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Sex and the City of God

Fergus McGhee

Professor Diarmaid MacCulloch
Re-examining the history of sexuality in the Christian West
LGBT History Month Lecture
13 February 2014, at the Natural History Museum

St Paul had some radical ideas about sex.

The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. And likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does.

(1 Corinthians 7: 4)

The extraordinary notion here of conjugal equality—mimed in Paul’s rhetorical equipoise—was not exactly embraced by subsequent Christian tradition. Indeed, for better or worse, Christian attitudes to sex owe very little to the Bible. Diarmaid MacCulloch revealed just how little as he traced the history of sexuality in the Christian West in Oxford University’s fifth annual LGBT History Month Lecture, delivered two weeks ago to a packed auditorium in the newly-refurbished Museum of Natural History. His wide-ranging address flickered with the same rigour, lucidity, and wit which characterise MacCulloch’s books and broadcasts, and was something of a sneak preview of a new BBC 2 series to be aired in the autumn.

MacCulloch began by making the necessary point that Christianity is a hybrid religion—part-Jewish, part-Greek—and sketched out those inheritances. For the Jews, supremely concerned for the survival of the chosen people, procreation was regarded as a sacred duty. Gay sex is largely ignored in the Hebrew Bible, although it is condemned in the purity laws of Leviticus, alongside the consumption of shellfish and the trimming of beards. At the same time, some of the most deeply felt relationships in the Old Testament were same-sex: Saul and David, David and Jonathan, Ruth and Naomi. For the Jews, then, MacCulloch suggested, love and marriage did not go together like a horse and carriage. Marriage was simply about reproducing the race.

The Roman Catholic position that sex is only justified by procreation has less to do with Jewish nation-building than with the wholly mistaken ancient understanding of the reproductive process: that is, the belief that the male seed contains the entire foetus in embryo, which accounts for the enormous value attached to semen. But it also raises the ghost of Plato, whose conception of human beings as souls trapped in an envelope of flesh seized the Christian imagination. A Platonistic distrust of the fleshly came to dominate Christian sexual ethics, inspiring, and in turn being reinforced by, the explosion of celibate ascetics in the third and fourth centuries. MacCulloch observed that the renunciation of sex has little basis in the New Testament, and none in the Old, but in doing so he skipped over the example of Jesus himself. We cannot know whether or not Jesus was celibate, though that was certainly the image presented by the early church, to say nothing of the tradition of the virgin birth. Might these elements explain why ascetic attitudes were able to gain such a foothold? It would have been interesting to hear how celibate figures like Jesus and John the Baptist fitted in to first century Jewish society, given the overwhelming expectation that men should marry.

The Catholic Fathers didn’t have much to say about marriage, which was still just a civil contract, there simply being no such thing as a Christian wedding. Jerome was passionately hostile to sex—‘why do you wish to return to your vomit?’ he angrily demanded of one of his retinue of female ascetics, who had had quite enough of his severe regime (of which we know at least one poor woman died). Like Jerome, Augustine had enjoyed a hedonistic youth which haunted him to his death. He developed the doctrine of ‘original sin’, the stain passed down from Adam and Eve, which he blamed on lust. Yet he was less vituperative than Jerome; he granted that we could keep at it, with as little pleasure as possible, until the establishment of the City of God.

The eleventh and twelfth centuries witnessed an unprecedented extension of the Church’s legal and political jurisdiction. In 1139, marriage among clergy was pronounced ‘invalid’, resulting in destitution for abandoned clerical wives and children, but securing the Church’s land from dynastic dispossession. Around the same time, the Church attempted to co-opt marriage by declaring it a sacrament. This novel idea was slow to catch on, and it was not until the Council of Trent, in the sixteenth century, that the Church required that a marriage be performed by a priest. In any case, matrimony continued to be seen as second-best—Vincent of Beauvais pronounced that he who loved his wife too eagerly was tantamount to an adulterer.

The Reformers threw out the idea of sacramental marriage as unbiblical, just as they threw out monasticism. Luther, who had been a monk, married and fathered a large family. Suddenly those doing theology, and composing liturgies, were married; Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer made the outrageous claim that marriage was established ‘for the mutual society, help and comfort’ of one for the other; that, as MacCulloch put it, marriage might actually be fun. Less edifying consequences of the Reformation included an escalation of hysteria around homosexuality, and the enthusiastic promotion of witch-hunts, as Catholics and Protestants vied to demonstrate their superior guardianship of public morality.

The Reformation also provoked the backlash known as the Counter-Reformation, one of whose effects was that clerical celibacy began to be properly enforced. It had some disastrous results: a Counter-Reformation Florentine order had to be shut down by papal command in 1646 because of a sustained pattern of child abuse. Its founder was involved in an elaborate cover-up and promoted the chief abuser out of the way; but he has since been canonized, and in 1948 was declared, with hideous irony, patron saint of all Catholic schools.

The Enlightenment junked the clichés of ancient medicine, while the Church’s authority began to ebb. In the Europe of 1600, fornication was likely to have earned you a public whipping; a hundred years later you could expect to get away with it. In those prosperous places where monopoly religion had failed—Amsterdam, London—gay subcultures blossomed, while individualistic consumer culture encouraged the construction of sexual identities. MacCulloch characterised eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Christian revivals such as Methodism as moral counter-offensives to these dangerous new freedoms, and noted the irony that the prominence given to women activists in Methodism should have made possible feminism’s ‘second wave’, focussed on reproductive rights of which they would have far from approved.

It was a pity not to hear more about the Church’s turbulent relationship with sexuality in the last two centuries, but time was limited. MacCulloch concluded by identifying contemporary Christianity’s prevailing tone of angry conservatism with a sense of injury on the part of heterosexual men, increasingly deprived of a long-established hegemony. If MacCulloch is right, then there is an encouraging prospect of change as the memory of that hegemony fades. Exposing the sheer contingency of ‘traditional’ Christian attitudes to sexuality, their often questionable motivations and destructive consequences, is a powerful means of bringing sanity to bear on an issue which is too often blighted by ignorance, hysteria, and hypocrisy, and one for which the Church may well, in the long run, be grateful.

Fergus McGhee is reading for a second BA in English at Harris Manchester College, Oxford. He is a senior editor at the Oxonian Review.