Telling the stories of the Anglican Church in Aotearoa, NZ and Polynesia

"I am, am I?" Helen-Ann Hartley's contribution

Here's the actual text of the paper Helen-Ann Hartley delivered at the 2013 Hermeneutic Hui.

Helen-Ann Hartley  |  03 Feb 2013



Helen-Ann Hartley

Dean (Tikanga Pakeha), The College of St John the Evangelist

‘We may not read the same map twice especially where sands are on the move’[1]

Tena koutou.  Talofa lava.  Bula vinaka.  Good morning.

It is an honour to be invited to address this hui, I am deeply grateful for the privilege to do so.  I begin by acknowledging my sisters and brothers in Christ who are part of this gathering and this conversation; those who have gone before us in addressing these important issues, and those who will continue the conversation after us.

A friend sent me a card recently, somewhat ‘tongue in cheek’.  On its cover is a photo of two rather mature ladies looking like they might be taking an interest in something.  Above them are the words: ‘God sees everything, but the neighbours miss nothing’!

At its simplest, my aim in this paper is to assert that while the books of the Bible (Scripture) are key, it is how we read and interpret those books that matters more.  Doing that in conversation with one another reveals deeper understandings about what it means to be human and how that relates to our being part of the Body of Christ.  This is where the theology of sexuality is located: as it relates to our vocation and journey of discipleship, individually and corporately.  Scripture draws us into its meta-narrative that we might be both formed and transformed as we hope others may share in that journey too.

Our kaupapa: sexuality, is one of those topics that invariably provokes a range of responses: embarrassment, sensationalism, nervousness, and a degree of voyeurism and even paranoia (like the words on the card - God sees everything, but the neighbours miss nothing).  I once had an extensive pastoral encounter as a curate with a woman whose mother had died recently.  The lady I spoke to was convinced that she was now being watched 24/7 by her mother in heaven, including what she got up to in the bedroom.  Mention the word ‘sex’ and everyone either has an opinion or they’d rather talk about something else and ‘is that the doorbell?’...It’s the proverbial ‘elephant in the room’ which won’t go away.

As a start, I’d like us to be clear (perhaps honest, or at best, as clear as we can be), about language and the meaning of the words we are using.  This is important since it seems to me one of the great difficulties with this topic is a lack of clarity about what we mean by the phrase ‘Scripture and the theology of sexuality.’  It is all too easy for assumptions to be made that we all know what we are talking about, and the detail doesn’t matter that much.  Detail in fact matters greatly when it comes to dealing with Scripture, since for the most part, we read Scripture in translation.  I will say a little more about that in what follows.  There’s an apocryphal tale (which I think I owe to +Kelvin), of a newly arrived cleric in southland who went to speak to a group of young children.  He brought with him an image of Jesus as the good shepherd, and asked the children what did they see?  The children studied the picture of the man carrying the sheep and after a substantial period of time the somewhat exasperated cleric chastised the children for not being able to articulate what the cleric supposed was ‘the obvious.’  It transpired that the children were trying to determine which breed of sheep Jesus was carrying!  The detail mattered!

So here’s my attempt at definitions.  Firstly ‘theology’.  The word ‘theology’ is made up of two combined Greek words: theos and logos (transliterated).  Literally ‘theology’ means: ‘God words’ or, ‘words about God.’  More than that, because we are talking about God we are invariably doing so from a particular location and context, with our own story to weave into our words about God.  So, as Archbishop Rowan Williams described once to a gathering at which I was present, theology is essentially a ‘position report.’  Imagine you are arranging to meet a friend and you are describing to them your location.  Theology is about providing a description of where we are in relation to God.  The precise co-ordinates of that location should be simply this: ‘in Christ.’  It is no coincidence that this very phrase: ‘in Christ,’ is used time and time again by the Apostle Paul when he is trying to persuade his communities to remember who and where they are, and what difference that makes to their relationships not only with one another but with their surrounding context.

Next up is the word ‘sexuality’.  The Oxford English Dictionary defines this word as follows: ‘capacity for sexual feelings.’  And the word ‘sexual’ (just so we can be clear) is defined: ‘relating to the instincts, physiological processes, and activities connected with physical attraction or intimate physical contact between individuals.’[2]  While these dictionary definitions are helpful, there is a danger (certainly in the theological understanding of ‘sexuality’) of reducing our understanding of ‘sexuality’ to ‘sexual practice.’  This was demonstrated in a recent debate on the BBC Radio4 ‘Sunday’ programme following the publication by the Baptist pastor Steve Chalke of an article in which he expresses support for same-sex relationships.[3]  Early on in the Radio discussion, the person speaking in opposition to Steve Chalke talked about ‘sexuality, sexual practice’, linking the two together and so providing an understanding of sexuality that (in my opinion) is unnecessarily narrow.  It quickly follows from that definition that a ‘norm’ is established: hetrosexual life-long unions that produce children.  Sexuality becomes a revelation of truth: God’s truth and purposes in pro-creation at the expense of all else.[4]  I think that we have a problem with defining this word ‘sexuality,’ and narrow understandings do not help.  Sadly the church (and I use that phrase to include a number of denominations) has bought into the narrow definition, fuelled by media obsession with sexual practice, celebrity babies and gender objectification (which often worryingly includes the sexualisation of children).  This is wide of the mark when it comes to a full appreciation of the Scriptural witness to the theology of sexuality. 

Next we have ‘Scripture’.  This word refers to the sacred writings of Christianity that are contained in the Bible.  It becomes customary to use the words ‘Scripture’ and ‘Bible’ interchangeably, though ‘Scripture’ itself implies a confessional use of the Bible.  At the risk of sounding over-simplistic, it is worth reminding ourselves that the Bible consists of a canonical collection of 66 books (in the Protestant canon) ranging across a variety of contexts and genres.

Language is also important when it comes to our reading and understanding of Scripture.  Unless one is conversant in Biblical Hebrew and NT Greek, Scripture comes to us *in translation*, and translation is itself inevitably interpretation.  How best to render a word or phrase is something that has occupied the minds of the various individuals and committees that have been involved in Biblical translation down the ages.  Appreciation of the difficulties involved is brought to light through realising that the earliest Hebrew manuscripts contain no vowels.  In fact vowel pointing in Hebrew did not materialise until the period between the 7th and 10th centuries of the Common Era.  The act of reading is therefore in its origins both creative and interpretive.  For example: Leviticus 19:18 is usually translated as: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’  However the Hebrew can also be vocalised to render the translation: ‘Love your evil as yourself.’  Both could be described (certainly in Rabbinic tradition) as being legitimate readings, giving rise to very different instructions.

Now that I have made an attempt to define key words, and raised a degree of caution when it comes to understanding the language of the texts that we often invoke to argue this way or that about sexuality, I can continue.  I want now to offer some reflections on where I see some of the key issues residing when it comes to discussing Scripture and the theology of sexuality.  However part of the issue is, is that this is not a topic that can be discussed in isolation.  While Scripture is key, Christianity is not first and foremost a religion of the book.  The New Testament scholar Christopher Rowland points out: ‘however comforting the appeal to precedent or a written text might be, there is in Christianity’s own foundation texts the story of a movement which, when it came to the crunch, was prepared to prioritise patterns of life conforming to their experience of Christ over ancestral custom.’ [5]  Of key importance in this process was the experience of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost in Acts.  ‘Hear what the Spirit is saying to the Church’ we say at the end of  Bible reading in our Anglican liturgy.  How often to we pause to actually think about this however?  You will, I am sure be familiar with the distinctively Anglican contribution to the discussion with its so-called ‘three-legged stool’ of Scripture, Reason and Tradition.  One of the key debates lies in what length the legs of the stool are?  Is the Scripture leg longer that the other two?  And indeed is there a fourth leg: experience?  Each of these words: ‘Scripture’ ‘Reason’ and ‘Tradition’ require very careful exposition as to their meaning.  A former colleague of mine, Charlotte Methuen describes the danger thus: ‘a simple appeal to the truth of a decontextualised text or to an acontextual understanding of the tradition of the Church is not a real answer.’ [6]

It is not my intention to focus in detail on the ‘usual suspect’ Biblical passages, although I will make reference to some passages (aware of the hermeneutical limitations of doing even that).  Part of my reason for this lies in my observation (made above) that when people talk about the Bible and sexuality they invariably focus on homosexuality and / or marriage.  Subsequently the whole discussion about sexuality becomes unhelpfully focussed in one particular direction, and by virtue of the hermeneutic that gets us to that conclusion, we ought to be urgently arranging a hui on the eating of shellfish, or the wearing of clothes made from mixed fibres.[7]  Other papers presented in this hui will discuss exegesis of key passages in some detail, and I am grateful for that work.  I invite us to consider the topic of Scripture and sexuality from a much broader perspective that does not exclude particular passages about (say) homosexuality, but which constantly asks us to detach our obsessions with sexual practice on the one hand and the search for justice on the other, from Scripture which tells of an altogether more urgent and radical story for all time.  This story has at its heart the journey of discipleship (those who learn about God in the company of one another, including those whom they are most unlike), and the progression of an understanding of vocation (both corporately and individually).  Why ‘progression’?  Vocation does not mean ‘knowing where we are at,’  It begins where we are, but it is really about the summons to go in search of ourselves in responding to God’s call through Christ. 

Personally speaking, although my academic discipline is New Testament studies, more recently my own writing and research has taken me into the area of hermeneutics proper: how we read and interpret the books of the Bible.  Thinking carefully about hermeneutics is an endeavour that has been at numerous times provoked by my own pastoral work: the ‘so what?’ of bridging the gaps between texts and contexts.  My own paper this morning represents a voice in the conversation; it is not (I hope) a bearer of ‘megaphone theology’ (if you shout louder then I’ll get a bigger megaphone ...).  I hope that where it is not made explicit, an acknowledgement of the important place of Scripture in our understanding of the topic of the theology of sexuality will be clear.  In other words, the narrative of Scripture (more particularly, the meta-narrative of Scripture: its narrative ‘arc’) forms the heartbeat of our faith.  Yet, as I have mentioned above, as Anglicans we also acknowledge that this heartbeat is driven by Reason and Tradition and (I want to argue) Experience.  We cannot make reference to our place in the world without mentioning experience.  Another of my former colleagues, Mark Chapman writes: ‘the church is a historical phenomenon, shaped by its context, but also shaping that context into the future.  In many ways this is the problem that characterises theology at its best; and it is undoubtedly true of the great writers of the Anglican tradition.  Thinkers from Cranmer through to the current [now most recent] Archbishop of Canterbury have all sought to draw out from the Christian tradition resources which resonate with their environment, but which also challenge it in the hope that it might be reshaped in the light of that message.’[8]

There is in Christianity (including in Scripture: certainly in the Acts of the Apostles and in the Pauline epistles too: Acts 3:13ff; 13:16ff; Gal. 1:13-24), a rich tradition of tracking experience through spoken and written reflection.  Before that, there is the Jewish Wisdom tradition (the book of Job being a classic example).  The Danish theologian Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) famously claimed that life must be understood backwards but lived forwards (quoted various).  If we talk of nothing but what the books of the Bible say and do not say, we end up with a flat perspective on what those texts are actually saying.  Mystery, creativity and wonder are all important dynamics in the story of our faith, but more than that: attention to story, genre and context are all absolutely vital.  The 19th century French philosopher Jacques Maritain writes about the dimension in which ‘things are more than they are’ and ‘give more than they have.’[9]  Although Maritain is writing about appreciation of art (aesthetics) his words are applicable to the reading of Scripture too.[10]  This is ably demonstrated by the observations of the Biblical scholar Eric Auerbach who writes of how Scripture often works with gaps, events transpire ‘off the page’ and ‘in-between the words.’[11]  I will say a little more about that shortly.  For now, it is enough to comment that Scripture opens up into exciting possibilities for vision and re-visioning our lives, our human lives in ways that help us make better sense of who we are.  In other words, vocation and discipleship are critical ingredients in our discernment of how Scripture might be informing our understanding of who we are and whose we are.  This is not a pain-free process.  As Archbishop Rowan Williams writes: ‘questions of identity are so often (painfully) immediate.’[12] 

Back in the mid-1990s, I was a post-graduate student in Princeton Theological Seminary, a seminary of the Presbyterian Church in the USA.  The PCUSA was at the time (as it still is) giving careful consideration to sexuality.  In the spring of 1993, a number of students within the Seminary community issued a document titled: ‘A Princeton Declaration: Upholding the PC(USA) in a Decision Not to Ordain Individuals Engaged in Homosexual Practice.’  Those who signed the document believed that there was a clear ‘biblical mandate for sexuality.’  Not all within the community agreed, and from that time onwards a conversation was held culminating in the 1996 publication of Homosexuality and Christian Community (WJK), edited by Choon-Leong Seow, Professor of Old Testament Language and Literature at the Seminary.  In the preface to this book, its editor comments that: ‘clearly, the contributors to this volume are not of one mind on the issue of homosexuality.  Like our forebears in biblical times, we find ourselves in substantial disagreement.  At stake for us all is the gospel: How are we to understand our obligation as a people of faith?  We struggle to balance two biblical portrayals of God: a God whose name is Jealous and a God whose name is Compassionate.  There are risks that we may err by overemphasizing one or the other divine reality.  Yet it is imperative that the church live with this risk and decide what it means to be faithful to the gospel in our day and age’ (p. xii).  As I sat in my study at home writing this paper, I often glanced at the ‘Class of ’95’ photo taken at the beginning of my Princeton year.  Little did I know then which relationships would flourish, which would fail, which would shock, and which would cause heartbreak.  In so many ways that photo is a reminder to me of the messiness of life from which religion is not immune, but from which religion often likes to float above in a ‘holier-than-thou’ cloud.

More recently, as I have already mentioned, the leading British Baptist pastor Steve Chalke caused a sensation through the publication of an article in which he wrote of his support for same-sex relationships.  Chalke would, I think, recognise the feelings of risk inherent in the search to discern ‘what it means to be faithful to the gospel in our day and age’ (above).  Indeed Chalke writes: ‘I feel both compelled and afraid to write this article.  Compelled because, in my understanding, the principles of justice, reconciliation and inclusion sit at the very heart of Jesus’ message.  Afraid because I recognise the Bible is understood by many to teach that the practice of homosexuality, in any circumstance, is a sin or ‘less than God’s best.’[13]  Later on, Chalke writes that ‘exegesis and hermeneutics are two essential tools for understanding the Bible.  But, while exegesis analyses the actual structure and meaning of the text itself and looks at the nuances of the linguistics, hermeneutics digs deeper to unearth what’s behind it, as it explores the cultural and social perceptions of the writer and their hearers.’  He continues: ‘A key challenge the Church faces - which often goes unrecognised - is that the Bible does not provide the answer to a whole number of issues to do with inclusion with which Christians have subsequently wrestled’ (and he goes on to discuss the role of women in Christian communities by way of example).  Not surprisingly, Chalke has experienced a negative reaction from within his own community.  One reaction, from a self-professed friend describes ‘sadness and disappointment...on how Steve has not only distanced himself from the vast majority of the evangelical community here in the UK, but indeed from the Church across the world and 2,000 years of biblical interpretation.’[14]

These two reflections above, one from a Presbyterian and the other from a Baptist perspective are important to listen to.  Denominational ways of addressing the topic of sexuality are worth noting, if for nothing else than acknowledging this is not a uniquely Anglican topic.  But it is significant how much of the preceding debate has located an understanding of sexuality firmly in sexual practice.  One of my former tutors at Princeton, an American Episcopalian priest and New Testament scholar AKMA, observes that the current situation in the global church is a ‘virtual arms race of church leaders trying to redefine their theology and ecclesiology better to fit a series of demographic shifts and cultural transformations.’[15] In this context, the biblical text becomes something of a ‘court of appeal.’[16]  This is neither helpful, nor indeed faithful to what the Bible is, and how the Bible works.  The Anglican way can, I think, offer something uniquely hopeful with a willingness to keep the conversation going, working with Scripture, reason, tradition (and I add to that list: experience); and all of this even in the face of seemingly insurmountable differences.  The Anglican way is as much about the tone of our conversation as anything else.  Matua Wiremu Graham (Te Manawa o Te Wheke) observes that ‘Anglicans travel together.’  Rather like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, we live the resurrection life in Christ through our searching for deeper meaning of what living that life means and how others might live that life too, rather than necessarily shutting things out that make us feel vulnerable or uncomfortable. 

But we shouldn’t be all smug and complacent because we are Anglicans and because we are gathered here in this virtuous space of a hermeneutics hui!  To quote the British author Jeanette Winterson, the ‘problem is focusing on problems that are the result of our thinking process instead of questioning how our thinking gets it where it does.’[17]  I have a real concern that unless we can acknowledge something of the joy and struggle of the hermeneutical process we will end up with a fundamentalist approach that has no fun in it, nor anything of the fundamentals that should bind us together as members of the Body of Christ.  We end up with an approach that is more fixed and closed rather than open and welcoming.

In my 2011 book Making Sense of the Bible,[18] written mostly here in Auckland in the latter part of 2010, I argue for a four-fold hermeneutical koru.  I use that image quite deliberately, since I perceive good biblical interpretation to be about continually unfolding into new and creative ways of understanding texts, rather than simply repeating tried and tested understandings on the one hand, or spiraling out of control on the other hand.  The four parts of the koru are: stories, contexts, encounters, and conversations.

Briefly, the collection of books that make up the Bible contain a number stories across a variety of genres.  These may be read at both the micro-level (attending to each as it comes, and its detail therein), or from the perspective of something that I have already identified: the meta-narrative.  Each of the books contained in the Bible represent different contexts: historical, social, political.  It is our task to both acknowledge the original contexts of the texts we read and our own many and various contexts today.  How we bridge the distance is the task of hermeneutics.  That hermeneutical task may be described as what happens when we encounter the texts.  We read the text, but the text also reads us.  Critical approaches to texts can help us understand both similarity and dissimilarity from the text.  When we encounter the texts we may engage in conversations about the meaning of those texts.  A conversational approach (which is not, by the way, always plain sailing) can encourage more of a ‘tell of what I do to you’ approach rather than the unhelpful ‘do what I tell you’ approach.  I will always remember a inter-faith conversation I once chaired between the former Bishop of Oxford, Richard Harries and Rabbi Dr Norman Solomon.  Rabbi Solomon reflected how his view of God had expanded through his conversations with Bishop Richard over key passages in the Hebrew Bible / Old Testament. 

The last of these: ‘conversations’ is then, arguably the most important.  Our voices represent threads to be woven together.  This is a more helpful image than that of a disjointed ‘twitter-feed’ (for example).  If you have ever looked at  how that social-networking tool operates, you see unfolding before your eyes what look like several conversations all going on at once, speaking over one another rather than with one another.  Relations are brief, and can be superficial.  Prior to the 2011 Rugby World Cup, the ‘man in charge,’ Martin Snedden, was reported as saying, ‘lots of people want to be out of New Zealand during the Rugby World Cup...but the official cup myth...says that the stadium contains all of us.’[19]  Christianity also likes to assert that there is room for everyone, however this is usually followed by a ‘but.’  If we can agree that there is room in this Cathedral for our many and various views on the matter of the theology of sexuality and Scripture then we will need to trust one another.  The topic of sexuality is such though that we may need to ensure we have our life-jackets at the ready in case the waters of debate get choppy!  Yet surely we can and indeed should assert that all of our interpretation might faithful pilgrimage in the manner of what the theologian Jurgen Moltmann describes as the ‘wayfaring character of hope.’  We may hope that our reflections will gather meaning and deeper understanding as time goes on.  That takes courage and wisdom. 

The former Bishop of Durham, now Professor at the University of St Andrews in Scotland, Tom Wright, offers a useful analogy as to how Christians might live with the Bible.  He asks us to imagine a Shakespeare play consisting of a number of acts.  The final Act however, has been lost.  Wright argues that it is our task to work out the final act in the character of the other acts: ‘our task is to discover, through the Spirit and prayer, the appropriate ways of improvising the script between the foundation events and charter on the one hand and the complete coming of the kingdom on the other.’[20]

While this is indeed a useful analogy, it only really works if we can be honest about character formation.  Someone has to determine what it means to continue the play ‘in faithful character.’  Improvisation is one thing, but true improvisation isn’t completely free, it uses set rules and customs which need to be acknowledged and agreed on.  The art of good improvisation is for the audience to not recognise how those rules and customs are at work.  More helpful perhaps is the analogy of Jewish rabbinic exegesis.  Why?  Because here we have a tradition which resonates strongly with the Christian Old Testament (the Jewish Hebrew Bible) and with the practice of both Jesus and the Apostle Paul in the New Testament.  There is, in Jewish rabbinic practice, a tradition known as ‘black fire on white fire.’  In Deuteronomy 33:2 we read: “And he said, ‘The LORD came from Sinai, and rose up from Seir to them; he shone forth from Mt Paran, and he came forth with ten thousands of saints: from his right hand went a fiery law for them’.  In discussions amongst the rabbis, there arose the reflection that the black fire refers to the printed letters, but that there is also white fire which refers to the spaces between and around the printed letters.  Both have equal importance.  The black fire is read to articulate ‘what does Torah say?’ and the white fire is read to ask the question ‘what does Torah mean?’  One rabbi points out how ‘like actual fire, the letters and the spaces between them are alive, dancing, active, and impossible to pin down.  There is no final reading of Torah, only the next one.’[21]  There is much more that could be said about how Rabbinic exegesis works, but for now may I be so bold as to suggest that the powerful and transformative work of the fire of Pentecost was precisely that which enabled the disciples to take the black fire of their own heritage and surround it with the white fire of their experience with the risen Christ?

Much earlier on in this paper, I alluded to the observation that there is a problem with a fixation on the Scriptural witness to the so-called dos and don’ts of sexual practice.  The problem is that it ignores the beyond-ness of sexuality and identity - that it is more than a reductionist description of practice.  I cannot conclude this paper without saying something about one of the main Biblical writers and characters that so often gets quoted (and mis-quoted) on the topic of sexuality: the Apostle Paul, by way of illustrating my point.[22]  The verse I want to focus on (and I am well aware of the hermeneutical short-fallings of this) is Galatians 3:28.  I choose this verse because it has something very important to say in conclusion about Scripture and the theology of sexuality.

You will be familiar I am sure with what this verse says but for sake of completeness, I reproduce it here:

‘There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave or free, there is neither male nor female: for you are all one in Christ Jesus.’

This verse contains a radical Christological anthropology that is beyond gender.  Paul’s perspective reads Adam in Gen.3.2ff and the so-called “Fall” story as non-gendered. In this story, Rabbinic exegesis explores Eve as a strong figure in dialogue with the serpent, and as a model par excellence of theological arguer with God. But in Christian discourse from the third century onward, perhaps earlier, (under influence of asceticism?), the view of Eve becomes darker.  Christian theology genders Adam as tempted by Eve, and thus the notion of a fall downwards, rather than the Jewish understanding of a Fall upwards into human maturity.  In this scenario Eve is hopelessly enmeshed as temptress, and hence Mary becomes the corrector of her misdemeanor. 

There is a general point to be made in how Paul’s imagery in Galatians is both strong and weak: it sets out a strong vision, but it is powerless to resist the cultural gender views of the church as these became influential.  We do not know even if Paul’s radical vision was put fully into practice by Paul himself, and in the churches he founded.  I think that Scripture and the theology of sexuality has fallen victim not only to culturally-shaped gender views, but to culturally views about sex.  Somewhere along the line, we have forgotten that sexuality is not first and foremost about sexual practice, it is most of all about discovering the fullness of our identity, our vocation, ‘in Christ,’ so that we might be faithful disciples together, learning alongside one another, and yearning for deeper and yet more urgent transformation in our world today. 

I recently saw on television the 2004 short film ‘Water’ by the New Zealand writer Anthony Clyde.  One morning seven-year old Mary discovers a burst pipe under the kitchen sink.  Rather than dealing with the problem, the family ignore the leak, preferring to get on with their daily lives, including their anticipation of a rugby game on television that night.  The film is ultimately about procrastination and denial and how one small problem, when ignored, can lead to disastrous consequences.  Given that the immediate context for Paul’s profound vision in Galatians 3 is baptism, I wonder if we need to remember what the waters of baptism point us to: a putting on of Christ.  Christ becomes the heart and focus of our lives.  We cannot deny that nor can we put off what the radical meaning of that is for us.

When I was writing this paper, it felt at times like I was going in search of a lost key, a way of unlocking our understanding of the theology of sexuality, and a way of enabling Scripture to enlighten this understanding.  There’s a poem called ‘The lost key’ by the British poet, playwright and broadcaster Lemn Sissay.  He was born in Lancashire in 1967 of Ethiopian and Eritrean heritage.

I know, if you knew when you lost it you wouldn’t be looking.

Have you checked the back of the sofa? Underneath it?

Could it be in your pockets? Have you checked your pockets?

What about your pockets? What about in there, in there?

No. The insides of your pockets? The insides of the inside.

I mean your inside pocket. Inside your inside pocket.

Have you checked the cupboards? With the clothes in,

The clothes, the new clothes, ‘cause you never know,

Things turn up in the strangest...They do. Turn up.

You have to check all of the pockets in all of the clothes

Of all the places you’ve ever been - that’s a lot of pockets.

Find out where the new land lies and the old lies land.

Funny how when you’re looking you find everything else

Except. Don’t start blaming people. Before you know it

You’ll accuse everyone that is nearest to you,

Everyone that was closest to you, that mattered.

You’ll turn on them, investigate them for the time

They might have slipped it in their pockets

And slipped away saying goodbye, goodbye.

Have you checked your pockets? Your inside pockets?[23]

The initial part of the title of this paper are the words: I AM AM I.  Some of you may be familiar with these words in their artistic depiction by the New Zealand artist Colin McCahon.  A few sentences from me cannot do justice to the richness and profundity with which McCahon uses these words in his art.  Where they appear in his work ‘Victory over Death 2’ one writer describes how ‘it is typical of McCahon’s great subtlety, often hidden behind his bolder statements, that he has crafted so many levels of interpretation into this giant yet highly schematic design.  The evocation of atmosphere is what makes the work so powerful, the sense of enormous spaces, precipices and voids that derive from the artist’s total immersion in the visual impact of New Zealand’s land, sea and skies’ (Oliver Stead Lines in the Sand, David Bateman Ltd, 2008, p. 55).  In other words, one cannot appreciate the depth of one’s faith and theological understanding unless we are open to our context, to the places where we are rooted, and to the stories of our own life pilgrimages.  At the same time, it is impossible to miss the assertion of divine identity, the name of God uttered in this unique play in the Hebrew between the name of God (YHWH, Adonai) and the Hebrew word ‘to be.’  This profound statement of identity becomes key to the Christology of John’s Gospel.  It is significant that the first utterance of this divine name takes place in John 4 where Jesus is talking to the Samaritan woman at the well.  This is a passage overflowing with sexual tension; something we don’t often like to contemplate where Jesus is concerned.  Yet Jesus reveals his identity as the one speaking to the woman.  In verse 26 we read this: ‘Jesus said to her, I AM, the one who is speaking to you.’

Perhaps the key to understanding the theology of sexuality insomuch as it is rooted in a broad understanding of identity (incorporating vocation and discipleship) lies not in what we do as who we are both in conversation and alone; attuned to one another in our deepest desires and hopes, yet able to articulate our own voice and story so that ‘in Christ’ our life might make sense and our lives together might make sense.  In words of the English Literature writer Alan Jacobs when discussing the ending of John’s Gospel when Jesus appears to the disciples, specifically to Peter to remind him what his task is, when all seems lost: ‘we may discern God’s recognition that we need such examples if we are going to live, by faith into an unknown future’ (Looking Before and After, p. 62). 

Lemn Sissay’s poem about checking our inside pockets for the lost key reminded me, in a roundabout way of the Collect for Purity, which when read again and again says much about the theme of theology of sexuality.  I close with it:

Almighty God,

To whom all hearts be open,

All desires known.

Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts

by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit.

That we may perfectly love you

and worthily magnify your holy name.


Select Bibliography:

Mark Chapman (ed.) The Hope of Things to Come. Anglicanism and the Future, Mowbray,     2010.

Helen-Ann Hartley Making Sense of the Bible, SPCK, 2011.

Alan Jacobs Looking Before and After. Testimony and the Christian Life, Eerdmans, 2008.

Martyn Percy (ed.) Intimate Affairs. Sexuality and Spirituality in Perspective, DLT, 1997.

Eugene F. Rogers, Jr. (ed.) Theology and Sexuality. Classic and Contemporary Readings, Blackwell, 2002.

Betty Rojtman Black Fire on White Fire. An Essay on Jewish Hermeneutics, from Midrash to    Kabbalah, University of California Press, 1998.

Christopher Rowland & Jonathan Roberts The Bible for Sinners. Interpretation in the Present    Time, SPCK, 2008.

Choon-Leong Seow (ed.) Homosexuality and Christian Community, Westminster John Knox    Press, 1996.

Rowan Williams Grace and Necessity. Reflections on Art and Love, Continuum, 2005.

N. T. Wright Scripture and the Authority of God, SPCK, 2005.

[1] Kendrick Smithyman, ‘Reading the Maps an Academic Exercise’ published in Kendrick Smithyman, Stories About Wooden Keyboards, Auckland: AUP / Oxford: OUP, 1985, p. 42.

[2] Oxford Dictionary of English, 2nd ed. 2003, p. 1619.

[3] An abridged version of his article ‘A Matter of Integrity.  The Church, sexuality, inclusion and an open conversation’ may be found at http:///  Accessed on January 16th, 2013.

[4] A point expounded in some detail by Rowan Williams in ‘Forbidden Fruit.  New Testament Sexual Ethics’ pp. 21-31 in M. Percy ed. Intimate Affairs. Sexuality and Spirituality in Perspective, DLT, 1997.

[5] C. Rowland and J. Roberts The Bible for Sinners: Interpretation in the Present Time, SPCK, 2008, p. 21.  This point echoes the work of Michel de Certeau discussed by AKMA thus: ‘However it is taken, Christianity implies a relationship to the event which inaugurated it: Jesus Christ.  It has had a series of intellectual and social forms which have had two apparently contradictory characteristics: the will to the faithful to the inaugural event; the necessity of being different from these beginnings’ (Faithful Interpretation, p. 117).  Certainly too as AKMA points out, ‘repetition always involves difference’ (p. 119): the Lord’s Prayer will sound different in different languages; preaching on a text like Matthew 5:44 (and parallels) (‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you’) will be different in different contexts, in my experience anyway.

[6] C. Methuen ‘Passing on the Flame: A Reflection on Tradition, Ecclesiology, and History’ pp. 26-44 in The Hope of Things to Come, Anglicanism and the Future, ed. M. Chapman, Mowbray, 2010, p. 43.

[7] Lev. 11:10 ;Lev. 19:19, to cite just two examples.

[8] Mark Chapman, The Hope of Things to Come, Anglicanism and the Future, Mowbray, 2010, p. xi.

[9] Quoted by ++Rowan Williams in Grace and Necessity, Reflections on Art and Love, Continuum, 2005, p. 26.

[10] An appreciation of the books of the Bible as ‘works of art’ became an important influence in my own thinking about hermeneutical processes in Making Sense of the Bible, SPCK, 2011.

[11] Eric Auerbach, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, Princeton, 2003.

[12] ++Rowan Williams Anglican Identities, Cowley Publications, 2004, p. 1.

[13] Article accessed on January 16th 2013 at

[14] Steve Clifford, Director of the Evangelical Alliance.  Accessed 16th January, 2013.

[15] Taken from AKMA’s blog

[16] A point made by C. Rowland and J. Roberts in The Bible for Sinners. Interpretation in the Present Time, SPCK, 2008, p. 13.

[17] Comment posted on the author’s twitter feed on January 9th, 2013.

[18] H-A Hartley Making Sense of the Bible, SPCK, 2011.

[19] Sunday Star Times, May 9th, 2010.

[20] N. T. Wright Scripture and the Authority of God, SPCK, 2005, pp. 91-92.

[21] Rabbi Rami Shapiro ‘Kindling the Midrashic Imagination,’ May 16, 2009 (

[22] It is worth looking at an article by Wolfgang Stegemann, ‘Paul and the Sexual Mentality of His World’, pp. 161-176 in The Biblical Theology Bulletin, vol. 23.

[23] Lemn Sissay, Listener, Canongate, 2008, p. 36.