Kendall Harmon: On Alice in Wonderland, the Episcopal Church, Richard Helmer, and Chastity

Posted by Kendall Harmon

Being in the Episcopal Church these days means entering a vertiginous journey into the corruption of language. You see language which used to mean x, and in one Episcopal Church setting it is used to mean y, and then in another the same words mean z. One thinks immediately of the scene in Alice Wonderland (written as I hope you know by an Anglican deacon):

"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less."
"The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."
"The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master - that's all."

For a recent example of this manipulation of language to mean what it does not mean consider a piece on chastity by Richard Helmer .

Chastity, technically, is the refraining from sexual activity outside its proper context. For Christians, this has meant abstinence for those who are single and faithfulness for a wife or a husband who is married. This has been the standard for Christians throughout church history and still is for Christians worldwide today. None of this is to suggest that Christians have not struggled with sexuality, or that the understanding of sexuality and its proper use has not gone through interesting developments in the church's life. It is also not to suggest that a very small minority of contemporary mostly Western Christians have not sought to challenge this standard. The leadership of TEC of course is part of this very small minority.

Richard Helmer is certainly correct to observe that "chastity deserves a thorough study by everyone presently involved in the tired crisis of the Anglican Communion." It is just my hope that in doing so words are allowed to mean what the words mean and not what we want them to mean, whether in fact they mean what we say they mean or not.

One of the things you will hear in some circles of TEC is "sexuality is a sacrament." This was actually explicitly said in a national church resource a while back.

It isn't true, but like a lot of TEC leadership assertions these days, it contains partial truth. You may know that heresy is part of the truth masquerading as the whole truth--which is therefore actually an untruth. This statement about sexuality being "a sacrament" is an example of such a definition of heresy.

The truth is sexuality is like a sacrament and has sacramental dimensions, and it is from this vantage point that an important response to Richard Helmer can emerge.

You may know that in sacramental theology there is sometimes a distinction made between sacramental matter and sacramental form. The matter is the "stuff" or physical material involved in the sacrament, and the form is the words said and (sometimes) the sayer of such words, etc. Thus in baptism the matter is water, and the form is God's threefold name (it can be by an authorized minister, but it actually doesn't have to be).

We do not need to veer way off into sacramental theology at this time, the point is that in sacramental theology there is involved a what, as well as a who and how. This is not dissimilar to Thomistic ethical considerations, which tell us that any act's moral determination comes from considering the act, the intention and the circumstance.

When these kinds of dimensions are considered, and one realizes that sexuality has many sacrament-like qualities, one can argue that sexuality is best understood by considering all its aspects, the what and the who and the how.

Now consider Father Helmer's essay. Already one grows uneasy when one watches the essay begin without entering into the long stream of christian history in this area. What, one wants to ask, have all the Christians who have gone before us on whose shoulders we now stand, understood by this term chastity? One might have liked some Scriptural study and work as well. Instead we get a reference to chastity which has to do with "fidelity" and then a working definition as follows:

Chastity means setting aside dominance and control and seeking instead a new way to relate to the world and to God. He then goes on, quite revealingly, to say he is concerned about "a failure of chastity" which he then clarifies this way: "...I don't mean sex outside the marriage. By chastity in marriage I mean the challenge of setting aside the stubborn drive to control or change person we most cherish."

Now please understand that there is much in this discussion with which I would wholeheartedly agree. My concern here, though, is what this definition of chastity represents. It typifies the gnosticism present is all too much Episcopal Church thinking these days, where the how takes all precedence over the what, where form triumphs over substance. We hear talk of mutuality and faithfulness and encouragement and life enhancement and on and on and on. These are good things. But we cannot allow the how to bypass the what. We cannot allow intention and circumstance to dominate, and not ask about the act itself.

Alas, we are in a church which claims to be sacramental, but which is too often reductionistic.

Look at this paragraph from Father Helmer and see how it is all about the adjectives, is is all a world where how triumphs over what:

Chaste behavior has been in the quiet but transformative story-telling and building up of authentic relationships across the divides of gender, class, race, culture, sexuality, and ideology all across the Communion recently. Chastity allows us to be ourselves by allowing others to be themselves. Chastity makes it known when we are encountering oppression and articulates our needs as they arise. Chastity seeks honest accountability. Chastity sets aside the weapons and metaphors of war for an honest, authentic justice. Chastity endeavors to shed the harbored resentments and unmet wants of our brief lives and move forward in renewed relationship.

And what is the Alice in Wonderland outcome of such reductionism? Helmer asserts:

"Chastity has long been in evidence by those courageous, oft-threatened "firsts" of our faith who inhabit dangerous positions not for power or the quixotic pursuit of perfection, but simply by being who they are and following God's call as best they can. The consecrations in the Diocese of Los Angeles are some of the most recent examples of this form of chastity."

The problem here is that a woman in a same sex partnership by definition cannot be chaste, and would never have been considered chaste by our forbears. It flunks the test based on the what, no matter how much Father Helmer wants us to focus on the how. It is not just about the "form" of chastity, to have chastity one needs both form and substance.

In the world where words mean what they were given to mean, this isn't chaste at all.

One more observation, as a kind of final irony. Even if I were to grant that it is all about form (and I don't), this flunks the chastity test. Chastity is about "setting aside dominance and control" says Father Helmer. So many see in TEC's actions exactly those two things, they see American unilateralism writ large.

Lord, have mercy on us.

Filed under: * Anglican - EpiscopalEpiscopal Church (TEC)TEC BishopsTEC ConflictsTEC Conflicts: Los AngelesInstruments of UnitySexuality Debate (in Anglican Communion)Same-sex blessingsWindsor Report / Process* By KendallSermons & Teachings* TheologyEthics / Moral TheologySacramental Theology

Posted May 24, 2010 at 8:53 am

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1. Bernini wrote:

An insightful and penetrating analysis, as always, Fr. Harmon.

May I be so bold as to ask: for anyone currently in TEC who does not subscribe to the predominant “Alice in Wonderland” School of Creative Wordsmithing, what is it exactly that keeps you in TEC? What is the point in staying with a church that has so purposefully and willfully trod the path of heresy?

Why on earth do you stay?

May 24, 10:24 am | [comment link]
2. Undergroundpewster wrote:

Incredible. This reminds me of a conversation I witnessed between certain members of T.E.C.‘s executive council on the meaning of the word “pornea” in the context of extramarital sexual activity between “consenting” adults and polyamorists. The Alice in Wonderland Episcobabble was remarkable and I was left thinking that if our modern definitions of pornea as so wrong, then anything must be right. Reductionism at its worst.

May 24, 10:43 am | [comment link]
3. palmettopastor wrote:

This is a new age end run, a diversion….  look over here and pay attention to my poetry and find the deep meaning and the marvel at the wonder of semantics ....and while lost in my educated prose you can be as sexually active outside of marriage as you want to be.  Wonderland it is…

May 24, 11:24 am | [comment link]
4. Billy wrote:

“Chastity means setting aside dominance and control and seeking instead a new way to relate to the world and to God.”

OK, if he wants to make up a definition that suits the purpose of what he is going to say later in the article, let’s use his definition a little bit.  Let’s set aside “dominance and control” of our sex drives in our lives and relate to the world and to God, in a new way - in obedience to The Ten Commandments or to the gospel callings or to Two Great Commandments or the Last Commandment.  Let’s submit to the Lord, not to the “dominance and control” of our own mortal desires - let’s not given creedance to that calling that homosexual sex or sex outside of marriage are good and right things to do.  Let’s give creedance to the fact that we do fail in our quests to overcome our human imperfections but that Phillipians 4:13 is there to help us.
Can this Mr. Helmer not see the fallacy of his own logic, even when he makes up his own definitions?

May 24, 11:24 am | [comment link]
5. palmettopastor wrote:

I’m reminded of the PB’s description of the word “conversation”.

May 24, 11:25 am | [comment link]
6. rugbyplayingpriest wrote:

let us not over praise the Anglican connection of Mr. L Carroll. It is highly likely he was a paedophile who spent an unhealthy amount of time photographing little girls with no clothes on.

May 24, 11:28 am | [comment link]
7. Jon wrote:

Utterly amazing.  The Wonderland priest’s definition again:
Chastity means setting aside dominance and control and seeking instead a new way to relate to the world and to God.

So if a boss fires a worker he is being unchaste?  If a coach pulls a pitcher off the mound and sends in another, he is being unchaste?

And if 3-4 people each have sex with each other for a year, with no commitments and exclusivity, but no attempts to dominate or control each other, then they ARE being chaste?

May 24, 11:33 am | [comment link]
8. Katherine wrote:

Take a word representing a virtue, completely redefine it, and then, by implication, insist that the other side is the one failing to display the virtue.  The references to the attempt to control by reports and covenants are quite clear.  This is nonsense.

May 24, 11:37 am | [comment link]
9. Franz wrote:

Thank you, sir, for an excellent essay.

It is, of course, impossible to have a meaningful conversation, debate, or dialogue with anyone on any topic unless all parties are clear on what the terms are (which is why, for example, as a lawyer, when dealing with a statute, I look at the statute for any definitions of important words—sometimes the statutory definition does not exactly match the ordinary use of a word!).

Carroll’s Humpty Dumpty is not alone.  George Orwell (in both non-fiction essays and in “1984”) warned about the danger inherent in the abuse of language.  This re-definition of the word “chasitity” is, in a very real sense, Orwellian.

BTW, since I don’t have any background in sacramental theology, I found that a little light bulb went off in my head when you described the need for both the right “matter” and the right “form.”  If I understand you correctly, both the correct matter (water) and form are required for Baptism, and both matter (bread and wine) and form are required for the Eucharist (i.e., if you do it with rice cakes and soy milk, it isn’t the Eucharist, no matter what words you use).  Similarly, you have to have both the right matter and form for a valid sacrament of marriage.  And here is where the second light bulb really went off—for too many in ECUSA, the matter doesn’t matter.  They really are Gnostics after all.

May 24, 11:38 am | [comment link]
10. Sarah wrote:

You know, when the truth is not on your side, some folks choose to evacuate the language of truth telling of meaning and re-fill that language with the ideas they like.

Sort of like the red-light-runner telling the policeman that the red light was actually really “green” rather than “red” and that therefore technically speaking he had not actually run a “red” light.

I’ve found that when such deconstruction of language occurs, behind it there is immense frustration and rage, and so one has the resulting destruction of the offending language.

May 24, 11:39 am | [comment link]
11. New Reformation Advocate wrote:

While Kendall’s citation of that memorable exchange in Alice of Wonderland is highly apt and illuminating (as well as damning), it reminded me that I’ve actually heard that same passage cited more than once by cynical liberals who actually rejoice unashamedly in the crass position asserted by Humpty Dumpty, i.e., essentially that “Might makes right,” and all that matters is who comes out on top in the power struggle.  Instead of taking Lewis Carroll has engaging in satire, they turn the passage on its head, and adopt it as a clever and elegant way of expressing their own nihilism.

So how in the world are we supposed to have a profitable “Listening Process” if we can’t agree on the meaning of even basic terms??

David Handy+

May 24, 12:11 pm | [comment link]
12. moheb wrote:

Not surprising! Five years ago, six theologians from four seminaries and universities, an a bishop “defined” holiness and the fruit of the Spirit to meet their needs. They wrote: “For almost forty years, members of the Episcopal Church have discerned holiness in same-sex relationships… These [same sex] unions have evidenced the fruit of the Holy Spirit: “joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity,faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control”  [ To Set Our Hope on Christ ]

May 24, 12:12 pm | [comment link]
13. New Reformation Advocate wrote:

Kendall, I love it when you take the time and trouble to add your own take on something, as you’ve done here.  I wish you’d do it more often.

David Handy+

May 24, 12:16 pm | [comment link]
14. Karen B. wrote:

A great essay Kendall, thank you.  Your distinction about not losing the “what” in the question of how, the “form,” is really helpful and important.

May 24, 12:31 pm | [comment link]
15. J. Champlin wrote:

What is so depressing about all this is the willful attempt at novelty solely for the sake of shock value.

There already is a well defined standard regarding the duty of transparent truth telling free of manipulation.  Inter alia, Kant’s second form of the categorical imperative:

Act always so as to treat humanity, whether in your own person or that of another, as an end withal, never as a means.

Treating a person’s humanity as a matter of ultimate concern means, among other things, respecting both their capacity to recognize and respond to the truth and their freedom.  The entirely correct observations about respecting the freedom of every member of a family follows from that fundamental imperative (Kant is admittedly a problematic authority, but he does intentionally consider faith alongside human autonomy).  Chastity does include reverence both for the person and body of the one I love as well as my own.  But chastity particularly is in relation to the natural law, that is to both procreation and lifelong, exclusive fidelity that takes in the course of aging and death.

Since we have long understood the imperative for non-manipulative truth-telling, we did not need to redefine chastity to cover it.  The only benefit in doing it is shock value, along with the usual (and depressing) attempt to make the proponents of revisionism appear as victims.

May 24, 12:46 pm | [comment link]
16. Pb wrote:

Chesterton wrote that it is an act of faith to assert that our ideas have any relation to reality in any way at all. And yet “our ideas” are celebrated by TEC leadership.

May 24, 2:06 pm | [comment link]
17. teatime wrote:

It is, indeed, a big conundrum for orthodox theologians, priests, and bishops. And, by extension, the faithful who pay close attention to theological discourse. I’m not sure if fazes the sea of humanity or society, anymore. (This is probably going to sound rather cynical and I’m not saying this is what I believe—it simply is what it is.)

I don’t think that most people pay much attention anymore to such religious/theological conversation or teaching. So much has happened and changed in the past 100 years. Ethics and morality have not caught up with all of the technological advances and progress. Moreover, schism and scandal in the Church (ALL denominations) have made people jaded when it comes to religion. And, most recently, we have the evangelical atheists’ campaigning about being good without God.

So, if a church offers uplifting worship services, lots of programs and fellowship, many won’t pay much attention to the discord. While that might work for the adults, the real problem comes with the instruction and formation of children.

Generation X was probably the last group to benefit from traditional moral teachings and sound ethical guidance. Hopefully, they’ve passed this on to their children. But, even if they have, they weren’t necessarily supported in this teaching by their church leaders. (Yes, it occurs in TEC but don’t think for one minute that other churches—including the RCC—are all that much better at it at the parish and national level.) And many lay people don’t have the background or ability to digest theological treatises and texts or the time and patience to follow and analyze what church leaders say/write.

As a Gen. X-er myself, I will admit to the propensity toward “going it alone.” I was raised RC and was a baby when Vatican II changed things. Moreover, I grew up in an extended family of many denominations and visited quite a few different churches in the course of family life, and heard many discussions about how things were changing across the board. In short, I was raised with traditional Christian principles by my family. That was the key.

And that remains the key. The PB could pronounce all sorts of preposterous things and my own son wouldn’t notice, but he DOES listen to his mama, even when he argues with her. And he does come to his mama to discuss issues that confuse or upset him.

I will admit to having some angst about this generation coming up, not being well catechized. But, I’m sure that my parents worried about my generation similarly, especially as RCs who saw the pendulum swing wildly in their own lifetimes. Maybe I’m deceiving myself but I believe the pendulum will swing once again in TEC. The progressive theology simply isn’t working and isn’t attracting the young.

May 24, 2:27 pm | [comment link]
18. William McKeachie wrote:

Thanks be to God, Kendall, for your acumen both about the integrity of His Word and its absence in the verbal legerdemain typical of TEC’s contemporary real-life Humpty Dumptys!  But may I, contrary to rugbyplayingpriest, also put in a cautious word on behalf of the Reverend Charles L. Dodgson?  A recently published book entitled “The Mystery of Lewis Carroll” by Jenny Woolf does a conscientious job, based on well-documented research, of calling into question the old canard about the Reverend Mr Dodgson’s alleged paedophilia.  Conflicted in many aspects of his life as a sinful human being he surely was, but the evidence of actual abuse of young girls isn’t there, while the grounds for compassion and appreciation are.

May 24, 2:58 pm | [comment link]
19. Rob Eaton+ wrote:

an excerpt from a press release
posted to ENS in 2006, some of you may remember:

“(The Rev.) Tramel is scheduled to be released Sunday, according to the Rev. Richard Helmer, a San Francisco Episcopal priest who coordinated a campaign for Tramel’s parole.”
A compassionate work, but in the end naive and back-fired.  This would be the essence of Helmer’s explication of chastity, as well.

May 24, 3:09 pm | [comment link]
20. Hursley wrote:

When one trades the Scriptures and the Fathers for Nietzsche, the result is inevitable. As TeaTime notes, it isn’t working. It will collapse; it is only a question of time.

May 24, 3:22 pm | [comment link]
21. John Wilkins wrote:

Although I’m sympathetic to the protection of language, it does seem to me that Kendall mistakes the audience of the original piece as those who care about chastity in the first place.  It seems to me that the point of the article was to recover the use of the word for those who think that the Church’s commentary on sex has been abusive to women at its worse, and irrelevant at best. 

To say that “heresy is a partial truth” seems imprecise and I’m not sure how his statement is really gnostic.  It seems to me that there are concrete consequences - real ones - to the perspective he is taking.  He may be attempting to offer a roadmap that makes sense - one that allows people to be concretely chaste within a marriage.

In some parts of post-Christian culture, many who attend Christian churches don’t believe that the church has it right about sex before marriage.  Perhaps if we had more Christians who could be faithful IN marriage, we’ve have a different situation.

May 24, 6:15 pm | [comment link]
22. Kendall Harmon wrote:

Hi John thanks for the comment.  I didn’t say heresy is a partial truth I said heresy is part of the truth claiming to be the whole truth—which is in fact an untruth.  Jesus is God is correct but incomplete,  Jesus is only God is heresy. But the heretics who made that claim got the divinity of Christ correct.

I didn’t mistake the audience; words cannot change meaning if used in different places.  Chastity is defined as I have given it by most Christians in history.  It is fundamentally gnostic to define it based out inward motivation or outward outcome but not also on its embodied expressions, and that is what Father Helmer does.

I agree fully with your last sentence—it is one of the many tragedies of our time that there are not better models for marriage to be witnessed to the younger in too many churches.

May 24, 7:01 pm | [comment link]
23. Richard Helmer wrote:

Cross posting from Episcopal Cafe:

It appears some here have misunderstood:

The intent of my reflection is not to set aside the classical definition of chastity, but to explore more deeply why it is a virtue.

My former spiritual director, a celibate monk who has lived in religious community for decades, taught that chastity has a great deal more meaning than what we do or refrain from sexually. It is possible to be sexually continent and still unchaste in relationship.

From another angle, sexual infidelity in a marriage never occurs by itself. Invariably, there is something else going on in the relationship that needs to be addressed. So I argue chastity means more than the classical definition but not less.

May 24, 8:39 pm | [comment link]
24. Rob Eaton+ wrote:

No misunderstanding, Richard.  You are not the first to have pled via sermon that the deeper meaning of chastity is larger than the term at first blush.
For that matter, your explanatory comment was much more clear and helpful, and to the point than the sermon.  That happens often with preachers after the sermon has been given.
You may have misunderstood Kendall’s point, though.  Unless you are just reacting to a few who are reacting to what they didn’t read in your sermon while you were talking about chastity.  Otherwise, how do you respond to Kendall’s blog post?

May 24, 8:57 pm | [comment link]
25. Richard Helmer wrote:


Thank you for the query.  To clarify, this was not a sermon, and, yes, I was addressing some of the misunderstanding I picked up of my intention in a number if the comments.

As to Kendall’s remarks as I understand them, the assertion that I am appealing to form (“how”) over substance (“what”) I think is an easy point to score, and it distorts the intention of my essay, and tries to establish a greater division between Kendall and myself than
I believe is warranted. I will submit only to the assertion that he and I disagree whether or not it is possible for our LGBT sisters and brothers to live in chaste—that is, faithful—same-sex relationships.  But to carry that further and argue I am just claiming form devoid of substance is not fair to either my argument nor my perspective, quite frankly. 

I do agree (as I point out indirectly in my reflection) that American unilateralism has been at work at times within TEC, and that is indeed unchaste.  Chastity, in the sense I understand it as a vow, is forever a goal after all, and I make no claims to achieving it, let alone claims that TEC has. 

But that is not the heart of the current disagreement in the wider Church, as there are authentic questions of both theology and justice on the table here, not just a “my way or the highway” attitude.

May 24, 9:20 pm | [comment link]
26. Undergroundpewster wrote:

But why drag the consecration event in LA into the essay? Consecrating a partnered lesbian as bishop is the antithesis of chastity even as Helmer defines it. If anything, that action is all about exercising control and power over us pewsitters.

May 24, 9:39 pm | [comment link]
27. Richard Helmer wrote:


Tell me more how the consecration in LA is exercising control and power over you. 

It strikes me I may dissent from the consecration of any bishop (or the ordination or blessing of ministry of any member of the Church) for any number of reasons, but the fact that the consecration moves forward because of the majority consent of the wider church is not necessarily exercising control and power over me.  I can, for instance, simply refrain from seeking out that bishop’s pastoral direction in my life.

May 24, 9:49 pm | [comment link]
28. Undergroundpewster wrote:

As a member of TEC, actions by one part of the body, such as the left foot, tends to take the rest of the body (me) leftward. The actions of the Dio of California reach all the way to Upper South Carolina.

May 24, 9:55 pm | [comment link]
29. Richard Helmer wrote:

But is not the reverse also true?  Why do not the actions of, say, Upper South Carolina also influence the rest of the body in a say, rightward direction?

That mutuality is yet another insight of chastity, it seems to me.

May 24, 9:58 pm | [comment link]
30. Undergroundpewster wrote:

Would that there was such a mutuality.

May 24, 10:03 pm | [comment link]
31. Richard Helmer wrote:

What would it look like?

May 24, 10:04 pm | [comment link]
32. Simon M wrote:

I wonder whether we do have an English word for what Richard is proposing as the “setting aside dominance and control and seeking instead a new way to relate to the world and to God.” It’s the word LOVE. It’s hard enough to do this well. Let’s not go muddying the waters by reaching for another word when Love is perfectly adequate.

May 24, 10:06 pm | [comment link]
33. Richard Helmer wrote:


I agree.  The point of my essay was that chastity (as with each of the three classical vows, for that matter) is a path to love.  I don’t think it “muddying the waters” to use chastity as one way to illuminate what we mean by love.

May 24, 10:21 pm | [comment link]
34. Undergroundpewster wrote:

#31 Richard,

I don’t know, but I imagine Christ at the head.

May 24, 10:21 pm | [comment link]
35. Richard Helmer wrote:

I agree that Christ is at the head.  I would venture to guess the majority of the Diocese of LA agrees, too.  One question is whether or not Christ can be at the head of a body where there is disagreement or tension over a particular matter of theology or ethics.

May 24, 10:23 pm | [comment link]
36. Richard Helmer wrote:

Admitting that Christ is at the head when there is a matter of disagreement in any relationship may indeed be another form of chastity?

May 24, 10:24 pm | [comment link]
37. Undergroundpewster wrote:

#36 richard,

I still think the central issue is the redefinition of chastity which you are using. I think this blog thread veering farther and farther off course is a good example of how this redefining of a simple term leads to sometimes unintended consequences, much like revisionism can lead to heresy.

May 24, 10:34 pm | [comment link]
38. Richard Helmer wrote:

Blog threads veer off course all the time.  I don’t see how this is exceptional in that regard.

Beyond what we probably disagree on—whether or not same-sex relationships can be chaste—where else do you see me redefining chastity?

May 24, 10:36 pm | [comment link]
39. Undergroundpewster wrote:

#38 Richard,

I am wary of the elves, so I am trying to get back on the thread. I wish I had more time tonight, but my spouse is calling me to shut off the computer and it is “She who must be obeyed.” Toodles.

May 24, 10:40 pm | [comment link]
40. Simon M wrote:

What I find difficulty with is the idea of needing a NEW way to relate to the world and to God. If chastity is the means by which we illuminate love - it’s not a new way - it’s an old way - Its the most excellent way. A way of patience, kindness, etc. Do we really need a NEW way to illuminate Love? Have we just gotten bored with the scriptural (old) ways of relating to God, others and the world. Or is it that scripture just doesn’t fit our NEW definitions.

May 24, 11:15 pm | [comment link]
41. John Wilkins wrote:

My instinct is to stop whenever there are code words like “revisionism” or even traditional words like “heresy.”  I think Kendall is astute to bring in the story of humpty-dumpty.  For me, however, the story is descriptive rather than normative about the way language gets used.  Plenty of words get used strangely.  Like the way Obama, protector of banks and corporations, gets called a “socialist.”  Language matters, but who has authority is far more interesting.

May 24, 11:20 pm | [comment link]
42. Richard Helmer wrote:

#40 Simon

My use of the word “new” within that context of relating was in contrast to the “old” ways of domination and control.  I would argue the “new” way is indeed scriptural, and very much in line with what Jesus taught.  It is “new” in the sense of our reference to the “new” covenant, or the “new” community of the Church in Christ, or our new life in baptism.

Spiritually, it is new to each of us when we set down the old ways of domination and control.  But, you’re right, it is true that the love it illuminates is ancient—in fact, primordial!

May 24, 11:25 pm | [comment link]
43. robroy wrote:

It is interesting that Glen Beck and Kendall+ are decrying the shameful abuse of language. John writes:

Like the way Obama, protector of banks and corporations, gets called a “socialist.”  Language matters, but who has authority is far more interesting. 

“Protecting” the banks by taking majority ownership in them. Pretty accurate description of socialism.

Non serviri, sed servire.

May 24, 11:25 pm | [comment link]
44. episcoanglican wrote:

“I will submit only to the assertion that he and I disagree whether or not it is possible for our LGBT sisters and brothers to live in chaste—that is, faithful—same-sex relationships.”—There you go again, redefining chaste, and this time in an oxmoronic way. You can have a monogomous same-sex relationship and even a faithful one, but by definition of the meaning of the word, you cannot have a chaste same-sex relationship, unless a) they are actually chaste in which case it is not a “homosexual relationship” or b) you do violence to the meaning of the word. Public claims of the rare Jeffry Johns of the world aside, by definition same-sex [sexual] relationships can not be chaste—- unless you empty the word of its true meaning as Richard Helmer seems to be also trying to do.

May 24, 11:51 pm | [comment link]
45. Simon M wrote:

I have read Richards Episcopal Cafe article “Chastity Now” again - this time I replaced the word chastity with love - and I felt very encouraged and challenged… until I got to this line “Chastity allows us to be ourselves by allowing others to be themselves.” Love should not absolve me of my responsibility to live a God orientated life. Love should not abandon me to being myself without correction. I need correction. I need authority. I too am a man under authority. I want that authority to speak clearly (in Love) when I err - as I will / do.

May 24, 11:56 pm | [comment link]
46. Richard Helmer wrote:

I agree.  It can be argued that part of the spiritual journey is becoming our true selves by God’s grace.  Part of that involves allowing others to become their true selves.  The truth we speak to each other in love as we err is part of that process.  But that truth in love is very different from dominating or controlling.

May 24, 11:59 pm | [comment link]
47. driver8 wrote:

#23 I’m trying to understand - chastity is use synonymously with virginity when it enters English and chaste is used to mean the virtuous avoidance of sexual relationships outside the marriage of men and women. You are affirming these meanings?

May 25, 1:07 am | [comment link]
48. Richard Helmer wrote:

#47 driver8
Yes, I affirm these meanings, but as you probably have already gathered, I think chastity may also extend to same-sex covenanted relationships.  Is that a change in the classical meaning?  Yes.

Is the change justified?  That’s a matter of debate right now in the wider Church.

My broader point in this thread is that disagreement over this need not negate the broader understanding of the vow chastity about setting aside dominance, self-gratification, and control over others.  The fact that chastity holds sexual relationships to this deeper ethic is a starting point, not an ending point, in a path of learning to relate to everything and everyone in a more loving manner.  That’s really the (attempted) nub of my essay at Episcopal Cafe.

May 25, 1:20 am | [comment link]
49. montanan wrote:

While I am unconvinced by Fr. Helmer’s idea, this is a great discussion and I thank him for responding throughout this thread.

May 25, 1:55 am | [comment link]
50. Richard Helmer wrote:

Thanks for the opportunity to respond here.  I still believe that there is more uniting us in Christ than dividing us.  I continue to pray we may live more deeply into that.

May 25, 1:59 am | [comment link]
51. Tim Harris wrote:

I have followed this thread with a sense observing a bizarre exercise in tortuous connections… Richard (#23 etc), I appreciated the sentiment of your article, and had you used the word ‘charity’ instead of ‘chastity’ I would have been largely in agreement (other than the references to the LA consecrations). So forgive me for seeking clarification - what was your point in using another term which so obviously obscures the main thrust of your piece? Bearing in mind that the wider unit is the main carrier of meaning, not individual words, the general sense of what you say is helpful and a well-informed theological reflection (the caveat above notwithstanding).

So why confuse the issue in employing ‘chastity’ in this way? Despite your reference to private exchanges with your spiritual director, you would be hard pressed to argue that you are trying to rehabilitate the term on grounds of historical usage, for as Kendall has rightly pointed out, such usage is clearly against your semantic innovation.

Nor is it just a case of contextual meaning (or more specifically, ‘hard’ versus polysemous meanings), for I have yet to find a single reference to the meaning you attribute to ‘chastity’ in the wider semantic field of any dictionary I have consulted. The closest you get is the sense of ‘restraint’, and that can be applied in differing contexts, but none comes close to the ‘meaning’ you claim.

So what is your point in pressing this particular use of ‘chastity’, when ‘charity’ would have served your purposes much better (and indeed reflected your concern for spiritual disciplines in this manner)?

I cannot but think that you are clearly aware of the theological concerns over the term, understood in its plain sense with reference to the relational contexts of sexual expression. So to my question: are you denying the traditional understanding with reference to the relational contexts of sexual expression as irrelevant?

For it seems to me you are confusing two separate matters - the question of what is understood by the term ‘chastity’ with reference to Christian values; and quite another question over what constitutes appropriate relationships for the expressing of sexual intimacy, and more broadly how ‘marriage’ is understood within the fullness of scripture and the gospel. You really haven’t shed any light on the latter, but drawn in a very tendencious argument to try and make claim to the use of the term ‘chastity’ with reference to sexual expressions that have historically been understood as unchaste. If you want to claim such a position, at least name it for what it is - an innovation - and don’t try and dress it up as some enlightened form of classical spiritual discipline, properly understood.

May 25, 2:01 am | [comment link]
52. driver8 wrote:

But your definition abstracts from chastity (that is sexual purity) and translates it into an another register - that is, the exercise of power.

I take love or at least love which draws us deeper into God’s love (for in a sense every sin is the fruit of unfitting love, as in 1 Tim 6.10) to be the willing of that which is good. How this is related to the exercise of authority (and so power) is complicated but I’m not sure it clarifies much by redefining chastity (which at the least is a matter of bodies - and thus of embodied love).

May 25, 2:12 am | [comment link]
53. Richard Helmer wrote:

#51 Tim
I think the concerns you raise rest in part in a misunderstanding of the intended purpose of my essay.  It was not meant to be a full scholarly theological treatment of chastity (Kendall likewise bemoans my lack of references) but more a study in practice.

I appreciate your point about charity.  The more subtle direction my essay took me was revealing that (as I articulated above) studying and living into chastity (and the other evangelical counsels together) can lead to Christian charity.

I’m not convinced dictionary definitions are helpful here.  I’m looking at vows, which are lived out, not strict cultural definitions which are normed by etymologists looking at majority usage of words over time rather than religious orders or theologians (they are a minority) living into or studying vows of virtue.  In fact, I am deliberately challenging the majority usage, not to make a point about same-sex relationships, but about how our narrow definitions can often isolate us from the richer, more fuller value of classical Christian language for virtue.

I’m struck how easily we ended up (yet again) on the matter of sexual ethics, which, as I am learning, is only a subset of the wider meaning of chastity as practiced in community.

Setting aside monasticism for this moment, I think our experience in marriage serves a suitable illustration.  I hope you would agree that chastity within marriage—that is the chastity that leads to charity—is so much more than just sexual fidelity.

Finally, I have conceded that believing faithful same-sex relationships can be chaste may be an innovation.  I make no effort to conceal that.  The question is whether or not that innovation is justified clearly remains a heated debate.  The resulting attacks here on my credibility are what they are.  But I will not submit they undermine my broader point about chastity in its fully-lived meaning as leading to charity.

May 25, 2:36 am | [comment link]
54. Richard Helmer wrote:

#52 driver8

No, I don’t abstract chastity from sexual ethics, but rather look for the underlying values the sexual ethics of chastity point toward.  Why is this counsel ultimately important?  How does chastity help me better understand and live into Christian charity? How does it illuminate all of my relationships and transform them?

May 25, 2:56 am | [comment link]
55. Richard Helmer wrote:

#51"So to my question: are you denying the traditional understanding with reference to the relational contexts of sexual expression as irrelevant?”

No.  I am arguing they are a starting point for chastity, but not the end of it.

May 25, 3:05 am | [comment link]
56. Rob Eaton+ wrote:

I want to offer a final comment to Richard, but first I want to check and make sure your use of the word “traditional” to you means “biblical”?

May 25, 3:12 am | [comment link]
57. driver8 wrote:

But chastity in monastic communities obviously does concern bodies and living out the virtue of chastity is essentially concerned with how we live as embodied animals. This is the richer, classical christian language about chastity. Understanding how this, leads us more deeply into the love of God is indeed desperately needed in an age in which “not fulfilling the desires of the flesh” - almost to quote the Rule of Benedict - has become more and more counter cultural.

If one were to look to the Benedictine tradition rather than chastity, I wonder if the virtue of humility might not have functioned more directly to make part of your point - given it does obviously directly focus on relationships of authority and power within the monastic community. In addition it would have dealt with your worry above that folks might (erroneously) focus too quickly on chastity as a virtue of embodied love.

May 25, 3:28 am | [comment link]
58. Rob Eaton+ wrote:

While I wait for Tim to respond, perhaps I might help you out a little, Richard, in providing what might have been a helpful reference, a quote from someone of the 20th cent who is quite respected from nearly all quarters, that being Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who said,
“The essence of chastity is not the suppression of lust, but the total orientation of one’s life towards a goal” [Letters and Papers from Prison].
At the least, even if it does not provide an abstract of your whole essay, if might have been a helpful way to springboard out of the morass of discussion limited to sexuality alone, and into that higher level of discussion seeming to be part of your objective.

May 25, 3:35 am | [comment link]
59. driver8 wrote:

But isn’t Bonhoeffer assuming that chastity is something to do with bodies and desire - surely so given that writing from prison. That is chastity, in this sense , is the virtue of being chaste. So we begin an interesting discussion about what is the point of such discipline - not merely suppressing lust - but directing one whole life towards an end - that is, presumably, finally, God. He goes on to say that such discipline is essential to being able to lucidly concentrate.

One might think here about the classical christian tradition’s emphasis on desire - and if I were to springboard the conversation out of sexuality - I would want to look at the way in which all our sinful desires - pride, lust, greed, envy (etc.) - lead us from God - and cause us to love unfittingly.

May 25, 3:51 am | [comment link]
60. Rob Eaton+ wrote:

Welcome to the midnite version of T1:9. ** >

Yes, I believe Bonhoeffer does assume that.  It is Richard who wants to springboard, not me.  But if that is where the conversation were to go, most of us here could safely follow the thought and praxis of Bonhoeffer to that level of discussion knowing that we have left nothing behind to get there.

May 25, 4:03 am | [comment link]
61. Tim Harris wrote:

#56 - Hi Rob. By ‘traditional’ here I mean ‘conventional’ usage and understanding when employed in theological contexts - which I would argue historically has always been biblically informed.
#53 - Thanks for the clarification Richard, and especially your elaboration on the more subtle dimension to your piece. I’m still far from convinced, but it has helped me see where you are coming from. Let me clarify one aspect of my comment regarding dictionaries, which was specifically decrying ‘hard word dictionaries’ such may be open to the charge with meanings ‘normed by etymologists’ - rather I was alluding to dictionaries based on semantic domains as reflected in actual usage, and updated as usage develops. My criticism of your usage and claimed meaning is that it does not register anywhere on the semantic map with reference to ‘chastity’. Your usage is innovative at best, and I would suggest it is unhelpful to the cause of ‘meaningful’ dialogue.

Let me elaborate: you express surprise and frustration that comments have come back to sexual ethics, when the common usage of ‘chastity’ is in reference to precisely that.

However, I don’t want to detract from the value of your wider point by tying the discussion to the use of language in any meaningful sense beyond our own reference (the point of Kendall’s actual post - a valid one, in my view). In my own thinking (and as it happens, research), the sense you are arguing for is closer to the biblical value of humility. The Pauline usage conveys something very close to what you have articulated in reference to ‘chastity’ - the disavowal of power and self-interest to the extent our focus is on the edification of others (Philippians 2:1-5 etc).

I think Rob’s helpful reference to Bonhoeffer is very helpful here (I must chase it up), and I agree at this point there is much to be gained from such a discussion (similar I suspect to Tom Wright’s recent book on virtue, although I’ve yet to read it). Perhaps it might be construed the other way around to how you have posed it: that humility and charity will lead to chastity, respect, fidelity and concern for deeper well-being?

May 25, 4:12 am | [comment link]
62. Sarah wrote:

RE: “One question is whether or not Christ can be at the head of a body where there is disagreement or tension over a particular matter of theology or ethics.”

Not when parts of the organization are moving in an antithetical direction from other parts of the organization.

RE: “Admitting that Christ is at the head when there is a matter of disagreement in any relationship may indeed be another form of chastity?”

Oh, for that matter, admitting that I love the color cobalt blue “may indeed be another form of chastity.”

Nice dilution of the word there.  That’s ultimately where such “re-imagining” of language in order to fit one’s ideology ends up.

How about we let “chastity” mean “whatever it is I think is really really nice” and then be done with it.  Helmer’s “chastity” can mean what *he* thinks really really nice and mine can mean “cobalt blue is a lovely color.”

RE: “I appreciated the sentiment of your article, and had you used the word ‘charity’ instead of ‘chastity’ I would have been largely in agreement (other than the references to the LA consecrations).”

Ah, but then he wouldn’t have been able to indulge in the political gamesmanship of attempting to co-opt a word and use it for his own underlying gay-sex-is-holy-and-blessed meme.

RE: “I’m struck how easily we ended up (yet again) on the matter of sexual ethics . . . “

Not really—the introduction of “sexual ethics” was deliberate and part of the whole point of the essay, as the evacuation of the focused meaning of the word “chaste” in Helmer’s essay demonstrated.

RE: “I still believe that there is more uniting us in Christ than dividing us.  I continue to pray we may live more deeply into that.”

Oh, I think we’ll be living more deeply into the antithetical gospels that are clearly evident in TEC.  We are not united at all.  I pray that those who believe the Gospel in TEC will continue to demonstrate that division in TEC more and more.  And I believe that the division is being so demonstrated more and more.

This thread would be one obvious such demonstration.

May 25, 6:28 am | [comment link]
63. kb9gzg wrote:

We dangerously err in unchastely dealing with gnostics by discussing with them their heretical notions.  “Living into” such engagements is detrimental to orthodox spiritual health.

May 25, 8:11 am | [comment link]
64. Larry Morse wrote:

The issue here is the corruption of language. TECnese is simply a symptom, part of a wide spread phenomenon. Quoting Humpty isn’t sufficient. American has never been a highly inflected language, for such languages do not loan themselves readily to the kind of corruption we have at hand here. The strict inflections limit the spread of emotive language into denotation. And there is no doubt that the American reliance on emotive language is the great criminal: Hayakawa called them snarl words and purr words. Stop for a minute an think how many words are now merely intensifiers, almost devoid of denotation. Part of the source was the sixties with its emphasis on expressing feeling as Dionysian communication. A far greater source for this grave evil is advertising. This is so obvious and its effects so pervasive, no one talks about it any more.
  Little by little, American is becoming like Chinese: Meaning is effected by tonality and inflectional distinctions are disappearing.
  I await eagerly someone telling me what we can do about this. The reference to Brave New World and institutional thought control is only too relevant.  Larry

May 25, 8:37 am | [comment link]
65. Billy wrote:

I appreciate Mr. Helmer’s defense on this thread, but I have to say that what he is saying is really nothing more than, “I’m OK, You’re OK,” with all the concomitant easing and changing of standards of conduct and civilization that book helped to bring about in the 70s.  His is the same redefining of a word, “chastity,” because the traditional definition of that word carries a standard of behavior that does not fit into the current world of homosexual conduct (or much heterosexual conduct, for that matter).  A few years ago, a reappraising priest explained to me, when I asked him his definition of “fornication during a discussion of homosexual conduct,” that it was sexual relations outside the order of life-long giving, sacrifice, and commitment.  So for him, reservation of sexual relations for heterosexual marriage was irrelevant.  He expanded the traditional definition of fornication to a much broader definition because the standard of conduct for the traditional definition did not fit into homosexual “committed” relationships.  Mr. Helmer similarly expands and changes the definition of “chastity” to include Ms Glasspool’s conduct.  For otherwise, under traditional historic understood definitions, how could she remain a priest, much less be consecrated a bishop. 
Additionally, I would note that if chastity is giving up dominance and control, as he defines it, then it follows that sexual relations are maintaining dominance and control.  In some instances that may be true, but as Kendall points out, that is only partial truth, which goes further to show that the definition is unworkable for the word attempting to be used.  This partiality of truth, also, gives further evidence that the definition is being changed for a specific reason, that is to try to zero in on the claim that calling others, especially homosexuals, to chastity is just trying to dominate and control them - that is the how and why, as Kendall points out, but has nothing to do with the what, the sexual conduct, itself.  But note, also, that Mr. Helmer admits in his new definition of chastity, that it requires one to adopt a new way to relate to the world and to God ... and when he specifically applies it to Ms Glasspool and her sexual relationship with her partner, he is specifically saying that acceptance of this requires a new way to relate to her AND TO GOD.  Certainly it does require a new way to relate to her ... that is the I’m OK, You’re OK acceptance of a different and, according to my traditional understanding, immoral standard of conduct.  But to require a new way of relating to God, that’s a lot to swallow and provides increased evidence that Mr. Helmer is changing the definition of this word for the specific purpose of requiring our church members to accept homosexual conduct as blessed and holy - which is, ironically, the exact opposite of his own made-up definition.  For he is attempting, in his article, as an authority in the church - a priest - to “dominate and control” those of us who cling to the traditional definition of the word, in the same way any priest dominates and controls the laity by his/her interpretation of how we are to relate to God and to each other.

May 25, 8:54 am | [comment link]
66. Undergroundpewster wrote:

#65 Billy,

Spot on.

May 25, 9:32 am | [comment link]
67. episcoanglican wrote:

Richard, with all due respect, “I do not think that word means what you think it means.” wink

May 25, 11:19 am | [comment link]
68. Sarah wrote:

RE: “But to require a new way of relating to God, that’s a lot to swallow and provides increased evidence that Mr. Helmer is changing the definition of this word for the specific purpose of requiring our church members to accept homosexual conduct as blessed and holy - which is, ironically, the exact opposite of his own made-up definition.  For he is attempting, in his article, as an authority in the church - a priest - to “dominate and control” those of us who cling to the traditional definition of the word, in the same way any priest dominates and controls the laity by his/her interpretation of how we are to relate to God and to each other.”

Billy, you are dead on.  That’s what deconstructionists do.  Angry with the language and the ideas expressed by the language, they destroy those words as representative of the ideas and attempt to reform their meaning into something more acceptable to them, thus creating “words written in water.”  It’s an act of power, rebellion, rage, and control.

May 25, 11:34 am | [comment link]
69. The Lakeland Two wrote:

Fr. Helmer, thank you for responding and engaging here.  Not easy having to defend yourself, but thanks for taking it on. 

I disagree with how you used the word chasity, and I feel what you’ve done is a gross misuse of it, intentionally or not.  I would like to know if, knowing how your essay has been received in these quarters, would you have written it any differently now?

If I understand your purpose rather than the words correctly, do you feel that your words should cause those in TEC to evaluate whether they are being “chaste” in their relationship with those whom they disagree?  An example would be Church of the Good Shepard in Binghamton, NY (Matt Kennedy+‘schurch), where instead of working out a solution and the Diocese geting $100,000+, the members were kicked out and the building sold to non-Christians for $50,000.

My problem with your essay is that it could have been much more clear, but by not being so, it gives those who don’t want to listen the out they need to ignore what they should do to be “chaste” according to your use of the word while not giving those who disagree with the Glasspool consecration and TEC’s innovations the same courtesy for room.  It is that lack of courtesy - charity, chastity, whatever you want to call it, that has caused so much damage.  While some Episcopalians may be proud, when I introduce myself as an Episcopalian, I get a response that is not respectful.  The actions of others has impacted all of us.  Something the Primates have said repeatedly, so it isn’t a new concept.

I wish you well and that God will guide you in your writing and life.

In peace,

The Lakeland Two

May 25, 1:13 pm | [comment link]
70. Rob Eaton+ wrote:

Thanks, Tim, for getting back to me on my question of clarification re: biblical root of “traditional”.

May 25, 3:42 pm | [comment link]
71. John Wilkins wrote:

Actually, Billy, we are inviting you to play with language because, well, it is absolutely fun to do so and might be enlightening in the process.  You can define it as you wish. 

Are we doing this out of anger and rage?  I’m sure a few are angry.  But one common trope in modern interpretation is the eagerness to play with language and see how far it can go.  It’s as old as puns, riddles and all sorts of “deconstructions” to language.  Of course, deconstructionism was meant to critique authority (especially those who think they are upholding tradition).  It may, have, of course, merely hidden who is master of the language.

May 25, 11:22 pm | [comment link]
72. Richard Helmer wrote:

#69 ” I would like to know if, knowing how your essay has been received in these quarters, would you have written it any differently now?”
Yes.  I might have been clearer in my intent of offering a reflection on living a vow rather than giving the impression I was fundamentally re defining chastity in the technical sense as Kendall notes.  That pesky word “meaning” has become quite a lightning rod.  My attempt to be provocative garnered more ire than I ever intended, to
be sure. 

“Do you feel that your words should cause those in TEC to evaluate whether they are being “chaste” in their relationship with those whom they disagree?”

Admitting the possible arrogance of the word “should,” I would say of course.  I think that is a lesson for all of us. 

May 26, 1:04 am | [comment link]
73. Richard Helmer wrote:

#65 Billy

I find your presumptuous reading into my thought and reflective processes patently offensive and wildly erroneous.  If my thinking is unclear to you, a clarifying question would be much more constructive.

May 26, 1:07 am | [comment link]
74. Billy wrote:

#71, “you can define it as you wish,” I believe is exactly the point being made by Kendall and so many others in this thread, and that is also what reappraisers, apparently like Mr. Helmer, like to do ... define words as they wish, which allows for changes that are not necessarily good or right, as in this case. 

#73, sorry for your being offended, but I don’t think my statements in #65 were erroneous at all.  As was pointed out several times by others, your pointing to the Glasspool relationship in this context gives away the thought process.  The fact that you are a fairly well-known priest, writing an article for publication, provides the very reasonable inference that you are attempting to influence the flock of TEC and potentially Anglicans around the world.

May 26, 6:35 am | [comment link]
75. Sarah wrote:

Oh, I don’t think Billy thought Richard Helmer’s thinking at all unclear.

May 26, 9:13 am | [comment link]

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