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Out of the Question

01 November 2013


Your answers

What was Anglican teaching on contraception before the 1958 Lambeth Conference? Was it a subject of heated debate in the C of E, as marriage after divorce and homosexuality were subsequently?

Contraception is a delicate question with important religious and ethical implications that have divided the opinion of moral theologians in the Anglican Church, as elsewhere.

The 1958 Lambeth Conference resolution put the whole problem in the context of family life and responsible parenthood, by welcoming means of family planning "in such ways as are mutually acceptable to husband and wife in Christian conscience" (Resolution 15).

Previous Lambeth Conference statements from 1908 onwards indicate changes in Anglican teaching. At first, there was alarm at the growing practice of birth control, and in 1908 the reaction was totally negative: the Conference called on Christians to discontinue the use of contraceptives "as demoralising the character and hostile to national welfare".

This condemnation of contraception underscored the teaching of many Anglican moral theologians, such as the late Bishops Kirk and Mortimer, who followed their Roman Catholic counterparts in claiming that birth control was always contrary to natural law. The volumes of Moral and Pastoral Theology by Fr H. Davis SJ were frequently consulted and used by Anglican clergy. This rigorous teaching became widespread in many parts of the C of E, particularly fostered by Anglican Catholic priests.

Mortimer, in Elements of Moral Theology, taught that "to every human faculty God has ordained its proper end and means. He who acts against what God has prescribed sins. The end of the sexual act is quite clear - the procreation of children. To use it in such a way as to frustrate that end is therefore unnatural" (page 178).

A diversity of teaching, however, increased after the 1930 Lambeth Conference cautiously admitted that, under strict conditions, contraception was deemed acceptable - provided it was practised in the light of Christian principles, and never from motives of selfishness, luxury, or mere convenience (Resolution 15).

A growing consensus of fresh and positive teaching came from such theologians as D. Sherwin Bailey, whose book The Mystery of Love and Marriage (1953) was a fundamental contribution to the subject. He and others tackled the question from a more profound understanding of Christian marriage as "two becoming one" - a biblically based insight that emphasised the priority of union - the henosis - of persons, and persuasively argued that marital intercourse, apart from its procreative purpose, also had an inherent goodness and moral quality, to deepen the "one-flesh" union of husband and wife.

This teaching became widespread in the mid-1950s, and was promoted by the Moral Welfare Council of the C of E, who provided lecturers who visited all the theological colleges to speak on the subject of sex and marriage.

This subject is an intensely personal sector of relational ethics, and consequently the diversity of teaching in the C of E never amounted to more than strongly held opinions, unlike the heated debate that very seriously disrupted relationships between many Roman Catholics and their leadership after the 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae. Nor has it openly disturbed the C of E to the same extent as the issues of marriage after divorce and the on-going debate about homosexuality and gay rights.

(Canon) Terry Palmer,  Magor, Monmouthshire

Your questions

Christ said: "In heaven, people neither marry, nor are given in marriage." Does that mean that we shall all be sexless?

G. C.


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