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Forty years of decline

We have had some real changes in direction politically and economically in the past few decades but one trend has continued to move in the same direction – the decline in marriage between a man and a woman as the preferred context for sexual intimacy and raising children. 

40 years after the first British Social Attitudes Survey, exploring people’s social, political and moral attitudes, The National Centre for Social Research recently published data for 2023 which in terms of sexual ethics continues a trend away from Christian marriage and respect for life. Here are some of the key findings:

  • 67% think a sexual relationship between two people of the same sex is never wrong, compared with 17% in 1983.
  • 45% don’t think people who want children ought to get married and 50% agree that one parent can bring up a child as well as two.
  • 81% think it is all right for a couple to live together without being married, up from 64% in 1994.
  • 76% believe a woman should be able to choose an abortion when a woman decides on her own that she does not want to have a child compared to 37% in 1983

The only exception to these trends is that 64% describe themselves as not prejudiced at all against people who are transgender, a decline since 2019 (82%). Only 30% think someone should be able to have the sex on their birth certificate altered if they want, down from 53% in 2019. This reflects the fiercely contested debate about transgender.

Political scientist Sir John Curtice, (perhaps better known for providing analysis on elections), commented: “The vast social changes that Britain has witnessed over the last 40 years have been accompanied by a near-revolution in attitudes towards many social and moral issues, including sexuality…”

These statistics will come as no surprise to most people. So the story has hardly been picked up by the media which focussed more on some data in another part of the survey about whether men and women shared household chores fairly.

But when you stand back it is actually staggering how much has changed in the last 40 years. For all of my married life, the faithful, heterosexual marriage that we committed to, has become less and less honoured as an exceptionally good thing. My kind of marriage whilst still popular is looked at with some degree of disdain as the traditional, rather dull option amongst a multi-coloured palette of possible hook-ups in pursuit of love or pleasure, or possibly both. 

We can all see the consequences of this. Played out in ordinary lives. Seen in celebrity culture. Whatever the truth of the accusations against Russell Brand, he is influenced by the trivialising of sex as merely recreation to be boasted or joked about which creates a moral vacuum where for all the apparent concern about safety, abuse of the vulnerable is much more likely. As one writer says “It’s a pattern shaped by an ugly convergence of public hypocrisy, power, and sex. And a glimpse at the modern history of efforts to grapple with this convergence reveals a grim conclusion: we are busy trying to address everything except the root of the problem.”

An ex-BBC reporter also commented “And where has this moral revolution got us? We now live in a society where sexual excess is routine. No one is taught – least of all by the BBC – that self-restraint in sexual matters is a much surer route to personal happiness than untrammelled promiscuity. And absolutely no one is keen to emphasise the ruinous effect sexual permissiveness has had on family stability and the consequent happiness and well-being of children.”

But at the same time as being apparently permissive, our society is even less tolerant. When the media and the public turn against celebrities who cross some arbitrary line of moral behaviour and cancel them it is swift and brutal. The reality is not that we have become a more liberal, safer, kinder society but a less safe and cruel society.

We have to be realistic – these moral issues will be a barrier in evangelism. When I was getting married many couples were sleeping or living together but there was at least the shared assumption that heterosexual marriage was the preferred option. Now to even suggest such a thing is controversial and we need to be wise in the way we talk about these sensitive subjects, whilst not avoiding the truth. 

We should lament. Weep for the disregard for God; feel anger that God’s witness in creation is suppressed and ignored. Pour out our hearts before God that sin expresses the hardness of hearts and the giving over to immorality and social breakdown. 

And we pray for gospel proclamation and gospel fruit. Secular political leadership on the right or the left has no solution to the “root of the problem.” We need saving from our sin, and putting on a path of following our Saviour as we honour marriage as God ordained it. 

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