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

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