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Church of England needs to talk about sex

Church of England needs to talk about sex

My friend Andy is getting married. It’s high time – he and his girlfriend have a one-year-old daughter. He wants to have a church wedding, so I introduced him to the local vicar by email. I was added to their first correspondence. The vicar told Andy that the Church of England forbids sex outside marriage, so a church wedding wouldn’t be possible unless the couple repented of their sin and lived separately in the period leading up to the wedding.

Of course I made up that last part. The vicar congratulated him and his partner on their decision and started talking about dating. But isn’t it true that the Church teaches that sex should only happen within marriage? Yes and no. This ambiguity sheds important light on the current crisis of homosexuality.

As with premarital sex, the Church has made it clear that its teaching on homosexuality is not a hard and fast rule.

The Church of England is making some significant reforms to address homosexuality: blessing same-sex couples and (probably next year) allowing gay clergy to enter into civil marriages, implicitly ending the current policy that they should not have sexual relationships. However, it is refraining from conducting same-sex marriages in church.

Conservatives argue that these reforms involve changing the Church’s teaching on marriage and therefore require the full support of the General Synod. Liberals disagree that the reforms change doctrine. Their objections may be pragmatic—they want to see the reforms through to the end. I am a liberal, but my first reaction was that conservatives are right: if it wants to affirm homosexuality with new fullness, the Church must admit that it is changing its teaching on sex and marriage. After thinking about this issue more deeply, I am not so sure.

What is the Church of England’s teaching on sex and marriage? The simple answer is that people should not have sex outside of heterosexual marriage. The real answer is subtly different. Consider premarital and extramarital sex. The Church has always forbidden it, citing various prohibitions on adultery in Scripture. According to the Book of Common Prayer, one of the functions of marriage is to prevent “transgressions,” or sex outside of marriage.

In practice, however, this teaching has always been shrouded in ambiguity. It can only be a strictly enforced rule if bedrooms are controlled. Although some Anglicans have wanted the rule to be strictly observed over the centuries, the pragmatism of looking the other way has prevailed. In recent decades, this teaching has softened even more. It has become normal for couples to live together before marriage (one of my vicar friends says that if a couple asked to marry but was NO (He would find this strange.) In light of this, should the teaching be explicitly changed to make sex permissible for those who intend to marry? There is no need, most Anglicans believe: let us stick to the traditional teaching, but let us treat it as an ideal rather than a rule. This involves some confusion, but it also keeps the simple ideal in place.

It follows that the Church’s teaching on premarital sex is not clear-cut. It is misleading that the Church forbids it, because in fact its teaching also includes the approach that priests actually take when dealing with cohabiting couples, and in almost all cases they accept their behaviour without a moment’s hesitation, as Andy’s local vicar did. The official teaching is not the whole story, then; it coexists with the unofficial teaching.

The next question: what is the Church’s teaching on homosexuality? Well, the official teaching is that homosexuality is forbidden. But that is not the whole story. The Church has indicated that its official teaching should not be rigidly enforced. For several years it did so implicitly, mainly by tolerating homosexual clergy, in an ambiguous and deniable way. Then it did so more explicitly, by issuing teaching documents affirming stable homosexual unions among the laity, even though this is a logical contradiction of its official teaching. Its current reforms are further steps in this direction: it affirms homosexuality, but not completely, because the full ideal remains heterosexual marriage.

As with premarital sex, the Church has made it clear that its official teaching is not intended as a rigid rule, that it coexists with the unofficial teaching that homosexuality should be tolerated and even affirmed to some extent. As strange as it sounds, the Church’s teaching is a blend of its official teaching and its nuanced supplementary teaching. So the conservatives’ claim that they uphold the traditional teaching of the Church is questionable. Yes, they are in agreement with the official teaching of the Church, but they are at odds with fuller Church teaching, which holds that official teaching should not be imposed rigidly.

The church has been dragging its feet in this complicated way for decades. But now the whole approach looks very fragile. Church leaders insist that the current reforms are not groundbreaking, just another example of Anglican pragmatism. But conservatives refuse to play ball. They insist on treating official teaching as a rigid rule. They deny the complexity of church teaching, the fact that it is a mishmash of official and unofficial elements. To hazard a problematic analogy, they are Shylock, pointing to the letter of the law, demanding their pound of flesh.

It seems to me that the game is over, that the old approach cannot last long. If conservatives reject the old approach to sexual morality, which balances traditional principle with flexibility, then liberals will probably have to give it up as well. Maybe that is for the best. Ultimately, the old approach does not allow for the full affirmation of homosexuality, which is now signified by same-sex marriage. The Church will certainly move to accept same-sex marriage, and that means changing its official teaching.

The current struggles in Synod are therefore the end of an era. The Church will have to work out a new approach, a new teaching on sex and marriage, one that leaves the old assumptions and evasions behind. It will be embarrassing enough, but we will have to think out loud about the meaning of sex – promiscuity, pornography, pleasure, everything. You thought we Anglicans were embarrassing enough wearing socks with sandals.