The church, in our western culture, is once again passing through a time of cultural challenge and change which is facing all of us with difficult questions about how we do moral theology. The troubled waters in the Anglican Communion on issues about sex is the public face of our struggle in mission in this cultural context.
One of the problems of a ‘post modern’ culture is its lack of historical focus. The journey that brought us to this place and how the reactions of the church shaped our thinking give way to an exploration of the mobile fields of culture. Yet the history of serious moral theology tells the story of the persistent work of scholars and pastoral leaders to hold to a living and developing relationship between the given-ness of the truth of God in Jesus Christ and the changing shape of human experience. The moral sense concerning sexuality and sexual praxis has been one of the most demanding fields for this tension between the given and the living experience.
The one thing post modern thought does offer to us is a capacity to encounter crucial dynamics for change as cultural shift. Michael Foucault’s History of Sexuality is testimony to that. He paints a picture of cultural mores which contain some deep challenges for the church which he sees as a major contributor to the shaping of our cultural experience.
We can all describe the profound changes in human experience and understanding in the 20th century. The expectations and values concerning the relationship of women and men would be a central example of the change. Similarly, the development and widespread use of contraceptive protection has altered the way people experience family and see sexual activity. Christian moral thinking has had to respond. The work done by Anglicans in the heart of the 20th century on the Family and on family planning is evidence of the richness of the Christian tradition in developing its moral thought and pastoral practice.
The present conflicts around same sex relationships and practice have taken centre stage in our contemporary concerns. It is a serious mistake, however, to see our difficulties solely in these terms. That would be to burden the Gay and Lesbian community with responsibility for the moral confusions of our age surrounding sex. It might be argued that our culture presents us with rather deeper and more important theological and pastoral challenges. The Christian stress on the fundamental importance of relationships between persons as the foundation for thinking about what is appropriate for sexual practice needs reasserting. There is far too much emphasis on what people do and far too little on the stability and disciplines of relationships. When we untie the obligations and duties we have to each other from discussion about what is permitted in practice we collude with a functionalist approach to behaviour.
Serious Christian moral thought is about people in relationships. There is an urgent need for the church to refocus its thinking in that direction. That might begin to help us tackle the alarming rise in sexual disease, in the persistent reality of unwanted pregnancy, of the abuses within families and between partners – all evidence of a lack of understanding and support for strong, stable and loving relationships. This moves us towards the heart of the church’s contribution to its pastoral care of all of us in our most personal relationships. It is in the joining of the mystery of the love of God seen in the face of Jesus Christ and the mystery of what it means to be human beings open to love that we will begin to fathom the depths of the wisdom and truth of God for the challenges of these days.
The Rt Revd John Gladwin is Anglican Bishop of Chelmsford