Thursday, 6 September 2018

The Limits of Sex: The C of E, priggishness, and its violence against LGBT couples

CONTENT WARNING: Contains references to Sex...

When I came to faith over twenty years ago, I worshipped in a large Evangelical-Charismatic church. As a new Christian, I was just beginning to explore what it meant for me – a trans woman – to offer my whole life to God. Part of that exploration concerned who God was calling me to be in my intimate relationships.

This ultimately led me into a quite extraordinary conversation with a new friend, a Christian of very longstanding, about sex. The conversation came down to a question: ‘What constitutes ‘sex’ for Christians?’ For, as I’m sure most of you will know, the official position of the Church of England is that sex is something only appropriate within the covenant/contract of heterosexual marriage. In this blogpost, I want to reflect briefly on what the ‘sex’ word might mean.

The provocation for this post is a couple of blogs written by Anglican priests, one by Richard Peers and the other, Jeremy Pemberton. You can read them here and here. Both reflect powerfully on the Church of England’s structural and pastoral mess around matters of sex and sexuality. They are very fine, sobering and, I found, distressing pieces of writing. They indicate the pernicious impact of the ‘official’ Church line on the psychological, emotional and spiritual health of same-sex couples.

Such was the respective power of Peers’ and Pemberton’s blogs, that I’ve felt compelled to reflect further on where I sit in this mess, as a single woman whose primary orientation (with a number of exceptions!) is lesbian.

Both blogs left me asking, ‘When the Church says same-sex couples shouldn’t have sex what does it think constitutes sex and sexual intimacy anyway?’

For, the current position suggests that, for same-sex couples to be obedient to the Church’s teaching, they must be ‘celibate’. (Presumably, this discipline applies also to het couples outside of marriage.)

Now, I don’t propose to wrestle with the hoary old topic of whether the word ‘celibate’ is being misused by the Church. Rather, I want to explore its (arguably) crude understanding of intimacy and sex. The prism for that exploration is my experience of worshipping in a conservative-evangelical context a couple of decades ago (a context that arguably modelled the Church’s current position on ‘sex’).

So, *that* conversation I had with my married friend. The provocation for the conversation was my – at the time – rather desperate, if sincere attempt to figure out who I was being called to be as a sexual being in the Church of God.

I’d picked up very quickly that in the Evo-Charismatic community of which I was part, ‘sex’ was not permitted outside of marriage (which, of course, was merely a het institution at the time). So much, so obvious. But was that the whole story? Let’s suppose I did start ‘going-out’ with a guy, what might be permissible sexually speaking??

I was no ingénue when it came to sex (most twenty-six year olds in the UK in the 90s were not!), but I was stunned by my friend’s account of what she and her husband had considered permissible ‘sexual’ behaviour, but NOT actually sex before they were married.

I won’t go into details. Let’s just say, to my worldly ears, they’d basically tried all the fun things in the heterosexual box with the sole proviso of ensuring that his penis didn’t enter her vagina.

Let’s be clear here, this couple were faithful, profoundly committed Christians, absolutely devoted to each other. Their love was inspiring. They wanted to remain faithful to the Church’s discipline and teaching on ‘sex’ and had found their 'strategy' to do so.

A further eye-opener for me was discovering that in the Evangelical sub-culture of which I was part, all sorts of conversations went on about ‘how far could you (faithfully) go?’ I.e. ‘What was the line of Sin?’’ Sex before marriage was off the table, but what might one do?

Strange as these contortions seemed to my newly-converted ears, there was something kind of cunning and impressive about this discourse. The Church-imposed constraints seemed to generate an extraordinary determination to test the limits of the rules. (Cynics might call it hypocrisy!) I think my own take was, ‘intimacy will find a way!’

Why am I talking about this? Well, because – frankly – what my friend told me she and her partner had got up to pre-marriage, struck me then, as it strikes me now, as sex and sexual intimacy

This committed adult couple – with all the cleverness of young people finding wriggle room within the rigid rules of the prudish and priggish Church – found ways to delight in intimacy and each other’s bodies. They’d been told that ‘Sex’ = penetration of a vagina by a penis… Understandably, they came to a mind – along with no doubt thousands of other Evangelical straight couples have – that the rest is … well, it’s a grey area …

I like to imagine that even for the chilliest, unimaginative person, Sex is not reducible to penetration of a vagina by a penis. If it is so reducible, doesn’t sex becomes deeply troubling? It displays a poverty of vision and imagination that runs the risk of leading to the very worst exploitative behaviour embedded in patriarchal power codes. It can become about body parts; it can become about regulation of women’s reproductive bodies … 

This might all seem a little icky for some, but this matters when it comes to Church polity and ecclesiology, especially same-sex couples.

When same-sex couples, utterly committed to each other, are told that if they have ‘sex’ they fail to be obedient to the church’s discipline, what is being said?

Does it really come down to ‘penetration’??!? (What kind of penetration?) If sex = defined, really, as a penis-vagina thing, then one presumes most same-sex couples are never going to have sex. Or if it does come down to penetration of any sort …then – as with my het friends, pre-marriage - ain’t the field wide open for all sorts of other intimacies?? 

Or is the Church actually suggesting that the riches of intimacy demonstrated by my faithful, loving straight friend with her husband-to-be are also excluded? Or is that irrelevant because, well they’re straight, and they were engaged anyway and … and …

Or … are there people out there who want to say that when even lovely straight, committed couples have lots of bodily fun (even without 'penetration') they are committing 'Sin'?

(This is before any consideration of the status of masturbation, mutual or otherwise …)

If the Church wants to condemn all varieties of intimacy outside of heterosexual marriage, what does it imagine it’s doings? 

Some will respond, ‘what matters is the difference between intimacy and affection’.

But where is the line drawn and by whom?

Is kissing ok (for gay and straight alike)? Holding hands? Kissing with tongues? Running a finger nail across the palm of one’s betrothed when one holds hands with them? 

Dancing, as long as people stay a foot apart?

If this is starting to sound ridiculous, that’s surely the point.

One of the profoundest dishonesties within the Church concerns its anxieties about the riches of adult consensual sexual intimacy; its account of desire and its relationship with sex and bodies displays profound poverty. The Church has dug itself into a terrible hole around the power and possibility of Eros.

The Church makes same-sex people pay a disproportionate price for its inadequate account of the body, desire and the scope of sex. The Church acts like the superego of a priggish adult who – straight-jacked by its crude formulations around the body’s possibilities – will only be happy if it applies them to everyone else.

When the Church dares to say to same-sex couples, ‘church discipline requires you be in a non-sexual/celibate relationship’, does it have the slightest idea what it’s saying?


  1. Thanks Rachel - this reminds me of those Evangelical youth clubs that make a distinction between light and heavy petting - with no mention of frottage, golden showers or JO clubs. LOL.

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  2. Absolutely brilliant, thanks so much for your clear and sensitive treatment of this contentious issue. Wish we had this insight over here (Ireland) where we continue to struggle over this.

  3. Yeah... I knew a straight engaged couple who got pregnant despite not having 'sex' outside marriage. And I've also been told by a conservative evangelical, entirely earnestly, that the church has nothing to say about lesbian relationships because nothing they can do counts as sex. People are very confused, and (in my opinion) disingenuous about this - if you trace it far enough back the problem isn't really about whether same-sex partners are having sex or not (apart from the ick factor sometimes) because people are often just as unhappy with abstinent partnerships. So discussions about 'celibacy' are really usually a distraction - what's ultimately being objected to is the desire for intimacy etc with one person of the same-sex (i.e. all the things - other than sex - that make up a marriage!)

  4. Also, if the definition of sex was so obscure, it would be just as obscure when it involves power or lack of consent, as in ‘Y tried to initiate a sexual relationship Z, his/her direct report.’

    In that situation as much as with Church discipline, questions like: ‘is kissing okay? Holding hands? A fingernail across the palm?’ don’t stand up to scrutiny?

    So, in ‘Issues’, what part of ‘treat all clergy who give no occasion of scandal with trust and respect’ and the HoB refusal to ‘be more rigorous in searching out and exposing clergy in sexually active homophile [sic] relationships’ doesn’t make sense?

    People are accepted at their word, unless cause is given to believe otherwise.

  5. I am rather fascinated about what a hetero-normative penetration understanding of sex means for adultery within that context.

  6. bit sad really as the Scriptures tell us:

    ''Have you not read that from the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate.”…

    Perhaps Clergy need to re - read the scripture and be faithful to it?

  7. I came to similar conclusions, Rachel, when I wrote this on my own blog:

  8. Oh, and by the way folks, what is sex for? And please answer the question ........ and truthfully.......

  9. .....does it have the slightest idea what it’s saying?"


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  11. I have only just read this brilliant blog (partly as a response to this week's Synod and in particular this morning's Radio 4 item about it). It is everything I think ... but so much more ... and written so succinctly. Thank you for putting my thoughts into words Rachel. Strangely enough, I was saying only this morning to a couple of people at church coffee after the service, that the Church is obsessed with sex! Marriage hangs on it which is why my priest partner and I remain in a CP. But the Church won't talk about it. They won't say what is or isn't acceptable because despite their obsession, they just won't talk about it!