Holiness and Desire
By Jessica Martin
Norwich: Canterbury Press, pp. xiv + 177, $23.99

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Review by Wes Hill

Readers of this magazine are wearily overfamiliar with the backdrop of Jessica Martin’s book Holiness and Desire. Martin, a residentiary canon at Ely Cathedral and an advisor for the Church of England bishops’ “Living in Love and Faith” project on human sexuality (whose resources have just been released), writes in the context of the still-ongoing, though now often repetitive and stale, Anglican infighting over sexuality.

The embers of that conflict, while perhaps originally lit during the sexual revolution of the 1960s, erupted into a full conflagration with the battles over the ethical status of lesbian and gay partnerships in the early 2000s. Since that time, the Anglican Communion has suffered endless departures and realignments and will probably still undergo greater fracturing to come, even as its Western constituents’ contexts continue to hurtle into a brave new future of reimagining gender and sexuality from the ground up.

I myself, a celibate gay man and now also an Episcopal priest, have been caught up in some of this fighting over the past decade. And like Martin, who contributed a prefatory essay to the 2013 “Pilling Report” from the Church of England House of Bishops’ Working Group on human sexuality which became the basis of this book, I have grown suspicious that the current way of narrating the infighting as a clash between a “conservative,” scriptural party and a liberal, “inclusive” counterpart neglects at least one vital, unnerving question: In what ways are I and my tribe implicated in the same blindness and moral torpor I would prefer to assign to my ideological opponents?

Martin proposes that our current Anglican division, which other churches or groups facing similar divisions can no doubt use as a mirror for theirs, “was itself handed to the Church on the back of a general cultural idolization of sex as transcendent liberation.” Furthermore, “the Church has ever since been reflexively breaking itself in pieces on a rock carved with the features of a secular idol.” On the conservative side, this idolatrous self-fracturing looks like the constant temptation to substitute a nostalgic purity code for merciful engagement with the fragmented messiness of all our sexual histories (and Martin is unsentimentally frank about and tender towards her own in this book). Meanwhile, for any who believe history’s arc is progressive, the tendency to baptize society’s ethic of consent as sufficient for the Church’s life more or less readily surrenders anything distinctive the church might have to say about sex on the basis of the gospel.

Yet perhaps that way of describing each side’s characteristic deformation is itself too indebted to the cultural idol of sex. The basic problem, as Martin sees it, is that we all, conservative and liberal alike, seem to agree with the premise “that sexuality is central to what the Church stands for.” In doing so, we are like front-row viewers at a movie whose other, secular watchers, in disillusionment and boredom, already slipped out to look for more satisfying vistas. What if there’s something more for the Church to recall and represent in the heart of its own life and its witness to a world which is increasingly disenchanted with the myth of sex that it, together with the Church, helped create?

It’s difficult to summarize what Martin proposes as a way forward — if that’s even the right way to think about what she’s doing in this book. Her opening chapter on scripture reminds me of Katherine Sonderegger’s prayerful hermeneutic: she writes downwind of critical modernity, but she’s chiefly interested in Scripture as the place where readers encounter God today in mystery and hiddenness. She offers no exegesis of any biblical material to do with “sexuality.” There is a long and disturbing section in a later chapter on the still not fully known effects of instantly accessible pornography on how we now relate to one another, but it’s moving to watch a Christian writer try to address the matter in a way that respects the irrefutable dignity of those who produce and consume porn, and especially those whose lives have been devastated by where it eventually took them. And her final chapters read more like artful and open-ended homiletical meditations (Martin is one of the finest practitioners of the craft of homiletical reticence that I know) than political or liturgical recommendations for an ecclesial body.

Without minimizing the Church’s debates about sex nor offering any shortcuts, Martin quietly preaches the gospel: that God mends the world in and by the life that Jesus lived — and lives — with us. Martin invites stillness before the reality of God at the heart of the Church’s life, the God who remains graciously present in spite of our idolatries and ready to lead us in new paths of fidelity and mutual care.

I would place Martin’s book alongside some other recent writing that is giving me, for the first time in years, hope that we may yet find a better — a more Christian — way to talk with one another, across ideological and theological divides, about desire, sexuality, holiness, and, yes, God.

Considering the firestorm of debate over same-sex relationships from a different angle, Martin suggests that we must learn to scrutinize the hidden assumptions buried inside ideals of “heterosexuality,” as a very different writer, Urban Hannon, has suggested too in a widely read article titled “Against Heterosexuality” which appeared in the conservative religious journal First Things several years ago. Martin recognizes that all of us, no matter what high moral or rhetorical ground we may try to occupy, are participants in what her husband, the writer Francis Spufford, has called “the human propensity to f—— things up.” Parallel that with the Baptist theologian Stephen Holmes’ proposal that St. Augustine, with his radical doctrine of original sin, isn’t so far away from Judith Butler, whose queer “gender troubling” sees through the pretensions of any group that wants to claim “normalcy” for itself at the expense of others.

Finally, Martin’s priestly gift for always drawing each strand of her essay back to the holy, elusive, and ultimately mysteriously merciful presence of the Church’s risen Lord has affinities with the work of Sarah Coakley — another Anglican priest formerly at Ely — who has summoned partisans of the Anglican Communion’s divisions to consider desire, indeed sexual desire, first and foremost as a “precious clue that ever tugs at the heart, reminding the human soul — however dimly — of its created source,” of the triune God’s prior desire for us.

I have read this lyrical, subtle, tough-minded, devotional book two times now, and I expect I’ll read it again.

The Rev. Wesley Hill is associate professor of New Testament at Trinity School for Ministry, Ambridge, Pennsylvania and a priest associate at Trinity Cathedral, Pittsburgh. He is the author most recently of The Lord’s Prayer: A Guide to Praying to Our Father (Lexham, 2019).