Towards a Quaker View of Sex

Meeting for Sufferings 3 May 1963


The Meeting for Sufferings (executive committee of the London Yearly Meeting) heard expressions of distress about the TQVOS study during its bimonthly meeting on May 3. Proposals to issue an official statement with more moral certitude and to hold a conference for a wider discussion on sexual morality were to be considered at the next meeting.


Reproduced by permission of The Friend, May 10, 1963, pp. 420-23.


The Friend May 10, 1963

An Elgar-ian Meeting for Sufferings

One theory about the Enigma Variations is that Elgar called them so because the theme they are based on is never stated; that is has to be reconstructed by deduction from the heard variations, itself being unheard; a silent chief guest at the feast.

If so, Meeting for Sufferings last Friday was rather like the Enigma Variations. Its agenda was dominated, under several separate headings, by a recent rather celebrated pamphlet. But this dominaton was mostly invisible, indirect, and carefully not alluded to. Speakers largely engaged in discussing matters closely allied to the contacts and manner of publication of the pamphlet were manfully doing their best most of the time to behave as if there was no connection at all. The only flaw in this Enigma analogy was that the pamphlet kept popping up, by inadvertence if not by design. It even got into a report on the Yearly Meeting Fund accounts, when the Accountant (Leslie Todd) speculated that "the Society's bestseller may have had something to do with" a reduction of the annual deficit on the Friends Book Centre by £200. And, as the long morning wore into a long afternoon, the references got less and less oblique.

By this civilised device the Meeting managed to compose quite a comprehensive set of variations on "Towards a Quaker View of Sex". And it seems possible that a conference on the subject is looking ahead for a larger body of Friends than the Meeting itself.

"A Short, SImple Statement"

A large part of he morning was focused on a minute of the Western Quarterly Meeting. After recalling the origin of the concern in the Worcester and Shropshire Monthly Meeting, this minute went on (with a buried significance in the very first words):

Much that has recently been published about the relationship between men and women in an attempt to get away from a legalistic and conventional attitude. It has also tended to deal with the abnormal. There is bewilderment among young people as to the standards they should observe in their behaviour towards one another and this Meeting would welcome the issue of a short, simple statement in the name of the Society presenting affirmatively what in our experience we have found to be good in socially responsible behaviour. We should hope that such a statement would have the widest publicity.

Hugh Doncaster hoped that this minute would be considered in some isolation from other statements and on its own merits. The concern thus expressed went back for him a good many years--indeed to the time of the first Young Friends' National Conference held after the last war. Asked to speak there on personal relationships between men and women, he had been drawn into many private conversations, mostly with Young Friends, at the time and at similar occasions later, and into many more about his pamphlet, Personal Relationships Between Men and Women, had been published by the Home Service Committee in 1950. Time after time a Young Friend would say: "But why aren't these facts made more widely known to us?" Facts were felt to be needed, as a basis for right judgment.

Articles, correspondence and other material in The Friend a year ago; the Reith Lectures of G.M. Carstairs (where "charity" and "chastity" appeared to be rather curiously presented as incompatibles); and more recently the publication of Towards a Quaker View of Sex, had afforded the opportunity for renewed discussion, which had disclosed the diversity of Friends' approach. Yet, except at the extreme either ends of the spectrum, there was a good deal of common ground. All would agree that it was important to maintain a living conception of personality and individuality, and not to let that become hardened into a set of general regulations. All were agreed that they should be sympathetic and understanding, that they should "meet people where they are", and that they should beware of judging situations that they themselves had never been in. All this had been said, fully and fruitfully. What had not been said was that, if one coming new to these problems of personal relationships was to behave responsibly, he or she needed to know certain facts about human relationships, and what had been found good in the past and in the present.

Hugh Doncaster recalled that, at an informal gathering of young people which he had chaired for a free discussion of personal relationships, as time went on it became clear that no one present wanted to advocate pre-marital intercourse. The meeting said to itself: "We all seem to agree with this. But why?" Only one reason could be found among them--the risk attaching at present to contraceptive methods. So the meeting turned to him for further help, and he gave three or four reasons. At once they came back at him with: "Yes, of course. But why isn't this said?"

He believed there was a clear case for a short simple statement, affirming that Friends were not wanting to sit in harsh judgment on anybody, but that it was their experience to have found a certain pattern of conduct to be ideal--a pattern which did not include either extramarital or premarital intercourse. In and after the Quarterly Meeting discussion two Friends had disclosed cases of young girls who believed they were "the only virgins in the class" at school and who were deeply perplexed to know the reason they could give for the stand they were taking. Allowing for a considerable element of bluffing in the confessions of young people among themselves, the fact was that a good deal of adolescent intercourse was going on. Friends had a reponsibility to give guidance, not in the sense of an edit, but by telling what experience they had found to be ideal. So his suggestion was, not for a long, careful, detailed consideration of all issues, but something simpler and more urgent; something that could be produced quite soon--with a draft, perhaps, to the next Meeting for Sufferings in July.

A Diverse Discussion

In the careful and prolonged consideration that followed the advisability of issuing such a statement was seriously examined. While it was clear that many Friends would welcome a statement in the name of the Society, there were also many who felt strong hesitation.

Among those supporting the publication of a statement was Jean Storrow, Education Secretary of the Ipswich Marriage Guidance Council. She felt that the best way of getting facts known by young people was in discussion, but there were not enough people to go round to do this. Mary Pickard, welcoming the proposal, also pointed out the valuable Home Service Committee pamphlets, Christians and Sex: A Quaker Comment, by Harold Loukes* and regretted that so far this had not been more widely used.

Majorie Fox, speaking out of her experience of a long and happy marriage, shared the concern for a statement. Ruth Wilson recalled Friends to material already available and hope it would be looked at again. Charles Deakin recognised the difficulties but hoped that a statement would get out. Mary Wilkinson asked Friends to realise at what an early age young people nowadays had to meet these problems; many of them were not very clever and needed something very simple. Several Friends stressed the urgency of the matter.

Joan Pargeter agreed with publication, but they had to guard against the idea that life was cut and dried. No set of rules was applicable; all they could hope to do was to give a spiritual perspective. Bessie Blackburn said that the issue of a statement was not a simple matter, and it could not be produced quickly, since the issues needed to be studied honestly. Gustav Fischer was very hesitant about a statement, as it could not be produced in isolation from the wider issues involved.

Maisie Birmingham considered the present as probably the worst possible moment for putting out a statement. Whatever they might intend, it would be interpreted as a contradiction of Towards a Quaker View of Sex. She hoped Friends would not rush into producing it.

Several Friends supported this view. Robert Illing said that Towards a Quaker View of Sex had brought respect for the Society, and he had received many comments from students on its value. He would welcome a statement for private use, but doubted the wisdom of issuing it publicly. Phyllis Taunton Wood agreed that the pamphlet had received a warm welcome from other Christians. Marjorie Lee was not clear as to what sort of people they wanted to address. Scott Bayliss hoped that the statement would be be primarily for Friends, while Beti Jones stressed the importance of the manner of publication of a statement, as vitally affecting the way in which it would be read and interpreted.

Eric Baker hoped that if they were to contemplate such a statement they would not give any colour for suggesting that they were being run away with by newspaper headlines, but should base their decision on the sober comments of statisticians and a recognition of the real complexity of the matter. He hoped that no Friend parents were waiting for the Society to tell them what to think, but were strenuously working it out for themselves. And he also hoped they were not going to confine their attention to extra-marital and premarital intercourse, for relations of this kind did not just happen, but happened for a reason for which they must search. If they were to state, it must be the fruit of considered thought, taking all things into account. There must be no short cut. "However much you dogmatise, a dogma is not in itself an answer to a real spiritual complexity."

The Acting Clerk (Stephen C. Morland) believed that the Meeting was in favour of the quick production of a statement, while recognising the need also for prolonged thought and study. The Meeting finally agreed to the suggestion of Richenda Scott and Wilfrid Littleboy that Hugh Doncaster should nominate some Friends who could confer with him on the draft of a statement. These are: Mary Wilkinson, Jean Storrow, Ruth Wilson, Maisie Birmingham and Joseph Sayers.

The draft will be presented to the July meeting, when its text and question of whether, and how, to publish it will be further considered.

A Yearly Meeting Conference?

Just before lunch the Meeting got on to a minuted from the Friends' Temperance and Moral Welfare Union, which read as follows:

We have again considered the pamphlet, Towards a Quaker View of Sex, and its possible effects on our Society and people outside. Some of our members are deeply perturbed by the conclusions put forward in it, even though they are described as "tentative". Even among those of us who feel the pamphlet as a whole is a valuable contribution there are doubts about one or another aspect of the way its subjects are treated. Misunderstanding has arisen and still exists.

We all desire to avoid needless division among us for lack of mutual understanding. We feel that a conference should be called, and not by any one section of Friends or special-interest group, so that in a background of worship we may discuss the issues with frankness and the fullest tenderness for each other's concerns, and come as near as possible to a broadly united position on the subjects with which the pamphlet deals.

Speaking briefly to it, Cecil Heath, chairman of the Union, emphasised the Union's hope that Meeting for Sufferings would call such a conference, and that from it an authoritative statement would issue.

Discussion was resumed after lunch, when it became known that a minute on rather wider lines had been received from Westmorland Quarterly Meeting. Headed with the title of the pamphlet, Towards a Quaker View of Sex, the minute read on:

While we recognise the gravity of the problem and the honesty of the authors in their approach, we have felt that the problems of sex should be seen, not as an isolated phenomenon, but as part of the general revolt of young men and women against so much else in our social and moral codes. We are conscious of the great increase in drinking and smoking, in petty pilfering, in violence and crime, of the way in which young people are exposed to constant temptation by the incessant pressure of advertisements, by having too much money, by bad examples of violence in films and television, by the fundamental feeling of insecurity.

We feel certain that the Society of Friends, both for its own sake and for the sake of society at large, should not let the matter rest at this point, since the essay has certainly given rise to grave misunderstanding outside he Society and grave uneasiness inside it. We hope that some definite step may be taken by the Society of Friends to make it clear to the public generally that Friends maintain a high moral standard and personal integrity, and their belief in marriage as a sacred relationships which should not be broken, and re-affirm our faith that young men and women have still the inner power to respond to the highest ideals of Christianity.

We suggest that Meeting for Sufferings appoint a small group to consider the important major factors which have led to the strong trend among the young today to reject the social and ethical code of their parents and elders and the Christian teaching on many moral and spiritual problems.

"The Hurt"

Reginald A. Smith, Secretary of the Union, said: "I appeal to Friends generally to realise how much restraint is being exercised by those who feel very deeply and strongly indeed in reaction to this pamphlet. I feel we are entitled to ask that the supporters of the pamphlet shall exercise similar restraint."

He had been exceedingly doubtful, in discussions in his committee, whether a conference of this kind could be useful, as he found it hard to see how Friends could get through it without deep division--such as there had been signs of that morning. However, under continuing exercise he had come to feel that a thorough exploration, guided with great care by Friends of special concern and perhaps special knowledge, would be the most hopeful way of achieving unity without laying themselves open to the indictment that they had too "lightly healed the hurt" and cried "peace, peace, where there is no peace".

One of the things that opponents of the pamphlet found hard to accept was that they were uncharitable, lacking in compassion, or "innocents in a wicked world". A tremendous amount needed to be done on the level both of the deep realities to which the pamphlet had tried to give expression, and of the even greater and higher realities of which the Society, in present and past generations, had had widespread experience. "It must be a deep exercise", he said, "if we are to bring unity out of the disruptive tendencies of the modern world, of which some of us think this pamphlet is the latest example."

Saving Face?

Ruth Wilson favoured, not a conference, but a group of no more than ten or twelve to meet the authors of the pamphlet and try to get some concrete alterations to it. Gustav Fischer, on the other hand, believed in holding a conference--but a conference aimed at seeking not unity but the truth. Edgar Dunstan and another Friend supported Ruth Wilson.

Anne Millington asked: "Are we saving our face or seeking good?" Many people outside the Society had been encouraged by the pamphlet; the greatest misunderstanding of it had arisen among Friends who had misread it. They should read and study it more carefully, and should also read other work specially written on the subject, such as Kenneth Barnes's He and She and Harold Loukes's Christians and Sex: A Quaker Comment.

Otto Peetz gave qualified support to a conference. He would be uneasy if its aim were to tear the pamphlet to bits; much easier if it were to try to clear their minds as a group on the truth. Rightly planned, it could be a useful exercise in group thinking.

While realising that neither in a tiny group nor in a conference could they reach out to the truth they needed or find the answers, Muriel Putz thought that they might say "yes" to a conference representative of every Meeting in the country, out of which a continuing committee could be appointed, in further search of some more agreed consensus of thinking of the whole Yearling Meeting. Robert Illing said that the conference should be of Friends in touch with young people, or its pronouncements would be of no value whatever.

It was agreed to ask three members of the group which produced Towards a Quaker View of Sex, three members of the Marriage and Parenthood Committee, and three members of the Friends' Temperance and Moral Welfare Union, to confer on the possible scope and terms of reference of such a conference. This will be brought to the July meeting, when the whole question of holding it will be re-examined.

Publication Policy

At an earlier stage this spring the publication of Towards a Quaker View of Sex, and controversy arising as to its manner of publication, had led the Home Service Committee to review its publication policy. This review continues; but the Committee came to the Meeting to ask if it would appoint two or three members experienced in matters of publication to join the Committee's discussions. The Nominations Committee is to bring in some names.

(Our report of this very long Meeting will be concluded next week. Among matters still to be reported are the Meeting's decision to send a latter of appreciation to the Pope on his encyclical.)
*published last year at 1s. 9d.