Towards a Quaker View of Sex

Heron Responds for Group


Alastair Heron writes a lengthy response on behalf of the working group to the criticisms that have been voiced by Friends and other commentators. This is published in The Friend on April 12th.


Reproduced by permission of The Friend, April 12, 1963, pp. 420-23.


The Friend April 12, 1963

"Towards a Quaker View of Sex"
Its Editor Replies to Comments

Alastair Heron was a member of the group of Friends who produced the essay, TOWARDS A QUAKER VIEW OF SEX, and he acted as their editor for this purpose. The essay was published for the group by the Friends Home Service Committee on February 18 (price 3s. 6d.)

Here Alastair Heron replies on behalf of the group to come of the comments--favourable and otherwise--that have been made on the essay since publication.

It may be helpful to start by saying a few words on the problem of publication which faced the group of Friends who concern over a period of more than five years led to the appearance of Towards a Quaker View of Sex.

When we started work we were embarked on a search, and there was no intention of writing for publication: the need for this was not realised until about three years ago. Early in 1962 we considered publishing our material through ordinary channels as a book, but were advised that our manuscript would need to be doubled in length for this to be possible. In the reconsideration that followed it was decided to address ourselves mainly to Friends; we therefore reverted to an approach (already made at an earlier stage) to the Literature Committee of the Friends Home Service Committee. Following its usual practice, the Committee submitted the manuscript to three Friends for their judgment. Each of these, having read it independently, recommended it for publication, and it was decided to publish it, but in publishing it to insert a clear indication that it was in no way an "official" document, but was being published "for the group". The text of this insertion, published on the flyleaf of the pamphlet, was as follows:

The Literature Committee of the Friends Home Service Committee has been glad to publish Towards a Quaker View of Sex for the group of Friends which prepared it, as a contribution to thought on an important subject.

The views expressed are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the attitude of the Friends Home Service Committee, or of the Religious Society of Friends.

Many Friends have been distressed by the publicity resulting from the appearance of the essay and from the BBC television programme, "Meeting Point". It is perhaps not widely realised by Friends that unless a "press release" with an approved "hand-out" is made available--with review copies--in advance of publication, an undignified scramble to score a "scoop" may result. This would have placed an even greater burden on the office at Friends House, and on individual members of the group, that results from adherence to the now generally accepted procedure. The initiative for the television discussion came from the Religious Broadcasting Department of the BBC, which has been aware that our work was under way, and had from time to time inquired when it would reach publication. The group believes that it was right to respond to this initiative; it was intended that the essay should appear a week or so before the broadcast, but unfortunately it proved impossible to produce the manuscript early enough.

ON the whole the level of Press comment was high and restrained in treatment. Only one national daily broke the rules and commented in advance of publication, and it was the Sunday edition of the same paper that a week or so later carried a feature article containing the only serious misrepresentation of material from the essay. While almost all papers inevitably selected passages for quotation, there were few examples of that calculated "tearing from the context" which can be so damaging. As a result, the correspondence columns reflected a reasonably wide range of the opinion that received expression before those writing had been able to study the essay. The television discussion was favourably reviewed in The Listener, the critic having clearly appreciated the basic attitude of the Friends taking part. In contrast, the references to Quakers in "That Was the Week That Was" were included among other examples of lack of good taste regretted by the television critic of The Guardian.

The response of specialist periodicals such as The Lancet and The Times Educational Supplement has been one of appreciation: the review in the latter ends by saying that the essay "might make admirable materials for Sixth-form groups". Such a general judgment finds specific support from a variety of schools, exemplified by a letter from a housemaster who speaks of his gratitude for "something of this kind which I can confidently give boys to read if they ask for help in working out their ideas on sexual morality."

The essay has found sympathetic ears in most sections of the Church, including certainly the Roman Catholic, and it has also attracted criticism from most sections. The Church Times and The Universe were severely critical, but distinguished Anglicans have welcomed the essay warmly, and a Roman Catholic has written: "You may be surprised to find how many Catholics support your views, or most of them." An Anglo-Catholic priest alludes to the allegory of a recent Swarthmore Lecture when he ends his letter by saying: "It may be that courageous thinking such as is shown in the report will help to break down the walls of the 'Castle' and bring its inhabitants together with hose of the 'Field' into that unity which is the Will of our common Lord."

I must now turn to the comments of Friends, both those published in The Friend and the others which have reached me by letter. It would seem that many early comments came from those who had not yet read the essay. Those from most Friends who have obviously done so are appreciative and encouraging, although some also make it clear that not all our conclusions are acceptable. What many of these Friends seem to have most valued is what one described as the "spirit of seeking", another as "a deep desire to seek the will of God". Others feel that publication of the essay has "opened out new vistas" or "opened up basic questions"; one writer wonders how truth can be served these days except by a prolonged study on the part of people under concern which leads to publication, that others may then in open discussion take the searching further. Another Friends writes: "The publication of the essay is an example of what Christians in general and Friends in particular ought to be doing."

Adverse criticisms of the essay can for convenience be divided into three broad categories: one relating to what is felt to be an undue emphasis on person-to-person relationships to the detriment of wider social responsibilities; the second to our rejection of "the traditional approach of the organised Christian Church ot morality"; and the third to instances of ambiguity or of vagueness. On this last point, John Ounsted (who reviewed the essay for The Friend on February 15) regards as the principal weakness of the essay "a lack of clear statement both in detail and of the overall implications of the work".

It is certainly true that we have devoted a good deal of attention to personal relationships, but I feel sure that this has been deliberate. The current emphasis is on "the group", "society" and other impersonal collectives terms: one Attender saw as the most important premise of our essay "that the fulfilment of our nature as distinctively human beings is through relationships that are personal". The sexual problems with which we have been concerned find their focus at a personal level, and it is at this level that problems must be cased and solutions found.

In thus coming to terms with the facts, we returned frequently in our thinking to the wider implications in family life and in society. "However private an act, it is never without its impact on society, and we must never behave as though society--which includes our other friends--did not exist." (p. 40)

What we reject about the traditional approach of the Christian Church to morality is, first, the assumption that God's will is known in detail, permanently and for general application under all circumstances; and second, the danger to a religious view of life that can and does arise when a rigid moral code, widely questioned by sincere and responsible people, is identified with the faith itself. This obliged us to re-examine the whole basis on which decisions are reached as to what is "sin", what is "right" and what is "wrong", in sexual behaviour. In an ecumenical view of the Church, in which its branches can b e seen as having valuable special emphases, that of the Society of Friends is frequently identified as being on the continuing revelation by the Holy Spirit of God's purpose in ways appropriate to the changing condition of man. We felt--and feel--confident that most Friends and most of our fellow-Christians would understand and share our concern that individuals should be encouraged to seek afresh God's way at this time in man's history. It does not follow that the result will be different: it is the way in which it is reached that must be ever fresh. "We cannot accept as true a statement that is given us merely because it is given with the authority of tradition or of a Church. We have to make that truth our own--if it is a truth--through diligent search and a rigorous discipline of thought and feeling" (p. 41).

There is no doubt whatever that we were guilty of ambiguity in the passages (on pp. 20 and 39-40) which refer to the so-called "triangular situation". It is open to any reader of these passages to interpret them in terms of an "adulterous" relationship being good and even beneficial to all three persons concerned. For my own part, as editor, I greatly regret that this possibility--obvious to me now--simply did not occur to me. This said, may I no go on to make it clear that we stand firmly by our conviction that many marriages encounter situations--sometimes more than once, as evidenced by a courageous letter to The Observer (February 24)--of a "triangular" nature, and survive triumphantly. To stress this, by way of antidote to the universal assumption that marriages to be happy and successful must depend upon the imperviousness of both partners to the attractiveness of others, is not intended to condone, still less to advocate, a light-hearted attitude towards extra-marital intercourse. This we should have made explicit, and did not. The section on Page 20 also combines references to two very different types of triangular situation, with a consequent confusion in the minds of many readers. We are sorry for all this and intend giving fresh thought to this question.

Both John Ounsted and Robin Hodgkin (The Friend, March 22) are disturbed--with other correspondents--that we do not come down squarely in support of "vows of chastity or loyalty" being maintained at all costs under all circumstances. Here we seem to have failed signally in communicating the most painful and humbling outcomes of our five years' exercise. We were led--perhaps "driven" is more accurate--to abandon the security of our own rigid acceptance of such codes of behaviour, in order to understand the situation of others for whom those codes have no sanction.--"We would ask those who cannot easily foll;ow our thoughts to recognise what has driven our insistent questioning. It is the awareness that the traditional code, in itself, does not come from the heart; for the great majority of men and women it has no roots in feeling or true conviction. We have been seeking a morality that will indeed have its roots in the depths of our being and in our awareness of the true needs of our fellows" (pp. 41-42).

That quotation is followed immediately by the passage which John Ounsted describes as perhaps representing "the final positive message" of the essay: "The challenge to each of us is clear: accustom yourself to seeking God's will and to the experience of his love and power, become used in your daily life to the simple but tremendous spiritual fact that what God asks he enables, provided only and always that we will to do his will."

John Ounsted continues by saying: "In other words: 'All you've got to do is to be a saint and you'll find your sexual actions are not sinful, as neither are your others.'" To this we would reply by saying quite simply that we share the belief of countless of our fellow-Christians that the proper goal of a disciple is just that--to be "perfect". Nobody can find his way through these problems unless he is always trying to be and to do the best he knows. For the convinced Christian this is to seek God's will and to carry it out by his strength. With any lesser goal we may be deluded into believing that we are doing well enough so long as we don't break the rules. For those who cannot claim a Christian belief, the goal is the same but harder to achieve. Unless those to whom we speak have this high goal, we have nothing to say which will have meaning to them; but the conventional moral code will have no meaning to them either.

I should like to close by expressing our gratitude to all those who helped us during our work by giving enormously of their own experience; to those who since the publication of this essay have recognised that we did what we felt laid on us to do; and perhaps especially to those who have recognised the very great significance of the word "Towards" in the title. We offer our findings to the Society as a basis for corporate research, under guidance, by what a Friend has called "the larger and more representative group". We do not ask for hasty judgment: we have taken nearly six years to produce what one periodical described as "preliminary gropings". The essay itself has many defects in style and in clarify of expression. The questionings we have expressed thus imperfectly must themselves be seen as provisional, as but a staging point from which Friends and others may move towards a better understanding of how God would have us deal with "this glorious gift."

Alastair Heron.