Posted: 29 Oct 2014 04:44 AM PDT
There’s rather a lot of silly talk going on online about celibacy at the moment. This is largely connected to a couple of recent publications, not the least of which is Richard Coles’s new autobiography. Rather a lot of the publicity surrounding the book has made much of the idea of someone moving from a rockstar lifestyle to that of a celibate vicar.
This is connected to the idea that gay priests are OK “so long as they are celibate”, an expectation which seems to have something to do with what gay people (by which we mean men) desire to do with bits of their bodies. (The unspoken and rarely challenged presumption being that straight men don’t do these things with their bodies).
Alongside this, we’ve also got a small number of the usual suspects saying that the churches can’t legitimately adopt a positive attitude to same-sex couples getting married because it would somehow invalidate the experience of those who reject the legitimacy of their own gay desires and have pledged to live without doing anything about them. This is linked with the specious phrase – “same-sex attraction” or even worse, “unwanted same-sex attraction”. This phrase is only ever used by those denying that God might delight in God’s gay children and have given them their desires so that they might delight in one another. Let me be clear – the phrase “same-sex attraction” is intrinsically homophobic and only ever used by those, usually motivated by religion, who have bad news for gay men.
In the midst of all this, it seems important to get back to first principles.
Let us begin with the bible and what St Paul had to say about marriage.
In 1 Corinthians 7 we find Paul saying that it is better to marry than to burn. Now, this is important. Firstly this is not an argument in favour of marriage – it is a rather sniffy comment from someone who thought that Jesus was about to return and turn the world so far upside down that marriage wasn’t really important. Secondly, it is important to recognise that this isn’t someone advocating celibacy as being a higher calling than marriage either. Rather it is someone usefully pointing out that enforced celibacy, particularly celibacy enforced for religious reasons, is a dangerous thing.
Enforced celibacy is something that we should all be wary of. I’m far from being the only person who thinks that all kinds of abusive behaviour can arise from enforced celibacy that is demanded of those who have no sense of vocation towards it.
Many years ago I knew a nun who knew a thing or two about psychology and she used to say, “Wherever you see a virgin, there you see a witch.” Now, virginity is not the same as celibacy but it is a comment that I often have reflected on. All kinds of behaviour are linked to psychosexual hopes and dreams. When we hear people advocating celibacy as a lifestyle we should at least see amber lights before us. It may be the right thing for some people and it quite certainly isn’t the life for everyone.
One of my big reservations at the moment about the current discussions about celibacy is that they seem to settle on the notion of celibacy as being about what one does (or doesn’t do) with bits of one’s body. In fact, Christian spiritual teaching about celibacy was always about something rather more than that. It was (and is) about someone responding to what they perceive to be a call from God to live a life free from distractions not simply for its own sake but so that they are then free in God’s name to love the world. What one doesn’t do with one’s bits is rather a secondary consideration.
The truth is, a couple of people who are living in respectable coupledom with all its compromises, arguments and trips to IKEA are not living in a celebate relationship in the grand scheme of Christian spirituality just because they declare (or are presumed) to be putting limits on what they do with their bodies. Christianity is certainly an incarnate religion and does indeed claim that bodies matter but it is also about more than bodies too.
Some Christians are called to celibacy. All are called to chastity. The trouble is, and it is interesting very interesting trouble indeed, we don’t all agree what chaste living is any more and that applies to straight people (including particularly those not yet married) just as much as it applies to those who are gay.
By all means let us talk about celibacy but let us do so in a grown up way, beginning from being cautious about those trying to argue either by their words or their lifestyles for the enforced celibacy of others. Let us also not confuse the idea of not having sex, with living celibate lives.
These things matter far too much. When you encounter the C word, let it flag up some warnings. Celibacy is a complex, tricky and fascinating thing. If we don’t have any knowledge of that or interest in understanding it then we should beware of the “celibate”.
Living together and not having sex is perfectly legitimate and perfectly uninteresting. Indeed it is no-one’s business but that of the couple themselves. We must ask couples wanting to make much of that way of life why they are doing so.
It doesn’t seem particularly godly to enquire about (or advertise) what is happening in particular bedrooms. That applies whether there is a lot going on there or not much going on at all.
In his celebrated blog “What’s in Kelvin’s Head”, Fr. Kelvin Holdsworth, Provost of Saint Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral, Glasgow, begs the question: ‘What is celibacy?’ – in terms of its connection to sexuality. In other words: does celibacy require sexual abstinence, yet allowing other types of intimacy in relationships?
In the ‘olden days’ and certainly when I was an Anglican Franciscan Novice; what were called ‘Special Friendships’ were expressly forbidden. This was in order to prevent any jealousies arising from such exclusive relationships as might be formed between two members of the Community. However, it was very difficult to clearly define the line between what was permitted in the way of one-to-one relationships that might be thought ‘exclusive’, and the special bond that could indicate the like-minded. A rather difficult path to negotiate for those whose affection might be reserved for a particular brother. In no instance of my experience was there ever a case of explicit sexual relationship with another member of the Community.
However, there can be little doubt that true celibacy is a specific call from God (and a gift of God to the Church) for the individual person to refrain from the physical expression of sexual intimacy. Having said that, it is not impossible for men or women in a religious community to find themselves attracted to another individual – a situation that, in order to comply with the Religious Vow of Chastity, no nun, friar or monk ought give way to, in order to retain their credibility as a Religious, bound by a specific Rule of Life that forbids such a relationship.
One might wonder why anyone – outside of an actual Religious Community, as a member of the Clergy, or in an occupation where personal relationships were totally contra-indicated and disposed towards a selfless life of oblation – would want to bind themselves to a life without intimacy with another human being; unless their sexual impulses were in some way dormant or inconvenient to express.
Given that some Religious enter into a monastic community in order to combat their innate homosexuality (or, one must say, even their heterosexuality), the constraints on any exhibition of ‘Special Friendships’ could, and often do, create an inevitable climate of tension – both for the individual(s) concerned, and for the rest of the Community. This is why the celibate call is best reserved for those who are able – with the help of God – to maintain their Vow of Chastity with an inbuilt determination to abide by it – with the help of God.
My own experience tells me that anyone joining a religious order with the intention of sublimating their sexuality – whether heterosexual or homosexual – will need all the encouragement from God and the Church to overcome what is a natural human sexual inclination towards intimate relationships. That such a discipline is actually possible for a number of people – such as Roman Catholic clergy and Religious – as well as other ascetics in the Christian world – is a matter of God’s call and God’s enabling. To mistake such a call could end in disaster – both for the individual and the Community.
Such outstanding women and men as are called, and enabled by God’s power, into a life-time commitment to celibacy should be considered a blessing to the Church – and to those to whom they dedicate their life of service. However, it is a very special calling. A calling to which maybe many are called, but few choose to be chosen.
Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand