Editorial, Anthony Woollard
The Distorted Christian Tradition of Marriage Terry Weldon
Reflections on a ‘ministry in sex employment’ Jane Fraser
Editorial, Anthony Woollard
In many of the areas with which CSCS is concerned, there has been a positive ferment in recent months; but they have taken a little time to digest, hence the rather late appearance of this newsletter.
Perhaps the most notable event was the interview given by Pope Francis a couple of months ago, in which, whilst carefully not contradicting traditional teaching on Christian sexual ethics, he deplored his Church’s obsession with rules and regulations in this area of life – and moreover argued for a far greater voice for women in the Church. There is no indication at all that this heralds a change in any of the teaching, whether it be on contraception or abortion, same-sex relationships, or for that matter the ordination of women In fact he went out of his way quickly to affirm the traditional position on abortion. But the logic of his position is that more attention must be given to the spiritual meaning and quality of human lives and relationships than to the question of what genitals a person has and where he or she puts them. If this is translated into the practice of the confessional (where it is probably increasingly applied anyway) it will be a genuine move towards recognizing the sensus fidelium. If it begins to affect policy, then all the more so; and in the first of his articles below Terry Weldon demonstrates the possibility of women cardinals without changing the essential rules. .
In Anglicanism, meanwhile, we have seen the Church in Wales agreeing to women bishops; the first woman bishop in the Church of Ireland; and the first woman from an ordained Church of England background – Helen-Ann Hartley, formerly on the staff of Cuddesdon theological college – to be consecrated as a bishop elsewhere in the Anglican Communion (New Zealand). These “facts on the ground” are sure to affect the Church of England in its own tortuous progress towards the episcopacy of women. Any movement on the recognition of gay relationships is, so far, rather less obvious; but here, too, the “facts on the ground” must surely compel in the end.
Terry’s second article reminds us that the institution of marriage has been far from fixed or final in its form during Christian history. The present state of marriage, in England at least, is a complex one. Conservative critics speak as if society is a morass of promiscuity, with cohabitation as (at best) one stage up from that, and assume that Christian ideals have been comprehensively abandoned. Yet weddings – even church weddings – appear if anything to be on the increase. The “facts on the ground” speak of people, including Christians, navigating their way through a world of bewildering freedom, and making mistakes which in past ages would have condemned them to ostracism or worse; and yet in most cases groping towards an integrity in relationships – straight or gay – which at its best is surely an improvement on the old rigid patterns.
As Terry points out, the wedding ceremony itself has historically not always been central by any means to ideals of Christian marriage. Yet a remarkable number of people still seek it. Sometimes, no doubt, the move from a more informal relationship to a formal and publicly celebrated marriage is the triumph of hope over experience (but perhaps we ought not to knock that). Sometimes it may seem little more than an excuse for a rather lavish party (but perhaps we also ought to avoid knocking the human need for celebration, especially in an age of austerity). But if that public commitment is still a milestone in so many relationships, then surely it deserves support, and not a simplistic application of those narrow rules which worry the Pope.
So what is marriage today, and how if at all should it be made available to those who do not fulfil the traditional one-man-one-woman requirement? Our next Annual Conference in February 2014, on “Redefining Marriage”, has not proved to be as easy to put together as we would like – another reason for the delay of this newsletter (but see the enclosed flyer). That reflects the complexity of the issues. The general impression is that there is a thing called “marriage”, and we know exactly what it is, and the only issue is about extending it to non-heterosexuals. Terry and I would both ask whether it is quite as simple as that. Is marriage primarily about procreation and the creation of a new family unit (and are those two things the same anyway, with increases in adoption, surrogacy and the like)? Or is it about containing dangerous and unbridled lusts within what is thought (perhaps mistakenly) to be safe parameters? Or is it about intimacy and faithfulness – and do or should those concepts mean exactly the same to every single couple? (If they do not, any differentiation is rather unlikely to run along neat lines such as gay versus straight.) And what about the symbolic value of “till death do us part” – which, as a recent article in Theology and Sexuality pointed out, was not enough in some quarters of the early Church where marriage was seen as indissoluble to all eternity, but which itself has now been relativised by widespread acceptance of divorce (or at least devices such as annulment) implying a recognition that not all marriages are made in heaven?
A concept which has had to carry more weight than it can bear, though its Scriptural roots must be fully acknowledged, is the idea that marriage – whatever, exactly, it is – is intended to model God’s unconditional love (with the implication that other kinds of sexual relationships fall short, at best, in that respect). Surely Christians should be seeking to model that in all their relationships, not just sexual ones. So what’s so special about the sexual dimension? Many would argue, with some validity, that a sexual relationship is one of unique intimacy and therefore vulnerability; and that applies, in principle, to gays and straights alike. But, as I have already hinted, “intimacy” and “vulnerability” may mean very different things to different people and in different contexts. A significant part of that vulnerability – though only in straight relationships, and not by any means in all of those – is, of course, the possibility of bringing new life into the world; and whatever we think of traditional Catholic teaching on abortion, for example, it is right that the Churches should uphold the utter seriousness of creating new life. But I would guess that the overwhelming majority of sexual encounters intend to avoid that, and most of these actually do so. None of these facts should be allowed to trivialize sex; it is not trivial. But they may help to put discussions about marriage and the family unity as the only proper context for sex into a wider perspective.
What sort of an institution is marriage anyway, assuming we could define it? Is it best seen as a sacrament – a concept to which Catholic Christianity attaches ideas of permanence, both in the form and matter of the institution and in its individual instances? Or is it, as Luther would have it, an order of creation, with all that that might imply in terms of something fundamental but also open to changes and flaws (sin), again at both an institutional and an individual level? Or is it best seen as a socio-cultural convenience, allowing for an infinity of different ways of giving shape to the family unit? Or might it contain elements of all three?
Any definition of marriage and its prime purposes, therefore, tends to slip through the fingers. And yet the Churches are not wrong to seek to uphold some sort of ideal or normative approach to the crucial sexual dimension of our lives. Where they are wrong is where they seek to enforce a particular interpretation, time-bound and culture-bound, of those ideas, whether through social pressure, through pastoral discipline, or through influencing secular law.
Which brings us back to Pope Francis, who knows that the fundamental thing about being human is not being obedient to rules and regulations but recognizing oneself as a sinner, and then recognizing that in others in all their variety.
We need more Christian leaders, at all levels, with these fundamental insights. That is why CSCS’ work with theological educators is so important. A conference is now in process of planning for next summer, which we hope will gather the widest possible range of those who lead in formation for ministry to find improved ways of preparing church leaders to minister in this confusing scene in Church and world.
One issue which has arisen rather clearly in this work is as follows. How far should the matter of sexuality be tackled in a “curriculum” context (alongside Christian ethics generally) and how far in the context of “formation”, the personal spiritual development of those in training? If both, how are the two related? It may be a partial answer to my question above (what is so unique about sexual relationships?) to note that issues of a sexual nature – whether they are tackled as some kind of theoretical exercise, or pastorally in the confessional or equivalent – do impact uniquely on the personhood of those who minister in our churches. They are never “out there” in the way that, say, the morality of banking and finance is for most of us “out there”. Many of the dilemmas which ministers will encounter may indeed make little apparent contact with their self-understanding. As a straight man, who has never encountered the wilder shores of BDSM, for example, or had any doubts about my true gender, I could easily see as “out there” some of the pastoral stuff which I might have to deal with if I were a parish minister. But even then, would I be right? One elephant in the room of discussions about ministry and sexuality is the problem of abuse, which arguably has turned more people away from faith than almost any other. Are we all sure that we are quite incapable of sexually abusing a trust that might be placed in us? Have we all faced up to the power dimension in sex, not as an intriguing item in a confessor’s manual but as something very existential indeed?
The third article in this edition illustrates particularly well the relationship between “out there” and “in here”. Jane Fraser’s account of her life as a “minister in sex employment” will be in part familiar to those of us who know her well – but at a time when “pioneering ministries” are all the rage, in the Church of England at any rate, it is particularly welcome to have this full account of some genuine (and sometimes costly) pioneering.
It is matters such as these which will be at the heart of our continuing work. Their importance is out of all proportion to the tiny size, and humble public impact, of CSCS. We ask for your continued support.
As we wait patiently for the Church of England finally to conclude its slow progress to the ordination of women bishops, there has been progress, elsewhere. The Church of Wales has voted by unexpectedly large margins to approve women bishops, the Church of Ireland which had previously approved women bishops in principle, sprang a surprise by announcing the first woman bishop for the British Isles, and almost unnoticed by the press, the Church of South India similarly announced its first woman bishop. In South Africa, their 2013 synod was attended by their first two female bishops. An ever bigger surprise could just be in store from the Roman Catholic Church. In the wake of Pope Francis’ remarkable interview with the Jesuit publication Civita Cattolica, there was speculation in some Spanish and Italian papers that he could be preparing to include women not as priests, or as bishops, but as cardinals.
Such a move would be extraordinary, but is not entirely implausible. Commentary at El País and at Il Messaggero, available in English translation at Iglesia Descalza, notes that there is an inherent contradiction between Francis’ acceptance of the current Catholic orthodoxy that women cannot be ordained priests, and his equally clear acceptance that the Church is impoverished if we do not make adequate provision for full inclusion of women in the life of the Church. This could be resolved symbolically, by including women as cardinals. Procedurally, this could be achieved in one of two ways, with relatively minor adjustments to current rules of discipline – not doctrine.
The more likely and more significant approach would be by admitting women as deacons. This would not be in conflict with any principle derived from the Bible, as defenders of the male priesthood claim that women priests would be, and there is abundant Biblical and historical evidence that women deacons were active in the early Christian communities. There are some Catholics who argue that their role was different to that of modern deacons, but even Pope Benedict acknowledged that the possibility of female deacons existed. Others believe that the necessary changes to church regulations could be implemented quite quickly. This would send a powerful initial signal of greater inclusion for women, and practice is likely to be taken up by substantial numbers of women religious and lay women. The really intriguing thing, is that it also opens up a path to women as cardinals. This is because although the usual career path to cardinals’ red hats is as priest, to bishop, archbishop and then cardinal, this is not the only one available. It is claimed technically, the minimum requirement for eligibility is no more than ordination as a deacon.
The other possible route to women cardinals, would be to revert to earlier practice, in which even the diaconate was not an essential precondition – there have in the past been laymen appointed as cardinals. If lay men, why not lay women? This too, could be achieved with a relatively simple change to the rules, but by affecting only those individuals so named, and not the much greater number admitted as deacons, would be more purely symbolic in value, and so both less useful, and less likely.
Some of the commentary along these lines has suggested, based on personal acquaintance with Pope Francis,that he is already thinking along these lines. Since this possibility was first mooted in the press, there has been feverish speculation that he could even name the first female cardinal in his first consistory, in February 2014. Such a move, certainly in the short term, would surprise me, and his in fact been flatly dismissed by the papal spokesman, Fr Lombardi. He did however agree that technically and legally, the possibility exists, and did not rule it out for future.This dramatic change will not come as early as next year, but there are good reasons for thinking that tor women, as for gays and lesbians, and for those who are divorced and remarried, under Francis, this is no longer the hostile church that it was under Benedict XVI and John Paul II. For inclusion of all, the tectonic plates of the church have shifted.
We see this most directly in the simple fact that this is being discussed at all. Under the previous two popes, there was a simple claim that women’s ordination was not possible, could not even be discussed, and that was an end of it. Benedict even dismissed Bishop Morrison of Australia, simply for suggesting that we should consider women’s ordination. .Francis has instead acknowledged that there are dangers in this kind of authoritarianism and certainty, that there must be dialogue with the whole church, reverting to the language of Vatican II of the church as “the people of God” and declaring unambiguously that we need to develop a new theology of women that ensure them a rightful place in the church, that we can hear their voices.
Others would respond that there is no need for a “new” theology of women, that outside the ivory towers of the Vatican, a substantial, credible theology of women already exists. What is needed, is simply that the present all-male establishment take proper note. The genie is out of the bottle, and will not return. We know that a substantial proportion of Catholics support married clergy, and want at least to discuss seriously how to create greater inclusion for women, as priests or otherwise. The voices that under Benedict and John Paul were cowed into silence, will hold their tongues no longer. Encouraged by Francis’ call for dialogue, we should now expect to hear a great deal more thoughtful commentary, and proposals, on a stronger place for Catholic women. Up to now, the Catholic Church has lagged far behind other denominations in this respect, but at last it is at least beginning to catch up.
It may be wishful thinking to hope for women cardinals (or even deacons) any time soon, but it is no longer entirely fanciful to look ahead to some future date when a pope, opening a general council of the church (in Sao Paolo? or Manila?) may be accompanied by her wife.
As the prospect of gay marriage is once again in the news is some American states, American Catholic Bishops are once again railing against the supposed dangers inherent in marriage equality. I am not going to review the flaws in their arguments, or their outlandish claims. There is one recent statement, though, that cannot be allowed to pass without the strongest objection. In one cardinal’s words, “We are followers of Jesus Christ, so our message must be what he proclaimed”.
Really? So why then does that cardinal – and leaders in other Churches who take a similar line – not pay closer attention to what Jesus actually said and demonstrated on the subject?
The “official” Catholic understanding of marriage has nothing at all to do with anything taught or demonstrated by Jesus Christ, in words or example. He said nothing at all about marriage, except that it could not be ended in divorce, and nothing at all against same – sex relationships. Instead, he clearly did much to show by his actions his inclusion of all.
Nor does the modern Church understanding of marriage match that of Paul, who recommended celibacy for those who could cope with it, but for those who could not, recommended marriage as a remedy for lust – not for procreation. Nor is there anything in Paul’s letters that would have been understood as an unequivocal condemnation of homoerotic sexuality by his Greek and Roman audiences, for whom such relationships were commonplace and seen as entirely natural. It is true that there are some ambiguous hints at a natural Jewish unease with the homoerotic, and it is also true that some of the later letters attributed to Paul proclaim a higher doctrine of marriage. But the good ol’ proper confetti-and-all virgin-on-the-wedding-night 100%-hetero image of marriage proclaimed by the Catholic Bishops and other conservatives has no foundation whatever in Scripture.
Nor does the bishops’ understanding of marriage agree with that of the earliest Church fathers, many of whom, following Paul, recommended celibacy – even in marriage. Tertullian, for instance, who was himself married, warned his readers that those who marry and want to produce children are being thoughtless. .At about the same time Origen, who was also married, castrated himself to remove sexual temptations.
Nor is the distortion in the modern Christian understanding of marriage limited to the imagined necessary link between marriage and procreation. It also extends to the ceremony itself, where marriage is so often confused with the wedding. For most of Christian and Jewish history, in contrast, these were two completely separate concepts, symbolically marked by a betrothal, public or private, well before the wedding (often years before). This betrothal could be public, often in childhood with arranged marriages, or if later, it could be private – with the commencement of cohabitation. In such cases, the concept of cohabitation before marriage was self- contradictory: the marriage was seen as commencing with the onset of a sexual relationship in a shared household. The public celebration in the wedding followed later, possibly with the onset of pregnancy or even after childbirth.
This conflation of marriage and the wedding has had some disastrous side-effects on modern marriage, with far too much attention paid to planning the wedding as a grand and memorable party, and not nearly enough on the solemn commitment of the marriage. The result, as Mark Jordan notes in “Blessing Same-Sex Unions”, in most modern weddings, the chief presider over “traditional” church weddings is no longer the priest or minister, but the wedding planner, closely followed by the photographer, the caterer and the florist.
In opposing gay marriage and same-sex relationships, the American Catholic bishops and their followers are emphatically NOT following the example or proclamation of Jesus Christ, as they falsely claim, but Vatican ideology, as developed from what Joseph Ratzinger once described as the “distorting tradition” in Christian history, which should be strongly resisted and exposed for what it is.
I use this description of my Christian ministry advisedly, despite it arising from a parishioner’s mishearing (or misunderstanding?) of the term MSE (or Ministry in Secular Employment in the Church of England). It has, also, a provocative element – the suggestion that, as a priest, I might be employed in one of the world’s oldest professions. The reality is that I am a sex educator, a qualified social worker and experienced counsellor engaged in training and consultancy on sex and relationships education (SRE), specialising in the needs of people with disabilities, and creating and distributing resources to support this work. As a priest, this is,and always has been, the main focus of my ministry.
In a few months’ time I shall celebrate 25 years in this role – and all within the same benefice in the Diocese of Worcester. I thank God that each of the three bishops under whom I have served has been supportive, while being fully aware that my role might be seen as controversial.
Why is the juxtaposition of God and sexuality deemed controversial? Our sexuality lies at the very core of our identity and understanding of who we are – as does our faith in God who created us and affirmed out humanity in the Incarnation.
Twenty-five years ago I had my doubts that the church would affirm my vocation – not because of my role as an ‘out-Christian’ in my place of work (Brook Advisory Centres, an organisation offering sex advice and services for young people) but because my husband was not a Christian. However, there was an acceptance that I was already being called upon to give a Christian interpretation of the work undertaken by that organisation when some other Christians were vocal in their denial of its compatibility with Christian belief. When I went to be interviewed by the Principal of the School for Ministry for my training for ordination, he was the first to raise the possibility that some might view my work as being incompatible with the Christian faith as, indeed, being a Roman soldier was viewed by the early churches because of the army’s veneration of the gods.
There has been a huge element of trust involved throughout these 25 years, both on the part of the church in my diocese and on my part, too. At the time of my ordination there was no ministerial template for me to choose from or follow. However hard I looked, I could not find another MSE in this area of work. I had to trust that if this calling was authentic, then the way would become apparent. And, indeed, it did.
The ‘vicar’ who spoke openly and professionally about sexual issues became widely known through the training work undertaken with teachers, youth workers and health professionals and through the authorship of numerous sex education resources. I became, with Martin Pendergast, one of the Faith Advisors to the Department of Health’s Teenage Pregnancy Advisory Panel. Within the Diocese I was part of a group looking at the theological and pastoral issues surrounding the establishment of a Child Protection policy for our churches and training those with contact with children and vulnerable adults. There were even occasions when I was called upon to support adult victims of clergy abuse where a woman, a priest and someone with sexual counselling skills was called for. I served for a term on General Synod when issues of sexuality and gender were on the agenda – the role of gay and lesbian clergy, and women bishops were to be debated, among other topics related to human sexuality.
More recently, I have acted as convenor for an initiative of CSCS – the Theological Educators Group. This is an inter-denominational group of theologians in positions of responsibility for educating future church leaders and with a real concern that teaching and spiritual formation should prepare ordinands for the range of sexuality issues that they are likely to face in their ministry. After nearly three years of sharing experience and knowledge, this project is to come to fruition in July 2014 at the two day conference at Ripon College, Cuddesdon entitled ‘Embodied Ministry: Gender, Sexuality and Formation’.
I’m often reminded of the story of Elijah hiding in a cave when fleeing from the wrath of Jezebel (1 Kings:19) when he hears God asking him, “Why are you here?” Elijah’s answer, “Because of my great zeal for the Lord” would not go down too well with many of those with whom I work although it lies at the heart of what I do. For me, as with Elijah, God is often to be found, not in the earthquake or fire but in a “faint murmuring sound”. My presence is sometimes symbolic – affirming the church’s concern for issues of human sexuality. On other occasions I represent access to the ministry of the church to the vast numbers of believers who are not, or not yet, members of a church. This is of particular importance for those who feel themselves excluded from the church because of their sexuality or the nature of a close personal relationship. A colleague who is known and trusted and who speaks openly and with compassion about sexual matters can feel like a breath of fresh air to such troubled souls. This ‘go-between’ role has been evident, too, in my efforts to explain to the church the reality of the secular world I’m engaged in. Of course, it also works the other way when, inevitably, I’m challenged about church teaching and practice on sex and gender issues.
I’ve seen many changes over this period, not least in the growing acceptance of women priests in the Church of England. Women were first ordained as deacons the year before my ordination and, five years later, we were ordained as priests. The validity of this (still not accepted by some) should be affirmed in the current legislation before General Synod on the consecration of women as bishops. We have still a way to go on the full acceptance of LGBT clergy but an increasing number are registering their relationships in civil partnerships. I hope and pray that another, future generation of ministers in sex employment will take forward the need for the church to engage in a more active and pragmatic way in the social and sexual education of young people – and not just those within our churches.
The Revd Canon Jane Fraser is a Minister in Secular Employment and Dean of NSMs and MSEs in the Diocese of Worcester
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