Sexuality and identity in Christ: theology, biblical narrative and discernment in LLF (part two)

purple and pink hearts drawing on white paper
image by Bianca Ackermann on Unsplash

In part one of these reflections, I argued that the Living in Love and Faith process represented a step-change in the way the Church of England deliberates on doctrinal questions, by facilitating and resourcing the participation of potentially all its members. It is not a perfect process. Indeed for some people – such as those whose minoritised sexuality and sexual or gender identity may be under discussion – it is fraught with risk (and for some involved in the production of the materials it has already been very costly). It is, nevertheless, a significant change and, overall, a hopeful direction. I also argued that the LLF book, which is the most in-depth of the resources offered by the Church to those who participate, represents something new in Church of England doctrinal literature, in seeking to enable people to take part in such a process by exploring the issues and their contexts, rather than simply instructing them in what they should believe. Finally, I sought to show how it does that within an overarching, expansive doctrinal framework which has a basically narrative structure, faithful to broad emphases of the creeds and theological traditions to which the C of E is heir, and which shapes the way issues are approached and explored.

One salient but fraught area of debate which this approach helpfully re-frames, in my view, is that which centres on the term, ‘identity’. ‘Identity’ is now widely used to talk about who we are in ways that can be rich, freighted with complex personal histories of many kinds, which can reflect and participate in struggles for dominance, survival and legitimacy on the part of groups of several kinds. Conversely, it can be reductive of that richness and history and the differences involved (think, for example, of the critiques of the acronym BAME). Some of those struggles have been around certain ways of forming a life in society with others that have to do with the shifting norms of role, behaviour, dress, speech, thought and feeling (including desire) that circle around notions of being and desiring as male and as female, notions which are often held by those who appeal to them to be given and basically fixed in conformity to reality, including, sometimes, the divine. The terms ‘sexual identity’ and ‘gender identity’ denotes a growing, changing and contested vocabulary which serves as ways of describing ourselves and others (and ourselves in contra-distinction from others). They denote our sense of who we are, our characteristic feelings, desires, ways of carrying our bodies, in relation to those notions of being male or female and to the styles of role, behaviour, dress, speech, thought and feeling which are taken to exemplify them. At the same time, they have served at times as ways of codifying a set of normative roles, styles, behaviours and sensibilities and a set of deviations from those norms. And they can signify in the context of ways of finding connection, community, solidarity, safety and organising collective struggle on the part of those marginalised or excluded by the successful imposition and/or widespread social acceptance, internalisation and policing of those norms. Those uses are closely intertwined and mutually interactive, and they have a long modern history, in which the Church of England as an institution is also involved. [1]

We can also speak of Christian identity and identities: ways of articulating what it means to be a Christian, both normative and descriptive. Christians have been articulating and contesting such meanings, often in contradistinction to other terms of religious belonging and practice (whether or not these were consistent with the self-understanding of those to whom they were applied), since at least the second century, and the use of ‘Christian’ as term marking a religious identity may go back further still. Such meanings tend to hinge upon some allegiance to and encounter with God in and through the person of Jesus Christ, by way of the presence and action of the Holy Spirit and in the context of a community of those similarly so identified: paradigmatically through baptism, but also in the Eucharistic, in prayer, in certain forms of life, and in typical forms of action and behaviour held to reflect Christ’s characteristic qualities and saving work. Articulations of Christian identity vary, of course, even within a single church or denomination, and can facilitate diverse forms of life and action, some life-giving and liberative, some violent and oppressive and some ambivalent mixtures of all shades in between.

In part one, I argued that the LLF book seeks to clarify what is at stake in disagreements on marriage and human sexuality, and tends to work against simplistic reductions or short-cuts and blocks to reflection, both from those who advocate a change in the Church’s doctrine and practice and those who want to maintain the status quo. One area where it offers clarifications is on the question of how human identities, especially sexual and gender identities, relate to identity in Christ. One block that gets deployed in this area is to appeal to the significance of Christian identity to short-cut Christian reflections on sexual and gender identities. I think it’s fair to say it tends to be used by defenders of the status quo as regards the C of E’s doctrine. When discussing sexual identity, for example, some will acknowledge the experience of sexual attraction to members of the same sex as a subjective, perhaps variable, element of their lives or the lives of others. However, they also minimise its significance relative or in contrast to their stable, core identity ‘in Christ’, from which it is simply distinguished as implicitly external.

This move seems to be offered as a corrective to another perceived simplification, in which a person might describe their sexual identity as their authentic self. There are understandable dynamics on both sides. There may be several different ways in which one might describe one’s sexual identity as one’s true identity. It could be a way of emphasising that one’s sexual identity is an abiding, deeply-rooted feature of oneself in contrast, perhaps, to an assumed sexual identity which appears to conform to a societal norm, and in a context of fear that social acceptance of their sexuality cannot be taken for granted. “It’s real, it’s really me, and it’s really important.” The worry I infer from those who say, “but my true identity is in Christ” is that anyone who makes such statements about their sexual identity is in danger of missing the fundamental centrality and theological depth of human identity before God and of the identity of Christians as rooted in Christ. This concern for the theological depths of human and Christian identities, whether not well-placed in respect of statements of this kind, is, I think, profoundly in line with New Testament understandings of faithful identity and with Christian tradition across almost all its breadth, diversity and divisions. (This corrective is, I would suggest, rarely applied to Christians who incorporate aspects of a certain kind of heterosexual life into their self-presentation in various contexts – e.g. as spouse of an opposite-sex partner and parent to their children.) However, what can come across in it is that the issue of one’s sexual identity, when relativised before one’s identity in Christ, cannot have any substantive, significant place in my sense of self or the ways in which I live it out. It is at best peripheral or should be.

Living in Love and Faith book

The LLF book is helpful here, I think. Its narrative theological anthropological framing enables it to uphold the appeal to the priority of Christian’s identity in Christ without allowing the weight and significance of that identification to squash or relegate to the margins complex issues of discerning the meanings of gendered and sexual dimensions of human life in general and individual lives in particular. It manages this combination through a series of theological moves.

First, the book frames these issues in terms of its treatment of the imago Dei as basic to human identity (p. 190). Humans are all made in God’s image (‘male and female’ is meant to indicate the universality of the image in humanity), all with ‘irremovable dignity’. They bear God’s image as those entrusted with dominion, understood in the sense of being God’s envoys to work with, delight in and care for God’s creation in imitation of God. Jesus as the Image of God displays this vocation perfectly and images God transparently (and in so doing confirms this reading of the imago). As related to God in this way (p. 191), human beings ‘are given a share in God’s life, a distinctive vocation to hear God’s voice and respond to God’s word, to receive God’s light and to reflect God’s glory, to experience God’s grace and embody God’s love.’ Humans are identified as made imago Dei in the dynamic context of the gift of participating in God’s life, being responsible subjects of divine speech and calling, recipients of God’s good gifts and bearers of God’s bright, wondrousness. This graced identity lends to each human being a theophanic potential that is common to all but individual in its expression: ‘Every human life can become a window through which the love of God shines out to others – and the image of God becomes more fully visible the more that love unites us.’ To be humans in God’s image, then, is to be identified as ‘a unique and deep mystery of inestimable value and dignity’, with faces that each reflects God’s love and glory, the mystery that ‘glimmers’ in each of them. Human identities are thus fathomless, abyssal, and iconic of God’s love and glory.

This deeply theological understanding of human identity, whose basic grammar has multiple echoes in Christian tradition, frames the question of individual identity in Christ as a mystery to be discovered (p. 196). To be puzzled by one’s identity is a symptom of its mysteriousness, of our relatedness, as sinful creatures, to a gracious, mysterious God. Furthermore, this theological framing leads, as good doctrine should, into an ethical reflection intended to guide thinking, questioning and conversation in this area. The loving relational dynamics in which we live as those made in God’s image norm the manner in which we follow quest to discover ourselves in Christ. “The process by which we discover our identities in Christ should be one in which we discover that each one of us is loved and valued by God as fully, as lavishly, as every other.” This divine love for everybody, embodied and manifest in Christ’s ministry and sacrifice, is the premise of the challenge and transformation, conviction of sin and repentance, involved in that process. “There is nobody from whom Christ shrinks, nobody whom he is reluctant to touch, to eat with, to share his life with. There is nobody for whom Christ did not die.”

Second, the book affirms the significance of our diverse individuality, deeply bound up with being material beings in material contexts, as features of God’s good creation:

“Each one of us displays a unique combination of characteristics, shaped by our genetic inheritance and by our environment – from our environment in the womb before our birth and on through the whole history of our life experiences in the world. We each feel, think and behave differently. We differ in physical constitution, personality, psychological resilience, intelligence and temperament. We each have our own ways of interacting with others in our families, amongst our friends and colleagues and in our wider social contexts. Advances in genetic research have brought increasing understanding of the ways in which human beings are uniquely different from each other.” (p. 197)

This materiality, difference and changefulness are part of the goodness of creatures as created by God, argues the book; the diversity is not a difference of dignity before God. Sexuality is one variable aspect of human existence shaped by the interaction of genetic inheritance and our environments in the womb and throughout our lives.

The book then clarifies that one area of disagreement in current debates is over whether sexualities which are not heterosexual belong to this created diversity or are products of its distortion in the Fall. It notes some will find this question highly offensive, we might add, alarming: as subverting the social acceptance of being other than straight in one’s sexuality, as colluding with fear and hatred and violence toward people with sexual identities besides heterosexuality. The book rightly cautions us about dangers in this line of thinking about phenomena of human difference, e.g. as applied to disabled people and also in this area, people who are intersex or trans. (Though I think one just and very serious criticism of the book is the limited consideration given to intersex or trans people, beyond having them stand for conceptual complications of the assumptions of heternormativity). It is dangerous to assume implicit norms (about bodies or behaviour) in our judgments, for these may be culturally contingent, shaped by fear of difference and disregard for the voices of those who are different. Of course, if under advisement we do pursue such a line of thinking in order to discern what and whom to affirm and bless, we might also ask whether heterosexuality as many of us experience, practice and think of it now, in society an in the churches, is also a product of the fall, an idea not so remote from tenets widely held in western and eastern theological traditions in Christianity. [2]

My main point, however, is that the way the book sets up this clarification clearly implies that our complex, diverse individual make-up, including sexuality and, implicitly, our gender, are theologically significant for our personal identity, whether as created or as distorted in sin. These are integral, not alien or peripheral, to our individual identities as those sharing a common identification as made in God’s image and redeemed by our participation in the Image, Jesus Christ.

Third, the writers of the book note, in keeping with their interest in the attention given to individuals’ particular, vulnerable, embodied lives in biblical narratives, that the biblical writers are interested in personal identities as woven into our relationships with God and one another (p. 202), even if ‘identity’ is not something conceptualised and named as such in biblical texts. Biblical characters ask identity questions: “who is this?” Biblical texts often name people in relation to family, tribe or place, or God. And sometimes these identities change through encounter with God in ways reflected in changes of name (e.g. Jacob becomes Israel, Simon becomes Peter). Identities are dynamic as affected by relations with the living God. Indeed, the time taken to narrate the histories of named individuals reflects an intuition in biblical traditions that human beings have identities in their interactions with one another, their circumstances and with God, in various settings (as Hans Frei argued way back in The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative).

Identity as narrated in these stories is situated and relational, and inseparable from sexuality ‘in ways that can be life-giving, destructive, or an ambiguous mix of good and bad.’ One of the opportunities offered by the way many biblical narratives seem to reflect aspects of our lived experience in history in these ways is that one can make connections both with observations grounded in experience, and with other kinds of description and analysis of our humanity. The LLF book takes that opportunity here by noting that here, as in the social and biological sciences, identity is a mixture of the given, the shaped and the chosen. Furthermore, biblical stories indicate that human identities are particular and only partial reflections of what it is to be human, whence, it suggests our need for relationships, and the importance of belonging to communities for our identities, which biblical stories also reflect and which is also mirrored in the interplay of individual and communal identity in Christ in the New Testament.

Finally, the book argues that our identities in Christ are given and mysterious (hidden with Christ), cut across social, political and cultural distinctions (Gal. 3:23), to be discovered daily by learning to relate our stories to his, and they are comprehensive: they take in, but do not abolish, all the creaturely aspects of identity just described. Identities in Christ are bodily and embodied (1 Cor. 6:15, Rom. 12:1), historical (Philippians 3:4b-6), relational and communal (Philippians. 3:5). The grammar of our identities “in Christ” is one, the book contends, of perfecting of our whole identities. ‘It is therefore no denial of our identity in Christ to say that our identity has deep dimensions that relate to sex and gender’, as, it argues, they do, powerfully and deeply.

brown wooden puzzle game board
Image by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

Disarming this block to reflection is not an end in itself, however. The book’s writers make it a premise to an invitation to everyone to participate in the reflexive dimensions of the journey of discovering and exploring our mysterious identities in Christ in relation to gender and sexuality, to our specific embodiments, our patterns of feeling and desire. It is an invitation to learn how we, as the people constituted by all that goes into our identities, the given, shaped and chosen in interaction with our specific circumstances, may glorify God (pp. 207-8). We do so, it counsels, by attending, with support from others, to the gospel and to ourselves in our complex mixtures of stability and flexibility, with our jumble of true insights and misrecognitions or fantasies about ourselves, and the similar ambiguity of helpful and unhelpful influences from our social contexts. There is here an opportunity to transform the tenor of discernment and dialogue around these issues, but the very realism of the book’s vision of human sin indicates the considerable challenges to that kind of transformation taking place.

There will be much to learn from LLF as a process, how far its possibilities and promise are realised, how far its limitations prove dangerous, what hidden flaws emerge. But I hope the spirit of what has been attempted in the book will be taken forward on this and other questions, in embodying what the Church declares about ‘the whole people of God’.

[1] See, for example, Timothy Wilhelm Jones’ Sexual Politics in the Church of England, 1857-1957 (OUP, 2012).

[2] this reflection owes a lot to Steve Holmes’ post, ‘Queer Hippo: Musings on Human Sexuality’, which I’d recommend.

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