‘Manhood and Deity’: Two sonnets for Christmas

A pair – and they are a pair – of Christmas poems:   1. Manhood: Joseph You paint me in the shadows, left of scene. His shining light there blocked by ox. Or third King. Or by ass like me. My face is blurred Lest I distract from Jesus and Mary.   Oh, ‘I’m not Hamlet, nor was meant to be’ ‘Attendant lord’ am I, attendant on my Lord— My son (or so I say: obedient word, That masks the uselessness I feel in me.)   This all my calling, all my sanctity To stand detached and silent, unpreferred. My voice? A butler’s, asking concierge On their account, not mine, ‘Pray, room have ye?’   Care? No! I know as well as know my fate: ‘They also serve who only stand and wait.’     2. ‘These are the generations’: Deity God’s being, act. The act of life. Adored By all creation—act is deity That is before, beyond, above what He Has made, surveyed, and loved, who is named Lord.   Eternal generation the act is. Revered By hosts of heaven who perfectly do see The life of God the Holy Trinity One begets, one is begotten, and a Third   Who holds them both in unity assured. One act, one triune life eternally Most blessed. A second generation we Confess: in Virgin’s womb we find the Word:   In heaven the One in Three lives, loves, and reigns; On earth the eternal Son is born...

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Two new books on sexuality

I try to keep up with books addressing human sexuality from a theological/Christian perspective. The general flow of publications reminds me of an exchange from an old BBC Radio 4 drama: ‘He made pork pies the way Wagner wrote semiquavers.’ ‘You mean they were good?’ ‘Not often. But there were an awful lot of them…’ A minority of the books published simply repeat already well-rehearsed arguments and so contribute nothing to the debate; most of the rest could not be described anything like so positively. This is true on every side of the debate: much heat, little light, and less understanding tend to characterise contributions, which are nonetheless routinely praised to the skies around social media by the partisans of whichever position they champion, before they, thankfully, disappear almost without trace remaining. That the past couple of months have brought the publication of not one but two books in the area that are really very good, then, had me watching the end of the road for four blokes on odd coloured horses. The world does not seem about to end, but the fact remains. Robert Song and Eve Tushnet have not just added to my (short) list of books worth reading in this area, they have moved towards the top of it. The books are very different: Song is academic, Protestant, and revisionist; Tushnet popular, Catholic, and traditional. Regardless, both make a genuine contribution, and both need to be read. Robert Song’s Covenant and Calling: Towards a Theology of Same-Sex Relationships (SCM, 2014) offers an argument that is richly theological and serious. He locates marriage as a creational good that, however, has been transformed by the coming of Christ and the inauguration of the eschaton. Marriage will end in the coming Kingdom, because death will end: there will be no need for the begetting of further children. The church lives both in the expectation of the Kingdom and as its first fruits: in Christ, we know that death has ended, and so can embrace celibacy, a way of life not ordered to the begetting of children. This embracing of celibacy, Song thinks, re-orders marriage within the church: a people who no longer fear death no longer need to procreate, and so it is striking that, whilst emphasising the representational aspects of marital love (‘but I am talking about Christ and the Church…’) and the mutuality of self-giving, the various New Testament teaching on marriage never specifically names procreation as its purpose. Song does not write out children from the good of marriage; he recognises that the creational norm requires that procreation be intrinsic to the definition of the calling. He notes, however, that since the 1930 Lambeth Conference, Anglican theological ethics, in contrast to Roman Catholic moral theology, has consistently entertained the idea of deliberately childless marriage, chosen for weighty ethical reasons (the context here was the Anglican acceptance of the use of contraception). This does not change the definition of marriage, but opens up the possibility of imagining an eschatological space, a third calling (Song will call it ‘covenant partnership’) that can sit alongside marriage and celibacy as a way of being authentically Christian; such covenant partnerships will be marked by faithfulness, permanence, and a commitment to non-procreative fruitfulness. Can such covenant partnerships be sexual in nature? Song argues that they can, because in Scripture sex can be about faithfulness and permanence without mention of children – 1 Cor. 7 is perhaps the crucial text here. Behind this reading is Song’s account of the transformation of marriage, and so sex, in the life of the church; procreation is de-emphasised. Again, the Anglican acceptance of deliberately childless marriage, creates the same space: sex in such a union is intentionally non-procreative, but licit. Song addresses the standard texts against same-sex sexual activity from within this framework; he accepts that ‘whatever it was the biblical writers were referring to in relation to same-sex sexuality, they took themselves to be opposed to it’ (62); he suggests, however, that a careful reading of the texts, which he offers, paints a somewhat narrower intended condemnation than is usually offered. What of arguments that marriage somehow depends on the complementarity of male and female? Song does not, of course, need to dispute this point, only that sex somehow depends on that complementarity; he follows Chris Rogers’s account of the theological history of sexual differentiation (Creation and Covenant, Continuum, 1997; another must-read book in this area), and proposes that there is no convincing theological reason (other than bare divine fiat, which he concedes in passing to Barth on p. 47) why sex must be restricted to opposite-sex couples. He ends with some, admittedly tentative, proposals for working out the...

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