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Churches catching up to sexual revolution

"Presbyterians debate liberal sex policy"; "Episcopalians ordain openly lesbian priest." What you see in those irresistibly eye-catching headlines is religion in breathless pursuit of a revolution. Anyone with eyes to see knows that sexuality in America has been thoroughly revolutionized by two forces. One was the birth-control pill _ a convenient, safe and nearly foolproof contraceptive device which freed women from the fears that, only a generation or two ago, repressed feminine sexuality and inspired the old double standard of sexual morality. (Men could "play around"; respectable women couldn't.)

The other force is television, which has imported sexual titillation nonstop into the family household. Sexual commercialism is a bigger presence in the daily experience of many American children than parson's preaching or parental precept. The celebration of the great god consumption has made big business of sexual suggestiveness. Meanwhile, commercial programing in prime hours is nearly as hooked on prurience and smut as on violence. The dirty joke, killed off by the sexual revolution, has reappeared as the sitcom.

How are good churchgoing, God-fearing people to react to all this? The sexual revolution tends to inspire two distinctly different defenses. Some denominations claim to find a doctrine of sexual repression in the Bible; and indeed, you can find plenty to back it up in the epistles of St. Paul and the more moralistic fables of the Old Testament. They take the view, accordingly, that if you shut your eyes very tight, if you battle to a standstill those who want to station condom machines in the high school hallways, maybe IT will go away. Or at least cause fewer problems.

Among the Presbyterians and Episcopalians, however, a somewhat more adventurous defense is contemplated: A variation on "if you can't beat 'em join 'em." That means accepting as facts what the new birth-control technology and more humane attitudes toward deviant sexuality have decreed and adjusting church doctrines and traditions to accommodate them. (When Margaret Fuller proclaimed, "I accept the universe," the historian Carlyle commented: "By God, she'd better.")

Accepting the universe of the new sexuality, within sane limits, certainly makes more sense to me. Focusing narrowly on the mechanics and rules of sex hardly seems to make a dent today. But there are dangers in emancipation also. To thoughtful people, it appears that post-pill sexuality, in its universal availability, tends to become dissociated from affection, loyalty and responsibility.

Lest these reservations sound priggish, it should be noted that this is nothing new. Sex being fun, it has always been a casual recreation for those who could afford it, had the social sophistication to accept its consequences with urbanity, or simply didn't mind one way or the other. In the circle of King Edward VII, when he was Prince of Wales, one wit said: "You could do anything (that is, carry on any kind of sexual liaison) so long as you didn't do it in the streets and frighten the horses."

It is the democratization of casual sex, and the precocious exposure of the young to it, that gives us pause these days. Long before they are emotionally mature enough to deal with it, children today will often have formed a confused and shallow view of sexuality, severed from the affections that make a good and lasting bond.

It is hard to predict the consequences. But the battered nuclear family structure could be endangered and eventually even extinguished by it; the trends are clear. I doubt that the Presbyterians and Episcopalians are close to a solution. But at least their heads are out of the sand.

Washington Post Writers Group