As a Vicar I know it’s Time the Church Stopped telling People to be Abstinent

by the Revd Canon Simon Butler, Prolocutor for the Province of Canterbury

Simon Butler

(This article was first published in The Metro on January 26th 2020, and is reproduced with Canon Butler’s permission)

Last week, bishops of the Church of England, issued a statement on the new opposite-sex civil partnerships.

All they could say, when it boiled down to it, was: ‘no sex before or outside marriage.’ They added that those in same or opposite sex civil partnerships should live their lives as ‘sexually abstinent friends’ and those in same sex marriages should not be having sex.

The bishops of the Church are, in my experience, thoughtful, wise and compassionate women and men. But many of us are embarrassed and angered by the tone of what we read. The response of many clergy in the Church was to, metaphorically, shout at the telly.

I think it’s wrong and naive to ask for and to expect abstinence from couples.

It’s wrong because there is no evidence that sex in other forms of committed relationship are harmful: the texts of the Bible assume a very different meaning to sex than it currently possesses. It’s naive because, as the Catholic Church discovered over contraception, what’s the point of teaching something that most of the faithful ignore?

Wake-up call bishops: people no longer listen to you for teaching on sexual ethics.

Since I became a vicar in 1997, I have married over 200 couples. Of these, I can recall just one who had decided to refrain from sex before marriage. And that is because marriage is about much more than sex.

I like to ask a provocative question of wedding couples when I prepare them: ‘Why on earth do you want to get married? You’re committed, in love, have lived together for some time. Why get married?’ Once they’ve got over the shock, most of them talk not about sex, which is already part of their reality, but about children. They want to provide the strongest relationship in which to raise children. They see marriage as the best place to do that.

I then invite them to think about other reasons for moving into marriage, among which is the fact that, to quote a theologian, ‘it is not love that sustains your marriage, but marriage that sustains your love.’

Even in our age when we often rightly suspect institutions, the institution of marriage can offer a place to hold people together when the first love of marriage begins to change.

But not everyone chooses marriage. Many couples see the disasters of their parents’ marriage and resolve not to make the same mistake. Others have been hurt by a previous marriage and don’t want to go there again. My church has such people within it and, like most Church of England churches, we welcome those people the same as everyone else, because we follow Jesus who welcomes us as we are.

It’s why this statement by the bishops of the Church of England felt so alien to me.

My priority as a priest is to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ. What on earth would a couple – be that same or opposite-sex – hear of the love of God if they approach us about blessing a relationship and we based our response on whether they are sexually active?

So we need a different sexual ethic, for all couples, rather than encouraging abstinence for the vast majority. There’s so much more that Christianity can offer to contemporary challenges around sex and relationships.

It’s not as if sexual liberation has been a nirvana; it has just brought a new set of issues and challenges.

But we won’t be heard if we continue simply to say only married, heterosexual sex is good, and we ignore countless lived experiences. Even the Archbishop of Canterbury has affirmed the ‘stunning’ nature of some same-sex relationships.

There’s a Bible story about Jesus healing a man who is deaf and mute. Whatever you think that, the reaction recorded is of amazement: ‘He even makes the deaf hear and the mute speak!’ The story of Jesus healing a man who couldn’t hear and so couldn’t speak is a parable for this sort of tone-deaf communication. I pray that the Jesus who heals us of our inability to hear and speak might work among our bishops.


This entry was posted in Human Sexuality, Living in Love & Faith, Simon Butler. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to As a Vicar I know it’s Time the Church Stopped telling People to be Abstinent

  1. Michael Fuller says:

    A careful and thoughtful article. It does not, however, excuse the fact that the bishops allowed themselves to be identified with this as an edict issued by the house of bishops. The worrying thing is who is actually making such statements is it the H0B or is it some bureaucracy behind them? Do they blindly attest to something they don’t believe in for political correctness.

    It has to be said that what they’ve said has been the churches stance since time immemorial. The problem is that time immemorial has moved on and there is a new understanding of human relationships and sexuality which seems to have no cognisance with our bishops.


  2. williambuggins says:

    As an evangelical Christian I would say that God meets us where we are and if we are willing takes us on from that place to a new place. To the individual who hears and responds to the Gospel message of repentance and redemption, they will already be aware that they are in a bad place. Their will be broken and failed relationships, adultery, fornication,as well as drugs and alcohol. There may be serious depression, emptiness, hopelessness.
    But God the Holy Spirit has somehow communicated hope to a broken heart, and perhaps regardless of the name of the sin, is pointing out the results in our lives. So once the individual realises that God is offering not only forgiveness but healing and eternal life with Him, the next step will be to ask Him into our lives.
    This is the heart of the Christian message. Marriage is but another facet of this relationship with God. There is the kingdom of light and the kingdom of darkness. There is the world, and there is the Church. In the Church aka the Body of Christ, we are called to be different. We are to seek to become Christ-like; to fight against our old carnal nature in the power of the Holy Spirit. And yes, we fail, we give in and we persevere. We don’t expect the world to have any such qualms about sexual expression, but within the Body of Christ we do. So for example as a young non Christian I enjoyed sex, but after I became a Christian I didn’t have sex with my future wife ’til after marriage. I have never committed adultery. But I have failed in other areas of my life!
    The point is that a Christian continues to grow in their relationship with God through the power of the Holy Spirit, and continues to fight against the desires of the flesh..
    I think where the Church goes wrong is in treating society as parishioners, and expecting them to live like Christians.


    • This response seems to indicate an unquestioning acceptance of sex as sinful, unless sanctified by marriage, and this focus is unhelpful. The nature of the Church of England is, surely, that everyone is a parishioner. The sadness is that so many feel that what the church offers has very little relevance to them.


      • williambuggins says:

        What we do and what we are before we come under the conviction of our sinful state, is in a sense irrelevant. What we are and what we have done only confirms our sinful state before God. I know men who came out as gay left their wife and children and joined the ‘gay scene’. Are they happy or happier? No.
        I know men who are caught up in pornography or drugs or drink. Are they happier? No. They are trapped, slaves to whatever vice or habit has taken control of their lives.
        Only God offers us both forgiveness and restoration in Jesus Christ.


    • This response doesn’t, for me, address the irrelevance, for most people, of the Church of England’s basic teaching that sex is wrong (sinful) unless sanctified by marriage. That is not a biblically-founded tenet, but a construct.
      Nor is it an exclusively Evangelical position to think that bringing God into the conversation wherever people are is a good thing.
      The nature of the Church of England, as established, is that everyone is a potential parishioner, so if the guidance we offer cannot speak to their concerns, they will surely seek celebrants for their significant life events elsewhere.


      • williambuggins says:

        The basic teaching of the Church of England is irrelevant – or more accurately without authority, because the Church of England does not live and act in accordance with what they say they believe..
        Sex outside of marriage is condemned as sinful. Of course sinful people engage in it, but that does not mean that God approves! Following Jesus Christ is a costly business. It means that friends and family will be disappointed or annoyed by your proclamation of faith. You may lose friends, your standing in polite society may plummet, but Jesus made it clear that to follow Him will cost you..


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