Review of Timothy Jones, Sexual Politics in the Church of England 1857-1957

Contemporary Church History Quarterly

Volume 21, Number 2 (June 2015)

Review of Timothy Jones, Sexual Politics in the Church of England 1857-1957 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), Pp 218. ISBN 978-0-19-965510-6.

By John S. Conway, University of British Columbia

In the 1960s the Church of England suffered a striking decline in the number of supporters in many parishes across the country. Some commentators attributed this to the prevalence of science-backed secularism. Others held it was the result of the church’s uncritical support of militaristic nationalism in two world wars. But in 2000 Callum Brown advanced the controversial thesis that this decline was due to the impact of the feminist sexual revolution of those years which exploded traditional sexual morality and led to the radical challenge to the established patterns of behaviour in the church’s constituency. In particular, Brown claimed that it was women’s rejection of Victorian narratives of femininity and subordination which brought about a wholly new set of allegiances amongst church members and introduced new challenges from various women’s movements, especially those urging the right of women to be ordained to the priesthood, and even to the episcopate.

Jones-SexualTimothy Jones follows this lead by undertaking a study of the major changes in gender politics in the Church of England from the mid-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century. He focusses on six episodes during this period which, he claims, demonstrated the often reluctant posture of the church leaders when challenged to take a stand on matters affecting gender or sexual politics. Over the course of this hundred year span, English society evolved rapidly and adopted a much more liberal stance, which was often reflected in parliamentary debates, and found its way into progressive legislation. The result was a frequent clash of interest with the more conservative and traditional sectors of opinion, including those of the Church of England. Jones begins his survey with the debates about marriage in the mid-1850s and concludes with the heated controversies about consensual homosexuality in the 1950s. Rather than indulging in detailing the reactionary attitudes of some Church of England leaders, Jones skillfully weaves into his account the variety of positions taken over the years, and displays a commendable sympathy for most of the participants in this on-going search for new understandings amongst church members about gender and sexual politics.

From the middle of the nineteenth century, the long established pattern of Anglican marriage and gender politics was disrupted by a series of secular legislative reforms, such as women’s suffrage, the official acceptance of birth control, the call for women’s equality in employment (including positions within the ordained ministry), and the pressure for more relaxed acceptance of homosexuality in later years. None of these movements originated from within the Church, but public opinion, including that of church members, was so strongly affected that the Church was obliged to recast its regulations or guidance principles in order to accommodate the changed climate. The most significant change was brought about by the suffrage movement at the turn of the century, which resulted in women being granted the vote, first in 1918 and more fully in 1928. In Jones’ view, this step radicalized Anglican discussions about gender. It brought the politics of equality into the heart of the Church’s discussions, and profoundly unsettled the balance of forces in the various parts of the community. It is not difficult to see the connection between this step and the decision of the Lambeth Conference in 1930 to amend the marriage service to stress equality between men and women, as also to accept the findings of modern medicine and to remove the previous prohibition against contraception. The arguments of the conservative opponents of such steps were usually based on either the Bible or tradition. But by the 1920s already the biblical injunctions of the New Testament were seen to be completely compatible with gender equality, while the arguments from tradition were increasingly regarded as outmoded. Women’s political emancipation was most prominent in a series of legislative changes which marked a significant cultural shift from a hierarchic to an egalitarian understanding of the sexes. Anglo-Catholics, in particular, had difficulties with such egalitarianism, since in their view, the position of a priest represented the authority of a male God and a male Christ. Both social and metaphysical order would be upset if the previous patriarchal system were overthrown.

On the other hand, Anglo-Catholics applauded the efforts of women to establish their own sisterhoods and nunneries since these reinforced the ideals of spiritualized femininity and service. Certainly the spread of such communities in the later nineteenth century provided middle-class women with much more effective and fulfilling opportunities than the life of an unmarried spinster. But the twentieth century’s opening of many more professions to women inevitably led to alternative and possibly more attractive occupations. The devotion and piety of these sisters was much praised, but did not encourage those women who might have hoped that this would lead to future ordination to the priesthood.

The campaign for the ordination of women engrossed the Church of England throughout the twentieth century, and has only now come to a completion after many adherents have abandoned their loyalty to the Church of their birth. It brought the Anglican Church to the limits of its capacity to imagine sexual equality. When it was first proposed at the 1920 Lambeth Conference, it was greeted with shock and almost universal incomprehension. In the 1920s and 1930s a series of reports struggled to find an ideological basis for such opposition, but fell back on the traditional defence that the Church was not ready for such a revolutionary move. The question was forcefully raised by the movement’s advocates as to why the priesthood merited the maintenance of the sex-bar in contrast to other professions. They never received a satisfactory answer. In 1935 the Archbishops’ Commission could still say “We believe the general mind of the Church is still in accord with the continuous tradition of a male priesthood … based on the will of God”. Such sexual double standards were naturally rejected by the supporters of women’s ordination, who argued persuasively that gender and sex were not theologically relevant to ordination. But nevertheless in this period the leading minds of the Church were unable to frame a persuasive and broadly acceptable theological argument for any change. Such a view asserted that there was a natural divinely ordained gender order which involved women’s subordination to men, though not implying women’s inferiority. Women priests were hence seen to invert a hierarchy of spiritual and domestic authority which stretched all the way to the Godhead. The male priest as symbol of religious authority had many centuries of unbroken tradition behind it, not only in the Christian version. Such considerations were only overcome after the 1960s when the impact of the so-called secular sexual revolution led to a much more open and generous realization of the contributions that women priests could offer.

Jones’ final chapter deals with the question of the Church’s attitudes towards celibacy and homosexuality. Remarkably enough, it was the Church of England which took a lead in 1952 in promoting homosexual law reform, and urging the decriminalization of homosexual acts. He argues that the Church’s negotiation of new understandings of sexual identity led to a striking level of institutional accommodation and acceptance of homosexuality. The change in the 1930s saw an abandonment of moralistic condemnation and an acceptance of medico-psychological theories about sexual preferences. In 1954 the Church of England Moral Welfare Council produced a report “The Problem of Homosexuality” which was written in almost exclusively medical terms and proved to be highly influential. Homosexuals were no longer to be regarded as perverts but to sublimate their urges into positive social roles. Nevertheless the ambiguity about the morality of homosexuality still remains widespread throughout the Church of England.

The writing of church history has traditionally focused on theological or political matters. Jones’ survey of what might be described as the undercurrent in gender and sexual politics therefore fills a vacant segment in this historiography. As of last year, 2014, with the appointment of the first female bishop, and with now a generation’s experience of women priests serving in numerous parishes across the country, we may hope that it not be long before a historian will be coming forward to comment on the repercussions of this significant change in the otherwise staid history of the Church as it approaches the five hundredth anniversary of its establishment in England.