In his opening address to the General Synod, the Archbishop of
Canterbury said: "There is a revolution in the area of sexuality,
and we have not fully heard it."
His reference was primarily to same-sex relations and the
Marriage Bill, but my concern is that the Church of England has
still not really caught up with the shift in public attitudes to
sex in general.
In the wearying debate about sexuality in the Church, repeated
reference has been made to the "teaching of the Church" that the
only right context for a sexual relationship is within marriage.
But this is a teaching ignored by the vast majority today,
Christian or not, including, in my experience, almost all those who
none the less do marry in church.
This was brought home to me a few years ago in a confirmation
class of rowdy teenagers. I was attempting to explain that the
rites and sacraments of the Church follow us through life, bringing
Christian meaning to adulthood, marriage, children, sickness, and
death. One boy queried "What about sex?", prompting much
sniggering. I assumed, cynically, that that was his objective, but
he was quite sincere. As far as I can recall, I did my best to
explain that one can pray for God's help in whatever circumstances,
even if, for some, the Church has not seen fit to provide specific
Readers might be disappointed that I did not explain that the
liturgy he needed was the marriage service, and nothing else. But I
really do not believe that would have helped. Like the vast
majority of young people today, he hoped, with some likelihood, to
lose his virginity towards the end of his teens, preferably within
an established relationship.
He may, of course, have been disappointed. But all that made no
difference to the fact that he would hope one day to marry, almost
certainly in church, and mean, then, everything he said to his
bride in the marriage service.
THIS perception is reinforced by those who come to marry in my
parishes. It is now a novelty to meet a couple who are not already
sharing a home. In nine years of ministry, I can think of only one
couple whose marriage was probably unconsummated until after the
Discussions with local colleagues support this. One told me how,
in a seminar on sexual health 25 years ago, the professor pointed
out that for two people to marry, having not already had sex with
one another or anyone else, was so rare as to be considered
These changed assumptions can be picked up in unlikely places.
In the recently published memoirs of a gay ex-soldier, James
Wharton, Prince Harry is praised for defending him from homophobic
bullying. The context was that in competitive boasting about a
weekend's sexual exploits, the former Lance Corporal had let slip
that he himself had been "successful" with a fellow soldier.
Neither in the narrative nor related media reporting did I
notice any criticism of the free-for-all sexual ethics of
THE reason why this matters is that we still appear to be
conducting our debates about marriage as if the constraints imposed
by the law or the Church on who may marry whom will have some
effect on the sexual lives of the population. They will not.
If, as it seems, we are only holding up an ideal to be aspired
to, we are doing something different. Rather than inhibiting
relationships, we are making a public disapproval of those that
already exist, and telling those in them that the ideal is
impossible for them.
But whereas marriage has become detached from sex, it has not
become detached, at least for the middle class, from childbirth.
For most of the couples I marry, the established track seems to be:
relationship, cohabitation, marriage, parenthood.
In other words, it is quite normal to expect a baby to follow,
if not in nine months, then quite soon after the marriage, just as
in the pre-contraception days when that would also have been the
My suggestion is that this has reinforced a tendency to focus
the morality of marriage on the proper circumstances for bringing
up children, to the impoverishment of the concept as a whole. This
has been seen quite extensively in the same-sex-marriage debate,
notwithstanding the fact that adoption by same-sex couples as two
parents, irrespective of marriage, has been legal since 2005.
This situation poses a familiar choice to Christians striving to
cope with a changed world. Some will, of course, maintain the
traditional teaching, and I know of many Christians, mostly now
married, who would be happy to be classed among the "deviants"
referred to above.
Looking for a coherent reference to the subject among the Church
of England's official publications, one only seems to find a sort
of embarrassed silence. Some support for an alternative approach
may be found in considering how heavily the traditional teaching
depends upon interpreting "porneia" in the New Testament
as covering all sex outside marriage, but there is no easy way
But one must be found. I fear that the official line of
"marriage or nothing" is coming close to being treated by a wide
range of Anglicans in a similar way to that in which many Roman
Catholics treat their Church's teaching on birth control. The
result is similarly destructive for the authority the Church may be
felt to have over this important area of life.
The reality is that sexual relationships, within and outside
marriage, may be beautifully self-giving, but also exploitative or
casual. To all situations it ought to be possible to apply Christ's
fundamental ethical teachings to treat others as we would wish to
be treated, and surrender our own wants, in love, to the greater
needs of others. This need not detract from continuing to hold up
Christian marriage for all who seek it as the highest and best
The Revd Neil Patterson is Rector of Ariconium, in the
diocese of Hereford.