Perspective - Sexuality Rows
'In London, the English bishops who took part in the House of Lords debate were not unanimous in supporting the archbishop. Nine of the 26 bishops who have seats (by virtue of their seniority as diocesan bishops) were present. Of these six voted against lowering the age, and three voted in favour. Two other retired archbishops who are now life peers also voted against. The speeches delivered by the Bishop of Winchester and by Lord Habgood the retired Archbishop of York (both against lowering the age) and from the Bishop of Bath and Wells (in favour) are worth studying'.
|MOTION MOVED ON
CONSIDERATION OF COMMONS AMENDMENT No. 14
That this House do disagree with the Commons in their Amendment No. 14.
The Lord Bishop of Winchester: My Lords, I rise to speak in support of the amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady Young. I represent the statements of the House of Bishops of the Church of England published on 21st June and, as the noble Baroness, Lady Young, mentioned, many of your Lordships will have seen the Archbishop of Canterbury's article in The Times today, which she accurately quoted. I am sure the House will understand his decision that he needs to stay in Canterbury today with the Lambeth Conference and so cannot be here himself.
I want to draw your Lordships' attention to two aspects of the context in which all in Britain today discuss, and in which some of us have to consider, legislation on matters such as those before us in this clause. First, and pervasively, there are strong pressures upon people of every age--and not only upon young people--towards and deeper into sexual activity really as a mark of maturity, of being a fully human person, almost as a human right. Very powerful voices combine to rule out restraint, chastity and saying "no" as undesirable--even unnatural. Secondly, the assumption is widespread--it is almost axiomatic--that homosexual activity in general is as appropriate and as desirable as heterosexual activity. It is for anyone to choose between them as equal options, as it were, on a supermarket shelf.
As the House of Bishops said in its statement a month ago: "Pressures are at work to legitimise any and every lifestyle irrespective of any difference of value and quality between them".
That, with all respect to the noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu, is the kind of wrong message which I judge it is right to oppose. The statement of the House of Bishops continued: "Our Christian faith teaches that sex is a gift of God for the enriching of our lives within the context of marriage. Rightly used, it has a sacramental quality which speaks of the abiding, permanent and sacrificial love of God for us. It ought not to be treated casually and outside a strong framework of moral values".
I believe that Parliament should be very wary indeed about deserting the wisdom in these matters not only of the Christian faith but of the other major faiths too, of which the noble Baroness, Lady Young, has already made brief mention, and from representatives of which we may hear later in the debate. I believe that we should not take a step which, along with others, will have the effect of further undermining the position of marriage in our society and that we should not collude with, still less approve of, the climate to which I have pointed by voting in a way which will be reported as "Lords back gay sex at 16". The sub-editors will for once be right; and who would want to back sex at 16 for anyone?
Then there are two particular arguments, in addition to those more general ones, for not lowering the age of homosexual consent to 16. First, and especially in relation to subsection (1) of the clause inserted in the other place--the previous speaker referred to this at much greater length and in much greater detail than I intend to do--the medical risks and the risks to physical health of at any rate a substantial proportion of homosexual sexual activities are significantly greater than those for heterosexuals. Notwithstanding the advice of many professional bodies--I respect both their professionalism and the particular aspects of care to which they draw attention--I, with many others, am not convinced that even today all or even most young people are so clear by 16 about their orientation that there is no risk of their opting prematurely, encouraged by the sexual supermarket to which I referred, into practices and into a culture from which they may later find it difficult to emerge.
I believe that these are strong and clear grounds for rejecting the notion that the reduction to 16 of the age of homosexual consent is simply an issue of justice and that, overall, for the reasons I have adduced, the discrimination that offends some--and understandably when that word is used--in holding the age of consent at 18 is justified.
Lastly, I believe that we shall both care more for young gay people and care more for young people in general by holding the age of consent at 18 than by reducing it to 16, with all the risks to those still younger that I believe will follow such a reduction.
The Lord Bishop of Bath and Wells: My Lords, I speak as one of a minority amongst my colleagues on these Benches. Having listened to the speeches, it is important that it can be seen and understood that not all religious people feel the same way. I understand and respect the conclusions of the majority of my colleagues. I agree with much that the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury wrote in his article this morning. I particularly appreciate his encouragement that those who hold different views according to conscience should be able to speak.
This matter is tremendously important. It affects an often marginalised minority. Homophobia may be a new word but it is not a new experience; it is deep-rooted and long-lasting. It affects young people in particular. As always, we need to exercise special attention because of the power of the majority--special attention to justice and the avoidance of discrimination, as with all minorities.
I speak after many years of talking with homosexual people about these issues and, within the limitations of my own understanding, acting as a counsellor to many. I have studied the Bible for 40 years and I have a deep reverence for the teachings of Jesus Christ. It is the model for my life, like many in your Lordships' House.
This amendment poses us a serious moral difficulty. It reduces the age of consent for anal intercourse, which is quite unacceptable. I agree that it is often both dangerous and demeaning for both heterosexual and homosexual people. At the same time the amendment offers an important, overdue and much-needed opportunity to reduce the threatening and unjust discrimination against gay people. They may be a minority; they are very rarely heard in the gatherings where such decisions are made; they may not be heard but perceived.
Although I am chairman of the Children's Society, I do not speak on its behalf this evening. But that society is committed to being non-discriminatory in its work. I have had the opportunity to speak to the society staff who are working specifically with young gay people and they have influenced my thinking. People who wish the age to be kept at 18 talk about protecting young people during the maturing process. One of my regrets about the whole debate is that no image is given to homosexual young people as to how they might constructively lead their lives. The concentration is always upon anal intercourse.
Of course there are people who are ambivalent and uncertain in their teenage years. Some people are ambivalent and uncertain throughout their lives. Those uncertainties about identity can be just as strong for young heterosexual people. It is amazing how often in the debate one can say, "And this would be the same for heterosexual people." We load on to that minority a burden of moral responsibility, a burden of pressure from society, yet hardly seem to pay attention to the immoralities of heterosexual people, the abuse of children by heterosexual people and the abuse in families by heterosexual people of young children. I cannot help but feel that there is a scapegoating procedure going on here which is not new in history and not new in our society.
I share with my colleagues concern over the way in which sexual intercourse, for so many vulnerable young people, has been detached in their minds, it seems, from commitment, mutuality and understanding. For such young people there is a degree of protection at law under the child protection provisions if they are used as they could be. Perhaps after the working party they will be strengthened in that regard.
It is my hope that the child protection procedures will be used, as has happened in several projects around the country, in the defence of child prostitutes and that the pimps and clients will be prosecuted for their behaviour and not those young people who have often become what they are because they have themselves been victims of abuse.
As well as those who are ambivalent about their sexual identity, who are undecided about it, there are many older boys--are they really young men?--who by the time they are 16 are convinced they are gay. The workers to whom I have talked in the Children's Society say that because of the difficulty and uncertainty involved in accepting that they are gay, most homosexual young people have often been made to think much more deeply about their identity than their friends who are heterosexual. Few people I have met have chosen to be gay, but rather accept it as a difficult journey.
A young person who suspects that he is gay will often disguise his feelings for fear of ridicule and because he himself cannot accept the fact. It is not so difficult to know if one is attracted to one sex or the other. We have mentioned public schools. We must recognise that the segregation of the sexes has played a part in history in those misunderstandings. For the person involved, it is a daily fact of life as to whether they are attracted to their own or the opposite sex.
At the moment, the 16 or 17 year-old gay has to deal with the problem of prejudice and criminalisation. That is not a small matter. It is a fear that spreads, not in a preventive or helpful way but into every corner of his self-respect and the attitudes of others. We should encourage young people who perceive themselves to be gay to establish a realistic, loving ethic. They need to be able to talk about it free of fear as do those who are still ambivalent. They need education and discussion without prejudice and without fear of punishment.
As long as we give them no support or recognition, they will find it difficult to set about their lives, to make faithful relationships. The option of marriage, so blithely suggested, is not an option for someone who understands himself to be gay. Indeed, many marriages have fallen foul of that precise idea because people have come to understand their orientation in later life.
We leave those people in an unchaste world, without a recognised ethic to live by or aim for, except chastity. It is wrong that in the amendment what might be expected of intimacy between two homosexual people is defined so often as anal intercourse which I continue to believe to be wrong, physically damaging, and all the other things that have been mentioned.
The homosexual sub-culture is caused partly by the experience of ghettoisation, reinforced by legal sanctions. In our efforts to prevent people from becoming gay, we often end up by endorsing the prejudices and the risks they run by criminalising them. The moral dilemma remains for me in the amendment. Do we vote to take an important step to tackle inequality and discrimination? That would be voting in favour of a moral implication of which I cannot approve. We are presented with an imperfect package: to accept it or to reject it involves a wrong action. It is doubtful whether it has been well constructed and well made.
Lord Habgood: My Lords, I am sorry that noble Lords have to hear yet another voice from the Church of England, even if I am now on the other Benches. I have spent much of time as a bishop trying to mediate between opposing positions. The fact that your Lordships have heard two very different accounts from the Church of England is not dishonourable; it is mature. I do not think that anyone can enter fully into this debate without realising that we are debating an agonising subject in which there is no clear right decision. If we feel that it is entirely clear cut, I think that we have not understood the argument.
I was delighted when the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, mentioned the Wolfenden Committee. It is probably not known generally that, prior to that commission, the Church of England produced an unpublished report on homosexuality. It was that report which recommended that the homosexuality between consenting adults should no longer be a criminal offence and gave the green light to the government of the day. So the Church of England has long been involved in this and does not have the anti-homosexual stance which is nowadays sometimes pinned on it.
We have surely no wish to victimise homosexuals, still less to criminalise them. Yet despite that, I have an unease about lowering the age of consent still further. There are too many examples in the past of well-meaning legislation which has had undesirable and unexpected effects. We may accept that we lower the age of consent to 16 now, but in practice it gives the green light to 14 year-olds; and we are going down a slippery slope.
The reason why I believe we should be cautious--we may not agree to this amendment but to some of the others--is that none of the reasons given for a change seem strong. The first reason we were given with great eloquence is that young people are practising it anyway. That does not seem to me a good reason for changing the law. Indeed, I do not see how a Government could follow that argument when they are trying to do exactly the opposite as regards smoking.
The second reason given is what one might call the medical advice argument: that only if homosexuality at 16 is made legal will young boys be prepared to talk to their doctors. I think that that reason is inconsistent. That inconsistency is often indicated quite blatantly. For example, are 16 year-old boys generally firm in their sexual identity, or are they not? If they are firm in their sexual identity, it seems to me that there should be no problem about discussing the matter with some wise adviser at any age, without having to indulge in particular sexual activities in order to discover that they are homosexual.
On the other hand, if they are not firm in their sexual identity at the age of 16, many people have warned that that fluidity of identity might be put under pressure if the law were to be changed. One of the arguments has always been that boys mature later than girls. But there is a fluidity. One cannot be certain at the age of 16, and therefore one does not want to encourage anyone to get involved in a homosexual lifestyle at that age. But one cannot have it both ways. Either they are mature, or they are not.
The third argument which has been discussed considerably in this debate is about equality. Equality is of enormous importance. I refer to equality between girls and boys, and between homosexuals and heterosexuals, all of whom are equal as persons, and all of whom have equal rights in large areas of life. But, in terms of sexual activity, boys and girls, and homosexuals and heterosexuals are not equal. That is the whole point. They are different. To treat them as though they were equal is, I believe, to open a door to changes further down the line which could be highly undesirable. If the equality argument works, there is no reason for saying that homosexual partnerships should not be able to adopt children, or be treated in all respects as marriages. We need to ask ourselves whether that is the kind of recognition that we want to give. There are deep differences.
Finally, I believe that the argument about discrimination contains a large element of logical muddle. There are circumstances in life when we need to discriminate. The key question is: when is discrimination wrong and when is it necessary? Perhaps I may dare to take an example from your Lordships' House in the appointment of life Peers. How is that difficult decision made by whoever makes it? We might properly say that there should be no discrimination on grounds of race, sex, colour, sexual orientation or anything of that kind, because those are not relevant to the duties of a Peer. But there ought to be discrimination on the basis of ability, experience, public service and so on because those qualities are relevant.
Applying that argument, when should we discriminate on the issue of homosexuality? We should not discriminate in employment and in terms of a whole raft of human rights in society, but we should discriminate precisely on the issue of sexual activity because that is most relevant to this particular distinction.
To claim non-discrimination in this context is to beg the whole question. In fact, it is to argue in a circle. It is like saying that we must not be discriminatory about somebody's record of public service when inviting them to become a public servant; or that we must not discriminate on grounds of sexual orientation when we are discussing homosexual practice. The argument is viciously circular.
Such matters cannot be decided on the basis of some general principle of non-discrimination. They have to be decided on the basis of moral argument and on the weight of the evidence, not on some blanket appeal. It seems to me that the evidence in this case is not clear-cut. That is why I believe it is wise to be cautious and to make sure that this discussion is not the end of the process but the initiation of a process which will produce more balanced legislation in the slightly longer run.
How the bishops voted
Division No. 4
Coggan, L. (retired Abp of Canterbury)
Habgood, L. (retired Abp of York)
Bath and Wells, Bp.
[* The Tellers for the Contents reported 290 names. The Clerks recorded 289 names.]
Resolved in the affirmative, and Motion agreed to accordingly.