Ever wondered how the church came to stick its nose into our lives so much?
If so, read on! Religion & Sexuality 101…without mentioning the bible once!
“By the 11th century, Christianity was the dominant religion in the West, and basically ruled that world, and even rulers wouldn’t defy it if they wished to retain their thrones.
So at that point, the church decided some micro-management was needed…starting with marriage!
For the first 1,000 years, people did not get married in a church…marriage was a civil contract between the couple, and there was no church involvement. Verbal consent…and sex…was all that was needed to seal the deal.
In 1073, Gregory VII came to the Papal throne. He decided it was the Churches duty to take control of marriage for the good of society. At this great time of social change, landowners consolidated and hung onto property by passing it onto their eldest sons. However, there was often sibling rivalry over that position due to different birth mothers for different sons…so “God” was called in as referee…
That is, the church was the one who made the legitimacy of a son legal. This ensured the dynasty was safe!
For the first time in history, this deal between us and the clergy meant you had to be married by a priest. This in turn led to the church creating laws that told you who you could…or couldn’t…marry. They would only let you marry someone who was further down the line from your 7th cousin (that’s a long way), which consequently gave them veto to dictate marriages throughout all Christian lands. Funnily enough, due to this, just about every single marriage at that time was invalid. Only the church could give you a dispensation – naturally! – which in turn meant it generated great wealth for itself – naturally! For a hefty fee, the church would let you marry your choice of partner.
This all looks a bit stupid now, but at the time it meant the clergy could have a say in your marriage, thus they had a key means to control society…which is what the church has always been about! Didn’t matter if you were rich or poor…and this occurred right across Europe.
And so began its stranglehold on controlling sex, through it’s legal hold on people’s lives. By the 12th century, it had completed its hold on marriage by declaring it a “sacrament”, thus along with Baptism & holy communion, it was an “unbreakable contract with God”.
But wait – there’s a dilemma! Since the 5th century and the writings of St Augustine, we had been taught that all sex was sinful EVEN WITHIN MARRIAGE! Despite approving of marriage, marriage itself was tainted by sexual sin. The Sarum Rite (the Use of Salisbury) from the 13th century declared that marriages had to take place in the doorway of the church, and the bride & groom couldn’t enter the church until the ceremony was complete. In other words, it can’t quite handle the concept of marriage having a sexual and holy nature.
This, of course, raised questions amongst the laity…if marriage is a sacrament, why do we have to put up with being married outside the church door! Apart from its impracticality, with church porches being of various sizes, people spoke with their feet and moved it all inside.
These new church laws not only intruded on the private (sex) lives of the parishioners…but also on the sex lives of the clergy. Up until the 11th century, many clergy were happily married, and had families. Celibacy was represented by monks & nuns, but there was no formal requirement for clergy to be celibate. This concerned Gregory greatly, and he declared that “my great concern is that the holy church, the bride of Christ, Our Lady and mother, should return to her full glory and stand free, chaste, and Catholic!”. The pope now wanted all clergy to renounce sex, and bishops were made responsible for enforcing the campaign. The message was that God didn’t want married priests in his church as they polluted it! Married clergy were not just offensive to God, they and their offspring threatened to empty the church’s coffers. Married clergy had families, who had an inconvenient habit to give their children an inheritance..they were establishing dynasties, passing church wealth onto their heirs, instead of preserving it for the church. In 1139, a council of bishops in Rome declared that clerical marriages were universally unlawful and invalid. It ordered clergy to embrace the highest Christian ideal…celibacy! And we all know where that led!
This had a permanent impact on Western society, as from that point on, celibate clergy saw themselves as superior to everyone else. Their sexual restraint set them apart from those who indulged in the sin of sex…even if not all clergy lived up to this high ideal, the division was still established. Celibate clergy were superior to carnal laity! This made it easy for them to look down on others…especially women, who were considered “sexually unruly”, and not to be trusted. Women were a danger to holy places! In Durham cathedral, there is a line clearly marked at the doorway beyond which women could not pass.
By the 13th century, the church had taken control of marriage, stopped clergy marrying, and silenced women! It had boosted its power by intruding into people’s private lives in unprecedented ways.
Now, they snuck into the bedroom! Sexual desire, even in marriage, was something the church wasn’t happy about. It was thought that a man who loves his wife too much is an adulterer. All love for another mans wife is shameful, but so is excessive love for ones own wife! However, it would appear that a great many people ignored the church’s extreme teachings, and it would seem that there was a lot of sex going on…even outside marriage! Adultery was embraced with vigour…including same sex love. The middle ages were a golden period for gay poetry…most if it written by monks! Despite the church calling homosexuality the greatest of sin, the clergy were openly celebrating it! Sex! Sex! Sex! It was everywhere!
The church decided that if it couldn’t stop it, it would have to take it over! In the 13th century, they came up with an extraordinary solution…so all over Europe, church leaders started setting up, and licensing….brothels! On the south bank of the Thames, are the ruins of the great palace of the bishops of Winchester. Right next door are brothels…known as the stews…and they were managed by the church! Church leaders could now exercise tight controls over sex in the brothels…and make money at the same time. The bishop imposed strict rules upon the stews, he forbade prostitutes living on the site, and there were precise opening hours. Sex workers had to leave not only the brothel but the whole area on holy days between the hours of 6-11 in the morning, and between 1-6 in the afternoon. And when parliament was sitting, night time too, because the bishop would be in presence at the palace while attending the House of Lords.
The church had a monopoly on moral authority throughout Europe. The great reformation became a period of change in the 16th century! Protestantism declared that marriage was not a sacrament , and introduced divorce. They also declared celibate clergy to be a danger to society, and the cause of “other sins”…, and wanted all their clergy to be married.
But that is another, equally complicated story!”
Tim Alderman ©️2019