Christian Chastity

Christopher has posted some very helpful observations on the the current Anglican issues. No, I’m not getting into those now, rather, he makes an important point in the realm of theology and morals that bears being lifted up.

Much of the struggle is focused on what constitutes acceptable sexual morality for Christians; that is, how do we employ our human sexual urges in light of the resurrection and the call of the Gospel?

The chief battleground seems to be the “traditional” mores most often defined by saying the only acceptable context for the expression of sexuality is in a lifelong marriage between one man and one woman. The Episcopal Left has called for moving from this standard; the Episcopal Right is for maintaining it. These things are well known.

The reason why I put “traditional” in scare-quotes above is because Christopher is lifting up something in Fr. Haller’s recent writings that I have also noted in my patristic and scriptural studies. “Traditional” Christian sexual ethics are far more complicated than one man and one woman. For quite a while it was assumed that the correct Christian moral stance was celibacy. For everyone. Don’t trust tradition? That’s fine—it’s in Scripture too. Check 1st Corinthians for starters. Marriage between one man and one woman wasn’t the ideal—it was the tolerated lesser of two options.

Furthermore, Jesus never promotes marriage—he just says that divorce is a bad deal. The best the Church Fathers could do was to note that Jesus attended the wedding at Cana thus showing he didn’t actively oppose the institution. Less well known in our day, however, is their identification of the apostolic evangelist John as the bridegroom—who, upon seeing the miracle of the water turned to wine, left behind his bride in their never-consummated marriage and lived his long life as a virgin. (Ælfric refers to this quite a number of times throughout his corpus, for example, as part of his argument for clerical celibacy…)

What I see Christopher doing is something that I haven’t seen the Episcopal Left do—at least not well. They propose doing away with current standards but I have not heard them talk in a clear and compelling manner about what should take their place. Christopher’s answer is to return to the virtue ethics inhabited by both Paul and the Fathers and to ask us to consider once again the meaning of Christian chastity.

The central hallmark of Christian chastity as found again and again in both Testaments of the canon is covenant faithfulness. Time and again, Scripture uses the metaphor of God the husband and Israel the bride; time and again the problem is infidelity and promiscuity—egregious breaches of the covenant. The images in Ephesians and Revelation of the Church as the bride of Christ participate fully within this thematic trajectory. The Church must be faithful to Christ her spouse and not be as Babylon. Christian marriage is acceptable in so far as it models the relationship between Christ and his Church and thus marked by self-giving love and fidelity—constancy.

Christian chastity is yet another virtue which—to my mind—is only capable of being cultivated within classical Benedictine lines: it can only flourish in an environment marked by stability, obedience, and conversion of life.

This, friends, this is the direction in which our discussion needs to move. What are the practices that faithfully reflect Christian chastity and how do we as congregations help engender and enable Christian chastity for those within our walls and common life?

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8 Responses to Christian Chastity

  1. John-Julian, OJN says:

    I just wrote a long comment on Christopher’s posting, but just wanted to add that Bishop Paphnutius had a rather hard time convincing the conciliar fathers that sex in marriage was not sinful!

    And among the Fathers there long continued the sense that sexual intercourse was basically wicked, but could be (just barely) countenanced in marriage because the world did need babies — but even then, it was not to be “enjoyed” but undertaken as a somewhat distasteful duty (which smacks so much of the later – and present -Puritan ethos).

  2. NJ says:

    Thanks very much for this interesting post. Have you seen Eugene Rogers’ book, _Sexuality and the Christian Body_? You might be interested in his elegant, charitable attempt to work these questions out in terms of the Church and the Holy Spirit. Rowan Williams has an interesting review in the Journal of Scottish Theology. Thanks for this great blog, btw.

  3. Caelius Spinator says:

    Perhaps, the most interesting Patristic document on marriage is the material from the Council of Gangra, where you have a sect (the Eustathians) explicitly teaching that marriage of the laity is damnable. The response of the Council is interesting. Virginity is the higher state but ought to be pursued for its own sake and not because marriage is “impure.”

  4. NJ,
    Thanks for your kind note. I believe Christopher’s mentioned the Rogers book to me but I haven’t had the time or brain-cycles to check it out.

    Caelius,
    I remember reading something somewhere in this whole dispute that struck me as true but I can’t remember for the life of me who said it or in what context. It was something to the effect that any Christian theology of sexuality that does not have a high regard for the place of celibacy is not within the main stream of the historic teaching of the Church. I think both sides and all involved would do well to keep that in mind (while recognizing that celibacy is not a state to which we are all called….).

  5. Mother Laura says:

    Derek, can you please clarify your response to Caelius in the last comment? Did you perhaps mean to say “any Christian theology of sexuality that does *not* have a high regard for celibacy, etc.”? That is what seems to be implied by your emphasis on the long history of esteeming it over marriage as well as the reminder that not all are called to celibacy. Or am I missing something and it should stand as written?

    Thanks for the reminding me of the legend of John the abandoning bridegroom. That figures into one stream of the Mary Magdalene as prostitute myth, as in at least some version of the legend she is the abandoned bride who turns to promiscuity out of pique at the rejection.

  6. Mother Laura says:

    Oh, and on the John thing, there was also much made in some medieval liturgy and hagiography of John’s virginity, besides his being the only named male disciple with the women at the cross, being an important qualifiers for his being picked foster son/caregiver of the BVM. So medieval nuns and mystics, among others, had a particular devotion to him as a role model for celibacy and ecstatic bridal union with Jesus.

  7. Oops–thanks for that, Mother Laura; it’s been duly edited.

    I’d never heard of that twist on the Mary Magdalene legend. Must be after my time… :-)

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