Being in the Episcopal Church these days means entering a vertiginous journey into the corruption of language. You see language which used to mean x, and in one Episcopal Church setting it is used to mean y, and then in another the same words mean z. One thinks immediately of the scene in Alice Wonderland (written as I hope you know by an Anglican deacon):
“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master – that’s all.”
For a recent example of this manipulation of language to mean what it does not mean consider a piece on chastity by Richard Helmer .
Chastity, technically, is the refraining from sexual activity outside its proper context. For Christians, this has meant abstinence for those who are single and faithfulness for a wife or a husband who is married. This has been the standard for Christians throughout church history and still is for Christians worldwide today. None of this is to suggest that Christians have not struggled with sexuality, or that the understanding of sexuality and its proper use has not gone through interesting developments in the church’s life. It is also not to suggest that a very small minority of contemporary mostly Western Christians have not sought to challenge this standard. The leadership of TEC of course is part of this very small minority.
Richard Helmer is certainly correct to observe that “chastity deserves a thorough study by everyone presently involved in the tired crisis of the Anglican Communion.” It is just my hope that in doing so words are allowed to mean what the words mean and not what we want them to mean, whether in fact they mean what we say they mean or not.
One of the things you will hear in some circles of TEC is “sexuality is a sacrament.” This was actually explicitly said in a national church resource a while back.
It isn’t true, but like a lot of TEC leadership assertions these days, it contains partial truth. You may know that heresy is part of the truth masquerading as the whole truth–which is therefore actually an untruth. This statement about sexuality being “a sacrament” is an example of such a definition of heresy.
The truth is sexuality is like a sacrament and has sacramental dimensions, and it is from this vantage point that an important response to Richard Helmer can emerge.
You may know that in sacramental theology there is sometimes a distinction made between sacramental matter and sacramental form. The matter is the “stuff” or physical material involved in the sacrament, and the form is the words said and (sometimes) the sayer of such words, etc. Thus in baptism the matter is water, and the form is God’s threefold name (it can be by an authorized minister, but it actually doesn’t have to be).
We do not need to veer way off into sacramental theology at this time, the point is that in sacramental theology there is involved a what, as well as a who and how. This is not dissimilar to Thomistic ethical considerations, which tell us that any act’s moral determination comes from considering the act, the intention and the circumstance.
When these kinds of dimensions are considered, and one realizes that sexuality has many sacrament-like qualities, one can argue that sexuality is best understood by considering all its aspects, the what and the who and the how.
Now consider Father Helmer’s essay. Already one grows uneasy when one watches the essay begin without entering into the long stream of christian history in this area. What, one wants to ask, have all the Christians who have gone before us on whose shoulders we now stand, understood by this term chastity? One might have liked some Scriptural study and work as well. Instead we get a reference to chastity which has to do with “fidelity” and then a working definition as follows:
Chastity means setting aside dominance and control and seeking instead a new way to relate to the world and to God. He then goes on, quite revealingly, to say he is concerned about “a failure of chastity” which he then clarifies this way: “…I don’t mean sex outside the marriage. By chastity in marriage I mean the challenge of setting aside the stubborn drive to control or change person we most cherish.”
Now please understand that there is much in this discussion with which I would wholeheartedly agree. My concern here, though, is what this definition of chastity represents. It typifies the gnosticism present is all too much Episcopal Church thinking these days, where the how takes all precedence over the what, where form triumphs over substance. We hear talk of mutuality and faithfulness and encouragement and life enhancement and on and on and on. These are good things. But we cannot allow the how to bypass the what. We cannot allow intention and circumstance to dominate, and not ask about the act itself.
Alas, we are in a church which claims to be sacramental, but which is too often reductionistic.
Look at this paragraph from Father Helmer and see how it is all about the adjectives, is is all a world where how triumphs over what:
Chaste behavior has been in the quiet but transformative story-telling and building up of authentic relationships across the divides of gender, class, race, culture, sexuality, and ideology all across the Communion recently. Chastity allows us to be ourselves by allowing others to be themselves. Chastity makes it known when we are encountering oppression and articulates our needs as they arise. Chastity seeks honest accountability. Chastity sets aside the weapons and metaphors of war for an honest, authentic justice. Chastity endeavors to shed the harbored resentments and unmet wants of our brief lives and move forward in renewed relationship.
And what is the Alice in Wonderland outcome of such reductionism? Helmer asserts:
“Chastity has long been in evidence by those courageous, oft-threatened “firsts” of our faith who inhabit dangerous positions not for power or the quixotic pursuit of perfection, but simply by being who they are and following God’s call as best they can. The consecrations in the Diocese of Los Angeles are some of the most recent examples of this form of chastity.”
The problem here is that a woman in a same sex partnership by definition cannot be chaste, and would never have been considered chaste by our forbears. It flunks the test based on the what, no matter how much Father Helmer wants us to focus on the how. It is not just about the “form” of chastity, to have chastity one needs both form and substance.
In the world where words mean what they were given to mean, this isn’t chaste at all.
One more observation, as a kind of final irony. Even if I were to grant that it is all about form (and I don’t), this flunks the chastity test. Chastity is about “setting aside dominance and control” says Father Helmer. So many see in TEC’s actions exactly those two things, they see American unilateralism writ large.
Lord, have mercy on us.