My old history tutor sometimes reminded his students that in this

1 My old history tutor sometimes reminded his students that in this island there are two Englands, and one of them is called Scotland. So perhaps it is as well that I am not the preacher for the 250th Burns Night anniversary, & I am most grateful to your Rector for giving preference to the week of Prayer for Christian Unity and the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul, and transferring the Burns dinner to another date. There are of course two ironies here. First, that Burns should compete with the saint who was the inspiration of those Presbyterian authorities who figure so largely in his satires. But ecumenical Christians might also reflect that we are asked to pray for unity in the shadow of the most quarrelsome of the Apostles. I stand before you this evening as a representative of two Christian traditions, which have in the past been exceptionally unpleasant to each other. I am a retired priest of the Church of England, and I am also an Elder in the Religious Society of Friends. That is not perhaps an entirely consistent position, but I am grateful that both bodies seem able to live with the anomaly. It is fascinating if slightly depressing to see how even though many of the quarrels between Anglicans and Quakers, which were in the past vituperative – and please do not think that Anglicans have always been cuddly or Quakers peacemakers – new issues have arisen to divide. The annual battles over the payment of tithes are long past, and your Chaplain illustrates in her own person the disappearance of another item of contention. The place of women’s ministry has given way to a rather different area of controversy, which is proving quite as contentious and divisive. In this evening’s lesson from Isaiah we can trace the beginning of a promise, which can still inspire and unsettle: “Let not the eunuch say, Behold I am a dry tree. For thus saith the Lord unto the eunuchs that keep my Sabbaths, and choose the things that please me, and take hold of my covenant; even unto them will I give in mine house and within my walls a place and a name better than of sons and of daughters: I will give them an everlasting name, that shall not be cut off.” (Isaiah 56. 3‐5) Here the gender anomalies which so preoccupy the present Bishop of Rome are put aside. If the text is unfamiliar that is partly because it challenges very directly the cult of “family values” espoused by most western churches, which serve the residential suburbs. Quakers in this country are now the only historic denomination which challenges the emerging conservative consensus, embodied by Roman Catholics, Anglicans and most of the other free churches, in positively welcoming those attracted to their own sex and fostering their relationships. If you want to see the issues clearly stated you will find them in Towards a Quaker view of Sex and the Bishops’ report Issues in Human Sexuality. It is perhaps surprising that it is the Quakers who quote with approval modern Anglican writers and are aware of the contribution to the Christian understanding of marriage that was made by Jeremy Taylor, the Anglican divine, in the seventeenth century. It is perhaps only fair to 2 point out that the Chairman of the Bishops’ Report repudiated its conservative conclusions soon after he had retired from his See. I suspect however that I am primarily here as a relic from the past brought out to celebrate the sumptuous restoration of this chapel in its 150th Anniversary. Those who preach in this place have the sobering experience of facing their Lord in judgement before them, while knowing that out of eye sight the Rector can deliver a usually silent commentary on their offering. Rector Barr, I remember, presented an appearance in which deep thought could never be entirely distinguished from profound boredom; only occasionally resorting to rustling the keys in his pocket at times of extreme impatience. I omitted to note whether the present Rector had brought a handbag. I was Chaplain here in revolutionary times. I do not refer to Exeter’s Night of Shame as the tabloids christened it, when the SubRector of the College was nearly mistaken by the police for a delinquent undergraduate, but to the admission of the first women as undergraduates, indeed as Fellows, after 650 years. Most of you will probably find it hard to believe how fiercely the segregation of the sexes had been enforced in Oxford Colleges before 1970. I remember late in the supposedly swinging sixties in my own undergraduate college, that when a student was found to be sharing his room with a woman in the morning, he was on the train to London by lunchtime. “I did not become provost to preside over a brothel” was the crisp verdict attributed to Lord Franks. I do not remember the example of Robert Burns being cited in mitigation. By the time I arrived here, the decision to admit women had already been taken. You may well ask how in those circumstances the Fellows of the College, and in those days only the Fellows participated in the decision, came to appoint as Chaplain a shy, unmarried, not to say prudish, clergyman in his early thirties, who had spent the preceding five years in a deeply rural parish. I will own that I found the culture shock profound. My memory of the last year of the College as a single sex institution is not endearing – not least a deal of drunken violence. The change brought about by quite a small cohort of women the next year was immediate and profound. I will not pretend that the consumption of alcohol significantly diminished, but overnight the college became a much more civilized place in which to live, and their presence seemed to allow the men to be pleasant to each other. It seemed also to assist attendance at Chapel – the arrangement of pews facing each other gave to the congregation a social function that Thomas Hardy would immediately have recognised, and where else could you entertain your girl friend for free on the Chaplain’s sherry? The only draw back to the new arrangements was that while Oxford Colleges are admirably suited to falling in love, they are purgatory when falling out of love. The proximity of the once beloved is not an aid to study, and I am delighted that the College seems to have found a solution to the problem in acquiring an alternative site so close to the centre of the university, so that now the lovelorn can be humanely separated. 3 More seriously it made me realize how woefully inadequate the churches’ sexual attitudes and teaching were in helping undergraduates respond to the new situation that life in College now represented. As Robert Burns’ life and poetry will readily remind you, the default position of the Christian tradition has been for centuries censorious, fearing pregnancy outside marriage, and controlling behaviour by inflicting shame. We may easily deplore the cruelty and unhappiness this often involved, but we have to remember that this was the resource of societies without either reliable contraception or medically safe abortion. It is less often recognized that if Christianity has a long experience of celebrating and disciplining marriage, it has much less experience of courting, or leaving the young to choose their own partners. For most of Christian history and in most Christian societies marriage has been thought far too important to leave to the young people themselves. The association of marriage with love, so eloquently espoused by the present pope, is a relatively recent development; in this respect his views owe more to a mixture of Hollywood romance and Bavarian gemütlich. For much of Christian history love was seen as the enemy of marriage – at most it might be envisaged as its end, but certainly not its beginning. Those who wish to see traditional Christian family values will find them not on the northern shores of the Mediterranean, but in the Islamic countries to the south and east. There St Paul would still see and approve use of the veil. If I commend Towards a Quaker View of Sex to you, it is less because of its sensitive response to homosexuality, as in its awareness that the whole Christian tradition of sexual teaching needs careful reassessment. All too often more conservative Christian voices give the impression that it is only homosexuals who challenge that teaching. They are also inclined to believe that marriage has been an unchanging institution through Christian, if not human, history; in reality purely verbal continuity masks profound changes. What is surprising is that Anglicans of all people remain so unaware of the sexual revolution of which they themselves are the heirs. Every time a new married bishop is seen and photographed with his wife and children there is no consciousness that such a phenomenon would cause outrage and scandal in most of the Christian world, east and west. Sharp controversy over the acceptance of a married clergy remained unresolved for most of the English Reformation. We may now talk blandly of the Elizabethan settlement, but the Queen herself was quite unreconciled to the novelty. Throughout her reign clerical marriage was winked at, but she never withdrew her sister’s statutory prohibitions, and indeed the celibacy of Oxford and Cambridge fellows which remained in place until the nineteenth century, was a sop to dissuade her from re‐imposing clerical celibacy in the early 1560s. If the Virgin Queen had had her way, it would have been the end of the Vicar’s wife. To read the literature of that controversy is to enter a very different world from the complacency of much modern Anglicanism. Here is John Ponet writing in 1549: At times his writing attains an anguished passion which communicates across the centuries : ""Trew it is, that the gyft of continencye is a gyfte of God, more excedllent then is the gyfte of 4 matrimony, but to whome I praye you? to him that can no lyve with out the company of a woman? no. A charger full of golde is better than a charger full of meate, but to whom I pray you? to him which is so hungrye, that he can not tarry one moment of an houre without daunger of death for lacke of meate...? no." Ponet had a short way with those who claimed that the answer to all such problems is to pray harder : "True it is, that ye shall have the gift of sole life for the askynge, if it be the will of God to gyve it you. But …..we many tymes aske that thyng, that is not mete for us, in the judgement of God, which to our blind judgement semeth most convenient....Even so, if the gifte of single life be desyred at his hand, he giveth it not to all men, " ( A Defence for Mariage of Priestes, by Scripture and aunciente Writers, 1549). At a time when once again Bishops are rediscovering the virtues of the single life, if not for themselves, at least for their homosexual colleagues, they might do well to listen to John Ponet. It will take time and sensitivity for the Christian tradition to take the measure of the sexual revolution that took place in the twentieth century. Replacing an outlook which has relied heavily on fear and shame will not be easy. We need to recapture a sense of the mystery which surrounds this most intimate aspect of human life: In the words of Paul Ricoeur : “Ultimately, when two beings embrace, they don’t know what they are doing, they don’t know what they want, they don’t know what they are looking for, they don’t know what they are finding. What is the meaning of this desire which drives them toward each other?” (“Wonder, Eroticism and Enigma”, Sexuality and the Modern World, Cross Currents, Spring 1964, by Cross Currents Corporation.)
Western Christianity has been dominated by a legal emphasis derived from the Canon Law of the High Middle Ages, and this is true of Protestants as much as Roman Catholics. In the East there remains a much stronger awareness that our lives the object of divine providence, and no where more than in the relationships which are most precious to us. Instead of the human promise it is the divine will which brings people together. In any case I believe that we will have to give much greater emphasis on truthfulness in our sexual moral teaching, and on trust and trustworthiness; but those are qualities which may be fostered, but ultimately they can only be practiced. In any case we need a generosity towards each other as we find our way forward. I cannot do better than quote the closing words of Robert Burns’ Address to the Unco Good: Then gently scan your brother man, Still gentler sister woman; Tho’ they may gang a kenning wrang, To step aside is human One point must still be greatly dark, 5 The moving why they do it; And just as lamely can ye mark How far perhaps they rue it. Who made the heart, ‘tis He alone Decidedly can try us; He knows each chord, its various tone, Each spring, its various bias. Then at the balance let’s be mute, We never can adjust it, What’s done we partly may compute But know not what’s resisted. Burns might have wished that his clerical contemporaries had listened more carefully to the Paul who speaks to us in this evening’s lesson: “Brethren, if a man be overtaken in a fault, ye which are spiritual, restore such an one in the spirit of meekness; considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted. Bear ye one another’s burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ.” (Galatians 6, 1‐2) Graham Shaw, Exeter College Chapel, 25th January 2009