A u c k l a n d A o t e a r o a N e w Z e a l a n d
a n g l i c a n c h u r c h
Relationship Lies at the Heart of Sexual Morality
June 29, 2003
Recently the Church has been involved in two controversies on sexual morality: the Prostitution Reform debate in this country, and the proposal to appoint a gay priest as a bishop in England.
On the first issue, prostitution here has never been illegal in itself. The Bill sought to provide protection for prostitutes against exploitation, health risks or violence, and the church leaders endorsed that intention. But having listened to a representative of the Prostitutes' Collective speak on the topic earlier this year, I was not convinced the Bill would offer a great deal in that regard. In Australia, decriminalisation has still left many operating outside the legal frame-work, as reports this week on the trafficking of Asian women in Victoria has graphically shown.
Media reports this week report that the new law has been condemned by a United Nations committee aimed to eliminate all forms of discrimination against women. The UN committee likened prostitution to pornography, and classed it as oppressive and humiliating of women.
Some MPs supported the Bill from the classic liberal position of the freedom of consenting adults to do what they like in private without State intervention. They classed prostitution as a victimless activity which should not be subject to official restriction. There is a prima facie case to support such an approach : individual freedoms should not be curtailed unless it is necessary to prevent harm to others. But it does not appear that decriminalising brothels would be a victimless act. On the contrary, prostitution would more likely become a normalised form of recreation which would attract more clients, and hence more young women, into prostitution.
I was twice asked about the ethics underlying our stance, and replied that ethics should be based on the outcomes of any activity. The approach we took could be described as that of utilitarian ethics, which seeks the greatest good for the greatest number. A lesser good (limited protection for some prostitutes) was balanced against a greater evil (the drawing of more people into the web of prostitution, damaging both the individuals concerned, and undermining key elements of the wider social fabric such as committed relationships and stable family environments). On this assessment the Bill would do more harm than good.
While it is not always appropriate to offer an overtly theological perspective in a public debate, yet theology is an essential under-pinning for the Church's approach to sexual morality. One theological plank in respect of prostitution is that of care for the well-being of individuals, and Jesus' love for all people, especially the poor and marginalised amongst whom many prostitutes are numbered. But, as indicated, it was necessary to balance the well-being of one group against that of others, and to make a judgment as to where the greater good lay.
A broader theological principle lies in the Church's understanding of the relational nature of sexual expression. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, established at Oxford in the 1980s an institute for the study of Christianity and sexuality. His research led him to conclude that biblical teaching on sexual relationships puts as much emphasis on bonding, with its essential ingredients of love and fidelity, as it does on human reproduction. By contrast the casualisation of sexual activity, or any form of sexual abuse, falls short of Christian standards for the well-being of individuals and society.
An emphasis on bonding between two people, and between parent and child, undergirds church teaching on marriage as being lifelong in intent, and as providing a secure environment for the raising of children. Pastoral and psychological evidence supports such a view. This teaching was affirmed by the 800 Anglican bishops from around the world who attended the ten-yearly Lambeth Conference at Canterbury in 1998.
Some would hold that any relationship which does not conform to the marriage and family pattern lacks divine approval. Rowan Williams would disagree, asserting instead that a relationship should be measured not by its outward form but by its inner essence. This is not a new insight. The Anglican Church in New Zealand changed its rule banning remarriage after divorce in 1970. In so doing it maintained its commitment to the life-long nature of marriage, but made pastoral provision for situations where in spite of best endeavours a marriage had irretrievably broken down.
Many single parent families, in spite of the social and financial challenges they often face, also demonstrate strong qualities of love and stability within the family unit, and should be affirmed rather than judged or excluded by church and society.
The issue of homosexuality is one on which opinion is hotly divided, as the recent nomination of Canon Jeffrey John as Bishop of Reading in England has indicated. Given the fact that he is now living a celibate life, and hence one would think satisfying those who believe homosexual relationships to be wrong, it is a sad outcome that he has stood down from that post.
There are many gay and lesbian people in the Church around the world, including clergy and doubtless some bishops. They are people of integrity in living and conviction in believing. Archbishop Williams' emphasis on bonding as a central criterion has led him to the view that faithful and committed same-sex relationships may also be acceptable in the eyes of God. While the experience and perspectives of one group in the Church may lie beyond the understanding of another group, that is not a reason to make a judgment on the convictions of other members of the Body of Christ.
The Archbishop has said he will not seek to impose his view on the Anglican Communion, but will lead a process of dialogue. At a time when an early consensus on homosexuality seems unlikely, that seems a constructive strategy. We should agree to journey together with respect for those of differing convictions, engage in dialogue, study the biblical and contemporary evidence, and prayerfully seek a greater understanding that lies beyond current perspectives.
The issue of human sexuality is not an easy one for the Church to speak on. We are fearful of being accused of Victorian morality, or being anti-sex, or unprogressive, and hence have too often said nothing. Yet the Church's teaching on commitment in relationships is not based on some archaic set of rules which are disconnected from reality. Commitment in relationships leads to fulfillment in living, and security for children where children are involved. There is solid social and psychological evidence to support this. Our morality is not prescriptive (prescribing a set of rules to be obeyed), but descriptive (describing what works in human life and relationships), and offering a vision for all to seek.
It is in line with our understanding of the Trinity which symbolises a community of relationship within the Godhead itself, and sets the pattern for all of life.