How sex is challenging global institutions

Hands praying

Sex, in every sense, is leaving some huge global institutions challenged and troubled, and causing them to adjust their perspectives, says Joan Bakewell in her A Point of View column.

There is one book more than any other of which I have several copies in my home. No, not the works of Shakespeare, though in truth these are the more regularly thumbed volumes.

The book I refer to was published even while Shakespeare was still writing his plays and when the glory of the language was enjoying its greatest flowering, in theatre, in poetry and in sermons. The book is the Bible, and my copies have extended leather covers creating a lip around the gold-edged flimsy pages, presumably to protect them from harm, this being a book like no other.

Several of my Bibles are inscribed with the good wishes of godparents and one has a series of illustrations, including that of a fair-skinned child Jesus with a head of golden curls. It came as a shock to learn Jesus was Jewish.

The texts are "translated out of the original tongues and with the former translations diligently compared and revised by his Majesty's special command". This is, of course, the Authorised Version, the King James Bible published in 1611, and next year 2011 enjoying a year-long celebration of its 400th anniversary. Rejoicing got underway a few days ago at the Banqueting Hall in London.

Emotional commitment

The King James Bible Trust aims to mark what they call the near universal cultural importance of its publication. It was diligently done: 47 scholars took seven years creating a text that conformed strictly with Church of England doctrine at a time when religious conflict was still vivid in the country.

The power of its language and the beauty of its expression linger in the minds of many of us over whom the tenets of the Christian faith have loosened their hold.

Bible The Bible can still move even the unreligious

Christmas is the very time when the clash of old and new worship becomes obvious. Churches are booked for months in advance by different charities, each keen to hold their fundraising carol concerts within beautiful settings. I shall be going to one that supports Saving Faces, the Facial Surgery Research Foundation.

There are plenty of other worthy carol services, for Breast Cancer, for Adfam - families affected by drugs - but they feel secular as much as religious. They attract masses of well-wishers. But also people who grew up with the authorised version of the Christmas story and the old familiar carols around Deep and Crisp and Even, and who are often bemused by updated translations and completely at sea with new hymn tunes and lyrics.

This is on the surface nothing more than one generation giving way before another. But in another profound sense, it is not.

The words of a religious text define the faith and in two very particular ways. The words define what believers profess to believe; they ARE the faith. Secondly, the words - learnt and repeated regularly when we are young - in some way root deep in us the emotional commitment we have to that faith, a bond born of certain cadences and expressions.

Change them and you present people with real problems. When, as is the case with the Authorised Version, the more ancient text is so much more beautiful than its successors, you may risk fragmenting your followers between young and old loyalties. For me, who no longer professes my earlier faith, the authorised King James Bible still has power to move and inspire. But the significance of words - or their absence - can have surprising importance.

Scandalised

There is no word for condom in the bible, then or now. So the Pope's new remarks on the permitted use of condoms in certain highly-specific circumstances draw their authority from far more than that. Benedict XV1, who is said to be an outstanding theologian, will be familiar with the 2,000 years of Church history - its fathers, its philosophers, its councils and its encyclicals over the centuries.

Start Quote

Joan Bakewell

The notion of the will of God being determined by votes is both modern and alarming”

End Quote

They all carried their developing argument forward by reference to each other, evolving doctrine against a commonly shared world view based on certain fundamental beliefs. Islamic scholars do the same for Islam, the rabbis who study the Torah likewise for Judaism. Religious exegesis is how religions move forward, as move forward they must.

But it is the Papal comments that have grabbed the attention of the world. Being steeped in such an abundance of scholarship sometimes puts the Pope beyond the reach of the rest of us. In 2006 he quoted a criticism of the Prophet Muhammad by a mediaeval scholar.

Many in the Islamic world were scandalised and claimed the remark could set in train a "crusade" against Islam. The Pope expressed regret. The word "crusade" itself comes loaded with firepower. Remember President Bush's unhappy use of it after 9/11, which confirmed prejudices all round. Words are dangerous, but they are all we have to deal with the world, short of weapons.

Global religions tend to follow behind the rest of the world - the secular world - in how they gradually adjust their point of view. Consider sex, homosexuality and women. It took three centuries for the Papacy to admit that it had been wrong about Galileo. In today's world we are not having to wait that long.

Infallibility

There is a quickening of the debate driven by circumstances that appear to show various churches in crisis. I think rather they are being driven to update their attitudes by unassailable global facts. Aids is a fact too big to ignore; so is population growth.

These issues are putting the Catholic Church under strain. The western tolerance of homosexuality and the rise in the status of women are issues that have a global impact. They are currently putting the Anglican Communion under strain. This week we have seen them both struggling to reconcile demands for change with commitment to tradition. Each is going about it in a different way.

Safe sex campaigners Condoms have put the Pope in the spotlight recently

The Catholic Church upholds the doctrine of papal infallibility, which appears to lock them into the position that Rome's teaching can only be changed with great difficulty. The doctrine of infallibility was only introduced in 1870, whether in response to the loss of the Papal States as a political force or in response to the tide of Darwinism, I can't guess.

But it hems in the Pope and his advisers, who can now only reinterpret received doctrine with ever more subtle adjustments, especially the 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae forbidding artificial contraception. The recent comments by the Pope apparently citing the situation of male prostitutes at risk of HIV seem to me bizarre. I can't but imagine that certainly the statement may be mistakenly taken to mean the Pope allows condoms in general.

The Church of England, by contrast, is taking a different route - the route of democracy. The elected Synod that was opened by the Queen on Tuesday is facing disagreements across the Anglican Communion of some 70 million members. Here the great divide is between those who can, and cannot, accept women bishops and those who want to accept homosexual priests and those who refuse.

Backwards step

There is an overlap between causes, but they are by no means aligned. I suspect there are closet gay priests who are not happy with the rise of a female priesthood, but it is only a suspicion, based as it is on insider gossip and unverifiable allegations. But again we have a church in discord, which is operating under a relatively recent structure.

The idea of the Synod as the elected governing body of the Church of England was only introduced in the 1960s. The notion of the will of God being determined by votes is both modern and alarming.

Find out more

  • A Point of View, with Joan Bakewell, is on Fridays on Radio 4 at 2050 GMT and repeated Sundays, 0850 GMT

So far from the wisdom of ages, unchanging but distilled by today's thinkers, we have relatively recent institutions making compromises to meet the needs of the day. This is thoroughly logical but high risk, for the traditionalists will baulk at the concessions and the modernists will despair at the delay. The prospect of a flock of dissident, often married Anglicans priests fleeing to Rome for comfort merely compounds the confusion.

Meanwhile, another high-profile global institution, the United Nations, has recently voted to take an unequivocally backward step. Every two years it draws up and passes a resolution calling for states to eliminate extra-judicial killings motivated by race, nationality, ethnicity, religion, language or other identifying characteristics.

In the past, sexual orientation has been on that list. This year, the phrase was dropped. An amendment to that effect was passed by 79 votes to 70. It was proposed by Benin, the chair of the African group of nations, supported by Morocco on behalf of the Islamic conference . The nature of change is not always in the direction of progress.

A selection of your comments appears below

I find the author's comments on papal infallibility to be unclear; how can a doctrine that has been used so rarely be capable of hemming in the Pope? Very few pronouncements or teachings are made ex cathedra (certainly, Humanae Vitae was not). The 1950 declaration of the doctrine of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary was released using the principle of papal infallibility but most other teachings and encyclicals and not so rigidly defined.

Kat, London

I am always confused by this. How can religion, presenting itself as a link to an eternal all-powerful God, need to move with the times? How can there be any influences which are more powerful than whatever holy scriptures you subscribe to? Religion is all about absolute certainty. You can have doubts and seek understanding but the end target must surely be immutable. These shifts, evasions and fundamental disagreements between those who claim a connection with the divine just underline the fallacy at the heart of religion.

Alex, Lymington

To me, the nuance of the text of the Bible isn't all that important, and the same goes for the specific teachings of my Church (I'm a lapsed Catholic). I try my best to love God and love others, and I find that most of the time the rest takes care of itself.

Rachel, West Yorkshire

I was very confused over the decision to allow male prostitutes to use condoms. Surely the very act of being a male prostitute (sleeping with multiple women outside of wedlock) goes completely against Roman Catholic values anyway? I guess the Catholics are just doing their usual thing of bending the rules to allow men to do exactly as they please, and forcing women to adhere to archaic and sexist rules. Why any sane intelligent woman would join (or remain a part of!) the Catholic Church is beyond comprehension.

Charlie, Cheltenham

I agreed with you up to your last section. If you look in Acts you will find plenty of examples of compromise and even the will of God being determined by votes (I fail to understand how that is alarming). It sounds like you are confusing the actual bible with your received impression of the bible.

Ed, London

More on This Story

In today's Magazine

Features

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.