Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Is The Church Obsessed with Sex?

No, though sometimes yes.

A substantial batch of paperwork has been released by the CofE in advance of February's General Synod meeting. Apart from some proposals to end so-called 'paupers funerals', most of them have been ignored by the main media outlets. It is only on the comparatively rare occasions when the CofE mention sex that the media beast wakes up and howls at the moon. .

So, inevitably, one document has generated more electronic newsprint than all the rest put together. And you can guess what it's about.  It's a so-called 'Pastoral Statement' about civil partnerships. I say so-called, because the general opinion is that it's not very pastoral, and because it's actually more of a clarification of the status of civil partnerships vis a vis marriage. Civil partnerships are now almost legally indistinguishable from marriage, so the statement addresses how far church teaching on marriage applies to civil partnerships. It's quite clear from the introduction to the document that this is its purpose.

What has caused most of the upset, as far as I can see, is that the document restates the traditional teaching of the church on marriage, in pretty much the same terms as it stated it 15 years ago. So whilst CofE leaders are talking about 'radical inclusion' and the church as a whole is following a 'listening process', the document strikes a different tone to all of that. It's not hard to see how that creates a dissonance, it looks to those who want the church to change its teaching that all this chat about inclusion and listening is just smoke and mirrors, and that nothing has changed, or will change.

There's plenty about this going on elsewhere - see Ian Pauls comments section for example - but for what it's worth....

1. The media is obsessed with sex, not the church. Westboro Baptist Church has a membership of 50, and yet is the subject of countless articles, documentaries, TV programmes, chat show discussions etc. Why? Because of their attitude to sex and how they express it. Don't give them the oxygen of publicity. My two churches have a combined membership 3x the size of Westboro, we have no placards, and we're still waiting for that call from Louis Theroux.

2. This is what happens when a body trying to communicate with its own members ends up speaking to everyone.

Christian discipleship includes a form of discipline (the clue's in the noun), just like commitment to any other path, be it losing weight, learning a skill or doing a paid job. What applies to Christians doesn't apply to people who aren't Christians. I don't follow the rules or practices of Weight Watchers, or the Labour Party, but members of both have certain rules and values they're supposed to abide by.  I shouldn't be scandalised if Weight Watches raises its weight loss target by 50%, or cancels the membership of people who don't turn up to meetings - I'm not a member of the group, it's nothing to do with me. It may be wise for me to act a bit more like a member of Weight Watchers (no comment), but that's as far as it goes. It may be wise for people to act a bit more like some of the things the church commends (forgiveness, generosity etc.) but that's as far as it goes. The rules, teaching and values of a group apply in full to group members only. But the rules, teaching and values of the CofE seem to be everyone's property. The signatories to the letter of protest at the Bishops statement go way beyond church members.

3. As someone who didn't have sex before I got married - and have never regretted that - I'm not sure how I would feel if my church declared that that was all a mistake, and I needn't have bothered with all that restraint nonsense. It was challenging, difficult,, and went against the flow of the culture I was raised in - raise that by a factor of 10 for the present day. I'm glad I did it, and would encourage others to do the same, even though most of the couples I do weddings for already have kids, and nearly all of them are living together. I pray God would bless them and give them fantastic marriages, and am delighted for all of them that they've found love in each other. Yet it would still be a massive kick in the guts if the CofE decided that (somehow) sex and marriage didn't belong together, and decoupled the ultimate act of commitment and the ultimate act of loving vulnerability. There are those of us for whom the CofE's 'definition of marriage' is how we have faithfully tried to live out our following of Jesus, it isn't something we need to apologise for.

4. Just as the 'settled results of modern scholarship' look like laughable guff a couple of generations later, we have not reached a settled shared morality on sexuality as a society. Far from it. Would you look at our rates of porn use (especially among children) sexual violence, relationship breakup, gender confusion (the Tavistock centre is now being sued for its gender transition practices by someone who experienced them as a child), the high pitched tone of all debates around gender sex and ethics, rising incidence of STDs, etc and think: 'they've really got all this sussed, if any society has got a mature and well considered take on sexuality its the UK in 2020'? That doesn't mean coming to no conclusions at all, but it does mean we need to hold our conclusions in a proper spirit of liberalism, rather than absolute conviction that we are right, and everyone else is wicked.


  1. David, you make a cogent point in (2) and I agree, it's none of my business what the Church of England does. But you undermine your own point in much of your own blog. In the abortion post last week, you said that compelling a woman to carry an unviable fetus to full term was worthy of investigation and robust debate. Then you weren't suggesting that rule would only apply to Christians or just members of the Church of England, you wanted to impose your religion's morality on everyone else. But it's not for any outsider to criticise the Church of England? How can you start to justify that?

  2. Thanks Andy. The abortion question is also about whether there should be a different law for unborn children with disabilities, which I think is where Long-Bailey is coming from, and is supported by some disabled charities in that. To put a point of view and call for debate on it isn't imposing morality on anyone. Nobody suggests that the political parties are imposing an idea on the country if they raise it for debate, or state a committed position on it, so why should the church be held to a different standard? The idea of a blog is (in this one anyway) to set out ideas and present a perspective on things. It's not imposing anything on anyone.

    From a completely different angle, society as a whole sometimes imposes things on its subject which it deems to be good. Speed limits, taxation to pay for free health care etc. We may soon decide to impose limits on activity in order to prevent worsening climate change. That's how the rule of law works, and in a democracy people campaign and advocate for the laws they think would be best for the country. I don't see anywhere on my blog where I've advocated for this to be replaced with a totalitarian dictatorship.