By far the most important development since our last issue was put to bed is the death of a Pope and the appointment of his successor. What changes that may betoken in the Roman Catholic Church, and more specifically its attitudes to issues of gender and sexuality, we cannot be sure after just a few months of the new Pontificate. But perhaps, under the surface, tectonic shifts are taking place.
John Paul II was a militant – and in some ways, it must be admitted, magnificent – exponent of a particular kind of theology and spirituality, which magnifies the potential conflicts between our Christian calling and the rich complexities of our sexualities, and concludes that the solution must lie in firm discipline if not repression. That approach has done a massive amount of harm – obviously to AIDS victims, to gay people and to women, but not only to them. David Brown’s article, later in this issue, illustrates that harm, though in the case he quotes it appears to be evangelicals who are at fault. But what do we put in its place? An unbounded anything-goes liberalism? Has that never done any harm?
For me, the dilemma was poignantly illustrated by a French film broadcast on BBC2 just a day or so before the Pope’s death. It was billed as a comedy, and so, for the most part, it was. But its theme was a serious one: the access of disabled people to sexual fulfilment. And this was given added piquancy by being set in a Roman Catholic care home, most of whose staff needed a lot of persuading to look at the obvious solution to the dilemma. Inevitably, a “tart with a heart of gold” figured in that solution. The audience were clearly invited to support the idea that disabled people, who for whatever reason do not find normal sexual relationships available to them, should be given access to prostitutes, and that this could be thoroughly life-enhancing. But were they also being invited thereby to condone the web of exploitation which lies behind the sex industry, or the squalid impersonality which characterises most transactions within it? That’s a difficult one.
Maybe the divorcee on the care-home staff who ended up bedding the most difficult and needy resident was offering a better solution; but, then again, what issues are raised when professional carers with legal responsibilities enter into relationships with disabled people?
There are no easy answers. It is one thing to oppose the fundamentalist (Catholic or evangelical) attitude towards sexual fulfilment because of the deep wounds it has caused, and David Brown is right to call us to a more active role in that. But the issue of human sexuality, particularly when considered in the wider context of human nature and destiny as Christian faith seeks to address them, is never simple. What do we mean by “sexual fulfilment” anyway? (If we are anything more than mere animals, it must mean something more than getting our rocks off on whatever turns us on; though we do well to remember that we are animals in part.) Can sexual fulfilment ever be a drug, blinding us to other dimensions of the spiritual (I choose my words carefully)? What about when one person’s sexual fulfilment causes suffering to another – a quite frequent phenomenon? What about the ambiguities of power in sexual relationships, which may be acutely present in situations such as paedophilia but are actually pretty universal in some measure? And how in any case do you reconcile fulfilment-language with other and seemingly very different forms of Christian discourse? David is right to remind us that these are all far, far bigger questions than specific issues such as homosexuality and the priesthood. If we could find “answers” to the big questions, the more specific ones would be solved far more easily. But are there “answers” in that sense? The fundamentalists say Yes. We may question their answers, but if we put other pat answers in their place we may simply be falling into the same simplistic trap. On the other hand, if we are not constantly seeking some sort of approach to answers, we have nothing to offer those who look for guidance and wisdom, and the two extreme approaches, of fundamentalism and anything goes, will flood in to fill the vacuum.
Yet I spoke earlier about tectonic movements under the surface of the Churches. The Roman Catholic ban on contraception is almost universally ignored, and that, surely, represents a large – scale recognition of the positive value of sexual expression over and above its role in procreation The Church of England now officially accepts divorce, admittedly under very limited circumstances; and, despite the hard line which the Anglican Communion generally appears to be taking on homosexuality and “family values”, there must be few congregations which do not include some gay people, some cohabiting people, and a variety of other “deviants”. Even US evangelicals, I am told, now encourage sexual experimentation and a search for fulfilment, albeit strictly within monogamous heterosexual marriage. A few decades ago, none of this would have been the case. In truth, I suspect, the majority of people are finding their own answers to the big questions.
Often – too often – that process will lead them out of our churches. But sometimes it will not, and those who remain are amongst our most precious resources. They, after all, have done and are doing the theology. They are living it. They have discovered answers of a sort, however provisional, which work for them here and now.
It is, above all, to share this experience that CSCS exists. We began life as the “intellectually respectable” (and hence charitable) arm of the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement, which is why issues around homosexuality may sometimes seem to dominate our deliberations even though we have long since dropped our formal LGCM links. We remain in some measure, in intent if less so in actuality, a “learned society”, which is why we must sometimes seem all too like a talking-shop responding to the latest fads and fancies of academics interested in our area. But our ultimate aim is to lubricate the tectonic movements to which I have referred. If the quest of the intelligent Christian can be defined as “faith seeking understanding”, then our task is to help in that search particularly for those very people for whom David Brown acts as advocate. To do so will involve serious theological work, and far too few theologians are effectively and accessibly addressing the big issues of Christianity and sexuality. But it should also involve much more mutual care, sharing of experience and education of people in the pew.
These reflections on CSCS’ role lead me to some domestic matters. First of all, I am sorry that it has been necessary to print the announcement at the beginning of this Newsletter – but needs must. Perhaps next year, if the AGM agrees a new structure of subscriptions (with or without Theology and Sexuality), the problem of arrears will ease – for it should then be possible to be a member of CSCS for somewhere around £15 per year for those who do not want the learned journal. Our survey of members during the Summer suggested that about two-thirds wanted to continue to take the journal; but this was on a response rate of only about one-third of the membership, so it may be that the journal becomes a minority interest. We are in discussion with Sage Publications, the publishers of the journal, about the implications of all this, and we will keep members posted.
After the (possibly) not so good news, some that is very good indeed. With this Newsletter you will receive a flyer for the major joint residential conference with the Modern Churchpeople’s Union (and the Student Christian Movement) next summer. We have some truly outstanding speakers. As one who attends MCU conferences every year, I can assure readers that this is tremendous value for money (and any full-time students who are SCM members can receive bursaries). THIS CONFERENCE WILL BE A SELL-OUT – there is an absolute maximum of 200 places – SO BOOK NOW!
Don’t forget also that we will also be having our own usual annual conference and AGM on
February 2006 – this time, we hope, with a distinctly ecumenical flavour. Details to follow. Many other organisations are now interested in those great questions with which I began this Editorial and on which CSCS focuses. One of them of course is LGCM, from whose loins in a sense we sprang, and I hope you will find interest in both the book review and the flyer in this issue.
MCU is another, and our links with them are proving of increasing value. There are more, including such relative latecomers as Inclusive Church. Is there still a role for CSCS? We remain the only organisation with a truly broad and multi-issue interest strictly focused on questions of faith and sexuality. In theory we are surely needed as never before. But is there a role for us in practice? Only you, the membership, can decide that. If you feel that our conferences and newsletters (let alone Theology and Sexuality for those who continue to take it) make no contribution to your part in the vital dialogue about sexuality and faith, then it is your right to answer No. But if you continue to be involved with us, at this challenging time, then the Committee feel confident that many will continue to say Yes. Yes to faith. Yes to sexuality as a glorious gift of God, rather than the embarrassment which some people of faith appear to find it.
And therefore, hopefully, Yes also to CSCS.