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franciscan - May 2001

© The Society of Saint Francis, 2001

Faithfulness and responsibility - Towards a theology of human sexuality

By Ian Thompson

Debate about sex and sexuality is not easy - especially within the Church. It involves trying to bring together people who have different, sometimes diametrically opposed, viewpoints on the questions concerned. Deeply held convictions and cherished traditions are never easily surrendered - nor should they be - but neither should they be allowed to stifle open and honest debate. Such debate, to quote Kenneth Leech, should be conducted "in a spirit free from panic, over-heated rhetoric, and the crusading mind".

I was travelling home to Aberdeen by train once when a young Chinese student, around 18 or 19 years old, asked if he might sit opposite me. After a while he began to ask one or two questions about being a "chaplain", the church and the Christian Faith in general. He told me a little about himself, his home background in Hong Kong and his girlfriend, whom he was going to visit in Aberdeen.

As we approached Aberdeen station he asked if he might put one further question to me and, having received my agreement, asked if he and his girlfriend (also Chinese) would be allowed to make love during the weekend. I have to say that I was not surprised by the question nor by the fact that, helped by the cloak of anonymity, the young man should put it to me for it is one that I have been asked many times by sincere, Christian young people. For me, it is yet a further indicator of the need for a clear theology or ethic of sexuality within the Church. I recognise that, for some, the answer to the young man's question "Am I allowed to have sex?" would be a straightforward 'No' and, were the question to have been put by a gay or lesbian young person, the answer would be an even more emphatic 'No!'. Answers like this are often given on what is claimed to be the clear and irrefutable authority of the scriptures. The implication is that the Bible contains clear-cut teaching on human sexuality that we can lift directly from its historical context and apply to our contemporary situation. This claim is, at the very least, open to debate.

Peter Harvey (a former monk of Downside Abbey and lecturer at Queen's, Birmingham) has argued "to make [the bible] into a self-consistent and comprehensive guide to sexual behaviour is to distort it" . Furthermore, it can be strongly argued that, when we turn our attention to the question of gay and lesbian sexuality and sexual behaviour - especially as expressed within committed, monogamous relationships - neither the Hebrew nor the Christian scriptures are of much help to us. This fact has been acknowledged by a wide range of scholars on both sides of the debate. James Hanigan, an American Roman Catholic theologian, with a certain sense of reluctance, concludes that
…it is an unwarranted assumption that the biblical authors, had they the knowledge about the nature and variety of homosexuality we have today, would wish to condemn without qualification all homosexual acts and relationships. While the Scriptures, then, yield at most a strong presumptive bias against homosexual acts, the texts alone, as we must read them today, do not settle the issue of the morality of homosexual behaviour and relationships beyond all question.
One is forced to agree that "biblical judgments against homosexuality are not relevant to today's debate" .

Turning from scripture to tradition, the most perfunctory glance through the history of the Church reveals, as Harvey points out "there is not, and never has been, a Christian consensus on moral matters" . Claiming that there is prevents healthy debate. What is more, should such a highly systematised, rigorous morality exist it would, in all probability, Harvey argues be more a morality or "ethics of boundaries rather than of transformation" .

The Lambeth Conference document states that "All human relationships need the transforming power of Christ which is available to all, and particularly when we fall short of biblical norms". What exactly those "biblical norms" are is, as I have suggested, open to debate but what is beyond doubt, Harvey contends, is that the Church has failed to proclaim a gospel of transformation that "transcends anxieties endemic in the story of humanity and sex" .

Let me offer a tentative suggestion as to how we might move forward in this difficult and complex field. In doing so I must acknowledge my debt to Professor Iain Torrance of Aberdeen University, and, through him, to Peter Harvey.

I want to go back a stage or two to the incident with the young man on the train from Dundee. You will recall that he asked me if it was alright for him to have sexual intercourse with his girlfriend. In other words he was asking, "Am I allowed to do this?". It would be true to say that in the field of Christian sexual ethics this is the question that we most frequently ask. The issue of permissibility lies at the root of nearly all our discussions of moral matters. Peter Harvey suggests that, rather than asking "What is allowed?" the Christian community might do better to ask questions which have more to do with faithfulness than permissibility. Our dominant concern would then become "What is faithful to the narrative of this community (the story of Jesus)?" and would lead us to ask questions like "Where is faithfulness happening?" "What patterns of faithfulness can we see proceeding in our world" and "What shapes is faithfulness taking" . These questions beg the further question "What does such faithfulness involve?"

Harvey's response to that question is to suggest that such faithfulness would involve a morality based on the theological virtues of faith, hope and love rather than a morality dictated by universal principles and imperatives. He points out that the theological virtues, unlike the classical virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude and patience, are gifts which are not acquired by education nor are they tied into a morality of principles or values. They are linked with the Jesus story which is not a 'moral tale'. However, a morality freed from universal laws (which provide an answer to the question "Am I allowed to?" rather than "Am I being faithful to the story?") would fail to meet demands for a morality which is either "an instrument of social control" or "a security mechanism". What it would do though would be to open up the way for the Church to work out, in fear and trembling, what it means to live out a faith-based morality that draws on and learns from the story of Jesus . So what would be the implications of such a theological ethic for the debate on human sexuality within the Christian community?

Firstly, a theology of sexuality based upon responsibility and faithfulness would not, as some might suggest, lead to a value free hedonism. Nothing could be further from the truth for nothing could be more unfaithful to the call we have received as the Church - the call to be faithful to the character of God as revealed in Jesus Christ - than a system that sought only personal gratification, power or domination.

Secondly, being faithful to the character of God requires that we be prepared to meet with the stranger, the one who is different, the one who is "outside" and enter into dialogue and fellowship with them. It has been suggested "that Church discussion on sexual ethics is in danger of being taken over by the campaigners" and "that the campaigners are not listening to one another but speaking past each other, so that we often seem far away from a community of discourse" . Approaching our discussion with the question "How can I be faithful in this discussion to the theological virtues of faith, hope and love?" in mind rather than the question "What am I prepared to allow?" should lead to a more open and constructive dialogue for all concerned.

Finally, asking the question "Where is faithfulness happening?" rather than "Is this allowed?" may enable the church to develop a new theology of sex and sexuality. A theology that could lead us out of the confrontation and polarisation currently experienced, into a new and dynamic if somewhat uncomfortable and insecure era in which we seek to explore what "being faithful to the Jesus story" really means. An era in which we recognise and value the mystery of human sexuality for what it is - a gift of God to be enjoyed rather than something for the Church to use as a means of marginalisation, repression or control.

The Reverend Ian Thompson is Dean of Chapel at Selwyn College, Cambridge


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