Francis Spufford writes on grace and sexuality in ‘Unapologetic’

Unapologetic seems to be a book of the moment. James Catford, Group Chief Executive of the Bible Society (not the snappiest of titles) writes about it in today’s Church of England Newspaper, along with Alain de Botton. James says that between them, they represent the way much of the contemporary conversation about faith is going in the world today. The debate in culture has always shifted over time, he says, and it is our job to keep up with it. Amen, say I!


In a moment, I’ll comment on what Spufford has to say about human sexuality, but first, something about grace. I have always found grace a rather yucky concept. The Church had converted the word to mean something conditional, deserved only by those of whom God approved, who were acceptable to God because their lives were already pure. My understanding simply reflects, of course, the inadequate teaching and examples given by the Church of my youth. Grace was an evangelical concept and not something available to a sinful homosexual who remained absorbed in his sin.

Spufford describes grace as oceanic, which echoes absolutely the God I encounter in the depths of my own silent attention to love. He writes:

“We’re supposed to see God’s willingness to mend, to forgive, to absorb and remove guilt as oceanic; a sea of love without limit, beating ceaselessly on the shores of our tiny island of caution and justice, always inviting us to look beyond, to begin again, to dare a larger and wilder and freer life.

“In its stumbling way, the church faces towards grace. It exists, like Christ, to be a channel by which mending enters the world; a mending which, thank God, does not depend on the success of human virtue, individuals or collective, but on what breathes and shines through us if we let it. Unlimited love having once entered into limited us, it’s here for good, apparent to us or invisible depending on the light, depending on our willingness to see. Humanity glimmers with God’s presence.


And now to sexuality:

“As for attitudes towards those seen as being on the dirty outside of the tribe, especially if their difference is frightening in some way, especially if their difference has to do with sexuality: oh my. It is of course an illusion to imagine that the dykes and the queers and the trannies are all safely locked out there in the outer darkness rather than being in here with us, in fact being us, but that’s what the corrupting little map of virtue suggests, and quite a lot of those who are conducting my own church’s stumbling rearguard action against gay rights seem to feel they are defending a fortress of traditional behaviour against hordes of drag queens on crack. The record of the church here is, frankly, rubbish.

“We are not supposed to be assigning guilt according to who does what with whom. Categories of clean and dirty belong in the law religions, not in Christianity. Where consenting adults are concerned, we ought to be as uninterested in forbidden sexual acts as we are in lists of forbidden foods. ‘Objectively disordered’, my arse. The disorder is in our hearts. Sexual sins matter, all right – where selves touch so closely, what more fertile field could there be for the HPtFtU? – but any of us can commit them, and usually we do, taking hold of each other coldly, carelessly, mockingly, exploitatively, angrily, as if the other or our own self were a convenient object rather than flesh requiring or recognition and our tenderness. Sexual guilt, like every other kind, is distributed across the entire human race.”

Of course sexual sin is distributed across the entire human race, and of course, those engaged on both sides of the Anglican conflict about human sexuality are, consciously or unconsciously, absorbed with our own sexual desires, fantasies and anxieties. But, says Spufford:

“The founding story of Christianity is astonishingly unbothered about it. Jesus didn’t think it was worth picking out in particular to talk about it. Yet Christians seem to be intensely and continuously bothered.

“When it comes to the oppression of women and sexual minorities … far from giving any kind of emancipatory lead, the church has struggled along behind, always late, always reluctant, accepting with palpable difficulty and discomfort liberations that became normal outside the church a generation earlier.

“The church constantly strives to signal that it rates the unhappiness of the traditionally-minded higher in the scale of priorities than any injustice or violence or hatred suffered by those whom tradition excludes. It gives the impression that it would be preferable if homosexuality ceased to exist, or, failing that, if homosexuals would all remain silent and invisible and (naturally) celibate all their lives, tidily locked away in self-hating self-denial. Meanwhile it maintains warm, chatty relationships with sister churches around the world which (Uganda) advocate the death penalty for gay sex, or (Nigeria) hold that there is no such thing as sexual orientation, just individuals giving in to sodomitical wickedness. It’s no wonder people conclude that Christianity is intrinsically homophobic and misogynistic.”

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