Editorial, Spring 2014

Anthony Woollard

 On and around Saturday 15 February, four things happened, which may be related to one another.  The Annual Conference of CSCS; the Valentine’s Day statement of the Church of England’s House of Bishops on the Pilling Report; several reviews of a new book about sexual “perversions”; and an article in the Guardian about how more egalitarian relationships might be killing off libido.

The relationship between these four lies in the question marks they all pose to our understanding of sexuality and sexual relationships within the context of how human beings (i) actually are and (ii) might ideally be held, or intended, to be.

I start with the Guardian article.  If the intensity of sexual relationships is based on “otherness”, including (for heterosexuals) more or less traditional gender distinctions, and becomes weaker as those distinctions weaken, where does that leave us?   Most of us would celebrate – as Adrian Thatcher did in his address to the Annual Conference (available in full at www.adrianthatcher.org) – the development of greater equality in relationships, as against the old ideology (in a hetero context) of the submission of woman to man.  Yet, if we are conditioned, as much by biological as by social factors, for men to be “masculine” and women to be “feminine”, what price might we be paying for the evolution of this more companionate approach?  Is this alleged loss of libido simply reminding us that the quality of a relationship is not determined by its physical sexual content, however precious that might be in terms of initial bonding?  Or is it confirming the view of those who say that sex is all about making babies and that, once that has been done, we should simply get on with the rest of life?  The latter would point to a depressingly conservative conclusion about the nature of sex and marriage, including gay marriage.  Some of us want to celebrate this great gift of God rather more than that, even whilst recognizing that it is not the be-all and end-all of life or relationships.

The book Perv [1] appears to be asking similar questions.  Erotic attraction seems almost unlimited in its range, including “objectophilia” (an extreme form of fetishism) as well as BDSM, paedophilia and various permutations of love between adults.  This is how human beings are.  Why have they evolved like this?  Are there any boundaries?  Should acting on certain forms of attraction be forbidden in the interests of their objects?  Should any be forbidden, or at least regarded as a pathology, in the interests of their subjects?  Again, we may be tempted to a very conservative conclusion – that the only safe and truly rational sexual relationship is that which subsists within a faithful, lifelong heterosexual marriage oriented to the procreation and nurturing of children.  The alternative can look like “anything goes”, and it certainly does look like that to many people, and not just inside conservative church circles either.

A belief that some sexual obsessions are pathological would not in itself give society a right to intervene.  We should remember that, for certain Christians (and others), any same-sex relationship – even if based on full consent and entered into with an intention of faithfulness on the same basis as a traditional marriage – is very pathological indeed.  Adrian Thatcher made clear in his address that the mutual consent implied in the idea of covenant was at the very heart of a Christian understanding of marriage, far more important than either any ceremony of solemnization or any act of physical consummation, and that this was as relevant to gays and lesbians as to straights.  In this, he echoes Jo Ind whose Memories of Bliss has so often been name-checked in these pages.  But a great deal of sexual activity, and even long-term relationships, may not be explicitly covenantal.  Some may not even, on the face of it, be consensual.  Returning to the Guardian article, and thinking of the Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon and the world of BDSM, is there such a thing as wanting/needing to be forced – implicit consent to non-consensual activity?  Many feminists would be horrified at such an idea, because of the way it has been used to legitimize rape.  And indeed, in such developments as the identification of date-rape, we have gone a long way beyond unreconstructed macho myths.  Yet it seems that the issue will not go away entirely.  Perhaps “consent” is not such a clear-cut concept as we thought?

Another of Adrian’s contributions – not new, but put in a most helpful context – was his linkage between the covenant relationship between two people and the covenant relationship with God, expressed and embodied (in various ways within different Christian traditions) in the Eucharist.  The old Anglican approach to this was simple.  A child enters the covenant through Baptism, without his or her consent.  At Confirmation, explicit consent is given to undergoing the way of Christian discipleship.  Then, and as a rule only then, the young person is admitted to the Eucharist, which only has meaning within such an explicit covenant.  All this has been somewhat thrown up in the air by the admission of children to Communion before Confirmation.  But it was under question before that.  As I look round at my fellow-worshippers on a Sunday morning, I suspect that in many cases their “consent” to the relationship expressed in the Eucharist is rather different from mine, and equally different from the strictest “orthodox” model particularly of an evangelical kind.  Compared with the “official” standards and expectations, the consent (the expression of faith) may be pretty vague, tentative or implicit.  Does that devalue it totally?  I think not.  Even so, it seems to me, there may be sexual relationships which have never been expressed in terms of the traditional marriage vows but in some way reflect them.  Nobody’s faith is perfect, and the “correct” versions are not necessarily better than the more tentative and less explicit.  Equally, nobody’s most intimate human relationship is perfect, and those who are “properly” married are not necessarily any better at it than those who are not!

Having said that, and thereby legitimized a lot of relationships “without benefit of clergy” (or registrars), I would add that discussions at Conference also addressed the communal dimension of relationships, which is so easily forgotten in our individualistic society.  That dimension, of course, is also important in the context of the faith-covenant, and something which, in Anglicanism and elsewhere, has been rediscovered within the past half-century.  But the current secular orthodoxy is that what people get up to in bed – just like what (if anything) they get up to spiritually – concerns only themselves.  It was very moving, when listening to gay and lesbian testimonies about the power of civil partnerships and their hopes for marriage, to realise that they may in many cases have grasped the communal/family dimension better than those of us who identify as straight have done.  Perhaps that is not surprising when one considers that a committed, public same-sex relationship involves, as a minimum, coming out to the family, and can have a major impact on the family dynamic.  Same-sex couples and their pastors have wrestled with appropriate rituals to express what is genuinely valid about “giving away” – not one man handing a piece of property over to another, but a letting-go and sharing so that a new unit can be created.  That does not mean that any of us – least of all Adrian – were unaware of the dangers of communitarian or even fascist aspects of traditional doctrine; “one flesh” does not mean the husband’s flesh, nor does a union of families preclude the freedom of the individuals concerned.   Yet it was right to have the balance corrected a little, and not least that it was our LGBT brothers and sisters who had so much to contribute to this.

But more on the conference and the AGM below.  What of the House of Bishops?

For those not afflicted by the politics of Anglicanism, the main story so far is that the Pilling Report on the issues surrounding same-sex marriage, recently published, fell rather short of opening the doors to a new understanding but at least urged yet more “listening” as well as clarifying the underlying theological tensions on the issue.  The Bishops responded to this in haste, and their response included some welcome acknowledgment of the risks of rejecting gay and lesbian people and their families (for example at Baptism) but essentially reaffirmed traditional doctrine and discipline.  There are signs that Archbishop Justin, at least, does not want this to be the end of the story, but he is caught in complex national and international politics.  A number of organisations, including CSCS, responded to the statement, and our response is below.

But I must turn, finally, to the AGM itself.  The minutes of this are also included below, along with the reports of both Chair and Treasurer.  It will be apparent that, with a small and ageing membership and little money, we are none too sure about our future.  Much – perhaps everything – will hinge on the theological educators’ conference in July.    It may be nearly time to pass on Elijah’s mantle to others whose have engaged, more and more creatively, with our agenda in recent years.  Or, of course, it may not.  Yet again we find ourselves, at a time when two key committee members have had to move on, with a new committee member, Matthew Prevett.  CSCS seems to have a strange power of renewal.

[1] Jesse Bering, Perv: the sexual deviant in all of us, Doubleday 2014.

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