Linda Woodhead

The Christian process. . . demands the sacrifice of the hitherto most valued function, the dearest possession, the strongest instinct. (Jung 1938: 25)

Sex is the single most controversial topic in the churches today. In both northern and southern hemispheres disagreement between and within the churches tends to come to sharpest focus over the issue of homosexuality But a penumbra of anxiety extends over many related issues, including the breakdown of marriage and the family; the changing roles and expectations of women; the permissibility of contraception, abortion, new reproductive technologies; and - in the African context - polygamy. This situation is unprecedented. Whilst sexuality has always been a particular concern of the churches, it is only in the modern period that it has assumed such central and universal prominence in a Christian agenda.

The first part of this chapter offers some suggestions about how this situation has come about in the modern West. Three factors are isolated as particularly significant: the privatization and "domestication" of Christianity in the modern world, reaction against modern "permissiveness" in the quest for a distinctive Christian identity in a time of rapid change, and historical Christian concern with sexual regulation. The underlying argument is that the contemporary churches' anxiety over the control of sexuality in the modern world has a great deal to do with their struggle to retain social power in a situation where such power is under increasing threat. The central part of the chapter goes on to consider ways in which Christianity has redoubled its efforts to control sexuality in modern times, looking in particular at its defense of heterosexuality, and its impact upon female bodies. Finally, the chapter suggests that the modern churches' heightened concern with sexual regulation may have served as a significant factor in their recent decline. Here the argument is that the widespread cultural turn to "subjective life" which has taken place since the 1960s has involved widespread rejection of attempts by external authorities to impose order on the more authentic claims of inner, subjective life - including, paradigmatically, sexual life. In this context, the churches' stance on sexuality may have served to retain the loyalties of men and women wary of the subjective turn, whilst alienating the larger numbers who find the promptings of inner life more trustworthy than the imperatives of external obligation. In the West at least, "sexualization" may be an important factor in secularization.

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