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The secular understanding of sexuality and intimate human relationships changed markedly in the twentieth century, and this impacted heavily on the institutions of marriage and family. The churches’ engagement with these changes was diffuse, divisive and slow. They responded differently to the arrival of reliable contraception and legal abortion, and to the demands both for easy extrication from failed marriages, and for remarriage or ‘further marriage’. The expectation that couples should refrain from sexual intercourse until marriage has been generally abandoned by couples themselves, and is under severe strain even among conservative Christians. Since the average age of first marriage (in England and Wales in 2000) was thirty-one for men and twenty-eight for women it is not difficult to see why. At the end of the twentieth century, over 40 per cent of marriages in those countries were predicted to end in divorce, and 39 per cent of children were born outside of marriage. The figures are similar in Canada and the USA. In some countries married people were already becoming a minority of the adult population.
An enlightening window into the mind of Anglicanism over the century regarding marriage and family is the stream of resolutions emanating from successive Lambeth Conferences (of bishops of churches throughout the Anglican communion). It is probably fair to say that most Protestant churches were in sympathy with the resolutions on marriage and family. In 1920 the Lambeth Conference issued ‘an emphatic warning against the use of unnatural means for the avoidance of conception … and against the evils with which the extension of such use threatens the race’.
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