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Thursday, 3 October, 2002, 12:30 GMT 13:30 UK
The no-sex 'myth'
Is sex before marriage a definite no-no for the church? It may not be as clearcut as that - but then the history of marriage isn't quite what you might think.

The man who will become the 104th Archbishop of Canterbury in February is not scared of challenging tradition.

But in declining an opportunity to sign a statement opposing sex outside marriage, Dr Rowan Williams has hit one of the church's sensitive spots.

Rowan and Jane Williams
Dr Williams and his wife Jane
The church's position - that people should not have sex before or outside marriage - is seen by many as non-negotiable, a central tenet which has always been at the heart of Christian doctrine.

But, says Adrian Thatcher, professor of applied theology at the University of Exeter, things are not as they seem.

"Christendom is in a state of collective amnesia about how it used to deal with marriage," he says. Until the Reformation, marriage began at the time of betrothal, when couples would live and sleep together.

This was called "the spousals"; it was legally binding. The nuptials - ie the public wedding ceremony - would happen later. Into the mid-1700s it was quite normal and acceptable for brides to be pregnant at the altar.

Parish church

The situation did not change until the Hardwicke Marriage Act of 1753, which for the first time stipulated that everyone in England and Wales had to be married in their parish church. Even Catholics were required to be married by the Church of England, although Jews and Quakers were given exemption.

An absolute declaration that every sexual partnership must conform to the pattern of commitment or else have the nature of sin and nothing else is unreal and silly

Rowan Williams, The Body's Grace, 1989
It was at this time that the spousals and the nuptials were brought together into a single ceremony, and by the 1800s polite society placed a premium on brides being virgins. "This act swept away the idea that betrothal was the entry into marriage," Prof Thatcher says.

A remnant of this history can be seen in the church's phrase "the solemnisation of matrimony", he adds, as it implies that there is something pre-existing to be solemnised.

The process begun at the time of the Hardwicke Act continued throughout the 1800s, with stigma beginning to attach to illegitimacy and, according to historian Asa Briggs, its culmination in Victorian ideals that women should be "chaste before marriage and 'modest' after".


The impact was widespread. The number of first pregnancies conceived outside marriage fell from 40% to 20% in the Victorian era, Briggs says in A Social History of England.

A century later, at the start of the 21st Century, the figure is now back up to 40%.

Pregnant woman
Now 40% of first children are born out of marriage
It is now also the norm, the Office of National Statistics says, for couples to live together before they are married. On average, they don't get married until they are 30 (for men) and 28 (for women).

A period when people live together, perhaps having children, culminating in a wedding ceremony - Mr Thatcher sees "remarkable parallels" with the pre- Reformation practice.

You could also argue, he says, that personal morality is stronger now than it was in the Victorian era, since wives were widely regarded as being a husband's property; adultery with a married woman became a property crime. At least nowadays woman are treated as people rather than chattels, he says.

Bible teaching

However it seems forces within the church could be squaring up for a tussle over the position on marriage. It was Reform, a conservative evangelical group within the CofE, which wrote to Dr Williams to ask him to affirm the "traditional" on sex, and thus inspired headlines.

While the woman was apparently venerated within the mid-Victorian home, the pedestal on which she was placed was a false one

Asa Briggs, A Social History of England
But Dr Williams' liberal views on the issue of sex are well documented, and he declined an opportunity to restate them, saying his task now was to try to discern the will of God, paying concern to the unity of the church.

He set out his position in an essay in 1989, in which he said that if the church accepted the role of contraception, it could not maintain that sex was for procreation.

Having accepted that, he said, to condemn same-sex relations requires reliance on "a few very ambiguous biblical texts" or a non-scriptural theory about nature.

An illustration of the problems ahead in the debate comes if one considers the kinds of Bible passages often cited in forbidding sex before marriage - verses such as St Paul's in 1 Corinthians chapter 6: "Now the body is not for fornication, but for the Lord".

The dispute will come when one tries to define fornication. With no conclusive definition of what it constitutes, opposing parties may find no option but to grab their dictionary of choice, and take a few deep breaths. The debate has been going on for centuries...

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