A storm of protest in Britain has followed publication by the Student Christian Movement Press of Sex and Morality (see previous issue, page 34). The furor tended to divert attention from other facts almost as significant as the contents of the booklet.
In 1964 a working party was set up by the British Council of Churches. Its terms of reference: “To prepare a statement of the Christian case for abstinence from sexual intercourse before marriage and faithfulness within marriage, taking full account of responsible criticisms, and to suggest means whereby the Christian position may be effectively presented to the various sections of the community.”
This seemed clear enough. Has the brief been fulfilled? No, admits the working party, whose report challenges the idea that there is a “Christian position” at all. So we encounter the first odd feature. Whether the terms of reference prejudged the issue or not does not concern us; these were given to and accepted by the working party. If they were later seen to be untenable, surely the honest thing would have been to refer back misgivings to the parent body and ask for guidance. This was not done, and so far as the brief is concerned some of the material produced is as irrelevant as a list of the kings of Judah.
A second curious note is the composition of the working party. There were a Taizé monk, a Methodist deaconess, two teachers, a radical Christian journalist, a lady author, a university medical officer, a family-planning-association man, a geneticist, and an Oxford clergyman who lectures in philosophy. A ministerial member of the BCC staff was secretary, a Methodist minister was chairman. The Chancellor of Wells was a consultant member.
There was, not surprisingly, no Roman Catholic representation, and (most surprisingly) no one from the Church of Scotland—numerically the second largest body in the BCC. Moreover, on inspecting the names and re-reading the terms of reference, one must conclude that here was no band of theological heavyweights.
The report was published without prior submission to the parent body. Far from having second thoughts when the storm broke, the publishers are quoted as saying: “We have no intention of withdrawing it, and I doubt if the British Council of Churches can legally compel us to.”
No less momentous was the timing of publication. The press conference took place on a Thursday, the story was embargoed till after midnight on Saturday, and the book was published two days after that. The Sunday papers were thus given first bite at the cherry. The Sunday papers rose to the occasion: hadn’t they, after all, a responsibility to give the salient features to readers who assuredly would not read the whole report for themselves, or couldn’t for at least two days? So the publishers who had given us Honest to God coolly set the stage to provide the greatest possible sensation.
Now to the report. On abstinence outside marriage and faithfulness within, it denies there can be any set rules. Typical of the kind of loaded language used is the following: “Intelligent Christian opinion no longer regards the Bible, or even the New Testament, as a text-book from which one can extract authoritative rulings which automatically decide contemporary problems.” The report says with maddening imprecision that the Christian God “wills for each man and woman the most enduring and complete happiness of which they are capable.”
It does concede that not all rules are valueless. For that we thank it. It is shown that John of Woolwich was echoing Paul’s emphasis on love. It may be legitimate to suggest that Paul said many other things J. of W. has not echoed—First Corinthians 6:9, for a start.
However, it is not to Scripture that the report goes for two “unbreakable rules” of sexual conduct but to Dr. Alex Comfort. He has decreed, and the working party approves, the following: “Thou shalt not exploit other persons’ feelings and wantonly expose them to an experience of rejection”; and “thou shalt not under any circumstances negligently produce an unwanted child.” We have never heard of this latterday lawgiver and wish the working party hadn’t either.
We know about man come of age and times a-changing, but some things such as the heart of man and the nature of God are unchanging. The Christian has no business keeping up with times out of step with God. He looks for biblical warrant rather than to highly tendentious declarations prefaced by “no reasonable man would dispute.…”
The report was due to come last month before the BCC, which can reject it or commend it to member churches. Writing this the week before the BCC meeting, I hope I am not merely clutching at straws in finding hope in the words: “This report … carries only the authority of the working party which produced it.”
Whatever the BCC has done or will do, premature publication of this document has proved damaging. The British Humanist Association holds that its adoption will mean that “Christian sexual morality will no longer be a question of inviolable moral law, but of discussion and, often individual decision. This is a great advance towards the Humanist position.” Similar humanist reaction greeted Honest to God.
If the report is misinterpreted, the working party has only itself to blame. The secretary of the National Marriage Bureau Association declares, “Every mother and father in the country … must have cursed these stupid people for their championing of free sex for all.”
Church of Scotland delegates on the BCC immediately disassociated themselves from the report and announced they would press for its withdrawal. A Roman Catholic priest writing to the Times said the reaction among his people was, “Who wants Unity after this?”
“BISHOPS COME OUT AGAINST FORNICATION,” said a Church of England Newspaper headline—incidentally a devastating commentary on modern-day Anglicanism. It referred to a statement by the Archbishop of York and several colleagues that stressed with refreshing clarity, “Jesus Christ is the moral example and standard for all men at all times.”
It was reported that the Archbishop of Canterbury had no comment to make on the report. I would like to think that he is busily preparing for the BCC meeting the biblical answer with which this heretical document ought to be met. On this point I am sadly skeptical: it is as unlikely as the announcement currently outside a London cinema not normally given to prophecy: “The Ten Commandments. Last two weeks.” We’ll see!
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