In the Book of Common Prayer we find the General Confession, prayed in these words (or in modernised forms of them) in service after service, week by week, throughout the Anglican world.
Almighty God, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, Maker of all things, Judge of all men: We acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness, Which we, from time to time, most grievously have committed, By thought, word and deed, Against thy Divine Majesty, Provoking most justly thy wrath and indignation against us.
We do earnestly repent, And are heartily sorry for these our misdoings; The remembrance of them is grievous unto us; The burden of them is intolerable.
Have mercy upon us, have mercy upon us, most merciful Father; For thy Son our Lord Jesus Christ’s sake, Forgive us all that is past; And grant that we may ever hereafter Serve and please thee In newness of life, To the honour and glory of thy name; Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
The foundational truth of Christianity: all of us have sinned, repeatedly, and deserve only God’s judgement and punishment. And yet, in Christ, we find grace: God’s reconciling mercy to those who repent.
In the words of absolution offered to the penitent
May the Almighty and merciful Lord grant unto you pardon and remission of all your sins, time for amendment of life, and the grace and comfort of the Holy Spirit.
God does not hold our sins against us, or treat us as our sin deserves. And yet the response of the truly penitent – perhaps the evidence of it – is the desire for “amendment of life”, a turning round, living differently. And rejoicing in the mercy we find in Christ.
Mary of Egypt, whose life the church (especially its Orthodox branches) celebrates, knew and lived that. After a mystical encounter, she turned her back on a life of fornication and prostitution, retreating to the desert where for decades she devoted her life to prayer and to God.
Here she had lived absolutely alone for forty-seven years, subsisting apparently on herbs, when a priest and monk, named Zosimus, who after the custom of his brethren had come out from his monastery to spend Lent in the desert, met her and learned from her own lips the strange and romantic story of her life. As soon as they met, she called Zosimus by his name and recognized him as a priest. After they had conversed and prayed together, she begged Zosimus to promise to meet her at the Jordan on Holy Thursday evening of the following year and bring with him the Blessed Sacrament. When the appointed evening arrived, Zosimus…. came to the spot that had been indicated. After some time Mary appeared on the eastern bank of the river, and having made the sign of the cross, walked upon the waters to the western side. Having received Holy Communion, she raised her hands towards heaven, and cried aloud in the words of Simeon: “Now thou dost dismiss thy servant, O Lord, according to thy word in peace, because my eyes have seen thy salvation”. She then charged Zosimus to come in the course of a year to the spot where he had first met her in the desert, adding that he would find her then in what condition God might ordain. He came, but only to find the poor saint’s corpse, and written beside it on the ground a request that he should bury her, and a statement that she had died a year before, on the very night on which he had given her Holy Communion, far away by the Jordan’s banks.
Her specific call isn’t everyone’s, but the call to put off sin, and put on righteousness comes relentlessly to all who believe.
The Anglican church honours the life of Josephine Butler, who devoted to much of her (19th century) life to campaigning for women to be treated with dignity – included those thought to be involved in prostitution – and actively campaigned against the specific evils of child prostitution and the “white slave trade”. There is no sign she thought well of prostitution – prostitute or clients – although she was wary of the idea that morality could be effectively legislated.
But the New Zealand government honours – makes a dame – Catherine Healy, former prostitute and now (for decades) head of the New Zealand Prostitutes Collective. Prostitution – and living from the earnings of prostitution – is legal in New Zealand.
As Healy herself put it in one interview
“It’s extraordinary to see how far we have come. This shows the acceptance of this industry. We are a part of society, not apart from it. It’s about reducing the stigma and acknowledging that we are an inclusive society in this country.”
And in a sense that is the problem. Reasonable people can differ on whether prostitution should be illegal or not, and if so whether both the purchaser and supplier of the “service” should face prosecution. Not many regard prostitution – supply or purchase – as something that society should look favourably on – let alone something they would be comfortable with their own daughters doing – and yet is exactly the status Healy seeks, and what our government has acted to bestow in this extraordinary award.
In a way, perhaps, we shouldn’t be surprised: of our four most senior government ministers, only one is married, and the Prime Minister herself is just about to give birth in a relationship outside marriage. They live transgressively, and they practice politics that way too, apparently determined to corrode and replace all the norms and standards that have underpinned our civilisation for generation upon generation.
No doubt the Prostitutes Collective does some good work. And yet in its ongoing campaign to normalise prostitution, whether small accounts such as this of Healy’s own time as a prostitute
It was a deeply social time, she said, with prostitutes and clients crammed into a little illicit bar in the brothel drinking and talking into the wee hours. It was such a contrast to her morning meetings in demure school staff rooms. The juxtaposition of those two very different lives was stark.
or in her call this morning in a radio interview for the removal of the few remaining restrictions, those which prevent foreigners getting work permits, or using student work visa rights, to be a prostitute, she attempts to corrode one of the core values (perhaps aspirational, more often than lived out) of our society – that sex isn’t just some ad hoc recreational activity, but a culmination of the most intimate union, that between one man and one women, until death alone parts them. It is a spiritual act, not just a physical one.
And in doing so, Healy fosters an environment in which some young women – otherwise discouraged by the social norms – will consider the option of prostitution themselves, perhaps as a way to pay for tertiary study. In doing so, they degrade themselves, open themselves to exploitation and abuse, and – not incidentally – contribute to the degradation of the men who purchase their services. It isn’t a path that leads to an ordered and fulfilled life, and more often attracts those who are already troubled and abused and, in time, worsens their plight. We owe each other more than this.
The official citation for Catherine Healy includes this sentence
Post-decriminalisation she was appointed a member of the Prostitution Law Review Committee, which reported that sex workers were markedly better off under the Prostitution Reform Act
We should want these people to be “markedly better off”, but not in doing what they are doing (prostitution), but by amendment of life – by getting out of the “industry”. That doesn’t mean encouraging or tolerating abuse of women doing this activity, but equally it shouldn’t mean treating sex – intended as a most intimate act – as just another market industry.
And if God shuns sin, he doesn’t shun people. And thus the church can, and should, be involved in ministries helping women out of prostitution. I wonder if our government would consider honouring those who’ve devoted their lives to living among such people abroad, and looking to work with them to build industries to assist women to get out of their former life as prostitutes.
There are many people who’ve been honoured over the years – even made knights or dames – who’ve lived somewhat questionable lives. All, by the church’s teaching, have been sinners. But few have been honoured so highly as “Dame” Catherine Healy now has for actively campaigning to normalise sinful behaviour. Have knighted business people been guilty of sins of covetousness or greed? Quite probably in some cases, and yet few will own those attitudes, let alone celebrate them.
It is not as if prostitution is a uniquely bad thing – heterosexual sex is God-given, but in prostitution it occurs outside its appropriate frame (a committed partnership). Key fathers of the Western church – such as Augustine and Thomas Aquinas – have taken the stance that prostitution – while immoral – should be tolerated by civil society as the lesser of two evils. But that plausible stance is a far cry for endorsing it is a positive good, or something whose champions should be honoured by the state (on behalf of society as a whole).
The Prime Minister and her colleagues sell society short – all of us – when they celebrate and honour, as both normal and acceptable, what societies for centuries treated as at best a lesser evil, but evil nonetheless – something that, if always with us, degrades – body, soul, and spirit – all those who participate (buyer and seller). Would that, as a society, we could celebrate repentance, and an amendment of life that points men and women to something so much better – lifelong committed marriage, and sexual intimacy that grows and deepens within that union.
These aren’t just Christian insights, and yet the abandonment of the forms and practices of Christian faith in our society – exchanging its disciplines, acquired the hard way over centuries, for the dissipation of “anything goes” (so long as it doesn’t stand in the way of “anything goes”) – should probably leave us unsurprised to find an award like this happening. And yet I was. I am. The gift, sadly, reveals something of the character, the views, of the givers.