12 August 2007

Rowan Williams on Christian Marriage

I recently purchased a copy of Open to Judgement, a book of Rowan Williams' sermons published in 1994.

I was quite interested in his sermon - given to a university audience - on the subject of 'Is There a Christian Sexual Ethic?' Like many people, I've been unimpressed with the usual arguments for marriage and monogamy that are made by Christians, even though I agree that monogamous, faithful, lifetime partnerships are the best way to work out Christian discipleship in the sexual arena.

Below is my personal attempt to briefly outline the ideas in this sermon.


For many in our culture, it won't do to simply try to assert 'simple, traditional, biblical' teaching in the area of sexual ethics. Ours is a culture that prizes individuality and experimentation. People believe their circumstances are more varied than tradition allows and they believe that they need the ability to develop by trial and error.

Many individuals, including Christians, operate a sexual ethic on the basis of whether or not a relationship is hurtful or threatening to anyone: me, my partner, or anyone else. Some Christians may feel a little bit guilty at ignoring traditional teaching but they feel that they can't take it seriously.

Both the traditional approach and the 'new approach' (my term) have some Christian principles. The first talks of sacrificing one's own immediate gratification for the sake of discipline. The second talks of honesty, care, and taking responsibility for one's own choices.

Both approaches show an awareness that sexuality is a place of powerful emotion but both also suggest that people can 'get it right' once we understand the correct principles.

The problem is that the Christian Gospel is sceptical about me getting it right. It's sceptical about the usefulness of rules in getting it right and it's sceptical about using 'inner conviction and sincerity' to get it right. If the scepticism is correct then neither legalism nor good intentions will deliver a properly Christian sexual ethic.

However, the Gospel addresses itself to the 'deepest strata of injuredness and self-dividedness.' The Gospel says that 'pain, powerlessness, injury, despair, bewilderment, are laid open to a God who does not condemn or desert, but works tirelessly in the middle of our very betrayls and evasions to bring life.'

If life can communicate the meanings of God, then one's sexuality can be sacramental and speak of mercy, faithfulness, transfiguration and hope. The writer of the letter to the Ephesians tells us that married love is an image of the love between Christ and the Church. Christ gives himself up for the sake of his people and becomes dispossesed for the sake of another's life. In marriage, the husband's sacrifice is mirrored by the wife's obedience and both become dispossesed for the sake of the other. 1 Corinthians 7:3ff talks of mutual rights and belonging whether neither partner owns or governs their own body but makes it over to the other.

Married love is sacramental because it involves a lasting, not just momentary, resignation of control. It is a yielding to the other, a putting your own body at the disposal of another for that other's life or joy. What God has done for our life and joy we learn to do for God's joy: the joy in heaven over the return of the lost.

Within the Christian tradition, this surrender normally take place within marriage. Why? Partly because instinct warns us of the destructive energy that is the shadow side of sexual passion. 'Making oneself over' to another is always risky, especially if it is not a mutual exercise but an asymmetric one; I may give myself over to someone's greed or egoism.

Our yielding to God would be terrifyingly uncertain if we did not take it for granted that God was 'faithful', bound to us by covenant and by solemn self-commitment. This is why Christian tradition wants to talk about fidelity as the thing that makes sexuality meaningful in relation to God.

The grace that is to be discovered in nakedness and yielding can be itself when we give up the self-protection of non-commitment, experiment and gratification, when we go down the dangerous route of promising to be there for another person without having a 'get out clause'. A commitment without limits set in advance means that we have a lifetime to 'create each other' together. Without commitment, a relationship is in danger of one person turning themself over to another who manipulates them.

Williams says that our main question with regard to Christian marriage should not be 'Am I keeping the rules?' nor should it be 'Am I being sincere and non-hurtful?', it should be 'How much am I prepared for this relationship to signify?'


crystal said...

Interesting. Have you read his article from the past, before he became the AB of C, The Body's Grace? Some similar themes.

PamBG said...

I hadn't seen it. Thanks for the link.

I particularly liked the last idea - not just regarding sexuality, but also almost as a theological method. 'How much am I willing to let Christ mean to me?' As opposed to 'These are God's laws, shut up and obey them' or 'Do whatever you like as long as you're sincere and don't hurt anyone.'

Peter Kirk said...

Pam, thanks for this. Yes, indeed 'How much am I prepared for this relationship to signify?' is an important question. But, as you know, I am not prepared to agree that 'Am I keeping the rules?' is a question which can simply be ignored. God has laid down some rules in this area, and we ignore them at our peril.

PamBG said...

Peter, we can disagree on homosexuality. But the fact is that Christianity generally does not have anything to offer on marriage other than 'these are the rules, obey them'.

Williams' is a theology that I can get excited about. Most of the usual stuff makes me feel depressed and almost feeling guilty for enjoying my marriage and loving my husband.

On the rules-based-approach, I'm also incredibly cynical about the fact that it doesn't really offer a good 'excuse' for monogamy. In quantity terms, there really is hardly any New Testament discussion about marriage. We have no idea why the Jewish people moved from polygamy to monogomy. Most of the Old Testament witness about marriage clearly makes women a form of property that is higher than cattle and lower than real-estate. We have no idea why this changed and neither do the Jews.

Williams, to me, offers profound and joyous reasons for monogamy that the rules-based approach can't.