Trying to talk pastoral sense about ‘sex before marriage’

The new pastoral guidance to accompany ‘Prayers for Love and Faith’ (1) is in preparation in the Church of England. There is a great deal of concern in some quarters over whether the Church of England is now going to declare that sex before/outside marriage is no longer ‘wrong’ (marriage here being between a man and a woman). ‘Living in sin’ in the old name for it. For some it is a red line issue – a further sign the Church of England has departed from scripture and the faith once received.

The present focus is on sex in same-sex relationships of course, but the discussion needs setting in a much broader context. We have been so particularly preoccupied with the sexual behaviour of LGBT folk that we have yet to engage at all with a society where, over the last forty years or more, there has been a wholesale change in approaches to relationships and the ways they are expressed.

This change is not just outside the church. A UK survey in 2018 found that 82% Church of England or Roman Catholics, and 66% ‘other’ Christians consider pre-marital sex ‘not wrong at all’ (2).  

But it has been surprisingly difficult to find places where the discussion we need is happening, rather than simply re-asserting a clearly minority Christian view of the traditional teaching as given and biblical – that all sex outside marriage is wrong.   

Theologian and historian, Miranda Threlfall-Holmes, wrote a perceptive blog on this ahead of a General Synod debate in 2017 on a Bishop’s report on marriage and same-sex relationships (3). Synod famously refused to ‘take note’ of it, leading directly to the creation of the Living and Love and Faith project (4) and the search for  what the Archbishop called ‘a radical new Christian inclusion in the Church, with a basis founded in scripture, in tradition, in reason, in theology, in good, healthy, flourishing relationships, in a proper 21st-century understanding of being human and of being sexual.’

Miranda Threlfall-Holmes offers this ten-point critique.  

  1. Stop talking about sex outside marriage being inherently sinful. Celebrate it as the gift it is, as something that can lead to a deepening of relationship and may in time lead to marriage/committed relationship. Recognise that virtually every heterosexual couple we marry has been living together for years. They do not see this as sinful. If you talk about it as such, they will stop listening and assume that the rest of what you have to say is irrelevant too.

    2. Understand that these couples – i.e., virtually everyone that gets married – see their marriage as the ‘crown upon the head’ of their relationship. It is because of the quality of their relationship that they want to marry, not the other way around. Marriage isn’t primarily creating something new; it is celebrating what already exists.

    3. Admit that most of our morality surrounding marriage is historically to do with controlling conception, the possession of women, and inheritance of property. Take seriously the difference that first the legal changes to the status of women (from the nineteenth century), and more recently the widespread availability of safe contraception (coupled with the decrease in infant and maternal mortality) have had.

    4. Recognise that perceptions, images and understandings of marriage are historically, geographically and socially context-bound and changeable. Take academic advice on this and learn from it.

    5. Stop talking about ‘biblical marriage’ and be honest about the mess that so many of the Biblical characters make of their marriages, the many different forms of relationship that that title is used for, and the variety of sexual moralities that the Bible reflects from its several thousand-year history.

    6. Then you can start talking about when sex IS sinful. At the moment, the mantra of ‘sex is bad unless in a heterosexual marriage’ is stopping us saying or being heard to say anything constructive about the full spectrum of sexual abuse, addiction, degrees of and uses of porn, marital rape/coercion, what happens when sex dies off but one of you still wants it, viagra, etc, etc, etc.

    7. Be very, very careful about what you say about gender. There has been a worrying tendency in recent years for statements about equal marriage or same sex relationships to parrot the line ‘one man and one woman’, and go on to emphasise that this is about complementarity or some such post-hoc justification, without (at least, I hope it wasn’t deliberate) thinking about what statements about men and women and gender relations are being accidentally made in the heat of trying to fend off the same sex ‘issue’. The two are linked – and they are linked because of this.

    8.Take love seriously. 1 Corinthians 13 describes it as being even greater than faith – an amazing claim. Let’s discuss this more. Frame discussion of human relationships in terms of them being mirrors in which we see something of God’s love for us reflected.

    9. Take forgiveness seriously. Christ died for us while we were still sinners – stop colluding with a ‘conservative’ view that we need to be perfect to be acceptable.

    10. And finally, for goodness sake, start taking the Bible more seriously – or using it more intelligently. Some of the discussion of the Bible I hear at Synod appals me in its literalism and ineptness of exegesis. Talk of marriage as a ‘creation ordinance’ ‘because it says so in Genesis’ is no more valid than seven-day Creationism. The Bible is an extraordinary collection of sacred writings, and we need to take seriously the variety of genre, historical period, context and aim of each piece in aiming to understand its meaning for us. (5)

So where might this discussion start among those in the church who are more identified by an insistence on traditional teachings on this issue? What might ‘a proper 21st-century understanding of being human and of being sexual, founded in scripture, in tradition, in reason, in theology, in good, healthy, flourishing relationships’, actually look like?

The following questions and issues are only starters …

  • What do we actually mean by ‘sex before marriage’? Is it actually true the bible forbids ‘it’? If so, where exactly, and can we say why? Well, it should firstly firstly be noted that marriage referred to here is exclusively between heterosexual couples. Then we must revisit what we actually mean by that phrase in the first place. Biblically, this requires re-examining key words like porneia, fornication, marriage and much else. There is already so much in the debates about sexuality that warn us we have not always been read carefully and ‘biblically’. Might we have new things to learn here too?
  • We must engage with the best of what is out there, not speak in dismissive judgment as if the only relating going on outside what we believe is right is unprincipled, promiscuous and sex obsessed – or that what goes on within marriage is de facto wonderful. There is careful, thoughtful loving integrity out there – and it needs our faithful support and partnership.
  • We need a new pastoral ethic with which to engage lovingly and wisely and respectfully with folk trying to work out their relationships in highly challenging and often unsupportive times. In what ways might traditional teaching and assumptions about human relationships and intimacy need to change in today’s social context? What remains core to understandings of Christian love and commitment and how might this wisdom be best commended?  The focus is heard as keeping rules. The context calls for pastoral guidance and spiritual direction.
  • If we believe that Christian understandings and expressions of human love, intimacy, commitment and community offers ‘a better way’ to our world we need to be able to say why and how it is expressed. We must do so clearly, courteously and hospitably. Offering a gift rather than standing a judging demand.

We have good news. And we want people to know it is true.

David Runcorn

  2. Living in Love and Faith CHP 2020. Chapter 5. pp80-81.
  5. Used with permission (slightly edited) See also her excellent recent Synod speech on this topic.