It’s Time to Talk About…Sex!

by Dr Charlie Bell, Fellow at Girton College, Cambridge and ordinand at St Augustine’s College of Theology

One of the slightly tiresome things that British people seem to do is say one thing when they really mean another.  I find myself doing this all the time – it’s far easier to talk in riddles or to talk around the point rather than be direct and honest, even blunt. I’ve been thinking about this in the context of Living in Love and Faith. I’ve sat through a number of meetings, and read the book, and talked about it to a group of people from a variety of different viewpoints, and it’s all been described in rather beige terms. Words like ‘love’ and ‘relationship’ feature, as do discussions of ‘good disagreement’ or ‘bible based’ this or that (whatever that actually means?). Yet one word about which there has been far too little discussion has been the word sex.

It’s all a bit icky, I suppose. Nobody really wants to talk about sex to a group of ‘church people’, and prejudices still remain when talking about gay sex between men. The old tropes are never far away from the surface – it’s disgusting, it involves body fluids, and it’s just not polite to talk about it. Sex might be all well and good and produce children, but please let’s not chat about it over coffee. However, the current position of the Church of England is all about sex – and ultimately boils down to who does what to whom, when and even,what goes where. Until we grasp that, we will get nowhere.

The current position of the Church of England is clear – if you are not in an opposite sex marriage, then you  should not have sex, full stop. All such extramarital sex is sinful and must be repented of. And as the Church, in their wisdom, blocked gay people from getting married, then gay sex is entirely banned. That is really what the marriage debate is ultimately all about.

Civil partnerships were originally vociferously opposed by bishops, seen as the root and source of all evil, but once it became clear the world was not ending, they warmed to them. Yet it is a lie that “the bishops support civil partnerships” – what most support is the legal protections that civil partnerships bring LGBTQ clergy, provided they promise they’re not having sex. That’s not support – that’s a redefinition of civil partnerships. It is ludicrous to suggest that most clergy in civil partnerships are refraining from sex (willing or otherwise), any more than those in opposite sex marriages are – yet this is the falsehood the Church of England holds onto. It is nonsense. Meanwhile, those that do remain celibate are doing so under duress from a church pursuing a policy that flies in the face of the vast swathes of psychological evidence on wellbeing. Talk about rock and a hard place. Anyone who defends the current position of the church shares culpability in this denigration of LGBTQ clergy.

In my professional life, I have seen a number of different definitions of what sexual intercourse is. What has both bemused and appalled me in equal measure is that whenever this question is raised with those who so vociferously oppose same sex marriage, I am told that it’s a facetious question. It really isn’t – if you oppose something, you need to be able to define it. When does the sensual, for example, become the sexual? When does intimacy become ‘sexual’? Being blunt, does something need to penetrate something else for it to be classed as sex? One particularly useless definition I’ve heard is ‘something you wouldn’t do with a friend’ – is this really the best we can do (and is it even true)?

And the interesting thing is that I, and many who support same sex marriage, have no truck with a ‘what goes where’ understanding of sex. For many of us, sex is fundamentally part of relationship forming – something that comes from within and builds up a relationship in love. Sex is not some strange “add-on” – it’s central to the development of relationship. By telling someone they can have a civil partnership but cannot have sex, you are fundamentally assigning their relationship as second best. In fact, you are actively doing violence to it. You are demanding that a key part of the human story is withheld – that something which dignifies the human person is forbidden. You are placing an erroneous separation around the sexual act. This is plain and simple for anyone with even an elementary grasp of human psychology.

Yet that is what ordinands are asked to sign up  to when going forward for ordination – ‘do you agree to abide by Issues in Human Sexuality?’ means ‘will you promise to agree with this false divide, and make sure you don’t have sex and thus deepen your relationship with the person you love?’. The justification, of course, being that clergy are supposed to set an example to laity – so ultimately, the position of the Church of England is threefold: firstly there is a distinct dividing line between sex and relationship, secondly that all sex between people of the same sex is entirely unacceptable, and thirdly that their relationships are thus of a lower quality than opposite sex marriages. It’s ridiculous. And intolerable.

The problem is that no-one in the hierarchy seems willing to admit this.

Likewise, far too many clergy are forced to be complicit: ‘yes, we have a civil partnership, and strictly speaking that means we are celibate, but…’ Some bishops even seem to encourage their archdeacons to do the dirty work for them, going in after an interview to make sure the new vicar understands the ‘policy’. Civil partnerships only – no marriages. And “you need to sign up to Issues…if you know what I mean”.

It’s time this nonsense was blown out of the water!

Clergy in civil partnerships are having sex, and the church rules mean that they are forced to lie about it. This is not healthy sexual politics. Meanwhile, clergy still cannot enter a civil marriage with someone of the same sex, based on the House of Bishops’ ‘pastoral’ letter issued seven years ago on Valentine’s Day, ostensibly because of sex. Yet even the application of this rule is subject to a postcode lottery, with different bishops interpreting it differently.

This damaging farce needs to end. Clergy need to be encouraged to be honest, not duplicitous. Bishops need to openly refuse to abide by the 2014 statement and turn the conversation out into the open.

And we need to start talking about sex.









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12 Responses to It’s Time to Talk About…Sex!

  1. Richard Ashby says:

    Absolutely right. I’ve been saying for years that this is all about sex, the squeamishness of heterosexual clerical males about the human body and about bodily functions and particularly about anal sex. That this latter is no less common amongst the heterosexual population has escaped notice. And, of course, what women might get up to together doesn’t come into it, except in the interests of some spurious ‘equality’ as ‘girl on girl’ action is the stuff of heterosexual fantasy.

    The conflation of ‘sex’ with ‘sin’ from the beginning of Christian times lies the heart of this, and the separation of sexual activity from pregnancy as a result of the pill provided a challenge to Christian teaching to which the church cannot rise except through blanket condemnation. The utter stupidity of the document produced by the bishops after the ruling which extended civil partnerships to opposite sex couples, repeating the condemnation of sexual activity outside ‘marriage’, showed again their failure to comprehend the actuality of human existence. Such paucity of thinking, compassion and understanding of reality lies at the heart of the Church’s complete failure to engage with the world as it us and people where they are.

    It is no wonder that young people will have nothing to do with the Church. Most of them are quite content living their own moral lives according to good secular moral standards untroubled by, and rejecting, the theological notions of sin and sinfulness which they believe, dominates the Christian message. It is the small minority affected by this pernicious teaching, though their university ‘Christian’ societies or church congregations, who are the ones to suffer, risking the loss of their communities if they break free, or their mental health if they don’t. It is the church, forcing them to make these choices, which sins.

  2. Helen King says:

    Couldn’t agree more; five years since I wrote this blog post,

    If I were writing that now, I’d want to factor in the willingness of certain clerical abusers to talk about sex with those they abused…

  3. David Edwin Wilson says:

    I totally agree, Charlie. The present situation in the Church of England is unrealistic and encourages widespread dishonesty and duplicity. Yes. And the culture needs to change: church people need to start talking openly and honestly about having sex.

  4. EnglishAthena says:

    We are trying to deny one group intimacy. Not, putting this, there. And that is surely the real meaning of love.

  5. Des says:

    Sadly Charlie, there are some clergy in civil partnerships who take the celibate commitment seriously and it eats them up from inside. I have a friend in this situation and his partner does not understand and he looks tired exhausted and frustrated. The Bishop had the little interview and asked for assurances and I as the area dean with a responsibility of care was not informed. The whole set up is a farce!

  6. Dominic Barrington says:

    Is the ‘marriage debate’ really all about sex? While I’m in total agreement with the broad thrust of this piece, in terms of openness and honesty, especially for those church members in same-sex relationships, I’m not persuaded that this debate actually IS all about sex. For me it is about how we read the Bible, and the horrors of fundamentalism.

    For Anglicans in England and in some other provinces, this has mainly been reflected in the debates about sexuality, and in the ordained leadership of women. But the issue of how Christians read the Bible and understand it and live it in their lives is even bigger than this – as shown by the political strength of the religious right in the United States (where I currently live and work).

    The majority of arguments around same-sex relationships and sex almost always come back to how we relate to certain passages in Romans and Leviticus – to which many conservatives seem to demand unyielding literal obedience. And this kind of fundamentalism goes way beyond Anglicanism or even Christianity or even religion. I have the privilege of being a straight, white man, so it may be inappropriately easy for me to say, but I think the issues is bigger and even more insidious and frightening than this article acknowledges.

  7. RevCanon says:

    All you say is true, and the problem is the Institutional Church talks a lot of hypocritical, unhelpful, ambiguous bollocks about this and much more, emanating from hopeless leadership from top down, hedgeing its bets with knee jerk media responses, as if monumental leadership failure can stop the C of E being a sinking ship. Twas ever thus, certainly at Westcott when Jeffrey John was first being ostracised as unsuitable for the episcopacy, where he’d have been infinitely better than many deemed suitable.

  8. RS says:

    The logic of this piece is pretty troubling. If people are this willing to practise deceit and hypocrisy, they should be nowhere near Christian ministry, and neither should the bishops who turn a blind eye to it. Church rules don’t “force” anyone to lie – people choose to lie or choose to tell the truth. That’s an extraordinary abdication of personal responsibility. And if truth and honesty are as insignificant to those people as they appear to be to the author of this piece, then there should be no question of them taking positions of pastoral care and leadership in the church.

  9. BrianF says:

    My favourite Letter to the Editor was from a chap who said “I am interested in sex – but not other people’s’ “

  10. Ken Reeve says:

    Only thinking about this situation within the Church this morning having read the latest on the subject from His Holiness the Pope Frances. My immediate thoughts were the Church and in particular the C of E and Rome is that it’s obsessed with sex. I am in total agreement with Charlie and loved the comment from Brian F.

  11. Brian Sibley says:

    Well, as some aged (almost) 73, I grew up in era when homosexuality went from being against the law to being decriminalised, but when the Church – frozen by fear of change – would remain remained fiercely ghettoising to the gay Christians in their midst and making those of us with gay inclinations isolated from the support and comfort of church fellowship –– unless you count “Hate the sin, love the sinner” and being loving and supportive! Looking back, I have no idea how any vestige of my faith survived – other than God not being willing to let me go. I and my Other Half (together now for 31 years) became, first, Civil Partnered and, later, married although still enied the opportunity of being wed “in the sight of God”. The absurd demand on gay clergy (“No same-sex, please, we’re Christians!”) is damaging to their health, the health of their congregations and, in particular, to the specific pastoral needs of gay Christians in those congregations.

  12. Yes, this. I have been arguing for ages that the Church needs to have a proper grown up conversation about sex. Squeamishness doesn’t stop at gay relationships. I’ve debated people who really do believe that PIV intercourse is the only valid form of straight sex, and demonstrate ignorance that straight couples do enjoy other sexual activities besides and sometimes in place of PIV sex. Everything else is icky and messy. We really do need to explore some taboos.

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