Project Canterbury

The Christian and Birth Control
by Edward Lyttelton, D.D.

"Great is the peace that they have who love Thy law;
And they are not offended at it."

London: SPCK, 1929.

contributed by the Reverend Edward L. Rix

Chapter III. The Issue at Stake

A WEEK or two passed before the friends met again. Fortunately, it happened to be for the doctor rather a slack time, at the end of the summer holidays, before people have begun to imagine themselves ill because the hunt for pleasure has ceased. He thought and thought over some new ideas which the Vicar had given him. Hitherto his main object in life had been to raise the minds of his patients to a higher sense of responsibility for the maintenance of sound health, bodily and mental. He had himself been blessed with a native inclination to abhor evil, to shun it without parleying with it, and what others found to be mildly morbid was to him profoundly repellent. But again and again he had been brought into contact with people who apparently could see the truth and good sense of his prescriptions, but who were unable to brace themselves for the effort of a certain self-conquest required in a different degree for each individual. In conversation with him they often acknowleged the principles he tried to indicate, but the acknowledgment left them where they were before--halting between two opinions, suspecting that they were over-indulging their appetites in one way or another, but unable to find a motive strong enough to bring them to the sticking-point. Many of them were conforming Christians and communicants, but lacking in stedfastness.

The Doctor had caught from the Vicar a new hope. He saw far more distinctly than before that his own aversion from sundry mean and squalid elements in modern social life was really a temperamental gift from heaven, making the following of Christ, in spite of much renunciation, a willing response to the Divine promptings and to the revelation of the Cross of Christ; to facts of history and experience; to principles, in short, which the majority of those who came to consult him were not prepared eidier to embrace or to disown. Might he not now look forward to waking up in their hesitating minds and hearts something more like a living faith in the divinity within them?

On the first opportunity the Vicar and the Doctor arranged a walk on some pleasant hill slopes outside the town, and the latter began straight away.

D.--I have been turning over some things you said the other day, and can see now that they are of great importance, as giving a warrant for some of the deepest moral convictions which most of us sincerely hold but generally fail to act upon. Let me see, will you, if I can put them shortly into words.

I start, as you do, with a sincere reverence for the character and teaching of Christ, and owe it to my parents that I have never given up the practice of prayer. Before marriage I felt that self-control and continence were integral parts of a good life, and when I came to the severer claim of ordering a married life in harmony with principle, I was enabled, thank God, to do it, though till now I never clearly saw why I should, nor how to appeal effectively to professing Christians hesitating between the demands of conscience and appetite. Those demands of conscience I now know to be either the Voice of the Divine Spirit promised by Christ to the Church or nothing. Further, that the story of the Gospel for us wayward and unstable mortals is either a Gospel of despair or a solid and substantial hope that the demands of conscience are in reality within our reach; for they are only explicable on the assumption that all Christ's teaching and work lead up to the gift of God Himself, to dwell in the Church and in each believer's heart. That, so far, is on the right line, is it not?

V.--Quite. But you will not forget that there are many who deny that conscience enters into our problem at all.

D.--Yes, I was coming to that. My experience shows that the majority of those who come to me have scruples and are uneasy--some very uneasy--about contraception. But there must be many thousands who adopt it without qualm. They probably consult nobody. There is no way of dealing with them except on the method of a Church pronouncement, to be addressed to all who are professing Christians, because it is absurd for a community to profess a firm belief in the reality of the Divine Grace, and then to be allowed or encouraged by the authorities of the community to act for years as if that Grace had never been given. I would go farther and say that anyone who hears the Church's pronouncement and the reasons for it and chooses deliberately to disregard it in conduct is violating his membership in the Society, whatever he may continue to profess.

V.--That, of course, is not for us to determine.

D.--To be sure not; but it makes the position clear with regard to the terrible menace hanging over the moral and religious life of the English people. I mean if, in consequence of disagreement, no such pronouncement from our leaders is issued.

V.--We were at one on that point, were we not, I some time back.

D.--We were; but, speaking as a layman, I say that what I have learnt from you as to the bearings of the Christian faith on practice gives to the whole question a new and very solemn aspect. Think of it. Here are our leaders, in possession presumably of the ugly facts and competent, if anyone is, to draw right inferences from them, finding themselves appealed to by millions of Church members to guide them in a perplexity most acute, crucial, and urgent. Their appeal is a question which really amounts to this: We Church people and citizens of the British Empire are bewildered, as we never have been before, by finding many good and respected fellow-countrymen approve of, or anyhow hesitate to condemn, a practice which we cannot wholeheartedly adopt, though it might remove from our path a paralyzing problem of the married life. It is not only our own scruples which give us pause, but certain ominous facts: (i) that those who take the severe view of the matter are, on the whole, among the holiest, most duty-loving, most heroic in temper of living men and women. (2) That the Church in the past has at times, anyhow, reminded her members of the highest standard of conduct, of unflinching endeavour, of self-denial and of the following of Christ, and that whenever she has done so her message has been recognized as true and based on eternal laws. (3) That if the Church persists in practically ignoring the matter we are bound to infer that the Bishops, the custodians of the faith of Christ in England, are not all of them certain that the profession of the religion of the Cross has any vital bearing on moral questions. In other words, our leaders, primed with religious principles, are forcing us to believe that on those principles they countenance conduct which on moral and social principles, and from a vague, untaught reverence for marriage, the best people in the country condemn. (4) That if once the English people, who still admire heroism, discover that a belief in the Christian Creed permits a lower standard of conduct than that which they dimly feel to be within their reach, the days of Christianity in this country are numbered. The Church will get no response if its appeal is anything short of the highest. That is the appeal: and if our Bishops--reputed to be the wisest and best group of men in Europe--cannot show how Christianity is the very foundation and soul of the moral life, then there will begin that dissociation of religion and morals which throughout history has corrupted and undermined both.

V.--I am glad indeed to find that with your wider knowledge of public opinion your diagnosis of the position is much the same as mine. You give me fresh assurance that while any Christian who is loyal to his best instincts will turn with contempt from any teaching which is in flat opposition to the Gospel of the Cross, the real safeguard is to remember the central essence of the Saviour's message--namely, that not only has He redeemed the world, but that He is present with each one of us all day and night, so that we might live and grow in His life, catch something of His purity, and learn more and more to thank our Creator for His Gift. St. Francis de Sales said that the commonest sin among people trying to be good is forgetfulness of the Presence of Christ. Especially do we forget that He is not only our Saviour but our Judge Eternal. I hold, and I am sure you do too, that this thought is flatly incompatible with a life laid out on contraceptionist lines. Dy--Thanks. That is a valuable addition to what I have tried to say. Christianity is either sufficient for every problem or it is far worse than nothing. There is another point. Have you thought of the comparison that is constantly being made between us Anglicans and the Church of Rome? There are various reasons why English people leave the Church of their fathers and join a community which is more Italian in character than Teutonic. I hold most of those reasons to be more or less flimsy pretexts for people who want their thinking to be done for them. But there is one reason which is not flimsy. If our Church allows the belief of simple people in her basic doctrine, the Incarnation of Christ, to be undermined by highly placed ecclesiastics publicly preaching another Gospel, it is inevitable that honest English Christians should make comparisons. My own view is that both bodies have been and are terribly to blame; but as long as our leaders are striving to make head by positive teaching against the incessant presentation of a counterfeit religion I am perfectly happy where I am. Meantime there is another test by which every religious community must be judged both now and hereafter; that is, the question whether the moral standard which it allows or inculcates is the highest, or is it an accommodation to the supposed unwillingness of the multitude to face difficulties? If it is the latter, it is a criminal inconsistency; and, moreover, it is identical in character with that which was exposed and gibbeted by Pascal in his famous Letters against the Jesuits. No doubt most Romans think that attack unfair. That is not the question. The Letters described a kind of teaching which used Christian maxims for the encouragement of self-indulgence. We English have been disgusted at what we believed to be shameless humbug on the part of religious teachers. We can stand any amount of illogicality for a long time; but inconsistency--the violation of our own best convictions--always has shocked us and always will. It is, moreover, a prevalent belief in this country that that inconsistency is still a mark of Roman teaching. In some matters it may be, but I have lately ascertained from a young R.C. training for the priesthood that in regard to contraception their Church's attitude is firm and intelligible, while ours is neither. They do not give dispensations. In France it very often happens that a wife asks in confession whether she ought to separate from her husband, who insists on a foul form of contraception; the answer is, "No, not necessarily; but you must protest always and do your best to persuade him to a right mind." Whether that counsel is ideal or not, compared to ours it is Apostolic. And mark you, it has long been recognized that in such places as Ireland and French Canada the Roman Church has been signally successful compared to the Protestants in maintaining a fairly high standard of chastity. I hope I am as loyal a member of the Church of England as can be found. But if a fellow-countryman of mine goes over to Rome because their moral teaching is more robust than ours--the principles, I mean, which they preach, however often they are disobeyed--I could hardly blame him. That seems to me to make the duty resting on the Bishops more urgent than ever. Have you thought what would be the best way of making their decision known?

V.--Clearly by arranging that every couple that come to be married in Church should be given, as soon as they are engaged, a fly-leaf paper setting forth in simple language certain aspects of marriage as a sacrament and the Church's plain ethical instructions on vexed questions such as the one we have been considering; the woman's subordination to the man or the repudiation of S. Paul's teaching; the indissolubility of marriage and the call to a joint self-surrender to God's Will, and readiness to undertake the sacred responsibilities of parenthood. We have come to see that for Confirmation preparation is necessary. How can we be so blind as to suppose that matrimony, especially in these days, requires none? There are several among us who would be able to draw up a fly-leaf of three or four pages at most, and possibly each Bishop might modify it slightly in accordance with his own views. Think of the mephitic poison of many modern novels on this subject, and nearly as mischievous the deification of passion in many novels of fairly high repute and many of our best-known poets. Mind you, Doctor, I don't say that such a precaution will stem the tide of lawlessness which is sweeping over the country, but it would be an attempt, and vastly better than nothing. For it must be that we shall be judged, not for what we have achieved, but for what we have desired and have tried to do.

D.--I suppose there will be difficulty in regard to those Bishops who are not able to be as" prohibitionist" as you and I would like them to be?

V.--No doubt. At first I thought the matter might be solved by the controversial clauses--those clearly " prohibitionist" in tone--being omitted by any Bishop who was more or less of a contraceptionist. That would mean that he would sign a document of strong admonition to self-mastery, self-dedication, and self-committal to an even higher level of Christian conduct than that required of the unmarried. But just as the reader expected to receive a plain direction on the most interesting point of all he would find a disappointing hiatus.

D.--It would be still more awkward if one of the contracting parties had previously seen the stricter version authorized in a neighbouring diocese. What would the inference be?

V.--The inference would, of course, be that the Bishop of X. did not disapprove of contraception in all cases, though the Bishop of Y. did. Not only would the reader--the bridegroom most likely--be more perplexed than ever, but he would either suspect his Bishop of something like cowardice, or he would write asking for explicit instructions as to the permitted cases. The situation might soon be intolerable. But, of course, the majority of readers would construe silence as consent. Meantime the partner would in some cases have had her opinions formed by the more emphatic pronouncement current in her own diocese. A dismal prospect indeed! If the disunion among the Bishops is camouflaged it will lower the respect of the laity for their spiritual leaders most seriously. Will it not also provoke rather than allay the disagreements between husband and wife, which are already working havoc in countless married unions, because the stricter group on the Bench will not be content with a shilly-shallying disapproval, but will insist on downright plain speaking?

D.--Well, then, could not those who are inclined to concession state clearly where they draw the line--that is, in what cases they would withhold their prohibition?

V.--I should not envy them the task. Some of them have given very little attention to the intricacies of the subject, and the moment they begin to dabble in concessions they will find themselves wading in a quagmire. Have you thought, too, of the tone of the paper in which these strange and dubious utterances would be included.

D.---Well, of course, the tone should be not only as dignified as possible, but clear and confident in its appeal to conscience and throughout based, if possible, on Scripture. I mean that if our spiritual leaders are convinced that in certain cases contraception is right--that is, the Will of God--they will do their duty only by saying so clearly and with a good courage. The danger is that, being afraid of giving clear permission to the minority of cases in which they think the thing may be the lesser of two evils, they may try to make up by watering down their condemnation of the practice in the millions of cases where they know it is downright sin.

V.--I heartily agree. If they really believe it is ever right, they ought to be able to quote Scripture in its favour. They would find it difficult. But all the earlier part of this Preparation for Marriage would certainly be based on Scripture. It would be impossible to maintain the same tone when the concessive passages began. Fancy, if you can, though it is a wild absurdity, a con-traceptionist Bishop falling back on a quotation from a fly-leaf which, I am told, is being circulated among country villages in the North of England and freely offending the consciences of the simple sons of the soil! How beautiful would be the contrast between the two sets of extracts set in parallel columns--the putrescent hints by the side of the Sermon on the Mount! I can see no possible way of conflating the two points of view that would not be altogether disastrous.

D.--On my word, Vicar, it looks after all as if a discreet silence is the only possible course.

V.--We have agreed that it would be an utter repudiation of duty on the part of the leaders of the people. By the mercy of God there is always a way out of every quandary if there is no tampering with principle. If any one of us dares not say in public that a course of action is right, it means that in his heart of hearts he knows it to be wrong. Let him, then, join with others and say so, commending the issue to God.

The two friends parted. On his way home the meditative Doctor communed with himself: "The good Vicar is right, though it is not easy to see how to bring these high-sounding saws into the practical life of a world-absorbed society. He does not, I suspect, come into contact with so many shallow-pates as I do--men who at the sound of a generalization uttered in a drawing-room would be frightened far more than if it were an indecency. Yet these drifting and distracted souls can only be brought to their bearings by a strong, clear call to their slumbering instincts of right and wrong; that is, in plain language, to the Christ within them. When I think of the teaching of the New Testament about marriage and the supremacy of the law of the Cross, I feel that on the action or inaction of the Church to-day depends the future of this dear old country of ours."

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