The third and final part of Professor Diarmaid MacCulloch’s TV series about attitudes toward sex in Christianity was so good that I cannot resist providing a summary of what he said. If, by summarising, I misrepresent what was originally said, the fault is all mine. Blame me and not the professor.
People began a fundamental questioning of the churches three centuries ago when the Enlightenment began. The Enlightenment began the process by which sex changed from being a sin tolerated only in marriage to being a recreational pleasure and lifestyle choice. Over time, gay people were transformed from being sinners to accepted members of society. Women, once dismissed by the churches as morally weak, sexually predatory and unfit for leadership, gradually found themselves accepted as ordained priests and other religious leadership figures. But for most of the last three hundred years, the churches fought against these radical changes.
The churches began to lose control of sex in the West in the 18th century as the rational power of science and learning challenged superstition, mindless obedience and religious teaching on many different matters, not least sex. But already by the year 1700, London, in common with many other large cities, was awash with prostitutes, brothels and meeting places for heterosexual and gay sex. There were drag queens and a Baptist minister who officiated at same-sex marriages, although no one but he recognised such marriages as legal at the time. The permissive times appear to have dated from at least the 1690s.
The Church of England sought to hold back what it saw as a tide of debauchery but it could do very little, not least because Christianity in England and most other European countries no longer had one voice. Dissenting Protestants existed in England and elsewhere, thereby compromising the power and authority of the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church. The result? Churches could no longer monopolise power over people’s minds. People suddenly had new freedoms about who to be and how to live.
A new manifestation of Christianity at the time was the Evangelical Revival, which soon morphed into Methodism. The Evangelical Revival broke with Christian tradition when it empowered women to assume leadership roles. Methodism in particular was inspired by a desire to promote social justice, and it was not long before Sarah Crosby benefitted from such justice by becoming the denomination’s first female preacher. She was most active as a preacher during the 1760s and 1770s. Other women followed Crosby into the role of preacher and also opened schools and spread the Christian message. Women were suddenly seen to have high moral seriousness, which was in marked contrast with how they were seen not long after the foundation of Christianity until the 18th century. Methodist women even engaged in missionary activities in North America and the British colonies. But after Wesley died, Methodists began to react against the idea of women assuming leadership roles. In fact, the same thing happened in other Protestant churches. Just as early Christianity had done, the new manifestations of the faith first granted real power to women before denying them it, alleging that they were inadequate to the role. As ever within the faith, men reasserted their primacy and power.
The French Revolution was the next substantive knock to religious authority in so far as it dented the power of the Roman Catholic Church, primarily in France but, long-term, elsewhere. The revolution stripped the Roman Catholic Church of much of its wealth and power in France, where it was thought to be steeped in superstition and corruption and to have many priests with an unhealthy appetite for sexual abandon. France became the world’s first secular state, but at great human and material cost. Marriage became a purely civil contract, divorce was possible by mutual consent and homosexuality was decriminalised, all of which were direct attacks on Roman Catholic teaching on sex. The reforms had a long-term impact in other European empires and nation states, but, when Napoleon Bonaparte ruled France, he signed an agreement with the Vatican which gave the Roman Catholic Church the chance to temporarily revive its fortunes. Ironically, however, the revival of the Roman Catholic Church was largely conducted by women.
By the early 19th century, and for the first time ever, nuns outnumbered monks and priests in the Roman Catholic Church. Nuns engaged in teaching, the provision of healthcare and meeting the needs of the poorest in society. A sort of Roman Catholic feminism emerged, and the main inspiration behind such feminism was the example of Mary, the mother of Jesus himself. But, in time, admiration for Mary led to reinforcement of the idea that her conception had been immaculate (free from the sin of sexual encounter), thereby making her unique among all human beings. The idea of the immaculate conception had been around since the second century, but now the idea caught on as never before. Mary was the uniquely sinless woman and women were therefore confronted with an ideal of womanhood they could never live up to, even if they never engaged in sexual activity of any kind. In 1854 the immaculate conception became an article of faith revealed by God and this heralded a new attack on sex because everyone but Mary was tainted by the sexual act itself.
During the 19th century some Victorians divided sexual acts into two categories, normal and perverse, and others experimented with photography, which soon led to a rapid increase in the availability of pornography. Prostitution remained common, not least in the United Kingdom, where Josephine Butler, an evangelical Christian married to an Anglican clergyman, championed the cause of women caught up in the sex industry. Josephine Butler complained that women who engaged in prostitution were criminalised, but men who exploited women to satisfy their sexual appetites were allowed to go free. She was eventually successful in repealing the Contagious Diseases acts both in Britain and elsewhere from 1869 to 1886 because such legislation harmed and unfairly imprisoned young women who were suspected of being prostitutes. But Butler did this without the support of the Church of England.
From the 16th to the 19th century, all marriages but those among Jews and Quakers were legal/valid only if the ceremony had been conducted by an Anglican priest. But in the early 19th century all the churches other than the Church of England clamoured for the Anglican monopoly to be broken. The monopoly did eventually end, but legislation also required that all marriages were subject to civil registration. This meant that marriages could now take place in local registry offices. This was the beginning of civil marriage as we know it today, the separation of marriage from religion. Gradually civil marriage was reintroduced throughout Europe, even in predominantly Roman Catholic countries where secular governments used civil marriage as a way to challenge Church power and authority.
The Roman Catholic Church had always maintained an absolute ban on divorce, but, in contrast, Protestant churches had allowed divorce in certain circumstances, except in England. in 1857 the British Parliament passed the Matrimonial Causes Act, an act permitting civil divorce on the grounds of infidelity. Divorce was now beyond the control of the Church of England. The act also allowed for the remarriage of divorcees, which was in direct opposition to Christian teaching at the time. In fact, the Church of England remained officially opposed to divorcees remarrying until 2002.
In the latter half of the 19th century, as European powers established colonies in ever more remote parts of the globe, Christians encountered people whose beliefs about marriage were very different from their own. This was perhaps most apparent in parts of Africa where polygamy was widespread. Even though Abraham, Solomon and many other Old Testament characters are said to have engaged in polygamous relationships, Christians were committed to monogamy as supported by Jesus. To Christians, polygamy was illegal and immoral, despite the many polygamous Old Testament characters not criticised for such relationships. But there had always been Christians on the margins of the faith who had sympathised with polygamy, and the early 19th century saw the emergence in the USA of what came to be known as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints whose leaders said that God had solemnly instructed them to adopt polygamy. Even today, 20,000 Mormons are said to be in polygamous marriages in the USA alone. As for Christians who encountered polygamous marriages in the colonies where they worked, at first they tried to impose monogamy, but, where African and other communities resisted practices alien to their heritage, the missionaries gradually came to tolerate polygamy provided conversion to Christianity was assured. To this day among many Christians living in Africa polygamy persists.
By the beginning of the 20th century science had transformed artificial contraception. With condoms and diaphragms more readily available, sexual intercourse could be separated from having children, which brought a more liberal attitude to sex. At the time, however, the Roman Catholic and the Protestant churches totally condemned artificial contraception. Attitudes began to change in the 1930s when Anglican bishops came to accept the merits of artificial contraception if, for example, it was necessary to limit family size or a couple were unsuited for parenthood. Anglican bishops finally agreed that people should decide for themselves whether they would use artificial contraception or not. The matter had become one of individual conscience.
From as early as the 2nd century, Christians had limited sex exclusively to having children, but now Anglicans were saying that sex could be indulged in for other reasons, not least pleasure. This was a very important break with the past. But in the 1930s the Roman Catholic Church would not allow Roman Catholics to use any form of artificial birth control.
The idea that sex could be enjoyed for its own sake had as big an impact among homosexuals as it did among heterosexuals, but, following the second world war, homosexual acts remained criminal offences. In 1954 no fewer than 1,069 men were imprisoned for homosexual acts. However, as discussion, albeit ill-informed, about homosexuality increased, it became apparent that some well-known members of the establishment were gay. This realisation helped to popularise the campaign to decriminalise homosexuality. Even more remarkably, leading clergy in the Church of England supported the campaign. Most such clergy felt that homosexuality was sinful, but their commitments to compassion and justice led them to argue in favour of decriminalisation. In 1967 homosexuality was decriminalised, by which time a majority of Anglican clergy, the leaders of the Roman Catholic Church in the UK and a majority of Methodists had expressed sympathy for the change of law.
It was also in 1967 that abortion was legalised in the UK. Although some Protestants came out in favour of legalising abortion, the Roman Catholic Church could not do so, but 1967 confirmed that core Enlightenment values such as freedom, equality and rationality were having an impact in specific Christian environments.
By the late 1960s it appeared to many as if the “permissive society” had taken a firm hold in many parts of the developed world, so much so that growing numbers of children were being born out of wedlock. Such “permissiveness” led to a conservative backlash in many expressions of religious faith, perhaps especially from heterosexual men who saw in the empowerment of women and homosexuals threats to their power, dignity and usefulness. But the tide of change could not be resisted indefinitely and, in 1994, the Church of England ordained its first women priests (the Church now has women bishops). However, reaching an accommodation with homosexuality has proved more of a challenge, so much so that, while the Church of England will ordain openly gay priests, such priests must not engage in sexual acts with other men. Conservatives in all or most churches seem to believe that, if ground is given in relation to homosexuality, all aspects of biblical authority will be brought into question. But research suggests a slim majority of Anglicans now support same-sex marriage and therefore have no problem with openly gay priests engaging in sex with other men. It is merely a matter of time, surely, before the Church leadership reflects the opinion of a majority of those they serve.
At least Protestants have been relatively open and honest in their discussions about homosexuality, women and marriage. In contrast, the Roman Catholic Church has denied such discussion to unfold within its ranks and has merely restated traditional Church teaching: no to homosexuality, no to women priests, yes to celibate priests, no to divorce, no to abortion, and no to artificial contraception, the latter even after the problem of HIV/Aids in the 1980s. Such reluctance to engage with the real world in an informed and compassionate way that might enhance the rights and opportunities of millions of people currently denied such rights and opportunities has done a lot to erode the credibility of the Roman Catholic Church, despite Vatican II suggesting that meaningful reform of the Church is possible, but even more damaging to the Church have been the revelations from many nation states around the globe that Roman Catholic priests have engaged in the sexual abuse of hundreds of thousands of children. Other churches have had problems with child sexual abuse, but not on the scale in the Roman Catholic Church. Moreover, no other church has sought so systematically to cover up such abuse, protect its priests from criminal prosecution and to save the Church from scandal at the expense of its victims. The status that priests have within the Church because of their sacramental responsibilities and commitment to celibacy encourage in some priests a belief that they are somehow superior to members of the laity and exempt from the rules of everyday society. They are not superior to members of the laity and no one is above the rules of everyday society. Moreover, priests are meant to serve their congregations, not preside over them.
Every so often Pope Francis says something that encourages one to believe that the Roman Catholic Church might one day embark along the road that some Protestant churches have traveled along, but, to date, nothing substantive has been done to suggest that attitudes within the Church in relation to a host of matters sexual will shift significantly short- or medium-term. But what can be said with confidence is that the Roman Catholic laity are almost as likely as the laity in many Protestant churches to do what they think is right and proper in relation to sexual matters, even if this means doing things that are at complete odds with Church teaching. The great majority of people in the West have been liberated from what Christianity has required of its followers in relation to sex for almost 2,000 years.