If you are following the Church of England’s agonisings over same-sex partnerships and the Living in Love and Faith project, you’ll be interested in Giles Goddard’s post on Via Media. Drawing on Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, he says that
the sexual liberation movement which began in the 1960’s was not just about the importance of individual self-expression. It was also about challenging a historic religious structure of power and influence which confined women and LGBTI+ people… to the margins.
For Giles I suppose the 1960s were history, but for my generation, all those hormones were splashing about in our teenage bodies just as the morality of contraceptives was the top controversy. Those fellow-students who kept out of the debate were, we felt confident, actually using them – and feeling guilty about it.
Reflecting on how that came and went, we can see a historical sequence. The nineteenth century produced a major moral controversy over marriage to deceased wife’s sister. After that we fell out over divorce. Then contraception: condoms and, from 1962, the pill. In the 1970s, despite the Pope’s ban in the Encyclical Humanae Vitae, contraception became less controversial: the majority wanted to disapprove of what other people are doing, not what they were doing themselves.
So we demonised ‘homosexuality’, and more recently paedophilia and sexual abuse. Every society, when ill at ease with itself, finds a minority to demonise; but we Westerners are ill at ease, specifically, about sex. To others it is obvious. Buddhists point out that Westerners ‘have sex on the brain – and it’s the wrong place to have it’.
Giles Goddard’s post looks at the recent past. Underlying it is a longer story going right back to the beginnings of Christianity. This makes the case for change harder to justify, but all the more important.
Vern L Bullough described Western culture in general as a ‘sex-negative culture’, quite unlike Judaism, Islam and Hinduism. Peter Brown’s The Body and Society describes in detail how total sexual abstinence came to be valued by Christians. His Preface warns us:
It is disturbing to read of Saint Eupraxia, a noble girl, and so better fed and more vigorous than her fellow-nuns in a great Egyptian monastery, sleeping on hard ashes to tame her body at the time when her periods first began. The very matter-of-fact manner in which monastic sources report bloody, botched attempts at self-castration by desperate monks shocks us by its lack of surprise.
By modern standards, what was expected is astonishing. In third century Syria you couldn’t even get baptised without renouncing all sex for life. Christian fiction inverted pagan fiction: stories ended not with a happy marriage but with a happy refusal of marriage. The fourth century theologian Jerome wrote long diatribes including the remark for which he is best known: ‘Marriage populates the earth: virginity populates heaven’.
It was so extreme as to be unrealistic. Church leaders invented a distinction that was to characterise medieval ethics. The ‘commands of Christ’ were to be obeyed by all Christians. The ‘counsels of perfection’ were for those called to the monastic life; only they were to renounce all sex and give their possessions to the poor.
This double standard bequeathed an unhappy settlement to the Middle Ages. Marriage was permitted; once the expectation of the Second Coming had declined, somebody had to produce babies. But the Church was governed by celibate men determined to establish the superiority of complete abstinence. Along with sex came guilt. In historical perspective our current agonisings about sex feel like the dying embers of an ancient firestorm.
To rescue Christianity from the anti-sex tradition that still gives it a bad name. we need to reject that whole anti-sex culture, not just the versions of it in fashion at the moment.
But if we do, will we be rejecting Christianity itself, or just a wrong turn it took early in its life?
To answer this question we must ask: what role did it play in early Christianity? This post argues that it began as an appropriate response to a particular situation, but then took on a life of its own.
The evidence from that era is plentiful: the renunciation of sex was
Scholars have pointed to various causes. Pagan authors often approved of chastity because reason should control the bodily passions. Some Christians believed the new age was about to begin so there was no need to have children; or that it had already begun and sexual abstinence was a sign of it. These elements were there, but they do not explain the emotional force of the movement. What we need is a reason why sexual renunciation was so popular. Why would so many people risk death rather than marry?
Recent scholarship about Jesus and the early Church helps. For Jews, Greeks and Romans alike, society was very unequal. Power was concentrated at the top. The hierarchy was reflected in family structures, with the male head of household at the top and women and slaves at the bottom. Girls would marry at or soon after puberty, and sometimes before. They would marry whoever their father told them to marry, whether they wanted to or not.
Although this was also true of Jews, they had a more egalitarian tradition. The economic laws in the Torah were designed to protect the poor from over-exploitation. Their scriptures were prefaced by a theological justification of equality, asserting that God had created humans (and other animals) as a blessing (Genesis 1). The implication was clear, most emphatically to the eighth-century prophets: destitution was injustice.
Though it is still debated, there is a growing scholarly consensus that this egalitarianism was central to the message of Jesus and the primitive Church. Galatians 3:28 was probably a baptismal formula. Candidates came out of the water to be told:
There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.
Economic and gender equality went together. As the newly baptised went home to an authoritarian father, conflict was inevitable. It is not surprising that so many New Testament texts offer advice about how to handle it.
Thus rejecting sex was one element of the early Christian rejection of unjust, oppressive power structures. Christians developed alternative, egalitarian communities to challenge the oppressive patriarchy of the time.
Governments rarely approve of equality. When Christianity became the cult of the Empire, things had to change. The young Basil of Caesarea had looked to a monk, Eustathius of Sebaste, as his spiritual guide. Later their views diverged. At the Council of Gangrae, the bishops
claimed that the disciples of Eustathius had endangered the institutions of slavery and of private wealth, and had denied the subjection of women. They were accused of expunging all social distinctions beneath a common dress… women and slaves would appear dressed alike, their social status and their sex obliterated by a common dress. They also claimed that wealth was to be renounced en bloc and redistributed at once “among the saints”. Women gained heir equality by shaving their heads. With the removal of the “natural veil” of long hair, so the bishops claimed, women were encouraged to throw off the sign “which God gave to every woman as a reminder of her subjection, thus annulling, as it were, the ordinance of subjection.”
Perhaps inevitably, the imperial Church abandoned its earlier radicalism.
Thus sexual renunciation was, for early Christians, part of a wider rejection of oppression. God, they believed, had so designed the world that everybody should find life a blessing. When it wasn’t, there was injustice. Repudiating Roman injustice meant, among other things, repudiating marriage.
Later the egalitarianism was suppressed, though it occasionally gets rediscovered. For my generation of heterosexuals, reliable contraception was good news. We would use it, but many of us – not just Roman Catholics – would still feel guilty about it. One way to cope with feelings of guilt is to demonise some other group. My generation of heterosexuals converted their guilt feelings into campaigns against gays.
Perhaps the late antique Church’s emphasis on sexual renunciation became, in a similar way, another displacement activity. For governments, praising celibacy is easier than praising econonomic equality.
I don’t know what ‘Living in Love and Faith’ will come up with, but I’m not expecting a breakthrough. To make progress, those of us who long for change must be realistic about the nature of the change we seek.
We will not find true healing until we stop wanting to demonise anyone. Christianity still needs to be more positive about sex, in all its varieties, as a generous gift from God. The things we need to avoid are power structures that oppress, whether or not they involve sex.
6. There has been some debate about this. M K Hopkins argued from the evidence (chiefly epitaphs) that most girls married between the ages of 12 and 15, though some married at 10 or 11, while the first period was typically at the age of 13 (‘The Age of Roman Girls at Marriage’, Population Studies 18(3), March 1965). Brent Shaw, on re-examining the evidence, judged that the later teens were more likely to be the normal age. (Shaw, Brent D, ‘The Age of Roman Girls at Marriage: Some Reconsiderations’, The Journal of Roman Studies 77, 1987). However, Shaw reached this judgement by treating the Christian evidence as typical of pagans in the lower social classes. Shaw seems to have been unaware of the distinctive attitudes of Christians.