Chastity, now

By Richard Helmer

In starting discernment to become a member of a spiritual community of The Episcopal Church, I have been invited in recent months to study the three classic evangelical counsels as they have been articulated as vows beginning with the mendicant orders in the twelfth century: poverty, chastity, and obedience.

As a parish priest, husband, father, and ever aspiring pianist, the one counsel that has captivated me most recently has been the vow of chastity. It has spoken most deeply to my perfectionistic desire to control outcomes in every relationship in my life — far beyond its often narrow interpretation regarding fidelity in sexual conduct.

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

Having spent an increasing amount of time in conversation with married couples in recent years, the most commonly destructive dynamic in any relationship I have found has to do with a failure of chastity. But 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. When couples learn this, the effect in their relationship and family is simply astonishing. Anxiety and anger levels drop almost immediately. There is a renewed simultaneous sense of freedom and connection. Spouses allow their partners to grow. Parents allow their children to seek accountable maturity. Needs are articulated. Resentments are set aside. Rather than using or abusing the relationship to change others, the relationships by themselves become transformative. Everyone is changed.

I’ve discovered the same truth in my walk with the congregation I serve. When I began viewing parish ministry through the lens of chastity, I soon felt far less anxious about outcomes of our various forms of service and worship. I was able to let our lay leadership step forward and engage more creatively in ministry at every level. I was less apt to get tangled up in the inevitable power games that all communities encounter. I was able to better articulate my own perspectives without expecting simple assent or agreement. I was able to hold my precious agendas more lightly. I was able to more clearly see and exercise pastoral authority when the community needed it. Frankly, I am less interested in numbers for the parochial report and parish programs for my resume than I ever have been. Chastity in this ministry is, for me at least, a spiritually life-saving discovery.

Chaste leadership serves and seeks to set example rather than manipulate or control. Chaste leadership is honest about the power it holds and seeks to exercise it with transparency, deliberation, clarity and the good of others first and foremost in mind. And chaste leadership learns to live with the reality that we are never in full control of outcomes, that consequences bad and good flow from every action, and that ends rarely if ever justify means.

Chastity deserves a thorough study by everyone presently involved in the tired crisis of the Anglican Communion. The desire to manipulate outcomes, to control others, to dominate an otherwise messy situation inherited from our colonial, modern past is all about unchaste approaches to relationship. And our late great crisis is rife with unchastity. We see it a lot in bishops and clergy attempting to manipulate the situation to their own ends. We see it in the floundering of the office of the Archbishop of Canterbury attempting to control through appeasement and veiled threats. We see it in the unwillingness to acknowledge our actions within our own Church have unforeseen consequences for everyone — both good and bad. We see it in the grasping and grandstanding at many levels. We have already seen the failed outcomes of dishonest ecclesiastical legislating that is inherently unchaste for its attempt to placate rather than humbly hold the truth. And we know too well the abuse of reports and non-binding councils as instruments of shadow law, and the potential of distorting covenant into a tool of manipulation. Finally, we see clergy and laity alike standing behind all of these efforts aiming for a piece of the action — following the siren call of our conflicting visions of what a church “should” be: one that is made in our image rather than God’s. I’m as guilty of this form of unchastity as anyone.

But there is good news. Chastity has been in evidence in the increasing number of voices of those who recognize our disagreements as a Communion, but yet insist that costly communion in Christ is far more valuable than agreement.

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.

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.

Ultimately, chastity is about humility and seeing the reality that people around us are not means to an end, whether ours or anyone else’s. For years, the Church stressed chastity in sexual terms for a number of reasons. Perhaps the greatest among them was that sex in patriarchal societies was often about dominance and objectification: a means to an heir or means to gratification, economic improvement, or status. We might claim we are beyond this today in some ways, but in contemporary Western culture we have perpetuated this lack of chastity in new ways: through commercialism, through sound-byte politics, through commodification of just about everyone and everything. The lesson is that the Church still has a great deal to learn and teach about chastity in our own day.

Chastity demands we return to what is real, setting aside the spectacles of objectification, and learn again to see ourselves, others, and the world through Christ’s loving eyes. Chastity calls us to embrace our humility and acknowledge our lack of control — to some degree over ourselves, and to an even greater degree over others. Chastity asks us to hope rather than to expect, to forgive rather than to condemn, to cultivate rather than destroy. Perhaps most importantly, chastity insists that God be God, not a projection of our own desires. Chastity towards the divine is captured in that critical turn of phrase in the Lord’s prayer: “thy will be done…”

No one ever said chastity is easy. Yet our attempt to tame it by confining it to monasticism or sex ignores its enormous potential for transformation in our everyday lives as a Christian people. For at the end of the day, chastity calls us to live more into the love with which God loves us: a chaste love that frees and empowers us to be who we were made to be — a people of and for our loving God.

The Rev. Richard E. Helmer is rector of Church of Our Saviour, Mill Valley, Calif. His sermons and reflections have been published widely online, and he blogs about spirituality, ministry, Anglicanism, church politics, music, and the misadventures of young parenthood at Caught by the Light.

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15 Comments
  1. Popular topic on some sites Richard. Many comments on Titus One Nine site.

  2. The Rev. Richard E. Helmer

    It appears some have misunderstood me:

    My intent here 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.

  3. The Rev. Richard E. Helmer

    The Rev. Rob Eaton has engaged me further over Kendall Harmon’s response to my essay at TitusOneNine:

    http://www.kendallharmon.net/t19/index.php/t19/article/30220/

    I am cross-posting my additional remarks here:

    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.

  4. Mcdoc.wordpress.com

    Thank you Fr. Helmer,

    This is actually helpful to deepen and amplify the meaning of and the disposition and personal metanoia one needs to develop and to which one must return to manifest a constructive and fruitful chastity.

    I am discouraged, in this context and in larger contexts, when I read the Titus One Nine essay and many of the comments.

    One may take it as one of many challenges to and even temptations away from such a larger chastity. For me it is seductive to comment on this and related essays and their comments, attempting to challenge and persuade.

    I suppose that would be akin to a vowed monastic frequenting singles bars, ostensibly to save souls, but which is more likely to lead to deep and complicated trouble for all involved rather than leading to general repentance and a contagious, soul-winning revival.

    [mcdoc – Thanks for joining the Cafe conversation. We strive for transparency and do not permit the use of pseudonyms. Please observe our policy by signing you name in the future. Thank you – ed.]

  5. Mcdoc,

    Thanks much. I have found the response to my reflection over at Titus One Nine largely a study in ad hominem and little more than that, although a handful of the comments over there did prove engaging and helpful.

    The third chapter of James has proven, for me at least this week, a palliative.

    Be not discouraged. This stuff is as old as the hills. Probably older. . .

  6. Having tired of attempting to engage with abuse from anonymous commentators over at Titus One Nine, I will dare here to draw in some background text to further support my reflection on a more expansive understanding of chastity.

    One classical Christian text on chastity is from St. Francis de Sales’ Introduction to the Devout Life, esp. III.12-III.13 (page numbers here are from my recently purchased copy of the 400th Anniversary Edition published by Eremitical Press).

    While Francis’ treatment of chastity clearly begins with chastity’s recognizable technical definition of sexual purity, his opening on the subject in III.12 includes this lovely and undeniable springboard into wider meaning: “Chastity is called honesty, and the possession of it honor; it is also named integrity, and the opposite vice, corruption. In short, it has its special glory to be the fair and unspotted virtue of both soul and body ” (121-122).

    Francis articulates the need to pursue chastity even while in the married state, even while enjoying sexual pleasure with one’s spouse! The conclusion to be drawn is that there is much more to chastity, then, than merely the container (in this case, marriage) of sexual relations. Francis argues chastity demands a context of moderation and avoidance of abuse (123). This I interpret to mean abstaining from the realm of domination and control, which are arguably forms of abuse, however subtly they might be employed.

    Late in the same section, he articulates the necessity of chastity for “all classes of people,” as chastity is inexorably linked with holiness and cleanliness of the heart (124) and he references three distinct parts of the New Testament to support his argument. To amplify Francis’ point further, I would add Jesus’ teaching that it is the heart from where all relational vice and violence come, as in Matthew 15:18-20. Chastity, Francis clearly argues, is not simply a matter of sexuality, but fundamentally and most importantly involves the human heart and the quality of all its relationships.

    In III.13 (125-126) Francis takes this yet further by asserting that loss of chastity is possible even outside of sexual relations. A quote he attributes to Basil through John Cassian may very well be at the root of a teaching on chastity I was offered by a celibate monk: “I know not what belongs to a woman, yet I am not a virgin.” The implication is clear – it is possible for even the assiduously celibate to be unchaste. There is, simply put, much more to chastity than sex.

    Again, I will concede there are disagreements in the wider church at present over what constitutes chaste sexuality. I might even dare to quibble with Francis on what defines chaste sexuality. But that is not at all to throw the proverbial baby out with the bath water. By Francis’ standards, the underlying — and more important — virtue of chastity is found in its direction for all forms of human relating, and that is relating not through abuse (domination, control) but rather through the purity of love, integrity, peace, etc.

  7. Brian McMichael

    Sorry Editors.

    Thanks for amplification, Fr. Helmer. Having held some counsel with Benedictines and other monastics, I’d say the easiest part of chastity is refraining from sexual relations outside of marriage. Alcoholics in recovery in AA speak of dry drunks and white-knuckling it with respect to merely abstaining from alcohol all the while not being being sober.

    What I’m discouraged about is the rigid,smug, polarized and reflexive contrarianism, disdain, disparagements, distortions, summary rejection, and lack of charity. To read around the conservative Anglican blogosphere right now is like reading around the far-right blogosphere, same tone.

  8. Thanks, Brian, for your further comments on this thread.

    There’s a lot of extra stress in the mix right now, so the reactivity is acute — especially from those who seem to find their world-view most profoundly threatened by what’s changing in The Episcopal Church and elsewhere. No one’s sure quite what precisely we’re moving towards, but I think it something close to what Phyllis Tickle outlines in The Great Emergence.

    In any case, some of us find it refreshing and hopeful and Spirit-led while others find it terribly frightening and regard it as demonic. Most of us fall somewhere along a spectrum between the two at various times!

    I’m still not entirely sure what in my reflection triggered the vehemence over at T 1:9, although it appears to me to have something to do with my allusion to the consecrations in Los Angeles. . .even though my reflection would still hang together without that point. If my hunch is correct, it shows me this is more about reactivity to matters around sexuality than the substance of my post which is how chastity can lead to charity.

    As far as lack of charity goes in the blogosphere, I agree with you, and that is profoundly sad. I did finally react with umbrage over at T 1:9 when someone began telling me (in rather unpleasant terms) what I was thinking. I found it a profoundly arrogant and presumptuous mode of argument. Surely second only to God I know best how I think! But the blogosphere and its related distance and anonymity tempt us to say nasty things we would not dare utter face-to-face. Perhaps there is another essay to come about chastity online!

    In any case, I am grateful for the relatively civil discourse we enjoy here at the Cafe — thanks in no small part to Jim and our mindful eds.

    My hope (just a hope, mind you, not an expectation) is that my reflection might provoke some deeper conversation about chastity and what it means in this era of widespread change and uncertainty. . .and, yes, disagreement.

    Thanks again for visiting, and comment again as the Spirit moves!

  9. This is a fascinating thread and I’m very glad that the essence of the vow of Chastity has been brought to bear on the current troubles of the church. In our interpretation of the vow in the Brotherhood, the hallmarks of Chastity are restraint from excess, and freedom from indecency and offensiveness so that “we may be free to love others without trying to possess or control.”

    These are the antitheses of the behaviors exhibited in the conservative blogosphere. And, as evidenced by their lack, the very things required of us to be in relationship with one another. You cannot exhibit true Charity unless Chastity comes first. And unless we move beyond the idea that Chastity is simply about the body, we will never come to a place of understanding right relationship.

    As we’ve discussed, Fr. Richard, sometimes in the midst of looking at the what, how, and who – we forget the “why.” Chastity is a means and not an end. And if we look simply at the intended end of Chastity, even if it IS restricted to celibacy, then we understand it to be about freeing oneself from certain distractions SO THAT we might love more freely.

    Pity that this fact is lost on those who would rather spout hatred in the conservative blogosphere. They’ve rejected the intended aims of Chastity even as they defend it’s more traditional interpretation.

  10. Thanks, Br. K!

    Clarifying, as always, and a helpful reminder that communities interpret the vow of chastity in its technical practice somewhat differently, but the intended outcome is almost invariably the same: greater charity.

  11. I am now reading yet another fascinating take on chastity by an Anglican solitary — a perspective that was just brought to my attention today:

    Maggie Ross’ The Fire of Your Life pp 52-66.

    In it, we find again the traditional technical understanding as a springboard, but again not the definition, nor the end:

    “Human sexuality, however it is expressed, is vacuous and destructive unless it springs from and is focused by chastity, which means single-hearted living in the love of God.”

    She then sums up chastity this way:

    “Simply put, chastity is adoration.”

  12. Gary

    “Chastity demands we return to what is real, setting aside the spectacles of objectification, and learn again to see ourselves, others, and the world through Christ’s loving eyes.” Sounds very feel good to me. Define “real.” Define “through Christ’s loving eyes.” Sounds like a catachresis in that God/Christ hath no eyes but is supposed to see. Humans, however, are prone to spectacles, natural sight, the senses? Is Christ here merely a double of whatever the author wants? The so-called truth being presented here is not clear. I don’t know what to make of the “return” trope, as if one has to return to some pre-given answer. But if one has to keep returning, maybe the problem is that this doesn’t work, that it is a series of failures.

    I would have to see more issues analyzed before I would know whether I agree with any of this.

    I doubt this chastity rhetoric is ever going to solve the problems of the Anglican Communion.

    Gary Paul Gilbert

  13. The Rev. Richard E. Helmer

    Sorry, Gary, I’m not rising to the bait, except perhaps this far:

    Chastity is not about abstract truth or rhetoric, but rather embodied practice.

  14. garydasein

    Richard, embodied practice sounds good. There is no bait here, only my impatience with cliches.

    Gary Paul Gilbert

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