How contraception has changed marriage
David Runcorn is the author of Love means Love - same-sex relationships and the bible (SPCK) and co-convenor of Inclusive Evangelicals. www.davidruncorn.com
A frequent argument against extending marriage to same-sex couples is from ‘Tradition’. Marriage, it is claimed, is an unchanged institution throughout scripture and church history. The claim persists despite considerable evidence being presented to the contrary (1).
One of the most revolutionary changes to the understanding of marriage is actually very recent, but its impact has hardly been acknowledged. Contraception. The practice of contraception is not new of course. But the availability of reliable, affordable contraception certainly is. It has only been known to the world since the later decades of the C20. So its impact on human relationships is something the bible and church history does not consider.
This is a matter for the whole church but my curiosity was first aroused by a comment by Mark Vasey-Saunders. ‘Any serious attempt to defend the notion that modern evangelicals are simply inheritors of an unchanged tradition of teaching on sex and relationships needs to take into account the huge significance of the largely unremarked, modern evangelical acceptance of the legitimacy of contraception, which necessitated reinterpretation of what constituted an unnatural sexual act in a way that did not revolve around procreation’ (2).
A hundred years ago
At the beginning of the last century the Church of England was totally opposed to contraception. The 1908 Lambeth Conference expressed ‘alarm at the growing practice of the artificial restriction of the family and earnestly calls upon all Christian people to discountenance the use of all artificial means of restriction as demoralising to character and hostile to national welfare.’ The 1920 Lambeth Conference condemned ‘theories and practices hostile to the family, the use of unnatural means for the avoidance of conception [and] the deliberate cultivation of sexual union as an end in itself’. ‘The primary purpose for which marriage exists [is] the continuation of the race’.
The 1930 Lambeth Conference began in the same vein. Parenthood is ‘the glory of married life’, ‘a duty’, ‘character-building for both parents and children’. The discipline and sacrifice it requires is ‘a privilege’ and a ‘vital contribution to the nation’s welfare’. Abstinence and self-control are the preferred alternative. Contraception used out of ‘selfishness, or mere convenience’ is condemned.
But here, for the first time in its history the church offered (cautious) support to the use of artificial contraception, ‘where there is clearly felt moral obligation to limit or avoid parenthood’.
"here, for the first time in its history the church offered support to the use of artificial contraception"
Why had contraception become a concern?
There were a number of factors.
The stress on national character and racial purity, rather than personal relationships, is significant. Eugenics was a popular movement at this time. The birth rate was falling, leading to alarmist theories about national and racial suicide. Concerns surrounded the quality of national character needed to fulfil the divine calling of the British Empire to lead, and convert, the world. One bishop laments how ‘the diminution in the birth-rate is chiefly among what are called “the better stocks”’. Early IQ theory at this time was developed to identify the least intelligent and ensure they did not breed. Proposals included sterilising women deemed unsuited to motherhood.
Secondly, revolutionary changes were happening around gender roles. The huge losses of men in the Great War necessitated women taking on roles and activities traditionally closed to them. These became steadily normalised. The suffragette gained momentum after the war and parliament finally gave all women the vote in 1928. The movement for the ordination of women begins around now. The first family planning clinic opened in 1921, in London. It offered married mother’s free birth-control advice, advice on reproductive health, and taught birth control methods.
All this triggered considerable anxiety among the bishops and the leading classes. Contraception was blamed for the post war emergence of feminism and the alarming prospect of greater sexual freedom for women. Missing from all this is any informed awareness of the stories of women and the lives of ordinary people generally. The bishops were all men, many were single and celibate. All lived in large houses. Calls to abstinence revealed a total ignorance of the pressures of limited living conditions for most of the population.
That contraception might be a liberating gift for women, freeing them from the burden of endless childbearing and opening up career choices, remained unconsidered. It would hugely improve women’s health and life expectancy. It made possible responsible family planning and financial management, lifting families and children out of poverty. It offered couples the possibility of enjoying their sexual union without anxiety.
In 2018, eleven evangelical bishops signed a letter to the co-ordinating group of Living in Love and Faith urging ‘the church’s traditional teaching on marriage be upheld’ (3). To support its case the letter quoted from the 1920 Lambeth Conference resolutions about marriage. If this was intended to lend historic, episcopal gravitas to their argument, it was unfortunate to say the least.
The ‘tradition of marriage’ held by the Church of England at that time included:
- the indissolubility of marriage.
- total opposition to artificial contraception.
- children as a national and religious duty.
- the belief that sexual intimacy without intention to produce children is
indulgent, lacks self-control and is sinful.
Since no one today would dream of including any of these in a summary of the ‘tradition of marriage’ we could not have a clearer example of the developing and evolving institution that it is.
This was also a patriarchal society and church in which the woman was wholly dependent on the man – finance, property, legal, home, social, career choices.
Furthermore it was a church theological tradition controlled by men. The voice and experience of those with most to gain or lose is silent. Awareness of the harsh realities of women’s needs, of large families living in poverty, of the welfare of children, is almost completely absent. This would have been ‘radical inclusion’ a hundred years ago.
Since no one today would dream of including any of these in a summary of 'the tradition of marriage’ we could not have a clearer example of the developing and evolving institution that it is.
"Since no one today would dream of including any of these in a summary of 'the tradition of marriage’ we could not have a clearer example of the developing and evolving institution that it is. "
The changing of the Marriage Service
The Book of Common Prayer defined the purpose of marriage in three ways.
Firstly, ‘for the procreation of Christian children. Secondly, as a ‘remedy against sin, and to avoid fornication’. (Now a remedy against is sin is not lightly passed up. But it remains a wholly negative statement of the gift of sex and the delights of human lovemaking). Thirdly, it was for companionship.
So it remained until the liturgical revisions of the 1970’s. In the Alternative Service Book of 1980 the order is reversed and the tone very different. Marriage is first for companionship, secondly, ‘to know each other in love and through the joy of their bodily union’ and thirdly, for the gift of children.
Behind this revision lies the reality of a huge change of the experience of sex, marriage and relationships after reliable contraception became freely available for the first time in world history.
"In the Alternative Service Book of 1980 the order is reversed and the tone very different. Behind this revision lies the reality of a huge change of the experience of sex, marriage and relationships ...."
Then and now.
Tradition with a pastoral heart
This historic review reminds us how easily doctrine, unrooted in pastoral theology, becomes coercive, ‘denying the truth of people’s experience’ (4). This is the significance of LLF’s insistence that people’s stories must be in the room. Those silenced or just ‘spoken about’, are given voice.
Christian Tradition is not an appeal back to something fixed and unchanging. It is the living faith of past generations enabling us to respond wisely to the new challenges and questions of the day. Faithful learning from tradition involves listening to past stories and their contexts – their insights and prejudices, wisdom and ignorance – to inform our responses today. The debates around contraception illustrate this task very well. Christian tradition is forward-looking. We are always being called into God’s future.
Gift and responsibility.
All scientific and medical progress comes with gifts and dangers. Contraception is no exception. Pastoral and ethical discernment around its use and methods continue. Sexual love, wrongly expressed, does great damage. Contraception can and does contribute to that. But if Christian faith has the task of warning it is also called to model and guide people into a ‘better story’. Then and now, the church tends to be found anxiously focusing on the evils than on the gifts.
Same-sex relationships and marriage
Part of Bishop Charles Gore’s opposition to contraception in 1930 was that it would legitimize homosexuality (5). Same-sex sex was condemned as ‘unnatural’ at that time because sex was for procreation. But Gore’s observation reveals an awareness ‘of the potential magnitude of gender and sexual change their decision could portend’ (5). And so it has proved. Once procreation is not understood as the primary call of marriage it makes possible the consideration of other expressions of committed sexual love that are just as faithful, sacrificial and consecrated.
"Once procreation is not understood as the primary call of marriage it makes possible the consideration of other expressions of committed sexual love that are just as faithful, sacrificial and consecrated."
Furthermore, no one now considers that a faithful, committed couple, making love with the use of contraceptives, are engaged in ‘unnatural’ behaviour.
It is hard to understate the significance of that cautious acceptance of contraception by the bishops in 1930. It has been called ‘one of the most significant turning points in the history of Anglican sexual politics’ (6).
"that cautious acceptance of contraception by the bishops in 1930 has been called ‘one of the most significant turning points in the history of Anglican sexual politics’"
It may be slow, conflicted and often messy, but the journey of the Church of England since that time is illustrating what faithfulness to a living, dynamic tradition looks like.
Marriage, in understanding and expression, has been an evolving institution throughout history. It exists nowhere as a complete and finished tradition. Possibly the most transforming influence on marriage is also the most recent – the availability of reliable, affordable contraception. We are still becoming aware of the impact of the gifts and challenges this brings.
In our time, the dynamic, living tradition of Christian marriage, formed from scripture and shaped through the historic teaching of the church, is exploring extending this vocation, as wider society has already done, to couples of the same sex. There is no need to fear this journey. Its historic expression, between a man and a woman, is neither threatened nor undermined by this. For what we hold in common is a commitment to the highest tradition of marriage, expressed through consecrated love and faith and lived out in the way of Christ.
That is why we are here.
Footnotes and sources
2. Defusing the Sexuality Debate: The Anglican Evangelical Culture War. SCM 2023. p11-12
3. The letter was widely circulated at the time and three critical reflections were published in response. See https://viamedia.news/2018/10/18/same-sex-marriage-scripture-an-affirming-evangelical-response-part-3/ with the link to the two previous articles. These received a reply, but both the letter and the response are no longer on the CEEC website.
4. William Challis. The Word of Life – using the bible in pastoral care. Harper Collins. 1997. p10.
5. In 'Lambeth on Contraceptives'. http://anglicanhistory.org/gore/contra1930.html. This was first published as a pamphlet by ‘The League of National Life’.
6. Timothy Willem Jones. Sexual Politics in the Church of England, 1857-1957 (Oxford, 2013). Chap 5 Contraception, Sex, and Pleasure. This is the fullest discussion I have been able to find on this subject. I am very grateful to Doctor Jones for making some of his writing available to me. This blog owes a great deal to his research, including the words and phrases quotes from the Lambeth resolutions.