Church Responses to the Sexual Revolution of the 1960s
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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 For many others, however, the Bible has little or no authority as it is so obviously ‘old fashioned’ and‘out of date’ that its teachings cannot be relevant, credible or useful in modern society.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 climate than any in earlier times for the growth of feminist theology: this feeling of‘sisterhood’ has given many women the belief to take on the church’traditional attitudes as to their role. This redefining of the church’position began in America but quickly spread to Europe and has had tremendous impact upon the Church of England.
At the present time, feminist theology is both a critical voice within the church, and a revolutionary movement against the church from outside by women who demand a religious alternative, one relevant to them and their lives. There is certainly no one feminist theology that can represent the whole; there are, rather, a great number. The many theories not only diverge in style and content, but also conflict with each other with regard to the positions they hold; for instance in their assessment of the Christian tradition. With this in mind, we should avoid making too many generalisations on feminist theology. In spite of the many theologies and many differences between them, we can identify some common themes. Feminist theology essentially consists of“reflections on the content and meaning of religion with particular regard to women’s status and situation, which recognises the use and misuse of religion in the past and present for the oppression of women and has as its aim to contribute to the liberation of women.”
The sexual revolution of the 1960’s saw an ever increasing realisation by women that their role in society and, within the Church of England, was unacceptable. The Church of England had always prohibited women from joining the clergy on the grounds that it was apposition not supported by any evidence in the scriptures. As noted above, increasing numbers of women came to desire the pursuit of such course. For more than a decade after the sexual revolution, the Church of England showed little sign of reacting to the changes in society;but, by the late 70’s and early 80’s, the ‘Women in Theology Group’ was established to act as a pressure group to work towards the Church of England changing its policy and allowing the full ordination of women.The Church of England finally relented to the increasing pressure, not just from this group but from society as a whole, and allowed the full ordination of women in 1994. The group, having achieved its main objective, continues to work for the promotion of women’s issues in the church, and to act as a forum for feminist theology in general. The Methodist Church in England now allows both men and women to occupy any position and exercise all forms of ministry. There are now female superintendents, female district chairs, and there have been female presidents of conferences.
The sexual revolution of the 1960’s was not just something that occurred within the heterosexual community, it occurred among the homosexual community too; thus, the church’s developing position on homosexuality should be examined as an important outcome of the sexual revolution.
The Church of England’s has gained a reputation over the centuries for being an exceptionally pastoral church. This reputation has become rather endangered in recent years, however, given the church’s attitude towards one particular group: homosexuals. In 1979, the Church of England issued a report: Homosexual Relations: A Contribution to Discussion. The preface of this report was signed in July 1978 by the then Bishop of Gloucester. A year later, the Bishop of London, then the Bishop of Truer and Chairman of the General Synod Board for Social Responsibility, signed the forward too. The time that elapsed between the various grandees of the church signing the preface is very significant: it signified the division at the very heart of the Church of England and not least at the heart of the Board for Social Responsibility. The Bishop of Gloucester wrote:
“We do believe that the report and the attached critical comments can make an important contribution to the process of reforming the mind of the church. We therefore envisage a period during which widespread discussion takes place on issues raised in this document.”
A debate in the General Synod of the Church of England took place nearly two years after the publication of the report; but the‘widespread discussion’ did not – in spite of the motion being carried.It should be noted that at the time of writing the report, very few were satisfied. Very many among both the heterosexual community and the homosexual community disliked it. That was not to say that the report was badly written of researched; rather it meant that, in the words of the Bishop of Truer “diverse attitudes to homosexuality exist within the board reflecting a similar diversity within the Church of England,which therefore makes it impossible to contemplate a definitive statement at the moment.”
On such a subject as homosexuality and religion, feelings run high.It is a test for the church if it can even handle discussion on the subject. Perhaps the fact that their has been little or no widespread discussion of the subject, and that the previously cited report was allowed to go out of print could indicate that, for many years even after the sexual revolution and the social change that it brought, it could not handle such discussion. If that were a valid conclusion the nit would be most serious; for upon such a discussion rests the pastoral care of those who were homosexual, and perhaps, the health of the whole of the Church of England: it is not only homosexuals who need to discuss homosexuality; and it is not only the subject of homosexuality that needs to be discussed, but sexuality generally. Not to be able to discuss sexuality is to fail to discuss who we are and a major element of human life.
In November 1987 the General Synod of the Church of England notoriously debated the subject of sexual morality. The Synod failed to conduct the widespread discussion that should have taken place following the publication of the Homosexual Relationships report. The Bishop of Truer noted “we do not think the Church of England is yet ready to declare its mind on the subject of homosexuality”.
Conservative theologians within the Church of England view homosexuality as behaviour, something that you choose to undertake, and thus could choose not to undertake. The conservative members of the Church of England view homosexuality as unnatural and unnatural and something that was condemned by god as written in the scriptures. As far as the Church of England is concerned, therefore, any attempt to portray homosexuality as normal or natural is inherently unacceptable. The senior conservative members of the church believe that it homosexuality were to be condoned then this would increase the number of young people who would choose this lifestyle, based upon the idea of homosexuality being a choice.
Liberal theologians, politicians and members of the Church of England view homosexuality as an orientation not a lifestyle choice. These members of the church community believe that ones sexual orientation is not a choice and that it is natural and entirely normal for a minority of people. On this reading of the position, homosexuality should be accepted and embraced (although not necessarily encouraged) as an entirely normal situation, even if a minority one. Further to this,liberals within the Church of England argue that accepting homosexuality and those who practice it would have the desirable effect of increasing societal acceptance of their orientation (and thus reducing discrimination), of increasing congregation sizes and also of making the church appear more in tune with modern society. While the church failed to reach a consensus on what homosexuality is, in terms of individual choice or orientation, then a consensus view from the church was impossible.
The Church of England has made significant strides in recent years on the issue of homosexuality, although their changing views have lagged behind societal changes that resulted from the sexual revolution, it is probably true to argue that without that process in the 1960’s the following developments would never have occurred.
In 1991, the Church of England issued a statement entitled Issues inHuman Sexuality in which it declared that homosexual relationships were acceptable for the general population, but not for the clergy. In 1997the church declared that further discussion on the subject of human sexuality within the clergy was desirable and necessary. In 2000 the British government passed an act of parliament banning section 28; the local government act that banned the promotion of the homosexuality in schools. The action was initially opposed by the Church of England butane agreement was almost certainly reached between the church and the government as Church of England resistance was muted. In 2002, Rowan Williams attached the position of the Church of England preventing the ordination of homosexuals; he noted the discrepancy between the position of homosexuality among the laity as being acceptable but not among the clergy. He went on to say “If the Church's mind is that homosexual behaviour is intrinsically sinful, then it is intrinsically sinful for everyone. It is that unwillingness to come clean that can't last. It is a contradiction.” Williams also noted that the Bible doe snot necessarily outlaw committed same sex monogamous relationships.ater in 2002; Dr. George Cary, as reported in the telegraph, noted“the trend towards serious fragmentation and the real possibility of two – or, more likely, many more – distinct Anglican bodies emerging….This erosion of communion through the adoption of ‘local options’ has been going form some 30 years but in my opinion is reaching crisis proportions today.” Dr. Cary, then, sees serious problems for the Church of England on the issue of homosexuality, and interestingly sees the roots of the problem as occurring immediately after the sexual revolution of the 1960’s. Dr. Cary has attempted to take something of the middle grounds on the issue, condemning both those conservatives who are absolutely opposed to any form of acceptance or tolerance of homosexuality, and those liberals who wish to go as far as to bless the union of gay and lesbian couples.
Dr. Cary’s replacement as Archbishop of Canterbury by Dr. Roman Williams indicated that the church is prepared to be far more openly tolerant than previously on the subject of same sex relationships .Reverend Richard Kirk er welcomed the appointment, stating “Dr .Williams’ commitment to justice and dignity for all people including lesbians and gay men gives us great heart. Under his leadership homophobia will be challenged and intolerance rooted out.”
Not all members of the Anglican community were pleased by Dr .Williams’ appointment however. The most vocal opposition group being‘Reform’; an evangelical conservative group of around 500 clergy: they claim that Dr. Williams’ views are ‘non-biblical’.
The church’s new inclusive stance on same sex couples has caused tremendous difficulty in the Church of England. In 2003 conservative members of the General Synod met to discuss strategy; since most of the seats of the Synod are made up by Evangelical members of the clergy,the group was essentially planning the future direction of the church.
The schism within the church on this subject became even more apparent in late 2003 at the National Evangelical Congress. Dr Williams spoke at the congress but, despite his charismatic style, is seen as little more than a heretic by many of those present.
2003 saw more tangible evidence of the church’s position changing,‘commitment ceremonies’ began to be offered to same sex couples;initially unofficially but later more openly. 300 were conducted in2003 and over 1000 are expected in 2005. This then is tangible evidence of the Church of England’s changing views on the issue of homosexuality. We have seen that the issue began to be troublesome for the church immediately after the sexual revolution: but the church,being such a monolithic organisation, took time to react. Even today,many members of the clergy are absolutely opposed to the more inclusive attitudes of the new Archbishop of Canterbury.
The question of the church’s position on divorce and remarriage is one that has received considerable popular attention in recent months,with the marriage of Prince Charles. The church’s traditional view was that divorce was wrong, it was the breaking of a solemn vow, taken before god, and thus remarriage could not be condoned, supported recognised ay the church.
Recently this vexed issue has been resolved within the Church of England. On July 9th 2002, the General Synod of the Church of England took an historic vote on the issue; the result of the vote was twofold: firstly it was to affirm that marriage was a solemn undertaking between two people for their whole lives. Secondly, and more significantly, the church recognised that some marriages do fail, and that, under exceptional circumstances the divorcee could remarry in church. The individual case and final decision would be with the minister. These changed did not and do not incur on the individual couple the automatic and absolute right to remarry in church, but they do allow for the possibility of such an occurrence.
This is another issue, like the position of women and the attitude of the church towards homosexuals, where the church took some considerable length of time to react. There was little or no movement from the church on this issue as an immediate result of the sexual revolution of the 1960’s
One of the most marked features of the way Protestantism evolved in England since the 60’s is the birth of various evangelical movements,some American influence , particularly since the late 60’s and early70’s. The Church of England has been no less subject to this kind of change. In recent years the Church of England has had its own evangelical branch, developed by Nicky Umbel. The Alpha group is development on the original Christian idea of small groups meeting to discuss theological issues. The groups are evangelical in nature and tend to focus on charismata; such as acts of healing. Umbel’s book has been a major best seller.
The alpha course is essentially set up as a kind of ‘back to basics’course, moving people back towards the structure of the early church;i.e. small groups of people meeting informally, often over dinner to discuss issues as well as a focus upon spiritual gifts, a very immediate and exciting way to access faith. The kind of questions the alpha course seeks to answer would include such things as ‘why is Christianity relevant to me?’.
This kind of movement is the major growth area of the Church of England, and indeed of Christianity as a whole. Many practicing Christians, and indeed those whom had ceased to practice are turning towards such groups out of a general dissatisfaction with the traditional organised Church of England. Many of the people who returning towards such evangelical groups are unhappy with the current liberal direction of the church, under the leadership of Roman Williams. Members of such groups would typically tend to be conservative and opposed to sexual freedoms and homosexuality; it inseparable haw many would still oppose the ordination of women, but no doubt a minority do too. The views of such evangelical groups, like the Alpha Group, are clear, structured and with definite direction. They tend to be quite hard line and unyielding on matters of sexual morality, a position popular with some existing members of the church.
The popularity of such groups has come at a cost to the Church of England. Conservative, traditional Christians tend to like issues to be clear: a given issue has been established policy for a given number of years, and thus should not be changed; at least not easily or with good reason. If such people have been turning away from the organised church and moving towards more evangelical groups, then the unavoidable corollary is that membership of the Church of England, and attendance at churches, is in serious decline. In order to become, and appear to become more relevant to modern society, the church has had to evolve its views on subjects like those discussed above. The irony of this position is, of course, that in order to attract new membership the church must come more into line with modern thinking and modern society. Only by doing this will it attract new members, those who do not attend the church regularly. By becoming more liberal in its views,it is loosing some current membership.
Traditionally the Church of England was opposed to sexual relations outside of marriage; this was the position from quite early in the history of Christianity. The 1960’s, which in reality can be seen to run from the late 50’s, saw a massive change in society generally, and particularly in individual views on sexuality and sexual morals. The creation of the birth control pill; seen as a near 100 per cent guarantee against the most obvious negative side effect of pre marital sexual intercourse, contributed to these changing views. The Church of England has been seen to have reacted very slowly to these changing morals. This is hardly surprising, given that it is a vast, monolithic and very old institution. Despite the slowness of the reaction, react it did: the church’s position on the place of women in society and in the church has changed completely, women are now able to take up almost any role within the church. The church’s view on divorce and remarriage has also evolved, it is now accepted that some marriages fail and divorcees are occasionally allowed to remarry in church; the recent marriage of Prince Charles to Camilla Parker Bowlegs is an excellent example of this changed position. Finally, of the issues discussed here, the church’s view of homosexuality is slowly changing. This is one of the most vexed issues for the church and it is hardly surprising that it has taken so long since the sexual revolution for progress to be made. The new, and very controversial, appointment of Dr. Rowan Williams as the Archbishop of Canterbury shows a willingness on the part of the church to ‘move with the times’, albeit 40 years after society in general became more tolerant of same sex couples.
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