Sunday, 5 July 2015

Gavin Ashenden and Erotic Love

“People who are terribly unhappy about sex, moving in an entirely male world, will take it out on those in their care. Anyone uncomfortable about their sexuality may be attracted to an institution where they can exercise power.” (Diarmaid MacCulloch)

Gavin Ashenden is once more sounding off, this time about marriage. He blames Hollywood on erotic love, ephemeral romance and sexual attraction.

This is of course a blatant disregard for the romantic movement which happened rather a long time before Hollywood came on the scene. Has he never heard of Byron or Shelley?

In fact, as CS Lewis demonstrated in "The Allegory of Love", the notion of romantic and erotic love has been around since the Middle Ages. The Romance of the Rose, Gavin Ashenden may be surprised to learn, is about romance and not about procreation. Romeo and Juliet, it may surprise Canon Ashenden to learn, was about sexual passion and not a desire to marry and procreate.

It was in the eleventh century that French poets first began to express the romantic species of passion, which of course the English poets of the Romantic movement were still writing about in the nineteenth century.

Reading his article, one cannot be struck by how fixated he seems to be about marriage as about having children. This is perhaps understandable, as for many men, there is a fixation on having children, and even more so, on having a male heir.

Even twenty odd years ago, I still recall being in a lift in the hospital, as we came down from visiting hours to the maternity unit, and asking another man about his child. "It's a girl", he said, but that simple statement cannot convey the tone of disappointment, of upset, in his voice. I was shocked, especially as my son had just been diagnosed with what is popularly called club foot. I seethed inside at the attitude of someone who had a healthy child, and was not grateful for that fact.

Women have been at the sharp end throughout most of human history, and have either died in childbirth, or been worn out by having so many children. This was brutally dramatised in an episode of the TV drama "The Royal", where despite medical risks that the mother faces, the Catholic priest is adamant that she is not sterilised. In the end, she suffers a medical emergency, loses a child and has to have a hysterectomy to save her life. The priest is very upset. Unfortunately, that storyline is very close to the truth.

As Mary Midgley mentions in "Women's Choices", women have been breeding machines for most of human history and freedom came not with Hollywood but with modern contraception, which enabled a woman to take charge of her own fertility, to have children, yes, but when she wanted to do so. The dismal record of back street abortions, and indeed the fact that abortions still occur testify to the fact that this is not infallible, nor is the education of young women on their choices.

As the Women's Refuge in Jersey, and similar refuges in Britain will testify, escaping a loveless and abusive marriage can be very difficult; it is not a step taken lightly. Gavin Ashenden, talking about couples divorcing and swapping because of feelings really trivialises marriage breakdown, Yes, there may be cases when this occurs, and the clergy themselves are not immune by miracles but as fallible as the rest of us, but we should also look at the many cases where a marriage can be so loveless that divorce may be a better option for the children. Before my parents split up, I have memories of shouting, arguments, slamming of doors. Afterwards, there was a degree of peace and normality again.

That doesn't mean that marriage counselling is not worth trying, but sometimes that just doesn't work. In marriages where there is physical or emotional abuse, the perpetrator is unlikely to want to engage in any kind of introspection; for them, marriage is all about control. Being happy may not be the only goal of marriage, but being in distress and misery certainly is not.

And then he attacks the notion of three women in a marriage in the USA. Now that does seem strange indeed to me, but if you look at the Old Testament, as I am sure Reverend Ashenden has done, there are heroes of the faith like Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David, Solomon, who in fact have many wives and often concubines as well. King Solomon had 700 wives and 300 concubines!

Polygamy was part of their culture, and there is no religious impediment to it. David is judged by God because he has coveted another man's wife and arranged for the man to die in battle, but no judgement is given against him having many wives. Solomon is criticised because his wives worship idols, not for having many wives.

Gavin Ashenden talks about people in a secular world being uncomfortable with the Bible, and its message, but he pays scant justice to the ambivalence in the Bible itself over what constitutes proper gender relations and how marriage works.

Far from modernity redefining marriage, as the excellent program on “Sex and the Church” by Professor Diarmaid MacCulloch has shown, historically the concept of marriage has changed over the centuries, not least by the Church as it sought to control sexuality. It was only in the 16th century that the church decreed that weddings be performed in public, by a priest, and before witnesses.

And for countless centuries love did not enter the equation. Marriage was seen as more of a business relationship, and it was commonplace and acceptable for men to have mistresses whom they did love. I’d recommend that Canon Ashenden reads “The Subjection of Women”, written by John Stuart Mill in 1869, or the 1791 book “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman” by Mary Wollstonecraft.

As Jack Lopez notes:

“For hundreds of years, women had few to no legal rights once they married. Married women had no independent legal existence: they could not make contracts, maintain their own names, file lawsuits, have full ownership and control of property, and in some cases could not maintain custody of their children after their husband’s death. The husband controlled all the family earnings and all of his wife’s property in exchange for nothing firmer than the general social expectation that he would support his wife and children”

So let’s not look at past ages of marriage with rose tinted spectacles. If I am uncomfortable with the Bible, it is because it often acquiesces in power and control at the expense of love. The Song of Solomon, one of the most erotic love poems of the ancient world, was marginalised as an allegory of the Church and Christ, rather than celebrated as a hymn to passion and erotic love.

Take me by the hand, let us run together!
My lover, my king, has brought me into his chambers.
We will laugh, you and I, and count each kiss,
better than wine. (The Song of Solomon)

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