Sex and the Anglican Church

It’s “Theme Fortnight” here at Cranmer Hall, and while the second years are entombed in “Death and Dying”, the first years are embroiled in “Sex and Gender”. This could be seen as another example of the Anglican church’s current obsession with sex; perhaps a fortnight would have been better spent on “Poverty and Justice” or on “Discerning and using your spiritual gifts”. However, the college’s attitude is along the lines of “We have no problem with making you all feel awkward and embarrassed for a couple of weeks, if in years to come it helps prevent you appearing on the front page of a tabloid newspaper for doing or saying something completely stupid.”

Some of the free-flowing group discussion has prompted me to think through what the Church’s role should be in this and other controversial areas. Is the purpose of the Church to baptise whatever society at large deems to be normative? The role of the priest then seems to be to follow behind the latest MORI opinion poll, sprinkling holy water wherever it can. In the process of this quest for relevance the Church actually becomes irrelevant: there is little point to it if it merely sanctifies what society does anyway.

I believe that the Church should instead be a prophetic voice in the community. It has so often failed to do this: when in previous years the Church of England was referred to as the “Tory party at prayer”,  it had become far too close to a particular political mindset; and when it held shares in arms companies, it was hard to see how this was compatible with a gospel of peace. Yet the actions of Wilberforce in the abolition of slavery, and Mother Theresa in caring for the destitute in Calcutta, shows the power of people living out their gospel convictions.

There is nothing new in the Church living in a society which did not share its values over sex and marriage. St. Paul, in his first letter to the church at Corinth, is angered not just over a man who was sleeping with his stepmother, but with the church itself for appearing to condone this behaviour.

My friends Jo and Matt at their wedding a couple of years ago.

If the Church does not uphold marriage as fundamental to its teaching on matters of sexuality, then it has become no less compromised than when it was known as the Tory party at prayer. Don’t get me wrong: most of us probably know unmarried couples who have healthier and more exemplary relationships than some who are married; I myself have good friends, both inside and outside the church, for whom this is true. Nevertheless, we live in a society obsessed with sex, with pregnancies among unmarried teenagers on the rise, and increasingly marked by family breakdown. If the church loses its distinctive voice on marriage and sexuality, then it will do so at its peril – and in betrayal of its role in society at large.

3 thoughts on “Sex and the Anglican Church

  1. Well said Richard. It’s not the church’s purpose follow society’s definition of marriage, purpose and role, but rather the opposite.

  2. Richard,

    Thank you for posting this. Good to know where other people are at.

    My reflections have been revolving around what Richard Briggs said about the Ten Commandments. They were guidelines for life rather than legal rules. Too often I believe the Church becomes legalistic and focussed on following ‘Christian Rules’. Sam Hargreaves at Spring Harvest questioned whether the church is a place of Grace. It was interesting to question how those outside the church see us. We preach Grace with our lips with statements such as ‘God forgives.’ ‘There’s nothing you can do to make Him love you any less. There’s nothing you can do to make Him love you any more.’ and most importantly emphasising characters such as the tax-collectors and prostitutes and those outside societies ‘norms’ which Jesus hung out with. At the same time as this we have rules which make Christians judge other people’s faith in Jesus Christ. ‘You have to fulfill these criteria to be a proper member of our gang.’

    I completely agree that we should not follow society round with holy water, blessing whatever it says (nice image by the way). I strongly believe we need to be prophetic in our society and to deny the damage that sex in non committed, self sacrificial relationships is to be done at our peril. I also believe, however, that people outside the church see marriage as a legal requirement and when we hold ‘marriage’ up as a godly thing then we are communicating that the legality of marriage is God’s will and i don’t think we should. God is a God of guidelines not of cold legalistic rules.

    We are wrestling with left over remnants of when moral law became civil law, or when the Church became State. If we make this legal requirement to have sex then people will do the legal in order to do ‘the dirty’. We also are struggling with a breakdown of marriage itself with divorce rates soaring.

    What I think we, as the Church need to be communicating is that marriage is not a legal act in which legal terms are drawn up and contracts are made but rather it is a spiritual act which is powerful and should not be entered into lightly. To emphasise the sacrificial side to the life time commitment. We need to re-define ‘marriage’ in our society that people understand that it is within this life long commitment to another person that the true joy of sex is revealed. That the deepest and most ecstatic sexual relationship can only be found when you are connected emotionally, spiritually and sexually with another person and you know that if it doesn’t ‘work’ then you are still safe and loved. That sex and joy is not a mark of love but that grace and forgiveness are.

    I think grace needs to come first. We need to be graceful and to remember the main mission of the Church is to make disciples, i.e. to introduce people to Christ and how He shows us to live. When they are following Christ then they will know the Truth. If we start by saying everyone needs to follow our rules without them knowing Christ they will not understand or see why. The reason we live the way we live is because of Christ and our relationship with Him not because we follow His rules. Let us stop debating how to live ethically with those who do not know Christ because they won’t understand outside the context of life with Christ. Let us instead introduce them to the person we follow, why we follow Him and trust that they can do nothing else but follow Him too and live the way He wants them to live.

    Just my thoughts.

    Thanks again for the post,


    • Hi Ned,

      Thanks so much for this thoughtful comment. It was also great to chat over coffee today about this subject.

      I think what you say about marriage is brilliant – and knowing you and Sarah, it’s not just words, you both live it. I hope that conveying that message ends up being part of your ministry.

      I’m not entirely sure that you are right about what Richard Briggs was saying the other day. In speaking of the 10 commandments, I think he was saying that they are the basic, fundamental principles – the foundation stones! – of the legal system, from which the rest of the legal code was developed. I don’t think he meant that “Do not murder” was a good idea in principle but not a big issue if you infringed…

      But you are right that grace is central to the Gospel as well. We live in a society which is hyper-sensitive about any group appearing to lay the law down about how people should behave, so it is absolutely right that we emphasise the love and grace which is central to the gospel. Without love and grace there is no gospel. But I don’t think we should shy away from the fact there is law, and that the New Testament also says some striking things about the importance of the law. It’s just that it’s not obedience to the law that is most important, but our relationship with God. Indeed, I think you said it best over coffee: it’s because of our relationship with God and his love for us that we obey the law – indeed it almost becomes natural for us to want to do so. And as you say (almost!), it is much more important that we introduce people to Jesus Christ than that we beat them around the head with a couple of carved stone tablets!

      Thanks again for your comment!

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