The Church and sexual ethics
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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.