The Rev’d Tim Sherwell of the diocese of Adelaide asks what is sexuality? How is our view of sexuality influenced by community, by the Bible, and by theology?
In The Body’s Grace former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, then Bishop of Monmouth, says that [consensual] sex is a place of great vulnerability for humans at an individual level. It is a place where all of us can potentially appear foolish or be embarrassed in regard to compatibility, appearance, or satisfaction. The risk in sexual1 encounters may serve to fuel genophobia, a fear of sexual intimacy.
Heterosexual individuals who suffer genophobic embarrassment have the luxury of diverting attention away from their embarrassment by identifying reproduction as the purpose of the sexual act. Same sex couples take the same risk, yet don’t have the luxury of diverting attention to biological reproduction.
To what extent are our arguments driven by our awkwardness in relation to sex and does that give the ‘collective body of straight people,’ the right to censure the sexuality of others?
The scriptures depict God as a nebulous of grace and relationship, a lover in pursuit of humans. In Exodus 3 God engages a tribe of slaves on the basis that God heard their cry, and it is for the purpose of covenant relationship they are freed. There is no concept of earning, deserving or inheriting God’s grace.
The prophet Hosea projects the metaphor of relationship into the history of Israel, which subverts the imagine of near eastern cults that project God as a seed sower. For Hosea God is a wounded lover that seeks healing, calling Israel back into the covenant relationship. Ephesians 4.7 says we are each apportioned grace, not on the basis of2 conformity, but on the basis of divine gift. James 4.6 says that humility is the basis of grace being apportioned. 2 Corinthians 12.9 says that Christ’s grace is sufficient, and then conveys the religious paradox that power is only made perfect in weakness. There is a strong weighting within the scriptures in favour of relationship formed in grace, but little defining the form it is to take.
Jesus seems to project an intimidating tone in Matthew 21.31; “the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom ahead of you.” If we are to take the bible seriously in defining sexuality, we cannot dismiss the emphasis on grace and humility.
This defines the faith relationship as well as the nature of faith communities. The bible neither vilifies or verifies SSU. However the weighting of grace and humility do convey the danger of self righteousness when the matter of sexuality in any form is being considered.
The Day of the Scorpion is a book portraying the final days of British colonialism in India.3 It includes the story of Sarah Layton. Sarah yields to a man she does not love. Sarah’s experience leaves her feeling empty, lonely. Yet she experienced some form of transformation from her sexual encounter, arising mainly from her lover’s desire for her. It is the desire that is the transformative instrument. To be strongly desired by another, to be pursued and wanted, is a mechanism, or an agency, that conveys the grace of God, through the body, and allows us to begin to become all we can be in life and in faith. We therefore require some sense of ‘being desired’ by another human in order to understand what it is ‘to be desired by God.’
As a point of clarity, “being desired” as a means of realising God’s grace requires context. This cannot be unwelcome desire in any form, and the rise of the Me Too movement has driven social consciousness to a higher state of awareness of this issue. Being desired goes hand in hand with what is consensual, and what is mutual, as we work together for systemic change in eliminating sexual violence.4
Rowan Williams says that “sex has a related structure. It involves a desire that one’s partner be aroused.” This means that in sexual relation an individual is no longer in 6 charge of who they are. It is frightening. The ego fears it. For the ego becomes somewhat helpless in this state. Perhaps this is why Gian Bernini’s famous statue of Teresa of Avila serves to blur the intersection of ecstasy, pain, and triumph. Both sex and spirituality are forms of surrender, and whether we are pierced by another person, or pierced by God – may make little difference. Sex can be a metaphor for spirituality, and spirituality can be a metaphor for sexuality. In one we realise the other. We are only pleased “when we are pleasing.”7
British systematic theologian Oliver Davies says that the evolution of science and society demands the evolution of theology. We now enter a mind-body-world paradigm. Matters 8 of the mind and body, cannot be seperate from matters of the world. We are sexual beings in relationship, and we are sexual beings in the world. It may also be the case that modern society is lacking a political myth to guide us at this time. Society has lost an understanding of the body as a source of knowing. If we cannot know through our own 9 body, then we cannot be fully transformed by the grace of God which we would otherwise encounter in the body’s grace. It would therefore be rather assumptive to attempt to 10 orchestrate or control the sexuality of others.
The church is being asked to consider blessing SSU’s. In so doing we are being invited to bless relationship as an agency of God’s grace which allows a person to draw closer to the fullness of their being in grace and in faith. We are being asked to bless relationship that at times may be sexual, and through which God transforms humans through consensual desire and mutual commitment.
Sexuality, including same sex, is a means of relationship. Relationship is the primary means by which God calls faith community into God-self.
At best it is a stretch to find reason to refuse blessing of Same Sex Union, and at worst refusal of blessing may be a rejection of God’s grace.
1 Williams, R. The Body’s Grace pp318
2 Williams, R. The Body’s Grace. pp319
3 Scott, P. The Day of the Scorpion. University of Chicago Press 1998
4 Burke, Tarana. History of Me Too. @ metoomvmt.org
5 Williams, R. pp313
7 Davies, A O. Theology in the World, a Reorientation of Theology. Oxford Scholarship Online.
8 Griffin, Susan. Pornography and Silence, Culture’s revenge against nature. Harper and Row 9 1981 pp154
10 Williams R. The Body’s Grace