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Church Responses to the Sexual Revolution of the 1960s

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Published: Mon, 19 Feb 2018

How did the Church of England respond to the sexual revolution of the 1960s?

This subject is potentially vast in scope and could easily extend well beyond the structural requirements of this dissertation; certain parameters need to be established initially therefore. It seems the most appropriate place to begin would be to establish what the Church of England’s traditional views of sexual relationships was; after this we should examine the sexual revolution of the 1960’s before going on to discuss more directly its impact upon the church.

At this point we will look at three of the most vexed, the Church’s views on the position of women in society and in the clergy,the position of homosexuals, and the church’s views on divorce and remarriage. Finally we will note some of the most significant long term impacts of the sexual revolution and of societies changing attitudes.

There can be little doubt that there is more disagreement than ever,over the question of the relevance of the Bible and of Christianity for the understanding of human sexuality.  As in so many other areas of Christian practice, the traditional consensus has broken down and the issue is not fiercely debated. For many conservative Christians, the Bible remains the touchstone for how men and women are to understand and practice their sexuality and how family life, church life and social life are to be conducted.  For many others, however, the Bible has little or no authority as it is so obviously ‘old fashioned’ and‘out of date’ that its teachings cannot be relevant, credible or useful in modern society.  Yet more find themselves positioned somewhere between the two; caught between feelings of loyalty to the Bible and what it represents, and on the other a conviction that people in the modern world simply do not or cannot take the Bible seriously any more,particularly if interpreted literally, as those in the first group would do.

  Arguably the most exciting recent development in the study of early Christianity has been the weakening of the traditional departmental divisions between secular and ecclesiastical historiography.  As soon as traditional historians started to turn away from exclusively studying military and political history, towards the study of social history; then, Christian texts became such a rich source of evidence that they could no longer be ignored.

  Since the enlightenment, a question mark has been placed against the Christian heritage; scholars who turn their attention to early Christianity sometimes feel as thought hey are touching a raw nerve and can become tempted to overlay his own prejudices on the subject,instead of maintaining academic distance. In no area is this more true than in the study of sexuality – our attitude towards our own sexual natures and the moral and ethical problems it gives rise to. The extremely demanding and authoritarian teachings of the church on the subject of marriage, and the concomitant issue of sexual practice outside of marriage, is a significant part of our Christian heritage that is still very potent today; even amongst people and communities that outwardly reject it. It is this that provokes denunciation from the idealist and the secular historian alike; Edward Gibbon is perfect example of this: “The Enumeration on the whimsical laws, which they most circumstantially imposed on the marriage bed, would force as mile from the young, and a blush from the fair.”  In both his attitude and his tone, Gibbon has influenced many more recent historians. Robin Lane Fox,  for example, devoted the greater part of chapter of his work Pagans and Christians, to early Christian sexual morality with a“fullness and relish that almost make up for a total lack of sympathy.”  He describes virginity, for example, as “nothing but the most selfish of human ideals.”  Wolfgang Leech, following on from the work of Gibbon, is also highly critical; stating that asceticism and intolerance are the two main contributions that Christianity has made to European culture. 

  It is upon this background that the work of Peter Brown has emerged.His essays on early Christian monasticism  and his The Body and Society  on sexual renunciation in the early church, takes on its full significance. Brown is also one of the aforementioned secular historians that posses no personal loyalty of affiliation to the Christian Church, who will increasingly dominate the study of the subject in the coming years. Brown’s approach, however, is significantly more tolerant than that of Gibbon and his successors. He is not dominated by the moral absolutes of the enlightenment; with its,often open, hostility to traditional Christian morality. For brown,history can be broken down into individuals who had the capacity to make free choices and exercise free will; whilst having a complete understanding of the consequences of their actions.

  For Brown, the Kernel of traditional Christian sexual morality was the concern with single-mindedness, or purity of heart; a reorientation of an individuals’ will so that it would cease to serve the warring impulses of man, and respond, instead, to the will of God.  Brown goes on to note that it is hardly surprising that the ideal of purity of heart and of virginity became quickly inseparable, and that the leadership of Christian communities became the purview of a small,celibate, religious elite.

  These suggestions of early Christian discipline may suggest penitential system that would have been more dominant and dictatorial than the early Church ever actually developed.  The rules of early Christian communities; with their broad ranging and unbending condemnation of adultery, fornication and homosexuality, appears to leave little room for flexibility. This inflexibility of the rules can only have had the effect that they could often simply not be applied.

  In any discussion of the position of the Church on any matter, the writings of the New Testament can not be ignored. Our Lord’s own celibate state is explicit in the Gospels, and is an un-remarked corollary or his prophetic role.  Sexual morality receives distinctive and no-nonsense treatment in the dominical forbidding of divorce and the Pauline encouragement of virginity. The issue remains subordinate one, however, until a century later; but what was the origin of this concern with sexual purity that so came to characterise Christianity in general and the pre sexual revolution Church of England?

  The most common answer to this puzzle is to place the blame squarely upon the shoulders of outside influences, largely from Hellenism. It is likely that the very first Christians had a thoroughly positive attitude towards sex and marriage, the replacement of this position by something diametrically opposed to it has to have been as a result of outside influence; specifically the dualism of Platonism with disintegration of the body and bodily pleasures.  On this point, Brown notes “I have frequently observed that the sharp and dangerous flavour of many Christian notions of sexual renunciation, both in their personal and their social consequences, have been rendered tame and insipid, through being explained away as no more than inert borrowings from a supposed pagan or Jewish background.” 

  To ascribe whatever any given individual dislikes in the historical position of Christianity to outside influences, is so obviously tendentious device for preserving the truth and distinctiveness of Christianity, that it hardly requires and refutation by the historian. The contrast between the sexually positive attitude of early Christian sand the bleak otherworldly Platonist’s is no less crude, foolish and absurd than the polar and once popular opposite; the contrast between acetic and sexual pleasure hating Christians and the pleasure lovingpagans.

  It is of considerable interest, as the attitudes seem to haveremained relatively unchanged in the Church of England and the wider Church, to enquire into the attitudes towards sexuality and marriage in the Churches most successful early missions. The surviving source material relates to the aristocracy.  The task of attempting to discern the attitudes of the masses on any subject is difficult, but necessary.We must always be aware of the potential for crude stereotypes between Christian and pagan. Paul Venue  argued from epigraphic and literary evidence, however, that the first few centuries of the Christian era saw, not so much the replacement of Greco-Roman sexual mores objurgate ones as the development within both paganism and Christianity of what he calls the “bourgeois” notion of marriage wit hits strict stress upon fidelity. The reality, as Price notes,  is that it is “vain to seek to compare the values and attitudes of the‘average’ pagan with the ‘average’ Christian.”

  The sexual discourse of early Christian writers differed from those of pagans to an extent in the early period. The ethics of telethons and Stoics alike laid stress upon self-control and upon the rational use of the mind; on the dominance of the intellect over the will; and , of course, of the subjugation of impulses and physical emotions. In general, however, the discourse of the philosophers on matters of sexuality was limited. We cannot, however, argue that pagans of the period had a remarkably relaxed attitude to the whole subject;this would be to misunderstand the distinctive character of the philosophical discourse of the time. This tended to concentrate so heavily upon the good of the soul that the needs of the body were neglected.

  The distinctive sexual discourse of early Christianity has its origins, in large part, in the second century and thus post dates the New Testament. It would be a major mistake, however, to think that the debate occurred outside of the scriptures; a close reading of the letters of St. Paul show that the issue and thus Christian and eventually Church of England attitudes, were fed by a range of biblical themes.

  The strengthening of the institution of marriage was also a central tenet of the early Church, as well as of Christianity and indeed of the Church of England today; however, the stress early writers placed upon virginity precluded a positive promotion of marriage. But in society,both ancient and modern, where marriage was firmly the norm, the institution could not have been negatively affected by the advocacy of celibacy, however enthusiastically argued. Christian writers and thinkers, then and now, have been keen to uphold monogamous marriage in the face of excesses in the opposite direction,  i.e. sexual indulgence and promiscuity.

  The early Church, then, evidently laid a heavy emphasis upon sexual abstinence and purity of heart. The rules on these matters were unbending, although perhaps, in reality, not always obeyed. Adultery,fornication and homosexuality were expressly forbidden. Given the nature of the question, however, it seems appropriate to now turn our attention more specifically to the Church of England, and its traditional view’s on sexuality.

  The traditional views of the Church of England are hardly different from those highlighted above, although hey have come under fire and indeed under review in recent years.  In 2003 the House of Bishops published a guide to some aspects of the debate on human sexuality. The report was commissioned three years previous to its publication date and is a weighty tome. The report sets out a variety of views of the Church of England on such topics as homosexuality, bisexuality fantasticality, as well as heterosexuality. The report and sought to restate Church of England policy on matters of sexuality whilst promoting reflection upon them. Although these issues will be discussed further later, it is important at this stage to note that the report did not advocate or suggest changes in Current Church policy.

  Towards the end of the 1960’s; many people in Britain, particularly women, had come to believe that a sexual revolution was taking place. Angela Carter wrote, in 1969, that “ the introduction of more or less100 per cent effective methods of birth control, combined with the relaxation of manners that may have derived from this technological innovation or else came from god knows where, changed, well,everything.”  Rabble,  a contemporary of Carter and fellow novelist,argued similarly; stating, in the Guardian: “We face the certainty of asexual revolution.” She goes on to claim again that this is linked inseparably with the development of effective methods of contraception.Not all contemporaries of Carter and Rabble believed that a sexual revolution had occurred, however; for example Weeks  and Lewis  have argued that heterosexual sexual behaviour remained conservative during the late 60’s and beyond. The only measurable and record able change occurring in sexual behaviour was the rising incidence of premarital sexual intercourse. On the basis of the ample evidence that the unmarried insisted that they were only having sexual intercourse with their intended spouse, they dismiss the idea of a sexual revolution and claim it was nothing more than the continuation of an existing trend. Indeed, outside of the middle classes (see below), premarital sexual intercourse had almost certainly been a significant part of the courting ritual, reaching a low point around 1900, when survey records began, but rose back to more normal levels as the century progressed. During the 1960’s, however, with the advent of the birth control pill premarital sexual intercourse “became radical sexual behaviour,regardless of the intentions of those participating in it.” 

  The sexual revolution of the mid twentieth century appears to have begun in the upper middle classes. This class can be characterised or defined by their ambiguous relationship with power. They do not feel as though they are influencing events, but they do enjoy sufficient economic, financial and cultural privileges to create a desire to maintain the social system.  They were willing participants, therefore,only in a revolution with regard to their private lives. Members of this class can be further characterised as working hard and paying high taxes, but with no chance of moving further up the social ladder described them as being of the ideal class for Marcus; although these analyses would have to be differentiated in terms of masculine and feminine to include how female emancipation and revolt have played a part in the sexual revolution. 

  Before they became merged into the middle classes, the aristocracy had a pre-bourgeois morality. Like the bourgeoisie, the urban and rural working classes had never been under the impression that they were in any way in control of their lives; this would seem to be particularly relevant to women. For a long time, the working classes seem to have been highly suspicious of the permissiveness of the liberal morality of the privileged classes. 

  This necessarily brief analysis of the middle classes should give usa basis from which to understand one of the characteristic elements of the sexual revolution; the withdrawal from the exterior world into private sphere of family on the one hand and sexual partner(s) on the other. This movement can be seen in the every day life of middle class people living in their homes or flats with their nuclear families,withdrawn into itself. At work, as well as in the daily drudgery of the commute to work, the middle class person (man or woman) of the 1960’sand beyond, had hardly any real control over their lives: to attempt to compensate for this to some degree, by experimenting in his private,family and sexual life.  But, in the ever developing consumer society that was coming into existence even in the 1960’s, the experiments were limited and resulted in very little real change. 

  We should now return our attention to the issues of the sexual revolution. As mentioned earlier, the development of the contraceptive pill was a significant contributory factor in the changing moral position, particularly among women; but even before the arrival of the pill, increasing use of contraception and new attitudes to sexuality were combining with anxiety about rising illegitimacy figures, to provoke comment from some elements of society on the existence of premarital sex and the denial of contraception to unmarried women.  We can also place premarital sexual relationships within the context of other sexual activity that was occurring outside marriage in the late 1950’s.The 1957 report, published by the Wolfed Committee on homosexual offences and prostitution, recommended that behaviour that took place in private between consenting adults should be decriminalised but that legal penalties for public displays of sexual behaviour should be strengthened.  Essentially, although it was never actually illegal,that was the already existing position as regards women and premarital intercourse. Premarital sexual intercourse was carried out in private between consenting adults. The sanctions imposed by the society of the late 50’s were severe enough to ensure that it had to be covert and concealed, but it was certainly never illegal. If the women became pregnant as a result of her sexual activity, the judgemental of society was heavy; she would have been, essentially, a social outcast. Having the child was also the only outcome of pregnancy as abortion was illegal at the time. Having an illegitimate child was highly stigmatised and something that was avoided at all costs, it was treated almost like having a criminal record.  A combination of the almost50,000 illegitimate children born a year at the very beginning of the60’s, and the introduction of the birth control pill that removed the most obvious side effects of promiscuity; a new openness was forced upon an unwilling populace, and by the end of the 1960’s this had resulted in general public acceptance of the hitherto private and hidden sexual activity.

  The Wolfed report, mentioned above, placed a great emphasis upon self control and self restraint; important values in the 50’s and earlier. With supreme irony, any publicity given to the report, and any public discussion of sexual behaviour that it may have generated were seen as examples of a lack of restraint by many people. Such‘mainstream’ thinking was, however, of decreasing effect; by the end of the 50’s, increasing numbers of people were discussing such matters and felt no stigmatism for doing so. A number of historians have discussed the debates of the time and they need not concern us too greatly here: but what these historians’ accounts lack is any sense of how the discussion changed throughout the 60’s. As the decade wore on, it became increasingly permissible to discuss sex and sexual behaviour in public. An excellent example of this is given by an examination of the British Medical Associations annual magazine, Family Doctor produced supplement entitled: Getting Married. The 1959 edition of this publication contained two articles that caused great offence at the time: The first by a Dr. Wilmington containing a seemingly lighthearted question “are you a bride and are you pregnant too?”  reference to the rising rate of pregnancies occurring outside of marriage. The second article, by a Proof. Chess er, suggested that using contraception, like the newly developed pill, successfully removed the problems that arose from sexual activity outside of marriage; he wen ton to argue that “people should have the right to choose between being chaste and unchaste as long as society does’t suffer”.  Chess er’so pinions were strongly disapproved of in many newspapers of the day,for example the Daily Mail, the Daily Express, the People, the Women’Mirror and the Sunday Graphic.  These newspapers had a very considerable combined circulation, and thus very wide reach. The Daily Express alone had a readership of over four million in the early 60’s. The story was not only taken up by the national press, but by the provincial press too, and also, of course, by the religious newspapers:  needless to say the coverage was almost universally negative. The publishers, the British Medical Association, withdrew the issue  with its offending article from circulation after only 2 days. The article was later reprinted twice, first of all in the New Statesman and then by Chess er himself.  Even after republishing the article, Chess er himself evidently felt compelled to note  that he wa snot condoning or advocating promiscuity or premarital sexual activity;even in the early 60’s a medical professional could not openly argue for such things.

  An excellent indication of the sexual morals of the time is given by an incident in 1960. Penguin Books were prosecuted under the Obscene Publications Act for the first full and unabridged version of Lancaster Lover by D. H. Lawrence.  The prosecution ultimately failed; but Ralph,  who later edited a transcript of the trial, later wrote that quite quickly the prosecution became about the promiscuous and adulterous behaviour of the eponymous character. Ralph reported that thirteen episodes of physical sexual activity wee described in detail in the book using “four letter words”.  The defence succeeded in arguing that, although the sexual relations noted above did occur outside of marriage, Lawrence presented them as pure and holy.  The trial received extensive news coverage, and sales of the Penguin edition were suitably boosted.

  Evidence, such as that presented above from novels and marriage manuals; show us that, by 1960, those who were the most forward thinking and sexually progressive in society accepted Lawrence’presentation of sex, even adulterous sex, as justified by love. Along with the success of Lawrence’s novel in the Penguin edition, the Sunday Pictorial  serialised a sequel called Lady Chastely’s Daughter;which, because of its popularity, went on to be published as a novel.

  The idea that sexual relations outside of or marriage could be validated by love was not a new one; however, the idea that the presentation of the suggestion that new and different approaches to sex should not be vilified in the national news media, was new. Briggs comments that “what distinguished… [the decade of the early 60’s]…from others in the history of broadcasting was that the BBC as an institution- with [Hugh] Greene as its Director General -considered it necessary to align itself with change.”  An example of this can be found in the BBC’s annual Rebirth Lectures series of 1962: in this year the lectures were given by Professor G. M. Car stairs, a psychiatrist and academic, he was asked to present a series of lectures on the subject of “the state of the nation, in the light of changes, which have come about in the community and private life since the beginning of the century.” The most notable lecture for an understanding of the BBC’s role in changing sexual morality was the third: Corsairs that pre-marital licence has been found to be quite compatible with stable married life.”  The BBC had a very wide audience, although largely middle class, the press coverage that this produced reached a much wider audience. Mary White house initially began her crusade of opposition to changing sexual morals as a result of this new direction from the BBC. 

  The changes in the attitude of the BBC, and of society in general,did not escape the attentions of the Church of England. Some controversial Anglican theologians, such as the Bishop of Woodlice,revealed that the newly developing sexual standards and beliefs were being seriously debated within the Church of England. In 1963 he wrote:“nothing can of itself be labeled ‘wrong’. One cannot, for instance,start from the position ‘sex relations before marriage’ or ‘divorce’are wrong or sinful in themselves. They may be in 99 cases or even 100cases out of 100, but they are not intrinsically so, for they only intrinsic evil is lack of love.”  The Church of England appears to have had little or no relevance to the sexual revolution that was occurring in the late 50’s and early 60’s; however, the Mass-Observation surveys of the 1940’s did indicate that even a nominal adherence to Christianity correlated very closely with larger families and a more restrictive approach to sexual behaviour. It is probably true that the position of and statements from the Church of England reached and were listened to be a greater proportion of the population than is usually thought to be the case.

Church of England’s Reaction to the Sexual Revolution.

 The 60’s undoubtedly saw an erosion of moral authority, not just of Christian morality, but also of a consensus based morality, generally seen by the mainstream of society as correct and upheld by society as aw hole. This was a morality that ensured single women should not obtain contraception without any need to legislate that this should be the case. The Perfume affair in 1963 in which he was revealed to have been engaging in sexual intercourse with an escort gave a huge push to the belief in the growing hypocrisy of the establishment and the need for anew morality. 

  Probably the first substantial change in the theoretical construction of the morality of sexuality came in Alex Comfort’s Sex in Society,first published in 1950 but only achieving success with its republication in 1963.  The impact of the book was no doubt aided by the author’s appearance on a BBC discussion program defending premarital sex.  Several prominent and traditionally conservative Anglican Bishops responded, among them Canon Bentley, to what was becoming known as the new morality. In 1965 Bentley described Comfort’views as follows:

“When your son brings a girlfriend on a visit, will you say to your mother in law, ‘Do take a tray of lemonade into the garden for Charles and Mary; they’Ave been playing tennis all day,’ and next morning inexactly the same tones, ‘Do leave a tray down the passage for Charles and Mary; they’Ave been playing sex all night’? This looks like Dr .Comfort’s hope because he tells us we ought to know that sex is the healthiest and most important human sport.”

  Comfort probably made a greater contribution to the development of the new debate on sexual morality than anyone had done since Lawrence.The major difference between the two was that Comfort did not accept that love, in the form of a monogamous sexual relationship, legitimised sex. Comfort argued that sex was a physical pleasure, not too dissimilar to eating. He went on to argue that people should indulge as much as they wished, as long as they were considerate of the feeling sand morality of others, and that they took the necessary precautions to ensure no children wee conceived.  Canon Bentley responded to this position of Comfort by asking “can we actualise these hopes in the1960’s? Alas no; for the key to realising this ideal is a wholly foolproof form of contraception.”  Evidently the Canon did not see the birth control pill in this light, many others, however, did; including Comfort himself.  Thus, by even the mid 60’s there were debates raging on sexual mores both within the Church of England, and in the general population. These debates; whilst in many ways theoretical, presented people  with very real choices and possibilities, with regard to how they were to live their lives.

  One of the major effects of these debates; caused in no small way by the Church of England, combined with extensive media coverage of the birth control pill was that, for a great number of young women, the idea of the pill was just as important as its reality. This can be seen by In gram, a journalist and author, who went back in the late 70’s to visit with her 11 plus class; girls who were in their late teens in the early 60’s, about growing up in that decade. She describes the publicity given o the pill as “our generation was growing up with the knowledge that somewhere out there existed a contraceptive which promised you would be able to get away with it, in the way only men had before.”  There were, obviously, alternative models to that advocated by the Church of England, and young women were increasingly aware of their choices; this is not to say, however, that they would exercise their choices, they may well have agreed with the Churches teachings on the subject. It should be noted that the sample was of grammar schoolgirls, not typical among the population as a whole. As more educated women they were, perhaps quite naturally, aware of their choices and women in this social group wee the first unmarried women to be taking the contraceptive pill.  This theory supports the assertion made earlier in this dissertation that the sexual revolution occurred primarily, or at least initially, among the middle classes. The refusal to prescribe the pill to young women such as these, created an issue around which debates on sexuality and sexual morals could conducted.

  In the early 60’s there was increasing awareness, through books,television, plays, newspapers etc. of the distress and depression that unwanted pregnancy generally has on women. It was believed that unmarried mothers had personality problems or character disorders and were treated accordingly.  Adoption caused many women, then and now,lasting grief and was thus not desirable from the point of view of the mother. Illegal abortions became increasingly popular, with women attempting to self terminate with increasing frequency to avoid the social stigma attached to being an unmarried mother. The only acceptable response to becoming pregnant whilst unmarried was to marry as soon as possible, certainly before the child was born. This would certainly have been the wish of the Church and indeed of mainstream society too. Many such marriages simply did not last however. 

The Rise of ‘Feminist Theology’ and the Church of England’s Reaction.

  It is impossible to separate Christian theology from the social aspects of the Church of England in the era in which the theology is produced. It should also be recognised that while the Bible will always be the final and permanent authority within the Church of England;theology, like the very Church itself, is in constant need of reform and renewal: the sexual revolution was such an era of reform,particularly with regards to the role of women in society and in the Church.

  The Church’s teachings on the relationship between men and women could be argued to have historically owed more to the social nature of the Church, rather than to any biblical references. Many observers have noted that traditionally, the Church of England has taught equality of the souls in the afterlife, but inequality of the sexes in this world,and certainly within the church.  Throughout almost all of its history,  the Church of England has been a patriarchal institution based upon defining the male as superior to the female. Through its sexually distinguished ‘doctrine of man’ the church has, for centuries legitimised laws and structures in society which secured male rule and demanded female subservience and obedience. 

  Within the Church of England, however, there have been an increasing number of women and men who have discovered the seeds of equality within the pages of the Bible and have come to believe in the equality of the positions of women and men as being intrinsic to the Bible. Many Christian women had, until relatively recently, felt a discrepancy between the gospel from which they drew strength and inspiration; and the church which severely restricted their life and prevented then from joining the ministry. Feminist theology, therefore, has essentially existed as long as there have been women who have drawn their faith from the Bible in ways that were counter cultural  to the prevailing attitudes of Church of England.

  Modern feminist theology did not begin within the Church of England,but in the USA at the end of the 1960’s. It has its roots, primarily in the experiences of Christian women living under the pressure of ideology and structures, claimed by the patriarchal leaders of the church to be the eternal will of god as seen in the gospels.  This modern feminist movement has created a far better c


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