Anglican Bishops on Marriage and Birth Control

by Michael de la Bedoyere

Descriptive Title

The 1958 Lambeth Conference


Michael de la Bedoyere comments on the 1958 Lambeth Conference, in which the Anglican Church simultaneously condemned divorce and condoned birth control. Even though they only discussed the use of birth control in the context of those families who face extreme poverty, the headlines on British newspapers excitedly proclaimed that the Anglican Church was finally giving the go-ahead for birth control. Bedoyere remarks that this is the "tragedy of Anglicanism," which upholds the ideals of Christian marriage, but lacks the authority and the strength to teach man how to attain these ideals.



Publisher & Date

The Catholic World, 1958

The 1958 Lambeth Conference gives us an excellent opportunity of studying the religious phenomenon of Anglicanism today as a world religion.

Many Catholics will doubtless find the topic to be one of quite minor interest, yet in doing so they would surely be betraying a degree of Christian provincialism and a lack of full apostolic zeal. For today we live in a world increasingly divorced from religious concern, and the mission of Christ's Church is as broad as the world.

We know, of course, that the only true Church is the Church founded by Christ: the Catholic Church in communion with the See of Peter. But we know also that Christ came to save all men. Salvation will not be denied, therefore, to any man save through his own conscious and deliberate rejection of Christ. In the Catholic Church, Christ gave to the world the normal and visible means of salvation through Himself, and as the Church has spread through the centuries, so more and more men have found salvation in Christ through the visible means of grace in His Church. But God's grace and its distribution are not limited by His own revelation. He has His own uncovenanted means of bringing to salvation all whom He knows to be of good faith and ready to live good lives within the limits of their enlightenment and conscience.

God Himself, of course, alone judges of the true value of any human life —the life of the Catholic as much as the life of the non-Catholic—but the spiritual and moral health of the world at large must greatly depend on the number within it who strive to follow Christ's call and commandments, even though many of these, through no fault of their own, are not members of His Church. This is all the more the case in days like these when secularism and materialism are rampant and belief even in God's existence and relevance non-existent or minimal. The many who have drifted into such disbelief may or may not be morally guilty, but their totally false principles must certainly lead to the disasters and unhappinesses so characteristic of this so-called enlightened age.

The Catholic, therefore, who is content to confine his religious interest to the Catholic Church and its members is taking a very narrow view, whether as a religious man or as a citizen of the world. As a very minimum, he should pray for his "separated brethren," and his prayer should be intelligent and concerned—engage, as the French put it. Moreover, in the Church today it is the Pope himself who leads the prayer for Unity, in other words, the prayer that non-Catholic communions and religions be reconciled with the Catholic Church along the path of mutual prayer and that effort of understanding which, short of a miracle, can be the only path toward the realization of Our Lord's own prayer "that they may all be one." Equally, as a citizen of the world, the Catholic has a moral duty to further and foster any spiritual and moral enlightenment, wherever it is to be found, which can help cure the enmities, misunderstandings and false ideals which are causing fear to grip the hearts of the peoples of the world.

This, I fear, is a rather long introduction to the findings of the Anglican Lambeth Conference, but one comes across so much Catholic indifference to the spiritual and moral values of our separated brethren that the points may be worth making again.

The Lambeth Conference was composed of 310 Anglican bishops from 46 countries. It is today far wider in its reach than it used to be. It may be said to represent the second most important religious communion in English-speaking and English-ruling or ex-English-ruling parts of the world. Statistics are not easily available, but if we include the United States and Canada, the Anglicans claim about 40 millions. Incidentally, the Catholics claim to have about 65 millions in these territories.

However this be, world-Anglicanism is religiously important, especially in the anti-Communist parts of the world. From the Catholic point of view it is also of great importance because Anglicanism remains the nearest external approximation to Catholic belief and practice. It holds to the doctrine of Apostolic Succession, believes in truly defined sacraments and shares —or hitherto has shared—Catholic moral teaching. All this, as we know, is very variously shared, some Anglicans, often called Papalists, being hardly distinguishable externally in their faith and practice from Catholics, others grudgingly accepting the minimum of Catholic faith and practice and holding Catholic dogma and moral teaching in a way riddled with modernism and sentimentality.

It is, moreover, a communion without any visible authority within itself. Hence the importance of the Lambeth Conferences which are held once every ten years and in the course of which the variously divided bishops of the Anglican communion strive to find a morally authoritative agreement for presentation to the Anglican faithful.

The joint episcopal letter, called an Encyclical and the Resolutions of the Conference embody the agreement of the bishops, but have no canonical force. Such force would only be recognized in the different Anglican churches in so far as the churches themselves accept them in Convocations or General Synods. Nonetheless, it is clear that the agreed findings of over three hundred bishops must be taken to represent the Anglican mind today.

Happily, there is much in the findings of the Conference, which can rejoice the Catholic in that it is evidence of the defense of Christian ideals and Christian conduct sorely needed by the world generally today.

Catholics will whole-heartedly welcome the strong stand taken over racial and color differences. "Every man, of whatever color or race, possesses a natural dignity and value as created in the image of God, and should be given the right to exercise responsible freedom in all aspects of human life," the bishops declare. "To that principle all Christians are committed, and for its recognition they are called to work, by supporting their brothers in prayer, by sharing the task of reconciling those involved in conflict, and by patient understanding."

One welcomes, too, as harmonizing with the Pope's teaching that "nothing less than the abolition of war should be the goal of the nations." The bishops were divided (as Catholics also are divided) over nuclear weapons, some holding that "so long as such weapons exist there are circumstances in which to use them might be preferable to political enslavement" and others holding that "in any circumstances" they are "morally indefensible."

Though the Anglican view on the inerrancy of the Bible is much looser than the Catholic, the appeal of the bishops for a return to the Bible and the recognition of its close relation to the liturgy and the sacraments is in harmony with Catholic teaching and endeavor especially on the European continent.

One appreciates in particular the ideal of Christian family life as proposed. The Christian family seeks to live by the teaching and example of Jesus Christ; joins in the worship of Almighty God on Sundays in church; joins in common prayer and Bible reading, and grace at meals; is forgiving to one another; and accepts responsibility for one another; shares together in common tasks and recreation; uses abilities, time, and possessions responsibly in society; is a good neighbor, hospitable to friend and stranger."

The Conference furthermore takes its stand against divorce. The Anglican communion in Britain has in recent years tended to grow firmer and firmer in this matter, refusing to marry in church, for example, innocent parties in divorce suits. This is a matter on which Dr. Fisher has given a strong lead, but one is a little surprised that he has been able to carry the international Conference with him in it. It is all the more surprising in that the Conference now gives a somewhat veiled, but undeniable, blessing to artificial birth control.

It would seem from the somewhat cryptic phraseologies used to deal with this awkward subject that the final decision fell this way because of the population problems in underdeveloped countries of the East and in colonial and ex-colonial territories. In many of these parts Anglican missionary work is strong. Such places are described as places where "today population is increasing so fast that the survival of the young and old is threatened." In regard to them, the bishops say: "Abortion and infanticide are to be condemned but methods of control, medically endorsed and morally acceptable, may help the people of these lands so to plan family life that children may be born without a likelihood of starvation."

It should be noted that even this phraseology seems quite consistent with Catholic teaching about the legitimate use of the safe period, yet the context and the failure of the bishops to refer to the safe period make it perfectly clear that the bishops are endorsing contraceptive methods of control absolutely condemned by Catholic moral teaching. Consistency made it inevitable that if contraceptive methods were to be licit in underdeveloped, overpopulated countries, they could not be absolutely condemned elsewhere. Therefore, we get the view that "the responsibility for deciding on the number and frequency of children has been laid by God on the consciences of parents everywhere: that this planning, in such ways as are mutually acceptable to husband and wife in Christian conscience, is a right and important factor in Christian family life and should be the result of positive choice before God." Once again the phraseology could be read as consistent with Catholic teaching; but once again its interpretation must be that planning by contraceptive methods is now permissible. Indeed, all the bishops' caution in phraseology did not prevent the British press from headlining the fact that the Anglican Church has now shown the "green light" for birth control.

All this is in contrast with the insistence that the procreation of children is a primary end of marriage, which is "a relationship of love" between husband and wife "with its sacramental expression in physical union."

In this dexterous, but perhaps not wholly edifying, attempt to have it both ways and to avoid dotting i's and crossing t's, we see the inevitable results of the lack of authority in the Anglican churches. One may charitably suppose that the careful phraseology, in which permission for artificial methods of birth control is never explicitly given, yet throughout implied, reflects the feelings of many of the bishops that there is something wrong and un-Christian about it all. Yet the pressure of economic argument in some parts of the world and pressure for an easier Christian life at home have forced an acceptance of techniques, which break with Christian moral tradition.

What is the immediate effect on public opinion generally? Not only does the press read it all as Anglican permission for contraception as legitimate among Christians, but also castigates the bishops for standing firm by indissoluble Matrimony. Not without point it argues that the reasons for contraception, namely a happy, united and economically tolerable home, are equally good reasons for the morality of divorce. If husband and wife cannot get along together harmoniously, how can you expect happy children and a united and economically tolerable home? If an artificially planned family is one condition for domestic happiness nowadays, so is the right to divorce where parents do not love one another and are incompatibly wed.

Anglicans will, no doubt, answer that Catholics often get out of the difficulty by using contraceptive methods in defiance of the Church's teaching, and then one day reconciling themselves to God by confession. This is doubtless deplorable, but one has to compare the consequences of two evils both of which spring from human weakness.

The Catholic Church rigidly maintains in the face of a morally disintegrating world the true principles of morality, which alone can save the world. It can point, moreover, to the courage and fidelity of the very many who live by the law of Christ or of those who, if they break it through frailty, know full well what they are doing. The Anglicans, possessing no definite authority, accept with an uneasy conscience, betrayed in the very phrases they use, a portion of the world's secularist code and inevitably open the way for more. Worse still, they give a Christian authority to the secularist world to behave in such a way that the excellent Anglican ideals of Christian family and marriage will be more and more rarely fulfilled in the world. If the Anglican bishops are only taken seriously by the world when they are undermining Christian moral teaching, is it likely that the many fine ideals expressed in the 1958 findings of the Lambeth Conference will make any great impact on that world?

There is the tragedy of Anglicanism. It sincerely desires to maintain high Christian and even Catholic ideals in the modern world, but lacking authority it has not the strength to help to man the Christian dikes at the critical points where the pressure of the secularist waters is strongest.

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