The Morality of Monogamy

At the moment I am reading the fascinating “Diary of a Gay Priest” by Malcolm Johnson which is a collection of his diary entries. For those who aren’t aware of him, Malcolm Johnson was the gay and partnered Rector of St Botolph’s without Aldgate during the time that the LGCM was run out of a room in the church tower. He also set up Clergy Consultation. He is considered one of the fathers of the “pro-gay” movement inside the Church of England.

The book is interesting for a number of reasons, not least of which is Malcolm’s candid reporting of various aspects of clergy life. But I was struck by some of the basic inconsistency in what he shares. For example, here’s an excerpt from the introduction.

Rev Malcolm JohnsonJust after we agreed to part I met Robert Wilson who had been at an Albany Trust lecture in the City University where he was studying engineering. The subject of the talk was homosexuality, and he thought the lecturer, Fr Fabian Cowper, very handsome, so next day he asked Doreen Cordell, the Trust’s counsellor, if he might see him. ‘He is Roman Catholic and you are an Anglican,’ he was told, ‘so you have to go and see Malcolm Johnson.’ Thank God he did, because we have now been together 43 years. This diary is not sexually explicit, but we soon had to work out what we thought about sexual faithfulness. After a bout of faithfulness we soon realised that most male gay couples need and want sex outside their relationship, and we came to an arrangement and agreement.

After a while Robert and I laid down certain ground rules which have lasted till today. If one of us asks for details he will be told; above all there should be no involvement with someone else which might lead to an affair. … I realised that consensual sex between men is not sinful if it causes no pain or hurt to each other or other people. I would not presume to say if this applies to heterosexuals.

Fascinating, and possible a little bit hypocritical given his intervention in the 1987 General Synod debate on sexual morality.

11 October 1987. Tony Higton, the evangelical rector of Hawkwell in Essex has put down a Private Members Motion signed by 167 of the 550 members which will be discussed in the General Synod next month. The journalist Andrew Brown describes him as ‘the Church of England’s self-appointed scourge of heretics, Hindus and homosexuals.’ He asks that the Synod affirm that sexual intercourse should only take place between men and women in marriage; that ‘fornication, adultery and homosexual acts are sinful in all circumstances,’ and asks that Christian leaders should exemplary in all spheres of morality including sexual morality. ‘as a condition of being appointed to or remaining in office.’ It is obvious that the hidden agenda is gay-bashing, so I put in a wrecking amendment which asks the Synod to affirm the essentials of the biblical message that human love is a reflection of divine love and that all relationships should therefore by characterised by permanency and commitment.

Of course, it now all makes perfect sense that the Clergy Consultation publication “Sexual Ethics” (hosted on the Changing Attitude website) should have held that “brief and loving sexual engagements” were perfectly acceptable. After all, the convenor of the group admits as much to being non-monogamous.

I have a very simple question for my liberal readers. Are you comfortable with the idea that one of your key historic spokespersons for gay liberation in the Church of England admits openly that he is not monogamous? Doesn’t that make a complete mockery of the argument that what this sexuality discussion is all about is treating “gay” people the same way as “straight” people? How does a sexual lifestyle of this kind do anything to support monogamous marriage?

You can get Malcolm Johnson’s book from Amazon.

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33 Comments on “The Morality of Monogamy

  1. I have a very simple question for my liberal readers.
    That’s me.
    Are you comfortable with the idea that one of your key historic spokespersons for gay liberation in the Church of England admits openly that he is not monogamous?
    No
    Doesn’t that make a complete mockery of the argument that what this sexuality discussion is all about is treating “gay” people the same way as “straight” people?
    Yes
    How does a sexual lifestyle of this kind do anything to support monogamous marriage?
    It doesn’t
    The key point is “in the Church of England”, as opposed to society at large, which is a completely separate issue. I am in a monogamous gay relationship with a member of CofE clergy, and we are engaged to be married. I think that gay clergy should live up to equivalent standards of sexual morality as their straight counterparts. When ‘marriage equality’ becomes possible in England, I think that gay CofE clergy should be obliged to be married and be monogamous if they want to be in a sexual relationship. As far as I know, straight clergy can be disciplined if it is discovered that they are having adulterous relationships – the same rules should apply to gay clergy.
    Laurence Cunnington

    • That’s encouraging to hear Laurence. Are you at all disappointed by groups like Changing Attitude that seem unable to make such clear statements and instead publish material like “Sexual Ethics”?

      • If that’s what CA says, then yes. This is why I find it so disappointing that the CofE was against ‘equal marriage’. It should be encouraging monogamous marriage amongst its gay clergy – and apply equal standards to all.

        • Just out of interest, what do you think about sex before marriage? Do you think gay couples should wait for their wedding night, or is this serial monogamy we’re talking about?

          • I’m not a Christian so my opinion probably counts for little on this blog. However, since I’ve been asked, my view is that sex before marriage is fine – possibly serial relationships prior to marriage – but that marriage itself is then entered into with the intention of its being for life and monogamous. Divorce should only be a last resort. Although I am divorced I still regard myself as bound by those marriage vows I made to my ex-wife that I am still able to keep, that is, to honour her and ‘keep’ her in the sense of ensuring she is provided for financially. I would also assist her, as far as she wanted me to, ‘in sickness’.

            • It strikes me that this is simpler for gay relationships where there’s no fear of contraception going wrong, although feelings could get hurt in the process of finding ‘the one’. However, not a lot of heterosexual couples seem to be too worried about that – at least, not on the surface!

              Thanks for your opinion. Whatever your religious views, I’m just interested to know what people’s views are on relationships, so your contribution is valuable to me.

  2. The gist of the progression seems to be: 1) sexual intercourse is properly located within a permanent, exclusive relationship (marriage); 2) therefore same-sex sexual partnerships are proper (if located within a permanent, exclusive relationship); 3) therefore sexual activity outside of a proper same-sex sexual partnership is also proper – as it is outside a proper relationship?!
    I believe this phenomenon is known as “monogamish”, though I imagine it also trades under the name of “monogamy-lite”. We are approaching a point at which same-sex sexual partnerships will actually be considered morally superior to marriage, since same-sex partners are “better” at managing extra-curricular shenanigans and “thruples”.

    • I was rather surprised a few months ago to get an email in my in-box from a website I thought was just going to give me organic vegetarian recipes, telling me to read an article about ‘what we can learn from open relationships’. Curiosity killed the cat, but I diced with death anyway. I discovered that these relationships teach us to be less selfish and less needy and make our long term relationships healthier. Fascinating.

      • Yep. Fascinating. If “Monogamish” is “less selfish”, then that would make marriage “selfish” instead of what it actually is – selfless. Therein lies the difference.

        • I should add that this article was mainly talking about heterosexual couples – the subject of homosexuality didn’t come up. So no ‘gay agenda’. I don’t know where these ideas are coming from.

        • The underlying implication was that women can be selfish, weak and needy. Now, there’s nothing feminists hate more than the needy, weak, dependent wife who completely loses her identity in her husband. So, you can see where this is leading …. In the 60s we got the pill and our own bank account. Next step is our own independent sex life.

  3. The gist of the progression seems to be: 1) sexual intercourse is properly located within a permanent, exclusive relationship (marriage); 2) therefore same-sex sexual partnerships are proper (if located within a permanent, exclusive relationship); 3) therefore sexual activity outside of a proper same-sex sexual partnership is also proper – as it is outside a proper relationship?!
    I believe this phenomenon is known as “monogamish”, though I imagine it also trades under the name of “monogamy-lite”. We are approaching a point at which same-sex sexual partnerships will actually be considered morally superior to marriage, since same-sex partners are “better” at managing extra-curricular shenanigans and “thruples”.

  4. Whilst I cannot claim to be one of your liberal readers, I shall stick my oar in anyway. It has always been known that long-term homosexual relationships are rarely faithful. It is the ‘occasions of grace’ described by Changing Attitude (which the rest of us would call infidelity) which keep them going and make them long term. One study showed that 66 percent of gay male couples reported sex outside the relationship within the first year, and nearly 90 percent if the relationship lasted five years. Read here for more studies with the various complicating factors such as hiv status: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2906147/

    Without indulging too much in amateur psychology, but from observation of human nature, I would say that it is women who keep men faithful. Not always, of course, and even less so in our hypersexualised culture, but I do still think it’s in a man’s nature to protect his family, and a tight family unit is the best way to do this.

    I suspect that now that gay ‘marriage’ is in the bag, there will be more honesty about this from gayworld.

      • Actually, in our culture it’s sometimes women ‘corrupting’ (to use an old-fashioned word) the innocence of men who have dreams of settling down with a family. However, Jill did say ‘not always, of course’ – she’s making a general observation.

  5. It strikes me that this is simply a progression along the linguistic tightrope.

    First you have monogamous heterosexual marriage, where it is defined as a committed and faithful relationship between 1 man and 1 woman.

    Then you have 2 offshoots:

    1 – Heterosexual marriage that is committed and faithful, but “open”

    2 – Homosexual relationships that are, at least intending to be, monogamous, committed and faithful.

    From this you then have homosexual relationships seeking social validation, both from those around them and from society at large.

    Then you have homosexual partnerships (or soon marriages) that are committed and faithful but open.

    And why this change from monogamy to open? And how can they be called “faithful”?

    The definition of fidelity is “faithful/loyal/devoted; true/trustworthy/dependable/reliable; constant/lasting” (http://dictionary.babylon.com/fidelis )

    If you have a look at the description that Malcolm Johnson puts to the rules, he says they “laid down certain ground rules which have lasted till today. If one of us asks for details he will be told; above all there should be no involvement with someone else which might lead to an affair.”

    So they have set up rules that differ from a monogamous relationship by which they will commit to each other. Strictly speaking that means that they are being faithful to each other, because they are keeping to the agreement they created.
    But if we then have a look at the words of the marriage service then we see that the agreement set is about monogamy regardless of what either party may feel like on any given day. And so we see that even though they want equality in societal norms, when it comes to monogamy they want it completely different. And if anyone doubts this, just have a look at the grounds in law by which a same-sex marriage can be dissolved. Certainly not by infidelity!

    • Hence we have the exciting new concept of ‘monogamish’ which gentlemind has already mentioned above. I’m not sure that I can agree with 1) above, Phil. I think the heterosexual version of ‘faithful’ is ‘forsaking all others’. I don’t think any straight married person would call an open marriage faithful.

      Monogamish, however, offers an apologetic for the gay version of fidelity, which is to allow casual sexual relationships outside the partnership but not *emotional* relationships. Hands up all you chaps who think your wives would think this was acceptable!

      For the uninitiated, the Gospel Coalition produced a pretty good roundup of what monogamish is all about in ‘What You Should Know About ‘Monogamish’ Relationships’ which is well worth reading:

      http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/tgc/2013/03/07/what-you-should-know-about-monogamish-relationships/?comments#comments

      Or you can just watch gay activist Dan Savage explain it:

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      • I think it’s worth just reminding ourselves that it’s very clear that some “pro-gay” people (including those commenting here) very clearly reject monogamish as an authentic morality.

        • They do but what is their pastoral response to those who reject it? Will monogamy be a standard or just a highly prized option in ‘pro-gay’ churches?

        • See how the conversation has shifted! Not long ago the question was whether homosexual relationships were sinful or not, and now it is the fidelity or otherwise of such relationships which is under question.
          I would say the gay lobby has scored quite a big point here.

        • Completely, Peter, and I also recognise where you come from in all of this and your views on the matter (such as you have written and spoken about). But my comments were outlining the basic direction that relationship thought appears to have gone, showing the God standard at the start and the various forms that have arisen that reject God’s intended means for humankind to interact sexually.

      • Just a quickie regarding the faithful open heterosexual marriages. If you note, it is a progression in the thinking. My initial layout points to the true meaning of faithful, but the next step, which I didn’t really look at in any detail in my post, for heterosexual couples is very much akin to what Malcolm Johnson has said regarding gay couples. So I wasn’t saying that it was the way faithful heterosexual couples live, just how the downward spiral from God’s design goes.

        • Sorry, Phil, I misunderstood. Perpahs this is the way the Malcolm Jacksons of this world would like things to go. Indeed it sounds very close to Peter Tatchell’s utopian view of the sexual free-for-all which he believes would lead to a society with healthier attitudes about sex. ‘To change from a hetero-centric culture to a sexually pluralistic one is in everyone’s interest.’ (his words, not mine!)

          The question is, would women put up with it? I don’t think they would. Which takes me back to my earlier point about women having a civilising influence on men. (Sorry Peter, I realise this is insulting to men everywhere, but primordial instincts etc …) Generally speaking, I don’t think homosexual pairings can work without the infidelity. Men married to women have too much to lose by being unfaithful, which is a powerful deterrent when one has a family.

          • I’m not so sure. Look at what women have already put up with in order to achieve that elusive equality. Contraception with horrible side effects (ok, so childbirth has some horrible side effects, so maybe that one wasn’t so difficult), sex with men who have no intention of having a family in the hope that they might change their mind (well, at least we’re not stuck in a boring marriage with no bank account), abortion (well, it’s better than a coat hanger …). What’s a little infidelity (sure I’m away on business at weekends so does it really make a difference to me who he’s got off with? And, thanks to the contraception with horrible side effects, I can get off with who I want as well). See my post below about ‘open relationships’. They’re all about not turning into or being married to (horror of horrors!) the needy, dependent woman!

  6. I cannot help but agree – at least partially – with Jill here. Whilst there are varied views and behaviours held by men and women, it does seem that men, however much they may fully believe in the good of monogamy, find it more difficult. Whether this is how we are biologically programmed or whether it is being part of a fallen world (or both), it is just one reason why the Christian vision of heterosexual, monogamous marriage is so important, and indeed so wonderful. Personally, however much I may believe in monogamy for the greater good, or however much I love my wife (and I do!), I can see that one day, in a moment of temptation, my marriage vows could be the only thing between fidelity and a tragic mistake.

    Women will often say things of others such as “well if he loved her, he could never cheat on her.” Far enough down the road of semantics I agree with this, but only because I see love as very much a sacrificial choice rather than an emotive response; not what I think is always being implied. The idea that your flighty little heart will give you enough “love” to avoid temptation is significantly naive; in my opinion men need to know and to remember that they have made a sacred and binding vow.
    Marriage is, I think, a divine intervention. Some argue it is a reflection of the natural order – yes, it is a recognition of how we are biologically made up. But staying faithful is almost unique to humans (I think there’s a species of arctic bird that mates for life, but that’s probably about it), and I think this is God’s very good word spoken into a world that has been distorting sexuality for millennia.

    • “Personally, however much I may believe in monogamy for the greater good, or however much I love my wife (and I do!), I can see that one day, in a moment of temptation, my marriage vows could be the only thing between fidelity and a tragic mistake.”
      Exactly. I *want* to make those vows in a same-sex marriage and be bound by them.
      I would point out, though, that existing civil marriage vows for heterosexual people make no reference to fidelity. Words promising faithfulness may be added by the couple if they wish but they are not a requirement.
      Laurence Cunnington

      • While the secular world may accept the elision of the shared social meaning of marriage, the church remains askance. In the Genesis, marriage is set within the context of responsible biological kinship. A man leaves his father and mother (descent group) through the divinely created impetus of sexual differentiation to be joined to his wife (St. Paul interprets this as a physical union of that which was differentiated by creation). Christ harks back to this as the archetype, despite the later Mosaic concession of regulated divorce.

        The Matrimonial Causes Act hitherto limited marriage to privilege the types of sexual relationships that could result in responsible biological kinship. Of course, the inevitable red herring waved as proof of homophobia was shop-worn claim that permitting infertile and elderly couples was a double-standard. Fertility is not a type of sexual relationship and therefore is beyond the purview of marriage law.

        Finally, your words confound civil marriage with civil wedding. Whatever vows are prescribed, existing civil (and recognised religious) marriage is regulated as much by the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973 as other regulations.

        MCA 1973 maintains that adultery is a fact of divorce. Just one instance of adultery at any time during the marriage can prove irretrieveable breakdown, rather than the pattern of evidence required to show unreasonable behaviour. The removal of this expectation of fidelity from marriage law as it relates to same-sex couples only demonstrates bogus pretensions. The power of any institution is maintained through the shared social meaning of its underpinning raison d’etre.

  7. Oh, to address the actual topic: this is utterly frightful, and thank you so much Peter for bringing it to my attention. I don’t think I can bring myself to read Malcolm’s book, but it seems that he is basically advocating being in a “committed relationship” whilst making use of… well, in the parlance of our times I think they are called “f**k buddies”. Am I wrong?

    This idea of people “needing” (!) sex outside of their committed relationship. Where do you even start with that? This surely puts the Christian gay agenda back 15 years if not to square one, when you realise there are people with these intentions lurking within the movement.

  8. We should all remember CA’s 2011 publication as the movement seeks to gain credence in the wider church.

    Unfortunately, there is an historical pattern to this moral decline.

    1. A definitive HoB commissioned report is produced exploring both sides of a controversy and their underpinning theological arguments. The resulting recommendations are equivocal, but insist that any official support for same-sex marriage would require a change to Canon Law.

    2. Ecclesiastical elision: in spite of the equivocal tone of the report, a private member’s motion is introduced and carried by a strong majority stating that Synod ‘considers that there are circumstances in which the relationship of a homosexual couple may be blessed in church’.

    3. On pastoral grounds, the official position is revised to both support a fundamental divergence from one or more aspects of God’s intention for sexual union .
    For example, look at ‘Some Issues in Human Sexuality: 1.2.48: The Church’s official position is that, while God’s intention is that marriage should be for life, that fact should not be seen as an automatic bar on re-marriage in church in the lifetime of a former spouse because there are circumstances in which this is the best Christian response to a less than ideal situation.’

    So, let me paraphrase this as future doublespeak for civil partnership church blessings: ‘The Church’s official position is that, while God’s intention is that marriage should be between a man and a woman, that fact should not be seen as an automatic bar on blessing civil partnerships in church because there are circumstances in which this is the best Christian response to a less than ideal situation.’
    4. Issue a handy guide for clergy, outlining the key questions for incumbent (with whom the final decision rests) to ask of civil partnered couples who desire a church blessing.
    5. Decorate the churches in readiness for an influx of impenitent gay activists declaring that the church’s revision is an admission of wrong and demanding church marriage for gays as reparation for past homophobia.

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