First Published in the Catholic Herald.
The Church of England has been in turmoil about sex for as long as most of us have lived. Rather in the way climate alarmists anticipate the steady rise of sea levels, we have got used to the fact that the sea of sex is rising inexorably in Anglican ecclesial culture and debate. But this last week has seen one more turn of the wheel, with the authorisation by the House of Bishops of church blessings for same-sex couples after a civil ceremony, all the while refusing to endorse gay marriage itself in Church.
The decision has satisfied no one and instead frustrated everyone. Nobody has got what they wanted from the process euphemistically called “Living in Love and Faith” (LLF), which has been going on for six years now and is the Anglican equivalent of the synodal process in the Catholic Church.
As part of the LLF process, there have been endless consultations and accompaniments, “listenings” and journeyings, so that members of the C of E could experience the presence of the same-sex attracted who present themselves as both marginalised and victims. The LGBTQ++ lobby has been energetically agitating to change the definition of marriage, craving the affirmation they attribute to the 98 per cent “opposite-sex” attracted from a reconfiguration of what marriage is deemed to mean.
It was Voltaire, that scourge of the lazy authoritarian, who famously insisted: “if you wish to converse with me, define your terms”. But sadly and problematically the Anglicans cannot or will not define their terms; and therein partly lies everyone’s frustration. A frustration that had nothing to do with sex, but everything to do with power. Think more Nietzsche than Jesus at this point.
The problem lies in that it is not so much a matter of whether, as Pope Benedict the 16th advised, the Church of England is seen as an “ecclesial community”; it is just how many ecclesial communities it comprises of and what they all believe.
The construction of the Church of England was a political solution to a sixteenth century political problem. The Protestant movement has scattered into different theological and political groups from Luther through to Calvin and Zwingli and beyond to anabaptists, levellers and later Quakers, and so on. Anglicanism was a coalition of some of these different positions united only in their repudiation of the Western Church, but not in their beliefs about the nature of the Church, sacraments and politics.
That fragmentation has haunted the Church of England ever since. It can often find unity in what it does not believe in, but not in what it does believe in.
This dispute of homosexuality and marriage is the latest of these insoluble theological and political challenges.
The reason why it is impossible to define the terms of what marriage is, and what role sex and erotic attraction plays in a Christian anthropology, is that there is no agreement on where authority lies.
You might think it lay in the Bible, but a whole theological and anthropological industry has emerged on how to not to read the Bible either at face value, or as the apostles, fathers and every generation until ours read it.
With no agreed theology of the Church, authority does not lie in the Church.
With this coalition of ecclesial communities constituting Anglicanism, authority does not lie in tradition, since the traditions are all different and dissenting.
So two characteristics then emerge. The epistemological hierarchy of values has at its head the most potent, loud, aggressive and determined of cultural currents which is a form of therapeutic-contoured, hedonistic-driven, secularised sexualisation.
The second element is simply church politics. Because the C of E is governed in what is quaintly termed “bishops in Synod”, changes in the church’s canon law and doctrine can only happen by a vote, which, in important matters, requires a two thirds majority in all three houses of bishops, clergy and laity. The bishops and the clergy are dominated by progressives, but not so the laity. There you find sufficient numbers of conservative evangelicals to defeat the two thirds, one third mandate. They also provide a substantial proportion of the running costs of the larger parishes.
So the bishops have decided in their meeting this week, that after a certain amount of progressive pro-LGBT++ virtue signalling by the bishops of Oxford and Worcester in particular, acting as out-riders for their less outspoken, but equally committed, colleagues, they cannot afford to drive the evangelical laity out of the Church of England.
The “Living in Life and Faith” process was intended to soften them up and shift them along the progressive scale a couple of clicks. The idea was that after sitting in small groups and being very personally exposed to the pain and victimhood of the same sex-attracted would-be-married-in-church, and the emotional tenderness, romantic beauty and irresistible compulsive erotic attraction of their relationships, their hearts would melt. The conservatives would renounce their time honoured reading of the Bible and the two thirds majority the Archbishop of Canterbury and fellow bishops coveted could be achieved, allowing for a change in canon law.
But money has spoken more powerfully even than a commitment to homoerotic justice and compassion. So, and one might say “as always” in matters of high purpose and importance, the bishops have settled for a compromise. It is incoherent, self-contradictory and pleases no one, but politics is a messy business. Some parts of the church will “bless” what other parts of the church discern as sinful gay coupledom in church.
This will annoy everyone in equal measure, but there is the compensation of progressing the cause of LGBT++ demands just a few steps forward and doing all that can be done to normalise, through prayer and liturgy, what cannot be normalised through canon law and political process.
But if the Anglicans had been able to define their terms what would have emerged?
Theologically and spiritually the debate is all about holiness; what it is and what it requires. Throughout the history of the Church universally, the understanding of holiness – “kadosh” in Hebrew – has been about a separation of the sacred from the profane with the intention of preserving and deepening moral and spiritual purity.
As this has developed in the Christian experience, the role of the body, of sexuality and desire, proving to have an impetus and influence of such power, energy and effect, have been constrained and disciplined. Avoiding gnostic excess, the flesh in itself was neither sinful nor holy; the spiritual status of sexual desire was determined by its context. The fault lines between holy and sinful, sacred and profane, have lain across the boundary lines of marriage and children. Sex was harnessed, tamed and held as an act of potential co-creation, and specifically not re-creation.
Same-sex attraction, being constitutionally sterile and biologically mismatched fell inevitably into recreation since it was incapable of cocreation, and so was discerned as being disordered and unholy.
Further, the journey of holiness was one in which the body was to be subdued, tamed and desire transformed. As the body fell into entropy, so the soul was to be renewed and transformed. Sex was a distraction or a temptation that diminished the work of the Holy Spirit in the soul.
But in modern secular morality, it has all been reversed. With a speed and intensity that has taken the church by surprise, sexual desire, and romantic and erotic satisfaction have become ends in themselves, not means to an end.
They have been elevated to the top of a new hierarchy of value. They have become the new sacred; the soul has become not so much the new profane as simply displaced. The sexual predilection of the body and the clamour of the romanticised emotions have displaced the soul, and consigned it to irrelevance in the hierarchy of secular spirituality
In modernity’s new religion at the heart, which is focused on the worship of the Self, sex and romantic attraction have become the new secular “holy”.
What the modern (or post-modern in some eyes) Church is struggling with, is whether it adopts the values and aspirations of the new religion, while keeping the clothes of the old one.
The traditionalists and conservatives are resisting this corruption of dogma and definition. They decline to change the terms and definitions of Christianity as it has been practiced in all places at all times (except here and now); but the LGBTQ++ progressives, with their commitment to an alternative “holiness”, are passionately determined that they will and everyone else should.