The Beginnings of an Episcopal Theology of Sex

The Episcopal Church in particular and the Anglican Communion in general have in recent years functioned effectively as theologically progressive institutions, allowing space for a wide variety of Christian belief systems to develop within their walls. However, my observation is that this isn't because we're particularly good at doing progressive theology. Focusing specifically on the subject of sexuality, the Episcopal Church has functioned as a trailblazer in its acceptance of new practical definitions to what is acceptable sexually for Christians, but has offered little formal reason for doing so. Being the hugely influential Episcopal blogger that I am, I've decided that it's high time for me to fill the gap. The world needs me, and my church needs me, to explain how we Episcopalians can justifiably be so welcoming towards the planet's 31 flavors of sexual practices. Furthermore, it needs me to offer these remarks off the top of my head, so I don't have to do any further research, hence validating the stereotype that Episcopalians are not doing their work theologically. (My hope is that this post will generate at least one more angry anonymous rant comment--and that some will lean towards my (sexual (ha ha)) position.)

To explain a few basic facts about the way things have worked in recent Episcopal thinking on sex, the first point to understand (and I'll continue to speak in broad generalities. I hope you don't mind) is foundational, and relates to our theology in general. We do theology according to a three-legged blend of "scripture, tradition and reason", and on this particular issue, our thought isn't shaped by a rigid view of scripture or tradition--both are seen as directive rather than restrictive. They're the older generation that point us in the direction that we should head, give us a few landmarks to look for, and allow us to find our own way in the theological jungle--using, of course, our reason.

Reason plays perhaps the most important role in the present discussion. It's largely because of reason that most Episcopalians have become willing to accept homosexuality, and perhaps also some formerly unacceptable expressions of heterosexuality (pre-marital sex in some instances, divorce and remarriage, etc.), against the apparent direction of scripture and tradition. You see, in recent years, science and reason have taught us some important facts about sexuality. One is that sexual orientation is not, in almost any circumstance, a "choice" in the traditional sense--it's not something people can logically consider and then make a decision on. It is, rather, probably an expression of the interaction between biological makeup ("how God made us") and cultural upbringing, which is ultimately unavoidable (notice that I'm talking about orientation here, not behavior. Notice also that I'm, once again, talking in generalities. Quibble with the details if you want). It's just a part of who you are.

It's also important to recognize that we Episcopalians have generally--in recent years--been a compassionate people when it comes to sex: not many hard edged fundamentalists here. (Don't forget that many of our priests are Catholics who couldn't deal with the celibacy thing.) We value sex, think it's important, and don't think anyone should have to go without if they don't want to. God created sex, so we should enjoy it. In my evaluation, Episcopalians primary guideline when it comes to sex is Jesus' teaching that the most important thing in life besides loving God is to love your neighbor as yourself (no double entendre is being suggested), rather than moral injunctions from Paul or the Old Testament, or even Jesus suggestion, interpreted in a hard moral sense, that even the one who lusts commits adultery. Hence, the place where we come out is that sex is good, as long as it doesn't hurt anyone, or more clearly as long as it is done in love. (That principle, though stated crudely, and often dismissed as "liberal" actually represents an expression of the Golden Rule which has complex interpretations and ramifications, none of which I'll outline here.) Many of us are old and white, so we don't generally like to talk about sex, but at the same time we don't view it as something dark or naughty (unless that's what turns you on).

When you put these two characteristics together, what you come out with is a relatively sexually permissive culture. We don't see sex as something which is leading to the decline of Western Civilization. It's part of who we are, and a basic function of what it means to be a human. It, like everything, can be abused, damaged and misused, but that doesn't mean it should have a stigma attached any more than other human traits.

This general picture is pretty clear, and I think probably as far as most casual Episcopalians go in their theology of sex. The concern, I think, is that we need to go further. We need to be able to think and talk about sex in terms that are coherent, logical and theologically consistent with our Anglican tradition. Lots of people (well, other Christian types) are mad at us about the way we've approached sex, and we need to be able to explain why we do the things we do, rather than just telling them to get off our back. (We Episcopalians can also tend to be the liberal-because-it's-cool types, who just want you to let us do our thing, and we'll let you do yours.) In my opinion, the way to go about that in the future is to develop the concept of sex as sacrament.

I haven't really done my research, so take this with a grain of salt, but my thesis is that most traditional theologies of sex have been developed, at least in part, to try to convince the unmarried (especially teenagers) that they shouldn't do it. The problem with sex has always been that it's lots of fun, and that it can get you into trouble. (That's still true today despite all of the talk of safe sex.) Being the responsible do-gooders that we are, Christians throughout the ages have said that God says "no no no", and it seems with good practical reason. Nobody likes STDs and unwanted pregnancies (except maybe folks at the big pharmaceutical companies). My position is that "no no no" simply isn't the correct answer--not now, and probably not ever. Rather, we should allow the notion that sexual activity is an "outward sign of an inward grace" (The Catholic Dictionary's definition of "Sacrament") to direct our thought and behavior.

Historically, Anglicans (aka Episcopalians in the US) have identified Baptism, Confession and absolution, Holy Matrimony, Holy Eucharist (also called Holy Communion or Mass), Confirmation, Holy Orders (also called Ordination), and Anointing of the Sick (also called Unction) as our "official" capitol S Sacraments, and may it continue to be so. However, many of us think in more broadly sacramental terms--we see God as being present in our daily lives, our physical actions, and the world around us (The Anglican theologian John Polkinghorne's Panentheism is one reflection of this trend, I would argue). Hence everything takes on a sort of "Enchantment" (See also Alister McGrath on "The Reinchantment of Nature"). Sex, when viewed through this lens, clearly stands out as an act with spiritual overtones. It's an act which produces spiritual unity between two persons, which is why it is already recognized as a key aspect of the sacrament of matrimony, and it's probably the most common and universal source of "spiritual" experience in the world. (Sorry to burst your bubble Extreme Unction.) While many Christians would have you believe that this is true only of heterosexual sex performed within marriage, let's be honest, it's not. Sex prior to marriage generally doesn't destroy your life or future. In Western cultures, the majority of people enjoy positive and healthy sexual relationships prior to marriage. Sex can be affirmed, I say, as the sacramental expression of romantic love regardless of context.

Having said this, now is the part when I'm supposed to offer a list of disclaimers and Biblical justifications, because, well, what about the children?! THE CHILDREN!! Really all I want to say in terms of a disclaimer is don't be silly. I'm not saying that sex is universally good. Sometimes it's abusive or irresponsible, sometimes it's awkward and unenjoyable, and sometimes its just mundane. None of those facts undermines the argument that sex possesses a deep spiritual significance that even Paris Hilton can't deny. And honestly, I'm going to let you argue with the Bible about what's okay (interestingly enough, my spellcheck is suggesting that I change "okay" to "Tokay" here) sexually. I just don't have the energy for that anymore. I'm of the opinion that, when you read the whole thing honestly, you'll find that the Bible paints conflicting pictures about appropriate and acceptable sexual behavior, and in any case shouldn't be used as a rule book or bludgeoning device. "Use your noggin" is my guiding principle.

Worked out, this principle functions like all principles--it doesn't give you hard and fast rules, but if you think long enough about it, you can probably come up with some guidelines for your own situation. You probably won't be able to decide what's correct in every case, but you can figure out that some sexual expressions can be universally affirmed as good and right (within the bounds of a loving, committed relationship), some sexual expressions are morally indefensible (rape, molestation, etc.), and some sexual expressions probably fall into a gray area (consensual but not responsible?). This principle leaves lots of room for flexibility, which is frustrating in some instances (particularly when you're in the mood to tell someone they're going to Hell for what they've done) but that is, after all, the nature of life.

There is, as always, lots more that could be said, but it's past my bedtime.


Anonymous said…
Brilliant and funny stuff, Tim :)

Hope you write more on the subject.
maggi said…
good thoughts, Tim.
Anonymous said…
are you trying to increase your hits?
Unknown said…
What other reason is there to have a blog?
Anonymous said…
good stuff!
Peter Kirk said…
Historically, Anglicans (aka Episcopalians in the US) have identified Baptism, Confession and absolution, Holy Matrimony, Holy Eucharist (also called Holy Communion or Mass), Confirmation, Holy Orders (also called Ordination), and Anointing of the Sick (also called Unction) as our "official" capitol S Sacraments

"No no no". Read Article XXV of the original Thirty Nine, which recognises only Baptism and the Lord's Supper as sacraments. The other five are listed as partially corrupt ceremonies which "have not like nature of Sacraments with Baptism and the Lord's Supper". You can have them as "broadly sacramental" like sex if you like, but historic Anglicanism has not accepted them as official Sacraments.

you'll find that the Bible paints conflicting pictures about appropriate and acceptable sexual behavior

Come on, you can't make statements like that without any backup. Where does the Bible paint any kind of picture suggesting that any one of adultery, pre-marital sex and homosexual intercourse is "appropriate and acceptable sexual behavior"? You can argue if you like that the biblical condemnations of these practices are misunderstood or not applicable today, or you can ignore the biblical teaching. But there is no way you can argue that the Bible commends these things. The biblical teaching is clear and not contradictory. The only conflict is in your thinking, between your general desire to take the biblical teaching seriously and your refusal to accept that teaching on this issue.
Anonymous said…
Stuffed if I can find a copy of the contents online, but there's an essay by +Rowan specifically about sex as sacrament in the "Open to Judgement" collection of sermons and essays published a while ago which you might find interesting.
Unknown said…
Hi Peter,

The Holy Spirit speaks through the ages in language that's culturally appropriate, and driven by love, justice and redemption. That's my basic view on the Scriptural injunctions on sex.

Adding a little more nuance to that view is my belief that the Bible has to be read essentially as narrative--the story of God's interaction with Israel, and then with the early church through the person of Jesus and the Holy Spirit. It's not a rule book.

For a few examples of why I believe that Scripture paints some confusing pictures in the area of sexuality when read according to that view:

1. The book of Hosea: God commands Hosea to marry the Harlot Gomer as an object lesson. Under normal circumstances, marrying a harlot in general would be religiously forbidden, and in any case marrying someone as an object lesson seems morally indefensible.

2. Polygamy was apparently widely tolerated through much of scriptural history: Exodus 21:10 for example: "If he marries another woman, he must not deprive the first one of her food, clothing and marital rights," and Deuteronomy 21:15, "If a man has two wives, and he loves one but not the other, and both bear him sons but the firstborn is the son of the wife he does not love, when he wills his property to his sons, he must not give the rights of the firstborn to the son of the wife he loves in preference to his actual firstborn, the son of the wife he does not love." Also, implicit in 1 Timothy 3:12 "A deacon must be the husband of but one wife and must manage his children and his household well" is the assumption that, while one wife is good, there are husbands with several wives present in the Christian community.

3. Women were viewed as objects for men to purchase in the OT: For example, Exodus 22:16 - 17, "If a man seduces a virgin who is not engaged, and lies with her, he must pay a dowry for her to be his wife. If her father absolutely refuses to give her to him, he shall pay money equal to the dowry for virgins." Notice also that there is no real penalty for the pre-marital sexual act here from a male perspective, but it does essentially force marriage on the woman.
Funny, but I just told my girlfriend last night that making love with her was like seeing God. (And I'm an agnostic Episcopalian, assuming there is such a thing).
Peter Kirk said…
Thanks for the response. You have a point with Hosea. But I didn't mention polygamy or effectively purchasing wives in my list of sexual behaviours consistently condemned in the Bible. On "husband of one wife", see my series on this phrase, especially parts 4 and 5.
bls said…
I always wonder why having 200 wives and 700 concubines is not considered "adultery"? (Or was it 700 wives and 200 concubines? I can never remember....)

I also wonder why these things apparently don't qualify "conflicting pictures about appropriate and acceptable sexual behavior" - when we're always told that the Bible teaches that "marriage is the umbreakable union of one man and one woman"?

And doesn't Jesus' have about four prostitutes in his Matthew genealogy?

Oh, well. I guess homosexuality is the really, really Big Problem - as usual. Bizarre, too, since it affects only about 5% of the population....
Unknown said…
Ah, sex...

My favorite comment so far was Cecilieaux's
Anonymous said…

I'd second the recommendation for Archbishop Rowan's "The Body's Grace" as a well-reasoned look at the sacramental side of sex.

I'd also add the practical observation that I was brought back to life and to God by a multi-cultural, inclusive church that accepted people of all races, sexual persuasions--and me. I think if I'd walked into a less-accepting Episcopal Church, I wouldn't be around today.

So tolerance and acceptance aren't just theological debates--when we exclude people from the Body of Christ, even for reasons that seem good to us, we may be condemning them to far worse than just our lack of acceptance. The Church exists to heal the broken and feed the hungry. And your definitions lead to our doing that more broadly.

Thanks for taking this on.

Anonymous said…
Cecileaux, I thought you were an agnostic Catholic: you change your denomination as often as girl-friend.
No to belabor my own circumstances, but a clarification: on paper I am Episcopalian. As to changing girlfriends, I'll plead the Fifth.
Unknown said…
My favorite thing about Episcopalians is that everyone can be one 'on paper' if they want!

Angel (my wife) had a patient in the hospital who told her that if she wasn't an athiest, she'd be an Episcopalian. What's the conflict, I say?
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Josh Hosler said…
Peter Kirk and others: For more about appropriate sexual practices in the Bible, I commend to you this wonderful piece by Walter Wink.

Josh Hosler
Josh Hosler said…
That link didn't take. Anyone know how to do that?