Pre and Postmarital sex – an Anglican perspective

I have several friends and clients who because of my Anglican seminary training ask me about the religious or church“rules” concerning sex. Specifically what are the religious “rules” as regards to unmarried sex as a widow or divorced person who is north of fifty. The marriage vows say, “till death do us part”… well for many, it has!

In the Anglican tradition this is a bit of a moving target. Prior to the Marriage Act 1753, British couples could live together and have sex after their betrothal or “the spousals”. Until the mid-1700s, it was normal and acceptable for the bride to be pregnant at the nuptials, the later church public ceremony for the marriage. Indeed, in the 1170s in Wales “it was common practice for ordinary couples to co-habit before marriage and for cousins to marry one another” despite the disapproval of clerics sent to Britain by the Paris-based “Reform Church” movement, a Catholic faction that attempted to refocus society’s moral compass with a particular emphasis on sex and marriage

With the Act in force after 1753, for the first time in British history, all marriages in England and Wales had to take place in their parish church. (The law also applied to Catholics, but Jews and Quakers were exempt.) I would point out that this was an act of Parliament and bore only a figleaf of theological thought.

The Act combined the spousals and nuptials and, by the start of the 19th century, social convention prescribed that brides be virgins at marriage. Illegitimacy became more socially discouraged, with first pregnancies outside of marriage declining from 40% to 20% during the Victorian era but returning to 40% by the start of the 21st century.

(As an aside, the occurrence of virgin births in the United States sits at about 1 in 100. With the rise of the Evangelical Religious Right in the USA (the so called “Moral Majority”) and the rise in abstinence only education in the States it is becoming a common practice for teens to remain virgins by enjoying anal intercourse!)

The last Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, in keeping with modern church understandings of sexuality was tolerant of premarital sex (or postmarital sex) but strongly endorsed marriage as “a necessary commitment for a long-term relations and made clear he does not believe the Church should have sanctions against those who have sex outside marriage.

By contrast, in 2013 the new Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby stated that “My understanding of sexual ethics has been that, regardless of whether it’s gay or straight, sex outside marriage is wrong.” He reiterated this belief again later in 2013, further noting that “To abandon the ideal simply because it’s difficult to achieve is ridiculous.” After Welby made his first statement, a Sunday Times poll found that “A majority of adults (69%, including 76% of those professing no faith) believe Justin Welby to be wrong in condemning sex outside marriage, while 17% think he is right (including 30% of Anglicans), and 13% are unsure.” Needless to say, I disagree with Archbishop Welby.

So what does Jesus say? Matthew 5:27-28 condemns feelings of lust experienced by a man towards a woman. In the King James version, Jesus is recorded as saying:

“Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery: But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.”

I would note that every reference to adultery in the entire Bible concerns sexual intercourse between a married or betrothed woman and a man other than the one to whom she is married or betrothed.”

If adultery is limited by definition to activity between a man and another man’s wife or near wife, then “adultery in ones heart” could also be assumed to refer only to lust directed at another man’s wife or betrothed woman. This passage is actually describing a man coveting one of his neighbor’s possessions — a wife. He is violating the Tenth commandment of Exodus 20:17:

“Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour’s.” 

Let me point out, the Greek word translated as “lust” here, epithumeo does not merely mean ‘to have a desire.’ It is a word which actually indicated a strong, even consuming, desire, most often for something which, for whatever reason, is not lawful for one to possess. This is the way in which the word is used at many points in the New Testament … it seems quite obvious that Jesus is describing, per the connotation of the word being used, looking upon a woman with an intense desire. Not a mere glance, not a general sort of attraction that may be normal to any heterosexual man, but an intense desire, with an idea towards POSSESSING the desired object.

What Jesus is talking about here is looking upon a woman in such a way as to desire to take her for yourself, even if it is not lawful for you to have her, in this specific example because she is another man’s wife. Clearly Jesus is attaching the particular “sin” connotation to epithumeo, and applying it to the sort of ogling that a man might do which would lead him to then think about and develop a strong desire for the woman who it would be unlawful for him to pursue.

From all this, it is apparent that Jesus exposition in Matthew 5:28 is not talking about normal male heterosexuality. It is not talking about never being attracted to a woman who you might like to marry one day. It is talking about abstaining from a strong and persistent desire to possess or take, even in the temporariness of adultery, a woman who is not your wife, and who in fact is probably the wife of another man.

I really think looking at John 8 might help here.

“while Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him and he sat down and began to teach them. The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery; and making her stand before all of them, they said to him, ‘Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?’ They said this to test him, so that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, ‘Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.’ And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground. When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders; and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus straightened up and said to her, ‘Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?’ She said, ‘No one, sir.’ And Jesus said, ‘Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.’

Jesus said, “neither do I condemn you.” That is what I would hold on to…

Jesus has come primarily to change lives, to write his words on the hearts of his followers.  Following in those footsteps, the apostle Paul would later say to the Corinthians, “You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, known and read by everybody.”

I understand that you might be afraid that others might judge you. I would point out what Our Lord and Saviour (OL&S) would say “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”

Love, as it was understood by Jesus and his contemporaries, is threefold: Eros (sexual love), Agape (the covenant love of God for humans, as well as the human reciprocal love for God; the term necessarily extends to the love of one’s fellow man), and Philia (brotherly love). This threefold love is what I pray that anyone in an intimate relationship is experiencing with your partner.

Catholic Philosophers Daniel Dombrowski and Robert Deltete of the Jesuit Seattle University write: “A rich spiritual life is not necessarily hindered by, and may actually be enhanced by, premarital (or post marital) sexual relations,” if those relationships “exhibit mutual consent and mutual agape-ic respect.” They add “to loosen the connection between moral sexual relations and marriage does not imply abandonment of a sacramental view of marriage wherein the best sex is that which enriches a lifelong agape-ic commitment between two individuals.” That is the “best” but not the only good way of expressing love sexually!

Unsurprisingly, the physical actions of sex aptly symbolize what sex tends to do psychologically. There is not just physical nakedness; there is emotional nakedness. We trust our partner with full exposure of our passions and needs. We shed our emotional clothes and societal masks and present ourselves as we are. Sex is a huge act of trust, a hopeful abandonment of our normal defenses. It takes many delightful forms and may involve various kinds of penetration and envelopment; this symbolizes the emotional interweaving that occurs in sexually charged friendship. The lover may remain only an experience, but she or he tends to become a way of life. Sex bonds, and bonds powerfully.

Our human sexuality is a gift from God. And I don’t believe in a God who would give is such a tool for pleasure and intimacy and connection an then forbid it to us. That is a God who is setting his creatures up for failure…A cruel teasing God. Not the God that is and of Love. As are we… made by Love for Love.

I would like to think that OL&S speaking today about sex might paraphrase the words of a character in a book I read recently:

“Please Consider Yourself, Now And Henceforth, And No Matter What Anyone Else Ever Asks Of You, Free To Do Any Damned Thing You Want That Doesn’t Hurt Someone Else Unnecessarily”