- David Bennett
Querying the Queer at Oxford
In a time where the Church is being called to respond to queerness in the Academy, and the central way that key theological and anthropological questions are being answered by our culture and humanity reimagined by them, I realised that my life as a gay celibate Christian posed vital questions to many assumptions within queer theory, especially whether it really freed gay people like me to live in the way we see and desired in Christ. My thesis, entitled, “Queering the queer: how does homosexual celibate ascesis renew and inform the role of desire in contemporary Anglican moral and pastoral theology?”, presses into this territory that isn’t much explored. It sits at the intersection of the evangelical moral theology of Oliver O’Donovan, Sarah Coakley’s renewed emphasis on desire and participation in the life of the Trinity through a renewed form of asceticism that is Spirit-driven, and in the work of Graham Ward who emphasises the new ways we can desire in Christ and form communities of desire that embrace a greater horizon of goodness and relational fulfilment in Augustine’s vision of the City of God.
Additionally in this cultural moment, we are seeing the emergence of a new evangelical response to queer theory and queer theology. I’ve been always hesitant in my understanding of what ‘queer’ meant, both in my university years as an atheist but also in the academic literature I’m now reading. Whether that was in academic discourse, political context, or in a declaration of a personal identity, there were parts of me that resonated with the way that queer theory destabilises norms that covered over bodies and desires that were complex and didn’t slot easily into the often oppressive norms of society and the Church, and yet I knew as a disciple of Christ I was called to live differently – to live in the holiness of God, which both resonated with but also challenged the politics of queerness itself. I also knew the study of the Christian body was complex in that Christian anthropology when it involves sex, gender and embodied life should approach these questions by living and thinking between cross and resurrection, and the logic of creation, fall and redemption. The text-book answers on desire we often used in Church didn’t always chime with the reality of what scripture or Christian tradition more richly said, and how it reflected the pastoral and moral needs of all, but particularly LGBTQI+ people.
What contemporary Anglican theology has been revealing to me in my research, and what I hope to assert, is that celibate gay Christians have a unique witness that disrupts queer logics and assumptions in the Academy, and actually, one could say ‘queers the queer.’ The history of celibacy and the life of Jesus and Paul in the history of the church has destabilised a certain way of elevating marriage or ‘sexual expression’ as the required good for human flourishing. The reality of being gay or same-sex attracted also subverts the notion heterosexuality rather than that the holy life of Christ is the end goal or telos of our lives of discipleship. Further, it reveals that in a post-Christendom context, we are now in a neo-Augustinian moment where our culture does not share the assumptions of the Gospel. This requires us to ask questions of desire that have needed serious treatment, and in a similar way to the church fathers of the early centuries, to commend and make Christian ethics and theology of desire comprehensible to our culture and its understanding of what it means to be human.
The Latimer Trust grant has enabled me to contribute this thesis to this vital task. As Jed Atkins says about how the early Christians lived in a similar moment to ours:
'Freedom from societal constraints and expectations also characterizes the youth culture increasingly associated with “singleness” in modern liberal societies. But early Christians who pursued vocational singleness were not asserting their own individuality or autonomy. Neither freedom nor intimacy were ends in themselves, but byproducts of the pursuit of union and communion with God as part of the family of Christ. As in Christian marriage, so in other forms of Christian community, intimacy followed commitment. What we so distinctly lack today is a notion of how singleness can support, and be supported by, non-marital forms of intimacy.'
I am grateful to the Latimer Trust for supporting for me to put forward this contribution to similar ends, and I look forward to seeing similar work that will advance the Kingdom of God in these, innovative ways.