The Friend September 20, 2012
Discover the contemporary Quaker way
The golden anniversary of sex
by Stephen Cox
Stephen Cox reflects on the forthcoming fiftieth anniversary of ‘Towards a Quaker View of Sex’
'Sexual morality is an area of challenge and opportunity for living our testimonies to truth, nonviolence, equality, integrity and love.' Quaker faith & practice, 22.11
'We think it our duty, not to stand on a peak of perfectionism, asking for an impossible conformity while the tide of human life sweeps by us, but to recognise, in compassion, the complications and bewilderment that love creates, and to ask how we can find a constructive way in each of an immense variety of particular experiences.
Towards a Quaker View of Sex
Next year is the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Towards a Quaker View of Sex. There are various things we could do. We could slap ourselves on the back about how great we were fifty years ago, and carefully ignore contemporary relevance. We could poke fun at those passages that, with the passage of time, have come to sound the most quaint, inaccurate or comic. We could try to codify Quaker sexual morality into a handbook with, I believe, little hope of success before the sixtieth anniversary. Or, if I might offer a suggestion, we might actually engage with the more timeless challenges its authors laid down, as they apply to our own time. Rereading the book recently, I was struck by how fresh its approach could be, if we took it seriously.
Towards a Quaker View of Sex was a child of the early sixties. There are passages that imply that, if only we get our sex lives and personal relationships sorted out, the resulting release of loving energy will transform society. Sex is not a magic wand, and we all know neither the sorting of sex nor society proved so simple.
Fifty years on, the West’s sexual morality is muddled. We have allowed greater personal freedom, which has been often good, but we seem as obsessed and stressed by sex as ever. We have diverse communities in revolt against conventional wisdom, whether more conservative or in some cases more liberal. Towards a Quaker View of Sex predates ‘identity politics’, the feminist revolution and the backlash. We have seen a grotesque commercialisation of romantic love and marriage – our family dubs the gloating over the £30,000 wedding as ‘wedding porn’. We understand abuse better, we show a paranoia about paedophile abduction out of all proportion to the risk, yet we accept a commercial sexualisation of children.
In our own Society the glib assumption is that the married, and committed but not married, are ‘under the care of the Meeting’, a care we often struggle to know how to deliver. By some accounts, in recent decades, the majority of Quaker marriages involve someone divorced or will themselves end in divorce.
What is Quaker morality? Is it a rulebook? Or is it ‘more or less anything goes’? Or do we live by the Spirit – understanding that it is by following the Spirit we will find not what is allowed, but what builds up. (As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 6:12, all things are lawful but not all things are helpful.) This third way combines an understanding that our choices affect other people as well as ourselves, that testimonies come from experience tested in the Spirit and our worshipping groups, not shopping lists of rules, that we may not have all the answers and that we may disagree. This approach throws up a number of questions.
Family and commitment
Towards a Quaker View of Sex stressed the centrality of marriage and family life to their concerns. What have Quakers to say of family today? No one would say that Quaker faith & practice is at its strongest on this central issue. Modern Quaker families struggle to make choices about work-life balance, education, challenging the world’s values and living in the world so we can be leaven. We’re offended if our Meetings offer advice and offended if they don’t. Many of us live in that very recent invention: the nuclear family. We are separated from other relatives – by our economic choices, in where we study, work and live – but neither do we find strong communities to be an alternative.
Some people think asking people to say they will stay married, or will want to stay married, until death, is a big fib. If Quaker marriage is special how do we show this? What resources can we provide for those aspiring to this life long journey? Would switching to, say, a ‘five-year lease with option to renew’ be better or would it make every relationship far too provisional, too inclined to break under pressure?
Most people agree that cheating is wrong. But what is cheating? A sexual relationship, particularly a very long term relationship, builds intimacy and trust, combining a biological need with deep friendship and a safe place of openness. Relationships develop appropriate vulnerability. However, there are Quakers who have such relationships with more than one person at a time, openly and with genuinely loving agreement. Yet even those Quakers who agree with this can disagree on how this should be done.
Identity and witness
Modern politics has grown up with different groups fighting their corner. To someone exploring their sexuality or issues with gender, ‘identity’ usually proves useful in helping them feel accepted and laying out a path to follow. It helps you find similar people to understand your individuality and, thereby, accept as equal people who are different as well. And yet, saint Paul famously deconstructed the key identities of his world – male or female, Jew and Gentile, slave or free. All were one in the Risen Christ – the living spirit makes identities of secondary importance.
Where does Quaker witness lie? Working with those whose sexuality or gender is highly destructive to others? Providing a welcome for the unconventional… and at what cost to our dignity, the approval of our neighbours and our self esteem? The gospels contain very challenging encounters between Jesus and women who lived outside conventional morality. But, for many of us, a relatively quiet acceptance was what we needed when we came to Meeting, not a Californian encounter group. How much can I challenge you and you challenge me, in an area where our personal choices and identity are so important?
Morality by formula
I have been astonished by those who think Yearly Meeting 2009 in York has finished the job. There are Yearly Meetings worldwide that are more hostile and alarmed by homosexuality than Britain Yearly Meeting was in 1963. As some countries debate legalisation or same sex marriage, others reintroduce the death penalty or seek to ban debate. And young people in our schools have limited information and are often parts of communities that peddle hostility as a defensive mechanism against what they see as moral decline. Children are not just bullied for being gay, they get bullied for standing up for gays.
Towards a Quaker View of Sex was, above everything else, a thoughtful attempt to apply the living spirit to current conditions, a passionately moral book that rejected morality by formula, that had a primary interest in helping the young from an explicitly faith position. It only ever claimed to be an opening of debate, a debate that needs to continue. Will the Society listen to its call to action, or merely put it safely on a pedestal where we can ignore it?