Church told to rethink bar on sex before marriage

The Times Online (England), Mar. 31, 2003
By Ruth Gledhill, Religion Correspondent

The Church of England should consider changing its teaching on sex before marriage and preach that cohabitation should be viewed as a “new path from the single state to the married one”, a report published tomorrow says.

The report, which contains several papers, representing a number of points of view, was commissioned by the Southwark Diocese. It will be sent to all parishes for study and is certain to provoke discussion throughout the Church. “Society as a whole, not just the Church, is in a state of crisis in its attitude to cohabitation and marriage,” it says. The pastoral question of cohabitation is “scarcely being confronted by Church or State”.

The report, Cohabitation: A Christian Reflection, by a working party of the Southwark Diocese, says the Church’s traditional teaching that sex before marriage is wrong has been inherited from a different form of society from that of today and is now felt as a “heavy load”.

The report questions whether the young should continue to be burdened with this teaching. It notes that increasing numbers of young worshippers believe that if society changes to a point where the Church’s historic teaching becomes irrelevant or unrealistic, the Church should consider changing its teaching. This would not demean marriage but provide a “new path from the single state to the married one”, the report says.

The report does reject the idea that cohabitation with no intention to marry is acceptable for members of the Christian Church. However, it says that by sticking to its traditional teaching on cohabitation the Church is creating a sense of guilt which has caused some people to leave the Church and has caused estrangement within some families.

“More generally, it is clear that all the media now present cohabitation uncritically as the practical equivalent of marriage, and in this context it is difficult for the Church, perhaps especially at the local level, to present Christian teaching about marriage in a positive and attractive light,” the report says.

In his contribution, Peter Grinyer, a reader in Lingfield parish and a member of the cohabitation working party, continues: “The great majority of people I talked to agreed that there is an urgent need for the Church to come to terms with a changed society, and to provide a new, and what some may consider radical, even heretical, understanding of sexual relationships for the 21st century.”

Unless the Church was prepared to reconsider its teaching on sex and permit “the exploration and discovery of sexual intimacy” as an important part of a developing relationship, the Church would have little to say on cohabitation that was of value. And if the Church came to be seen as irrelevant in this area, “this risks demeaning and undermining its whole witness and ministry to society”, Mr Grinyer says.

The report cites a recent survey by The Church Times in which less than half of the 5,000 readers questioned said it was wrong for men and women to have sex before they married. More than a quarter also said it was all right for a couple to live together without even intending to get married.

Many clergy, if not most, now have practical pastoral experience of couples in their parishes who live together but are not married.

Since 1999 more than half of religious marriages have started with cohabitation, as well as more than 85 per cent of civil marriages.

The report cites research that illustrates the problems that accompany cohabitation, in particular the negative effects on children. It concludes that marriage is “a much more satisfactory social convention than cohabitation”, but says that the Church has failed to present marriage in a way that captures the imagination of young people. The Church must rise to the challenge and rediscover its confidence in marriage as “a high and holy calling”.

One problem for the Church is that there is no biblical text dealing explicitly with cohabitation, and clergy have no answer to the question they often face: “Where does it say in the Bible that I should not live and sleep with my partner?” The report notes that St Paul gave a “cautious welcome” to marriage, but that there was also a “militant apostolic view” that favoured celibacy. The strict sexual codes of the earliest Christian communities helped to give them a separate identity distinct from the sexual hedonism of the pagan world.

“From this early period, the Church opposed divorce, and there was a growing prejudice against the remarriage of widows,” the report says.

“Celibacy was seen as more noble than marriage.”

Today’s Church teaching has been strongly influenced by the theology of St Augustine (354-430), who himself was in two minds over these issues. At the start of his life, he developed powerful theories about the sacrament of marriage. But in his old age he “allowed his deep suspicion of sexual passion full rein, when he made the link between sexuality and original sin”.

The report continues: “This left a dreadful legacy to the Christian Church: in a fallen world, sex and sin were irrevocably entwined.”

As a result of St Augustine’s teaching, the Church had become and had remained deeply conservative about sex. “The Church has not given enough prominence to the fact that sex can sustain a marital relationship,” the report says.

Introducing the report, Canon Bruce Saunders, executive secretary of the diocesan Board for Church in Society, says that a consensus emerged within the working party about the Church’s traditional view of marriage.

“Some members of the working party hoped, for example, to find criteria around which unmarried or not-yet-married relationships could properly be given unqualified, positive value. But the force of Scripture and tradition and the sheer weight of the secular evidence about patterns of cohabitation in society compelled them to a more cautious view.”

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