It is unlikely that readers of Modern Church would have come across the Galton Institute.  It was formerly known the Eugenics Society from 1907 until 1968, and it published an interdisciplinary journal, the Eugenics Review (1909-1968). Leaving aside the problematic period when Nazism appropriated the term ‘eugenics’ (an understatement, if that is possible), the Galton Institute and its forerunners have always existed as a not-for-profit learned society aiming “to promote the public understanding of human heredity and to facilitate informed debate about the ethical issues raised by advances in reproductive technology”.

Looking back on previous issues of the Eugenics Review and the work of the Society makes for uncomfortable reading today. In 1910, the Society’s own Committee on Poor Law Reform tried to persuade a Royal Commission that poverty was rooted in the genetic deficiencies of the working class. The Committee suggested that genuine paupers might best be detained in workhouses, under the authority of the Poor Law Guardians, in order to prevent their breeding.  Some in the Society genuinely believed that there were “pedigrees” of impoverished families, and that the nature of poverty was therefore hereditary.

In 1916, Leonard Darwin (son of Charles) published a pamphlet entitled “Quality not Quantity,” which sought to encourage the ‘professional classes’ to have more children. To help them, he proposed tax incentives for the middle-classes. Parliament, to its credit, did not rise to the bait. (I think this is an opportune moment to avoid being deflected by the current competition for the Tory leadership, and whatever policies might be proposed regarding poverty, migrants, etc).

Undeterred, the 1920s and 1930s saw the Eugenics Society campaigning for a graded Family Allowance Scheme which would have rewarded wealthier families with more funds for having more children, thereby incentivising fertility in the middle and upper classes. It followed that lower grades of Family Allowance were proposed in order not to “reward the breeding of individuals” who were deemed less desirable. 

The pre-war and post-war years saw the Society consumed with concerns relating to a range of social issues, including inter-racial marriage, immigration, racial purity, class differences in marriage, changing rates to fertility, the working classes, the (so-called) “feeble-minded” and the “mentally deficient”.  

As late as 1954 the North Kensington Marriage Welfare Centre were offering couples a consultation and pamphlet on “Eugenic Guidance” for those worried about passing on their “weaknesses”.  An organisation known as the British Social Hygiene Council had close ties with the Eugenics Society, and also helped found the Marriage Guidance Council.

 One year after the Lambeth Conference of 1958, the Revd. Dr. Sherwin Bailey (at the time Research Secretary of the Church of England’s Moral Welfare Council) published his reflections on the Lambeth Conference resolutions on the family in the January 1959 edition of The Eugenics Review, [Vol. 50 (issue 4): pp. 239–245].  Older readers might recall that of the 131 Lambeth Conference Resolutions passed in 1958, numbers 112 to 131 were on the topic of “The Family in Contemporary Society”.  That comes to 19 resolutions; so the family, marriage, children and sexual relationships consumed a good deal of time at LC-1958.

To put this in perspective, and at the same conference, there were 12 resolutions on the Bible, 2 for Ceylon, 2 regarding Methodists, 12 on ‘missionary appeal’ (i.e., have we got it, and if not, can we get it?), 11 on global conflict, and then one apiece for:  the task of the laity; post-ordination training; Roman Catholicism; and (intriguingly) ‘the contribution of women’. 

The Resolutions on the family were wide-ranging, and were the biggest category. The Anglican Communion was struggling with cultures converting to Christianity that still affirmed polygamy. LC-1888 – the first Lambeth Conference – had already agreed that “the wives of polygamists could be admitted to baptism subject to local decision”, but not the male party, who could only receive “Christian instruction”.  As late as LC-1920, these issues were referred to as “missionary problems”.  

By LC-1958, however, things had moved on. A bit.  Anglican Bishops had twigged that there might be a socio-economic dynamic underpinning polygamy, which was “bound up with the limitations of opportunities for women in society”. At LC-1968 the clauses and Resolutions on polygamy were dropped, following pressure from the African Bishops, who had talked of the “great suffering” caused by “abrupt termination[s]” of polygamous marriages. 

LC-1988 resolved to welcome and receive “[any] polygamist who responds to the Gospel…[and wishes to be] baptised and confirmed with his believing wives and children”. On the whole, Lambeth Conferences have steered clear of polygamy since then.

But what of Resolution 41 at LC-1908 – the “artificial restriction of the family”? LC-1908 regarded artificial contraception as “demoralising to character” and “hostile to national welfare”.  It went further, and decreed that artificial contraception was “repugnant to Christian morality” and constituted the “deliberate tampering with nascent life”.  Even with the trauma, social upheaval and diseases (especially venereal) that came in the aftermath of the Great War, the Bishops approved Resolution 69 at LC-1920 which rejected the use of prophylactics, seeing them mainly as a means of increasing the potential for vice. 

By the time of LC-1958, and again in the aftermath of a major global war, the language of vice, restriction, control and censorship had shifted to that of “responsible parenthood”. Nevertheless, Sheridan Bailey’s article in the 1959 Eugenics Review noted with approval that many Bishops argued that vasectomies  constituted 

“a major and irrevocable abdication of an important area of responsible freedom, a violation the Body that is God’s gift and not ours to dispose of as we will and a step fraught with unknown physiological and psychological consequences that could only be countenanced as a useful family planning device suited to poor and illiterate peoples.” (p. 243)

Although the status of divorcees was largely left to individual Provinces to determine at LC-1948, it is again worth noting the gradual progressiveness of Anglican attitudes. At LC-1908, even the innocent party in a divorce was forbidden to remarry or be blessed in Church. LC-1958, 1968 and 1978 all saw Resolutions passed expressing “pastoral concern” for divorcees.  LC-1978 spoke of “ministries of compassionate support to those suffering from brokenness within marriage”. Across the Anglican Communion, each Province gradually varied on admitting divorcees to Communion, or permitting them to be ordained. 

LC-1968 committed Anglicanism to testing the teaching of scripture against the results of emerging scientific and medical research in respect of homosexuality.  Bishops were encouraged to have “pastoral concern” for and “dialogue with” homosexuals.  It is against this background that current Anglican “difficulties” should be understood.  Its polity is largely reactive and pragmatic, but also extremely slow. And I do mean slow.  The biblical reasoning, such as it is, will usually consist of sprinkling scriptures on to some issues, hoping somehow that meaning and relevance will germinate afresh. As history shows, this usually fails and does not persuade others, who tend such exercises with indifference.

When was the last time you heard a Bishop give a compelling sermon on birth control, polygamy, or the status of divorcees in Church?  Consensus often takes decades to emerge; and more decades to be discussed; a few more decades to be debated…and eventually normalised.  The Lessons Learned here are that when the Bishops don’t get their way, they will eventually move on to something else.  

To a large extent, that is the story of moral reasoning at Lambeth Conferences. We can therefore draw some conclusions, and perhaps even some comfort, on diverse areas such as sexuality through to safeguarding. I have listed some suggestions, and related only to safeguarding, they highlight how Anglicans Bishops try to tackle “issues and difficulties”.

First, my advice is not to entertain any great hopes of leadership or bold prophetic statements from any Lambeth Conference. Watching paint dry would be quicker, and more engrossing.  These conclaves do not produce the drama of grey or white smoke.  Lambeth Conferences are born of thick fog. The safest thing to do is to stand still and wait for it to clear.

Second, history will not be kind to Bishops who try to control and manage, and pontificate on what is right and safe.  The promotion of safeguarding at the moment is not so very different in character (NB: not form) to the kinds of moral cleanliness and stability Bishops were promoting on issues of fecundity and superior class a century ago.

Third, society will look back in bewilderment at the censoriousness of Bishops in their mercurial decision-making in safeguarding. For every person made an example of, there will be at least one individual who is made an exception of. Safeguarding in the Church of England is far too capricious, and in the end, it will be treated with total indifference.

Fourth, because safeguarding is such an obvious contemporary caprice, a financial tipping point will soon be reached. Just as it has been on other new initiatives in the Church of England of late, which includes all kinds of speculative investment in branding, organization and mission. In the meantime, somebody is making a lot of money out of the fears that safeguarding trades on, and the seemingly endless expenditure on ever-expanding safeguarding personnel, process, procedures and publications.  

Fifth, there is now so much “stuff” in safeguarding, no-one actually working in this field knows who is doing what, or what to read, or who to turn to, or if anyone is actually responsible, accountable and liable for policy and practice.  It seems nobody is, and that this is currently only “managed” by unconvincing pronouncements and promises. 

Sixth, the story of moral reasoning at Lambeth Conferences for over a century is one of very slow adaptation, and even slower evolution. The Communion does change its mind. Or, if it can’t agree on change, conveniently forgets that it once thought it needed to agree on the issues that vex Bishops. Issues of divorce, remarriage, polygamy, sexuality, ordination and gender – eventually, these differences either get resolved, or the Communion resolves to bury them, and agree to disagree.  Safeguarding will follow suit.

Seventh, Lambeth Conferences are by nature timid, small and socially-isolated incidents: intra-speak-bubbles that fewer and fewer pay any attention to. The secular media now barely report its proceedings (e.g., another Archiepiscopal gaff and own-goal on sexuality is not even news, as it is par for the course). Bishops pontificating on climate change, global conflict and other socio-political moral matters no longer computes with a society that cannot fathom how the Church of England still licences and honours those who discriminate on grounds of sexuality and gender.  

Eighth, the Church of England has to decide – very soon – if it is a public body or some private dwindling sect. If the latter, then its complete disestablishment should be full and fast.  If the former, then its processes, procedure and practices, as an absolute bare minimum, should comply with the Human Rights Act (1998), the Equality Act (2010), Data Protection law (GDPR, etc), and Nolan Principles for service and conduct in public life.  If so, that would mean the Church of England and its Bishops placed under proper open scrutiny, accessible regulation, equality and fairness processes, transparency, accountability and justice.

The lessons learned from Lambeth Conferences – there have been fifteen of them now, but this may be the last – is that Anglican Bishops are perpetually engaged in a long, slow journey of moral catch-up with the rest of the world.  Time is running out to change, with patience (and numbers) wearing extremely thin.  The phrase, “quit whilst you are ahead” comes to mind; but equally, quit now if you are so very far behind, with no hope of ever catching up. 

That would be true for the Church of England and its efforts on safeguarding. Like Living in Love and Faith, you find yourself praying it is never exported or inflicted on any other Anglican Province. Either do these things better than the rest of the world and take a moral lead. Or, accept that the Church can’t handle these matters, and it is better off taking its cue from the wider world, and following kinder, more honest, and superior moral secular models and exemplars. 

Safeguarding is now another bellwether issue for the Church of England.  Yet as with all other debates on sexuality, gender, family life, marriage, we can once again see that this is another case of gnats and camels, beams and motes. Such areas of moral reasoning are littered with potholes, arbitrary decisions, committees that ferret around in endless bureaucratic burrows and rabbit holes.  There are always levels of corruption, hypocrisy, incompetence and misconduct. The game is to try and stem the tide of progressive thinking; never admit the problem is ours; and always, always, avoid transparency, external scrutiny and accountability. (The ‘Comms Motto’ is: “Make it look Good, but for God’s sake, don’t let them look too closely…because we have an awful lot to hide”).

This ‘Lessons Learned Review’ on Anglican moral reasoning at Lambeth Conferences concludes that Anglicans do eventually work out that they do better if they adapt and evolve. Whilst that is good news, the bad news is that this is normally too late to avert the further depletion of confidence of the public and their moral, social and spiritual expectations of the Church. Whilst Anglicans debate – again – sexuality (an issue they cannot resolve), they erode their public intellectual capital.  

There is more bad news too.  Anglican Bishops proceed as though they are somehow protecting the vulnerable, and that without their intervention, society will unravel.  The late-nineteenth and early twentieth statements on women reflect concerns the (male) Bishops have for women. Debates on birth control are concerns for the family and society. Later debates on sexuality were, likewise, narrated as concerns for natural order, stable family life and Christian ‘tradition’. 

Debates on safeguarding are currently governed by similar assumptions, but they are rooted in fear, suspicion moral panic and a sense of misunderstood roles and responsibilities. Tellingly, the moral reasoning of the Church ignores jurisprudence, legal accountability, oversight and governance.  The Bishops still presume to lecture the wider world on what is good for it, and what it should avoid.  But any talk of regulating unaccountable Bishops, introducing equality into personnel problems within the Church, and otherwise acting fairly, as a public body should – well, the silence from the Bishops will be deathly. 

What ultimately comes to pass is quite sobering.  Bishops resisting normative progressive cultural currents are destined to become footnotes in history. They may eventually feature in obscure journals and expensive monographs – exemplars of eccentric quirks, pastoral insensitivity and intellectual backwardness.  They are otherwise quietly forgotten.

Progressives are often on the right side of history.  Their moral reasoning tends to be vindicated – even celebrated – not least for the costs they carried in trying to call out and overturn the oppressions of their age.  Alas, there is no other world for us to live in at the moment, other than this one. This is our time. It is God’s gift to us. But being progressive will ultimately prevail.  In the meantime, try not to lose heart; remain focussed, be wise and clear-headed. Be good. Be kind.  Be strong. Pray, study and live for God’s kingdom that is to come. There is far less to fear than you might think, and a great deal to hope for. As for this Lambeth Conference, it too shall pass.

The Very Revd. Professor Martyn Percy 

Harris Manchester College, Oxford