Sex On Sunday

I spent part of Sunday morning catching up on the final episode of Professor Diarmaid MacCulloch’s three-part BBC2 documentary series, Sex and the Church. It is a history of the increasingly fraught relationship between Christianity and sex. Part I is all about Jesus and the early church; Part II about the Medieval church and the Reformation, and Part III about how in the last few hundred years the church has lost control of sexuality in Western society.

As you might guess, the early programs were of more interest to me. Here are a few highlights of things most people probably don’t know (and which fly in the face of what modern Christian conservatives want us to believe have “always” been true).

Aristotle taught that the entire human seed was present in male semen. The female body was simply fertile ground in which this seed could be planted and grown.

On the back of this (and other, similar, more ancient beliefs), the early theologian, Clement of Alexandria taught that all sex that could not result in a legitimate child was sinful. Adultery, concubinage and sex with prostitutes were all sinful because any child resulting would not be legitimate, and sex with your wife was sinful if she was already pregnant as she clearly could not get pregnant again.

Saint Augustine, of course, was a raging misogynist loon who taught that all sex was sinful, even within marriage.

Marriage was an important civil contract in the Roman Empire (hence Clement obsessing over legitimacy), but for more than half of its history the Christian church wanted nothing to do with anything so salacious. Marriage did not become an official sacrament until the Council of Verona in 1184. Even then marriages had to take place in the church porch, because a couple who were planning to have sex were deemed too sinful to be allowed into a church until their lust had been safely contained by marriage.

The third program is relatively free of such gems, but it does have some interesting correspondences with Amanda Vickery’s series on the history of feminism. It also has some rare footage of Sir John Wolfenden being interviewed on the BBC about his new (in 1957) report on the decriminalization of male homosexuality. And there’s a great section on missionaries trying to explain to Africans why it was OK for Abraham and Solomon to be polygamous but not OK for them.

MacCulloch talks a lot about the role of women in the church, but doesn’t talk much about gender. He glosses over Origen’s supposed self-castration as merely an extreme form of celibacy, doesn’t mention the prevalence of eunuchs in the Byzantine church, and ignores the idea of celibacy as symbolic castration. On the other hand, what he does say is often a lot of fun. He has mastered an almost Kenneth Williams-like salacious pout that he uses to discuss particular naughtiness, and he clearly has no truck with the pomposity of conservative Christian moralists. Overall, the series is a lot of fun, and has some good (for a TV documentary) history too.