A Christianity in which subterfuge plays no part

Faith and Reason v Both the Anglican and the Roman Catholic churches face charges of hypocrisy in sexual matters. There must be a healthier way forward, argues Monica Furlong.
Christianity is not in one of its heroic or charismatic phases, and this is rather good for it. What it needs most at the moment, perhaps, is not brooding on triumph, past or future, but a quiet rediscovery of identity. An important process in that rediscovery must lie in examining the growing gulf between what is preached and what is practised.

Christians have been good historically at trying to make belief and practice fit, sometimes at immense personal cost, as in the days when the refusal to sacrifice to the Roman Emperor brought many to a horrible death. Right up to our own day there have been many ready to suffer rather than say, or live, what to them felt false.

One area where it has become very clear lately that official Christian statements have parted company with private practice is that of sexuality. This has been true in both the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of England, where the question of sexuality among clergy in particular has burst open like a Pandora's box. Roman Catholic clergy here, in Ireland, and in the United States, have been found to have had mistresses, illegitimate children, or to have visited brothels, or gay bath-houses, or to have had sexual relations with young children in their care. In both churches clergy and monks have died of Aids, and there has been evidence of extensive homosexual activity among both clergy and laity. There are also signs that many Anglican clergy, despite the possibility of marriage, are by no means always faithful to their wives.

I bring this up not to tut and shake my head over human wickedness, but to point to what I believe to be deeply damaging to both individual persons and to institutions, which is to live a lie, to claim to be doing one thing and actually to be up to something else. It is hypocrisy, of course, and as such it invites contempt when it is discovered by others, but first and foremost the damage is done to the inner self of those who lead double lives.

What might be done to change it? What doesn't help is to keep reiterating those old saws about high sexual standards. A high sexual standard that few people observe is worth very little, and it might be better to have a lower one - if it really is lower - and keep it more faithfully.

One of the reasons the old standard is not observed, I suggest, is that few people believe in it in its entirety as they once did. Various kinds of knowledge, not to mention common sense, have eroded some of the old automatic certainties. An interesting example of this is the way Catholic women in the 1960s in Europe largely gave up accepting their Church's authority on contraception - the laity had spoken, however silently. The laity and indeed many clergy are not speaking, some silently, some noisily, on the subject of homosexuality. It has become evident to most thinking people that people are not homosexual out of wickedness or because others have "corrupted" them, but because it is simply the way they are. That they should be punished for this by being forbidden the sexual expression that heterosexuals enjoy seems cruel and wrong. Worse, it encourages the mindless prejudice of which our society already has more than enough, causing immense distress to young people trying to understand their own sexuality.

The Church of England still continues to mouth fulminations against gay people enjoying sexuality, along with Pecksniffian remarks about "compassion", much as the Pope continues to deplore contraception. But it is too late to lock the stable door - those horses have bolted for good.

Celibacy among the Roman Catholic clergy also seems an archaic folly - one which does not even have roots in early Christian tradition. Of course, some individuals choose and seem to need celibacy, but too much emphasis upon it is a denial of the kind of human growth that loving sexual experience can bring, and of the great value women have for men. Loneliness, alcoholism, various covert forms of sexuality which may be damaging to others, are pitiful substitutes for marriage or, for that matter, for a stable homosexual relationship.

With all that we now know about the centrality of love and sexuality in human lives, forbidding any expression of it to others, except in circumstances where it does evident harm, seems like doing what Christ accused the Pharisees of doing - binding burdens upon people too great to be borne. When that happens the sexual burdens may be cast aside in rage or despair, but the price of rebellion to believers in terms of guilt, secrecy, fear, hypocrisy, and, in some cases, hurt to others, remains unacceptably high.

A simpler, healthier, Christianity, in which subterfuge played no part, and in which belief and practice fitted one another like a glove, would be a witness to the love of God. Better than a witness to hypocrisy.