It’s “Theme Fortnight” here at Cranmer Hall, and while the second years are entombed in “Death and Dying”, the first years are embroiled in “Sex and Gender”. This could be seen as another example of the Anglican church’s current obsession with sex; perhaps a fortnight would have been better spent on “Poverty and Justice” or on “Discerning and using your spiritual gifts”. However, the college’s attitude is along the lines of “We have no problem with making you all feel awkward and embarrassed for a couple of weeks, if in years to come it helps prevent you appearing on the front page of a tabloid newspaper for doing or saying something completely stupid.”
Some of the free-flowing group discussion has prompted me to think through what the Church’s role should be in this and other controversial areas. Is the purpose of the Church to baptise whatever society at large deems to be normative? The role of the priest then seems to be to follow behind the latest MORI opinion poll, sprinkling holy water wherever it can. In the process of this quest for relevance the Church actually becomes irrelevant: there is little point to it if it merely sanctifies what society does anyway.
I believe that the Church should instead be a prophetic voice in the community. It has so often failed to do this: when in previous years the Church of England was referred to as the “Tory party at prayer”, it had become far too close to a particular political mindset; and when it held shares in arms companies, it was hard to see how this was compatible with a gospel of peace. Yet the actions of Wilberforce in the abolition of slavery, and Mother Theresa in caring for the destitute in Calcutta, shows the power of people living out their gospel convictions.
There is nothing new in the Church living in a society which did not share its values over sex and marriage. St. Paul, in his first letter to the church at Corinth, is angered not just over a man who was sleeping with his stepmother, but with the church itself for appearing to condone this behaviour.
If the Church does not uphold marriage as fundamental to its teaching on matters of sexuality, then it has become no less compromised than when it was known as the Tory party at prayer. Don’t get me wrong: most of us probably know unmarried couples who have healthier and more exemplary relationships than some who are married; I myself have good friends, both inside and outside the church, for whom this is true. Nevertheless, we live in a society obsessed with sex, with pregnancies among unmarried teenagers on the rise, and increasingly marked by family breakdown. If the church loses its distinctive voice on marriage and sexuality, then it will do so at its peril – and in betrayal of its role in society at large.