It may seem strange that, when equal marriage, women bishops, and a renewal of the abortion debate are all on the public agenda, this editorial begins with domestic issues such as the CSCS website. But we do have a new website, with a new address, thanks to the labours of Terry Weldon. Since Terry has this year been elected to the Committee, we have a duty to our membership under charity law to record that the Committee has decided to pay him for this work, out of a donation given by a member, specifically for the purpose of website update, before the last AGM.
This is the culmination of a long history during which our website suffered, first from the illness of our former webmaster Phil Gardner – though many of the results of his work have contributed greatly to what we now offer – and then from a malware attack. Recovering the situation has taken a great deal of work, which continues. The new address http://www.christianityandsexuality.org is not yet public, and we need members to access it in due course (work will be ongoing for some weeks yet) and tell us what they think, before it is opened up to web searchers in general.
The website is key to our work for at least three reasons.
- First, we need it to attract new members.
- Second, it should form a point of reference for existing members about all aspects of our work.
- Third, and perhaps not least, it is an outreach tool – offering to many who may never become members a source of information, comfort and challenge, in their personal pilgrimages and also in pastoral and academic work.
It is really important for us to get feedback on how far these purposes are fulfilled. The subject-matter of our interests is right at the heart of the life of the Churches and the spirituality of their members, yet it is not easy to communicate this when there are so many other voices, conservative and liberal, addressing similar issues. So please take a little time to give us that feedback. Particularly we would welcome any views on the sort of “resources” to which we should draw visitors’ attention; at present this mainly comprises a rather outdated booklist, without classification or commentary, and we would warmly welcome suggestions for additions, deletions and other improvements.
But there is more to be said about our current activities. CSCS is a little like Shakespeare’s “old mole”. We work in the earth (though not always very fast) and only occasionally do the fruits of this work pop up above the surface. One such occasion is our annual conference, which often attracts speakers of the greatest interest on topics of enormous importance, but, alas, rarely an audience of a worthy size. Our most successful conferences have been those where we have worked with partners, such as the joint conference with Modern Church some six years ago, and, more recently, the local conference in Birmingham jointly with LGCM, Changing Attitude and others. We have agreed with the transgender Christian organisation The Sibyls to hold a joint conference probably on 16 February 2013, and have invited several contributors from the transgender and related communities including Tina Beardsley. Issues around gender identity and variance are coming to be of increasing importance in church life, both pastorally and theologically (see the recent work by Susannah Cornwall on intersex, which is also reflected in the work of Adrian Thatcher whose latest book is reviewed below – and Susannah will be with us at our conference too). Such a conference should therefore be timely, and of interest well beyond the membership of the two organisations. Perhaps readers know of clergy or other pastoral workers who would benefit from a day on the topic? Who knows, it might even be relevant to bishops – if only because the idea of a spectrum of gender identities blows out of the water many of the arguments advanced in the women bishops debate. More details of our February conference will be available over the winter.
Our work with theological educators is also continuing, and we hope it will in due course also bear fruit in one or more conferences of a wider nature, and certainly in making available via the website some of the growing volume of resources on theological education and formation in the area of sexuality and gender. If the clergy are not properly equipped in these areas, it is unlikely that the Churches as a whole will be. Too often, such equipping is ad hoc. The Church of England in particular has spent the past half-century or more wrestling with issues around the nature of marriage, from contraception, through divorce and remarriage – a particularly long and painful saga – to facing up to the fact of widespread cohabitation amongst couples who seek to be married in church (and others). This has forced clergy and those who train and form them to ask questions about the very nature of (hetero)sexual relationships, probably not very systematically and with varying degrees of success. Is the result a coherent theology of sexuality, or an uneasy linkage of old shibboleths and new pastoral realities? Can it yet be said that those who lead our churches – who are human beings with as many sexual hang-ups as the rest of us – address any of these questions with real theological integrity? If not, then there is still work to be done.
Those of us who do not belong to the LGBT community owe that community a considerable debt in developing Christian thinking about sexuality and gender in general. This newsletter includes the sermon given at this year’s Pride service, which as will be clear is of much wider application. (It is reported that at least one anti-Pride protester has been converted as a result of this year’s attendance.) Such contributions from other groups, irrespective of the sexual and gender identities represented in them, are always welcome in this newsletter. One such group is Modern Church, who sponsored the latest book by Adrian Thatcher which is reviewed below (and simultaneously in Modern Church’s own newsletter – so apologies to any who read it twice!) But there are many other smaller groups and events in which members are involved, and we need to have more news from those.
Any voluntary society – particularly a very small one like CSCS – is only as good and as useful as its members. We know there have been times when continuing membership has not been an obvious option for everyone. We apologise to anyone who was affected by the recent brief blip in our charitable status, due to a series of accidents leading to a late Annual Return to the Charity Commission; this may have affected one or two people’s subscription payments. Please bear with us. It should be obvious from the above that we continue to do valuable work; but we depend on you. And we are still looking for new Committee members, and, not least, a new editor for this newsletter.
Ecumenical World Pride Service, Bloomsbury Baptist Church, London, 7 July 2012.
Sermon – The Revd. Dr. Ruth Gouldbourne, Co-Minister, Bloomsbury Baptist Church
During this service, we have affirmed, with joy and delight that, in Jesus, we are accepted by God as who we are, LGBT or straight. And we have affirmed that this acceptance is God’s gift of love to us made flesh and blood in Jesus, and in this we rejoice and celebrate.
And we have confessed our failure to love whole-heartedly and without prejudice, and the times when we trip up and hurt others and damage our selves and spoil the world. And we can dare to do this because we are not caught up in confessing what is not sin – but that must not and does not blind us to what is sinful within us and among us – and the freedom and possibility into which we are released as we dare to trust the gift of forgiveness and the healing it brings.
And we have been challenged to think about just how we love – how far we dare to love, what limits we might want to put on our loving.
And we have heard Scripture; love one another as I have loved you; words that echo and tease and question the roots of ourselves and leave us nowhere to hide.
And it is all pretty huge and demanding and overwhelming.
How do we do it? What would it look like, what shape can it take – and how on earth do we live it out in a world in which we are hated, attacked, condemned, questioned and looked at sideways. Loving, being loved is at the heart of why we are here; the right – the need, the call to love and be loved as we truly are is what the organisation is about. And in a few moments, we will share bread and wine – the gift of love beyond our imagining, our deserving, our capacity to name. And it is a call – a call to us to live in this love, to live out this love, to dare to name this love in ways that change the world.
Sometimes it can be hard to listen to Paul – he can sound so black and white, so hard-edged and dogmatic. And at other times he can be so complex and his sentences can be so long that we are not really able to follow him, and the subtleties of his arguments can be lost without technical language and careful elucidation.
And then he says this;
Be kind and compassionate to one another.
See, kindness we can manage. Kindness we can grasp. We know what it feels like, when somebody is kind. And we know – usually we know very clearly and without having to ask hard questions and study texts and take all the circumstances into account – what it takes to be kind; how to do it.
Be kind; it’s about paying attention to the other, it’s about meeting them. It’s about choosing to smile and not frown, it’s about picking up the dropped pen at work, and opening the door when the buggy is getting in the way and offering a steadying arm on the escalators and it’s about buying a cup of coffee when somebody’s wallet has been stolen and making the phone call when somebody is stranded and needs help finding a hotel room. It’s usually small, and it’s often practical, and it doesn’t take studying or justifying.
And it changes the world. That’s what Paul says, anyway.
These verses we have heard come at the end of one of Paul’s powerful descriptions of how we are to live as the people of God; and indeed it is more than a list of instructions about how to do the people of God thing. The section actually starts with these words a few verses earlier; put on the new self created to be like God – to live the life of God in true righteousness and holiness. And then he goes on to outline all that is to be put off as a result – anger and falsehood and stealing and bearing false witness – and sums the whole thing up with “Be kind”.
To be kind is to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.
And just in case we were in any doubt, he goes on to make the link quite explicit; be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. Be imitators of God, as dearly loved children and live a life of love just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.
To be kind is to live like Jesus, it is to live the life and love of God.
And that’s the way round that it is. Not – we must love like Jesus loves ands then we will be kind…. That gets back to being huge and unmanageable. Be kind and we are living like Jesus.
Now of course, Jesus didn’t go around like a wimp or a doormat; he turned the money changers out of the temple, he challenged the hypocrisy of the Pharisees, he was angry – or compassionate – it’s the same word – at the exclusion heaped on the leper who was so unsure of his place in the love of God that he almost didn’t dare ask for his health. The kindness, the compassion of Jesus wasn’t acquiescent in the face of injustice and oppression. So this “be kind” isn’t about being compliant to injustice, prejudice, hatred and harm. Indeed, it is absolutely the opposite of that; kindness, compassion, forgiveness – this life of Jesus lived out through and among us – it is about a fullness of being human that is rich, accepting and transformative.
Kindness too often is seen as small, weak, feeble. The idea perhaps of turning the other cheek, not letting somebody get to you, being a doormat and putting up with it.
But it is so far from that – at least in the gospels and in Paul’s description. Take that idea of turning the other cheek…
Strike you on the left cheek, turn the other cheek – demands treating as equal, acknowledging humanity and presence
Take your cloak, give him your shirt; in a culture where to cause another to be naked is to be shamed, this is about saying this is where your actions lead, this is the truth of what you are doing – but doing without diminishing or harming – and also without compromising or denying one-self.
Carrying a pack a second mile; the soldier can, by law demand a mile’s load bearing – but cannot, by law, demand more. So, going the extra mile is both kind – and challenging, exposing the oppression and denying its power.
All of these actions are kind; they do not damage or injure the other. But neither do they give into or condone oppression and hatred. They are playful, teasing, questioning, opening up possibilities. Confrontational – possibly; but also kind. It doesn’t diminish the other, it doesn’t condemn or violate the other – and nor does it allow the other to remain caught into the domination system of prejudice and scapegoating. It confronts an oppressor with the reality of their position while at the same time undermining it.
It is fundamentally the position that Jesus adopted when confronted with those who tried to tell him who he was and how he should be; he refused their definitions, and challenged them to see him as he was – love for them. And when they killed him, he did not strike back. But nor did he stay dead. He was raised and he came to them, and continues to come to them – and to us, and says – I love you, and there is nothing that will change that.
And Paul says – be kind and compassionate; be imitators of God.
This is kindness, the action, the activity of love that comes not from anxiety to placate, nor anger to dominate and make the other like us; it is rooted, as Paul makes clear, in knowing who we are in Jesus. He did not allow the other to dominate, but neither did he try to force the other to be like him, to dominate the other, or justify, protect himself by obliterating the other. He was kind, out of love and strength, not fear or distress. And as he was to those around him, so he is today – to us and others. And so– we forgive because, as we are forgiven; forgiven not to carry on as we have been, but to live like God in true righteousness and holiness. The attitude – the actions – that we offer to others come out of who we are, not who others want us to be, or try to make us. It is rooted in the compassion we know we have received as those who are held in the love of God, forgiven, renewed and recreated to be the life of God in the world.
It isn’t easy of course. It isn’t just summed up in gentle deeds gently done. To be called to love as Jesus loves is to be called to a cross, as the gospel reading makes clear. But this is a cross that we can carry, we can bear, because it is not about killing who we are before God, but about daring to confront those around us with the truth we have heard, seen, touched and tasted, so that they too can become their new selves. And such a cross is not our death, but is resurrection.
Be kind. It is possible. It is manageable. It may even be playful. It is not so huge that it overwhelms us and sends us back into our safe secure place where we are in control. It is step by step, it is act by act, it is communion by communion. And it comes from knowing who we are – what we have affirmed through the service; those who are accepted, those who are forgiven, those who are challenged, those who are loved.
Thanks be to God.
‘Making Sense of Sex’, Adrian Thatcher, Modern Church Series, SPCK 2012 (ISBN 978-0-281-06406-9)
Reviewed by Jane Fraser
Anyone who has ever felt they needed to leave behind their intellectual understanding and experience of sex on entering the Church’s portals will welcome this book which enables the Christian to do what the title says it does.
As one would expect from Adrian Thatcher, he manages to present this thesis in a form that is both intellectually and theologically rigorous but which is so clearly written and presented that the intelligent lay person (or in my case, a not so academically minded cleric) can find it accessible and a pleasure to read. It also has the distinct advantage of being short (89 pages in all) and thus a boon to the busy.
This is one of a series of ‘Making Sense of’ books produced by Modern Church in order to make available to Christians a liberal perspective on their faith. Thatcher very helpfully, therefore, starts by giving a brief discussion of theological sources and the character of Liberal Theology, outlining both what it is not as well as what it is and relating this to the theme of the book. This section is just one of what could almost be seen as stand-alone chapters for those with a specific, rather than a general, reason for picking up this book. For example, those engaged in marriage preparation – both the presenter and the participant – will find a feast of understanding of this sacrament in the chapter, ‘Making Sense of Marriage’.
Thatcher has managed to address the problem that many of us in CSCS are struggling with when he says,
The problem for Christian sexual ethics is that for many people on the fringe of or outside the Church, we have become besotted with sex, and the rows about homosexuality appear to be the final desperate attempts of a Church that has almost completely lost its influence to control what people choose to do with their lives.
He goes on to say that
Sexual desire can lead us away from God…. But (it) can lead us to God. It can drive us out of ourselves to seek connection with a beloved other, and in seeking and making this connection we may also connect with another beloved Other who infinitely desires us.
In this, he echoes much of what Jo Ind had to say in her lively discourse on sex in‘Memories of Bliss: God, Sex, and Us’ (SCM Press, 2003). She, too, asserts that the core doctrine for Christians is one of love – of God, neighbour and self – and should lie at the heart of a Christian sexual ethic.
Thatcher is also clear that
God has equipped us for joyful sex, not just reproductive sex.
This statement then becomes the key to his rejection of Christianity’s past repudiation of the body as sinful and thus needing to be controlled. On the contrary, he makes much of the act of sexual intercourse giving us an insight into the love of God. In particular, he examines the concept that the surrendering of the one to the other mirrors the communion of the three persons of the Trinity. Even more tellingly, when discussing the embodiment of love, he points us to Jesus’ establishment of the new covenant between God and humanity in the Eucharist where
Jesus holds nothing back. He gives us his body.
There is also a feast of clear and unambiguous explanation of the origins of a great deal of the confused and erroneous statements made on the subject of sexual difference and homosexuality. He explains how the ancient world understood biological, gender and orientation difference and then leads us on to examine each of these in the light of modern understanding and thus to ‘good theology’ rather than ‘bad ideology’, concluding
“In the mystery of the Trinity, difference is not allowed to become distorted by allowing silly patterns of dominance and submission to ruin the Communion that God is.”
In making sense of homosexuality, he is likewise scathing of the traditionalist case that
is found to be theologically wanting, and a pastoral disaster.
He gives us a useful summary of the dialogue between two groups of theologians (traditionalists and liberal) on the topic of same-sex relations presented in the December 2011 edition of the journal Anglican Theological Review. Having found the liberal case a disappointment, (and the traditionalists’ case a disgrace!) he then enlightens us with an additional and illuminating critique from a liberal perspective.
For me, the real ‘icing on the cake’ of this little gem of a book lies in Thatcher’s final section on the fruits of the Spirit, taking each – joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control to show how
Life in the Spirit elevates the bonding of shared love into a sacrament of mutual self-giving. It releases love (agape).
We, as members of CSCS would echo his conclusion.
I long for the day when a robust faith in Christ and a joyful sex life are integrated together for all of God’s children who seek them, irrespective of their status, sex or orientation.”
This Newsletter is produced for CSCS
The Centre for the Study of Christianity and Sexuality
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Phone: 020 8986 0807.
Next issue in spring 2013 – contributions invited by end-December
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