The trouble with ‘normal’: a further note on human sexuality

Posted on July 5, 2012


I have argued before on this blog that one of the problems with contemporary ecclesial debates over human sexuality is the assumption that a Christian sexual ethic should celebrate, and enshrine, ‘normal’ sexuality. It occurs to me in reading some recent public comments from different churches that one of the problems with this is the slipperiness of the word ‘normal’. I think there is a fundamental ambiguity in the word which is not often recognised. It is so elusive that it is even there in the OED definition(!), where 2a (the relevant meaning) offers: ‘Constituting or conforming to a type or standard; regular, usual, typical; ordinary, conventional.’

With fear and trembling – can the OED ever be wrong? – I want here to suggest that, perhaps, that which ‘conforms to a standard’ might be distinctly unusual, and that that which is ‘usual’ might substantially fail to conform to a standard, and so that there is a conflation of two different meanings here, which should be distinguished if we want to think clearly. I distinguish between ‘usual’ meaning ‘(most) commonly occurring’ and ‘normal’ meaning ‘conforming to a standard’ (on the basis that the etymology of ‘normal’ seems to imply a connection to a norm, I retain the word for this sense).

Now, we might argue that in a well-ordered (‘normal’?!) world, this distinction would be formal, not real: most or all examples of a given thing do in fact conform to the standard that governs that thing, and so the sets defined by ‘usual’ and ‘normal’ are coterminous, or at least broadly so, even if differently defined. It happens that the world we live in is not well-ordered: it is normal for a (British) banker to adhere to a high level of professional ethics; it is not at all clear that this has been usual, however. (We could make analogous points about politicians, journalists and – lest I be thought to be sniping at others – academics and the clergy also.)

So what? Well, just this: this distinction between usual and normal becomes important when we consider recent ecclesial pronouncements on human sexuality. As I have discussed before on this blog, the Roman Catholic Church has employed a ‘natural law’ argument to claim that exclusive, permanent, heterosexual monogamy is normal; in its response to the government consultation down south, the Church of England has argued rather that exclusive, permanent, heterosexual monogamy is usual. These are strikingly different arguments, which nonetheless can easily be conflated given the confusion over the word ‘normal’ with which I began.

The Church of England’s submission to the Westminster government’s consultation can be read here [link is to pdf]. Given the public prominence of the CoE, it is not a surprise that it attracted a significant amount of comment, rather too much of it of the ‘I (dis)agree with your conclusions, therefore I (dis)approve of your submission’ variety. The arguments presented may roughly be divided into two groups: there is a series of arguments based on the intrinsic nature of marriage; and there is a series of arguments based on the legal status of marriage in English & Welsh law. (The submission never considers the relationship between marriage as defined in civil law, and marriage as defined theologically, which I tend to think is a weakness.)

The legal arguments suggest that the government has failed to understand the present legal status of marriage, and the difficulty of changing it; I am no lawyer, but the submission seems convincing to me on this point. The claims concerning the ‘intrinsic nature of marriage’ (a phrase used, repeatedly, in the submission) start with appeals to norms: ‘derived from the teaching of Christ himself’ (1); ‘derived from the Scriptures and enshrined within its authorised liturgy’ (2). This line is rapidly abandoned, however, and replaced by an account of heterosexual monogamy as usual: in (6) we read of ‘the intrinsic nature of marriage, as enshrined in human institutions since before the advent of either church or state, is the union of a man and a woman’. This phrase might, generously, be heard as an appeal to a creational norm (although I confess to being troubled by a theology that is prepared to postulate a ‘before’ concerning the church…); as we read on, however, the document explicitly asserts that heterosexual monogamy is usual in history, and bases its arguments on this assertion. This is particularly clear in paragraphs 7 and 11. (7) asserts:

Throughout history, in the laws of the land and in the Church of England‘s Book of Common Prayer on which the laws concerning marriage are grounded, marriage has been understood to be, always and exclusively, between a woman and a man. This understanding is deeply rooted in our social culture. While marriage has evolved as an institution in many other ways this aspect has remained constant.

(11) makes the point even more strongly:

Marriage has from the beginning of history been the way in which societies have worked out and handled issues of sexual difference. To remove from the definition of marriage this essential complementarity is to lose any social institution in which sexual difference is explicitly acknowledged.

The appeal in both these paragraphs is to something that is usual, not something that is normal. It is asserted that this practice of marriage is ut id teneatur quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus, to abuse a fine phrase. Vincent of Lérins used the phrase just quoted to define that which was orthodox in the Catholic Church; he had no expectation that there was some creational norm held to ‘everywhere, always, by all’ which might define a universal human ethic.

To review the history of human sexuality across the world would – surprisingly! – take considerable space; I simply note here that – regardless of the norm presented (which I take to be exclusive, permanent, heterosexual monogamy) – the history of God’s people in the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible is already adequate evidence that there is nothing ‘usual’ about heterosexual monogamy; the Church of England is making an appeal which defines the stories of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David, Solomon, &c. as aberrant on the basis of some generally-observable historical practice. All I can say is that, I would need a fair amount of evidence to be convinced…

As I have indicated before on this blog, I do not think that appeals to the normal or the usual are helpful in sexual ethics: a robust doctrine of the fall will suggest that all our sexual desires are misdirected, just as all our religious desires are misdirected and so tend to idolatry apart from the purifying work of the Spirit. That said, the Roman Catholic doctrine of asserting that heterosexual monogamy is normal is at least defensible: an argument may be mounted, which is able to account adequately for the historical prevalence of desires otherwise directed. The argument of the Church of England, which – let us be charitable – I take to be primarily an attempt at apologetics, making Christian positions explicable to the wider culture, is essentially incredible, because it makes claims about what is usual which are simply indefensible.

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