‘Rethinking sex and the church’ by Sarah Coakley


Musing with a friend recently about the dearth of spirituality encountered in our interactions with institutional church, it struck me that if the Church is married to Christ, it has become a Sexless Marriage.  I’m referring of course to Paul’s analogy in Ephesians 5 about the relationship between Jesus and the community of believers forged in His name, but it’s not the only time marriage is used to describe the relationship between God and God’s People.  Hosea is a diatribe against unfaithful Israel depicted as an unfaithful and immoral wife.  Song of Songs is often seen to be analogous to God’s relationship with God’s people – though it need not be to have a valid place within the canon in my opinion!

‘Rethinking sex and the church’ is a theological essay by Coakley addressing some of the categorical errors we make when it comes to discuss the incredibly sensitive differences of ‘opinion’ about sex in the Church.  Her arguments under gird my own view that the anglican church will not be able to constructively address the question of homosexual faithfulness until it addresses the de-sexed state of our spirituality and theology.  We have ‘disembodied’ our faith and lost any knowledge of what it is to be a whole, sexual person in relation to ourselves, to others and to God.  This is a spiritual problem, not just a moral one.  There is so very little ‘mystical union’ going on between the bride and groom, which just makes things, well sexless: there is no seduction, no sensuality, (no sensibility,) no sacredness, no specialness and no regeneration.  What strikes me most about sex is its capacity (promise?) to create something new.  Two opposites create a third other: whether that other be a child, an orgasm or the inward sacred journey opening up for both partners.

Though I suspect Coakley would agree with me, her concern in this essay is the sex debates in the roman catholic and anglican churches.  Whilst we are disconnected from the interconnectedness of human spirituality and sexuality, any conversation about sexual conduct is going to be reduced to moralistic rationalisms expressed in sound-bite propaganda between warring factions.  The suggestion that we can ‘debate’ sexuality has long made me mad!

There are several ‘worldly’ presuppositions  about eroticism which the church has integrated unexamined.  Notable Christian Saints of the past have found spiritual ecstasy in celibacy but we now tend to assume that life without explicit sexual activity is intrinsically impossible.  Coakley quotes David Brooks as saying (in 2003) that “our age is in a crisis – not so much of homosexuality – but more generally of erotic faithfulness.”  The disintegration of marriage which has produced children has far more concerning social consequences than gay relationships, yet divorce not longer receives moralizing condemnation.  Being married is by no means a guarantee of fulfilling and faithful sexual activity.

Coakley goes on to make a really interesting clarification about Freud’s mature understanding of ‘eros’ (sexual desire) and the potential for positive redirection.  It seems that there is a difference between actual Freud and pseudo-Freud of pop culture.  She argues that “the concept of ‘sublimination’ that started in Freud’s early work as related to mere biological drive, has now become [in his later work] a theory of a positive, and seemingly non-repressive, ‘rechannelling’ of psychic energy.

She then goes on to the Christian witness of Gregory of Nyssa, 4th century Cappadocian Church Father (younger brother of Basil of Caesarea).  Gregory was married, but he wrote in praise of celebacy inspired by the experience of Basil.  In both cases, he saw that the ‘stream of desire’ was equally channelled into spirituality.  Sexual Desire, guided by the Spirit in contemplation, flows into Spiritual Desire.  The sparkling stream of eroticism gains pace and volume as it rushes towards the glistening ocean of Divine Love.  Gregory “sees good, spiritually-productive, marriage as almost on a par with celibacy given its equal potential capacity, when desire is rightly ‘aimed’, to bear the fruits of ‘service’ to others, especially the poor.

Coakley’s conclusion in relation to the so-called ‘anglican crisis about homosexuality’ is that we will get nowhere “unless we first, all of us, re-imagine theologically the whole project of our human sorting, taming, and purifying of desires within the crucible of divine desire.”  I would add to this that we will also get nowhere on the revival and renewal of our Church as a community of spiritually flourishing human beings, made alive through the most amazing person of Jesus Christ and the gift of Christ’s Spirit, unless we do the same.

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