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
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"
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
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,
Christ said: "In heaven, people neither marry, nor are
given in marriage." Does that mean that we shall all be
Out of the Question, Church Times, 3rd floor, Invicta
House, 108-114 Golden Lane, London EC1Y 0TG.