Towards a new sexual ethic for inclusive church
Updated: Jun 26
A sermon preached at St James and Emmanuel Disdbury
by Nick Bundock on 11th June 2023.
We are grateful for permission to post it here.
Under Nick’s leadership Disdbury has been a pioneer
on the journey of becoming a fully inclusive church within
the evangelical tradition. For more about their inspiring
story visit - https://stjamesandemmanuel.org.
‘This subject is way too big and sensitive to do in a single session with one voice speaking. There is only one way to even attempt this task and that’s in community with other Christians, together defining a positive outward looking sexual ethic for inclusive evangelical Christians.
Tonight is simply a chance to open up some of the questions. But I do that with fear and trembling because I know how many here tonight have been deeply wounded by the Church’s sexual ethic. And while I come from the evangelical stable myself, I think, to be fair, this isn’t simply an evangelical issue. It’s fair to say that the Church universal has a real problem with its sexual ethic. The recent abhorrent Ugandan legislation, supported wholeheartedly by the Anglican Church in Uganda, illustrates my point.
I could spend the entire evening placing everything I say in caveats with clauses and sub-clauses, and the entire sermon could be bogged down in ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ as I desperately trying to avoid causing offense. I want to spare you that, but that means I need you to spare me the impulse to fire back with reflexive critique. We’re all grown up and this is a topic that by its very nature causes offense but if I do cause offense then it’s well-meaning offense and I’m being just as vulnerable in sharing my thoughts as you are in listening to them.
I’ll begin by saying that the best ethics are done in real life, in real pastoral encounters, not by ethical treatise. When I look at the Gospels, I don’t see Jesus getting out a systematic theology book on sexual ethics. His encounters with the woman at the well, the woman caught in adultery, the scribes and lawyers who questioned him about divorce, were first and foremost pastoral encounters. When the woman caught in adultery was brought to him and he was asked to choose whether or not she should be stoned as the law required, he had to spend a moment drawing in the dirt before he knew what to do. This is very much my experience because ethics in real life draws heavily on wisdom. The heart of a good ethic is the moment-by-moment decision making that comes with wisdom and this is because every single pastoral encounter is different. There is no one-size-fits-all answer.
And it’s for this reason that I’ve chosen the parable of the wheat and the tares from Matthew chapter 13 to open this conversation about sexual ethics. This parable is, I feel, a warning to church leaders about going into the harvest field to weed out things we might consider to be tares sown by the enemy. Jesus is clear, if we take it upon ourselves to pluck out the tares, we will inevitably pluck out the wheat by mistake.
This is never truer than in the field of sexual morality. I have lost count of the damage done to people by well-meaning but careless pastoral weeding in churches. The challenge for many churches and church leaders is to allow the harvest to grow to completion without running amok in the field.
The American artist, Matthew Konar has done two paintings of this parable*. One shows the angels separating the weeds from the wheat. This is where our ethics will finally end up, in the hands of the angels, everything that comes before that is provisional and needs to be done with the utmost care and respect. In a second painting Konar takes the same parable and places it on the streets of an American city. Suddenly we see that this parable is, in fact, about real people not abstractions, not concepts.
St James and Emmanuel has learnt the hard way what it means to pull up the wheat with the tares and so I approach the topic of sexual ethics was as much care as I can muster and I come with as many questions as I do answers. I come to this not with the last word but maybe with the first word to this back to you for your own reflections and wisdom. We learn together, we learn as an ecclesial community, not in isolation but in listening and reflecting and discerning the voice of the Spirit together.
“Now we are inclusive one of the things our
critics say is, does anything go?”
But I do want to acknowledge that as an avowedly and committed inclusive community - and one that has many of its roots in the evangelical tradition, as I myself do, that by becoming inclusive and by celebrating LGBTQ+ people - we have a responsibility to think through and articulate a positive, life-affirming and inclusive Christian sexual ethic. So I will end this sermon with seven points around which I hope we can begin to coalesce.
“we have a responsibility to think through and articulate a positive, life-affirming and inclusive Christian sexual ethic.”
Now we are inclusive one of the things our critics say is, does anything go? One of the reasons some church communities give for not welcoming LGBTQ+ people into the life of the church is the ‘thin end of the wedge’ argument – where does it end? Paedophilia? Polyamory? sexual license? I appreciate that for many of us this particular trope is tiresome, boring, hurtful even. We know instinctively, we know deep down in our thoroughly Christian souls, that we run with the Spirit and not with spirit of the age. I am convinced that just as Saint Peter was told to emancipate the gentiles into the Kingdom of God we are now being called to take the next step and bring into the Kingdom long excluded minorities but this doesn’t mean we’ve thrown out our Christian ethic.
There is a prize here for us. The world at large has entirely lost interest in what the Church has to say about sexual ethics. And when I say ‘entirely’ I mean utterly and completely lost interest. It smells the hypocrisy, it recoils at the homophobia, we look weird and sectarian. But people are, and always will be, people. They still have values. Christian faith, hope and love still matter and if we can offer a thoroughly Christian and inclusive sexual ethic then, I believe, we can recover our voice in the public square.
One of the key moments in my own journey of faith was a Billy Graham rally in 1989. I remember getting out of my seat in Wembley Stadium coming down to the front to be prayed for and giving my life to Jesus. Everything seemed simpler in 1989. The Evangelical Christian sexual ethic was clear. No sex before marriage. Marriage was between a man and woman. An entire library of books further defined where the boundaries lay. What you could and couldn’t do with your boyfriend or girlfriend before marriage and whether you could or couldn’t marry a non-Christian (spoiler alert, you couldn’t). I can remember being passed books by a Christian writer called Joyce Huggett on sex and dating as a teenager. I seem to remember that the general rule of thumb for young Christians like me was this: don’t lie down together and don’t touch what you haven’t got.
I didn’t realise it at the time as a fourteen-year-old young Christian but as you can imagine, such a tight sexual ethic came with some serious downsides. In no particular order:
· Lots of sexually frustrated 20-somethings get married far too young, without really knowing whether there was ongoing compatibility.
· Barrel loads of hypocrisy as people’s sexuality and sexual activity got driven underground.
· People who were caught out being publicly humiliated. I remember a friend of mine getting pregnant out of wedlock and having to step back from pretty much everything.
· Countless gay men and women experimenting with ex-gay ministries and getting married to people of the opposite sex.
· Enormous numbers of single woman in enforced celibacy because there are never enough Christian men to go around.
· The loneliness of gay men and gay women in general.
· A general sense of alienation from the body and self as a sexual beings, with attendant guilt around things like masturbation, pornography, or sexual desire.
· A nasty cultural superiority as Christians with pursed lips looked down on people around them who did such heinous things as ‘live together out of wedlock’.
· Finally - and this is not an exhaustive list - such a repressive sexual culture that abusive patterns would emerge in leaders who couldn’t bridge the ethical-reality divide. See any of scandals involving Iwerne camps or contemporaneously, Mike Pilavachi.
For those lucky enough to a) be straight, b) find a compatible marriage partner and c) be fecund and have children, there was the instant creation of a hierarchy of esteem in many churches with nice married people getting all the best ministries and all the attention.
So don’t be fooled, there was an evangelical Christian sexual ethic but it had some absolutely toxic downsides. In its most extreme form it ended with girls wearing purity rings, rampant misogyny, homophobia, broken marriages, misery and even abuse. But even in its less extreme forms, loneliness, isolation and rank hypocrisy. But of course, like everything, some people did very well out of it and so it has persisted and while Church and society walked in step it was unremarkable. But to our shame it’s society and not the Church that has called time on so much that was wrong with the received ethic and all we’re seeing as the Church fights itself is a failure to live in reality.
But it’s easy isn’t it to take pot-shots at one particular sexual ethic from a particular time and place, from a particular stream of Christian thought and rubbish it? I could just as easily take what might pass as contemporary secular sexual ethics, such as they are, and do a similar deconstruction. Hypocrisy, loneliness, misery and abuse are not the exclusive property of any one group, they are common to the human condition. Multiple sexual partners, a culture where physical perfection is practically worshiped, infidelity masquerading as choice or the exploitation of the human body are hardly pain free alternatives to Joyce Huggett’s ‘don’t touch what you haven’t got’ boundaries from a more innocent age, are they?
So, where does that leave us? Where does this leave St James and Emmanuel in 2023? Let’s start with some positives.
Since St James and Emmanuel became an inclusive community of Christians it has been vastly and overwhelming enriched. It has become a place of deep hope, honesty and love. It’s been an extraordinary breaking forth of the Kingdom in one place and time. In July 100 people are going to be confirmed by the Bishop of Middleton in this church. This isn’t 100 LGBTQ+ people being confirmed, but it is because you’re here.
I would also say that we are a more honest and vulnerable community because we’ve stopped, to some degree, pretending.
I would also say that we’ve become a more joyful community. Laughter is not something people ‘out there’ associate with Church, but you hear it all the time in this place.
Finally, miraculously, we have become a more respected community. Despite our failures and even among people who would never consider themselves Christian, we are esteemed and trusted.
But where does this leave our sexual ethic? I think that we’ve been working on instinct, working out our salvation with fear and trembling, but not articulating, not formulating or codifying. Perhaps that’s as it should be? But perhaps the very fact that we are having this series on ethics points to the need to begin shaping something.
“where does this leave our sexual ethic? I think that we’ve been working on instinct, working out our salvation with fear and trembling, but not articulating, not formulating or codifying. Perhaps that’s as it should be? But perhaps the very fact that we are having this series on ethics points to the need to begin shaping something.”
Here are some random thoughts from me.
One approach is a ‘boundaried ethic’. Picture a circle. Everything inside it is ‘OK’. Everything outside is not OK. I don’t think this is works at all. It’s a blunt instrument.
My own experience is that sexual ethics are more like this…
Over and over again we see that Jesus’ ethic is people centred. He desires human flourishing. He was prepared to break the law in order to put people first. He healed on the sabbath, he touched dead bodies, he allowed unclean people to touch him. He always broke the law to bring human flourishing. He desired mercy, not sacrifice. When he met the Samaritan woman at the well he didn’t pass judgement on her and her four husbands. Jesus hates hypocrisy far more than honest failure. So I think the circle of sexual ethics looks more like this:
Picture a shaded circle. Not with firm boundary but shaded circle - with human flourishing at the centre and human degradation at the outer margins. Where does Jesus want us? Flourishing, healthy, whole. This isn’t prima facie about ethical codes it’s about fulness of life.
“Picture a shaded circle. Not with firm boundary but shaded circle - with human flourishing at the centre and human degradation at the outer margins. Where does Jesus want us? Flourishing, healthy, whole. This isn’t prima facie about ethical codes it’s about fulness of life.”
So, what does this look like in practice?
Firstly, I believe passionately that the Spirit is calling us to full and completely emancipate our gay siblings and to extend to them the full benefits and struggles of that institution we call marriage.
Secondly, I’m also aware that the church’s obsession with gay sex and gay relationships has meant that we hardly ever talk about anything else. Research shows that in 2018 82% of Church of England and 66% of other Christians consider pre-marital sex ‘not wrong at all’ (1). I have married hundreds of couples who live together and have sex before marriage and I personally see nothing about those relationships that is inferior, often quite the opposite. Many of these couples see marriage – to quote theologian Miranda Threlfall-Holmes as ‘the crown upon their heads’ (2).
Thirdly, I would say very similar things about marriage after divorce. I have married numerous previously married couples and to a person they enter their second marriage with eyes open and a humility I rarely see in younger first-time couples.
Honestly, these three points are hardly that radical. For me they sit within the centre of that circle we might call human flourishing and the success or failure of those in these three categories will come down to the health of those individual relationships not some over-arching category definition.
The sexual ethic of contemporary secular society is probably best summarised as ‘do no harm’ and while there is much to be said for this as a rule of thumb, I can also see that it’s a slippery one. It’s often hard to see what’s good for another person, it can be even harder to tell if what we’re doing is harming us, particularly if it feels good in the moment. Furthermore, what causes no harm in the pleasurable moment may well cause damage in the long term. St Thomas Aquinas talks of ethics in terms of the virtue of prudence – doing the right thing, for the right reason at the right time. This is subtly different to ‘do no harm’ and substantially more helpful to my mind.
So, is there anything I don’t see as consonant with human flourishing? Absolutely. Sex with minors is never and will never be part of my sexual ethic and I don’t believe it is consonant with a Christian ethic. Ditto, sex with animals or dead bodies or any form of sexual behaviour that causes pain, mutilation, or exploitation. This is about power and where it resides. Whatever sex is about it’s about mutuality.
These categories might sit right outside the circle of human flourishing but what about the blurry outer rings? As we come towards the edges I would add such things polyamory. Polyamory has a long and distinguished Biblical history from Abraham to King David, but the Biblical witness is that it never ends well and scripture appears to have moved towards monogamy as people learned the hard way. The irony here, of course, is that while signed up evangelicals would think nothing of singing one of David’s psalms or lauding him as the forefather of Christ, if he walked through the door of their church they would never give him a place on the PCC or let him lead a homegroup - his relationships are just way too avant-garde and that’s before we even get into what was going on between him and Jonathan.
Also, in these blurry outer rings sits multiple promiscuous sexual relationships with no anchoring in real relationship. I would also put pernicious and persistent use of pornography here – both of these are worthy of an entire sermon of their own because it’s complex and particularly pastorally sensitive. Pornography and promiscuity are like chocolate, addictive, and like a lot of disordered sex are a symptom of something as much as a cause of something and it requires a lot of kindness – see Jesus and Mary Magdalene.
And it’s precisely to Jesus and Mary Magdalene that we need to look for a pastoral response when we find ourselves in these blurry outer rings – kindness, understanding, forgiveness, new beginnings, shame defying grace. We’re all here at times, sometimes for a long time.
Finally, here are some of the ingredients of a new inclusive Christian ethic that I submit for your reflections.
1. Centrality of Love: Central to many interpretations of Christian teaching is the message of love. Jesus taught that the two greatest commandments were to love God and to love our neighbour as ourselves (Matthew 22:36-40). This suggests that love in all its forms, including romantic love, can be seen as inherently good and worthy of respect.
2. Recognizing Diversity: Throughout the Bible, the theme of diversity and variety in creation is apparent. Different people, animals, and landscapes are all celebrated as part of God's handiwork. This can be extended to include a variety of sexual orientations and gender identities. As the Apostle Paul says in 1 Corinthians 12:4-6, there are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them.
3. The Sanctity of Commitment: Traditional Christian sexual ethics often place a high value on commitment, faithfulness, and self-giving love. This doesn't need to change when including LGBT individuals. Long-term, committed relationships could be celebrated and honoured, regardless of the genders of the people involved.
4. Avoiding Exploitation: Consent, respect, and mutual care should always be paramount. The Bible teaches against exploiting others and promotes treating others with respect and dignity (Philippians 2:3-4).
5. Redemption and Grace: Another major theme in Christianity is redemption and grace, the idea that all people can be forgiven and accepted by God. This can extend to attitudes towards sexuality, encouraging a non-judgmental approach and recognizing that all people, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity, can and do experience God's grace.
6. Holistic Personhood: Often, conversations about sexual ethics can become narrowly focused on sexual acts, rather than seeing people in their holistic personhood. Christian ethics, however, should view people holistically, as complex beings with emotional, spiritual, and physical aspects.
7. Community Support: The Christian community is called to support each other in love, empathy, and understanding (Galatians 6:2). This involves not just tolerance, but active inclusion and acceptance, creating a safe space for all members of the church.
Perhaps together we can formulate a holistic Christian sexual ethic that has something worth saying and begin to recover our voice in a complex and painful world. Amen.
1. Living in Love and Faith CHP 2020. Chapter 5. pp80ff