Category Archives: religion

When Bishops Talk About Sex – It’s all just white noise

The Church of England has always struggled with cultural change that diverts away from what it doctrinally and traditionally holds dear.  The dialectic between Church and society is difficult because the Church is wedded to the notions that tradition has a rightness within it and that text, whether it be Scripture or Canon Law, somehow communicates truth in a monosemic way.  The Church having a meaningful conversation with itself about the complexity of human sexuality is a big ask since it seems to come down to social justice being at odds with unchangeable doctrine and the problem of getting everyone to agree.

At the start of LGBT history month, the Bishops have shown themselves to be fairly tone-deaf to social change.  The Shared Conversations  on gay marriage was summed up in a document to be debated at General Synod on 15th February.  This is either poor accidental timing, or cultural myopia, since the House of Bishops seemingly has absolutely nothing to add to the celebration of LGBT communities and their QIA allies.  LGBTQIA is easily searchable – something the Bishops really should have done to get their ‘tone’ about sexuality more aligned with the society they hope to reach. The recent queering of liturgy (this is a must-read) by some gloriously rebellious ordinands has attracted opprobrium.  I leave it to LGBTQIA friends to judge whether it was appropriately done, but at least there’s a pulse in the deadish sexual vocal chords of the Church.

The Bishops certainly do not waste text on displaying any kind of sexual or cultural savoir-faire and, cutting to the chase (which the document fails to do), they are pretty well reasonably agreed on being fairly decisive for the time being about doing nothing to change doctrine regarding gay marriage.  And really who can blame them?  Since changing Canon Law would be tiresome, protracted and a bit complicated – and it would piss off the conservative traditionalist.  It is though, in my view, with breath-taking cheek that the Bishops want to establish a more welcoming atmosphere in the Church for those in the LGB community (trans people don’t get a mention).   This duality in thinking is featured in the expectation that clergy are held to a higher moral standard than laity and so clergy who are not heterosexual are absolutely expected to be celibate, even in a civil partnership.  This is how to say gay sex is morally wrong without actually spelling it out.  There is a heart-warming preamble towards a possible apology sometime in future written statements for the hurt caused by the Church in its past treatment of lesbian, gay and bisexual people. ( Just say ‘sorry’.)

When, by pardoning gay men of convictions under previous pernicious laws, a right-wing government throws shade on your efforts to come to terms with human sexuality, you know you are in deep cultural shit. 

There is no eye-contact in this document.  It’s a manifesto for retreat into tradition, Canon Law and particular scriptural hermeneutics.  Worst of all, the House of Bishops hides behind their obsession with unity.  They have never achieved unity before and women clergy will testify to their own continuing liminality.  The ship is sinking fast, you’re losing another generation, but as long as you all go down with one voice, then let her go down.  None can speak out in favour or against gay marriage for the sake of collegial unity.  I don’t pretend to be a theologian and I am playing fast and loose here, but what’s that verse from Revelation 3:16?  ‘Because you are lukewarm – neither hot nor cold – I am about to spit you out of my mouth’.  It is all a bit vomity.  However, it is clear that there is agreement on the bottom line – that the Church should continue its privileging of sex in permanent heterosexual unions preferably for procreation.  No gay marriage in sight, but the 1950s are nipping at our ankles.

This dreary hand-wringing is the result of months and months of weak tea and cheap biscuits – what on earth have they actually said during these Conversations?  The document finds its centre of gravity plummeting to the lowest common denominator, which leaves the Bishops tinkering round the edges with talk of written guidance on how to be nicer to gay people (and cohabitees interestingly) and other such flimflam.  It is all just ecclesiastical white noise.  How can Synod possibly debate this vacuous nonsense?  There is more spiritual depth and integrity in my shopping list.

After contextual throat-clearing, the Bishops are saying that, according to ‘the Lord’s teaching’, marriage is between a man and a woman in a permanent union for the procreation and nurture of children.  I don’t want to pull attention away from the debate  about gay marriage, but let’s look at the discourse that is underpinning this tract.

The apotheosis of the heterosexual nuclear family puts a whole swathe of the UK population off-side.  The divorced, the childfree by choice, the co-habiting and of course ‘those who experience same-sex attraction’ are all deviating from the sanctified and idealised family unit as enshrined in Canon B (church law).  In my view, privileging the heterosexual family unit is dangerous.  Not everyone thrives in the nuclear family, some people actually mentally, emotionally and physically perish there, and not everyone experiences marriage or having children as a way of self-actualising.  The nuclear family’s genealogy, if you chose to believe some of the socio-historical narratives, is ignominious.  Rosemary Radford Ruether (in Womanchurch, 1984) describes it as a social ouroborous, constructed to mirror the patriarchal divine hierarchy; as God is over man, man is over woman and children.  Or consider Engels’ version that the nuclear family developed as a way of establishing patrilineage tied into private property.  Either way, women and children have not always fared well in this institution.  The notion that this is God’s ideal and everything else is on a spectrum of deviancy and ‘sin’ is stifling, oppressive and fast becoming ridiculous.

The Shared Conversation document is a fumble with human sexuality, showing the Bishops are not just a beat behind social mores, but an entire song.  The House of Bishops is part of the House of Lords, part of the governance mechanisms of this country.  I would like the Church of England to come under as much scrutiny as other State institutions.  The fact that it exempts itself from equality legislation should be problematic to us all, especially since it cannot handle social change.  But then, for an institution that has structurally legitimated no-go areas for female clergy (politely and oxymoronically known as the ‘two integrities’), why would it be capable of dealing with the huge variations in human sexuality that the rest of us long ago began to celebrate?

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A Feminist Utopia in the Early Christian Church?

Could Christianity contain the dormant seeds of the postgender utopia described by radical feminists in the 1970s, uncoupling women from reproduction and the domestic sphere?

I havsainte been working on the idea that Christianity transmitted patriarchal notions of gender differentiation as it spread globally from its origins in the Middle East.  Embedded within its salvific message is the naturalisation of the complementarity of the sexes and the divinely ordained ordering of the feminine and masculine, defining how we have come to see the roles of men and women.  I argue that women have fared badly from the cultural influence of Christianity over the centuries and even now in some of its forms there remains ambivalence towards the spiritual equality of women.

Theologians have argued over the New Testament statements that, to modern sensibilities, appear highly misogynist.  How can a woman read these texts and not feel that Christianity is immutably masculine and oppressive? Or feel that her meaning and function are expressed through reproduction and her identity as ‘mother’?

A woman should learn in quietness and full submission.  I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent.  For Adam was formed first, then Eve.  And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner.  But women will be saved through childbearing – if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety  1 Timothy 2:11-15

I realise there are theologians who work to contextualise, contain and ameliorate the effects of these Biblical statements [1] attempting to dull the sexist edge.  In stark contrast, however, is the other New Testament theme; that in Christ there is neither male nor female (for example, Galatians 3:28) – a tantalising vision of androgyny that ought to have swept away oppressive gender differentiation.  Yet androgyny was ignored as a basis for human relations.

Rosemary Radford Ruether [2], a feminist theologian, suggests a radical understanding of how these two opposing paradigms could have been expressed in the early Christian Church, with the subsuming of the liberating de-emphasis of gender in favour of more powerful patriarchal social arrangements as Christianity transitioned from sect to accepted religion.  Her argument suggests that two forms of Christianity developed in its infancy.  The first was centred round the belief in the imminent appearance of the cosmic Christ, who would establish a new heaven and earth, sweeping away old oppressive systems, leading some to eschew the world and prepare for the eschaton – the end times and the beginning of a new order.  These eschatologically-minded Christians, argues Radford Ruether, saw gender as irrelevant, transcended sex and marriage and thus liberated women from the expectations around their reproductive and domestic function.

Since it [was] assumed that the patriarchal hierarchy of family, religion and state was inherent in ‘this world’, early Christians could only imagine a new humanity in which women were included as equals as one where the reproductive role of women was abolished.                                                                                                                 Rosemary Radford Ruether [3]

This idea that early Christians may have sought a postgender earthly pre-eschaton existence, where women were not saved by childbirth at all, that they were not to be considered as other, is an entirely different Christianity to the one that promotes gender complementarity, the ideal of motherhood and the otherness of women.  This is the second Christian paradigm and it won ascendency as time ticked by and there was no sign of imminent cosmic revolution.  Christianity assimilated into the patriarchal culture in which it had been conceived and began the process of embedding this patriarchy into theology and doctrine.  The genderless vision died.

During the 1970s feminist authors explored utopias where gender did not define women’s (or men’s) position, character and ‘natural’ traits.  Shulamith Firestone perhaps provided the best known touchstone for this postgender ideal [4] where, to free women and children from the ‘slavery’ of the patriarchal nuclear family, technology replaces the use of women’s bodies for reproduction and communal parenting dissolves the domestic sphere.  Marge Piercy put the imaginative heartbeat into this vision of a genderless future in her novel ‘Woman on the Edge of Time’.  Babies born in vitro and men sharing the breastfeeding breaks the monopoly that women have over reproduction, but also, for these writers, it is the key to their liberation.  As with eschatological Christian thought suggested by Radford Ruether, women’s equal status is bound up with transcending sexuality and reproduction.

For me, this is only the beginning of asking a question and there will not be agreement amongst feminists about the desirability of androgyny and postgenderism, with or without religious symbols.  Certainly many women derive deep meaning from childbirth and childrearing and would not see the loss of this as any kind of utopia.  What is interesting though, is the process of obscuring the genderless nature of life ‘in Christ’ in favour of rigid differentiation softened only by social progress and the work of theologians who wish to mitigate the worst of the patriarchal statements in Biblical text.  Given that Christianity with its embedded patriarchal notions has influenced western culture so significantly, perhaps an interesting question to ask is: What would that culture look like had the paradigm that did not emphasise gender – in Christ there is neither male nor female – been dominant?

[1] John Temple Bristow (1988).  What Paul Really Said About Women.  (Accessible and short account of the common pro-woman Biblical apologetics)

[2] Radford Ruether (1990) The Liberation of Christology from Patriarchy.  In A. Loades (ed.) Feminist Theology:  A Reader, pp. 138-148

[3] Ibid, p. 143

[4] Shulamith Firestone (1970) The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution