The story of an accidental ethicist
Nowadays I spend a large amount of my time thinking and writing about Christian sexual ethics. I still write extensively on other areas of Christian theology, but at the moment Christian sexual ethics is the main focus of my work. However, this was never a field of study I ever intended or expected to be involved in. I got into it by accident.
In January 2000 I was just coming to an end of seven years teaching doctrine and church history at Oak Hill College in London and was looking forward to a new job as theological consultant to the Church of England’s Faith and Order Advisory Group and its House of Bishops. I thought that in this new job I would continue to work in the areas of doctrine and church history, but in a new and wider context.
To a large extent this was true, but from the start of my new job I also got involved in what was to me the entirely new field of sexual ethics. The House of Bishops had just started work on the report that was eventually published in 2003 as Some issues in Human Sexuality, and as their new theological consultant I was told that I would be responsible for drafting the report. I took a deep breath, got out a pile of books from Oak Hill College library, poured a mug of strong coffee, and set to work, learning the field as I went along.
I continued to work for the Church of England for the next thirteen years and because I had written Some Issues I kept on being asked to do further work on sexual ethics, producing and contributing to a series of papers and reports on the topic. When my job with the Church of England came to an end I was then asked to produce material on sexual ethics for Latimer Trust and the Church of England Evangelical Council and that is what I have been doing ever since.
Much of the material that I have written about Christian sexual ethics in the past two decades has been at a fairly high academic level. I have been writing, for the most part, for people who already have some knowledge about the subject and want to be helped to think more deeply about it. However, as I have talked to members of many different churches over the years it has become increasingly clear to me that there is also a need for really basic material on the subject for ordinary Christian believers, who are aware that there is great deal of discussion at the moment, both in the Church and in wider society, about human sexual identity and behaviour, but who are not at all sure what to make of this discussion from the standpoint of their Christian faith.
The purpose of my new book for Latimer Trust, A Basic Christian Primer on Sex, Marriage and Family Life, is to meet this need. In this book I seek to explain as clearly as possible the basis of an authentically Christian approach to sexual ethics and what the Christian faith has to say about marriage, singleness, friendship, intersex and transgender issues, sex outside marriage (including same-ex relationships) , divorce and re-marriage, birth control and treatments for infertility. I hope that this book will be particularly useful in helping Christians in the Church of England to understand the issues that will be discussed in the Church England after the material from the Living in Love and Faith project is published at the end of this year and to know better how to approach them on the basis of the teaching of the Bible and the orthodox Christian tradition.
Over the years in which I have worked as an accidental ethicist I have become increasingly aware that issues concerning sexual ethics cause both believers and unbelievers alike a great deal of heartache and need to be handled with a huge amount of pastoral sensitivity. For reasons of space I have not been able to go into much detail in my book about how the matters it covers should be handled pastorally. However, I do touch on some of the issues involved in chapters 8-13 and I sketch out the key principles in this area in my conclusion. The list of books for further reading at the end of the book also provide more details on what an appropriate pastoral approach to sexual ethics should look like.