The Rt. Revd. John Gladwin
A personal disclaimer – what I say should not be taken as necessarily representing Anglicanism! I am an Anglican and what I say I believe to be in that tradition – but many Anglicans may come at these matters very differently – a matter which I consider to be a strength in church life.
Anglican conversations about sex, its meaning and purpose in human life, spin round our traditions on marriage. In a variety of ways Anglicans enter this field from this entrance point. Since liturgy plays an important role in shaping our doctrine and attitudes, the changing shape of the liturgies of marriage play an important role in this. Anglicans would be heard saying the following sort of things:
- Marriage is a gift God gave to humanity in creation.
- Marriage is a covenant of love and commitment between a man and a woman.
- Marriage is a sacrament or is sacramental in type – a means through which God’s grace may be experienced in our lives.
The character of the gift.
- Universal – for all and to be a blessing for the world, including those who do not formally enter into marriage.
- It is an exclusive bond – joining of the couple in union is the bodily sign of the love that brings them together. Sex, commitment and love are to be held together.
- It is the context within which God wills the creation of new life in children.
Marriage is not a civil arrangement, nor a service in church.
In regard to the morality of sexual behaviour these understandings would resist two ways of creating a division between sexual behaviour and the relationship between the people. There is the obvious one that sex for self gratification irrespective of whether there is any relationship is sinful – fornication. There is the less obvious one of the suggestion that where there is love, anything goes. So Anglicans have, from a variety of frameworks of moral endeavour, always taken an interest in the morality of the act as well as the quality of the relationship.
The sexual bond and act is of itself a profound good – part of the gift of life God has given in our creation as human beings. So that long cultural history of experiencing sex as sinful in itself and dirty has no place in serious Anglican theology – from the Prayer Book onwards!
In attending to these questions of both relationship and praxis, Anglicans always hold to the essential authority of the church in the Bible, interpreted down the centuries in the teaching of the church and qualified by reason – which some would say includes experience.
We may not hold as true, things which are manifestly against the doctrine of Scripture.
When tackling the complex issues facing us today – not just the personal and pastoral needs of same sex couples, but cohabitation, the forms of marriage in society where many are reticent about making such commitments and the impact on behaviour of safe contraceptive protection, the HIV/Aids crisis and of the wider cultural mores which are manifestly changing – Anglicans can look back on a history of development and even change in their judgements.
The obvious ones
- Contraception and family planning
- Divorce and remarriage
- Contemporary techniques in human fertilisation, family reconstruction and so on.
So we are always having to reshape how we speak about these issues – finding new directions in Scripture and in the understanding of our traditions.
What I think is remarkable at present is the shift in thinking about the needs of same sex couples. From an age of deep ambivalence about marriage, we now have same sex couples seeking stability, recognition and human rights in parallel to marriage.
Is this compromising our doctrine of marriage or is it strengthening it?
That is unfinished business for us.