Lambeth Conference Allows Artificial Contraception

Reversing past ecclesiastical pronouncements that condemned birth control, Anglican bishops declared that Christians might sometimes legitimately use methods of “conception control” other than abstinence.

Summary of Event

From the beginning of history, some members of every society have sought to control childbearing through contraceptive methods. The acceptability of such methods to religious and moral authorities has varied over time. Saint Augustine, the fifth century bishop of Hippo, set the rationale for the official Christian position, which opposed contraception under all circumstances. This position prevailed in Christianity throughout the medieval and early modern periods. How much the rule influenced ordinary people’s lives is unknown, but as long as the birthrate stayed high, few questioned it openly. [kw]Lambeth Conference Allows Artificial Contraception (Aug., 1930)
[kw]Conference Allows Artificial Contraception, Lambeth (Aug., 1930)
[kw]Artificial Contraception, Lambeth Conference Allows (Aug., 1930)
[kw]Contraception, Lambeth Conference Allows Artificial (Aug., 1930)
Lambeth Conference
Birth control;religious constraints
Anglican Communion
Women;birth control
[g]England;Aug., 1930: Lambeth Conference Allows Artificial Contraception[07640]
[c]Religion, theology, and ethics;Aug., 1930: Lambeth Conference Allows Artificial Contraception[07640]
[c]Social issues and reform;Aug., 1930: Lambeth Conference Allows Artificial Contraception[07640]
[c]Women’s issues;Aug., 1930: Lambeth Conference Allows Artificial Contraception[07640]
Lang, William Cosmo Gordon
Pius XI
Stopes, Marie

When the rate of births in Western Europe began to drop at the end of the eighteenth century, religious and political leaders tried to limit the availability of contraceptives. Eventually, restrictive measures such as the so-called Comstock law Comstock law in the United States (an 1873 measure forbidding the mailing of advertising or information about contraceptives) were enacted in several countries. They had little effect, however, on either birthrates or average family size, both of which continued to decline during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Meanwhile, a rationale for birth control was advanced by philosophers Jeremy Bentham and James Mills, who saw it as a way to ensure that families would have the resources to support every child born to them—an argument that surely paralleled many parents’ own concerns.

The religious objection to contraception was based on the Catholic Church’s model of marriage, which considered procreation to be marriage’s primary purpose. Roman Catholic Church;opposition to birth control Any “artificial” interference with this purpose was held to be wrong. Protestant reformers, including Martin Luther and John Wesley, followed the same model of moral theology, as did the Church of England. In 1908 and 1920, the Lambeth Conferences (meetings of all the bishops of the worldwide Anglican Communion, convened approximately every ten years since 1867 by the archbishop of Canterbury) reaffirmed the Church of England’s opposition to birth control.

By the twentieth century, however, a new ideal of marriage—as a partnership for mutual support and companionship between spouses—was coming to replace the procreative-only rationale in much of Western society. Birth control advocates such as Margaret Sanger Sanger, Margaret in the United States and Marie Stopes in England opened clinics, held lecture tours, and publicized the plights of women who wrote to them, desperate for help in limiting their childbearing. Sanger and Stopes framed their appeals in terms of families’ emotional as well as material well-being. They argued that the relationship at the heart of family life, that between husband and wife, cannot flourish if the wife lives in constant fear of unwelcome pregnancies. This argument carried additional weight in an era when divorce was viewed as a burgeoning threat to the family. Stopes, in fact, deliberately launched a major press campaign for contraception in advance of the upcoming 1930 Lambeth Conference. By 1930, with the worldwide Great Depression taking a toll on family life, the old arguments against contraception were inoperative even for many Christians.

The agendas of the Lambeth Conferences cover a wide range of topics, although at each conference one issue is often “hot” enough to draw the lion’s share of news coverage. The 1930 conference, for example, issued seventy-five resolutions on subjects ranging from “the unity of the church” to “the ministry of women.” The resolutions issued by the Lambeth Conferences take the form of statements that represent the consensus of the bishops’ thought and are meant to provide guidance for Christians.

At the time of the 1930 Lambeth Conference, William Cosmo Gordon Lang was the archbishop of Canterbury. A Scot, Lang had been a “slum priest” in his youth and had served twenty years as archbishop of York before moving to Canterbury in 1928. The 1930 conference was his first opportunity to preside over the gathering of bishops, each of whom brought his own experience and national and cultural preoccupations to the deliberations. One of Lang’s important aims was the achievement of agreement among the conference participants. Unlike the pope, the archbishop of Canterbury does not have the power to rule on theological or moral matters by fiat.

The 1930 Lambeth Conference put forth twelve resolutions concerning marriage. These were accompanied by a background paper that acknowledged the strong tradition that had made contraception unlawful for Christians. It went on to note that this tradition was not based on anything in the New Testament or on any ruling by an ecumenical council. The paper reaffirmed that the first obligation of married people is to parenthood, but it added that when a birth would cause a mother’s health, or the whole family, to suffer unduly, the use of contraceptives is an allowable choice.

The conference adopted Resolution 15, which reflected these points, by a vote of 193 to 67, with 46 participants abstaining. The tone of the resolution was extremely moderate—it confirmed abstinence as the primary option for limiting births and emphasized the need for married partners to make all decisions concerning contraception in the light of Christian conscience. Nonetheless, the statement met with a burst of outrage and shock from many religious quarters. This was the first time a Christian group had publicly spoken in favor of contraception. In actuality, world reaction was mixed, but the protests gained more press coverage than did reactions of approval.

On December 31, 1930, the Roman Catholic pontiff, Pope Pius XI, released the encyclical Casti Connubii. Roman Catholic Church;papal encyclicals This papal statement was at least in part a reply to the Lambeth resolution. It restated the traditional Catholic condemnation of “artificial” birth control, calling it a “sin against God,” regardless of the couple’s circumstances. The terms were thus set for a divide that would continue within Christianity indefinitely, stemming as it did from incompatible basic principles.

Why did the Lambeth resolution come in 1930, when the conference of a decade before still supported the opposite view? Some chance factors may have contributed; for example, most of the bishops attending in 1930 were married men, whereas a decade earlier most attendees were bachelors. The presence of William Inge, Inge, William dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral, an influential churchman, and an enthusiastic supporter of Margaret Sanger, may have helped. However, compassion and sincere conviction surely also played a part. In addition, Anglican and other Protestant clergy were quite aware that, as the conference’s background paper said, contraception methods were by then widely used in every class of society. The conference participants likely reasoned that they would look ridiculous if they continued to fulminate against a practice that most parishioners—including the clergy—were going to continue in any case. It is worth noting that only the Roman Catholic Church had a workable mechanism for enforcing a ban on contraception, in the requirement of confession to a priest before communion.


As the first statement by a Christian body in support of contraception, the Lambeth Conference’s 1930 resolution gave moral support to couples who might have been troubled about using birth control. The resolution showed that Christian teachings, even in the highly charged arena of social and sexual behavior, might be reevaluated under some circumstances. By doing so, it opened the way for further discussion within Christianity on other controversial social issues.

Such discussion was not long in coming. As the century went on, new issues kept challenging traditional church teachings. Divorce, female clergy, abortion, and homosexuality were among the most problematic of these. The Anglican Communion was not always foremost in dealing with new social mores. Indeed, it came late to the recognition of both divorce and women priests, and not all member national churches accepted these. However, because of the Lambeth Conference’s pioneering role in the controversy concerning contraception as well as the Anglican Church’s historic position as a church with both Protestant and Catholic heritage, when an Anglican council addressed such issues, the rest of Christianity took note. Lambeth Conference
Birth control;religious constraints
Anglican Communion
Women;birth control

Further Reading

  • McKibbin, Ross. Classes and Culture: England, 1918-1951. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. Topical treatment of British customs and attitudes notes variations among the upper, middle, and working classes. Points out that as the state church, the Church of England had to reflect the basically Protestant outlook of the majority, despite the Anglo-Catholic sentiments of many of its clergy.
  • McLaren, Angus. A History of Contraception. Cambridge, Mass.: Basil Blackwell, 1991. Wide-ranging study by a historian, based largely on documentary evidence. Recognizes the existence of women’s networks and folk methods of contraception, but only glancingly. Includes copious source citations.
  • Maguire, Daniel C., ed. Sacred Rights: The Case for Contraception and Abortion in World Religions. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. Collection of essays by specialists on contraception in various cultures. Especially valuable for its coverage of non-Abrahamic points of view; includes discussion of Hindu, Buddhist, and American Indian traditions.
  • Tobin, Kathleen A. The American Debate over Birth Control, 1907-1937. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2001. Readable scholarly study documents the shift from disapproval to grudging acceptance of birth control in Protestantism over three decades. Asserts that Roman Catholic outspokenness against birth control worked in reformers’ favor by mobilizing latent anti-immigrant and antipapal fears.

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