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date: 17 November 2019


Abstract and Keywords

This Introduction describes the nature, purpose, structure, and methodology of the Handbook. It explains the ‘method of correlation’ and how the method is used. Problems attaching to the theological study of, and the language of, sexuality and gender, are noted. The content of each of the eight parts is described, together with the uses of scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. The parts are ‘Methods’, ‘What Theologians Need to Know’, ‘Sexuality and Gender in the Biblical World’, ‘Sexuality and Gender in Christian Tradition’, ‘Controversies within the Churches’, ‘Conversations with Word Faiths’, ‘Concepts and Issues’, and ‘Sexual Theologies for All People’.

Keywords: experience, gender, homosexuality, language of sexuality, method of correlation, person-centred theology, reason, scripture, sexuality, tradition

This Introduction describes the academic home of the Handbook, and identifies what is in it, what it does, and how it is done. These are, of course, large questions about its nature, content, purpose, and method.

A Work of Theology

There are forty-one chapters in the Handbook, including this one, four of them co-authored. Of the forty-four authors, twenty-one are male and twenty-three are female. The attempt at achieving approximate gender balance among the contributors is deliberate.

The Handbook is a work of Christian theology within the broader subject or field of religion. The Handbook is not primarily a work of religious studies, except that theology is now often located within that broader genre. As a work of theology it takes for granted that God is, that God is revealed in Jesus Christ, and that God’s Spirit is at work in Church and world. Teachers and students of religion do not bring these suppositions to their studies. Teachers and students of theology need not, and increasingly may not, adhere to these suppositions either, but when they study Christianity they will know that they are looking into or speaking out of a tradition which does. Theology and religious studies are different, but related. Both realms of inquiry have their methods and suppositions, and, to avoid confusion, it is better to acknowledge them. In any case, they frequently inform each other. Some of the essays in the Handbook are better situated within religious studies, while those on history and the social sciences can be situated outside both. Some of the essays are clearly locatable within Christian ethics, itself a lively branch of theology.

But what sort of theology? A broad spectrum of theology will be found in the present volume. Authors represent different theologies and traditions. Within a generation (p. 4) sexual theology (Nelson 1979), feminist theology (Fulkerson and Briggs 2012), body theology (Nelson 1992; John Paul II 1997; Isherwood and Stuart 1998), lesbian and gay theology (Stuart 2003), indecent theology (Althaus-Reid 2000), sexual liberation theology (Althaus-Reid 2006), and, more recently, queer theology (Loughlin 2007; Cheng 2011; Cornwall 2011) have appeared, all of them providing novel treatments of the subjects of this Handbook. Some of these theologies have become well established and have generated collections of essays, series of monographs, and—in the case of feminist theology—an Oxford Handbook (Fulkerson and Briggs 2012). Sexuality and gender are not merely contentious and pervasive topics within theology: according to the Norris Hulse Professor of Divinity at the University of Cambridge, they have escalated in importance to the extent that even the very doctrine of the Trinity cannot be contemplated without a prior grappling with each: for

the problem of the Trinity cannot be solved without addressing the very questions that seem least to do with it, questions which press on the contemporary Christian churches with such devastating and often destructive force; questions of sexual justice, questions of the meaning and stability of gender, questions of the final theological significance of sexual desire.

(Coakley 2013: 2)

The Method of Correlation

The theological plan for this volume was inspired by my studies of the theologian Paul Tillich some forty years ago (Thatcher 1978). Before his exile from Germany in 1933 Tillich advocated what he called ‘dialectical’ or ‘answering’ theology. This was to become, in his Systematic Theology, volume i (1953: 67–74), the ‘method of correlation’. He thought, in dialogue with Karl Barth, that a prior analysis of the situation in which hearers of the Gospel were placed, would enable the proclamation of the Gospel to be nuanced towards particular human needs in particular contexts. Proclaimers required some ‘pre-understanding’ of the situation of their hearers: hearers required some pre-understanding of the proclamation in order to be able to accept what they heard. Theology, he declared, existed to provide answers to genuine human questions: question and answer were to be brought into correlation. The method has been heavily criticized. Tillich thought that philosophy, and in particular existentialism, could articulate the deepest human or existential questions. Today we look to the natural and social sciences to provide much of this for us. And sometimes theology asked the questions and philosophy provided the answers.

Despite these difficulties, Tillich was right on several counts. He was right to insist that for revelation to occur at all, it must first be received in a human context, and to be received it must be, at least partially, understood. Tillich was right to demand ‘answering theology’ and the structure of the present Handbook attempts to provide ‘answers’ to (p. 5) very modern and pressing questions arising from the experience and study of sexuality and gender, within and beyond the Christian faith. Tillich was also right to insist that the answers theology provides are not invented, even by clever theologians, but in some sense already given, since God is already given, and the knowledge of God cannot be reduced to anything else. But different and competing answers to the same questions will be found, and there will be a growing tentativeness to all of them that would have disconcerted the confident Tillich. Each of the eight parts in this volume contributes to a framework which correlates secular and theological studies in a manner which is intended to be mutually beneficial. Theology is brought into correlation with sexuality and gender, and also with the social sciences and history. The method of correlation is the organizing principle of the volume; no more. It is not made into any kind of sophisticated technique, and authors have not been requested to accommodate it in their individual chapters.

Sexuality and Gender

There are problems with the subjects ‘sexuality’ and ‘gender’ greater than the obvious one of defining them. Historians of culture, of medicine, and of ideas are telling us that the idea that there are two sexes belongs to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (Schiebinger 1989; Laqueur 1990; Dabhoiwala 2012) and that earlier centuries believed in a single human nature or sex in which women existed as inferior versions of men. ‘Sexuality’ and the cognate terms associated with it (homo-, hetero-, and bi-) undoubtedly belong to European modernity. The term ‘homosexual’ first appeared in print in 1869 (see Chapter 36). ‘Gender’ comes from the Old French gendre (now genre), which itself derives from the Latin genus. It has been used since the fourteenth century as a grammatical term, referring to classes of noun designated as masculine, feminine, or neuter in some languages. ‘The sense “the state of being male or female” has also been used since the 14th century, but this did not become common until the mid 20th century’ (Oxford Dictionaries Pro 2013). Sexuality is already anchored in a particular discourse, that of medicine (and later the social sciences), which already brings assumptions about what ‘it’ is, how it is to be studied, how it supposedly supplants earlier discourses, and so on.

When theology provided a ‘master discourse’ for the discussion of sexual matters, there was in place a framework which related them to God, to God’s purpose for humanity, to a good yet marred creation, to marriage as a divinely appointed institution, and to the virtues of love and friendship. The discourse of sexuality consciously eliminates these earlier associations and values. It is invented and closely guarded by the medical and social sciences. ‘Gender’ becomes a subject of academic study a century later. It too belongs in a context of philosophy and social theory, where there are now two sexes and the relations between each sex are deemed to give rise to ‘injustice’ and ‘inequality’, both of which require social action and reaction. Both subjects float, albeit launched from (p. 6) different historical launching sites, on an ebbing tide of secularization of thought and practice.

Language and Change

Theologians need to be aware of two particular problems when handling these topics—those of language and of the pace of the social and behavioural changes accompanying them. First, theology cannot be required merely to operate the chosen discourses of modernity. On the one hand, it may find, from within its own resources for thinking and acting, that these discourses are deficient. They may contain lacunae. They may be reductive, the products of science alone. Terms such as ‘homosexual’ may confer identities on people which take on an inappropriate fixity and ultimacy. And medical discourse may fail to valorize sufficiently the deep human significance of sexual love. On the other hand, the new discourses enable Christians to learn much about themselves and their relationships, and to locate fault-lines in their own settled and pre-scientific ways of thinking. Correlation is again beneficial: assimilation is not. Theology may be able to warn the churches of some of the dangers of buying into the modern nomenclature of sex. It is ironic that Catholic and evangelical theologians alike are so much at home with this untheological vocabulary. That said, readers will note its presence in the titles and content of many of the essays in this volume. But such nomenclature cannot be ultimate and should not be read back into scripture and tradition as if it had always been there. Theology issues no linguistic veto regarding the use of the modern vocabulary of sex, but it strikes a note of caution about the adequacy of modern discourses and their tendency to supplant older ones.

Second, a study of these twin subjects goes to the heart of immense social, cultural, and behavioural changes in most ‘First World’ countries. A single generation has known homosexual intimacy to be a criminal offence; then it has seen it partially decriminalized and tolerated; then in some countries the age of consent was reduced to 16; then discrimination against any person on the ground of sexual orientation itself became a crime; then civil partnerships and finally marriage for couples of the same sex has been or is being introduced. Lesbians and gays have entered the cultural mainstream.

Heterosexuality has changed at a similar pace. The liberalization of divorce laws in the 1960s and 1970s caused a threefold rise in the number of divorces within a decade. Abortion became increasingly available and provoked intense social disagreement which still persists. The stigma attached to single parenthood weakened, and in several countries has virtually disappeared. Fewer people married, and those who did increasingly delayed tying the knot. As the average age at first marriage continued to increase, so did the practices of both prenuptial and non-nuptial cohabitation (Thatcher 2002). Patriarchal marriage began to be replaced by egalitarian marriage, in which wives become equal (or less unequal) partners with husbands. The (p. 7) connection between marriage and having children became more tenuous. In some countries children born to unmarried parents are beginning to be a majority. The period has seen an increasing frankness about sex in the media and the wider culture, and of course, on the Internet.

The professions are now open to women (with one obvious, sacerdotal, exception). Accompanying these changes is the advance made by women in social, professional, and domestic life. Women outnumber men in universities (and in British departments of theology and religious studies by a margin of two to one). The impact of the advance of women on family forms and practices has been great. Childcare has become a pressing issue; men are gradually learning to share more of the burden of housekeeping and childminding. The striving for equality between the sexes may already have been overtaken by a concern not just for the recognition of difference between men and women, but more widely for the recognition and negotiation of the differences of race, (dis)ability, class, and wealth.

Faced with changes of this magnitude and pace, it is not surprising that sexuality and gender have risen to the top of contentious and divisive issues within the churches. Yes, God’s self-revelation is God’s Word, Jesus Christ, but the reception of the Light of life (John 1:4) as it illuminates sexuality and gender, may have been fuzzy and poor. Change generally evokes a degree of resistance; rapid, profound change evokes trepidation and reaction. While Christian doctrine and ethics have always developed, a deep sense of their alleged changelessness remains. The essays will indicate the full brunt of these controversies and the disarray they have caused. As the issues have been argued about, appeals to the alleged authorities that might confirm the truth of one position over another, have caused real people with real needs to disappear in the heat of the accompanying theological struggles. An attempt to address that problem is made in Part VIII.

The Structure of the Handbook

The structure follows the method of correlation. It is influenced also by the (Episcopalian) instinct that the sources of theology are scripture, tradition, and reason, sometimes called ‘the three-legged stool’, together with the addition (by Methodists and others) of experience. Part I, ‘Methods’, indicates the priority of questions of method, as this introduction has done. Chapter 2 explores the key methodological approaches evident in recent theologies of sexuality, including those that reject the very notion of sexuality. Chapter 3 traces the academic development of postmodern theology and gender studies, arguing that gender theory restores to theology the forgotten wisdom of its own tradition with regard to language and the interpretation of scripture. Chapter 4 shows how traditional doctrines, such as those of God, Christ, and Trinity, can reinvigorate the theology of sexuality, now dominated by distinctively modern categories.

(p. 8) Reason

Part II, ‘What Theologians Need to Know’, also follows from the method of correlation, and uncontroversially draws on reason as a distinct source of theology. ‘Reason’ has several senses (Thatcher 2011: 35), one of which, in contrast to revelation, is the application of critical thinking to the natural and social worlds, in order to discover truths about them not otherwise disclosed to us by God. These worlds are God’s creation. The sciences are reasoned and reasonable activities, not contrary to revelation, but potentially a means of illumination of God’s creative purposes. Each author in Part II responds to the question ‘What do theologians need to know about sexuality and gender as your discipline understands them?’ Since sexuality and gender are studied by the sciences, and by philosophy and social theory, these disciplines are vital in ‘informing’ theological reflection on the same topics.

Chapter 5 introduces evolutionary biology and behavioural genetics (among other topics), and surveys the insights they offer into the evolutionary origins of sex, sexual selection theory and human mating strategies, sexual diversity, sexual dimorphism, and intersex. Chapter 6 surveys some of the insights that have emerged from various theoretical approaches to psychological exploration (including the pervasiveness of sexuality in human experience and the fundamentally relational nature of the sexual drive and motivation), and offers them as a resource for theological reflection. Chapter 7 provides an overview of anthropological research on the ways in which religions both construct and constrain gender and sexuality. It deals with issues of ‘discipline’, ‘reproduction’, and ‘protest and change’ respectively, and reflects on the role of gender in the writing of ethnographic texts.

Chapter 8 hones the social scientific tools for studying religion, gender, and sexuality. Drawing on a range of examples from sociology of religion, it explores the significance of individuals’ dispositions on the one hand and opportunities they encounter in their everyday lives on the other. Chapter 9 offers a philosophical analysis of key terms and distinctions such as gender essentialism, gender as a social construction, and gender realism. It assesses the importance of two prominent feminist philosophers, Judith Butler and Linda Martín Alcoff. Chapter 10 provides an overview of what Christian theologians need to know about queer theory, and suggests many ways in which theological reflection on sexuality and gender may benefit from it. The inclusion of queer theory in Part II may occasion some surprise, not least because it is very recent and because queer theorists generally deny their work lies within any academic discipline at all. Queer theory earns its place here as an influential critical methodology for handling sexuality and gender, and as a contributor to queer theology.


Part III, ‘Sexuality and Gender in the Biblical World’, hardly needs explanation. All the churches give priority to the Bible as a source of theology. The danger of the metaphor (p. 9) of the ‘three-legged stool’ is that if the stool is to support any weight each leg must be exactly equal in length, and Episcopalians do in fact (if not in theory) place more weight on the single leg of scripture than on the other two. The Roman Catholic Church believes there are ‘two distinct modes of transmission’ of divine revelation, ‘Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture’ (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1994: para. 80), and it derives ‘certainty’ from each. Both ‘must be accepted and honoured with equal sentiments of devotion and reverence’ (para. 82). Protestants always give priority to the Bible (sometimes to the neglect of tradition and reason). So there are overwhelming grounds for placing the Bible at the forefront of theological inquiry into sexuality and gender (and into anything else). The four essays in this part examine marriage, sexual relations, same-sex relations, and gender in the Bible and in the surrounding biblical world, recognizing continuity and discontinuity between that world and our own.

Contemporary interpreters of the Bible sometimes construct a threefold ordering of their inquiries, into what is ‘behind the text’, ‘in the text’, and ‘in front of the text’ (Turner 2000: 44–70; House of Bishops’ Group on Issues in Human Sexuality 2003: 45–47; Green 2010). But if these simple spatial prepositions hint at a simple procedure for arriving at an understanding of the text, the essays in Part III disperse any such suggestion, and enlarge considerably what might be meant by ‘behind’, ‘in’, and ‘in front of’. Chapter 11 shows that some of the assumptions ‘in the text’ of the Hebrew Bible about marriage and sexual relations are not merely complex and internally diverse: they actually stand in tension with traditional Jewish and Christian norms for marriage and sexual activity. Chapter 12 delves deep into marriage and sexual relations in the New Testament and the surrounding world as these topics are found within and behind the many relevant texts, finding within them both a positive appreciation of sex and marriage, as well as dire warnings against sexual wrongdoing.

Chapter 13 argues that biblical texts taken to prohibit same-sex love have been misunderstood. These prohibitions turn out not to be ‘in the text’ at all. Rather, there are multiple forms of same-sex love to be found in the texts of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, and this chapter explores them. Chapter 14 describes the application of gender theory in Classical studies. It then concentrates on gender analyses of New Testament writings that demonstrate the differing approaches of masculinity studies, queer theory, and intersectional analysis. All four essays indicate the growing impact of Classical studies on biblical studies. They broaden what is ‘behind’ the text of the scriptures to what is ‘all around the text’. It is a broad circumference.


Another problem with the threefold ordering of textual interpretation lies with an oversimplification of what stands ‘in front of’ the text. Yes, readers stand or sit in front of the text, but outside their direct field of vision (and sometimes conscious awareness) lie nearly two thousand years of tradition. Part IV, ‘Sexuality and Gender in Christian Tradition’ provides a bridge, albeit a tenuous one, between the biblical world and our (p. 10) own period. Tradition too is a source of theology: indeed the Catechism declares that it ‘transmits in its entirety the Word of God which has been entrusted to the apostles by Christ the Lord and the Holy Spirit’ (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1994: para. 81). The meanings of ‘tradition’ (like ‘reason’) are varied, but each has in common that it belongs to the past, and that it belongs to the Church.

These four chapters belong either to the history or to the tradition(s) of the Church. The authors of these chapters embrace historical particularities. Chapter 15 indicates the development of ideas about desire and the body, and about the abandonment of earlier notions of a genderless ideal, in the third to fifth centuries of Christian thought. Chapter 16 is a study of Duns Scotus’ estimate of the female gender. Because Mary must be a real mother, he rejects the Aristotelian view that mothers are merely passive causes in reproduction. Chapters 17 and 18 examine ideas about reproduction between 1100 and 1500, including their tension with virginity and celibacy, and the use of fictive parenthood or reproductive metaphors in theology and Church. Chapter 19 analyses the mainline Lutheran, Calvinist, and Anglican models of sex, marriage, and family and their gradual liberalization by Enlightenment liberalism.

These discrete chapters occupy the limited space available in the Handbook for tradition. While each chapter makes an independent contribution to the volume, Part IV as a whole demonstrates (if demonstration were needed) the very different thought-worlds through which the Church of God has passed. There are three further grounds for including a part devoted to tradition. First, there is no direct path from the times of the Bible to our own times. Instead there is tradition, faithful yet flawed, which provides pathways of continuity, some of them parallel with each other. Just as an individual with no memory lacks identity and orientation, so it is with the churches. Second, the pathways of tradition pass through strange territory. Yet this very strangeness, when it is allowed to appear in its barely graspable otherness, can stimulate new insights. The imaginative effort required to understand, say, a patristic quarrel about the superior status of virginity over marriage, or thinking one’s way into a pre-scientific understanding of reproduction, or of women’s gendered inferiority in the Middle Ages, challenges us to think differently about such matters, to recognize the historical contingency of our present assumptions, and perhaps to be open to new discernments.

Third, and most important of all, the people of God are not merely receivers of tradition: they are tradition makers, handing it on, having lived it and changed it in the process. The development of tradition, instead of its mere repetition, is immensely important for the subjects of this Handbook. As Joseph Ratzinger has reminded us,

Not everything that exists in the Church must for that reason be also a legitimate tradition; in other words, not every tradition that arises in the Church is a true celebration and keeping present of the mystery of Christ. There is a distorting, as well as legitimate, tradition, … [and] … consequently tradition must not be considered only affirmatively but also critically.

(1969: 185, cited in Salzman and Lawler 2008: 214)

(p. 11) The Global Religious Context

Parts V and VI embrace the global dimension of both internal controversies within the churches, and external conversations with some of the non-Christian faiths. Part V, ‘Controversies within the Churches’ takes readers into some of the contemporary dilemmas which cause pain within the churches and incredulity outside them. There are struggles over male ‘headship’, female priesthood and episcopacy, gay marriage, and much else. This part describes the processes involved as churches respond to the questions of their members, sometimes proposing, sometimes resisting, refinements to their teachings as they seek the mind of Christ.

Chapter 20 examines the controversies about sex and gender in the Roman Catholic Church within the context of ongoing debates about the nature of the Church, the dynamism of the tradition, and the authority of the Magisterium. It argues that underlying the issues, one can discern fundamentally different theological understandings about the nature of the human body, the relationships between the sexes, and the malleability of sexuality. Chapter 21 examines similar controversies in the churches of the Anglican Communion, leaving open the question whether the acrimony over, for example, openly gay bishops and the blessing and marriage of same-sex couples, will continue at a time when other issues like poverty and environmental degradation take centre stage.

Chapter 22 examines attitudes to homosexuality throughout worldwide Pentecostalism. It uncovers contrasting positions in relation to homosexuality which also generate varying attitudes to what are perceived as the pastoral needs of sexual minorities. Chapter 23 discusses theology and practice in Evangelical churches. Chapter 24 examines the conflicts concerning sexuality and gender within the Black churches of the USA. It discerns a tension between, on the one hand, the tradition of providing for the spiritual needs of Black Americans and fighting for social justice, and, on the other hand, becoming necessarily involved in controversies about gender equality, HIV/AIDS and safer sex education, homosexuality and same-sex marriage.

Part V focuses upon disagreements internal to some of the Christian churches; Part VI turns outward to four of the world’s established non-Christian faiths. Four distinguished practitioners of world faiths write about changing attitudes to sexuality and gender from within those faiths. Chapter 25 unravels the ‘hitherto unquestioned consensus’ in Judaic studies that Judaism embraces a positive attitude towards sexuality. It examines the tension between sexuality in ancient rabbinic thought and issues in modern Halakhah that have just begun to inform scholarly research: the ethos of modesty and the construction of the female body; homosexuality and lesbianism; and reproduction and sexuality. Chapter 26 illustrates that missing from Islam’s scripture is the imaginary of God as father/male; endorsements of father-rule (the traditional form of patriarchy), and any concept of sexual differentiation that privileges males over females (more modern forms of patriarchy). Hermeneutic principles which do not automatically privilege patriarchal readings are offered.

(p. 12) Chapter 27 shows how Hindu theology weaves sexuality into answers to questions about the origin of existence, about an ultimate spiritual source of phenomena, and about the striving for a relationship between it and human beings. Both on the theogonic plane and the worldly, Hindu thought is shown to associate sexuality with gender, but to treat the latter as a fluid identity rather than a natural and essential one. Chapter 28 shows why Buddhism has multiple evaluations of sexuality. For monastics, it must be avoided because of the entanglements to which it leads, but laypeople can enjoy the pleasures of sexuality without guilt so long as they observe basic sexual ethics. Buddhism has always had male-dominated institutions, but reform is on its way, and the argument that its philosophy or world view is completely gender-neutral and gender-free, is offered.

A dark and constant shadow over all of the religions is the social, cultural, and domestic power of men over women and their use of religious means to retain it. Christian readers will note several similarities between their religion and the ones represented here. Consistent with male hegemony is the continuing influence of a literalist hermeneutic which elevates to ultimacy not merely sacred texts but particular ways of reading them. The agendas of reform and development across the religions, particularly with regard to gender, display many similarities.


All the chapters in Parts VII and VIII may be located principally within the fourth source of theology: experience. (For the arguments about the inclusion of experience, see Thatcher 2011: 38–40.) They all further the aim of Oxford Handbooks in Religion and Theology to introduce readers to many contemporary debates, and to set the agenda for how those debates might evolve. Essays in Parts VII and VIII count as theological ‘answers’, within the method of correlation, to some of the questions posed to the churches.

The issues in Part VII, ‘Concepts and Issues’, arise from sexual and gendered experiences—positive and negative—of people living now, and the engagement of theology with these. Chapter 29 explores the multiple aspects and causes of sexual violence, showing how it is connected to the wider realm of injustice, including social and institutional structures of domination along the lines of gender, race, sexual orientation, class, and other systemic inequalities. It offers an ethic of sexual justice, drawing on a Trinitarian theology that emphasizes relationality and abundant life. Chapter 30 affords some selective historical glimpses into Christianity’s long history of anti-sex teachings, and counterposes two dominant themes in contemporary theologies: sexual pleasure as sacred and God-given, and as having liberating and justice-making potential. Sexual pleasure is then surveyed in relation to post-colonialism, disability, ageing, sadomasochism, and transgender and intersex identities.

Chapter 31 suggests that, whereas the problem with the dominant tradition during antiquity and the Middle Ages was that it separated desire from a legitimate sexuality, (p. 13) the problem of modern Christianity is that it has reduced desire to sexuality. Watchful of the critique of neighbourly love as a form of narcissism, the chapter provides a phenomenologically informed account of the love of the other that avoids narcissism and an ‘economy of the same’. Chapter 32 addresses the question how the HIV/AIDS pandemic may be understood in the light of God’s extravagance and hope for the future.

Person-Centred Theology

The longest part of the Handbook, Part VIII, ‘Sexual Theologies for All People’, continues the examination of concepts and issues, but with a difference. This part might well have been arranged under headings such as premarital sex, homosexuality, lesbianism, bisexuality, singleness, and so on. But these headings, while familiar, have several disadvantages. They are impersonal, and abstract discussion of theoretical issues can sometimes conceal the real people who fall under these convenient classifications, together with their loves and longings, their joys and disappointments. ‘Sexual theology’ (borrowing Nelson’s term) is first of all about people, not about categories or practices. It is person-centred more than act-centred or issue-centred. These chapters attempt to avoid categorization and condemnation of sexual minorities. They are conscious attempts to speak Good News to people whose minority status has frequently resulted in persecution, stigmatization, and incomprehension. And the theology that appears in these pages offers good news of acceptance, affirmation, and understanding to them.

The persons considered in Chapter 33 are beginning sexual activity. The chapter develops a theory of virtue and virtue ethics which focuses more on the character of the sexual agent than on the acts the agent does. It sees nuptial cohabitation as a likely first step for many, on a journey that will eventually end in the couple’s marriage. The persons considered in Chapter 34 are married. Contemporary sociocultural contexts which render marriage more fragile, are described. The new theological emphasis on conjugal love is highlighted, and it is argued that contemporary theologies of marriage need to catch up with the capacity of committed love among married people to become a locus of divine grace.

The persons considered in Chapter 35 live in families. They are invited to understand family life as it is found in Roman Catholic official teaching and in the Protestant Family, Religion, and Culture project. Many of the issues arising from these understandings are then explored, including the possible stigmatization of ‘non-traditional’ families, the place of equal-regard love in families, and the place of kin within the Kingdom of God. The persons considered in Chapter 36 are gay. The chapter explores the recent construction of gay identities and considers earlier construals of same-sex affections and the people who had them. It considers gay identity as an affective as well as a political category, and also whether gay identity is superseded by the identity conferred on individuals by being ‘in Christ’.

The persons considered in Chapter 37 are lesbian. The question ‘Who and what might we be speaking of when we use the term “lesbian”?’ is addressed. The chapter (p. 14) neatly reverses the question how lesbians might understand themselves in the light of Christian theology, and asks instead what richness is being offered to theology by ‘this rainbow of human experience’. The persons considered in Chapter 38 are bisexual. The chapter describes the diversity and social locations within which concepts of bisexual theory, such as compulsory monosexism, emerge. It demonstrates how Christian theology has unfairly constructed bisexuality as immature, promiscuous, and morally and politically inadequate, and sets directions for further bisexual theological work.

The persons considered in Chapter 39 are intersex and transgender. Both groups of people, while discrete, demonstrate the limitations of existing theologies of sexuality which assume stable and binary models of human maleness and femaleness. Drawing on liberationist theological goods, this chapter points to the necessity for non-pathologizing theological accounts of variant sex and gender. The persons considered in Chapter 40 are disabled. The chapter begins by examining moral assumptions that define people with disabilities as asexual or hypersexual, and offers alternatives to these limiting perspectives. It explores medical understandings of disability, together with the ways in which disability reminds us to attend to embodiment in general more authentically. The people considered in Chapter 41 are friends. The chapter warns that friendship may be losing its legacy as a socially and morally important relationship, and be viewed as a commodity to enhance one’s social status or chosen lifestyle. It is argued that by revisiting Jesus’ statement to his disciples, ‘You are my friends’, together with its reception history, the Church has an opportunity to reclaim friendship’s legacy, and allow the self-understanding as the ‘friends of Christ’ to transform its shape and mission.


The broadest possible spectrum of theological contributions has been sought. There have been three kinds of difficulty in achieving this: ecclesiastical, hermeneutical, and geographical. There are churches that are reluctant to admit the troublesome conversations about sexuality and gender within their midst. Some distinguished theologians from within these churches have not wished to contribute to this Handbook, whether or not in any representative capacity, for fear of denominational recrimination. Several inquiries to prospective authors have met with polite refusal for this reason. A mere association with some of the topics given space in the volume has proved an unfortunate deterrent.

The Roman Catholic Church invests authority for maintaining the purity of its teaching to the Magisterium. ‘The task of interpreting the Word of God authentically has been entrusted solely to the Magisterium of the Church, that is, to the Pope and to the bishops in communion with him’ (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1994: para. 100). Official teachers cannot openly question the magisterium without sanction, as many faithful Catholic theologians can painfully attest. An example of Catholic intransigence (p. 15) is the judgement of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Doctrine, that the book, by two of the authors in this volume, The Sexual Person: Toward a Renewed Catholic Anthropology (Salzman and Lawler 2008), reaches conclusions which are ‘clearly in contradiction to the authentic teaching of the Church, cannot provide a true norm for moral action and in fact are harmful to one’s moral and spiritual life’ (USCCB 2010). Not only is doctrinal and moral development harmfully stifled by interventions such as these, adventurous reimagining of Catholic teaching, such as this book provides, together with the enormous pastoral relief it potentially engenders, is effectively discouraged.

There is a growing number of Protestant churches (or sections of churches) which claim to base their teaching on the Bible alone, with little or no regard for tradition and reason. They generally combine the heightened authority ascribed to the Bible with a more or less literal interpretation of it. The theologians of these churches are difficult to engage. There is little new for them to say because the Bible has already ‘said’ it, and the words of the biblical text are revelation. There is only ‘biblical truth’ which is to be ‘faithfully’ expounded. Within these churches there is little commitment either to the additional sources for theological work or to engagement with theological issues other than from what too often appears as a ‘biblicist’ standpoint. Also, if there are few signs of a theological tradition, people cannot be found from it, to speak about it, or to contribute anything to it.

Third, there is the geographical issue about the location of both authors and readers of the volume, mainly in First World countries. The Christian faith is growing in many other locations where First World theology, especially as it engages with sexuality and gender, is regarded with deep suspicion as too liberal, or still colonial, or secularist, or just plain decadent. I regret it has not yet been possible to do full justice to this growing readership-in-waiting, or to identify the next generation of theological researchers from Developing and Third World countries. Perhaps it is inevitable that the authors are representative of the likely readership of the volume. It is important to keep in mind that the perspectives offered in these pages are not the only ones to be discovered within the worldwide people of God.


Following David Tracy, it is often said that theology has three ‘publics’—society, academy, and church (1981: 3–46). All three publics are currently paying much attention to the topics of this Handbook. Because research aims at new understanding, it is the driving force behind the development of traditions of knowledge, including those of theology. Its research emphasis enables it to engage with each public in a timely manner.

Society and academy require more from theology than the mere recapitulation of the Christian tradition: so do substantial sections of church. If replication were all that was required, there would be no need to engage in any research into any of the questions (p. 16) discussed in the forthcoming pages. Handing down what has hitherto been believed would be sufficient. Joseph Monti has rightly claimed that the churches are forgetting how the obligation of fidelity to tradition must be dialectically engaged with the equal obligation of contemporaneity—how Christian life must make sense in its own time, must be truthful and right-making, and promote the good in whatever world we find ourselves (1995: 30). Three arguments in particular reinforce the ‘obligation of contemporaneity’ especially in relation to sexuality and gender.

First, there is a relativity attaching to all our knowledge. All of the essays provide evidence of this. But there is a subtle inference to be drawn from the facts of epistemological relativity which recognizes the tendency of ‘relativists’ to relativize all knowledge except their own. The inference is based on the character of the Church itself. Since it sees itself as a ‘trans-historical’ body, it spans more than one epistemological or ‘cosmological world’ (Monti 1995: 21), and so it cannot permanently identify itself with any historical view, whether ancient or contemporary. The task of interpretation is continual and always provisional.

Second, Christian teaching has always been shaped in part by the contexts in which it has found itself. ‘Our own internal confessions and self-understandings are always framed by the external stories of others—those different from us who challenge our penchant to claim that we have, so to speak, given birth to ourselves’ (Monti 1995: 45, emphasis in original). There is a plethora of external stories circulating around theology at the present time, in relation to sexuality and gender. Hearing them discerningly is the prelude to theological conversation and to the development of tradition. It is how the method of correlation works. Third, sexuality and gender both belong to areas of Christian thought and practice where, perhaps more than all other areas, bold development is greatly needed. The same may be true within all the major religions. This Handbook is a series of contributions to that vital task.


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