Sex and the Christian

This post, which sort of follows on from the last, is inspired mainly by the tribulations of Cardinal Keith O'Brian, until recently head of the Roman Catholic church in Scotland. It also stems from a discussion at our house group meeting this week, on the theme of 'Grace'. I am not going to comment, other than in the most general terms, on Cardinal O'Brian's situation. My thinking on this matter, and its relationship to the theme, is 'incomplete', so the post may seem a little disjointed - it's a 'work in progress'. During it I shall wander, fairly freely, through homosexuality, paedophilia, Roman Catholicism, Anglicanism, journalism and so on without pausing for breath - sorry if it's hard to follow and I seem to make links which don't exist - as I say, my thinking is incomplete, but I needed to write something down as part of working it all out in my mind...

So, sex and the Christian. Despite what some would have you believe, God is not anti-sex. If you believe that God created mankind in His own image, and that it was good, then you can't avoid the fact that sex is good. God created the orgasm. God (through an intermediary) wrote the Song of Solomon. Read that, remember that it's part of the bible, and then try telling me God is anti-sex - though I don't deny that the church, at times, has appeared (and sometimes still seems) to be anti-sex. God does, though, place quite strict boundaries on sexual activity - basically, it seems to be intended to be between a man and a woman who are married to each other (with some exceptions, if you trawl the depths of the Old Testament - there's some polygamy and other things going on there, apparently with God's approval??). And that, throughout the history of God's people, has been the only place it was permitted - no, not just permitted, positively required. I am not, here and now, going to venture into the minefield of homosexuality, gay marriage, and all that - maybe some other time - perhaps when I've worked out where my views actually lie!

And yet, we do fall down. We all get things wrong, and do things which displease God and mar our relationship with Him (what Christians, in a form of shorthand, refer to as sin). I don't actually see that sexual sin is any different, in that regard, from using the photocopier at work to photocopy your own stuff - which is technically theft, and is also therefore forbidden for followers of Christ (not to mention being against the law!). Both stealing and extra-marital sex mar our relationship with God.

Certain sections of the press (and the wider media) have a particularly unpleasant, prurient, interest in the minority of Christians, particularly clergy, who are seen to have committed sexual sins (I'm not saying that sexual sin isn't widespread - just that not many people are 'caught in the act'). It is as if those sins are (a) worse than any others and (b) Christians are to be mocked for falling short. I'm not sure why the press should be so obsessed, but Jesus' suggestion that those who are without sin should be the first to cast a stone comes to mind:

The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group and said to Jesus, "Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?" They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him. But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, "If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her." Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground. At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. Jesus straightened up and asked her, "Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?" "No one, sir," she said. "Then neither do I condemn you," Jesus declared. "Go now and leave your life of sin." John 8:3-11 (NIV)

So perhaps they aren't so innocent themselves, and perhaps they don't have much right to start 'mudslinging'. But this post isn't meant to be a condemnation of journalistic practice, so let's leave this slight digression for now.

The apostle Paul, in his first letter to the church in Corinth, says the following:

Now for the matters you wrote about: It is good for a man not to marry. But since there is so much immorality, each man should have his own wife, and each woman her own husband. The husband should fulfil his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband. The wife's body does not belong to her alone but also to her husband. In the same way, the husband's body does not belong to him alone but also to his wife. Do not deprive each other except by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer. Then come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. I say this as a concession, not as a command. I wish that all men were as I am. But each man has his own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that. Now to the unmarried and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I am. But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion. 1 Corinthians 7:1-9 (NIV)

For all that Paul is painted by some to be sexist, his insistence, above, on equal sexual rights for men and women is pretty radical, especially for the time and place it was written... Perhaps he wasn't such a bad egg after all!

But I do wonder, in the light of this passage, at the insistence of the Roman Catholic church that all priests be celibate. Yes, Paul does say that that is the ideal. But we don't live in an ideal world, and he acknowledges that. It must be very difficult, on becoming a priest, to give up all thought of marriage, sex and procreation - and yet this is an absolute requirement of the Roman Catholic church... Based on this one bit of advice Paul gives out. A bit of advice which, incidentally, seems contrary to what was expected of Old Testament priests - of whom the expectation was, clearly, that they would ordinarily be married:

‘He shall take a wife in her virginity. ‘A widow, or a divorced woman, or one who is profaned by harlotry, these he may not take; but rather he is to marry a virgin of his own people, so that he will not profane his offspring among his people; for I am the LORD who sanctifies him.’ Leviticus 21:13-15 (NIV)

I wonder, sometimes, whether a few of the young men who are attracted to the Roman Catholic priesthood are attracted because they know that their particular sexual desires, if acted upon, aren't compatible with a Christian life, and they hope (in some cases clearly in vain) that this priestly prohibition may help them to avoid falling into sin. In that case, it might actually be that the insistence on celibacy is counterproductive, and that it might be better to permit priests to be married, as they are in other parts of the church. This is, probably, a vain hope - the new Pope, Francis, is rumoured to be 'conservative' and 'traditional' on such matters (perhaps unsurprisingly, given the method by which popes succeed each other).

So I fear that sexual scandals will continue to dog the Roman Catholic church, perhaps more so than other branches of the church. I do hope, though, that the Roman Catholic authorities can at least 'get their act together' sufficiently to bring in robust measures to protect children and the vulnerable from the sexual predators in their ranks - measures which mean that abuse isn't covered up, and that abusive priests aren't just 'moved on' to fresh parishes (or promoted to be bishops) to carry on where they left off, but instead are dealt with properly, as they would be if they were from any other walk of life. Pope Francis is certainly 'making the right noises' in this matter, which is hopeful.

The Anglican church isn't perfect. But it does, now, have fairly robust procedures for dealing with allegations of sexual and other forms of abuse. All parishes are required to have policies in place to deal with such allegations - as well as to reduce the likelihood of such offences occurring in the first place. I'm not saying that abuse can't or won't happen, but if it does happen, and is reported as it should be, the procedures are such that the chance of repeat offences is, hopefully, much reduced.

One thing which does concern me a little though is that, in our society, sexual abuse (particularly of children) is viewed as a sort of 'unforgivable sin' - something from which it isn't possible to be rehabilitated and to resume one's place in society. I suspect this may be because the victims are thought to be irreparably damaged, but if you believe, as I do, that they can be healed of the hurts they received at the hands of their abusers, then it perhaps becomes more possible to contemplate forgiveness? I realise that many (most?) abusers/paedophiles are devious and untrustworthy, but my Christian faith tells me that there must be some chance of redemption for them. I suppose what matters is how that person, who wishes to turn from their sin, is managed...

Suppose a paedophile repents and becomes a Christian. I believe they have a right, the same as the rest of us, to become part of a Christian fellowship. Clearly, it would be very risky to allow them to join a church like our own, where probably 25% of the congregation are under the age of 18. Nor would it seem wise to set up congregations formed exclusively of (former?) paedophiles. Careful management is required, where they are allowed only to join congregations where no minors are likely to be present, and that certain key people (clergy and churchwardens?) are aware of the person's past, and can arrange close, yet discrete, supervision to help reduce the risk of further offending behaviour whilst in the church's care (to protect the person from him/herself, almost as much as to protect others). If you're interested in reading further into safeguarding matters, the Anglican church publishes a booklet on the subject: Protecting All God's Children, which forms the basis of how we approach the issue.

Copyright Phil Hendry, 2021