Robin Ward reflects on Anglican responsibility in relation to birth control and civil partnerships

‘Thinking it over at home a bishop might have said, “I am going to vote against birth control,” and his wife would have said, “Don’t be a fool, John.”’ Percy Dearmer’s lapidary analysis of why the Lambeth Conference of 1930 decided to approve artificial methods of contraception reminds us of the significant alternative Magisterium in Anglicanism.

It is worth recalling however, that the decision of 1930 was not necessarily the theological volte-face which the verdict of Pius XI in his Encyclical Casti Connubii of the same year assumed: ‘Certain persons have openly withdrawn from the Christian doctrine as it has been transmitted from the beginning and always faithfully kept.’

Abp Randall Davidson was said to have indicated by the agitation of his eye-brows dissatisfaction with the emphatic tone of the 1920 Lambeth Conference Resolution on Birth Control, and Kenneth Kirk wrote in Conscience and its Problems in 1927, an Anglican has good reason to doubt whether the universal condemnation of “birth-control” in the Roman communion is paralleled by as absolute an obligation in the Church of England.’

Although Anglo-Catholic confessors and moral theologians continued to take a strict line until the Fifties, it was the Lambeth Conference of 1958 which radically departed from what had been the received tradition. The Conference report on The Family in Contemporary Society declared that those who ‘carelessly and improvidently bring children into the world trusting in an unknown future or a generous society to care for them, need to make a rigorous examination of their lack of concern for their children and for the society of which they are a part.’ The choice of method to bring about this duty of limitation is described as matters of clinical and aesthetic choice.’

This judgement has been reflected in the revision of the marriage services of the Church of England, in which the traditional Augustinian hierarchy of its benefits, in which the gift of children comes first, is abandoned in favour of a hierarchy which emphasizes the more subjective benefits and ranks the ‘unitive’ character of the marriage act above the procreative.

Once marriage has been re-defined as a union in which ‘comfort and help’ constitute its first end, in which sexual intercourse is primarily a means of ‘delight’ and ‘joyful commitment,’ and in which children if they are born at all come last in the order of priorities, then it becomes difficult to see why the traditional moral teaching of Christianity about the indissoluble character of the union, or indeed the necessity of the spouses to be of a different sex need obtain.

Perhaps the bishops who are complaining now about how much civil partnerships have been made to resemble marriage should consider how responsible the Anglican Communion is for making marriage look so much like a civil partnership fifty years ago.