be very interested in readers’ views on this.

But the US dilemma is one which I suspect many Christians in this country would be quite happy to face. At the moment, the only choice officially open to them, and open to blessing by most of the Churches, is the stark one of heterosexual marriage or celibacy.

Recent weeks have seen activity in another area where “choice” is much debated: that of abortion, where certain conservative Christian groups have been seeking changes which could have the effect of restricting that choice. Jane Fraser’s article below offers one reaction from a Christian practitioner in the field of sexual health. There are, of course, at least as many sensitivities in the area of abortion as in any other with which CSCS has had to deal, but it may be a topic with which we should wrestle more and on which we should speak out more boldly.

Where, then, do all these developments in social policy leave CSCS? We are not a campaigning organisation but a body devoted to study. We continue to work with theological educators, in the hope that a new generation of clergy may be formed who will be able to deal with the diversities of human relationships with a greater subtlety than has so often characterized the Churches hitherto. We continue, too, to support the efforts by Jim Cotter and others to develop liturgies which will reflect that more subtle approach. We continue to ask the awkward questions about just why a narrow understanding of human sexuality should be a shibboleth of Christian orthodoxy, when even the fundamentalists recognise (and Hadley Freeman in the Guardian is aware) that there are many other purity laws within the Judaeo-Christian tradition, right down to the wearing of garments with mixed fibre, which passed their sell-by date centuries ago. And above all we continue to remind others asking similar questions, and struggling existentially with the conflicts that arise within their churches and within themselves, that they are not alone. We may pray that from these efforts there may arise a new generosity of spirit in the Churches, which does not uncritically accept the obsession with sexual self-fulfilment which characterizes parts of our society, but acknowledges the struggle of those who seek to be true both to themselves and to the essence of the Gospel, and, in that struggle, to find a blessing.

CSCS News 40: Editorial

Anthony Woollard

I write this after a most encouraging Annual Conference and AGM. After the excitements of  last year’s joint conference in Birmingham, with its enormous attendance and stimulating content, some of us were fearful of returning to the conferences of recent years where attendance would sometimes struggle to get into double figures and our doubts about the future of CSCS would consequently be reinforced. We need not have been concerned.

First, and I think significantly, our new venue, the URC headquarters near King’s Cross, not only proved highly convenient but may also have helped to draw in some new attenders from that denomination. As a group which has been a little Anglican-biased for much of its existence, the Committee finds considerable blessing in fellowship with a Christian tradition which seems to be somewhat freer than most from sexual hang-ups.

More important, this ecumenical enrichment continued in our choice of speakers, both deeply involved in our project with theological educators. Brendan Callaghan SJ and Carla Grosch-Miller (the latter herself URC) spoke vividly about their work with ordinands and others and were as attractive in their personalities as in the activities to which both bore witness. I reproduce below Brendan’s handout, and a slightly edited version of Carla’s full talk. Many of the 30 or so people present were clearly personally enriched by the presentations and ensuing discussion. I was left feeling that we might have been even more blessed had the time allowed for us ourselves to go through the processes which our speakers described. And the challenge remains for us, to see how such processes can be “rolled out” (to use contemporary jargon) not just amongst leaders and future leaders in more denominations but also amongst ordinary worshippers.

By coincidence, the Gospel for the following day included the hard words of Jesus from Matthew 5 about adultery and divorce. Listening to a sermon which sought to be compassionate – and to address, albeit not in much depth, the well-known problems about just how to read the Sermon on the Mount – I could not help putting alongside it Brendan’s little story about the fictional Roman Catholic priest “Tom” which was included in his handout. “Tom” is in a sense committing adultery against his Church. Irrespective of the merits or justification of his vow to celibacy, he is breaking that vow in the search for personal fulfillment, a fulfillment which, he believes, enhances his ministry. In his voice, I can hear that of quite a few adulterers in novels, and one or two in real life. For Jesus, it would seem – and for my Vicar, challenging as he did the alleged “epidemic of infidelity” in contemporary society – surely such self-justification must just be a manifestation of sin. Well, is it? And whose sin? Brendan asked us to consider what we would say if brought face to face with such an individual and his story. My Vicar also, to do him credit, made it clear that our task was not to judge but to listen to people’s stories, more particularly in the context of divorce – which is far from uncommon in my own or most congregations (and some of us divorcees, too, can hear Tom’s voice, perhaps very close to home). In the words of Jesus, and the ministry of the Church, there is, and must be, a challenge to the contemporary secular ethic of short-term self-fulfillment above all things and the widespread emphasis on the sexual dimension of that.. But there must equally be a challenge to those forces in Church and society which seem to crush God’s needy children’s search for human and embodied love. And there are many other words in the Gospels – not least By their fruits you shall know them – which point to the possibility that those who “break the rules” (or fail to live up to the ideals, or to fit the framework, or however you want to see them), those who are “deviants” in terms of my last editorial, can nevertheless find blessing and bring blessing to others.

The AGM which followed these presentations was attended by some 20 people including some non-members (who we hope may join us in time). I also reproduce below the Chair’s report and the accounts for 2010. As will be clear, we remain a small and in some ways struggling organisation, but we are still solvent and viable, and the work we are doing with theological educators shows that – because of the many networks into which we are plugged – we can punch well above our weight.

The AGM took one potentially controversial decision – to remove from the Constitution the Statement of Conviction to which all members are supposed to subscribe. That Statement, which especially emphasises the acceptability in Christian terms of same-sex relationships, was felt to be putting off some senior Church leaders, and also some researchers, who could not publicly identify with such a statement without prejudicing their positions. Whilst probably all current members would agree passionately with the original Statement of Conviction, which is based closely on that used by LGCM, it was unanimously recognized that subscription to it was not appropriate in a body dealing with study rather than campaigning.

The existing Committee (Martin Pendergast as Chair, Jane Fraser now as Secretary, Colin Hart as Treasurer, Heather Barfoot, Rosie Martin, Michael Moran and myself) were re-elected, but we do have power to co-opt more people who are interested in forwarding the work. On a mundane level, the loss of our newsletter designer has left me (as will be all too clear from the pages which follow) struggling with the business of formatting material especially where a great deal of scanning of diverse inputs is required; and if anyone would be able to help with that, whether combined with Committee membership or otherwise, I shall be especially delighted to hear from them!

CSCS News 39, Autumn / Winter 2010: Editorial

Anthony Woollard

Since the excitements of the February conference on which the last edition focused, CSCS has been quietly going about its business. We have a representative from the transgender community, Rosie Martin, attending our committee meetings and giving us a valuable insight into that particular area of concern, reflected in her article below. We are working to improve our website. And we are continuing our work with theological educators, and beginning to think about our next Annual Conference on 12 February 2011 when some of the fruits of that will be presented. (Martin Pendergast’s book review below gives a little flavour of all that.)

This edition therefore can be more reflective. I thought I might share with readers some reflections on two totally contrasting works which I have been reading, and relate them to a current live issue.

The first item is a lecture by the theologian Sarah Coakley recently given in Australia. The text may be found at:http://www.abc.net.au/religion/articles/2010/07/14/2953473.htm. In it, she attempts to wrestle with the relationship between clerical celibacy and the paedophile scandals which have rocked the Roman Catholic Church, with a glancing look also at the gay issue within both Rome and Anglicanism. She suggests that this must be seen against the backdrop of cultural confusions about acceptable sexual practices in the wider society, where celibacy is viewed with suspicion and Freud is often prayed in aid as suggesting that our sexual impulses demand an outlet – yet certain forms of those impulses are also condemned. With much justification, she re-reads Freud on “sublimation” and finds a surprising ally in the fourth-century divine Gregory of Nyssa, himself (probably) married and having a positive attitude to the human sexual drive yet believing that for some that drive can and should be sublimated within celibacy. She is by no means counselling celibacy for all priests (any more than she is for all gays), and indeed challenges the Churches for doing just that. But she is trying to put the debate within the context of mainstream Christian teaching.

The second is the Lisbeth Salander trilogy by Stieg Larsson1 – a massive bestseller which is best placed within the “thriller” genre. This contains, not only crimes and conspiracies galore and a fair measure of violence, but also a lot of sex. And that sex is a long way from traditional Christian teaching. It includes rape, pornography and trafficking, non-consensual sex which is utterly condemned; in fact this condemnation is at the moral heart of the trilogy, which is more than anything else an attack on the games that macho men play particularly towards women. But it also includes consensual sex of many kinds – gay and straight, adulterous and otherwise, “vanilla” and sado-masochistic, casual and (relatively) committed. And this it does not, for the most part, seem to condemn, but takes for granted as expressing the nature of the characters, and not least those who are held up as (albeit often ambiguous) heroes.

This is something close to the moral world of many of our contemporaries. It seems far removed from that of Gregory of Nyssa, or indeed anything in the Christian tradition. What do we make of it?

Jo Ind’s book Memories of Bliss has often been commended in these pages. She strongly repudiates what might be called sexual fundamentalism, and rejects the idea that the Bible, Freud or anyone else can provide all the answers directly. Her own vision, albeit placed in a much more unequivocally spiritual context, might be held to bear some relation to Larsson’s. The law of love demands simply that sex be consensual – and responsible. That means that a great deal of sexual activity, disallowed by Christian tradition, ought to be permissible if it is true to the natures of those who engage in it with their full consent and without risking the hurt of others (including the birth of unwanted children). But it is by no means an undemanding rule. What constitutes “full consent” in a situation where there is a power differential between the partners – as there has historically been in general between men and women? And how wide must we cast the net in identifying those “others” who must not be hurt? Presumably they include the “innocent party” in an adultery, but what about situations (such as the affair in the trilogy between Mikael Blomkvist and Erika Berger) where that party appears to consent for the sake of their partner’s fulfillment – and again what constitutes real consent in such a situation?

The Christian tradition commends “safe sex”, in which – theoretically – consent and responsibility are guaranteed, enforced even, by the bonds of a committed relationship which is normally open to the possibility of children. Jeffrey John, still one of the most prominent figures in the “gay debate” within the Churches, in his little manifesto Permanent, Faithful, Stable published over a decade ago, wholeheartedly endorsed this approach but asked that (apart from the childbearing aspect) it be extended to those who are gay as well as those who are straight. He, as much as Gregory of Nyssa, would surely see most of the sexual permutations in the Larsson trilogy as wholly incompatible with Christian teaching.

Jo Ind recognizes that sex is often “unsafe”. This is not necessarily about contraception – though she argues the case for restricting full penetrative heterosexual sex to a committed relationship because of the possible childbearing implications, since no contraception is 100% reliable. Rather, it is about the problems, the impossibility even, of assuring “responsible consent” beyond doubt – even within a marriage. When T S Eliot said “Old men should be explorers”, he was probably not thinking about sex (though who knows?), but Ind’s book suggests that sex is an inevitably risky exploration that goes on throughout life and is likely to involve experiments that go wrong in one direction or another.

In the world of Larsson, where neither contraception nor childbirth get much attention, “unsafe” sex is the norm. Pretty much every relationship could be questioned in terms of the responsible, consensual commitment of those involved. That does not mean that they are all equally approved. Lisbeth Salander is a very strange, isolated and in some ways disturbed young woman, who seems unlikely to be able to sustain a relationship. If she is at times portrayed as more or less bisexually promiscuous, this is not with any sense of approval, though there is some sympathy towards her evident emotional needs. Her main lesbian friendship, in which the power games are genuinely consensual, is seen as something good in her life. The decidedly (but consensually) non-monogamous relationship of Blomkvist and Berger seems to be viewed fairly positively for the most part – certainly as a source of mutually creative energy – but the burgeoning later romance between Blomkvist and the policewoman Figuerola hints at deeper possibilities, and it is only at this point that Blomkvist comes in for criticism for a commitment-phobia which (so far as we know) does not have any ground in childhood abuse, as Salander’s does, but perhaps as much as anything simply in his being a man.

Gregory of Nyssa, alas, is rather untypical. There are some elements in Christian tradition – not least the Song of Songs, despite all the attempts to allegorise away its erotic elements – which are affirmative of the sexual drive, but there is a great deal more which is not. Whether we categorise early theologians like St Jerome as misogynistic or as simply afraid of women and of sexuality, there is enough negativity in the tradition to make the contemporary revolt against it understandable. Stephen Fry’s recent comments about female sexuality, and the responses to them, illustrate a continued confusion in our society for which Christian tradition must take a fair share of the blame.

Larsson’s trilogy can be read as a feminist manifesto calling for the replacement of violence between men and women by friendships, based on equality, which may and often do lead to sexual expression. Not “safe”, but far preferable to misogynistic violence. And he gives more than a hint of the position taken by some feminists that commitment – marriage and family – is as likely to be a cover for such violence as it is to be a source of liberation. Christian tradition gives very little explicit recognition to that possibility, but human experience forces us to admit that sometimes it can be so; and the Christian understanding of sin, the flaws that infect the highest and deepest things in our lives, does reinforce that strand in the Gospels in which marriage and family are relativised.

So, I repeat, what are we to make of Larsson? Throughout the trilogy we see a mixture of morality and amorality, not just in sexual matters but in questions of property and communal loyalty. Is Salander simply someone who grabs both sex and money, and whatever else she needs, without thought for others – an archetypal sinner, totally “sundered” from society, nature and ultimately her deepest self and God? Or is she an almost Christ-like victim of the coincidental interests of State security and male exploitation of women, of whom it could be said that it is expedient that she should die for the people? Or is she both? The parable of the wheat and the tares comes to mind. The books may express a certain type of feminist idealism, but in the end of the day, like most other works of fiction, they are just a slice of life – a slice which might seem rather far-fetched to those of us in comfortable bourgeois situations, but is not wholly implausible. Christians cannot help noticing that the concept of forgiveness is scarcely present, and the concept of redemption limited at best; even altruism, except in Berger’s final giving up of Blomkvist to Figuerola, is hardly to be seen other than as a by-product of self-interest.. We may say, if we wish, that the often “amoral” approach to sexual relationships is a result of the absence of such a transcendent vision. But we would do well to recognise that in real life the transcendent vision can be and has been misused, and is no guarantee of “sexual healing”.

Sarah Coakley is right that Freud is often misread in contemporary society. He never claimed that anything goes, or that our apparent sexual needs trump everything else. But he certainly – anticipated perhaps by Gregory of Nyssa and the Song of Songs – recognised in the sexual drive a potentiality which religious people have often tried to suppress. We can now, no doubt, see the flaws in the work of people like Kinsey who built on his insights, but we have to admit that we know a bit more about the sheer complexities of sexuality than most of the Biblical writers, or most of the Fathers, appear to have done. Larsson’s portrayals of those complexities may not always be comfortable, but maybe, if we read them alongside Memories of Bliss, we can learn from them.

And that takes me to the Equal Love movement. At the time of writing, our dear friends Sharon Ferguson of LGCM and her partner Franka are amongst those exploring the legal barriers to full marriage as distinct from civil partnership, and meanwhile others are asking why only marriage, and not civil partnership, is available to heterosexuals who want to make a public commitment. To some of those with whom I have to deal in the Church, this “57 varieties” approach to sexual relationships must seem as bizarre as the sexual permutations in Larsson’s novels. Yet I suspect that Jeffrey John, to whom I referred earlier, would have a lot of sympathy for Sharon and Franka, given that they are doing much more than making a political point. Is there any way – any way at all – that the aspirations of gays and lesbians, and for that matter other sexual “deviants”, can be interpreted so as to make sense to the Christian mainstream?

The self-styled orthodox boldly state, sometimes in election manifestos for General Synod, that the only permissible sexual relationship for Christians is marriage between a man and a woman. Some add the word “lifelong” before “marriage”, but that, interestingly, is not quite as universal as it would once have been. Yet others, with some genuine logic, might want to add something about the intention to produce children or at least openness to that possibility.

I don’t think that we “deviants” can just dismiss this approach out of hand. It does have an uncomfortable amount of Scripture, tradition, and even reason on its side – “reason” in the sense of an anthropological and sociological understanding of marriage and biological family as a key building-block of society. We may well feel that it neglects other key evidences from reason and experience, not least the fact that it has simply proved not to make sense in the lives of many, many people. But if we simply rubbish such an approach, we will never find the slightest possibility of common ground with our opponents.

Adrian Thatcher is well known to many of our readers, and one of the most mature Christian writers today on marriage and family. He has said much about the distinction, in thinking about these matters, between rules and norms. The former he rejects in this context, seeing it I think in Pauline terms as a replacement of Grace by Law. The latter interest him more. A norm is something perhaps a little more than a purely empirical, statistical entity – though that is no bad starting point, because at least all parties can agree that the majority of human beings are heterosexual and enter into heterosexual relationships of a marriage-like nature. It is not quite an ideal either. Is it a moral measuring-stick, such that those who do not fulfil it are somehow morally inferior to those who do? I am not quite sure, but I think Adrian wants to avoid that implication, whilst recognizing that Scripture and mainstream tradition do indeed offer [lifelong] [child-oriented] heterosexual marriage as a norm. In which case, humanity’s innumerable other arrangements are (so to speak) standard, or not so standard, deviations around the norm – not necessarily invalid by any means, but not to be promoted as normative.

There are those who acknowledge that homosexuals as well as heterosexuals ought to have an opportunity for public commitment and a recognition of their relationship as a building-block of society, but are afraid that to call this “marriage” would somehow call into question the normativity of the Christian vision as set out above. Hence the civil partnership compromise – which perhaps appeals to some heterosexuals precisely because it is not quite marriage with all the massive weight that human history has laid upon the latter institution. Hence, further, the feeling of sadness and anger amongst gays that what is available to them to express their love and commitment is not the same as what is available to their straight friends.

Who is right? Is there, even, a right and a wrong? Does the recent movie The Kids are All Right go too far in normalising a relatively new kind of family set-up which the Biblical writers could not possibly have envisaged? For some, even amongst those who see themselves as gay-friendly, it may appear to do so; yet even in these days of the resurgence of the so-called Christian Right in the US, I have not heard that it has drawn many mass protests or bans. Surely only the hardest fundamentalist would deny that norms can evolve and have evolved, as Adrian himself has well shown in his analyses of the evolution of “Christian marriage”. Indeed, in post-modernity, norms may at first sight appear totally irrelevant. But I am not sure that we can go that far without some loss – including the loss of any ground for dialogue with our opponents.

For my part, as an older heterosexual Christian who for my own reasons happens to be cohabiting rather than married, I am happy to be a “deviant”, and to accept my own interpretation of Jeffrey John’s “permanent, faithful, stable” norm as good enough, as most of my friends do (and some practice) The idea of a norm with standard and non-standard deviations seems to me to give the best yardstick to make sense of Larsson’s (and most of our contemporary culture’s) permutations. Perhaps it is also relevant to the issues of gender variance which Rosie Martin raises in her article below.

But I cannot ultimately enter into the experience of lesbians who want to be married in a full sense as their straight friends are, and thus, arguably, conform to (their interpretation of) the norm more fully. I am sure that all our readers will want to join me in wishing Sharon and Franka, and all those like them, every blessing whatever their future holds

CSCS 38, Spring 2010: Editorial

Anthony Woollard

This is going to be the shortest editorial on record. With the exception of an article by Andrea Knowles, I am devoting the whole issue to the outcome of our Annual Conference, ‘Sexuality and Human Flourishing’ – held jointly with Inclusive Church, LGCM and others – on 6 February and our AGM on the same occasion. I begin with the report on the conference written by Clare Herbert of Inclusive Church, following that with the two outstanding presentations by Arnold Browne and Alison Webster. Then come the minutes of the AGM and the Chair’s report and accounts. And, interspersed with these, the odd photo of the day – for which thanks are due to Michael Moran. There is much else that could be said about the conference and other things that we are up to, but this material already makes for a bumper issue. And it speaks for itself.