Oliver O’Donovan at his absolute best

Fulcrum have just published this monster essay by Oliver on the Gospel and sexuality. Yes, it’s Oliver, so it takes some getting through (hands up all those who survived “Resurrection and Moral Order”), but it is a brilliant piece of work. Here’s a few snippets:

If this gay Christian, then, directed to traditional rules of sexual conduct as bearers of help, complains that the good news is difficult to hear because his position is treated as compromised from the outset, he has misunderstood something. There is only one position compromised from the outset, and that is the position that is “revisionist” from the outset, determined by the assumption that the church’s past reflections on the Gospel have nothing helpful to offer. Certainly, no one who sets out from that starting-point will end up in catholic communion, for catholic communion presupposes a catholic mind. But the believer whom Rowan Williams introduces does not set out from there. He pleads that his purpose in life is “not just fulfilment…” but to become “transparent to Jesus, a sign of the kingdom”. He accepts, in other words, the St Andrew’s Day Statement‘s point that discipleship cannot be without a price in self-denial, but asks whether that price may not be paid, pari passu with the married, in the “daily discipline of a shared life”. And then he asks how that daily discipline can fit in with its two exclusive categories of “marriage” and “singleness”.

Two points about the Statement‘s appeal to these categories bear repeating.[6] First, the claim that these categories are mutually exclusive and comprehensive, covering the whole field of possibilities between them, is advanced on the authority of tradition, not of Scripture. Secondly, the Statement does not itself assert that “all who understand themselves as homosexual are called to do without such a relationship” (ie “exclusive, intimate and permanent”, such as characterises marriage), but says, “Some readers will draw this inference, others may not.” A development of the tradition is therefore not ruled out, though serious conditions for recognising such a development are stipulated. Further than that the St Andrew’s Day Statement did not intend to go.

Rowan Williams’s hypothetical gay Christian, then, framed and posed precisely the question which we need his help to answer. And at this point in his article the author intervened in his own person, apparently to sharpen the question: Can “sexual expression of homosexual desire,” he asked, “if desire itself may be innocent of disorder, be confidently ruled out?” This way of putting the question actually turns it on its head: instead of starting from given social forms, marriage and singleness, and using these as a baseline from which to reach out analogically to interpret an elusive and mysterious experience, it starts from an experience, apparently entirely clear and beyond discussion, and reaches out to posit a corresponding social form. Wrapped up in this is a certain psychological positivism, an unbiddability characteristic of romantic, pre-Wittgensteinian psychology. Within, we have a self-interpreting mental state, “desire”; outside, we devise an action to “express” it, ie lead the mental state uncompromised from the inner expanses of the mind to the public world. Inner certainties demand untrammelled expression. But that approach can only invite a sceptical reply. What is this inner certainty certain of? How can we know what the desire is for? The language of “expression” is treacherous. It lets us suppose that our desires are perspicuous, when they are not. Sexual desire in particular is notoriously difficult to interpret; the biblical story of Ammon and Tamar is just one of many ancient warnings of how obscure its tendency may be.

The juridical language of justice and rights offers the gay Christian a certain kind of recognition; the language of questioning friendship offers another quite different one. At the level of existential reality the two are incompatible. The gay Christian today is therefore faced with a straightforward choice, a choice about the foundation on which he or she is to live. As always, the good news has a hard word in it: we can’t have it both ways. The role of attorney’s client, the perpetual petitioner before the court of pleas, is open and inviting, and there are plenty to welcome the gay into it – for the time being. But the catalogue of candidates for emancipation will be extended further, and the gay cause will lose the interest it once had – irrespective of whether it has won the concessions it fought for. The role of friend among friends, on the other hand, questioned and self-questioning, joined with those in pilgrim search for the new name that no man knows except the one to whom it is given, is an altogether different role, and perpetually available to those who seek it. The gay Christian thus faces in a particular way the choice that constitutes the human situation universally: whether to follow the route of self-justification, or to cast oneself hopefully on the creative justification that God himself will work within a community of shared belief.

In this second choice nothing less is offered the gay believer than is offered to any and every believer: a role in attesting the work of God, in speaking to others of the redemption he has wrought. “How does the homosexually inclined person show Christ to the world?” Williams asks. Again, it is an obvious first step to ask why there would be a different answer for a homosexually-inclined person than for any other person. At the deepest level there can be no difference. It is one and the same Gospel witnessed to by gay and non-gay, a gospel of redemption from the enslavement of sin and of the purification of desire. Yet gifts are given differentially to members of the body of Christ; vocations are distributed variously to serve the common mission. Some are given in the form of special skills and abilities, some in the form of special opportunities, especially opportunities of special experience and suffering. From the place of special sensibility in which the homosexual Christian may find him- or herself we may hear a testimony to the way the world confronts our mission in our time, to its fragmented identities, its disjunctions of feeling, its cruelties, its dislocations and the peculiar possibilities of redemption that God has put at its heart. The rest of us cannot do without this torchlight shone through the fog of the late modern world in which we, too, must grope our way.

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