Sexual Issues – understanding and advising in a Christian context, ed. Joanne Marie Greer & Brendan Geary (Book Review)

Martin Pendergast

 Sexual Issues – understanding and advising in a Christian context, ed. Joanne Marie Greer & Brendan Geary, Kevin Mayhew Ltd, 2010, £34.99 – ISBN 978 1 84867 252 9

 It was a few years ago, at a CSCS AGM, that some members released their frustration at the inability of so many clergy and pastoral workers to discuss human sexuality matters comfortably and honestly. As a result, CSCS launched its project to explore with key practitioners and theologians, across the denominational spectrum, how sexuality and gender identity was being addressed in centres for ordination training, lay ministerial formation, and theological education. The aim was not simply to look narrowly at curriculum issues, but to try to see what support was available for those embarking on ministerial formation, whether lay or ordained. Various Christian communities recognise the value of different forms of accompaniment in personal spirituality growth, be it a confessor, spiritual director, or spiritual guide, but nothing similar seems to be acknowledged in journeys towards sexual maturity.

The editors of Sexual Issues might well have been flies on the wall during that CSCS conversation. Brendan Geary and Joanne Marie Greer intend this blockbuster of a book “to provide information and advice to priests, ministers, preachers, managers, pastoral workers, counsellors, people in training for ministry and others in positions of leadership.” They also recognise that it may be useful to lay Christians experiencing sexual conflicts themselves, or who are perplexed by the sexual behaviour of friends, family members, or others in their faith community. With contributions by leading specialists from around the world, but the majority UK-based, the book covers huge areas of human sexuality issues, so hence the fact that 464 pages does not come cheap these days.

The contributors explore four themes: sexual development in childhood and adolescence, sexuality in adulthood, contemporary issues in human sexuality, and theoretical perspectives. The various authors represent a wide range of Christian traditions and attempt deal honestly and courageously with some questions which many within and beyond faith communities are still wary of asking. For example, the Liverpool-based Catholic theologian, Kevin Kelly offers some incisive reflection on cohabitation; Ed Hone and Brendan Geary look at Sex and the Internet; Joselyn Bryan explores Sexuality and Ageing, as well as offering her perspectives on gender and sexual identity. The realities of sexual and emotional abuse, not least in how a community “struggles to accept terrible truths”, are identified by a number of authors. Sexuality in ministerial relationships is also looked as well as some perspectives on Sexuality and Spirituality and Theology and Sexuality.

With such a diverse range of topics and variety of authors’ backgrounds and experience, the book has its weaknesses as well as strengths. In trying to give wide denominational overviews on some of the subjects, it is inevitable that some contributors struggle to escape from either their particular denominational roots, or indeed a heterosexist or gender-biased perspective. The result is that on some topics, there’s an element of a ‘goldfish bowl’ dynamic so, for example, it is a pity that there is no overt contribution from someone who has lived through the experiences of gender reassignment. Likewise, no openly lesbian, gay or bisexual person, believer or not, contributes to this venture.

In many ways, Sexual Issues ’ essays coincidentally reflect the rich conversations we have pursued over the past eighteen months in the CSCS Theological Educators project. We are fortunate that a number of the contributors have provided input into our various sessions, and continue to do so. It is proof, once again, that there is growing convergence across different faith traditions on matters of human sexuality and gender identity, which seems a long way from where much denominational leadership finds itself. As the editors note, “this volume is purposefully ecumenical in its vision, and we hope it will contribute to discussion of these sensitive topics in a spirit of ecumenical listening and sharing.” They echo the thought of Margaret O’Gara, Professor of Theology at St. Michael’s University in Toronto, about the ‘ecumenical gift exchange’, suggesting that in a spirit of openness, all of the Churches can learn from each other and find common ground. This is at the heart of CSCS’s unique commitment as the only ecumenical network in the UK, dealing with a full range of sexual issues.

Martin Pendergast

CSCS Chairperson

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