CSCS News 33, Autumn 2007: Editorial

Anthomy Woollard

Some of you may have been wondering about the silence of CSCS over the past six months or more. The reason is that the Committee has been doing some hard thinking. Despite an encouraging AGM reported in the last edition, it has become clear that CSCS cannot carry on without new blood – and no new blood has so far been forthcoming. Your Committee remain in good heart and committed to our objectives, but have all too little time or energy to promote them as separate activities along with all their other involvements in the field. We have some possible plans for 2008 – of which more below – but, unless that new blood is generated by those plans or otherwise, have come to the conclusion that CSCS as such may have only one more year of life.

We have been in existence, first as ISCS – an educational charity associated with LGCM – and then as the independent CSCS, for over fifteen years. This period has coincided with an increasingly lively, and all too often polarised, debate about Christian and sexuality. Inevitably the debate has focused mostly on specific issues such as gay clergy. The battle to accept women and their insights amongst Church leadership has in truth been largely won, though there remain some pretty sizeable pockets of resistance even in those Churches which have accepted them (let alone the huge blind spots in the Roman and Orthodox Churches). The parallel battle for the acceptance of gay, lesbian bisexual and transgendered people and their insights is very far from over in almost every denomination.

All too rarely do the protagonists acknowledge the underlying issues. It is true that some of these, such as the nature of Biblical authority, are very basic indeed and themselves a major battleground. Others, however, relating to the nature of sex and sexuality as such within the Christian tradition, seem to have had scarcely any attention. Perhaps at that latter level, also, we have won more battles than we recognise. The Churches’ past image of almost pure negativity and fear of sex seems now to belong to another era, and attitudes to cohabitation and divorce, for example, are a good deal more generous and less dogmatic than they were even twenty or thirty years ago.

Members of CSCS who are active in Christian writing and speaking, from Jack Dominian to Jo Ind, must be thanked for much of that. But is there not still a huge educational task to be undertaken?

Our Chair’s film review, below, illustrates one complex of issues which has nothing to do with homosexuality but touches on profound ethical and spiritual questions too easily swept under the carpet.

The book review, which refers to our member David Brown’s work on sexual surrogate therapy, is another clear case. As it happened, I was re-reading Just Good Friends by Liz Stuart (our former Chair) when I received this. Liz, like Jo Ind, supports the postmodern argument that sexual activities have no fixed meaning but only that meaning which is mutually accepted between the participants. Our view of sexual surrogacy may well depend on how far we can accept that philosophical position. As some of us found a few years back in debate with Bishop John Gladwin (now one of our Patrons), an unreservedly postmodern approach to sexuality may be theologically difficult for many Christians, even liberal ones. But where, outside CSCS, are such discussions taking place? It is true that they occasionally emerge in reports of the Church of England General Synod and the equivalent bodies of other denominations – but usually only by implication, and increasingly in a framework which is conservative and afraid to stray outside the narrow confines of “the plain meaning of Scripture” (as if there were any such thing).

The pages of this Newsletter have often contained accounts of how new ideas, and evidence from the natural and social sciences and from experience – not least the contributions of CSCS and its members – have been hijacked by narrow traditionalism. There would seem still to be an urgent need for the liberal/radical dimensions of the sexuality debate, as such, to be given voice in Christian circles. If one batters one’s head against a wall long enough, perhaps one might make a dent in the wall, assuming that the head can stand the battering.

From the outset CSCS had to struggle, in this context, with exactly what its role was and how it should be pursued. In the early days, when we benefited so much from the paid executive contribution of Alison Webster, much emphasis was placed on academic work. That helped to support the rise, under Liz Stuart’s leadership, of the journal Theology and Sexuality, which has now thoroughly come of age and has little direct connection with us, though it has remained a welcome and economical way for CSCS members to keep in touch with academic thinking. The impact of that academic work cannot easily be measured, and one cannot help suspecting sometimes that it is a little limited outside the circles of the academy, at least in the UK. That may be unfair. Perhaps its influence, and that of CSCS generally, on our Anglican episcopal members – Peter Selby and more recently John Gladwin – has had some modest significance, though it has certainly not saved that Church from its agonising about sexual issues. Perhaps something of the same is true with our range of contacts in the Roman Catholic Church and in some other denominations. But the fruits of the academic work are not all that immediately evident. And attempts to develop and disseminate more popular educational material on behalf of CSCS were sadly less successful than the promotion of the journal.

Latterly, under the chairmanship first of Andrew Yip and most recently of Jane Fraser, the emphasis has been more on the practical, with Committee members drawn mainly from those who are engaged in what might be described as pastoral work with the casualties of the Churches’ sexual confusion. (Questions about sexuality in a postmodern age are not just academic, they are profoundly pastoral, as the “surrogacy” issue demonstrates.) At the same time, other groups, both existing ones such as the Modern Churchpeople’s Union and new ones like Inclusive Church, have deepened their concern for those casualties, and made it more intellectually and pastorally respectable to take a liberal Christian stance on sexuality as well as other matters. The CSCS participation (together with the Student Christian Movement) in the MCU’s 2006 conference “A Passion for Justice” on sexual issues was surely the high point in our recent history; but the conference was essentially MCU-driven, and, because of that, attracted far greater numbers than we have ever commanded even in our early days.

Is there still, then, a place for CSCS, alongside the groups promoting Christian liberalism and inclusivity generally on the one hand and the more focused campaigning groups like LGCM on the other? Some of us still feel that there ought to be such a place. Many people, both gay and straight struggle with sexual/spiritual issues which may have little directly to do either with Christian liberalism generally or with the specific topics of current Church debates. The film and book reviews in this Newsletter illustrate that. And surely these are areas where CSCS is needed to contribute a liberal Christian voice.

But it is all very well for us to believe that. As any economist will tell you, a need which is not translated into effective demand might as well not exist. And there has been little effective demand for our work. We get only a very few requests to speak, or otherwise contribute to debate, on behalf of CSCS as such. The world of theological education has shown no interest whatever in our approaches. We have lost quite a few members over the years – often, it would seem, because of their increasing commitments elsewhere in the same or similar fields – and there is a bare trickle of new ones. Do we fall between too many stools? Are we too academic or even precious for some not academic enough for others? Are we too broad in our approach to help the struggling gay priest, too narrow for the anti-fundamentalist campaigner? Is there, in fact, a real middle ground left, within which our objectives are meaningful?

Many of our continuing members, it is true, are contributing significantly to those objectives in other arenas. The material from ICASA gives one example, and the final contribution to this Newsletter gives another, taking up the story of Henry Mayor’s attempts to engage the Church of Uganda in dialogue about gay issues which we featured in a previous edition.

We may hope that such members have valued our support over the years. Yet they make few demands on us – and even fewer offers of help. Appeals for new Committee members, in particular, have fallen on deaf ears.

Perhaps we have deluded ourselves about the need – or perhaps it is being met by others in better ways. In either case, it would be pointless arrogance and a waste of energy to try to keep the show on the road just for the sake of it.

Yet we do not intend to go quietly. We plan, in 2008, to undertake a major dialogue with as many as possible of the other bodies concerned with issues of faith, sexuality and justice, to see how their efforts can best be co-ordinated. We hope that this dialogue will begin with our Annual Conference and AGM on 9 February in central London, when Christina Rees, a well-known Anglican campaigner principally in the field of women’s ministry (and member of CSCS), will be our keynote speaker The letter from our Chair, below, sets out those plans in more detail.

Out of that dialogue may spring something quite new. There could, after all, be a continuing role for CSCS, though that will only be possible with new blood, since the Chair and Treasurer are in any event stepping down in 2009. Or we may find that some other body, or confederation of bodies, could most appropriately be entrusted with our mission.
We therefore look to you, the membership, for three things.

First, to attend the Annual Conference and AGM, of which further details will be available shortly. Second, to let us have details of organisations with which we should be in dialogue – and your views on the way ahead. Last but not least, to consider once again, thoughtfully and prayerfully, just how much you value CSCS, and whether you are prepared to back your convictions by serving on the Committee. It really is up to you now.

Anthony Woollard

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