The Church and sex­ual ethics

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The Church of England - - ENGLAND ON SUNDAY -

Sex­ual Pol­i­tics in the Church of Eng­land Ti­mothy Willem Jones OUP, hb, £55.00

With grow­ing ac­cep­tance of the fem­i­nist maxim that the per­sonal is the po­lit­i­cal, church his­tory has taken on fresh im­por­tance. As we see in con­tem­po­rary de­bates, churches are of­ten the arena where bat­tles over is­sues of gen­der and sex­u­al­ity rage most fiercely. Ti­mothy Willem Jones ex­am­ines de­bates in the Church of Eng­land be­tween 1857 and 1957 about mar­riage, re­li­gious or­ders, women’s suf­frage, women’s or­di­na­tion, con­tra­cep­tion, and celibacy and ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity.

His book be­gan life as a PhD the­sis in the Univer­sity of Mel­bourne and some at­ten­tion is given to de­bates else­where in the Angli­can Com­mu­nion and to de­ci­sions of Lam­beth Con­fer­ences, but the main fo­cus is on the Church of Eng­land. We learn lit­tle about de­vel­op­ments in the Amer­i­can Epis­co­pal Church ex­cept in so far as they have rel­e­vance to the sit­u­a­tion in Eng­land.

Many will be sur­prised by the con­clu­sion that on a num­ber of ques­tions the Church was ac­tu­ally ahead of pub­lic opin­ion. The 1928 Prayer Book made pro­vi­sion for hus­band and wife to make the same vows so that the woman no longer had to prom­ise to obey her hus­band. As Jones com­ments, while the Church as a whole was of­ten con­ser­va­tive, most of its more ac­tive and in­tel­lec­tual mem­bers were pro­gres­sive. In 1897 in a move to for­malise a sys­tem of lo­cal Church government that was de­vel­op­ing, women were ex­cluded from PCCs and from serv­ing as church­war­dens but in 1919, when Church As­sem­bly was es­tab- lished, women were given the right to vote and to serve as mem­bers. When the As­sem­bly met for the first time over 11 per cent of its mem­bers were women.

Ap­proval of con­tra­cep­tion at the 1930 Lam­beth Con­fer­ence was ac­tu­ally a step ahead of some other in­sti­tu­tions. The Min­istry of Health banned in­for­ma­tion about con­tra­cep­tion in health clin­ics un­til 1931 and the med­i­cal pro­fes­sion did not ac­cept birth con­trol un­til the 1930s.

The Church of Eng­land was also ahead in the 1950s push­ing for the de­crim­i­nal­i­sa­tion of ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity, some years be­fore the Wolfenden Com­mit­tee report. Jones terms the Church’s ad­vo­cacy of ho­mo­sex­ual law re­form in the 1950s ‘re­mark­able’ and credit must be given to D Sher­win Bai­ley who pub­lished the first pub­lic dis­cus­sion on the sub­ject in a Church fo­rum with an ar­ti­cle in the mag­a­zine The­ol­ogy in 1952. But long be­fore this time, Jones sees the Church of Eng­land cre­at­ing a ‘stained glass closet’ where gays or ‘in­verts’, as they were called, could find com­mu­nity and sta­tus.

The great ob­sta­cle to change in many of the ar­eas Jones stud­ies, and es­pe­cially in re­gard to the or­di­na­tion of women, was the An­glo-Catholic move­ment. This achieved its great­est in­flu­ence in the fi­nal years of the 19th Cen­tury and the first 30 years of the 20th. As well as op­pos­ing women’s or­di­na­tion, An­glo-Catholics held a sacra­men­tal view of mar­riage. They op­posed di­vorce, con­tra­cep­tion and al­low­ing men to marr y their de­ceased wife’s sis­ter.

Jones ar­gues evan­gel­i­cals were more lib­eral although it is open to ques­tion how much re­search he has done on this. JC Wright, the Arch­bishop who took Syd­ney in a more firmly con­ser­va­tive evan­gel­i­cal di­rec­tion, is wrongly de­scribed as ‘Bishop JC Wright’, one of a num­ber of slips.

A ma­jor con­tri­bu­tion made by the An­gloCatholics to en­cour­ag­ing the par­tic­i­pa­tion of women in the life of the Church was the cre­ation of re­li­gious com­mu­ni­ties. Jones ac­knowl­edges that at the height of their in­flu­ence, 10,000 women were mem­bers of com­mu­ni­ties in Eng­land. By en­ter­ing a sis­ter­hood, Vic­to­rian women were able to es­cape so­ci­ety’s pres­sure on them to marr y and raise a fam­ily and to some ex­tent gain the free­dom to de­cide the di­rec­tion of their lives.

A sim­i­lar point could be made about dea­conesses, although the num­ber of them was much smaller. In the end, Jones ar­gues, both nuns and dea­conesses did have to ac­cept the con­trol of men although he con­cedes some of them could be very re­bel­lious. He crit­i­cises their work with fallen women with­out ask­ing whether some of th­ese women might ac­tu­ally have wel­comed the free­dom to change their life­style.

A big omis­sion of the book is any se­ri­ous dis­cus­sion of the ‘Church­ing of Women’. Jones thinks this ser­vice was ob­so­lete but it re­mained im­por­tant in some parts of the coun­try such as the NW well into the 20th Cen­tury. This is ‘Whig his­tory’ that does not recog­nise that op­po­nents to such mea­sures as the or­di­na­tion of women may have stood for some­thing im­por­tant but for all its lim­i­ta­tions it is an timely work on a sub­ject of keen in­ter­est.

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