Taking the sin out of sexDavid Bryant -- Saturday April 17, 2004 -- The Guardian
"We've been living together, I'm afraid, vicar." "Splendid, then maybe you have experienced something of the God-given heights of sexual pleasure and touched on the depths of human love."
My reply to the bride-to-be and her partner at a marriage preparation class was not intended to be frivolous. It was an attempt to set straight the church's dismal record on sexual morality. I wanted them to be in no doubt that desire and love should be viewed as gifts not curses.
Why has the church been so prudishly anti-sexual, giving grudging tolerance only to the marriage bed? Part of the answer lies in the scriptural dualism that rips apart spirit and body, elevating the first to mystical heights and writing off the body as tainted and fallen, to be crushed if it oversteps the boundaries of religious authority.
If you doubt that, consider Adam and Eve in the creation myth. Instead of delighting in their bodies, they pluck fig leaves to cover the horror of their nakedness. Then there is St Paul's curmudgeonly comment on the matrimonial state - "It is better to marry than to burn" - and the allegory of the virgin birth, which contains implicit outrage that the saviour could be born by anything so demeaning as sexual coupling.
It gets worse. Take the doctrine of original sin, a damning picture of the human race if ever there was one. Then you have the whole thrust of religious morality, which is prohibitive, negative and disparaging about sexual behaviour. Read the Old Testament moral code, with its repeated chorus, "Thou shalt not ... " Listen to Paul's sour comment, "If a woman will not veil herself, she should cut off her hair."
The gist of the message is clear. Jealousy, greed, pride and cruelty can go on the back burner. Desire, sexual craving and physical pleasure are the arch sins that will strike you down.
Lying behind all this is a philosophical non-starter. Religious doctrine is founded on the world of absolute Platonic values. It proclaims a divine morality carved in stone, changeless, unquestionable. But to posit that kind of black and white, neatly choreographed world is to misunderstand the very nature of our existence.
Life hurls at us a constantly changing network of ethical dilemmas. For the Victorians, it was chimney sweeps, slaves and poverty. In the 21st century, it is genetic engineering, cloning, drug addiction and a host of others. Throw in the ethical material that has sprung from the cross-culturalisation of our society, and you have a heady, often intractable, mix.
We have to confront this mishmash by constantly reinventing our personal morality, trying to take quality-weighted decisions and making tentative value-judgments. No one else can do it for us, least of all a code of rules laid down three millennia ago. It is a lonely path, but offers immense rewards. We need to put an upbeat spin into our thinking about sexual morality, starting from the point of original blessing rather than original sin (an observation that got its promulgator, the Catholic priest Matthew Fox, defrocked).
Sexuality is not something to be sniggered at or argued over. It should not be entombed in archaic laws, nor forbidden or reluctantly tolerated as a pandering to human weakness. Nor should it be hijacked and turned into a gender argument about who should sleep with whom. It is a unique blessing, a source of deep fulfilment, a profound joy, there to be enjoyed, reciprocated and appreciated.
Is this to advocate unbridled sexual licence? Of course not. That would lead to moral anarchy. Our sexual encounters need to be infused with a non-exploitative compassion, or they become empty and ultimately destructive. That rules out of the equation sexual violence, degradation, coercion and deceit.
But with that proviso in mind, to accept the divine gift of sexuality with anything other than gratitude and delight is churlish. That is why the young couple in the study had my blessing.
· David Bryant is a former Anglican priest