Contraception and Lambeth: A Proposal

As Anglicans, the use of hormonal contraceptives ought to be scrutinized. I have never heard the topic of ‘the pill’ touched from the pulpit, but Christians who affirm the sanctity of human life from conception to natural death cannot practice a laissez faire attitude towards contraceptives, which may act as zygote-abortifacients. Much of the popular discourse around contraceptives and birth control within Anglican family-practice treats the issue as having been settled in favor of a ‘liberal’ point of view by the Lambeth Conferences of 1930 and 1958 as opposed to the ‘conservative’ position espoused by Roman Catholic authorities. I, on the other hand, want to say that while good practice in Anglican theology will find some options for birth control to the end of godly and prudential family planning, Christians should reject normative, contraceptive use of ‘the pill’.

In 1930, Lambeth gave only a tepid and cautious permission for means other than abstinence in family planning. The resolutions are worth being read at-length:

Resolution 13 The Life and Witness of the Christian Community – Marriage and Sex

The Conference emphasises the truth that sexual instinct is a holy thing implanted by God in human nature. It acknowledges that intercourse between husband and wife as the consummation of marriage has a value of its own within that sacrament, and that thereby married love is enhanced and its character strengthened. Further, seeing that the primary purpose for which marriage exists is the procreation of children, it believes that this purpose as well as the paramount importance in married life of deliberate and thoughtful self-control should be the governing considerations in that intercourse.[1]

Resolution 15 The Life and Witness of the Christian Community – Marriage and Sex

Where there is clearly felt moral obligation to limit or avoid parenthood, the method must be decided on Christian principles. The primary and obvious method is complete abstinence from intercourse (as far as may be necessary) in a life of discipline and self-control lived in the power of the Holy Spirit. Nevertheless in those cases where there is such a clearly felt moral obligation to limit or avoid parenthood, and where there is a morally sound reason for avoiding complete abstinence, the Conference agrees that other methods may be used, provided that this is done in the light of the same Christian principles. The Conference records its strong condemnation of the use of any methods of conception control from motives of selfishness, luxury, or mere convenience. Voting: For 193; Against 67.

Resolution 16 The Life and Witness of the Christian Community – Marriage and Sex

The Conference further records its abhorrence of the sinful practice of abortion.

Resolution 17 The Life and Witness of the Christian Community – Marriage and Sex

While the Conference admits that economic conditions are a serious factor in the situation, it condemns the propaganda which treats conception control as a way of meeting those unsatisfactory social and economic conditions which ought to be changed by the influence of Christian public opinion.

Rather than license for married Christians to follow whatever broader culture might advise for married people to pursue childfree ease, these resolutions reaffirm that childrearing remains ‘the primary purpose for which marriage exists.’ While I personally would prefer the wording an essential versus the primary in Resolution 13, it is clear that the framers the 1930 Resolutions did not intend for the Anglican Communion to endorse intentional sterility for preserving comfort and convenience in married life. As Stephen D. Noll put it in his commentary on the ACNA’s Rite of Holy Matrimony, “contraception is legitimate only in family planning and not in family prevention.”[2] Furthermore, Resolution 16 makes clear than no abortifacient methods of birth control are thinkable for Christians.

Wording of the resolutions passed at the 1958 Lambeth Conference show themselves to be more pliable with regards to family planning’s social context:

Resolution 115 The Family in Contemporary Society – Marriage The Conference believes that the responsibility for deciding upon the number and frequency of children has been laid by God upon 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. Such responsible parenthood, built on obedience to all the duties of marriage, requires a wise stewardship of the resources and abilities of the family as well as a thoughtful consideration of the varying population needs and problems of society and the claims of future generations.[3]

What was termed ‘unsatisfactory social and economic conditions’ in 1930 is re-christened ‘the varying population needs and problems of society and the claims of future generations’ in 1958. Rather than resisting utilitarian suggestions for population-control, 1958’s Resolution 115 places childbearing as one among many possible social goods. Second, childbearing within marriage is framed within a broader ‘obedience to all the duties of marriage’ rather than being 1930’s summum bonum of marriage. Those duties are not specified within Resolution 115, but Ephesians 5:28-9 (ESV) reminds us that “husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church.” In self-giving love that regards the other’s needs as one’s own, prudential family planning may be part of a husband loving his wife’s body as his own, seeing the toll and risk that pregnancy and childbirth may have on a woman’s body.

Seeing as the North American Anglican first exists “to glorify Christ,” I say that a Christological perspective on contraceptives and conception trumps a merely Anglican perspective. While Karl Barth may not be as endeared to all readers here as he is to me, his thoughts on the subject of parenthood and children in Church Dogmatics are worth repeating: “the Son on whose birth alone everything seriously and ultimately depended has now been born and has now become our Brother. No one now has to be conceived and born…Parenthood is now only to be understood as a free and in some sense optional gift of the goodness of God.”[4] Marriage and family have all been submitted to the lordship of Jesus Christ, who calls us even to leave our families behind to follow him.[5] Human history looked forwards to Christ and now looks back: after the picture of marriage is complete at the Supper of the Lamb then humans will “neither marry nor [be] given in marriage.”[6] Whatever our conduct is in our married and familial lives, it must be subordinated to the lordship of Jesus Christ. If family planning helps us to better follow Jesus, then we welcome it.

While the lordship of Jesus may entail family planning, the Incarnation of the Word as flesh demands that we not ignore the significance of Jesus’ conception. As Michael Gorman says, “[t]he Scriptural affirmation that Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit is not without significance (Matthew 1:20; Luke 1:35). For Jesus to become incarnate, to become truly human, entailed his participation in the full range of human experience—from conception through death.”[7] The Incarnation occurred at conception. To say otherwise is to imply an adoptionism in which Jesus is conceived by a human father. If the Incarnation occurs at this earliest, single-celled stage of life, then even that liminal moment has been fully redeemed and taken up into the life of God in Christ and must be honored as such—as fully human and bearing God’s image. Any family planning options taken by Christians cannot compromise the unique and fully human life of a single-celled zygote.

While hormonal contraceptives that use progestin are popular for their ease of use and reliability in preventing pregnancy, they are untenable options for those of us convinced of life’s origin at conception. In an excellent study published by the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, reading that I highly recommend, it is noted that hormonal contraceptives are intended to first prevent ovulation. However, in the rare cases of ovulation and fertilization in users of such drugs, it is possible for the presence of artificial progesterone to hinder the “transport of the fertilized egg (embryo)” to the endometrium. The altered state of the endometrium dosed with progesterone also complicates the implantation of any possible embryo, effecting that cell’s death.[8] While the primary design of hormonal contraceptives is the prevention of conception, the death of single-celled embryos is likely in the rare event of conception. To take these contraceptives is like firing in crowded deer-woods after sundown: while a human death may be unlikely, the disregard for life makes the careless hunters responsible for any loss of such.

Did Lambeth endorse hormonal contraceptives for the Anglican Communion? Not necessarily. The major resolutions regarding birth control were made in 1930 and 1958. The pill, however, was not introduced in the United Kingdom through the NHS until 1961.[9] The means of family planning that were ‘mutually acceptable to husband and wife in Christian conscience’ in 1958 would not have likely encompassed hormonal contraceptives but would have in mind the less sophisticated means of barriers or spermicides which, while less effective than hormonal contraceptives, pose no clear risk to embryonic life.

Anglicans and Christians everywhere, having been convinced of life’s origin at conception, ought to reject the nontheraputic, contraceptive use of such artificial hormones. While hormonal contraceptives, along with all other ‘artificial’ means of birth control are rejected elsewhere, most famously in Humanae Vitae for their alleged severing of the “inseparable connection, established by God, which man on his own initiative may not break, between the unitive significance and the procreative significance which are both inherent to the marriage act”, Anglicans of good conscience can tread a different path.[10] We can agree with Roman Catholics that childrearing is part of God’s original design for marriage, but also that there are married people “who, for serious reasons and with due respect to moral precepts, decide not to have additional children for either a certain or an indefinite period of time.”[11] Where Lambeth’s resolutions and Paul VI’s encyclical diverge most sharply in the pope’s allowance for “Recourse to Infertile Periods” for married couples wishing to limit or space their children versus his categorical condemnation of any artificial means: “In the former the married couple rightly use a faculty provided them by nature. In the later they obstruct the natural development of the generative process.”[12] While Humanae Vitae shares Lambeth’s concern for godly family-planning, the qualm remains that any artificial means of birth control subvert nature and thereby subvert God’s intent for married sexuality. Seeing as God made humans as not merely creatures but wise stewards of creation, however, I say that certain tools—applied to godly ends—do not denote a contempt for nature but display the exercise of humanity’s God-given faculties. Bridges are built to join the land, not to spite the rivers. So rather than relying on a primitivist account of natural law, sound objection to certain means of birth control should focus on their abortifacient properties.

Like many, I daily groan under the tyranny of opinion. I am almost reticent to contribute my voice to that ever-growing burden, but I am moved by a conscientious desire for a more consistent love of my neighbor, including my single-celled neighbors. On the basis of the sanctity of human life from conception to death, I hope that Anglicans of good conscience—including our pastors and bishops—will critically re-evaluate our relationships with birth control in favor of methods other than ‘the pill’.

  1. The Lambeth Conference: Resolutions Archive from 1930. https://www.anglicancommunion.org/media/127734/1930.pdf

  2. Stephen D. Noll, “The ACNA Rite of Holy Matrimony: A Commentary.” ACNA Task Force on Marriage, Family, and the Single Life. 2016. https://s3.amazonaws.com/acna/Holy_Matrimony_Explained_28-June-16.pdf

  3. The Lambeth Conference: Resolutions Archive from 1958. https://www.anglicancommunion.org/media/127740/1958.pdf

  4. Barth, Karl. “Parents and Children” in Church Dogmatics, III/4, trans. A.T. Mackay et al. (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1961), 265-267. Published in On Moral Medicine: Theological Perspectives and Medical Ethics, edited by M. Therese Lysaught et al. 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdman’s, 2012), 808-13.

  5. Matthew 19:29.

  6. Matt. 22:30 (ESV).

  7. Gorman, Michael. Abortion and the Early Church: Christian, Jewish, and Pagan Attitudes in the Greco-Roman World. (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1982), 97.

  8. Resolution 6-10: Guidance on Contraceptive Methods. LCMS Sanctity of Human Life Committee, 2004. www.lcms.org/Document.fdoc?src=lcm&id=632. 7.

  9. Cook, Hera. The Long Sexual Revolution: English Women, Sex, and Contraception, 1800-1975. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005. https://hdl.handle.net/2027/heb.04490. EPUB. 122

  10. Humanae Vitae (1968). http://www.vatican.va/content/paul-vi/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_p-vi_enc_25071968_humanae-vitae.html. Section 12: Union and Procreation.

  11. Humanae Vitae. Section 10: Responsible Parenthood.

  12. Humanae Vitae. Section 16: Recourse to Infertile Periods.


Jack Tyler

Jack Tyler is an Arkansan and layman in the Anglican Diocese of the South. He studies analytic and exegetical theology at the University of St Andrews.


'Contraception and Lambeth: A Proposal' has 1 comment

  1. February 8, 2020 @ 5:38 pm Diana

    I appreciate the thoughtfulness of this article. At the same time, I find it deeply disappointing.

    I completely agree that no serious Christian should consider using the birth control pill. Beside the myriad of health issues involved, the ethics such use are clearly unacceptable to anyone holding Christian views on the sanctity of human life.

    However, on a deeper level, I find contraception of any kind to be unacceptable to a Christian life ethic. A child is created by God, in God’s timing. An act of contraception says that (1) my convenience is more important than the life of the child who would otherwise be conceived, and (2) my wisdom is greater than God’s in knowing that this is not a good time for God to give us a baby (which apparently He doesn’t know).

    If God is sovereign, and human life is sacred, then we may trust the Lord to give us children in His perfect timing.

    Here is a resource I highly recommend:
    http://www.thebirthcontrolmovie.com/

    Again, many thanks to the author for his thoughtful words above. I appreciate the effort and thought that he has put into this article, despite my disagreement with it.

    Cheers!
    Diana

    Reply


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