I once heard the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams sum up his vision for what religious life could be when he defined Christianity in the following eight words: ‘God’s love in Jesus Christ is never exhausted’. As the Anglican Communion’s Lambeth conference prepares to meet it seems that this is a far cry from the dehumanizing language used recently by figures in church and politics alike, in interventions about theology and sexuality.
I think we’re missing the point. Religious people have developed a reputation for prudery and sexual repression, while the iconic images of sexuality in gossip magazines, television and other media rely far too much on simplistic notions of beauty, and the promotion of hedonism. Simply put, religious people aren’t supposed to be enjoying sex, while everyone else is supposed to be having it all the time.
But I think it goes even deeper than this – lots of people (and I count myself among them) struggle to see life itself as a gift freely given, with endless possibilities. Religion and secular ideology both often seem to trap people in a mindset of feeling unworthy of what some people call God’s love, and what might also be helpfully termed self-acceptance. Yet many of the important figures who shaped religious history seemed better at taking life for what it is than we are today; Martin Luther, who said ‘love God, and sin boldly’; St Augustine who preceded this with the parallel thought ‘love God and do what you want’; earlier still was Jesus, whose promise to his followers that they might have the most abundant life possible finds only a hollow echo in so much of religious life today.
So, where does this leave us? Well, as one Church of England priest said this week, I think that Christianity – my tradition – needs to get over its obsession with respectability. If we want to talk about theology and sexual orientation we should stop defining people exclusively in terms of their sexuality, we should really listen to the stories of people whose lives are the subject of the current theological debates, and we should spend at least as much time actively speaking out against homophobic attacks and replacing homophobic language with words and actions that respect people’s dignity. We need to recognize that the history of religious and political institutions alike includes changing their positions on a range of important issues – from slavery to race to gender. And maybe ultimately we need to take the risk of believing that a faith defined by the notion that God’s love is never exhausted might actually have something new to say to us about human relationships.