The Archbishop, the House of Lords and the Press

Canterbury: Wednesday, 22 July 1998

This report was filed by Simon Sarmiento, on the scene in Canterbury.

Other Anglicans Online coverage, with links to many other articles, is on the web at


So far the official conference events have managed to avoid much discussion of sexuality issues, and even the magisterial keynote address at the plenary session on making moral decisions, given by the Bishop of Monmouth (Church in Wales) Rowan Williams, deliberately chose quite another subject for the examples used. However, the Archbishop of Canterbury was all over the British newspapers this morning, and will be again tomorrow, on the subject of homosexuality. This is because the House of Lords (the unelected upper house of the British Parliament) voted tonight by 290 votes to 122 to reverse a recent House of Commons decision. The Commons had voted by an overwhelming margin of 336 to 129, to reduce the legal age of consent for male homosexuals only from 18 to 16. It is already 16 for females, the European Union is threatening Britain with legal action for sex discrimination, and it is already 16 or lower in all Western European countries except Austria (18) and Ireland (17). This action by the Lords to overturn a Commons decision is the top story in Britain tonight since the Labour government has already stated its intention to end voting rights for hereditary peers and make sweeping reforms of the upper house. The move was led by Tory peer Baroness Young, who said MPs had given their approval to a "paedophiles' charter". She said: "Any man can have sex with a 16-year-old boy without having charges brought against him. There are clearly going to be a great many peers who are extremely concerned about the decision." She claimed opinion polls show that 70% of the public opposed a lower age of consent for gays. And she declared: "It is the kind of thing that worries mothers and fathers who have a 16-year-old son and don't want the promotion of homosexuality." Ten bishops left Canterbury to cast their votes in the Lords, though the Archbishop himself stayed at the conference.

Last month, the House of Bishops of the Church of England issued a statement in a rather low key manner, which indicated that a majority of them opposed this legislative change. This morning The Times published a detailed statement by the archbishop which reiterated that viewpoint, and the paper carried a front page story with the headline Carey attacks lower age of gay consent. His own statement appeared under the heading We can't endorse this error - George Carey says only a sick society allows gay sex at 16. Here is some of what he said.

When the House of Lords votes today on the age of homosexual consent, my responsibilities as host to the Lambeth Conference mean that I shall not be able to be present. I therefore welcome this opportunity to explain why I cannot support the reduction of the age to 16.

Regrettably, it seems to be the case that many people are viewing the issue as simply an "open and shut" matter about whether or not one is in favour of equalising the age at which the criminal law seeks to regulate sexual behaviour between consenting adults over the age of 16. In my opinion, this view is far too simple, and wilfully ignores important moral considerations.

...our House of Bishops stressed the need for legislation to be rooted in sound moral values. We considered carefully the opinion that by decriminalising such behaviour, the police and social workers would be more likely to help those under 18 who might otherwise be afraid to seek help because of the risk of prosecution. Though there was a difference of view about the advantages and disadvantages of decriminalisation, all of us agreed that the criminal law affecting sexual relationships should offer protection for people who are vulnerable or at risk of exploitation, and be based on a proper understanding of human sexuality. There was also a widespread desire to get away from the tendency to look at such questions piecemeal. They need to be looked at in the context of an overall vision of what we want a morally healthy society to look like.

...I have been encouraged by the fact that so many people, inside and outside Parliament, have welcomed the emphasis that we have placed on the need for a sustainable moral framework - that is, one based on traditional Christian principles.

The law should not, of course, be used to discriminate unjustly, but there is still a widespread concern. This concern is that, unless the proposed law is strengthened, it will fail adequately to protect vulnerable young people, and Parliament will have committed a grave error.

I should emphasise, however, that though age and protection are related, I do not believe it follows that an improved degree of protection for young people under the criminal law necessarily justifies lowering the age of consent. Welcoming adequate protection from exploitation is not the same as accepting that homosexual acts for adolescent boys should in some way be endorsed by society.

That is not part of the morally healthy society I would like to see. Of course, I accept that there may be limits - especially in the current "rights" culture - to how far the law should attempt to enforce morality, but laws which are not founded on strong moral principles are, ultimately, empty vessels.

From this broader perspective, I remain opposed to the lowering of the age of consent and take some comfort from the fact that it seems that very many people in our land share my sense of unease.

The full statement is in the Britain section of The Times for 22 July 1998, and is reprinted here. See our instructions for how to read stories online in The Times.

This was not the only story featuring the Archbishop today. The same paper under the heading "Carey tells clergy to give congregations Hell" also carried a major plug for his new book which had its press launch at the conference yesterday. In this book, he criticises timid preaching and urges Christian clergy to rediscover their confidence and to address apocalyptic issues such as the end of the world. "The end time, as a promise rather than a threat, was absolutely central to the message of Jesus," he says. The book is in the form of letters to a future generation. He tells his grandchildren and other youngsters what they might need to know about Christianity as they grow up in the next millennium. His style of writing, says the Times correspondent, shows a level of evangelical belief in sharp contrast to the liberalism of many bishops in recent decades.

Similar stories appeared in other British newspapers and this shows the success which the conference press office, visibly under the direct control of Dr Bill Beaver of the Church of England, is having in managing the news so far. Undoubtedly this is the kind of press coverage that the archbishop wants to get for himself. Whether it is the best thing for other Church of England bishops to be seen as acting to thwart the democratic process is another matter. The news management is irritating British journalists who are finding that the official briefings are boring and that it is very difficult to get direct interviews with bishops (or even spouses). It could backfire into more hostile reporting before the conference is over. But in truth very little newsworthy for the secular press is actually happening at Canterbury itself. It may be helpful to quote here from last Saturday's Financial Times to show how the whole conference looks to someone who stands well outside the church. Columnist Joe Rogaly of the FT wrote:

I make no judgement on the rights and wrongs of this or that form of private behaviour by adults. What should concern us is that such frivolities are irrelevant to the central purpose of religion, which is to express faith in the metaphysical. This is of particular importance now that science dominates our thinking. Without belief we are on our own, short-lived constructs, concatenations of atoms, products of chaos plus evolution. With it, I must confess, we are confused, ill-at-ease, intermittently rebellious and acquiescent, troubled souls. For many of us, even reverent agnostics like myself, that would be better than nothing.

Almost the only other conference story to get space was the walkout of Bishop Riah of Jerusalem that I reported yesterday. The homily of Cardinal Cassidy, delivered at the Ecumenical Vespers service on Monday night was interpreted by The Independent as "an unusually plain Warning by Vatican on gay priests" on the basis of the final four sentences of the following paragraph, which I think is stretching things a bit:

The second threat [to ecumenism] is more insidious. It comes when prayer for unity and ecumenical engagement are compartmentalised, hermetically sealed off from other areas of Church life and decision-making. If these are just part of a series of concerns, perhaps left to the enthusiasts, the ecumenical imperative becomes subtly marginalised. Different approaches, important decisions, in other areas of the Church's life can conflict with it and may even undermine it. The commitment to unity is relativised if diversity and differences that cannot be reconciled with the Gospel are at the same time being embraced and exalted. It is put in question when pluralism in the Church comes to be regarded as a kind of 'postmodern' beatitude. It will be lost sight of altogether if radical obedience, and the necessity of costly ethical choices for faithful discipleship, are swept aside by a naive overemphasis on our innate goodness, underestimating the reality of sin in our lives and our world and also the power of Christ's redemption and the grace-filled possibility of conversion. Are we not experiencing in fact new and deep divisions among Christians as a result of contrasting approaches to human sexuality for instance? When such attitudes are in the ascendant, disunity between Christians will remain unresolved. Moreover, disunity becomes an increasingly grave matter within the still-separated Churches as well. Authoritative proclamation of the Gospel of Christ is diminished.

Copyright © 98 Society of Archbishop Justus.
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