The event which made me start this blog is approaching fast. I’m glad I began reading up on the subject of human sexuality, Christianity and the churches’ responses back in November, when I was asked to take part in the Shared Conversations – the relentless pressure of the day job will make it impossible to do much next week, and next Saturday I’ll be off to the three-day meeting. I’d hoped to do some more thinking here about sex and gender – and in particular about the craziness of assuming that ‘sex’ is biological but ‘gender’ is cultural, when anyone doing the history of science/ medicine will tell you how we always interpret the biological through a cultural lens; and this of course recalls how we always meet the Bible through a cultural lens, too. But then I remembered that I’ve already written something on this for another blog, Nursing Clio, so there’s no point repeating myself. Phew.
To the movies
Meanwhile, yesterday I went to see ‘Spotlight‘. In the context of the churches and human sexuality, it’s more about ‘inhuman’ sexuality, and of course it narrates real events, its retelling endorsed by those who lived through those events. One of the characters, Richard Sipe, a former priest and psychologist, gives his estimate of how many Roman Catholic priests have abused children and comes up with 6%. In the context of Boston archdiocese, that meant 90 priests. The numbers have since gone up, and include nuns as well. The film is about how the Roman Catholic church moved these offenders around rather than admitting what was going on, and about how easy it is for men to abuse children when as priests they are seen as representatives of God.
It’s sickening. And it isn’t just about the Roman Catholics, of course; last week the independent review of the case of Peter Ball, the former bishop of Gloucester, was announced. These terrible stories raise important questions about what a priest is, and about how setting priests apart as superior Christians can put them into a position of power with the potential for this to be misused. In the film there’s a very disturbing encounter between a reporter and a retired priest who is perhaps showing signs of dementia and who explains that there was no real problem because he never felt pleasure while abusing children. It’s a good example of how we try to rationalise our decisions, even the worst of them. And as a friend who saw the film with me observed: pleasure – the worst enemy of all?
The problem of celibacy
Fr Peter Daly, commenting on ‘Spotlight’ for the National Catholic Reporter, observed:
Sipe’s character points out what I have long felt to be true: the root problem is celibacy. It creates a culture of secrecy and mendacity. People lie to themselves and the church about their abstinence from sex. They become accustomed to not telling the truth. Bishops are caught up in that clerical culture of mendacity.
In the film, Sipe estimates that, if we look beyond child abuse to other clerical behaviour, over 50% of priests have not kept their vows of celibacy, meaning that many Roman Catholic priests have had relationships with other adults. This makes me, too, wonder about the point of trying to make people follow a celibate way of life.
Some church groups which reject same-sex marriage – most notably, Living Out – promote celibacy to gay Christians as the only life choice other than marrying a person of the opposite sex and being honest with them about your other attractions (which, to me, sounds like it would only work for bisexual people). But how many people can cope with a celibate lifestyle? As those in Living Out seem to come from a background of seeing the Creation accounts as definitive for all human life, always, how do they square celibacy with Genesis 2:18 representing God saying it’s not good for ‘man’ to be alone?
Celibacy and monasticism
In Christianity there’s a long tradition of monasticism, in many forms of which people live in community, rather than entirely ‘alone’. Is it easier to remain celibate in a supportive community? The Biblical models for a way of life apart from the world are not as radical – Jesus spending 40 days in the wilderness is rather different from someone choosing celibacy or spending most of their life in a cloistered community. As far as we know, Jesus never married – but is that an aspect of his life which we are supposed to emulate? For Living Out, yes it is: their website says
For it is hard to see how the Bible could be any more positive about the celibate life. Its central character, Jesus Christ, was single and yet is held up as the only perfect human being ever to have lived. In Jesus you see life to the full – and his was a human life without sex.
But if we foreground that aspect of Jesus’ life as the one to emulate, the human race will cease to exist…
When I was having one of those periods of spiritual restlessness which come to us all, and working on the question of just what I should be doing with my life, part of my response was to spend a day a month with a local convent, home to a contemplative order. It was a privilege to be able to share in their day. I would get there very early, take part in all the services that marked the rhythm of the day, share their lunch and otherwise spend time in reading, prayer, sleep – I found it impossible not to fall asleep, but I reckon that’s a very holy thing to do – and usually crying a bit, too. All the normal defence mechanisms went down and I was able to be open before God. It was very special. But it’s nothing like the lives being lived by the sisters in the convent. Their decision to follow the monastic life is taken very slowly; visiting many times, then living in the convent for some weeks before entering the novitiate, a period of several years in which the whole community and the woman herself work out whether or not she has a vocation to this life. It’s not a decision to be taken lightly – and it’s certainly not focused on an individual’s sexual attractions.
When power meets sex
Discussing the relations between US Christian conservatives and LGBT people following the acceptance of same-sex marriage, the author of a November 2015 article in The Atlantic observed that ‘Anyone who thinks cultural conflicts over sexuality and gender are settled, though, is badly mistaken.’ Correct, and the current debates in the Church of England are part of that continuing set of conflicts. What stories like that of ‘Spotlight’ say to us is that the churches are places where power and sex can meet in a dangerous way. This isn’t only about the potential for abuse of children. The 1995 story of the Nine O’Clock Service in the CofE shows how heterosexual abuse could follow when a priest was allowed to operate outside diocesan structures, apparently because he seemed so ‘successful’ in terms of growing numbers. It’s an extraordinary story (which doesn’t get mentioned much today in the the CofE) and video of the services, the leader, and those who were part of it show a dazzling mixture of innovative worship, a brave exploration of a new way of being Christian – and corruption. As one woman put it,
All the stuff about sexual ethics was just clever language; really it was about one bloke getting his rocks off with about forty women.
And that’s the problem. Church is a place where terrible things happen, where predators hide, where leaders can’t be challenged easily, and where God is used as an excuse for our own wishes. This is partly the result of sin, memorably defined by Francis Spufford in his book Unapologetic as ‘the human propensity to fuck things up’. But it’s made easier by people’s ability to lie to themselves and the church about their abstinence from sex. They become accustomed to not telling the truth.
So, roll on the Shared Conversations. Let’s speak truth to each other.