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Christianity & Sexuality: Communication, Grace & Love – Taylor Carey

After reading several wonderful pieces by Chris Fewings – particularly ‘Love Divine, All Loves Embracing’ (15th July 2012) – and stumbling across an online reproduction of The Body’s Grace (1989), I’ve been sufficiently inspired to sketch out a few thoughts on Christianity and sexuality. These are nothing more than foundational ideas. Nonetheless I hope, in the context of various contemporary debates on sexuality, gender and the Church, to offer a fresh perspective from the vantage point of that most terrifying demographic: the teenage student.

 Does Christianity ‘do’ sex?

Christianity is all about repression and guilt,’ someone once charged me over an otherwise amicable (and relaxed) lunch, ‘which is why it’s all no sex!’ This was at university, where I was aware that the crucifix on my desk was far too much for most people’s conscience to handle when paying me a visit ‘this morning, after what happened last night…didn’t you hear about it?’ Guilt! The conversation at lunch seemed to crystallise this hostility towards religion as the opponent of freedom, the oppressor of life and the preventer of joy. The ferocity of their argument was troubling, and gave me reason to ponder.

Unsurprisingly, I don’t think Christianity is inherently repressive: it is, as C.S. Lewis reminds us in Narnia, very much a liberating faith, in which ‘Divine anarchy’ overturns our own ‘ordered sin’. Nonetheless, as Chris Fewings has highlighted, we have separated our notions of desire – the erotic, in its widest sense – from our understanding of piety. We long for God, but we banish sexuality. This stems, I think, from a misunderstanding of sexuality itself. Certainly, organised religion shares its guilt in this respect – particularly when the fronds of sexual identity and social order have been precariously intertwined – but I’m certain that a misunderstanding and distortion of sexual desire is commonplace in today’s secular world too.

‘Sex sells’, runs the familiar commercial aphorism, but in all its manifestations – eroticism in advertising, clothing and film, and the increased availability of pornography – there is, to echo both Nagel and Williams, an asymmetric frustration. Simple sexual lust is egotistical; desire, properly understood, involves the trust of and commitment to perception by another. For the physical body to be the cause of my joy, it must be unreservedly there for another, or, as Williams puts it, ‘given over to the creation of joy in that other’. Asymmetric sexual relationships (within which I would categorise pornography and perhaps some fleeting sexual encounters) are ‘perverse’ in that they put one party in control of that interaction, with the inevitability of its distortion. I don’t think this precludes meaningful sexual relationships from being somewhat transitory; rather, I think this approach suggests in what ‘mode’ our sexual partnerships become authentic vehicles of meaning and purpose.

Sexuality, then, morally speaking, is centred on communication, and the use of our bodies in the wider project of conveying human meaning. Certain sexual modes tend to narrow the possibilities of this communication, whilst others can enlarge them. Ultimately, this reasoning is predicated on an acceptance of the inherent dignity of the body, as part of that meaning-seeking and meaningful state of existence which we call human life. Even scrubbed of religious language, that notion – widely held by secular liberalism since at least the Enlightenment – comes tantalisingly close to what Christians would label grace. Grace is fundamentally a matter of being desired; a ‘transformation that depends in large part on knowing yourself to be seen in a certain way: as significant, as wanted’. And any notion of the ‘body’s grace’ – subsuming secular notions of fundamental rights and inherent dignity – only makes sense within a language of grace itself, a language of ‘creation and redemption’. We are an object for the unceasing, unconditional, boundless love and delight of God; we enter into communication with that Divine other through our incorporation into His community. That, to crudely pinch what has elsewhere been eloquently penned, means that the Church stands astride some of the most erotic language we could possibly muster.


Hang on a minute: what about fertility?

All of what I have said above deals with the joy of sexual communication – as it were, a further means of expressing ourselves, through our material physicality. Again, look to C.S. Lewis and Aslan’s sensuousness, ‘on the knife edge of erotic’ as Williams put it. Quite clearly, sexuality has much to do with fecundity – from the biological perspective, it’s purely instrumental – and yet, equally clearly, this seems less about sexuality and more about sex. A heterosexual couple might, in this regard, have more ‘justification’ for sexual communication – but an acknowledged importance of fertility (theologically as well as biologically) need not preclude an understanding of sexual communication that bestows equal integrity and intrinsic worth on a similarly meaningful homosexual relationship. Indeed, as The Body’s Grace asks, is it perhaps because homosexuality prompts us to think far more directly and extensively about ‘desire’ and less about functionality that so many Christians have felt threatened by it? If this is the case, given the case sketched above, shouldn’t we be rejoicing in homosexuality for enabling contemplation of a far more complete picture of desire – and how our own sexual communication might fit into a narrative of grace, love and meaning that unites us more fully with God?

Much, much more needs to be said on this: nonetheless I wish to focus on just one more area in this article. I hope perhaps to return to the preceding paragraph and deal with it at length in subsequent writing.

Institutionalisation, sex and the Church

The Church blesses marriages – not yet homosexual ones, but, in time, I hope they will be similarly included – as a matter of faith. We are so thoroughly acquainted with this concept that perhaps we have forgotten what this really means. Misunderstood, a blessed partnership becomes a legalistic compact – precisely the aversion of the true risk of sexuality and desire – which all too often hides behind the ‘justification’ of child-bearing. This has never been what Christian marriage truly involves. Rather, the institutionalisation of a partnership is the construction of a sanctuary of space and time, after the public proclamation of faith, trust and love, to let that relationship, in its fullest and most physical sense, truly find its existence. It gives, amidst the pressures of our contingent world, some refuge for that vulnerability of desire which partners – be they heterosexual or homosexual – must explore and realise. Marriage ought to be the soundproof room amidst the din of worldly chaos – a space and time where communication can really be heard. And of course, that communication includes sexuality – and not just sexual intimacy, but that broadest meaning of desire – and yet is not dominated by it. Marriage as an institution helps remind us that sexual mutuality cannot be a totality and an end in itself – at least if we are to avoid a wholly Freudian reality.

Indeed, it is precisely this need for perspective that, somewhat paradoxically, makes the celibate life such an important part of witness within the Church. Those called to the celibate life, particularly as part of the vocation to the religious life, remind us that sex itself is not the god we worship, but that it can form part of the range of communication which unites us with others and God. The ‘desire’ of celibates is not repressed, but rather committed totally to God, rather than focused on one other human being. This is in a very real sense ‘risky’. It cannot be seen as simply ‘fleeing’ from the risk of desire in the same way as rampant promiscuity arguably can. Of course, it must be said that celibacy approached without due discernment can clearly be dangerous and tragic; it can become a perverse license for the very worst of asymmetrical frustrations, which have historically caused unspeakable harm to vulnerable humanity. Yet, it seems undeniable that those who properly embrace the celibate life are often those who are most familiar with the vulnerabilities and weaknesses of our own bodies, and the erroneous paths our desires – and our misreading of them – can easily lead us down. Read Thomas Merton or Teresa of Avila, and there you will find an absence of self-deceit quite breathtaking in its clarity.


These brief sketches are neither original nor adequate explorations of very complex positions. Yet, hopefully, they provide something of a foundation for our thinking about what sexuality means to Christianity. As I hope is clear, whilst the answer to the charge ‘Christianity is all about repression and doesn’t ‘do’ sex!’ might concede that, historically, the answer has sometimes been ‘yes’; the Christian understanding of sexuality, it can be argued, is a unique framework that bestows on our physicality and the whole range of our communicative media the appropriate dignity, respect and meaning. It is ultimately the search as meaning-seeking beings, for a meaningful relationship with that unconditional desirer that is God that should enable us as Christians to be unafraid of broadening our horizons and embracing the infinitely bigger, broader and better world to which Jesus Christ shows the way.


All quotes, unless otherwise stated, from The Body’s Grace, a lecture by Rowan Williams, delivered in 1989 as the 10th Michael Harding Memorial Address to the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement (LGCM).

The illustrations are both by Nina Aldin Thune and are downloaded from Wikimedia under licence. This statue of St Theresa’s Ecstasy is in the Cornaro chapel of the Santa Maria della Vittoria in Rome and is of course by Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680).

24 comments on this post:

Wendy Dackson said...

Not meaning to be rude or facetious, but I’m having a moment of cognitive dissonance trying to put together such a mature, thoughtful piece of writing with someone who self-described just a week or so ago as a 19 year old relatively new Christian.

Lovely piece, Taylor!

17 August 2012 17:10
Matthew Caminer said...

Hmmmmm How come I never hear the Song of Solomon being read as the Old Testament lesson in Church, but seem to hear someone fulminating against fornication at least once a month in the New Testament lesson? For me that says a lot, though your article deserves a more considered response I am sure.

Taylor Carey said...

Hi Matthew – Indeed, you spot the obvious missing component in my article: scripture! This was deliberate, since I couldn’t really justify re-hashing what has already been put so well, in ‘The Body’s Grace’ (linked above). Here, ++R considers a scriptural narrative at some length.

But, to give you the gist of it: yes, courtship language (e.g. SoS) is there in force (albeit often patriarchal / ‘of its time’) – but we seem to have become hooked on what can be excessively narrow readings of certain texts (e.g. Pastoral Epistles, Romans, etc). That has all sorts of interesting sociological / historical complexity behind it (no doubt dealt with authoritatively elsewhere). But what I think I want to say is, let’s rediscover this broad, generous context – including the most stunning, enthralling narrative of marriage, fidelity, love and desire – and use it to the benefit of our lives in Christ.

As I also hope came across – much more needs saying about all of this; I only hope to have been able to sow a few seeds in merely echoing some arguments that have been made (more eloquently) elsewhere.

17 August 2012 17:45
17 August 2012 17:15
Ruth said...

To my mind (and experience) this is the crux of the issue with the many, delicate layers you beautifully touch on: “Nonetheless, as Chris Fewings has highlighted, we have separated our notions of desire – the erotic, in its widest sense – from our understanding of piety.” For me, piety is a human construct which, just as a word, denotes a measure of devotion to the Divine. The erotic and the Divine have been harshly divided at least in the more fearful minds of some who embrace religion. Ultimately, is religion the enemy? Religion is often the enabler of an ancient human struggle but, not necessarily the culprit. It seems crucial to realize – for those of us who believe there truly is such a thing as the Divine, as God – “piety” or Divinity does not preclude the erotic self. In fact, it is as essential as all other layers, if not moreso just as that precious life-giving, inspiring creative source. Great post here!

17 August 2012 17:46
Matthew Caminer said...

Totally agree, Ruth.

In the world of Anglican Cursillo, of which I have a lot of experience, we talk of ‘Piety’, but we watered it down to ‘Prayer’ because we thought people were finding the word piety to be archaic. Unfortunately, the one embraces (!) the other and for me piety, devotion to God, or however else you want to define it, must be holistic, whole of life, spiritual, psychological, physical and sexual, if it is to have any meaning. Thus, and at the risk of frightening the horses, we may indeed close the door to keep our lovemaking private from the children, but the door does not keep God out. For a couple devoted to God, it could be suggested that the very moment of joyful climax is the absolute ultimate in piety. I don’t think I am original in saying that, but it works for me. And it is on that basis that piety and eroticism can represent a glorious conjunction. Probably rubbish theology!

17 August 2012 18:09
UKViewer said...

A wide ranging article, which covers lots of ground. I’m not a theologian or academic so my response is written from the viewpoint of a layman who just sees things in perhaps liberal (to some) ways.

I just wonder if we are papering over the cracks of what is basically part of our human nature. Nature that can be controlled if we have the strength of character to do so, or to be unbridled if we allow it.

We are created in the image of God? If so, all of the feelings of love, our emotions, our lusts which we attribute to sexual behaviour, are gifts from him to us to use freely, with care and respect for ourselves and for each other.

But these things cover more than just sexual, we can love money, wealth, power, food, art, culture, nature and so much more. They are natural, but need to be expressed with care and respect for others.

We are also gifted with a sense of rightness and wrongness, although, I understand that in some people these senses are absent or may be repressed by mental or physical incapacity, but in most of us, these senses operate as our conscience. I believe that in most of us it is instinctive, not instilled, although repressive cultures can instil shame and guilt about possessing those gifts given to us. This can lead to us being judgemental of others, even ourselves in extreme cases.

The church historically, had a repressive culture, which though now relaxed hugely, still lurks behind the curtains, and emerges in discussions about gender and sexuality issues.

I believe that this is inherited shame, passed down generations, which is inhibiting us seeing the Holy Spirit blowing through the church, bringing fresh perspectives to all. Better qualified and deeper thinkers can put it any way they like, but to me it’s simple.

We need to lower our barriers and be prepared to take risks, trusting people to express themselves and their human and spiritual relationships in whatever way seems natural and right for them. Welcoming and blessing these as expressions of God’s creation and allowing them the freedom to be true to themselves and to God.

Taylor Carey said...

Certainly – I think we need to be open to a broader range of communicative possibilities. I think it is certainly good to start with the approach that God finds us, not the other way round.

Our morality is objectively rooted in the Divine – it is there that it finds its source and continual nourishment. I think that we need to understand what modes of our existence help us to maintain that ‘anchorage’, and which tend to lead us astray.

Might I just disagree with Matthew though on the point of actually experiencing God in sexual joy: I think the point of my mention of the existence of celibates and the importance of institutionalisation was primarily to avoid a certain path that some believers have gone down, which is that God is ‘whatever feels good’. Returning to Narnia, I think it is wholly legitimate to suggest that, as it were, God is ‘beyond the best possibilities of our physical pleasure'(aka Aslan rolling around, etc),and to have a vocabulary that enables this kind of expression. But saying piety IS this pleasure can, perhaps, move dangerously close to placing God within the limited realms of our own physicality.

Chris Fewings said...

This perhaps raised a point about immanence and transcendence, Taylor (which I happen to believe are the same thing). One of the few things I remember from Mere Christianity, because it struck me forcibly and entertained me, was C.S.Lewis’ take on the real presence. Why shouldn’t God communicate himself to us through food, he asks. “He likes eating. He invented it.”

Is sex a sacrament?

Taylor Carey said...

Interesting indeed! I won’t pretend to have an authoritative answer, but I am struck by some reflections offered by N.T. Wright which resonate with this (he’s at St Andrews, so I’m very partisan).

Sacraments are, as it were, the opposite of ‘speech-acts’ (by saying ‘I promise’ you have created something). They are ‘acted-speeches’, actions that seem to say something to us. Wright instances both a handshake and a kiss, so clearly sexual physicality would be similarly categorised. On this basis, our sexuality as action enabling ‘the world to be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord…’ seems very sacramental in character.

With that said, I wonder if we might draw a distinction between this ‘broad’ understanding of the sacraments, and the particular centrality of the Eucharist as Christ’s transforming self-giving? It seems to me that our understanding of ourselves as a ‘Eucharistic people’ could be wonderfully complemented by an understanding of our sexuality as possessing a sacramental character – certainly, in some sense ‘sacred’ (i.e. set aside for God).

This reminds me of a memorable moment when my Chaplain at school pointed to our chapel, in full flow and teeming with people doing their jobs, and said ‘this is a great sacrament in itself’. I found that very moving.

Anyway – the links to some relevant NT Wright:


Chris Fewings said...

Thank you for your reply and the links.

19 August 2012 08:18
17 August 2012 20:56
17 August 2012 20:12
17 August 2012 18:32
17 August 2012 18:17
Chris Fewings said...

I love this verse, quoted in Jim Cotter’s little book ‘Pleasure, Pain and Passion’ – the book had quite an influence on me. It’s a J.M.Neale translation of a C15 text:

O how glorious and resplendent
Fragile body you shall be,
When endued with so much beauty,
Full of life and strong and free,
Full of vigour, full of pleasure,
That shall last eternally.

In some of his prayers, Jim Cotter addresses God as “Giver of life, Bearer of Pain, Maker of Love”.

17 August 2012 18:59
Chris Fewings said...

I agree very much with Taylor that symmetry – symmetry of power? – is a critical aspect of loving sex. It seems to me that many of the insights of the feminist critique of the 70s which challenged men to think about their use of power in sexual relationships are under threat, because there is a lot of money to be made by playing on an ‘anything goes’ morality. The fear of going back to a time when sexual enjoyment was often choked back by social hypocrisy and an inability to discuss sex has weakened the protection of those who may feel socially pressured into sex for sex’ sake.

Taylor Carey said...

Absolutely – symmetry hits the nail on the head here. Thank you for the quote from the book – another one I must read (the pile is reaching shoulder height now, admittedly!).

17 August 2012 19:22
17 August 2012 19:14
Chris Fewings said...

I’d like to mention another good read, Memories of Bliss by my friend Jo Ind (subtitled God, sex and us). It’s a good exploration of what gets us excited.

A talk by Jack Dominian when I was a student tipped me off to the fact that the church in the middle ages did not ‘own marriage’ in the way that it tried to later, and I dabble in some of this history in passing in an article on my blog. And thank you, Taylor, for the link to Rowan’s 1989 talk.

17 August 2012 19:26
Matthew Caminer said...

Sorry, Taylor, I certainly wasn’t implying “that God is ‘whatever feels good'”. I thought I made my point clearly: apparently not.

Taylor Carey said...

Understood, and my mistake! I absolutely agree with you that our piety should be something holistic, and that we God is at the absolute centre of everything we do – I suppose I was just skirting the fringes of that line of thought and highlighting the route some have somewhat distorted it to mean (i.e. that sensual joy becomes ‘the ultimate’, rather than an ultimate form of physical communication and expression, as you suggest). I shouldn’t have said ‘disagree’ in my comment: I don’t!

17 August 2012 19:39
17 August 2012 19:32
Wendy Dackson said...

It’s a good enough piece that I’ve forwarded it to my long-ago ethics instructor, in case he wants an interesting discussion starter for teaching sexual ethics to seminarians.

Taylor Carey said...

I’d be fascinated to see the result of that discussion!

Wendy Dackson said...

I probably won’t be privy to it–I haven’t been in his class for about 17 years, but we’re still in touch. But it might be interesting for him to know what younger people are thinking in terms of Christian sexuality, that is more sophisticated than stuff like the ‘True Love Waits’ pledges.

17 August 2012 19:44
17 August 2012 19:41
17 August 2012 19:38
Matthew Caminer said...

It is indeed very eloquent…. but if you had to sum it up in only thirty seconds, what they call the ‘elevator speech’ how would you summarise your ‘fresh perspective’?

Taylor Carey said...

(Not timing myself).

“God is Love. Christians say it all the time. But do we understand how mind-bogglingly huge a world this opens up to us? Love is all about communication, finding meaning and purpose. It only makes sense in a language of grace that binds us to one another and to God. We need to recognise the true breadth of that communication, and stop subscribing to a dualism that separates piety and passion. Let’s understand how human physicality and sexuality can provide a pathway to a meaningful relationship between ourselves and with God. God, who is a love so indescribable, we cannot rely on words alone to express and echo it”.

17 August 2012 20:30
17 August 2012 20:16
Matthew Caminer said...

Gosh, even a huge amount of meat in that! Thanks.

18 August 2012 08:12
Peter Ould said...

Your piece completely ignores Ephesians 5 which tells us that the sexual union of husband and wife indicates the union of Christ and the Church. This is absolutely central to any Christian understanding of the purpose of sex.

Taylor Carey said...

Peter – thanks for this (and might I also quickly thank you for all your digital discipleship, tweeting, ‘twurching’ and blogging, from which I have frequently benefited greatly).

As I mentioned to Matthew Caminer, I have completely ignored ALL scripture (explicitly) in this piece, simply to keep it short and to avoid plagiarising what has been better put in ‘The Body’s Grace’, with which I know you are familiar.

Nonetheless, to briefly address your point: I’m not sure I see its strength. Ephesians 5 (et al.) might use antiquated patriarchal language, but its emphasis is non-biological. In other words, like so much OT / NT imagery which sweepingly relates to marriage, it idealises sexual attraction, desire, commitment and risk (i.e. everything discussed above) rather than procreation per se. As TBG references, I Cor 7.4, for example, is concerned more with the broadest sense of sexuality rather than narrowly functional procreative relationships.

With this accepted, though the heterosexual and patriarchal language of Ephesians is noted, there seems little precluding its compatibility with, say, a homosexual union. Without the assumption of procreation, presumably your argument would have to find (shaky) foundation on some sort of natural complementarity theory? Thus, I think, to simply take Ephesians 5 and say ‘this puts the lid on it’ seems to me a rather arbitrary deployment of an ambiguous passage, which damages the very ‘grand narrative’ your original objection alludes to.

These are just some initial thoughts, of course (and merely echoes of arguments in TBG), but they suggest to me a certain danger in the approach your objection takes, which, to put it crudely is: ‘Well, this bit of the Bible SAYS…so this has to be…’ Paul, after all, says all sorts of things we would want to see in context!

19 August 2012 12:59
18 August 2012 17:52

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