John Coulter: Churches need to get their acts together and should have the courage to deliver their own sex education to children in Sunday Schools and Bible classes
Known as Relationship and Sexuality Education (RSE), from January 2024 it will be compulsory for all post-primary schools to teach pupils about access to abortion and prevention of early pregnancy.
Naturally, this move has many Christian denominations up in arms with all four of the main denominations - Roman Catholic, Church of Ireland, Presbyterian and Methodist - voicing strong opposition to the move.
With the new school year starting in September, teachers assigned to deliver RSE will probably use semester one to prepare lectures for the January 2024 launch - a move which will leave the churches lagging behind in second place yet again when it comes to sex education.
But the churches have only themselves to blame for the looming RSE requirement because if they had used their Sunday schools and Bible classes to teach the morals of responsible sex education, the various denominations would not find themselves in this theological and spiritual dilemma.
Put bluntly, sex education talks for young people by the churches was for generations seen as a taboo subject, never to be mentioned. For the vast majority of couples, the first time sex education was addressed by the churches was in marriage guidance classes - and that only applied to the couples who bothered to attend such classes! Indeed, I have come across two churches where the marriage guidance classes - including the sex talks - took place after the couples returned from honeymoon!
In my own Christian journey, I only remember one occasion where a preacher addressed the subject of sex in a sermon, and then it was delivered in a whisper as if embarrassed to talk about the subject. My own experience of Christianity and sex education is via Protestantism and especially through Presbyterianism. From talking privately to Catholic students, I suspect there is an equal unease about addressing sex education within Catholicism. The perception was that addressing the issue of post-primary sex education in Sunday school or Bible class was nothing short of “dirty talk”.
The general view for many generations was that if a woman became pregnant outside of marriage, she was seen as a woman of ill repute; if a man made a woman pregnant, he was to be shunned by the church. Judgemental church gossips would have a field day wiping the floor with their condemnation if they even suspected a couple was having sex before marriage. Indeed, according to many churches, sex is only for marriage, therefore, the issue does not need to be addressed until the couple have become engaged at the earliest!
But if the churches are to have any relevance in the RSE debate and content, they need to get their acts together and start the sex education debates well before the time for marriage guidance classes begins. In practice, the clergy or those in charge of post-primary age Sunday school or Bible class pupils need to urgently start sensible debates on RSE before the January 2024 deadline kicks in.
Churches cannot moan about a deterioration in moral values or condemn sexual immorality among young people if they are not prepared to have such debates on RSE in their Sunday schools, Bible classes, youth clubs, youth fellowships and even Christian uniformed youth organisations, such as the Boys’ Brigade and Girls’ Brigade. People in the pews should not adopt the stance that it is solely the responsibility of the clergy to deliver sex education through sermons. Surely it is not up to the clerics to deliver Hell-fire sermons on the sins of sexual immorality?
The bitter medicine which churches must swallow is from January 2024, they will be in serious competition with the school curriculum for the hearts and minds of young people on the topic of sex education. Likewise, the churches will be no longer in a position where they can duck the RSE issue with the pathetic excuse that it is the role of parents and guardians to teach children about the facts of life. If the churches are serious about wanting to address the issues of abortion access and the prevention of early pregnancy then they should have the courage to explain their Biblically-based agendas in face-to-face discussion groups, not through roaring sermons from the pulpits.
Many Christian denominations are already in a spiritual pickle over issues such as same-sex marriage and gender identification because they lacked the courage to tackle such controversial topics at an early stage in a person’s relationship with the church. To quote the secular proverb, it is no use trying to close the barn door after the horse has bolted. The churches need to recognise that they will have to address RSE topics before the problems arise, not in the midst of a crisis.
The modern Christian churches are still polluted with far too much Biblical Pharisee-style hypocrisy when it comes to sexual sins. In the New Testament, Christ Himself told the Pharisees “let he who is without sin cast the first stone” in relation to the woman caught in the act of adultery.
If the churches want to be taken seriously in the ongoing RSE debates, they will require a supportive agenda, especially towards young people. As the presenter of a theological discussion programme on Christian radio, I have explored the actions of some churches on this issue. Their spectrum ranges from genuine Christ-like compassion to outright Puritanical persecution. Perhaps it is this wide range of interpretations on sexual relations which makes it so difficult for the Christian churches to agree both a common agenda and united front.
With the RSE debate, the churches cannot afford to make it a hattrick of bumbling agendas. They have messed up over same-sex marriage; they are still locked in a debate over trans rights. If the churches cannot get their acts together of providing a Biblically-based alternative to the schools’ RSE curriculum, then there is the real danger that the churches will drive many young people away from the pews and that would be a crisis which could affect many denominations for years to come.