The Lambeth Conference and Queen Latifah image

The Lambeth Conference and Queen Latifah

When I got home today the latest edition of JETS was waiting on my doorstep: always an exciting moment.

The opening article by Dennis Hollinger concerns The Ethics of Contraception, and notes the lack of theological reflection on the subject among protestants (with the notable exception of Karl Barth, who has been hugely influential in my own thinking on sex, marriage and contraception). Hollinger quotes from the 1920 Lambeth Conference of Bishops in the Anglican Church, which rejected contraception:

In opposition to the teaching which, under the name of science and religion, encourages married people in the deliberate cultivation of sexual union as an end in itself, we steadfastly uphold what must always be regarded as the governing considerations of Christian marriage. One is the primary purpose for which marriage exists, namely the continuation of the race through the gift and heritage of children.

By 1930 the Bishops’ line had softened to the extent that contraception was given legitimacy, but only within very narrow bounds, and the general tone was still hostile towards contraception: “The Conference records its strong condemnation of the use of any methods of contraception control from motives of selfishness, luxury, or mere convenience.”

Despite this hostility, the approval given for contraception at the 1930 Lambeth Conference was significant. As Hollinger notes, “Within a matter of several decades most of Protestantism followed the Lambeth trajectory. With the arrival of the Pill in 1960 the shift became complete.”

From our cultural viewpoint it is difficult to appreciate what a huge shift there has been in approaches to contraception in less than a century, and along with it, a shift in how marriage is understood more broadly. Even on this blog, when I have written about procreation being the primary purpose of marriage (echoing not only the 1920 Lambeth Conference but almost the entirety of Christian thought up to that point) my fellow members of the THINK team have encouraged me to instead write a primary purpose. To claim that marriage (and thus sex) is primarily about procreation is shocking to contemporary ears and always generates a reaction when I suggest it. How on earth can I justify that viewpoint? people ask.

How about we turn the question around and conduct a thought experiment. What theological argument might be used to justify our current cultural assumptions about marriage and sex – that it is primarily about love? Anyone?

And then let’s do some cultural analysis. If earlier generations of Christians were correct in their belief that marriage was primarily about the conception and rearing of children, what kind of society might that create? But if marriage and sex are primarily about ‘love’, why should we be surprised by a group gay mirage at the Grammies presided over by Queen Latifah? Trajectory dear boy. Trajectory.


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