Alison Webster is the author of ‘Found Wanting: Women, Christianity and Sexuality’ (Cassell, 1995), ‘Wellbeing’ (SCM Press, 2002), and ‘You Are Mine: Reflections on who we are’ (SPCK 2009).
A short time ago I was privileged to be part of a blessing of the marriage of two women. It was immensely moving, not least because the vulnerability of one of those women was such that the unconditional love she had found in her female partner had, I suspect, saved her life.
The lesbian congregation sang, with great gusto and many tears, Charles Wesley’s, ‘Love Divine’. Written over 250 years ago, it was made for the occasion: ‘Love divine, all loves excelling, joy of heaven, to earth come down…’, then, ‘Jesus thou art all compassion, pure, unbounded love thou art; visit us with thy salvation; enter every trembling heart.’
It was sobering to me – no, it was more than that, it was obscene – to think that the Anglican priest who conducted that simple ceremony could be at risk of having his Permission to Officiate removed. Punished for celebrating the outpouring of the unconditional love of God; disciplined for recognising salvation in its deepest and most real sense.
In terms of sexuality and gender, the landscape of British society has changed beyond recognition over the past twenty years. From equal rights to goods and services, through the equalising of the Age of Consent, to Civil Partnerships and equal marriage; the 1980s days of discrimination, as exemplified by Section 28, seem distant.
But how much have things changed in the churches and within the Christian community? Modest progress on gender equality has arguably been made through the advent of women bishops in the Church of England, but the full acceptance of LGBTQIA Christians (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer/Questioning, Intersex and Asexual), still appears to be a long way off. Whilst attitudes amongst ‘ordinary Christians’ seem to reflect the liberalisation of wider society, most denominations’ policy-making bodies seem to have got stuck in the early 1990s – in a cul-de-sac of ecclesiastical politics from which there is apparently no way out.
The world has moved on in many ways. Engagements with sexuality both within and beyond the churches now take place on a global stage, with sexuality and gender issues having an important geo-political dimension. The legacy of colonialism casts a long and enduring shadow, and the reality of neo-colonialism shapes all aspects of our lives. The identity categories of sexuality and gender are no longer considered in isolation, but are seen as intimately connected with other forms of discrimination such as race, disability, age and economic means (so-called ‘intersectionality’). Practical theologies espoused by organised Christianity take little cognisance of these changes. Cultural, gender, queer, film and postcolonial studies have blazed a trail, and the theologians that have been part of this fertile interdisciplinary endeavour are a marginalised minority that the ‘mainstream’ theological establishment feel can be ignored.
But ignoring the questions won’t make them go away. In the mid-90s I wrote a book called, ‘Found Wanting: Women, Christianity and Sexuality’, offering a critique of Christian teachings on sexuality. Over 20 years later, I am writing a follow-up, wondering how women have made sense of their faith, gender and sexuality in the light of social change. In the book, I’ll be asking the following questions, and I would be happy to hear the answers of William Temple Foundation readers:
Question One: what has the oppression by the few in positions of ecclesiastical power done to the faith identity of the many who don’t fit the Christian ideal of lifelong monogamous heterosexual marriage? How have those of us in the latter category reconfigured our faith? How has the notion of ‘queer’, as explicated in cultural studies, been used to problematise conventional notions of what constitutes a faith identity? How have we carved out space to embrace our uncertainties about belief, behaviour and belonging to faith communities?
Question Two: what does our spiritual practice look like now, within and beyond organised Christianity? What forms of spiritual practice have we devised and developed? It is likely that these will be anti-authoritarian, experience-honouring, non-conformist, post-church, body-affirming, and both individual and communal. Why don’t mainstream denominations want to learn from this potential treasure trove?
Question Three: what new languages for relationships have we developed? Conventional heterosexuality leaves us with a paucity of linguistic resources for understanding the range of relationships that we are part of (it allows for two polarities: married or single, sexual or platonic). Living differently means that we face the challenge of describing ourselves and our relationships differently. What is emerging from this both in terms of who we understand ourselves to be, and how we understand our closest relationships? How can we draw on this to recast sexual ethics that are fit for purpose in an age of inequality and economic exploitation?
Question Four: what about God? What new visions and understandings of God have we discovered? Is God more immediate, less distant? Do we embrace a God that is more a part of us rather than separate, mysterious rather than explicable? Is mysticism more attractive than systematics?
I am inviting contributions, in the form of thoughts, reflections and experience, from women who have a story to share. If you would like to help, please contact me before the end of August for more information, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Out Now! Grace & Power: Sexuality and Gender in the Church of England by Hayley Matthews is available to download here >>
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