by the Revd Canon Simon Butler, Prolocutor for the Province of Canterbury
(This article was first published in The Metro on January 26th 2020, and is reproduced with Canon Butler’s permission)
Last week, bishops of the Church of England, issued a statement on the new opposite-sex civil partnerships.
All they could say, when it boiled down to it, was: ‘no sex before or outside marriage.’ They added that those in same or opposite sex civil partnerships should live their lives as ‘sexually abstinent friends’ and those in same sex marriages should not be having sex.
The bishops of the Church are, in my experience, thoughtful, wise and compassionate women and men. But many of us are embarrassed and angered by the tone of what we read. The response of many clergy in the Church was to, metaphorically, shout at the telly.
I think it’s wrong and naive to ask for and to expect abstinence from couples.
It’s wrong because there is no evidence that sex in other forms of committed relationship are harmful: the texts of the Bible assume a very different meaning to sex than it currently possesses. It’s naive because, as the Catholic Church discovered over contraception, what’s the point of teaching something that most of the faithful ignore?
Wake-up call bishops: people no longer listen to you for teaching on sexual ethics.
Since I became a vicar in 1997, I have married over 200 couples. Of these, I can recall just one who had decided to refrain from sex before marriage. And that is because marriage is about much more than sex.
I like to ask a provocative question of wedding couples when I prepare them: ‘Why on earth do you want to get married? You’re committed, in love, have lived together for some time. Why get married?’ Once they’ve got over the shock, most of them talk not about sex, which is already part of their reality, but about children. They want to provide the strongest relationship in which to raise children. They see marriage as the best place to do that.
I then invite them to think about other reasons for moving into marriage, among which is the fact that, to quote a theologian, ‘it is not love that sustains your marriage, but marriage that sustains your love.’
Even in our age when we often rightly suspect institutions, the institution of marriage can offer a place to hold people together when the first love of marriage begins to change.
But not everyone chooses marriage. Many couples see the disasters of their parents’ marriage and resolve not to make the same mistake. Others have been hurt by a previous marriage and don’t want to go there again. My church has such people within it and, like most Church of England churches, we welcome those people the same as everyone else, because we follow Jesus who welcomes us as we are.
It’s why this statement by the bishops of the Church of England felt so alien to me.
My priority as a priest is to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ. What on earth would a couple – be that same or opposite-sex – hear of the love of God if they approach us about blessing a relationship and we based our response on whether they are sexually active?
So we need a different sexual ethic, for all couples, rather than encouraging abstinence for the vast majority. There’s so much more that Christianity can offer to contemporary challenges around sex and relationships.
It’s not as if sexual liberation has been a nirvana; it has just brought a new set of issues and challenges.
But we won’t be heard if we continue simply to say only married, heterosexual sex is good, and we ignore countless lived experiences. Even the Archbishop of Canterbury has affirmed the ‘stunning’ nature of some same-sex relationships.
There’s a Bible story about Jesus healing a man who is deaf and mute. Whatever you think that, the reaction recorded is of amazement: ‘He even makes the deaf hear and the mute speak!’ The story of Jesus healing a man who couldn’t hear and so couldn’t speak is a parable for this sort of tone-deaf communication. I pray that the Jesus who heals us of our inability to hear and speak might work among our bishops.