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The Church's 'Sexual Revolution' - Issue #11

Was the sexual revolution denounced by Christians, or invented? It’s been a long time since I’ve read
The Path Before Us
The Church's 'Sexual Revolution' - Issue #11
By Matthew Lee Anderson • Issue #11 • View online
Was the sexual revolution denounced by Christians, or invented? It’s been a long time since I’ve read a more interesting or enjoyable bit of history than Sam Brewitt-Taylor’s “Christianity and the Invention of the Sexual Revolution in Britain, 1963-1967.”
BT, as I shall call him, proposes that we have our understanding of the sexual revolution’s emergence in the UK backward. In 1963, major declarations appeared suggesting that Britain was in the midst of a “swift, widespread, inexorable, post-religious, and anti-authoritarian ‘revolution’ in sexual mores”. Those narratives spread, such that by 1967 it had become the conventional wisdom. The problem? Nothing had changed, at least not yet: “These narratives invented,” BT tells us, “a revolution that had not yet happened.” In 1968, Gallup learned that 49 percent of couples still disapproved of contraception, to the 37 percent that approved (paraphrased). On BT’s understanding, Britian’s sexual revolution wasn’t an “inevitable social development,” but an “enacted narrative.” Elites transformed widespread perceptions of trends in behavior, and the rest—as they say—became history. The narrative of “Britain’s unstoppable ‘sexual revolution’ was invented, authorized, and made self-fulfilling.”
How fast did things change? BT notes that in June of 1964, the Family Planning Association was denied funding by the government because it used contraception—and they themselves eliminated a resolution to provide the pill to unmarried couples. Three years later, the Family Planning Act was passed. It “permitted local authorities to supply the pill regardless of marital status.” One MP spoke against it, and “was promptly ridiculed”. There’s other evidence the transition was swift, too: miniskirts were “unknown until August 1965,” and modern pornography “did not appear until late 1964.” In 1966, novelist Gillian Tindall attacked advice column for “not having changed substantially since the mid-1950s.” Professional sociologists also thought the narrative of social upheaval had no basis. Penthouse had an inaugural symposium in 1965 on the sexual revolution’s existence—which itself if probably evidence that it had happened—but its contributors couldn’t reach a consensus. By 1965, though, the narrative was set, as the tabloids began selling what the narrative of inevitable sexual liberation. . 
Such a narrative is not so quickly adopted, though, unless relatively influential ‘elites’ get on board with it. In 1960, that meant the Church of England. The substance of BT’s argument explores the ways in which prominent clerics made themselves moderately famous by peddling their renegade, sexual liberationist message and imploring everyone to change church teaching. Chief among the renegades was John A.T. Robinson—a theologian whose book on Paul’s understanding of the physical body ruined a generation of biblical scholarship on the issue, in my opinion. His Honest to God sold a million copies and peddled a ‘revolution in ethics’ that his translators happily applied to sex ethics. It was released in 1963—in 1969, Robinson had been invited to stay in the Playboy mansion. Antinomianism became the rage among minor British clerics eager to cash in, especially sexual antinomianism. Incidentally, that was the year Rupert Murdoch—founder of Fox News, which has helped spawn the pornification of the American conservative world—purchased the Sun. Only then did explicit photographs begin to have a home in the British press. On BT’s understanding (and against Callum Brown), it was not the sexual revolution that caused the religious crisis of the 60s. Rather, the “myth of religious collapse predated and authorized the myth of ‘sexual revolution’, not the other way around.” By announcing the death of its own communities prematurely, Liberal Protestantism paved the way for its own irrelevance: “In an imaginably post-religious society, it was easy for Christian contributions to be forgotten.” 
Now, I should just say: Brewitt-Taylor’s essay confirms every one of my priors. All of ‘em. Every. Single. One. I’m so disposed to believe Brewitt-Taylor that I want it to be true. I’ve long worried that the decline narrative that is so popular among contemporary Christians “becomes its own self-fulfilling prophecy: embattled and thriving, [we evangelicals are,] until it’s only we happy few who exist to die.” (Me, in February of 2015) At the same time, the narratives that establish feedback loops are disseminated from institutions that matter. What was not inevitable in 1960 might have become inevitable today, as a society imbibes a particular story about the nature of sex and community. And critics of Brewitt-Taylor can simply back the emergence of the ‘inevitability’ problem up one generation, to the kinds of educational attitudes that Lewis denounced in That Hideous Strength. Rinse, repeat, and suddenly you’re at Scotus (this one, not that one). 
But I’m in a mood to be thinking about the unintended, collateral damage of our public speech. And Brewitt-Taylor’s story is a cautionary tale. What might have changed for the UK—and for us—had the Church of England not announced its own demise, before it was real? 

On related, if distinct, matters:
Infanticide Debate Reflects a New Era for Abortion
The Church and the Abortion Capital
The Penultimate Word
“No society can be just or good that is built on falsehood. The first task of Christian social ethics, therefore, is not to make the ‘world’ better or more just, but to help Christian people form their community consistent with their conviction that the story of Christ is a truthful account of our existence. For as H.R. Neibuhr argued, only when we know 'what is going on,’ do we know 'what we should do,’ and Christians believe that we learn most decisively 'what is going on’ in the cross and resurrection of Christ.” – Stanley Hauerwas
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Matthew Lee Anderson

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