Virtus vel voluptas? Lorenzo Lotto: Allegory of Chastity, c. 1505, .National Gallery, London
The Revd. Samuel L. Edwards in 1986 wrote a long article for the Newsletter of the Evangelical and Catholic Mission which he later summarized for the Journal of the Prayer Book Society in 1995, under the heading: Sexuality and the Christian.
The article set out with his usual clarity four lines of thought. First, he reframed our reflection on this terrain from the Christian perspective, which sees how we should act as never a matter for purely personal definition. He then contrasted this with what he identified as a deeply misguided contemporary misunderstanding. He next pointed out one of the consequences of our ineradicably social character as humans, namely that sin is ultimately never private. In common with all our actions it can thus have adverse consequences that affect others as well as ourselves. This is why the opportunity for repentance, forgiveness and redemption made available to us in Christ is so fundamental and potentially transformative for all who would follow him.
The foundation of orthodox Christian teaching on human sexuality are the doctrines of the creation and redemption of the world by God the Father through the Son and in the Holy Spirit.
God created everything that exists from nothing. From this, it follows that God alone has absolute ownership of everything in the universe. Therefore we are, and can be, only stewards.
‘Then also God was in Christ [the Son] reconciling the world to himself, not counting our trespasses against us, but enabling us to be made a new creation in Christ.’ From this, it follows that those who are in Christ belong to him before they belong to themselves. As St. Paul wrote to the church at Corinth (which, like today’s Episcopal Church, evidenced no small confusion about sexual matters), “You are not your own: you were bought with a price” (1 Cor. 6:19b-20).
These truths bring us to what is perhaps the key affirmation that distinguishes orthodox Christian teaching concerning sexuality from secular attitudes: Our bodies belong to God, not to ourselves. Not surprisingly, the world finds this affirmation to be very strange.
One of the general assumptions of contemporary American culture is this. It is necessary for personal fulfillment (the secular substitute for God’s salvation) that one be engaged in genital, sexual activity. The secular consensus is that sexual activity, of whatever kind, and in whatever circumstances favored by the participant, is a fundamental human right. Such a viewpoint is hardly surprising, however. After all, it is commonly assumed that there is such a thing as a right to happiness – as defined solely by the individual person.
To this secular attitude, the faithful Church says “Bunk!” The claim that there is a basic human need for, and right to, genital sexual activity is shown to be a fiction when put under the light of a basic fact. No-one has ever died from a surfeit of chastity! Fidelity to one’s spouse or abstinence (which are the two forms of the chastity to which all Christians are called) has never driven anyone crazy who has not already bought the lie that the lack of genital, sexual activity actually drives people crazy.
The fact that the innocent suffer, because of the disordered or sinful behavior of someone else at some point in the pathological chain, is not an argument against such diseases being in some sense wages of sin. Rather, it underlines one of the things that makes sin – all sin, not just the sexual kind – so horrible. This is the fact that while there are secret sins, there are no private sins. If I sin, my action is going to affect others, even innocents who have never heard of me, because at least my choice will affect adversely my character and hence the character of the community in which I live. We are inescapably social and our lives are unavoidably intertwined.
However, if this consideration underlines the horrible nature of sin, even more it provides a background upon which can be shown forth the dazzling and transfiguring radiance of the mercy of God, the Father. He will forgive any sin of whatever kind that is truly offered to him in penitence. The only sin which cannot be forgiven is that which the sinner will not offer, whether through lack of faith in the ability of God to deal with it, or because of a refusal to acknowledge it as sin.
Without exception, all Christians are called to be chaste: each is to be a faithful steward of his individual sexuality. This call to chastity is really a ringing affirmation of our freedom in Christ from the dominion of any created thing. It is a reflection of the faithfulness of God, the Father, to his covenant with his redeemed people.
Within the vocation of holy matrimony, the call to chastity is worked out by husband and wife in mutual fidelity. They are to realize that they are indeed “stewards of the mysteries of God,” that is, of the mysteries which are the organs of expression of their persons – their bodies.
For those who, by choice or by circumstance, are not in the bond and covenant of marriage, the call to chastity is expressed by refraining from sexual activity. Thereby they make a radical statement of the Christian realization that one’s personal fulfillment can be found in nothing that is of this world, but only in communion with God himself.
Certainly marital fidelity involves more than the restriction of sexual interactivity to one’s partner, but this is an indispensable condition to the deepening of that fidelity in which one learns unselfishness. With equal certainty, celibacy involves more than mere abstinence from sexual activity; but again this is an indispensable condition to the deepening of that fidelity to One other than oneself. Without such fidelity to the Lord there is no sanctity.
Such has been and remains the consistent teaching of the Church in all ages and places down to the present day.
(Originally published in the Journal in 1995)
The Collect for Purity
Almighty God, unto whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid;
cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of thy Holy Spirit,
that we may perfectly love thee, and worthily magnify thy holy Name; Through Christ our Lord. Amen
(Holy Communion, 1928)