The joy of sex in church

A reading of a lecture given by Rowan Williams in 1989 and entitled The Body’s Grace: An Address to the Lesbian Gay Christian Movement

A friend of mine asked me to read a speech by Rowan Williams, who used to be the Archbishop of Canterbury. I rolled my eyes at the suggestion because I don’t have much patience for the church and its leaders. But Richard Dawkins and the other aggressive God-deniers I come across have taught me a commandment of my own: He who dismisses the God stuff out of hand can be a total arse. I don’t want to be an arse, so I try to remember not to be dogmatically opposed to the church and its people. This is one reason why I accepted my friend’s request and why I read Williams’ speech. I’ve just finished it and I’m trying to take it all in.

To an outsider—an atheist and a queer—the speech reads like Williams on top form as a free thinker. I always suspected he was far more interesting and even radical than his fancy gowns might lead you to believe. This speech, delivered to gay and lesbian Christians, is Williams’ description of how homosexual activity does not pervert God’s vision for humanity. He says sexual desire is a co-production that relies on two people and as long as those two people are involved in producing that desire equally then it doesn’t matter whether they’ve got the same bits between their legs or different ones. It seems he would prefer it if members of the church dropped their obsession with whether homosexual acts are right or wrong, and talk instead about how desire and the joy of sex fit into God’s vision for his people. He’s right that this is a much deeper and infinitely more fascinating proposition. (I read and watch plenty of sci-fi and speculative fiction so it’s not hard for me to accept the proposition that God exists for the sake of this exercise.)

Williams’ speech is also a challenge to the views in the church that have been used to control people. All the way down the millennia there have been some beige-coloured people who can only ever drink one type of tea and who have tried to stop other people from having fun by making up rules about sex. For example, Williams notes that there is an argument in the church that sex is for procreation, as a service to God who needs people to keep making more people. And then he says—rightly, audaciously—that God nevertheless invented the clitoris, whose sole function is joy. In fact there are lots of aspects of sexuality that are so far from being useful in making babies that the more you think about it, the less relevant making babies actually becomes. I mean, what possible use to the human race is it that my ears tingle when stroked the right way at the right time in the heat of the moment? If God just wants us to make babies, I’m carrying around two little heretics stuck to the sides of my head.

So thank God that Williams isn’t one of those beige-coloured people who fears any brand that isn’t Tetley. What bores they are! Williams knows how to have a good time. I don’t know how he gets his kicks in the bedroom, but, like me, in public he gets off on having a good old deep and meaningful conversation. And often, as in this speech, he lays down a challenge to his employer (the church, rather than God, I guess). He says that because same-sex love definitely isn’t about making babies it forces us to think about bodily desire and delight in their own right—and if you’re afraid of this, the easy way of dealing with that fear is to pull scraps of scripture out of context to prop up your belief that sex should be straight and procreative.

It’s a very clever argument, that. It’s like answering a proposition with a proposition. Williams doesn’t accept the terms of the homophobes. Instead he picks the homophobes up, drops them onto the couch, strokes his beard and says, “Hmmm, let’s talk about the fact that you seem to think sex is all about making babies. I fear you’re missing out, my friend.”

With the homophobe on the couch, Williams would no doubt direct the conversation around to his ideas of joy and desire. He says that arousal is a dual act. That is a novel idea to me, but it makes sense of a few things I’ve experienced and thought about. I was far more used to being alone when I was aroused than being with another person that I just assumed that being aroused with another person in the room would be the same, only there’d be another person in the room. That’s hilariously naïve actually. Waking up alone and with a hard-on is one thing, but standing in a room besides someone you want to see naked and hoping (praying?) that they’re thinking the same about you is quite another thing altogether. As Williams says, it is both comic and tragic at the same time. Comic because it’s probably awkward and it forces us to behave in curious ways, such as like a clumsy teenager. And tragic because if the other person doesn’t join in then, well, erm, it’s pretty awful. But even if they do, we’ve lost our control. Desire takes over, and in surrendering to it we grab our autonomy and toss it off (sorry).

In the shared, altogether new moment of desire, arousal and snogging, the two of us are conspirators. We are involved in the enterprise of something that is greater than the sum of its parts. We are Crick, Watson and Franklin managing to describe the structure of DNA. We are a film editor and director chopping scenes into an epic story. We are spectacularly more than we seem. Williams says risk is involved. We’re giving up something of ourselves in search of something greater than ourselves. Isn’t this what sexual pleasure and orgasm with a partner feels like? I have to let you do things to me that I can’t do myself and so, with the right strokes and the patience and the calmness and the tenderness, eventually, my heart pounding, my hands there and your hands here, I can release and release and together we have made something. A moment, a moment of love or of peace. There is peace in the release, no matter how you reach it.

I love to please myself. But I have to admit that with a partner it’s altogether different. I spent a long, long time pleasing myself before I began to take partners. I arrogantly didn’t think it could be much different, but Williams is right: arousal is a dual act. And it comprises joy. He argues that for a body to be the cause of joy it must be perceived, accepted, nurtured. This is what trendy marketing bods in their big specs well understand. Sex sells because a person viewing an advert desires the joy that will surely come with being or being with the goddess in the advert. I wait to see how the marketing bods’ growing use of men and their bodies in adverts changes the debate about objectification, sexuality and masculinity. I heard the writer Mark Simpson say recently that he welcomes more of this kind of thing because he wants men to feel that it is acceptable to feel desired or to want to be desired. We run the risk of vanity taking over, and men being just as exploited by the marketing bods as women have been, and all the resulting ill feelings that young people have towards their apparently rubbish bodies.

But for now let’s stick with the bedroom, which is where Williams’ argument lives. I stand entirely behind his notion that arousal is a dual act, and that part of the joy of desire is the joy of being desired. This is basically another way of saying what many progressive churchgoers have said to the homophobes for years: if it’s sex between two consenting adults then what the heck is the problem? For Williams, of course, there’s a God bit too. He simply notes that God loves us, that he wants to love us as if we were God, and two adults giving each other the joy of sex is a way of using the love God gives us and simultaneously a way of feeling the love that God has for us.

I believe Williams used this speech to say to queer Christians that although others in the church don’t like them and what they get up to, Williams himself couldn’t care less. Or rather, he does care rather deeply, but only because his queer brothers and sisters by their nature throw up some intellectually fascinating challenges and questions to God and each other.

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