Holiness and desire: how the C of E can keep the conversation open

Image credit: RMC

4 August 2020

Internal church wrangling on issues of sexuality have descended into entrenched disagreements and the task of finding common ground, or even civility, turns on a deeper understanding of insights beyond all that.

That is the impetus behind current initiatives to break free from the impasse. They include a project in the Church of England to encourage listening, respect and study.

This attempt to understand the way in which church politics has become dominated by sexual morality divisions is explored by Jessica Martin in her book Holiness and Desire. She told a Religion Media Centre video briefing today that the conversations within the church had become like collisions.

“The terms that  these conversations have turned in, have been so tiny, just sort of little tram tracks that always collide, and no space to think about the extraordinary complexity of what it might be to value human beings and to be making relationships in the cultural context. It became an echo chamber, a set of arguments that only a very small number of people would think was urgent for them.”

Dr Martin, a theologian and canon at Ely Cathedral, is an adviser to Church of England bishops on matters of sexuality, including the current discussion programme Living in Love and Faith.

In conversation with RMC journalist Andrew Brown, she spoke of the current societal obsession with desire: “The modern assumption is that a lack of something makes you unhappy, but once you get what you desire, you are fulfilled. Actually, most of the deepest pleasures seem to be in looking towards someone who is not you, joining up with people.

“If there’s a consistent thread in my book, it is that the project of fidelity is something which is more important and more hallowed than a lot of the stuff that the church is getting very hung up on.

“I suppose I would hope for a something that concentrated more on the responsibilities that we owe to each other being met as best we can and a bit less on the who puts up where with whom.”

Andrew Brown quoted part of the book which was her account of growing up in the middle of a sexual revolution, which turned old values upside-down and had led, he said, to not knowing where we were.

“I think one way of thinking about what has happened in the course of my lifetime was that sexual behaviour went from being something that was publicly regulated in one way or another, to something that became privatised,” Dr Martin added. “And so that in becoming a private act it also became a morally neutral sort of place of exchange.

“I think what’s problematic about that is that actually most sexual decisions are not as private as people want to believe, and certainly they will all involve the public relationships that those people have beyond the meeting of those two, unless they are very bounded indeed.

“And one of the things that that made the sexual revolution work relatively easily was that  some people in it have more power than other people. Speaking as someone who was a teenager at the time, one of the things I noticed was that I had very little kind of liberation wiggle-room and that the men around me had an awful lot. So I spent my whole time trying to negotiate a situation where it was compulsory for me to be liberated even if it hurt me.  And I think that went on for really rather a long time, especially for a lot of women and also for some men.

“What I said in my book was that the conservative position was trying to recreate a rather nostalgic account of the post-war situation where women went out of the workplace and back into the home. One of the things that they noticed about this was that there was quite a lot of informal domestic power that women had if they were in charge of marriage and family, which is not to be underestimated. But when the power is only granted, it is very vulnerable.”

The conversation was joined by Canon Giles Goddard, vicar of St John’s Church, Waterloo, in southeast London, who is in a civil partnership and working for a fully inclusive church.  He suggested that the church is trying to work out a new narrative now that gay people are “properly people” and he acknowledged the church was finding it difficult. 

He said he felt Dr Martin’s book was an authentic quest to understand desire: “Your book felt like one of the early church fathers, wrestling with something which was emerging and how faith and the world interact. It was almost like you were trying to work out a new kind of faith in a world which is kind of pretty hostile really.”

The author and journalist Melanie McDonagh, who is Roman Catholic,  was interested by the perfect Anglican tone of the book, and homed in on its explanation of the divisions between the two sides in the debate, the progressives and conservatives.

“It struck me as being a perfectly Anglican take on the whole question,” she said.  “You’re terribly fair, you give a very nuanced account of both sides and you identify very clearly the errors of both sides. But it becomes extraordinarily difficult to define the right middle road between those excesses. The Catholic church, for all its faults, has the merit of some clarity on these issues. That is to say, it’s perfectly elastic in its application of principles but quite firm in terms of the articulation of the principles themselves.”

Dr Martin said she was not attempting to provide a solution. She had been involved in earlier groups that seemed to assume that the whole nation was waiting for church legislators to pronounce and then be followed.

“Maybe ‘the divine line’ matters for more people than just those who go to church. I was trying to widen the bandwidth for a number of people who might even want to join the conversation before I started thinking about what canon law answers could be supposed.”

When she was a parish priest, she said, her role was not to pronounce judgment on behaviour: “When it comes to sort of walking alongside people when difficult things happen, there’s never a space in which you say, ‘That was a wrong turn,’  because they’ll just say, ‘What’s that got to do with you? It’s not your business. Your business is to listen to us. Your business isn’t to tell us anything.’

“Certainly I would have been very cautious of a direct critique of someone’s behaviour.  All they need to do is to vote with their feet, saying, ‘Well if that’s what you think, I’m not darkening your doors any more’.”

Dr Martin is more alive than most to the entrenched view on sexuality. “Certainly in England there are two branches — one is a kind of separatist purity code, one which says, ‘We band of brothers, we’ll keep these particular mores and stand against the wicked and immoral world.’ And then there’s the other one which has the danger of looking so like the secular world that you can’t really tell the difference.

“In the end a church decision isn’t really or easily collectively made but what Living in Love and Faith might do is make the conversation a bit more open and take us out of some of the dead ends that we are currently stuck in. That is my hope. It may not work.”