A wise person once suggested that Christian prayer is best made with a Bible in one hand- and a newspaper in the other.
We may be used to the `Bible` thing but part of me has been wondering how to pray with a newspaper. I`ve been wondering how to pray with a constant diet of reports about rape, statistics about abortion, marriage breakdown, sex discrimination and lurid accounts of celebrity adultery and all the rest.
I`ve been wondering how to pray with all those glossy and airbrushed photographs of shapely models advertising miracle diets or alluring outfits. And those that tell me my virility would be enhanced by a particular after shave. (No, I`ve not taken up their offer!).
I`ve been wondering how to pray with what we used to call the agony columns giving accounts of real distress and often sexual confusion. And whole pages devoted to what again used to be called the `lonely hearts` columns.
Well, I responded in a couple of ways. Firstly I wonder if, like me you begin to spot the common thread: the prominence of sex and relationships. And secondly, again I wonder whether, like me you just think it`s a little bit rich that we Christians should be the ones accused of being obsessed with these things?
I know that our record is not good. But can you honestly tell me that the world that chooses to live as if God is not God has really got it sorted? I think not. Just read your newspaper. I suppose I`m suggesting that we shouldn`t put up with this nonsense anymore. I quite accept that recent discussions at General Synod and the like have been something of a shambles and a publicity disaster as well. But let`s be honest my first point is that the world around us has not without reference to God, achieved enlightened harmony in matters of the heart has it?
Quite the contrary. I`m suggesting that despite a genuine longing for a proper intimacy and the creation of good and lasting relationships much of the world around us seems to be in a permanent state of adolescent confusion. And I think much of the criticism that Christians receive is actually about us being used as a sort of lightning rod for the world`s anxiety and confusion. My sense is that however inadequately, it is we who are honestly and thoroughly debating issues of human sexuality in a way that the wider community can`t and won`t.
Now this is a huge area to get into –a complete minefield, in which self-deceit is often the name of the game- and I am honestly afraid of being simplistic but we`re getting SO much bad press about this I wondered if we might pick out some things to guide us as the debate continues.
So I think the first thing that I regard as vitally important is the willingness to listen. Part of the problem in debating these issues is that very often, before people have even finished making their point we have already labelled them as liberal, conservative, bigot, homophobe, sexist or misogynist and so on and so forth. And once you deploy a label like this you no longer have to listen to their experience or notice the uniqueness of the person in front of you.
What I`m trying to say is that so much pontificating about these matters is carried out using labels and stereotypes. And it seems to me that this is where we fall into the error of those who brought that adulterous woman to the feet of Christ. For me, the significance of that story is that she is never even named- she is, to her accusers simply a test case. (We hear nothing of the man caught with her of course)
And while ever the debate is carried out by megaphone on the basis of a supposedly principled theological position and in this totally de-personalised manner our rhetoric creates more heat than light and diminishes people in the process.
The second observation I would make is that although the world around us might like to make things up as it chooses, as Christians we proclaim God`s desire for the good ordering of our relationships.
For example, I`ve observed before how common it is for couples preparing for marriage to ask me if they can write their own wedding vows rather than use the ones given. They also tend to express their astonishment that they have legal hurdles to jump through in order to marry. It doesn`t occur to them that marriage is not their own creation or that they take on certain rights and responsibilities in the community. They see themselves as somewhat isolated from wider society.
This is because many people like to believe that their domestic and personal arrangements are entirely their own affair and that their wishes, desires and as they put it their `right to choose` is paramount. And yet we know this is a fallacy. Our relationships, by definition have consequences. Not least in childbearing. That huge numbers of children will grow up not knowing their father or who that father is will have massive consequences for the building of stable relationships into the future.
But now that we have reared a couple of generations in a frankly hedonistic and individualistic way an awful lot of the tension has been created where boundaries are concerned; how we regulate ourselves and order our common life.
Perhaps like me, you are no longer surprised by the curious, self-styled and often intricate web of relationships that some people have developed. And far too often we have been seen to be censorious and judgemental towards them (again- without listening) but the challenge we face when the cardinal sin today is telling someone how to live their life- is how you make it clear to such a society that not all ways of relating are equally valid, healthy or good for individuals or the wider community.
So, in the face of this rampant individualism we come to the table talking of a God before whom our relationships are extremely important. From the start we are told it is not good for us to be alone- we are set in community, where parents are to be honoured, relationships are to be based on fidelity- not riven by adultery and so on. Our contribution is the desire to see what one author called `sexual integrity`. I say again, in the people I meet, I sense a real desire for this- but so many people are making the attempt without a map and they are getting very lost indeed.
But thirdly, I think part of the problem is that the whole debate is subverted by a culture which says `sexuality is the key identifying feature of the human being`.
How many examples do you think I need to give? Look again at the advertising which assaults us. The early sexualisation of young people. The assumption that any kind of close friendship has to have an undercurrent of `something more`.
What I`m saying is that sexuality has become the main prism through which some people view the world, their place in it…. and their sense of who they are. These are the labels people wear- male, female, gay, straight or whatever.
Now I`m not saying these don`t have significance- but I want to suggest that they are not as important as some would make out. Paul makes this fascinating observation in his letter to the Galatians: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, (and interestingly) there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus”. (3.28)
And have you noticed how Christ makes it clear that in heaven marriage – though terribly important- really isn`t the issue. In Matthew`s Gospel he says: “For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven”. (Matthew 22.30)
In other words, all of these labels have their place but when they become the dominant feature or predisposition in our lives – whether it`s racial, national or gender- things start to go awry. Or to put it another way we I would want to suggest that we find our identity in who God says we are. This is what is marked in Baptism. `You are my child`. When gender and orientation as it`s called, become the defining feature or the chief prism through which we understand ourselves and our place in the world I`m suggesting we have unhealthily lowered our sights. My sense is that the teaching of scripture is that we are more than this and in the eternal context these things matter no more than our national or racial labels.
These are difficult days for Christians as we try to engage with this often sexually confused society. And we`re all too aware of our own culpability. I`m inviting us firstly- not to tolerate the brickbats any longer. Much of the abuse levelled at us is the pot calling the kettle black.
More positively we really do need to listen compassionately to the often real and painful struggles of many around us who long for better ways of relating.
But we mustn`t flinch from trying to hold out to people a way of integrity; a way of relating guided by God`s Holy Spirit. And a vision of the human person which is altogether bigger than our sexually obsessed culture will allow.