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.