5th May 2013

The Ten Commandments (7): “One partner for life: really?”  

(Exodus 20:14).

I don’t know how many of you have an old “Family Bible” at home. If you do, it is probably large, heavy, black, leather-bound and gathering dust in the attic! You may have been tempted to take it to an antique dealer or an auction room to be valued; but can I tell you now that these old Bibles are pretty common and, unless yours is very special or has proven connections with someone famous, it’s likely to be worthless in terms of pounds and pence. In fact you’d probably be better saving your time and petrol.

However, if you have a Bible dated 1631 and produced in London by the royal printers Robert Barker and Martin Lucas, things could be rather different. This was one of the earliest reprints of the Authorised Version of the Bible, clearly catering for a growing demand. Unfortunately one small mistake in typesetting proved very costly to Mr. Barker and Mr. Lucas and led to outrage by both the King and the Archbishop of Canterbury. The two printers were called up to the notorious “Star Chamber” to explain themselves; they were fined the huge sum of £300 and – even worse – they lost their printing licence.

So what was this heinous error? Was it something which discredited God or changed a fundamental part of Christian doctrine? Was it a naughty word which had unintentionally crept into the text when the compositor was tired at the end of a busy day? No, it was none of those things; it was actually the omission of one short three-letter word which made the Seventh Commandment read “Thou shalt commit adultery”. (Even a modern computer spell-checker wouldn’t have picked that up as it still makes perfect grammatical sense). All the copies of the so-called “Wicked Bible” were immediately recalled and only about a dozen probably survive today. If you’ve got a good mint example lurking in your loft it could be worth up to £100,000!

And so we come to look at this seventh commandment, the one that speaks of sexual morality. I have to be honest with you: having given myself the task of preaching through all the ten commandments, this is the one I’ve been dreading! That is partly because we tend to not mention issues of sex in church – I’m not sure why that should be as there are some pretty explicit and erotic passages in the Bible; just look at the Song of Solomon! Then there is the opinion, quite often expressed, which says that “Christianity has nothing to do with what goes on in private, in my bedroom” – I have some sympathy with that point of view but I think it is ultimately misguided, as our faith encompasses far more than what we do in church on Sunday mornings and should extend to every part of our human existence. The final reason for my caution or fear in commenting on this commandment is that attitudes to these matters are changing very rapidly, even in the churches. We may be in different places to where we were a few years ago – or we may feel totally at odds with society.

So I feel that I am walking on eggshells and risk causing controversy or offence whatever I say – which may not be a bad thing if it makes us start thinking! On the other hand I must tell you that, on the only other occasion I’ve ever preached on this text, a young couple were at our church for the first time. I thought they’d never come back afterwards, but they did; in fact I had the privilege not only of marrying them and dedicating their children but also baptising the woman by immersion. So perhaps I shouldn’t be so worried today!

Before I begin to comment, though, I need to make some definitions. And although I suspect the word “adultery” is becoming somewhat archaic, it does have a very specific meaning in today’s British society: it is seen as the infidelity of a married person, whether that be the man or the woman. It is one of the legal grounds for divorce and indeed, for many years, it was just about the only one – which is why private detectives back in the 30s had to set up those little “set pieces” in scruffy hotels in Brighton if a man and a woman actually wanted to split up! The Old Testament view – corrected, I must say, by Jesus – is rather different: “adultery” there refers to infidelity between a man and a married woman, although not the other way round; in general men are given much more sexual freedom than women and that is a reflection of their status in the society of the time. We would not agree with that today, nor with the death penalties that were applied to the “crime”, reminiscent of the worst of Muslim Sharia law.

And this is where the difficulty creeps in, for different societies and times have different ideas of acceptable sexual ethics: for instance I lived for some years in an African country where polygamy was very common. That could actually have its funny side. Our next door neighbour – ostensibly a Catholic but not really – had two wives who didn’t get on. They lived with “daggers drawn” in an atmosphere of armed neutrality, with occasional rows breaking out. But there was one day when they were absolutely united: that was the day they discovered that Viano had a third wife in another town altogether. The pots and pans went flying and I think he feared for his life. I almost felt sorry for him when he slunk back home later with his tail very much between his legs. I wonder if things like that ever happened to the polygamous Bible characters such as David?

You might say, “Well, that was Africa, here things have been settled for centuries: in Christian society one man was married to one wife”. And, of course, that would be true – except that, before the Marriage Act of 1753, and even after that, many British couples never got legally married and “jumped the broomstick” (or whatever was done in their local community) instead. Partly that was because getting married was expensive and poor people could not afford it; partly it was because legal marriage was mostly about retaining property within the family line – property which, if you were poor, you simply didn’t have. In any case, we must be very careful about looking back to some “golden age” when sexual morals were simple and everyone was faithful, whether that be to 1750, 1850 or 1950. Although I agree that huge changes did come in in the so-called “Swinging Sixties”, some of those changes were simply bringing out into the open what had always been taking place in secret. You could even say that that was the time when society started being more honest about itself.

Now we can obviously look at this commandment in a negative way; we can regard it in terms of drawing lines around “who” is not allowed to do “what” with “whom”. And there is something in that as most, if not all, societies have codes of sexual ethics, which are necessary both to stop them falling apart and to prevent genetic disorders weakening the population. But we can also look at the commandment in a much more positive light, by talking about the values – to both society and individuals – of commitment, faithfulness and love. And this is what marriage is all about: it’s not really about licensing a man to take a woman to his bed (that might well happen anyway). Rather, it places what happens in that bed into the context of a relationship which will support them through thick and thin, which will give a stable setting for the raising of any children they may have, and which will, in fact, enable them to be a building block for civil society.

And so I’d like to take my life into my own hands and suggest a way in which Christians might want to redefine the concept of “adultery” in contemporary Britain. Here is my suggestion (and I didn’t get it from anyone else): adultery is “sexual activity which takes place outside publicly-recognised, committed and exclusive partnerships”. Now I appreciate that does raise one or two questions, most notably about exactly what is included when one talks of “sexual activity”; after all, Jesus said that “any man who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart” – words which, you may remember, got Jimmy Carter into trouble although he was probably one of the most moral Presidents that America has ever had! We are talking about innuendos here just as much as explicit acts.

The key words, though, which I deliberately included are “publicly-recognised, committed and exclusive relationships”. You will realise that this phrase immediately excludes casual “one-night stands” as they don’t take place within a real relationship; it also excludes the idea of what is sometimes called “serial polygamy” where people stay with one partner just until they get bored and decide to move on. In contrast, it talks of fidelity to one lover and companion for the long haul, through the thick and thin of life; and it says that relationships can never be private affairs but always exist within wider human society. These are points I stress whenever I conduct a wedding.

However, you may have noticed that I have left myself a couple of loopholes. For instance, I did not specify that the “public recognition” of a relationship must necessarily take place through marriage (whether religious or civil) although I am happier, for many reasons, if it does. I certainly believe in marriage as an institution which is why I am prepared to marry virtually every couple who asks, whether they have a Christian background or not. But I suppose there might be other ways for a community to endorse a relationship: the important thing is to be sure that such a public declaration does happen.

You may also have noticed – and I know that I am treading on very dangerous ground here – that I did not include the words “between a man and a woman” in my definition. The fact is that our human understanding of sexuality is changing and I believe that we need to celebrate same-sex couples who wish to formalise their relationship. It is surely far better to do that than to leave people living in moral limbo, which is why I voted for the motion at the URC Assembly to allow Civil Partnerships to take place on church premises and why – after a great deal of soul-searching – I have come round to support the idea of same-sex marriage. Whether we like it or not, we live in a complicated world and we have to work out our faith within it.

I hope it has become clear that I utterly support the idea of long-term and exclusive relationships; to quote the marriage service, ones which endure “for better, for worse ... until death do us part”. That’s the ideal, and I’m glad to have been happily married to Moira for 31 years. However, I must add a caveat, which is that – with the best will in the world – relationships don’t always work out as expected and can turn very sour. Don’t misunderstand me: I don’t want two people to part after their first row, or because they have different ideas on where to go on their holidays, or because “things just don’t seem like they did when we first met”. That is selfish, even infantile, behaviour: compromises must be made, relationships must develop and mature.

But people do change, sometimes radically – especially when one remembers that peoples’ lives, and therefore their marriages, are much longer today than they used to be. I have immense respect, for instance, for those who keep supporting partners after life-changing accidents or who become demented and unable to communicate. I hope I would have sufficient love and strength to do the same thing if I were to confront those circumstances; but I think I can understand – without condoning – those for whom the strain is simply too much.

And I would never tell someone to stay in a relationship where deception, violence or neglect are the order of the day. It seems to me that an abusive partner automatically breaks any agreement that the two may have made together; equally, the person who has been victimised and crushed can leave the relationship with their head held high (although the legal and emotional ramifications may take a long time to sort out). Contrary to some opinion, it must be the Church’s duty to support and heal such people, not condemn them.

We have covered a great deal of ground this morning; and I know that some of you will feel that I have gone too far, that I have not been faithful to my duty of upholding traditional standards of morality. Indeed, you may want to take me back to the Bible and say that I have violated teachings in it which are very clear. The trouble is that those “standards of morality” which we have all cherished are not always quite as “traditional” as we think; they were often shot through with hypocrisy and often condemned women to a position of inequality and subjection which most of us – for very good Christian reasons – would find quite unacceptable nowadays. Equally, if we go back to the Old Testament at least, we will find punishments for sexual crimes such as stoning and even burning alive: none of us would want such barbarity to happen in a modern civilised society. Yes, values have changed and we may well regret that fact, but we cannot turn the clock back nor constantly harp on the past. Our task is to relate the principles of Scripture – and the Commandments are all about principles – to modern society. That is never easy.

But I want to end at a different point this morning, one which will hopefully encourage all of us in our Christian pilgrimage. For there is a theme which has lied under everything I have been talking about this morning; that theme is faithfulness, commitment and love. And I would want to stress that these qualities are ones which derive directly from God himself; indeed, the Bible often uses the language of covenant and marriage to describe the relationship he has with his people, and describes their straying as nothing less than adulterous prostitution. These are strong words to use about religious faith, I know; but they are not my words. They describe both the commitment which God has for the human race, the sadness and pain he feels when we fail to follow him or demonstrate our love, and also the passionate forgiving which always seeks to draw us back, to forgive, to restore the relationship and begin again. And God’s love and loyalty to us were, as we know, supremely demonstrated when he sent his Son Jesus to die as our Saviour.

These qualities of faithfulness and persistence, of forgiveness and pardoning, of utter and exclusive commitment, of love which goes the second (and third and fourth) mile are often lacking in human relationships today. Leaving God out of the equation has not only left our society standing on very dubious moral sand, it has also removed from us a source of spiritual strength and guidance. At the end of the day this commandment must be all about making God the third member of all our significant relationships, not to interfere with or take the fun out of them, but to reinforce them in ways which we cannot do ourselves. For, as the wise writer of Ecclesiastes wrote in a verse often used at weddings, a cord made up of two strands has limited strength: but “a three-fold cord is not easily broken”.