Thursday, 21 July 2016
Sex in the Anglican Communion 1
Last week I was at the General Synod shared conversations, feeling a bit like a Martian who has just landed as we discussed discussing sex whilst hardly ever mentioning the s-word!
I found it striking how little we actually talked about sex. We didn't discuss the negative aspects of it - that it can be addictive, compulsive, abusive, and we didn't discuss the positive aspects - that sense of beauty, nobility, creativity beyond mere procreation. Instead we discussed 'the problem' of same sex relationships in an oddly detached and passionless way.
This week I am at Gladstone's Library, and I have been reading the reports and resolutions of early Lambeth conferences. My main interest has been in what they say about difference and diversity (that's another post!) but incidentally I've been able to follow through the development of what they say about sex, that perennial source of unease in Anglican life and thinking.
In the very early days, rather like at our Conversations, the assembled bishops could hardly bring themselves to talk about it. The word they chose instead was 'Purity' (and this links with my main interest in ways in which we think about difference - purity, impurity and defilement is clearly a big theme). In 1888, discussions of 'purity' were held, and a report commended to the Church at large. But it is never actually specified what purity means as the bishops show a typically Victorian horror of the subject:
'we are not blind to the danger of dealing publicly with the subject of impurity. We dread the effect, especially upon the young, of any increased familiarity with the details of sin'.
Ten years later, they commend again the same report, and in the Encyclical Letter of the conference make slightly less coded reference to the subject, and the subject of associated diseases and unease about barrier methods to prevent them are raised:
'We know the deadly nature of the sin of impurity, the hold it has on those who have once yielded, and the fearful strength of the temptation. The need for calling attention to this is greatly increased at present by the frightful diseases which everywhere attend it. We recognise the duty of checking the spread of such diseases, but we recognise also the terrible possibility that the means used for this purpose may lower the moral standard, and so, in the end, foster the evil in the very effort to uproot it'.
Agonies about contraception continue in the reports of the following councils, but what I was particularly struck by was the fact that, in 1920, it was made very clear that our current terms of debate (sex in marriage = good, sex outside of marriage = bad) were explicitly rejected. In 1920 the conference made a point of complaining about
'the teaching, which, under the name of science and religion, encourages married people in the deliberate cultivation of sexual union as an end in itself'.
Sex is not, they say, good in itself even in marriage. This is not simply about emphasising the importance of procreation but also
'the paramount importance in married life of deliberate and thoughtful self-control'.
Sex in marriage was emphatically not, in the eyes of the 1920 conference, a good thing in itself.
I wonder what changed in the intervening decade? By 1930, the language and stance of the conference was radically different. Contraception was still decried as not really a good idea at all (though permissive noises 'where there is a morally sound reason' for the exception were made). But the radical difference is in the way sex is spoken of.
In 1930, suddenly the conference
'declares that the functions of sex as a God-given factor in human life are essentially noble and creative'.
And even - in stark contrast to the 1888 report terrified to even mention the subject lest they corrupt the young - advocates for good sex education:
'before the child's emotional reaction to sex is awakened, definite information should be given in an atmosphere of simplicity and beauty'.
We could do, I think, with bringing the sometimes orgasmic, sometimes beautiful, sometimes painful, sometimes disappointing, always messy reality of sex into our discussions, if they are to have any substance to them. If even the bishops of the Lambeth conference could 'go there' in the last century, we should be grown up enough to do so now.