Reasons to be Cheerful

I'm feeling cheerful. After 3 years of 'shared conversations', the Bishops of the Church of England have released their statement on sex, marriage and human sexuality. There's much to welcome in what it says and many Anglicans like me who stand in the mainstream of the Church's teaching are suddenly cautiously optimistic. 

But that isn't why I'm so cheerful right now. There's a spring in my step because I think the (often co-ercive and strangely illiberal) 'social liberalism' that has been driving the sexual revolution is undergoing a sudden and significant weakening of its cultural power. There's much to lament in recent political developments, of course, not least the rise of a dangerous xenophobia and an ugly 'me-first' strand of nationalism. But for those of us who believe that Christian teaching on the family, sex, singleness and marriage is integral to human flourishing, then the current shifts of power, and the suspicion of social and media elites, offers an opportunity to regroup, and re-articulate what our vision is about. 

So amid the gloom of the Trump era, I think there are reasons to be cheerful. Here are 3 of them.   

First, I’m cheerful because its getting ever more clear that the 'promise' of the sexual revolution has failed.

Failed Promises
The activists of the revolution gained influence by weaving a narrative that contained big promises. They (rightly in my view) attacked the worst excesses of church shame culture - its ignorance and judgmentalism,  its fear of talking about sex - and offered something better. This is the secret of the revolution’s power.  

The political theorist Joseph Nye talked about hard power and soft power. Hard power is getting what you want by coercion. Soft power is the ability to get what you want through attraction. 

Many of us have been on the receiving end of the hard power of the revolution. But I think we missed the real secret of its success, which is its soft power. It cast a vision and an ideology that the human spirit finds deeply attractive. It promised freedom, flourishing and flourishing. And its narrative implied that it could change our lives for the better.  

This, more than anything else, is what caught those of us in the mainstream of the Church's teaching off-guard and unprepared. When the revolution came along, Christians - used to occupying the moral high ground - thought it would be business as usual. We expected to be able to portray our opponents as moral anarchists bent on depravity.  

But instead of unveiling a Dantean nightmare of debauchery, the revolution developed a moral narrative of its own –an inspirational vision of freedom, flourishing and fairness.  

And it cast us as the degenerates. Hypocrites. Judgementalists. Bigots. The people who heaped shame on the powerless who didn’t live up to their rules. And for the first time in centuries, Christians need to face the reality that today it’s they who are viewed as being immoral.  

Let me give you an example of how this works. Take some of the characters you might see in a gay pride march. On the face of it, this looks easy. Faced with (sometimes) explicit images of sexual fluidity, Christians often act as though its business as usual: they wrinkle their noses, talk about AIDS … hold yet another seminar on pornography. 

But people are not listening to that kind of language any more. Today, images like this tell a story. A story of authenticity, honesty – being real. They are saying ‘You continue in your hypocritical shame culture if you want to, but this is who I am’. And being ‘who I am’ brings freedom, flourishing, and fairness. Look at us, we’re happy.  

We don’t have time to analyse the ideology of expressive individualism that embedded this narrative in western culture so effectively. We can’t explore the other social and cultural developments that helped accelerate this change either – such as the introduction of effective contraception. The result, however, was that in the space of just a few decades centuries old convictions and ways of life, rooted in ancient biblical moral codes, effectively collapsed. And most people today would think good riddance.  

The challenge to orthodox Christians is the revolutions narrative power as well. In romcoms and sitcoms, the same story is told over and over again. It’s about the heroes with the courage to break free, to be themselves, to stand up for who they are. It’s about a bid for freedom and flourishing. 

And we responded with facts. And when our leaders were eventually flushed out to offer some sort of statement on say, marriage, it read more like the terms and conditions of a software upgrade than a manifesto for human flourishing! And that is our problem. We responded to stories with facts. And so today people have a good idea what we are against - but what are we for? 

So, you’re thinking, I missed the cheerful bit ... But I’m cheerful because I believe those holding to the apostolic teaching have been offered a breathing space to catch up. Because every day it is getting ever more clear that the promises of the sexual revolution have failed.  

Take the 3 pivotal promises that are so central to the revolutionary narrative. Look at ‘freedom’ first. There’s no evidence that expressive individualism, looking ‘within yourself’ for meaning and identity, has delivered the freedoms it promised. Mental health disorders traditionally linked with identity formation – self harm, some forms of eating disorders, borderline personality disorders, for example - appear to be on the rise rather than going away. 

In the sphere of gender, I sense a growing unease in the public sphere more widely - not only from feminists such as Germaine Greer, but among ordinary mums like those who caused such controversy over this issue on Mumsnet recently. They don’t want to oppress the tiny minority of people going through the real pain of Gender Dysphoria, but neither do they want to confuse and oppress the majority of perfectly happy children by telling them their sex is located in the shifting sands of their inner feelings rather than their bodies. 

In particular, the incoherence of the revolution’s narrative is becoming ever more clear. Take this article[1] from the Huffington Post a couple of weeks back entitled ‘The Inequality of Gender Fluidity’ (or we might re-title it ‘the unfairness of Gender Fluidity’) 

The author raises the question that if gender is fluid and up to the individual, then what happens to feminism when nobody is quite sure what a women is? What is ‘same-sex’ marriage about in this context? 

‘If gender is a choice then there are no gay people, no gay rights, no feminists, no reproductive rights, no women’s studies or colleges or organizations or support groups. Without a firm binary gender, everything the left has fought for will collapse in on itself and no one will be untouched.’ 

So what if, in our attempts to bring freedom to the few, we cause confusion and oppression to the many? That is the question we must respectfully now begin to ask of this great social and cultural revolution. 

Then there’s flourishing – a human being ‘fully alive’. The revolution rightly exposed the sexual shame that Christian culture often imposed on children, but what did it put in its place? We have witnessed the pornographication of childhood instead. Basically … ‘porn is everywhere’. That is the title of a recent report from the Government appointed UK Children’s Commissioner. 

And then take a look at what is happening to our sex lives in the wake of the revolution. The data[2] for actual sexual activity amongst adults over the past 3 decades shows a progressive decline. In fact, if you simply extend the slope of the graph, by the year 2040 nobody will be having any sex at all! I doubt very much that that will prove to be the case but as the army of sex therapists and agony aunts continues to grow we can reasonably ask where is the flourishing that was promised? 

Then there’s the revolution’s promise of fairness. This had great cultural traction of course because Christians believe that a sense of justice is integral to being made in the image of god. The revolutionaries were onto something when they talked about fairness and equality. 

The revolutionary narrative, however, pursues the idea of fairness through the lens of expressive individualism - in terms of ‘my’ rights and ‘what’s good for me’. But what is good for the individual may not be good for everybody. What if the sexual revolution delivered a kind of freedom and fairness for the few – but imposed injustice and inequity on the many? What if it is our children who pay the price of our adult freedoms? 

From the 1960’s the annual number of divorces rocketed six-fold. The number of people getting married started to fall dramatically too, and the institution of marriage entered a deep and prolonged recession, especially among the poor. Today, cohabitation is the norm. Nearly half of children are born out of wedlock and, by the age of 16, only 50% of children will be found living with both biological parents in the home. Over the last 3 decades the number of children needing to be placed in care (‘looked after’ children) has been steadily increasing, with one analysis suggesting that 1 in 30 children born between 1992 and 1994 entered care at some point in their lives[3]. 

This is outrageous. It is unfair. We are witnessing structural and social inequalities visited upon the most vulnerable of all – our children. We must recover our conviction that the biblical moral vision brings life to the world because it prioritizes the needs of children. Overall, the social science data confirm that in the round, on average, the welfare of children is best served in a social ecology of 2 biological parents committed to each other in an act of life-long fidelity[4]. 

Freedom, Flourishing and fairness: the revolution promised big but delivered small.. 

This brings us to the second of my reasons to be cheerful. There’s much more work to do but I think I’m beginning to see the outline of a better apologetic response on our part. 

A Better Story
The point is, the revolution’s moral aspirations are fundamentally Christian aspirations. Freedom, flourishing, fairness – these are Gospel values. We share the revolution’s aims, but we have a better story about how you get there. 

Take freedom. Expressive individualism doesn’t lead to freedom because in the end it relies upon the ability of the self to define itself. Attempts to self-define are inherently unstable because they are based upon the shifting sands of one’s own propaganda.  In our Christian story it is God who names us. Our true identity isn’t discovered by looking ‘within’; or constructed on the unstable foundation of our sexual interests or gender; it is a deeply enchanted identity revealed to us by our Creator. 

We are creatures made in the image of God and redeemed as God’s children. To live free is to learn to be God’s creature once again, to live in harmony with our design. This is profoundly good news in a culture in which the individual wakes up each morning to ask itself ‘who am I today?’ 

Then there’s flourishing. In our story, the story of Creation and Redemption, true flourishing is found in the way of self-denial, not self-fulfillment. The interests of the self are subordinated to serve a common good. That is at the heart of Christian discipleship and applies in the area of sex and sexuality as much as it applies in every other area. And we believe that whether single or married, when we order our lives in harmony with our design, overall, in the round, human beings live well. 

Then there’s fairness. Our vision of fairness isn’t realized through an individualistic lens in terms of what is good for ‘me’. For example, the simple genius of Jesus’ uncompromising view of holy matrimony is that it binds men to their responsibilities for the children they bring into the world. Thus, with its emphasis on promise keeping and personal responsibility, the biblical vision builds moral capital and enriches human ecology in ways that give children a fair chance in life, that enhance community and defend the poor. 

Finally, we have a better story about the meaning of sex itself. This is perhaps the greatest weakness of the revolution’s expressive individualism. It has disenchanted sex, hollowed out the biblical meaning of marriage, and left a vacuum in its place. That is why sex education among the young is a perennial question mark. Beyond empty phrases around ‘being yourself’, the revolution doesn’t have a coherent narrative capable of generating the values that sex education needs. 

In our vision, our sexual desires, rightly ordered, tell the story of God’s passionate and faithful love for his people. In holy, self-sacrificing ways of life we not only preach the Gospel, we put it on display. And whether you are a married woman remaining faithful to your husband, or a single woman remaining faithful to God in your chastity, both honour the sacred meaning of marriage; both, equally, bear witness to the faithfulness of God.

Now I know this raises lots of questions. But I want to suggest that maybe we have the framework here for the beginnings of a better apologetic engagement. It tries to understand and connect with where people are and what they want.  

Of course, engaging with ‘what people want’ should not prevent us discerning the idolatries, in terms of Romans 1, that drive our fallen human desires. But we need to offer reasons to believe as well, underscoring the plausibility of our case. And so when Paul preached to the Athenians in the Areopagus, he didn’t start by condemning their idolatry, rather he connected with it, and then he reframed it: ‘Men of Athens, I perceive that you are very religious …’ (Acts 17: 22). He quoted their own Pagan poets and sought to connect with their spiritual longings. 

That is what we need to do. When people who take a more liberal view of the bible, or secularists with no Christian convictions at all, want to talk about these things, there are times when we need to start on their ground rather than ours. We must make clear that we share many of their aims. But we disagree (well) in how we attain them. 

Of course we need to be realistic about what can be achieved. You can always argue over social science data. None of this proves the superiority of the biblical moral vision. But this kind of approach tries to connect with our society’s deepest longings and then demonstrate the plausibility of our moral beliefs. And right now that is important for our own people as much as it is important in the public square. 

An end to sex-shame culture
And my third and final reason? I think the sexual revolution is forcing us to recover an authentic biblical vision of sex, a truly biblical vision of sex. It is forcing us to face up to, and own up to, our church shame culture. We owe the sexual revolution a debt of gratitude, because it insists that we put up or shut up. As a result, there’s just a chance that even at this stage, we will discover the moral courage to start to tell our story – our better story – again. To hear our leaders speaking confidently, inspiring hearts as well as minds. To see our Churches deciding where they stand and then putting the truly inclusive call of the Gospel on display for the world to see. The year 2017 may prove to be the turning point when Christians rooted in the apostolic tradition re-discover the confidence to tell a better story – and that’s a thought that cheers me up a great deal.

 [1] (Accessed 18th Jan 2017)

 [2] See Spiegelhalter D (2015) ‘Sex by Numbers: what statistics tell us about sexual behaviour’ Wellcome Collection, p.20

[3] We need to be careful in interpreting data and longer term trends are difficult to ascertain (because of different ways of collecting data etc.) But the trends for the last 3 decades are disturbing:

 [4] For a fully referenced exploration of these claims see Harrison G (2017) ‘A Better Story: God, Sex and Human Flourishing’ (IVP/SPCK)Type your paragraph here.

​​​​  Glynn Harrison