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Sex — symbols and salvoes

03 May 2013

Michael Wheeler on a complex century for gender issues

Sexual Politics in the Church of England, 1857-1957
Timothy Willem Jones
OUP £55
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BISHOPS can be gay, as long as they are chaste; or they can be female, but not yet. Gay marriages are legal, but not in the Church of England. Confused? Conservative Anglicans fulminate, while liberals declare the whole subject of sexual politics to be an irrelevance in the larger scheme of things. As salvoes of sermons and articles are launched from both sides of the barricades, along comes a carefully researched study that reminds us of the principles behind the Church's teaching, and places that teaching in its historical context.

Dr Jones, a Lecturer in History at the University of Glamorgan, bases his research on the records of church government between 1857 and 1957, which he relates to reforms made in Parliament. His milestones are the Matrimonial Causes Acts of 1857 and 1937, the Married Women's Property Acts of the 1870s and 1880s, the first Church Congress of 1862, the Church Assembly of 1919, the reform of the Table of Kindred and Affinity in 1946, and the decennial Lambeth Conferences, inaugurated by Archbishop Longley in 1867.

Traditionally, marriage told us something about the nature of God, and in particular the relationships between the Persons of the Trinity, between God and man, and between Christ and the Church. Anglo-Catholic teaching, which was influential in the period under review, held firm on the sacrament of matrimony, a mystery that could not be repeated after divorce. (Victorian missionary work in the colonies came up against polygamy, which complicated matters.)

C. S. Lewis understood sex, gender, and priesthood sacramentally, arguing in preparation for Lambeth in 1948 that the idea of a woman's representing God as a priest would be to reverse the mystical marriage, with the Church as the Bridegroom and Christ as the Bride. "One of the ends for which sex was created", he argued, "was to symbolize to us the hidden things of God."

The rapid growth in the number of Anglican nuns and deaconesses between 1850 and 1920 has been the subject of several recent studies, and Jones has interesting things to say about women religious escaping from patriarchy and the duties of a wife and mother. Their numbers may have dwindled in the 20th century, but they had sown the seeds of a more radical revision of our idea of the feminine.

Sex and suffrage, contraception, sex and pleasure, and celibacy and homosexuality are all discussed calmly in the book, which is sprinkled with outrageous comments, including Dean Wace's statement in 1914 that, on the subject of public affairs, "the less women said the better".

Each debate was grounded in underlying anxieties relating to sexuality, such as the erotic attraction of the female body at the altar (there is silence on the question of the male body), or the "race suicide" of contraception (only the educated would use it, thus reducing the quality of the herd).

Two big ideas are particularly striking. First, Jones cites Callum Brown's argument, in The Death of Christian Britain (2000), that it was women, the "bulwark to popular support for organised Christianity" since 1800, who "broke their relationship to Christian piety in the 1960s" and thereby caused secularisation.

Second, Jones himself concludes that, between 1857 and 1957, the C of E, far from being reactionary, was able to "renegotiate gender and sexual ideologies", and was "often at the forefront of sexual change".

Whether you welcome such a tendency today, or regard it as a betrayal of traditional Anglican teaching, largely depends on whether, in terms of church politics, you are "a little Liberal, or else a little Conservative".

Dr Michael Wheeler is a Visiting Professor at the University of Southampton.

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