holy, holy, holy

If you have not yet read Bishop Brian’s recent lecture on the Anglican Communion, it is well worth doing so. Plan time for it. It’s not one for multi-tasking.

It is one of the most sensible and interesting perspectives I’ve come across recently, and I want to recommend it rather than take issue with it. So think of what follows as a digressive thought, rather than a challenge per se. Oh, and although this may look like an essay, please think of it as ‘early draft’.

Early on in the lecture +Brian offers a summary of the clusters of values which can be seen to be operative in the current debates of the church. The first approach he describes as a ‘debate for the extension of the claims of natural justice’: an approach which he says characterizes many liberals in the West. The second approach he describes as being ‘concerned with the development of holiness, in relation to which a bibilically grounded sexual ethic is of vital importance.’ He says this approach prevails among many evangelicals in the West.

I’d like to extend that category.

For me — who might in many ways be classed with the first group, the ‘question’ of a Christian understanding of homosexuality is very much a question of how the church can help people move towards holiness. And to that end, a bibilically grounded sexual ethic is indeed vitally important, though perhaps not as clear cut as some of the ‘evangelical West’ +Brian referred to may claim.

Holiness is a word that drives to the heart of the sacred. It can only be defined or described in relation to the being of God. We encounter holiness as we encounter God: Moses stands on ground made holy by the presence of God; God’s people come to know him as the Holy One of Israel; and as they learn what it means to live in relation to this God, they learn to hear God say ‘You shall be holy for I the LORD your God am holy’ (Lev 19, etc). In that understanding of the law, the holiness tradition begins: be holy for I am holy. It is an early intuition that in time leads Israel to understand that they are made in the image of God, and an early experience of the meeting point of human and divine life that finds its fulfillment of Christ.

So, we cannot let Holiness be claimed as the preserve of any one part of the church. It is part of our foundation.

If holiness begins and ends with God, then it is only ever ours provisionally. It is ours in reflection, maybe. Ours insofar as we are allowed to share in the Divine Life. But holiness itself is defined by God’s being. It is what God is in Godself. It is therefore inherently elusive; both beyond our grasp, and eternally ‘other’.

Beyond our grasp, but not necessarily beyond our reach. Holiness is something God allows us to share and partake in. But we need to be wary of thinking we can hold it tight.

If Holiness begins with who and what God is, then our human, responsive holiness must surely also be grounded in who and what we are. To whatever extent we share in holiness, we must relate to holiness from the truth of our being. Which is easier said than done.

Our self-knowledge is never perfect. It is often elusive. And it should never be static. But we believe that in Christ, we can come to know ourselves better, more truly, as the beloved of God. So holiness begins with the ‘most true’ things we can say about ourselves, and the ‘most true’ things that can be said about us. Holiness is a learning to live out of that place, as we respond to God. It is therefore more a process and an approach to being than it is a ‘state of being’ which we have achieved. It is a way of directing our longing always towards God, always towards the good, always towards our best understanding of what we are called to be.

Living in holiness is about finding a meeting point between the truth of who we are and the truth of God. It is about letting ourselves be made in the likeness of Christ.

OK, so what has that to do with current debates on sexuality?

Well, if holiness begins from the truth of who we are, and is inherently bound up with the ‘otherness’ of God, then we need to make space for all kinds of ‘otherness’. We need to let people speak the ‘best truth’ they can tell about themselves, and respond openly and trustingly to what people say. We are at a point in our culture, in the development of human understanding, where a significant number of people tell us that the ‘best truth’ they can tell is that they are emotionally and physically drawn to people of their own gender. It is a ‘given’ truth of who they are.

So the church needs to be able to offer a way of holiness from that starting point.

For much of the history of the church, we could do no such thing. We took a few texts from a different cultural context and decided either that (1) there was no such thing as ‘being gay’ (anachronistic, I know), or (2) gay people must be celibate.

Well, one thing that a biblically grounded sexual ethic makes quite clear is that celibacy is a calling for the very few. There is no integrity in trying to live a calling that is not yours because the church or the society can offer no way of life that integrates both a call to grow in a relationship that includes sexual intimacy and the ‘deep truth’ that one’s desire is towards the same sex.

If gay people are to find holiness at all, then we must be able to offer a way of life that enables a meeting point between their life and God’s. The church needs to offer gay people a space to meet God in truth, and without pretense. Just as is needs to offer the same for straight people, and for those whose lives and sexual identities are yet more bewildering and complex.

If we believe that for many people, sharing their life with another person, emotionally and physically, in a faithful relationship, is a fundamental means of growth and grace then we need to be able to support people in that endeavor.

We need to offer role models and possibilities. We need to be willing to bless what is blessed.

Right now, the church can do very little to help gay people move towards holiness (though many live holy lives despite that). The few role models there are are too often vilified and their actions and relationships are assumed to be provocative, rather than expressive of their best attempts to respond to God. We cannot teach on the importance of chastity, faithfulness, compassion in gay people’s sexual relationships because we cannot admit that such relationship could be brought into relation with God. We are quite close to helpless when gay people push away from God and the church saying ‘there is nothing there for me’. And we are therefore in danger of losing the ability to speak the gospel, to embody healing and salvation.

And what if I am completely wrong? What if our culture is wrong, and in 150 years, people will think that it was madness to believe that ‘some people are gay’. (please understand: I don’t believe that will happen. This is just for the sake of argument.) Well, then I would still say the church needs to offer gay people a way to engage in holiness now: a way to find a meeting point between the best truth they can tell of themselves, and the truth of God. And that, again, is because our understanding — of God and of ourselves–is always provisional. We need to be open to conversion, growth, the ongoing revelation of God. And we stand a better chance of that happening if we have chosen to be in relation to God; if we are striving for truth and holiness. We are more likely to grow in holiness, even to learn from our mistakes, if we have heard the Word spoken in a way that lets us say: ‘yes, this is for me. I turn to Christ.’

23 thoughts on “holy, holy, holy”

  1. Yes, yes, yes! Three times even! This is the best expression of something I’ve been pondering for a while. And makes lots of sense to me. The language of holiness is something I’ve shied away from for a long time as it was used a lot in evangelical communities I was involved in some years ago in a way that I found hurtful and not helpful (something about holding tight to it, knowing what it is, something about equating holiness with purity). But this makes me think perhaps I could re-engage with the word again.

  2. Argh, Kimberly I will respond to this I hope – you say lots of interesting things…but I’m just in the middle of marking someone’s PhD at the moment and rather immersed in work-related learning….sorry about any delay 😦

    One question, should we perhaps lose an essentialist understanding of sexuality and talk not of the homosexual and their sexuality, but what a Christian lovingness in human love is? As long as we focus on ‘gay’ people, they are by definition outsiders. This focus offers a nice, handy dualism, gay/straight, but it is not complex enough to truly encapsulate the variety of sexuality. Nor can it capture the range of emotions and commitments that make up the different expressions of love between human-beings.

    Holiness, on the other hand, is not really about a holy/unholy binary. Perhaps, holiness, and the mysteries that surround it are a better way of thinking about lovingness?

    At the same time, however, we need to embrace the identity of gay/lesbian in order to enable recognition of the urgent need to overcome any exclusion of identifiable ‘deviant’ groups from the Church.

    So we face the need to discuss simultaneously inclusive lovingness and exclusive identities? (Something more sensible after the weekend I hope.)

  3. Can I put in a note here that it is perfectly clear from Graham Robb’s ‘Strangers’ and Rictor Norton’s (wonderfully titled) ‘Mother Clap’s Molly House’ et al that there WAS a perfectly clear understanding in place in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that some people did have an essential same-sex orientation.

    I take the point that many people are neither exclusively homosexual not yet heterosexual, and also that there is ever a danger of creating ghettos, but historically speaking the idea that the concept of a sexual orientation is a late development will not, I think, do, in the light of serious research.

    This helps not at all with the debate, really.

    I do think Elizabeth is right – a lot of damage is done with the simple equation that holiness and purity are the same thing. Thus the disgust when human love becomes sexual love, and the attempt to confine in in the most rigid walls which can be found.

    It might cheer us up to realise we have come a long, long way from the period when the first Pope Gregory tried very hard to ensure that almost all love making between married people was a sin.

    I thought one of +Edinburgh’s comments was that neither the Nigerian nor yet the American church are offering any criticism of their native cultures. Both are equally in ahrmony with them.

  4. Someday, Vicky.

    The reason I lean towards essentialist categories is two fold. First, because the models you suggest demand a level of vocabulary and articulation I don’t yet have. Second, because in a church where many people are claiming that homosexuality is a deviant choice, I think we need to keep saying ‘this is how it is for some people’.

    Now, that is not to deny that it can be infinitely more complex, nor to imply binaries. I am just not competent enough to get all the nuances right at once.

    I wonder too, if it is about the ‘zone of proximal development’. In the same way that I think most people won’t understand gay theologies till they have engaged with other feminist and liberation theologies, I don’t think we can move past essentialism till we have moved through it.

    Now, back to the Mac website to try to see if I can convince my laptop to recognize my battery. Right now, it has decided that the battery is a non-being, not worthy of being charged.

  5. Should be: ‘I thought one of +Edinburgh’s best ppoints was that neither the Nigerian nor yet the American church are offering any criticism of their native cultures. Both are equally in harmony with them.’

  6. and your comment and mine crossed, Rosemary.

    I think +Brian is right up to a point when he says that, but one could equally argue that offering a model of loving, faithful, life-long relationships is counter-cultural in itself, at least for my generation and those younger.

  7. I’d take issue with that last statement (rather than with your essay!) – knowing as I do a great many young people I’d say that the majority of them still hope for life-long faithfulness, however unfashionable the notion may seem.

  8. Of course, what you miss when reading +Brian’s talk is the responses made on the night. My favourite was about gay sheep. You had to be there!

  9. This is excellent stuff. Engaging with holiness goes right to the heart of Augustinian theology. “My heart is restless until it finds its rest in you”. Bringing the LGBT experience into a creative engagement with our ongoing experience with the living and holy God is something with which every theological thinker struggles. In part due to our learned assumption that it’s intrinsically wrong, in part due to the late Augustinian heritage of an unhealthy dualism regarding body and soul. He never did totally abandon elements of his Manichean youth.

    The bringing of LGBT experience into the holiness dynamic is essential because as Athanasius pointed out “the unassumed is the unredeemed” and we are struggling to offer a transforming Gospel for the whole Church, gay or straight (pardon the shorthand!) until we do. We’re back to +Brian’s Trinitarian wrestling image.

    A deceased friend of mine, M R Ritley of UC Berkley, did some good stuff on this a few years ago alongside Bill Countryman. It may be helpful as we think our way through the minefield.

  10. That’s the book. I read the draft with MR one morning over breakfast coffee. She was living with friends of mine in Oakland and I was on hols. Very insightful.

  11. I never, ever have assumed that homosexual activity or feeling is unnatural, or wrong, or intrinsically sinful (hand on heart). It makes it very hard for me to sympathise with those who have always felt it wrong.

    I’ll tell you one place I think we make a huge and incorrect assumption (and I keep saying this and get no sign anybody hears). That is, most people assume that the NT prohibitions of homosexual behaviour are addressed to a situation which is essentially the same as that in which people today find themselves. They are not. For a start, most men and women were married as a social duty to family. So most homosexual behaviour was adulterous. For men, the usual pattern was to have a much younger lover, and we know that that lover was often actually little more than a child. What the NT is resisting is adultery and coercion. The concept of an equal and faithful partnership between people of the same sex is, AFIK, NEVER found for women, and so rarely found for men as to be able to be dismissed from the equation.

    If the effort to change minds minds is to be successful, this is one thing we need to carry forward. It is a commonplace to argue that the demand that women wear head coverings in church is ‘culturally conditioned’ (because of a spurious belief that there are ‘ceremonial laws’ and ‘moral laws’) but many seem incapable of taking on board the argument that the prohibitions against same sex behaviours are equally socially conditioned.

    Also, of course, people are very bad at history, and don’t realise how far the early church disapproved of enjoyable sex, as being unholy. It is not really just Augustine – P. Brown ‘Body and Society’ is illuminating on this.

  12. Oh help a smiley i never ever intended. It was supposed to be a full point and a bracket!

  13. Well said Rosemary. Countryman’s “Dirt, Greed and Sex” is very clear on the social context of OT regulations on human sexual behaviour. Similarly, Paul’s prohibitions are often focused on a Hellenic culture where the older male took a much younger partner. Getting away from the idea that homosexuality is all about dirty old men and wee boys is important. Paul never conceived of the possiblity of a partnership of equals.

    And yes, it wasn’t just Augustine: the Patrisitic literature is chock full of Bishops and monks from east and west being very grim about sex, period. If it made babies for marrieds, it was tolerated – just. They wanted everyone in a monastic habit.

  14. Thanks, Rosemary. That point is often made in some circles, but too much of the debate lately has forgotten about God, except as a mythic lawgiver.

    The concept of a partnership of equals is new no matter what the gender of the people involved, isn’t it?
    Or if not ‘in fact’, than at least in rhetoric.

  15. The weight of opinion was against equality, certainly. Men were the dominant partners, women the subservient ones. The idea of undifferentiated roles is, I think, wholly new. But the idea that both parties to a marriage brought equal though different gifts has recurred at intervals. It is plain, for instance, that the Etruscians enjoyed pretty equal relations, and these passed on something to the Romans, where marriage law and relations were hugely much more equal than in Greek society, though in time Greek mores percolated more into Roman ones. Of course the paterfamilias had the right to put any (that is both sexes) of his children to death, and at birth each infant was laid at his feet, so he could pick it up and accept it, or leave in and reject it.

    (The early Christians made a good sideline in new recruits out of picking up abandoned girl children, the most frequently abandoned sex, and rearing them as their own.)

    Can I add a diversion? I do get a sense from some who are more extreme in their reaction to homosexual Christians that it is fear- not of homosexuals but loss of bums on pews. I think they think that IF we do ‘as God wants’ our numbers will grow, and if we don’t, they will shrink.

  16. To go back to Chris’s point – yes, I think that for nearly all young people the aspiration is love and faithfulness. the ideal is a fufilled and fulfilling equal life long relationship. But the culture aslo says: ‘And if it is not fulfilling, if your partner is no longer being a true partner in all senses, you should leave, because you only live once.’

  17. Re Partnership of Equals. John Boswell in his “The Marriage of Likeness” points to very interesting but well hidden (i.e. buried deep in the Vatican Archieves) texts which show a well developed theology of partnership and equality in same sex relationships within the Christian community. The ideal was certainly one of “till death us do part”. But this has been concealed by the Church authorities for centuries. Rediscovering and recovering this tradition could be part of our bringing forth treasures old and new from the storehouse.

  18. Rosemary, I like your “bums on seats” point. But then, how many potential churchgoers stay away because of the attitudes of the people in the church? All the non-Christians of my acquaintance respect us far more when we show love and acceptance than when we are unjust, inward-looking and mean-spirited; who knows what mission a truly loving church might accomplish?

  19. I do find that a lot of evangelicals subscribe to the bum on seats view; I’ve been told frequently that people want “real” Christianity (!). Aside from biblical arguments, I’ve had people try to convince me that the church’s embracing of the pink pound has failed and that the SEC is en route to become a “sect” like the US church.

    Excellent blog btw 🙂

  20. What we have lost sight of here is the interaction between holiness and sex (other than ‘thou shalt not’). Perhaps we need another thread on this. Perhaps it would help if we had a theology of holiness and sex (other than the aforementioned negative).

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