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 theological account of covenant partnership he has given in terms of current English & Welsh law, and with a judicious guide to further reading in the area.

This is an exceptionally good book, which needs to be read, and is worth disagreeing with. Eugene Rogers’s Sexuality and the Christian Body (Blackwell, 1999) remains the go-to defence of extending Christian marriage to same-sex couples; Song’s book is now for me the go-to defence of the alternative line of creating a discipline that is not marriage to make space for same-sex couples. (Basically, any worthwhile Christian ethical argument is going to go one of these two routes – or, just possibly, twist the discipline of celibacy by denying that gay sex is really sex, which might work theologically if you push the procreation and sex arguments in a certain way, but which is never going to be popular…)

In Gay and Catholic: Accepting my Sexuality, Finding Community, Living my Faith (Ave Maria Press, 2014), Eve Tushnet writes her own story, and writes it beautifully. (Hilary Mantel has a character think somewhere – A Place of Greater Safety? – ‘I wonder why I ever bothered with sex … there’s nothing in this breathing world so gratifying as an artfully placed semicolon.’; Tushnet’s aside, ‘yes, I was a vegetarian lesbian; I also love cats’ offers as artful placing of a semicolon as I have seen this year, and made me laugh out loud as I read it.) She knew herself a lesbian from age 13, converted to Catholicism as a college student, overcame alcoholism a few years later, found her vocation to learn to love within the church, and in the book reflects on it all with great insight, genuine humility, and the sort of delightfully light and deft self-deprecating humour that on this side of the Atlantic we still like to believe that Americans like her are incapable of.

One of the points I make repeatedly when forced into talking about sexuality in public (I turn down at least five invitations for each one I accept) is that we need to listen hard to real people, and not stop at the level of generalities, or (worse) constructed stereotypes (and let’s note that this happens on every side of these debates); Tushnet describes a film shown at her (liberal, progressive, very good) high school, and comments ‘I don’t think [it] was meant to make actual gay kids feel worthwhile or hopeful. I think it was meant to make straight kids feel bad for teasing us.’ This is the sort of arresting insight that repeatedly appears in the book, that is about getting beyond doing the thing that some theory suggests is right and talking to actual people about the (inevitably messy and contradictory) things that they would like to see done.

Because of this, I always recommend to people writers who illuminate their personal portion of reality with perceptive insight. My ‘must read’ list here was short and nicely balanced: Wes Hill’s Washed and Waiting and Rachel Mann’s Dazzling Darkness. Eve Tushnet’s book demands to be on that list (as does some of Karen Grace’s poetry, although that is harder to get hold of): all three are beautifully written and deeply perceptive personal analyses of what it is to be a LGBT person in the late-modern Western church. Yes, they come to different conclusions – but they share many insights on the journey; and each tells a story that is deeply personal and profoundly illuminating.

What conversation is there between Tushnet and Song’s books? I could construct one, around notions of ‘vocation’ and ‘love’, but I think it would be forced. They are very different voices, offering very different approaches to the same disputed moral questions. They do not so much need to be brought into conversation with each other as to be heard and assimilated by anyone seriously concerned with advancing the discussion in these areas. I highlight them both simply as books that should be read.


  1. Ian Paul
    Dec 4, 2014

    Thanks Steve for the helpful reviews.

    I really like your careful appreciation of the different viewpoints, and your holding them together. But one of the difficulties is that different churches actually have positions, and the dispute of these positions is doing considerable damage—not least because these kind of books are not actually shaping discussion, but instead poor adaptations of weak arguments about the biblical texts.

    So I wonder how much longer it is possible to hold the slightly detached, appreciative view—not listen given that Robert Song, for example, is actually in a place of shaping the theology and practice of the next generation.

    (That might be a long way round of asking: are you going to respond to Song’s book?!)

    • steve
      Dec 4, 2014

      Hi Ian, thanks for stopping by. You’ll know that I haven’t hidden my convictions on this subject – and, yes, I agree with you that the public discussions in most churches are operating at a very low level. Surely the latter point is a reason to point appreciatively to the contributions that might raise the level?

      I probably will write a response to Song; I’ll be reading the book more carefully with a group of others over Christmas, and will test out my sense of the weaknesses in the argument there. One point you might help me on: he relies quite a lot on the 1930 Lambeth Conference decision to permit deliberately childless marriage; how much authority does that decision carry for an Anglican? It is unusual (the general Protestant position in allowing contraception was that it was not to be used to prevent the begetting of any children in a marriage, but only to space their arrival), and not based on the most auspicious reasoning (Anna Poulson’s PhD, sadly unpublished, demonstrated a fairly straightforward connection with the fashion back then for eugenics), so I would be inclined to ignore it, but maybe that is not a route open to a faithful Anglican?

      • Ian Paul
        Dec 4, 2014

        I think the answer is that it expresses the mind of the communion, but that it does not count as binding doctrine. To do so it would need to be incorporated into liturgy, which is where anglicans define what they believe.

        But can I also offer (having thought about this whilst walking the dog) three rather immediate and interlinked challenges to Song’s position:

        1. What is curious in this, and other formulations of such positions, is why this has occurred to Song, but for some reason did not occur to either Jesus or Paul? For some reason, and particular for Paul in the light of 1 Cor 7, they did not make the same move from seeing procreation as non-essential in the light of the kingdom to seeing any kind of covenant relation as legitimate. If we have moved beyond procreative marriage, and did so because of Jesus and Paul, why did they not move beyond the male-female configuration for the same reasons Song does?

        2. Why sex? Why not simply have covenant relationships which are non-sexual? I think this point is one massive weakness in Brownson’s view: if Gen 2 is about kinship relationships, what has sex got to do with it? In fact, Song appears to be buying into the argument that sexual expression is in fact *essential* to gay identity.

        3. What has happened to the language of union? One thing I find a bit baffling in these discussions is that folk seem to think that, when you remove procreation, you are left with (basically) fun! i.e. sex as a pleasurable experience. But this is not what either the biblical texts or Anglican liturgy say. The consistent language, in Genesis, Jesus and Paul is that of ‘union’, procreative or not. The key argument against SSM is that you cannot have union between things that God had not formed one from the other.

        I know that Gagnon does not persuade everyone, but I think he makes an important point which is often lost: the narrative logic of Gen 2 is that sexual union is precisely rooted in the sex binary of creation. Without the binary, there can be no union.

        From your brief comment, it appears as though Song by-passes rather than engages these questions.

        • Lorenzo Fernandez-Vicente
          Dec 7, 2014

          I think the answer is that it expresses the mind of the communion, but that it does not count as binding doctrine. Wow, can you allow the same attitude vis-a-vis the more recent lambeth pronouncements on homosexuality, or only when it suits?

          • Ian Paul
            Dec 7, 2014

            That’s exactly the position on Lambeth 1.10. The difference is that C of E Liturgy is exactly aligned with it.

            (Are you stalking me around the blogosphere…?)

        • Sam
          Dec 16, 2014

          To offer one thought related to Ian’s third point: it seems to me – a young Anglican pastor learning his way – that a glaring theological weakness in Song’s argument, and others like it, is that is dislocates God’s moral order from his created order. This is not to get side-tracked in a natural law ethic verse alternative ways of reasoning, but to simply point out that in scripture, moral order (moral law) and created order are in harmony – for example, God’s created creation is deemed “very good,” surely more than a pragmatic aside. In Proverbs 8, Wisdom is God’s co-creative agent in creation, which suggests the created order brims and moves with moral order, for the same Wisdom imbues both the moral and created world. In Romans 8, Paul links the groaning of creation with the moral disorder of mankind. And, of course, there is Romans 1:26-27 and the suggestion that “natural relations” coincide with “moral relations.” To suggest that God the creator would at any point affirm sexual “union” between members of the same sex, is to dislocate created order from moral order. Anatomy is not amoral.

          Just some thoughts. I very much appreciate the balanced conversations on this blog.

          • steve
            Dec 17, 2014

            Hi Sam, thanks for stopping by.
            The problem I see with all appeals to the created order is that creation is fallen and messy, and so every appeal involves a selectivity about data. That’s fine if we’re honest about our selections, and the reasons for them, but too often we’re not. So to take the ‘anatomical’ case you raise, presently the vast majority of people are born unambiguously male or female, but a number of people are born intersex. Your sketched appeal to that data suggests that the male-female binary is the primary reality here, to be argued from; Alan Wilson’s appeal to just the same anatomical data in his recent book leverages the existence of intersex people to disrupt and overturn the male-female binary.
            Now, you implicitly justify your selection of data by reference to a coordination of moral and natural in Scripture (Wilson offers rather less justification for his selection). We could trace that coordination through and evaluate it (& I suspect we would find that the argument you sketch is right) – but in doing this we would be making non-trivial judgements about what counts as ‘natural’; it is not a category that is simple to appeal to.

      • Caleb Day
        Dec 6, 2015

        Thanks for the recommendations!

        Steve and anyone else that wants to weigh in (e.g. Ian?):

        I’d be curious to know how you’d respond to the fact that the church has always blessed marriages involving post-menopausal women? As far as I know, most/all churches also marry younger male-female couples where there is known infertility for some other medical reason – but we can just stick to the elderly couple for now as they’re a clearer example, and one with a longer history.

        To me, this fact presents an open-and-shut case: The churches, even the Catholic church, do sometimes bless intentionally childless marriages. Thus, we don’t need interpretations of Lambeth 1930 to argue for that point.

        I can think of a couple of different ways to argue against my position, but I don’t find either of them particularly convincing:

        (1) Suggesting it’s not intentionally childless the way a gay couple is: we know from Abraham and Sarah that miracles can happen, and should a miracle pregnancy occur, the elderly heterosexual couple would welcome the pregnancy and the child. This seems extremely weak to me. It builds an awful lot from one biblical miracle, while ignoring another miracle (which is seasonally appropriate right now!) whereby a woman who’s never had heterosexual intercourse falls pregnant. It makes the concept of “intentional” basically meaningless, because by the same logic, someone who never intended to give to the poor could say “but technically, God could have miraculously taken the money from my bank account.” And it pretends a couple in their 80s would really welcome a surprise pregnancy.

        (2) The magisterial Catholic argument: shifting focus from actual procreation (or intended procreation) to “openness to procreation,” and then defining “openness to procreation” as penis+vagina sex, culminating in male orgasm, without contraception, even if age/medical realities/deliberately calculated timing mean it’s well-known that the egg, sperm, and/or uterus isn’t present. This argument means, among other things, that even the post-menopausal couple count as “open to procreation,” while the gay couple (or the contraceptive couple) don’t. I don’t find this argument convincing, and I don’t think many Protestants do… in fact, few Catholics in the west do either. Basically, I think “open to procreation” is a stipulative definition in this argument.

        (3) Dispute the factual statement itself and say the church hasn’t always married post-menopausal women.

        Would you take one of these three approaches, or do you have another response?

        • Ian Paul
          Dec 6, 2015

          Caleb, it is vital that you distinguish between intentionally childless marriages and inevitably childless marriages. The C of E will solemnise the first, but not the second.

          An example. A friend of mine is a Baptist minister. He and his fiancee were young and (to their knowledge) fertile. But they chose not to have children. He therefore wrote marriage vows which did not mention children. You cannot do that in the C of E in that way.

          We need to move away from considering marriage in terms of individual choices to thinking about structured social arrangements. Couples who are infertile for whatever reason are nevertheless being inducted into a social structure which *in principle* is concerned with the begetting of children.

          Same-sex sexual unions are arrangements which are *in principle* cannot lead to procreation, and so are rejecting an aspect of the God-given intention of marriage.

          • Caleb Day
            Dec 7, 2015

            Thanks for the response, Ian. You didn’t actually answer my question about the post-menopausal couple (I mentioned the church marrying people post-menopause; I also could have mentioned how the church encourages married couples to keep having sex post-menopause). But what you’ve said still gives me some stuff to respond to.

            What you’ve said also seems pretty stipulative to me. You’ve already decided on the categories before you start: you’ve decided that same-sex sex/marriage is a different category from opposite-sex sex/marriage. But what is the basis of that distinction? It can’t be procreation – that would be begging the question.

            It seems to me that the distinction can only be based on a gender/sex essentialism whereby male and female are defined by penis and vagina. (and these definitions are somehow associated with procreation, even though human beings don’t actually grow from penis and vagina, but from sperms and eggs in uteri.)

            If you don’t assume these definitions, what you’ve said looks a little different. Then, any couple (homosexual or heterosexual) without sperm, eggs, and uterus equally “in principle cannot lead to procreation” … regardless of whether that’s because of sex, menopause, chemotherapy, or hysterectomy. Though, also, all of these couples are “nevertheless being inducted into a social structure which in principle is concerned with the begetting of children” even though they can’t actually biologically beget children themselves. (Some of them will adopt; others these days will use IVF; most of them will be involved in the “villages” it takes to raise children.) And that’s OK.*** Would we call these “can’t procreate because of biology” couples “intentionally childless” or “inevitably childless”? The latter, I suppose. And also the former, for all of those who could have chosen to enter into procreative marriages instead, but not the rest.

            By the way, that’s interesting about the C of E. You can choose vows that don’t refer to children in the Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia (where I’m from).

            *** Here is a good article from an Aquinas expert who argues that from a classic medieval natural law perspective, it’s OK that not all couples are procreative (even by intention), even though the primary telos of marriage remains procreation: Porter, Jean. “The Natural Law and Innovative Forms of Marriage: A Reconsideration.” Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics 30, no. 2 (October 1, 2010): 79–97.

  2. Ian Paul
    Dec 4, 2014

    Also wondering whether it is possible to subscribe to comments here, so I know when something has been said.

  3. steve
    Dec 4, 2014

    Yes, I think the weakness with Song’s argument lies in the move from ‘there is a covenanted vocation to service’ to ‘this covenanted vocation takes the form of sexually active couples’; the logic of that move is what I want to trace more carefully than I have, with more than half an eye on the theology of religious communities, which I suspect is the more traditional development of the sort of move he begins to make.

    Comments – hmm; let me look into that.

    • Ian Paul
      Dec 4, 2014

      I am interested that you identify this as ‘the weakness’…since in fact, as a defence of same-sex unions, this surely is his entire argument!

      Everything depends on making that move, and it appears to be a move that he is making not only without warrant from the text, but in fact against the grain of the text…

  4. steve
    Dec 4, 2014

    There should now be a subscribe to comments check-box below the comment box. Let me know if it doesn’t work.

  5. Ian Paul
    Dec 4, 2014

    That’s great…thanks

  6. Ian Paul
    Dec 17, 2014

    Steve, your comment columns are getting funny, so I am posting this response to yours as a new thread.

    Yes, I think you are absolutely right about selectivity in appeals to nature. But there are some important things to note here.

    First, Wilson doesn’t acknowledge this, but rather says ‘What we see is what ought to be.’ This brackets outs entirely any notion of the fallenness of the world.

    Second, you do see this thread within biblical texts and biblical theology. So when Jesus says in relation to divorce ‘This is not how it was in the beginning’ he is doing just that.

    Third, we then need to note that Scripture does this retrieval and selection process…and isn’t that an authoritative guide to how we should do it?

    Fourth, again from your comments, I am not clear that Song takes this task seriously either…or am I mistaken here? In other words, there might be all sorts of ‘covenants’ and covenant relationships, but we need discernment as to which of these are reflections of God’s creation intention, and which are themselves fallen.

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

get facebook like button