What is sex for?

Richard Pohle/The Times/PA Wire/Press Association Images

I have written this week’s Charterhouse Chronicle about Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, which you can read in the paper edition of The Catholic Herald, and in the course of writing it I looked up what he had to say in a lecture he gave before becoming Archbishop. You can find the text of the whole lecture here, and very interesting it is too.

In “The Body’s Grace” he comments on The Raj Quartet, by Paul Scott, among other books. I love the Raj Quartet, and I must study Rowan’s lecture, I feel, with greater attention.

But what stands out on a first reading is this:

In a church which accepts the legitimacy of contraception, the absolute condemnation of same-sex relations of intimacy must rely either on an abstract fundamentalist deployment of a number of very ambiguous texts, or on a problematic and non-scriptural theory about natural complementarity, applied narrowly and crudely to physical differentiation without regard to psychological structures.

The assertion made here cannot, to my mind, be contradicted. If you accept contraception, then you must accept same sex relations as having value. I think, however, that this is a real problem for some people. Anglicans accept contraception, but not homosexual relations, or at least not yet. Catholics accept neither; but of course, writing that, one is aware that many Catholics do “accept” contraception, and do “accept” same sex relations too.

What we have here is a dangerous incoherence, a lack of what is called joined up thinking. We need to think about these questions globally, not in isolation from each other.

Rowan then goes on in the very next sentence:

I suspect that a fuller exploration of the sexual metaphors of the Bible will have more to teach us about a theology and ethics of sexual desire than will the flat citation of isolated texts; and I hope other theologians will find this worth following up more fully than I can do here.

I agree. I myself thought this worth doing – exploring the scriptures and looking at the teaching of Humanae Vitae through scriptural lenses, but no one was interested. Catholic publishers said it wasn’t Catholic enough and non-Catholic publishers said it was too Catholic. Oh well. Perhaps people no longer want to look at Humanae Vitae? I think we should, as it may contain the answer to our current dilemmas about sexuality.

In the end, what is sex for? (The question with which Rowan starts his lecture.) I think there is only one possible answer to that: it is for the procreation of children – and other things too; but it is always procreative. (And yes, there is a challenge in that we marry infertile couples.) But because we have lost the battle on the goodness of procreation, we have lost the battle on other questions too.