A critical, theological analysis of meanings of ‘asceticism’ in relation to the report Issues in Human Sexuality, with particular reference to queer theology

  • Mark Williams

Student thesis: Master of Philosophy


Abstract The current debates in General Synod regarding the sexual conduct of homosexual clergy have suggested that the original document Issues in Human Sexuality has become inadequate for use. I wish to shed light on elements of the theology which lies behind Issues in Human Sexuality. I shall begin by arguing that Issues in Human Sexuality is a document written in a form which embraces legal imposition only rather than embracing a diversity of ascetic practice. I identify that the church has traditionally relied on some form of asceticism not exclusively but primarily for clerical life. The definitions of asceticism are not universal; therefore I explore initially the early definitions of the word. My conclusion as to a working definition of asceticism is that it relies on two concepts,’ holiness’ and ‘boundary’. I offer an initial Anglican concept of holiness through the writings primarily of Martin Thornton. I explore initially the concept of boundary through an understanding of celibacy, but note that celibacy also is a complex and varied term. Moving from celibacy to an introduction of the theology of permanent relationships I argue that permanent relationships embrace both boundary and holiness, but that permanence relies heavily on boundary, both chosen and imposed. If the church seeks to reform an understanding of sexual practice then it needs to return to a definition of sexual activity which relates to holiness. The traditional expression for the desire for holiness has been asceticism. In offering differing attempts at a definition of asceticism I have sought to explore a diverse understanding of holiness and boundary which is not reflected in Issues in Human Sexuality. A movement both outside and inside the study of theology which has arisen is the emergence of ‘queer’. The use of the word ‘queer’ challenges the existence of boundary particularly in relation to sexual boundary. The problem with ‘queer’ is that it has neither identifiable structure nor a creed of adherence. Therefore to engage with ‘queer’ I chose to engage with three individual theologians who either by their own admission or the identification by others fall within the category of ‘queer theology’. James Alison’s writing is useful in arguing particularly for gay identity and inclusion within the church. He wrestles particularly with a desire for holiness whilst being gay. He offers an understanding as to how gay people have been treated by the church through his theology of ‘victim’. Mark Jordan explores the boundaries of sexual freedom but also wishes for some understanding of a ‘new holiness’. He identifies an understanding of asceticism through a definition of pleasure. However he moves beyond Alison by concentrating on the question of identity. Jordan removes gay identity but replaces it with a definition of ‘sodomy’. Finally Marcella Althaus-Reid attempts to find holiness through the removal of boundary. This is particularly useful because she extends even the boundaries of Jordan by examining the role of women in seeking holiness.
Date of Award31 Dec 2017
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorPeter Scott (Supervisor) & Andrew Crome (Supervisor)

Cite this