Every ten years, Anglican bishops from around the world convene for the Lambeth Conference. Having been twice postponed already, the conference is going ahead this month. Behind the scenes, the organisers have been trying very hard to avoid talking about sex, preferring to address climate change, war and poverty.
But the three Primates of Nigeria, Rwanda and Uganda, who represent 30 million believers, have boycotted the event, citing the ongoing division in the Anglican Communion over the sexuality. They insist that the hierarchy’s progressive stance is incompatible with the faith.
If an unaligned observer was to look at Anglicanism today, it would see two theological and culturally opposed parties. One embraces sexual heterodoxy, incoherent multi-orientated erotic identities in the name of human freedom and development, and prioritises sexual and romantic desire; but it makes no new Christians
The other group sees itself as resisting the new anthropology. It takes a different view of desire, prioritising the longings of the soul over those of the body. It promotes sexual continence, self-sacrifice and traditional marriage for the co-creation of children. They are bringing people to Christ in increasingly large numbers.
The problem Anglicans have is that the progressives have all the power and the money. At the same time they are intellectually and emotionally constrained by a contempt for the traditionalists they have been unable to contain.
Meanwhile, the traditionalists find themselves making connections between the manner un which the immersion in the promotion of biological sterility by the secularists is reflected by a spiritual sterility, since the progressives make no new Christians and their churches are rapidly dying.
Much of this will have an eerie familiarity to Catholics. However, we are not just watching idly from the sidelines. This is a dispute that touches us all.
The formidable Catherine Pepinster took to the airwaves on the Today programme’s ‘Thought for the Day’ segment to offer some heft to the progressive programme.
But her arguments were old-fashioned, and given the acceleration of cultural change rather quaint.
As all philosophers acknowledge, our arguments take their direction and perhaps even their conclusion from the first principles we adopt. The Pepinster position was one much loved by nineteenth-century sociologists and anthropologists, but it hasn’t worn well.
It all began, she told us with the desert. The desert is a hot and difficult place and the survival of the tribe depends on having lots of children, and so tragically homosexuals were marginalised and under-appreciated in hot climates. They were unable to contribute to the social currency of biological fertility and so experienced prejudice from people who prioritised the raising of children. However not all aspects of desert culture were primitive. Their one virtue was the practice of hospitality; so if we, no longer trapped in the desert, could only extend an affirming and non-discriminatory welcome to the non-biologically productive among us, the world, the Church and our local community would be happier places.
But this immersion into the sociology of religion leaves two areas unexamined: desire and holiness. How do we manage human longing? What is this encounter with holiness that marks the quest for God?
The journey the Jews took as people of the First Covenant was one of learning the distinction between the sacred and the secular.
Sociologists tend to see things through the single lens of ‘marginalisation’. Exclusion and inclusion define their parameters of good and bad, or virtue or vice. But the experience of the People of Israel and their training in the holiness code was more multi-layered than that.
In a universe that was richer in metaphysical variety than the progressive mind is comfortable with, what happens when you strip out the recognition of the existence of the human soul?
Professor Sarah Coakley, formerly a professor of theology at Cambridge, suggests that this was exactly what happened as part of the history of Modernity:
“It was as if the pervasive loss of the of belief in the soul caused and an intense and anxious fascination with the body as the nexus of salvation.”
So not only is sex fun, and it turns out from the immense traffic that internet pornography produces, addictive, but it subverts human appetite and desire into something that begins to look like a new religion – a new god.
If human desire, and the appetite for sexual fulfilment becomes a new religion, it is no wonder that same-sex marriage, no marriage, and polyamory have become its new denominations.
The difference between progressive and orthodox Christianity might come down to opposing understandings of the significance of the soul and the complexity of appetite and desire.
Same-sex marriage, and the other exotic variations on the sexualised and secular menu, emerge as priorities when the body takes pre-eminence over the soul, and we find ourselves unable to manage and discriminate between our more immediate longings and the pre-eminent focus of our desire.
Learning to tame our appetites,
As Rod Dreher, the once Catholic but now Eastern Orthodox Christian, so pithily put it:
“To rediscover Christian asceticism is urgent for believers who want to train their hearts, and the hearts of their children, to resist the hedonism and consumerism at the core of contemporary culture. And it is necessary to teach us in our bones how God uses suffering to purify us for His purposes.”
It was not nomadic life in the desert that gave contours and shape to the sexual ethics of the people of God, it was the encounters with the transformative presence of the living God on Mount Sinai, and later the Mount of Transfiguration.
The possibility of the transformation of desire, as an antidote to the decadence of addiction, is what the Church ought to be heard to be murmuring in the public square. We need to rediscover the voices of the saints and not the sociologists.
Our arguments in this cultural crisis should not be focussed on what can or cannot be done with our genitals and our associated longing for emotional fulfilment, but on the rediscovery of the priority of our souls, and how a mixed economy of joy and asceticism can carry us deeper into heaven.
Few have given this quest more focus that St Augustine. “You have made us for yourself and our hearts are restless until they find themselves in you.”