The members of CSCS are, according to the details in our publicity material, entitled to three editions of this newsletter each year. Many recent years, alas, have seen only two editions due to lack of material. This “extra” edition appears for a number of reasons.
First, the last edition – produced under somewhat difficult circumstances – gave out somewhat confusing messages about the next Annual Conference and AGM. Whilst of course a separate mailing will be going out to members about this, the Committee felt it would be helpful to reinforce that information. So, for the avoidance of doubt, the conference and AGM will be happening on Saturday 17 March 2012 at the URC Centre, Lumen House, in Regent Square NW1, beginning at 11.00 (registration and coffee from 10.30) and all will be welcome, not just CSCS members but friends and sympathizers and anyone whom readers know who ought to be in one of these categories! The principal speaker will be Gerard Loughlin, who will be known to many both for his editorial role on our sister publication, the learned journal Theology and Sexuality, and also for his work on sexuality in contemporary culture, especially film. Those readers who have connections with Modern Church will know that Gerard gave a scintillating session on this topic at that organisation’s last annual conference in July 2011. We may hope for more of this in March. Do come and bring your friends!
Second, there is rather a lot going on, not only in CSCS but in the wider Church and world. In Scotland, as Hugh Bain’s article implies, serious discussions are taking place about gay marriage. The home and source of the Enlightenment within the UK remains, in many ways, ahead of the rest of us – leaving aside current constitutional disputes. It may be too much to expect that what Edinburgh thinks today London will think tomorrow, but it would not be unprecedented. And at the same time we have seen the Church of Scotland dramatically shifting its stance on gay clergy, with the possibility that in a couple of years those seeking ordination might be treated without discrimination. That surely reflects the fact that the Kirk has historically engaged with social issues in an open and listening way which, for some decades, the Church of England, at least, has largely failed to do. There will be consequences, and there will be costs. These will have major implications for other Churches in these islands and beyond.
Meanwhile, the debate about civil partnership ceremonies in religious buildings (in England and Wales) is not quite done and dusted. A Church of England statement has been made, but its authority has been questioned in the absence of any General Synod debate. It is known that a number of parishes are considering the use of their church halls or other properties, or otherwise getting around the strictures of their national authorities. We would very much like to be kept up to date with local developments, and would particularly welcome any reports from readers.
Then there is the continuing debate on teenage pregnancies, and its link, if any, with the increasing sexualisation of the young addressed in the Bailey report. British, or perhaps one should say English, culture seems still to be based on a sort of hypocrisy which on the one hand, in the name of freedom of speech, permits a historically unprecedented appeal by commercial interests to the burgeoning sexuality of the young, and yet on the other claims to regret that sexualisation and tries to imagine that by ignoring the consequences they will go away. It is now a commonplace that those cultures which encourage an open approach to sexual and relationship issues within the education system are the ones which have been most successful in reducing teenage pregnancies. Perhaps more fundamentalist cultures, which try totally to suppress all manifestations of sexuality, have some success in this too, if only because of their brutal consistency; but that is a consistency which few of us would wish to emulate. So how do we get the balance right? Pat Dickin’s contribution shows ways in which this could be addressed.
To focus a little further on fundamentalism, we read also of the small but growing movement in certain, particularly African, cultures to raise the profile of human rights for gays in contexts where such rights are denied often in the name of religion. To give our Government credit, they have supported recognition within the Commonwealth that human rights cannot be restricted to heterosexuals. There is a long, long way to go here, and of course it relates directly to the culture wars within the Anglican Communion and some other denominational families.
The fault-lines in these culture wars are very complex. The growing division and mutual misunderstanding between Biblical fundamentalism (often highly selective and sociologically determined1) and a more liberal theological approach is only one of them. Issues of neo-colonialism and post-colonial guilt confuse the picture. So does the sheer fact of massive cultural differences, often pre-dating any kind of Christian conviction and having very little to do with it.
How do we handle these? To step aside from the gay issue, the question of polygamy has not gone away in many of these cultures. The historic solution has been to enforce “Biblical norms” – sometimes, again, rather selectively. An alternative approach is to allow cultures to learn from each other within an overriding sense of mutual Christian loyalty. But such dialogue has its costs. We liberal Westerners naturally assume that others will see the error of their ways and evolve towards our norms (even though we may no longer be all that clear, in some respects, what those norms are). But what if some of the influence goes the other way? What if, like those quite enlightened Muslim women who choose to adopt the burqa, we find that some of our compatriots feel the need to adopt, not only “healing” for gays, but “surrender” for wives and what we think of as the whole pre-modern package on gender and sexuality? That package does have some attractions, and not just for macho heterosexual men but for many others who feel a great need to “know where they stand” and to express a distinctive religious/cultural identity.
It seems clear that, if dialogue is to be successful, we who are regarded as “liberal” on matters of faith and sexuality need to be as sure of our ground as the conservatives. That is hard, because we find it increasingly difficult to identify a single authoritative source for our ethics. We can, and should, critique those who use and misuse Scripture selectively; but it is not clear what alternative, if any, we have to offer. Kinsey, Shere Hite, and many more recent and systematic researchers have demonstrated the diversity of human sexuality in Western societies, but, as most philosophers would agree, you cannot derive an “ought” directly from an “is”.
In fact, a recent article in the Church Times suggested that some conservatives are using the concept of a spectrum of sexualities to suggest that sexual orientation is far from fixed and is therefore a matter of choice – the implication, of course, being that all could choose to be heterosexual and that that is what they ought to be because the Bible says so! This argument, which might kindly be said to include some logical jumps, is very different from the use which liberals have made of the concept. Debates about sexual orientation/practice and “choice” – perhaps particularly in the case of bisexuals – take us into deep realms of human experience: not just the nature of gender, but the nature of love/desire and the role of choice in that, which in turn leads on to philosophical issues about freewill and determinism and hence, perhaps, the theological debate between Augustine and Pelagius. So much for “the clear message of Scripture” or indeed of any other authority!
Probably most of us, most of the time, are working out our sexual ethics and spirituality from personal experience, and that is good. But it needs to be checked out against the experience of a wider group – not just people like us, here and now, but ultimately the whole range of humanity. How far, within this, we privilege Scripture and Christian tradition, and what we do with the inevitable (real or apparent) contradictions – these are matters of continuing debate. But the more deeply we are seen to be engaged with such issues, the more chance there is that our authenticity will come over – and that, and that alone, is what will carry weight with our opponents. Gerard Loughlin’s presentation to our Annual Conference will give us an opportunity, in getting to grips with issues in contemporary culture, to deepen that engagement and that authenticity.
Last but not least, the bulk of this issue is taken up with the reproduction, in full, of a lecture by Clare Herbert which addresses that authenticity in a way that is both highly theological and deeply personal. This lecture mesmerized those who heard it, and |there is much for all our members to ponder, both on gay/lesbian issue and more_ widely.
And so we come to the end, and the beginning, of another year in the life of CSCS – this little band of sisters and brothers which has more than once faced its “Reichenbach moment” but, like Sherlock, refuses to die because it is still needed. In addition to enabling us to hear Gerald (and Mark Dowd as a respondent to his input), we have the AGM which will enable your Committee to report on the year’s work, particularly the progress of the project with theological educators, and to look for your continuing support. Will you, this year, consider standing for the Committee? The Constitution allows for a couple more members, and, although none of the present members intend to stand down this year, some of us are getting a bit long in the tooth and may not want to serve more than another year. That includes myself, after something approaching (I believe) fifteen years on the Committee and about half of those editing this Newsletter. We always need fresh blood, and never more than now. If you believe in what we are doing, and can contribute to it practically (perhaps not least if you have writing/editorial skills), will you think of joining us this year?
1 I recently attended an Evangelical wedding at which there were many references to male headship and female submission. Yet, despite Paul’s notorious command, and the widespread practice at weddings, hardly a single woman was wearing a hat! In today’s society, at least in the “white” West, what we wear on any occasion has come to signify less and less, whereas how husbands and wives behave to each other is still, for many, a profoundly existential issue and hence one on which some will seek authoritative guidelines.