Jane Shaw

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It is often presumed within church circles that "the tradition" speaks with a univocal and ahis-torical voice. Much gets promoted in Christian sexual ethics, not least in opposition to women (of all sexual orientations) and homosexuality (in both sexes), under the flag of an unchanging "traditional" view (sometimes called "traditionalist") - and this is always posited in opposition to the "liberal" and innovative ideas (sometimes called "revisionist") of those who wish to affirm the full humanity and sexual orientation of women and men, gay and straight. By contrast, one of the remits of this volume is to demonstrate the ways in which those often called "liberal" or "revisionist" are in fact rooted within the Christian tradition, understanding the ways in which the tradition has necessarily changed, and will always have this dynamic aspect to it, mediated as it is by culture and language. This chapter therefore looks at two moments when the Christian tradition has dramatically shifted in its understanding of sex and gender, at the Protestant Reformation and in the Enlightenment. For practical reasons of focusing the topic, this chapter is primarily one of intellectual history and looks very little at "practice." The first part of the chapter looks at several key theological texts that illustrate the changes in thought and direction about marriage during the Protestant Reformation. The second part of the chapter looks at a number of significant changes in ideas about sex, gender, and sexual identity in the Enlightenment period, and then looks at their impact in several texts and debates up to the present day One purpose of this second part of the chapter is to introduce a body of historical research rarely discussed in the debates in the church today, but, it is contended, vital to understanding them; for in understanding the broader culture's shifts with regard to understanding sex and gender, we see that views today promoted as "traditionalist" (especially in the debates about homosexuality) are in fact comparatively modern. In both sections of the chapter, policy and practice are touched on where possible; but in the space allowed here, this aspect is covered only briefly to illustrate certain points. In the course of looking at these two moments of paradigm shift, and the reasons for them, the chapter also attempts to look especially at female sexuality within the Christian tradition, given that we generally have so little evidence about it - except from men. Let me begin, then, with two texts by two very different women.

In 1393, Margery, the daughter of the mayor of Bishop's Lynn (later King's Lynn), married a Lynn burgess named John Kempe. After she had given birth to their first child, she became ill and suffered a great spiritual crisis. The resolution of that crisis occurred when she had a vision of the bliss of heaven, after which she pleaded with her husband that they might lead "continent" lives, for she wished to be a dedicated holy virgin within their marriage.

And after this time she never had any desire to have sexual intercourse with her husband, for paying the debt of matrimony was more abominable to her that she would rather, she thought, have eaten and drunk the ooze and muck in the gutter than consent to intercourse, except out of obedience. And so she said to her husband. "I may not deny you my body, but all the love and affection of my heart is withdrawn from all earthly creatures and is set on God alone." (Kempe 1994: 46)

In proposing to lead such a holy life within marriage, she was perhaps unusual, but in wishing to follow the path of celibacy, as the higher good, she was simply following the teaching of the church for the preceding thousand years. In wishing to be a holy virgin - though not necessarily a nun - she was following the great examples of the patristic era, woman such as Macrina, sister of Gregory of Nyssa, and the holy virgins who surrounded male theologians such as Augustine. Her husband did not yet relent: "he would have his way with her, and she obeyed with much weeping and sorrowing because she could not live in chastity" (Kempe 1994: 46). He eventually relented but only after 20 years of marriage and the birth of 14 children; his giving way occurred in a dramatic episode, which took place on the side of a road as they were walking from York one hot midsummer evening. After 8 weeks of no sexual activity between them, despite their sleeping in the same bed, her husband once again tried to assert his conjugal rights: Margery pleaded with him and, desperate, said her prayers in the middle of a field. Guided by Christ, who spoke to her, she once again asked her husband not to enter her bed; he agreed, on the condition that she paid his debts (she came from a wealthier family than he did) and he released her saying, "may your body be as freely available to God as it has been to me" (Kempe 1994: 60). Freed to live as a dedicated holy virgin, she went on pilgrimage to Compostela, Rome and other places, and exercised the gift of holy tears (which irritated her fellow pilgrims no end!). The story of Margery Kempe indicates the ways in which virginity was defined not only as a physical state but also as a moral and spiritual state, "that quality of spirit belonging to those whose primary relationship is with God" (Atkinson 1983: 133).1 She dictated her story - which is why we know about her - to a scribe (she could neither read nor write) and the text, having been lost for several centuries, was rediscovered in 1934; it is the earliest surviving autobiographical text in English.

In 1694, some 300 years later, a high Tory Anglican called Mary Astell wrote A Serious Proposal to the Ladies in which she suggested that single women should have a monastery or a "religious retirement" (as she phrased it, "to avoid giving offence to the scrupulous and injudicious by names which though innocent in themselves, have been abus'd by Superstitious Practices") where they could develop their spiritual life and increase their intellectual learning. This was to have a "double aspect, being not only a Retreat from the World, for those who desire that advantage; but likewise an institution and precious discipline, to fit us to do the greatest good in it" (Astell 1694: 60-1). At the heart of Astell's proposal were: a belief that women too have souls and the faculty of reasoning, and should develop them; a desire to cultivate piety in the high Anglican manner, observing the feasts and fasts of the church in community; and a strong advocacy of female friendship. The proposal was directed at the educated, the "middling and upper sorts" who had some financial means and the possibility of choice in their lives. It was directed against the frivolities of the world, in particular the silliness that Astell identified as existing amongst women because of their lack of education and because of their desire to get along in the marriage market. Astell's was a proposal:

whose only design is to improve your charms and heighten your value, by suffering you no longer to be cheap and contemptible. Its aim is to fix that beauty, to make it lasting and permanent, which Nature with all the helps of the Arts, cannot secure: And to place it out of reach of Sickness and Old Age, by transferring it from a corruptible Body to an immortal Mind (Astell 1694: 3).

Its main aim was religious, about that Astell was quite clear, and it was to be a "retreat" -"such a Paradise as your mother Eve forfeited" (Astell 1694: 67) - but she hoped it would have an effect on the world. It should be "a seminary to stock the Kingdom with pious and prudent ladies: whose good example it is to be hop'd will so influence the rest of the sex, that women may no longer pass for those little useless and impertinent Animals, which the ill conduct of too many, has caus'd them to be mistaken for" (Astell 1694: 73-4).

Astell called for those who supported her to provide the money for such an enterprise, and pious ladies came forward to do so. Indeed, A Serious Proposal "caught everyone's attention from the start" and inspired both women and men. John Evelyn wrote that he wished that at least some of these foundations for women and men had been spared in the Reformation, and called Astell's writing "sublime." John Dunton the publisher wrote of "the divine Astell" and Daniel Defoe used her idea for a section on "An Academy for Women" in his Essay upon Projects (1697). By 1701, five editions of A Serious Proposal had already been published (Perry 1986: 105).

Both of these texts, The Book of Margery Kempe and A Serious Proposal, represent the struggle by women to control their own sexuality within the paradigms of the Christian tradition; the similarity of their aims is particularly striking because in the period between the writing of their two texts a seismic shift occurred in the Christian tradition's thinking about marriage and sexuality. Celibacy was no longer thought to be the higher good; marriage came to be at least on a par with it and, for many of the Protestant reformers, far superior to it. So for Kempe, before the Reformation, the struggle was with a father who wanted her to marry well, and a husband who wished to enjoy his conjugal rights, but there was no doubt that holy virginity was, in the medieval Christian scheme of things, a higher good than marriage. Convents were still thriving; women could still choose to be nuns and holy virgins. Indeed, her struggle against the worldly aims of marriage stood in a long tradition of women attempting to resist marriage in order to lead a more holy life; as early as the fourth century, Ambrose had written his treatise on virginity in part to encourage elite young women to defy their parents' match-making and to take the more holy path. By contrast, Astell, an unmarried and educated woman, in proposing such a "monastery" in the late seventeenth century, in a religious landscape where the monasteries and nunneries had been dissolved at the Reformation, highlighted the uncertain place of women in society if they now remained unmarried. Demographics also played a part here. There were more women than men in late seventeenth-century England: it was estimated in 1694 that (as a result of wars especially, but also perhaps because of plague to which men were said to be more susceptible) there were 77 men for every 100 women in London. Not all women could therefore marry: what were the rest to do? Astell provided one answer, but despite the warm reception that Astell's Serious Proposal received, and the readiness of pious women to give it support, the idea was squashed by leading churchmen who thought it too "papist" and therefore dangerous. (There were no Protestant convents in England until the mid-nineteenth century when the Anglo-Catholics revived monastic life in the Church of England.)

Astell was, crucially, pointing to the narrowing of choices for women in a society where marriage was now seen as the only option, indeed the only vocation, for women. In particular the virtues of friendship had been lost. "For Friendship is a vertue which comprehends all the rest, none being fit for this, who is not adorn'd with every other Vertue. Probably one considerable cause of the degeneracy of the present Age, is the little true Friendship that is to be found in it; or perhaps you will say that is the effect of our corruption." Astell also seemed to suggest that the emphasis on marriage, coupled with her age's selfish tenor, had weakened the bonds of friendship:

"The love of many is not only waxen cold, but quite bemus'd and perish'd." Friendship could be the main source of instruction in following the great commandment to love one's neighbour. "For Friendship is nothing else but Charity contracted . . . and therefore tis without any doubt, the best Instructor to teach us our duty to our Neighbour." (Astell 1694: 135-6)

Theologians of the Middle Ages - many of them monks, such as Anselm, who lived in community with others - emphasized the godly nature of friendship. Astell suggests that the emphasis on marriage as the primary "estate" led both to a loss of the bonds of friendship and a narrowing of choices for women. These points we must bear in mind as we turn back to look at that paradigm shift of the Reformation - which led to marriage being given a new importance - and the work of the male theologian, Martin Luther.

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