Why the obsession with sex?

By Simon Barrow
July 10, 2010

The papers are full of Anglican argument once more. The presenting issues, as usual, are sex and gender. But why?

When I worked in Southwark Diocese as an adviser in adult education and training between 1991 and 1996 (at the same time as Jeffrey John, incidentally), the roots of current controversies were showing, but had not reached the fever pitch of recent years.

The then diocesan bishop, an evangelical with an open heart and a level head, asked me and others why we thought human sexuality was becoming the lightening conductor for so much angst and disquiet within the Church.

What I felt then, and what I feel now, is that this particular topic is controversial above all others not because it is a "first order" issue of Christian belief (it isn't), but because it exposes a series of insecurities to do with identity, authority and belonging. It exposes us, in other words.

Sexuality is a part of human experience which, for many people, vividly embodies the sheer joy as well as the occasional terror of living. It is intensely personal, it is a channel of life-giving but can also be a place of deadly abuse. It is a source of pleasure and fulfilment, but can sometimes make us feel weak and fearful.

In Christian terms, sexuality also raises the root questions about the meaning of our foundation texts, the way ethics is constructed, and who or what determines the shape of our lives. The problem is, these issues are not best or most constructively addressed in the midst of pain and confusion, and the claims made about them when one group of people are trying to police another are mostly overwhelmed by power and competition.

It is fairly evident, for instance, that the detailed texts of the New Testament and the Hebrew Scriptures cannot properly be used either to deny or to sanction committed same-sex partnerships in the modern world in some finally and conclusive sense, because this issue is simply not the one these verses are addressing. A wiser and more humble hermeneutic is needed.

Christian ethics concerning human relationships has to draw upon, and link, a wider biblical, historical and contemporary canvas in which the shape of life-in-all its fullness presented to us in Christ, the living Word behind the words, is discerned within the body of his followers today - with patient attention to what we have inherited, but also what we have to learn in the here and now, not least through the testimony of 'holy lives' (read: lives lived with integrity, authenticity and moral-spiritual fruitfulness).

This is a task for life and community, not for faction-fighting and media wars. To get anywhere, we have to step back from a confrontation based on 'winners' and 'losers' and look instead at how the whole body needs to be nourished. Not by cutting off the immense gifts brought by people who are other than us, for a start, I’d suggest.

If you'll forgive a bit of 'pluggery', these and other themes are explored in the book I edited for Ekklesia in 2008, around the time of the Lambeth Conference: 'Fear or Freedom? Why a warring church must change', with a preface by Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu (Shoving Leopard, 2008) - http://books.ekklesia.co.uk/content/fear-or-freedom-why-warring-church-m...

The contributors cross the theological spectrum (it is possible!), but share a post-Christendom concern for a fresh agenda rooted in the concern of the core Gospel message for peace, justice, good example… and embrace rather than exclusion.

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.