David Dale has intercepted yet another discussion document
which may rock the Anglican Communion
WE HAVE BEEN asked by the Bishops of the Lambeth Conference to prepare a statement on the moral status of Adultery at the end of the Second Millennium.
1. Preliminary considerations.
a) While we reaffirm the ideal of marriage as a life long exclusive relationship, we recognise that this ideal developed in an age when mortality was high (particularly in childbirth) and when marriages exceeding 20 years in length were rare. Now that modern medicine has greatly lengthened life expectancy, we face a situation in which the degree of restraint and faithfulness which was possible for 20 years may not be sustainable for longer periods.
b) Earlier prohibitions on adultery were rooted in a patriarchal view of society in which, in Israel, a man might have more than one wife and in which a man’s wife was regarded as his property. The condemnation on adultery is, therefore, degrading to women as well as unjust in restricting women to sexual experience with only one man while her husband might have sexual experiences with many women. In the following centuries, with a high incidence of death in childbirth, the same situation has, in substance, occurred with men able to have several wives one after the other while a wife has been restricted in her sexual experience as before.
c) It is now recognised by many Anglicans that a rich range of sexual experience before and after marriage may well have the effect of enhancing the quality of the marriage itself
d) The availability of efficient contraceptives has made sexual activity possible without the danger of pregnancy thus removing complex questions of inheritance and the dangers of incestuous relationships among
unacknowledged offspring which provided part of the rationale behind the prohibition of adultery.
e) The teaching of the Gospels and the rest of the New Testament is ambivalent. Where it is condemnatory it is clearly rooted in a social context built on an understanding of the place of the wife in the family which is rooted in Roman Law and gives the paterfamilias highly autocratic powers over his family. The effects of a different but equally destructive form of patriarchy can be seen here.
2. Many Anglicans now feel that the circumstances we have just described, the examples of adultery in high places we have seen in contemporary society and with the consequent acceptance as adultery as a variation on the strict terms of monogamy require a church, which wishes to preach the gospel effectively to the modern world, to reconsider its prohibition of adultery. We are fortunate in having valuable methodological precedents in dealing with this matter. We have Dr Carey’s imaginative exposition Peter’s vision. in Acts 10 which shows that a Church should not fear doing something for the first time and that those who fear that the Anglican Communion does not have authority to act alone in this matter must remember that Article XX says that the Church of England ‘hath authority in controversies of faith.’ We further observe the place of adultery in the historical basis of our Communion.
3. To those who question the propriety of doing something prohibited in the Ten Commandments and the Tradition of the Universal Church we point to the telling argument of Bishop Santer of Birmingham that when it comes to preaching to contemporary society there are times when the Bible and the Tradition of the Church must cede to Christian common sense.
The action of Bishop Santer in marrying, with the approval of the Archbishop, the divorced wife of one of his priests, has shown the way forward into a relationship hitherto biblically prohibited as adulterous.
We are experiencing a tragic loss of skilled and gifted ministers who, at present, come under the condemnation of adultery and who, if their adultery is accepted, will have a valuable ministry to offer to the Church.
4. Many Anglicans wish to separate the sexual act from relational commitment. We understand that the link between sexual intercourse and spiritual and relational commitment need not always be present and that the achievement of sexual gratification, regarded by many Anglicans as a fundamental human right, can constitute a good of itself, a good which is not destroyed by being outside the bonds of marriage. The therapeutic benefit, in an age of high stress, points in the direction of its acceptance and even its commendation to hard pressed pastors.
5. Many examples from the bench of bishops of the Episcopal Church of the U.S.A. have persuaded us that this perception of Anglicans is correct. We have the example of bishops married as often as three times in marriages in which there are surviving spouses and yet exercising a rich pastoral and prophetic ministry.
6. The acceptance by the Bishops of the Church of England in their report ‘Issues in Human Sexuality’ of conscientious homosexual unions which are quasi-marriages and the acceptance by the Archbishop of York of the Bishop of Newcastle’s view that ‘homosexuality within a stable loving relationship is no sin’ has beneficially separated sexual intercourse and gratification from procreation. When this principle is applied to heterosexual relationships much of the objection to adultery loses its force. Further it is lacking in compassion to seek to deprive conscientious adulterers of the joy of a relationship which is subject to no more traditional condemnation than are homosexual genital acts. The acceptance of the one makes the rejection of the other irrational.
7. New understandings about the causes of stress and the need for incarnated consolation leads us to conclude that there may well be occasions when it is pastorally appropriate for a minister of religion to enter into an adulterous relationship. Such an occasion might be the bereavement of a young man in which a woman priest’s special gifts could be appropriately exercised or vice – versa in the case of a bereaved young woman. While we must warn of the danger of emotional manipulation in such circumstances these dangers must not lead us to leave unused a powerful pastoral tool.
9. We wish now to turn to the concept of the ‘open marriage’. This can help the bigamophile find a place in an understanding of marriage for sexual relationships beyond the bounds of marriage. This concept is regarded as a sign of maturity by many Anglicans who bear witness to the richness of their experience. The ‘open marriage’ is a marriage in which a new meaning is given to the word ‘exclusive’, a concept about which there are, in any case, many different views. We find that there are many understandings of this word and it seems narrow to restrict it to the concept of having only one sexual partner or, as we have seen, one sexual partner at a time. There are objections to the concept of the ‘open marriage’. We affirm the traditional view of marriage and the integrity of all those who share these objections while affirming also the conscientious conclusion of those who are in open relationships that such openness is right for them and a proper way for them to explore the full nature of their sexuality.
9. We urge therefore, that as all men and women are beloved of God and that there is in many acts of adultery true love and affection, that the Anglican Communion, exercising its right and duty to explore ‘fresh fields and pastures new’ in the realms of sexual morals, lift the prohibition on adultery. Bound as we are to bring peace and comfort to all men and women, especially those weighed down by sexual guilt resulting from acts of adultery, we should boldly declare that adultery is no longer a sin when the act is conscientiously entered into and is attended by love and affection. We deem it wrong to burden society with unnecessary guilt. Our duty to be credible to the standards of contemporary society and the true spirit of the tradition demands this step of us.
10. We commend this paper to all Anglicans for prayerful debate and look forward with hope and faith to a great leap forward in our Communion’s life which this will bring about. We have concluded that the effect of lifting the prohibition on adultery on the missionary position of the Church will be nothing but beneficial. We must all realise that the current mores of Western Society accepts adultery and sees our continued condemnation of it as hopelessly obscurantist. It will not be possible to commend the Christian way to young men and women in contemporary society if the condemnation of adultery is retained. ‘Why,’ we are asked ‘does the Church single out this particular act for condemnation in relationships between men and women when not condemning other sins as grievous as this?’ It is a question we cannot answer.
11. Among other benefits, the removal of the condemnation of adultery will release us to concentrate our minds on the debates on such pressing moral issues such as world debt, unemployment, global warming and the depletion of the rain forests to which debates we have much to contribute as a Communion.
12. Our attention has been called to the problems of incest and bestiality and we hope to institute an open debate on these subjects as soon as we can.
Signed on behalf of the Commission;
Onan Stringer, Bishop of Tierra del Fuegos. Chairman.
Richard Galloway, Bishop in the Lofoten Islands. Vice – Chairmnan.
Bathsheba Manciple, Suffragan Bishop of Woodstock. Procuror and Secretary.
David Dale was, until recently, Vicar of All Saints’ Ryde, IOW, in the diocese of Portsmouth.