The archbishop, crime and sin: the Sexual Offences Act at 50

In July it will be fifty years since the passing of the Sexual Offences Act, which partly decriminalised sex between consenting adult men in private, in England and Wales. Various articles have started to appear, reflecting on the Act and the time since: some celebratory, some rather less so such as Gregory Woods in the TLS on the partial nature of the Act, a ‘discriminatory insult’.

Woods mentions Michael Ramsey in particular, and there is a place for assessing the legacy of the Act and how far it did (and did not) go. But reflecting on the limitations of the Act risks obscuring how significant a move it was in its context, and how difficult to achieve. This extract from my 2015 book on Ramsey takes up the story. In contrast to the more recent history of the Church of England and sexuality, it shows that the Church was not always behind public opinion, and was indeed sometimes ahead of it.

Hugh McLeod has made the salutary point that, despite their chronological closeness, the several amendments of the moral law in the 1960s ought not to be seen as the result of a concerted campaign, but rather as a series of related but distinct movements. At large, if the public were broadly in favour of liberalisation in the cases of divorce and abortion law, this was less the case when it came to homosexuality. The law criminalised sexual activity between men of any age in public or private, and a significant section of public opinion wished it to remain that way. As with capital punishment, the support of the institution of the Church of England for reform put it at odds with considerable sections of the public, both affiliated with the Church and not.

It was during Geoffrey Fisher’s time at Lambeth that the issue had pressed itself into public consciousness with the publication of the Wolfenden Report in 1957. If Fisher was mostly supportive of reform, but with some ambivalence, Ramsey had made his support for a change in the law clear; change that was to come in 1967, with the passing of the Sexual Offences Act. The Homosexual Law Reform Society numbered several of the bishops amongst its members, including Ramsey, who had joined before coming to Lambeth.

The law on homosexuality is a paradigm case of the proper relation between crime and sin in a post-Christian society. The Christian churches were united in regarding homosexual practice as sinful, and this had been in alignment for centuries with the general moral sense of the public. But there were many things which the Church thought were sins but which were not crimes, including adultery; and there were other matters which were both sins and crimes but which the public regarded as neither. Ramsey knew that the connection between crime and sin that many of the public felt very keenly, and which they expected the Church to preserve, was not sustainable.

It is worth pausing over what it was that Anglican campaigners for reform in the law were arguing, and its limits. Almost all the churches were united in regarding the condition of homosexuality as intrinsically disordered, a state at odds with nature, and homosexual intercourse as the sinful outworking of that state. Some thought that as a condition it might be cured; others were less sure. But most knew that there was no possibility of help for unfortunate and unhappy men while their condition was the object of the criminal law. There were also the first signs of a reassessment of homosexual relationships as having a positive, indeed even equivalent moral status as heterosexual ones, particularly among the Quakers, but it was in no way the mainstream of Christian thought.

In this, Ramsey’s own thought was in line with the more advanced in his and the other churches in relation to the law; but not with regard to the moral status of the act. As he told the House of Lords, ‘homosexual acts are always wrong in the sense that they use in a wrong way human organs for which the right use is intercourse between men and women within marriage.’ As such, despite talk of the ‘new morality’ there could be no wavering in the Church’s own discipline: as he told the wife of the peer Lord Brocket, ‘As to the wrongness of the sins in question and all other serious sins, we have to be perfectly plain in our teaching.’

Some wondered, though, whether that moral teaching could remain plain if a change in the law opened the door to openly homosexual clergy. The Conservative Lord Chancellor Viscount Dilhorne, famously abrasive and one of Ramsey’s chief antagonists in the Lords, considered tabling an amendment to the Bill excluding clergy (of the established Church) from its provisions. ‘I can imagine nothing more damaging to the prestige of our Church’, Dilhorne argued, ‘than for it to be thought that parsons and other clergy of the Church of England will be free to engage in homosexual activities.’ Did the public support from the bishops for the Bill not foster such an impression? In this case, Ramsey was able to reassure his noble colleague, since the recent Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction Measure (1963) contained powers with statutory force to discipline clergy for moral offences that were not criminal.

Insofar as it is possible to recover Ramsey’s own feelings, they would seem to have been mixed. In private he was able to describe homosexual sex as ‘disgusting’, but this, when coupled to his concern with the law, issued in a desire to help; to provide for the rescue of the homosexual from his wretched state, and to set him on the right path. As to the causes of the homosexual state, he was agnostic. He wondered in the Lords whether it was possible in some cases ‘to change the direction of the sexual impulses from the homosexual to the normal’. In other cases, there was the need, as there was for all Christians in one regard or another, for ‘greater conscience or self-control’; this was important for ‘those who believe seriously in the means of Divine Grace’.

What was certain was that neither this help, nor the open and unhindered medical and psychological investigation that Ramsey thought necessary, were possible under the law as it stood. Those laws ‘do not help morality, and give a good deal of hindrance to the promotion of what is right.’, and fostered nothing more than a ‘sense of injustice and bitterness.’ The case for change was on grounds of ‘reason and justice, and on considerations of the good of the community.’ Ramsey spoke and voted in 1965 in favour of the Bill introduced by Lord Arran, and again in 1966 for the later Bill that was later to issue in the Act of 1967.

The letters that Ramsey received were often expressive of strong feelings, whether it be on abortion, or on relations with Rome, or about race relations in England, but those which he received about homosexuality were in no few cases indicative of visceral feeling: of homophobia in its literal sense. One thought it a ‘filthy business’ and Ramsey ‘a damned disgrace’; another asked ‘Is there no longer such a thing as sin?’

For many, the fact of the changes in the law was less shocking than the apparent abdication of responsibility by the established Church in failing to oppose them. As Hera Cook has argued, that a previously uniform standard of sexual behaviour was openly debated amongst the elite was itself instrumental in promoting change. In the eyes of some observers the Church, however carefully it tried to distinguish between the law and its own discipline, was culpable. Lady Brocket, the daughter of a clergyman, declared herself and her husband ‘truly and genuinely shattered by your support of the Bill, as are our many friends in every walk of life.’ For her and for ‘many good Church people’ it simply passed understanding that Ramsey should collaborate in the passing of laws that both contradicted Christian morality, and threatened to undermine some of the basic building blocks of a stable society.

But there was an opening up of a gap between crime and sin, which Ramsey knew was both inevitable and right, even if many his correspondents could not begin to tolerate or even understand it. For Ramsey, Wolfenden had been right to argue that ‘not all sins are properly given the status of crimes … to say this is not to condone the wrongness of the acts, but to put them in the realm of private moral responsibility.’ To address that was the task of the Church on its own account, and not of the law. Ramsey knew that the relationship between the established Church and the British people was changing. There were great tasks of re-evangelising the nation; of pastoral ministry to all, including men forced to work out their sexuality in fear. These were no longer aided, and indeed were hindered, by the law as it stood.

Archbishop Ramsey: the shape of the Church is published by Routledge, priced at £25.

The Church of England and learning disability, 1945-1990

[20 July: now updated to include a recording of the paper as delivered]

My paper for this year’s Ecclesiastical History Society conference has been accepted. I publish the abstract below. This is (I believe) the first attempt to open up an almost entirely obscure aspect of recent religious history, and I would be delighted to hear comments or reflections from readers.

The Church of England and learning disability, 1945 – 1990

The second half of the twentieth century saw far-reaching changes in the circumstances of people with learning disabilities in the UK. Advances in the scientific understanding of conditions such as Down’s Syndrome and autism were accompanied with a shift at national level away from institutional living to integration within local communities.

This paper examines the reactions of the Church of England to these several developments, as they played out amongst the leadership and central institutions of the church. How far was the church engaged in the legislative change that went through Parliament, and with which messages did its public voice sound? In relation to the conference theme, the educational needs of those with learning disabilities were forced upon the churches in a new way. How did the leaders of the Church of England understand the needs of these people both in religious education in schools, and as members of local congregations?

[Note: in the recording I inadvertently stated that the bishop of Portsmouth was the nephew of a child with a learning disability. What I meant to say was the the bishop was the *uncle* of the disabled child.]

Re-readings: Secularisation and Moral Change (MacIntyre)

First in a new series of re-readings is Secularization and Moral Change, by the moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, first published in 1967. They were in fact the Riddell Memorial Lectures, given in the young University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne in 1964; the 36th such set of lectures in a series that had included (amongst others) C.S. Lewis, W.R. Inge (the ‘gloomy Dean’ of St Paul’s) and the historian Herbert Butterfield. Macintyre was at the time a professor of social philosophy working within a sociology department (at the University of Essex, an even younger institution that had only weeks before welcomed its first students). It is this meeting of sociology, philosophy and religious history that gives the lectures their particular interest.

‘Sociology’ was enjoying something of a vogue in and around the Church of England; ‘sociology’ in inverted commas since the word carried rather different meanings. Much talk of ‘Christian sociology’ referred in fact to the doing of theology informed by a concern for politics, economics and the ordering of society, rather than an endeavour that began with an empirical examination of social fact. When the Church needed insight into the recruitment, training and deployment of the clergy in the early Sixties, it did not turn to one of the university departments of sociology, but to one of its own, an Anglican writer and theologian, Leslie Paul. His work of ‘lay sociology’ turned out to be gravely mistaken in its assumptions, whilst being ‘too sociological’ for others (that is, that it based its conclusions too much on social reality and ignored the spiritual). The level of engagement between church and academic sociology was in fact rather limited.

As Sam Brewitt-Taylor has shown, the notion of secularization had rather suddenly appeared in the thinking of the English churches in the early Sixties, and so MacIntyre’s intervention came at a key moment. V.A. Demant, Anglican priest and leading figure in the kind of Christian sociology I have already described, thought it of the utmost importance: ‘it throws light on certain questions which have never, in my estimate, been convincingly raised or answered in common Christian apologetic or in common anti-Christian zealotry.’ (1)

The debate about the secularisation of nineteenth century England has of course moved far since 1964, and little of MacIntyre’s little book will surprise the modern reader in matters of fact. Striking also is the confidence with which MacIntyre was able to talk about social class in Marxist terms; the quaint note it now strikes is an indication how complete has been the disintegration of Marxism as an intellectual framework in recent years. But its central insight would have been startling, particularly to churchmen given to reflection on the society around them.

It was commonly supposed that Englishmen and women ceased to believe in God as a result of the assaults of ‘modern scholarship’, and so ceased to behave in accordance with Christian morality. MacIntyre inverted the causal relationship entirely. Far from the established church being a social glue as a national church as Anglicans liked to suppose, English religious history was a misnomer: in fact, each of the major social classes, upper, middle and working class had their own religious histories, which were interconnected rather less than might be supposed. The Church of England had not lost the urban working classes to ‘secularism’; it had never had them in the first place. Industrialisation and the migration of the population to the cities, had meant that it was no longer plausible to suppose that the kind of social norms that had pertained in stable rural societies were in fact of cosmic significance, given by God. Any attempt for one class to posit its own moral norms as universal was too obviously a reflection of the economic interest of that class for the attempt to be successful. So, Christian moral standards declined because they became impossible to reconcile with social reality, rather than because people doubted the existence of God or the truthfulness of the Bible.

Such was the stuff of classic secularisation theory as in the works of Max Weber and others, although it was yet relatively unusual to see it from an English writer. What also strikes one re-reading MacIntyre is the sensitivity to language, that has become a key tool of analysis more recently thanks in particular to the work of Callum Brown. MacIntyre was in fact trying to ask a rather different question: why had England, and in particular the working class, not been more secularised? Seemingly paradoxically, the same conditions that made it impossible for universalising moral norms to persist also made the development of a thoroughgoing secularism difficult, if not impossible; the same terms of art were necessary for the moral reasoning required in each case. As each class was unable to answer the questions of personhood and ultimate purpose in a way that commanded wider attention, Englishness came to be composed in part of what MacIntyre called ‘secondary virtues’: fairness, tolerance, co-operation. It became impossible to discuss the purposes of life and the right ends to which one might direct oneself; one could only agree on the ways in which one might act.

What of the present (that is, the Sixties?) MacIntyre’s second chapter established the point that English people had lost the sense of the existence of objective moral authority, such that those like the bishops of the Church of England, still given to making pronouncements on moral issues, were now simply speaking in terms that were no longer comprehensible; whether or not the hearer might agree with a moral proposition, they could no longer see why they should accept it to be right because of who it was that said it. If bishops continued to make such statements, it was in part because they were of a generation and class that was still accustomed to make them (pp.54-6). In the context of the Church of the Sixties, this would be have been chewy stuff indeed; a fundamental challenge to the whole basis on which many thought they were to act within society as a whole. If few churchmen seized on MacIntyre’s little book as Demant did, this may have been the reason. But some efforts were being made to ‘do something’ by theologians such as John Robinson, bishop of Woolwich, in books like Honest to God (1963), for which MacIntyre also had some choice words

MacIntyre had form in relation to Honest to God having reviewed the book the previous year for Encounter. (‘What is striking about Dr Robinson’s book’ he wrote ‘is first and foremost that he is an atheist.'(2) Paul Tillich and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, on whose work Robinson drew, had attempted to recast Christian morality in terms that (it was hoped) Promethean ‘Modern Man’, come of age and confident, could accept. The attempt was a recognition that ‘traditional Christian ethics is no longer applicable in an entirely changed social and institutional situation’. But the attempt was now to build a morality of intention based on a generalised idea of love for the other, and ‘moralities of intention divorced from the prescription of particular types of action are notoriously difficult to formulate in a way that gives them any content.’ (p.71) Not only was there a crisis for the churches, but the horse they seemed to be backing was bound to fall.

Was there any hope? MacIntyre was at this point in what Rowan Williams has called a ‘post-Christian’ point in his intellectual journey, but his answer, alluded to only briefly, anticipates his later reception into the Roman Catholic church. The conservative turn of the English disciples of Barth and Kierkegaard, and the parallel revival in Catholic orthodoxy together seemed to be having the better of the argument (p.68). To insist on revelation and the persistence of traditional moral norms might, in MacIntyre’s view, be simply a wilful ignoring of social reality: ‘such a version of orthodoxy will be immune to any suggestion of refutation by or modification as a result of sociology or social history.'(p.67) However, it at least maintained the inner coherence and distinctiveness of the system from which those norms were derived, where Tillich rendered them indistinguishable from the world they were supposed to be transforming. Read again at a distance of fifty years, that passing remark anticipates the swing towards conservative theologies in the years that were to follow, and trends in the relation of theology and the academy to boot.

(1) Demant reviewed the book in the Journal of Theological Studies, 19:1 (1968), 423-5.
(2) ‘God and the theologians’, reprinted in Robinson and David L. Edwards (eds), The Honest to God Debate (London:SCM), pp.215-28.
See also Rowan Williams’ discussion of Honest to God and MacIntyre in his Anglican Identities (London: Darton Longman and Todd, 2004), pp.103-6.

Religion, law and national identity in the archived Web: new article

I’m delighted to say that an article of mine has appeared this week in a new collection of essays, edited by Niels Brügger and Ralph Schroeder: The Web as History (London: UCL Press, 2017, ISBN: 9781911307563).

My article is ‘Religious discourse in the archived web: Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, and the sharia law controversy of 2008’ (pp. 190-203). It examines the controversy over a public lecture given by the archbishop on the interaction of civil and religious law, but from a new angle: the imprint the controversy left in the archive of the UK web. It makes particular use of British Library data documenting the link structure of the .uk country code top level domain for the period 1996-2010.

The whole thing is available as an Open Access PDF, but here’s my conclusion.

It is a brave historian who attempts to interpret the very recent past, as opposed to merely documenting it. As with most aspects of very recent history, the full significance of Rowan Williams’ lecture about sharia law will only become clear as the passage of time grants the historian a sufficiently long perspective from which to view it. An exhaustive qualitative examination of both the published record, and memoirs and private papers that are as yet inaccessible (not least the papers of the archbishop himself, not due to be released until 2038) will be needed to place the episode in its fullest context. Without these, we cannot yet know how changes in patterns of communication that are observable in the archived web were motivated, or how opinions expressed online related to broader patterns of social and intellectual change. However, even if it is difficult to explain changing patterns of religious discourse on the web, we may nonetheless document those changes.

First, the sharia law episode prompted a step-change in the levels of attention paid to the domain of the archbishop of Canterbury, as evidenced by the incidence of inbound links, and also a broadening of the types of hosts that contained those links. Second, a comparison of the inbound links to the Canterbury domain to that of the archbishop of York suggests that the historic privilege given to the views of Canterbury over those of York was extended onto the web. Regardless of their actual status in relation to each other within the Church of England, the media and the public at large seemed only to pay attention to Canterbury. Finally, a qualitative examination of the site of the British National Party shows that at least one organization, with a very particular concern with the place of Islam in British life, certainly took new account of the person of the archbishop as a result of the 2008 controversy.

This chapter has also sought to use the episode as a means of demonstrating both the potential for historians to utilize the archived web to address older questions in a new way, and some of the particular issues of method that web archives present. At one level, the methodological complications presented here – understanding the meaning of a link from one resource to another, say – are peculiar to the archived web and must be understood anew. As with all other born- digital sources, there is work to be done amongst historians in understanding these issues of method, and in acquiring the skills needed to handle data at scale. At the same time, it is part of the historian’s stock- in- trade to assess the provenance of a body of sources, its completeness and the contexts in which those sources were transmitted and received. The task at hand is in fact the application of older critical methods to a new kind of source: a challenge which historians have confronted and overcome before.

This chapter has also tried to show some of the potential available to historians, should they accept the challenge. In the study of public controversy, the archived web allows the detection of changing communication patterns at scale that would be impossible using a traditional qualitative method. It also enables the detection of attention being paid online in places where a scholar would not think to look. More generally, the chapter has attempted to outline an approach that combines quantitative readings of the links in web archives with qualitative examination of particular subsets of resources. When dealing with a new superabundance of historical sources, a combination of distant and close reading will be required to understand the archived web.

Further reviews of Archbishop Ramsey: the shape of the Church

The reviews of my 2015 book on Michael Ramsey are now appearing thick and fast in the journals, following the usual gap after the initial notices in the press. Mark Dorsett in Modern Believing thought it a ‘fair-minded and judicious book’, while Peter Waddell in Reviews in Religion and Theology thought its central point was ‘developed carefully and persuasively throughout the book, and in the end it is difficult to dissent sharply from’. My thanks are due to both of them. Ramsey - cover

Waddell ends his review by saying:

This is an excellent resource for anyone interested in the history of the Church of England in the second half of the twentieth century, and in Michael Ramsey especially. It reminds us what a tremendous figure he was.

Waddell also makes what I accept as a fair point, in that while discussing the 1967 reform of the law on abortion, I suggest that no-one foresaw the later rapid rise in the number of terminations in the UK.

A few pages earlier, he notes the Church’s pre-legislation working group acknowledging the concern of ‘traditional moralists’ that the slippery slope towards abortion on demand loomed, before breezily dismissing it with confidence that safeguards would be devised. Had they been heeded, the Church of England’s approach towards the initial 1967 legislation and the subsequent abortion tsunami might have been very different. Might this illumine a wider issue, wherein Ramsey appears a little too ready to accept wider cultural assumptions, especially those shared by the liberal elite which Webster shows was in many ways his natural hinterland? […] Webster is excellent at showing the constraints on an Archbishop of Canterbury, but perhaps we need more theological and ethical reflection on whether the acceptance of those restraints have cost too much.

I draw this out because it raises once again, as several of the other reviews have, the proper role of historical writing. I would certainly want there to be more ethical and theological reflection on the legacy of the long Sixties, but doubt my own capability to produce it – or at least, to produce it as well as a theologian or ethicist would.  There are moments in the book where I allowed myself to flirt with just this kind of editorialising, which were pointed out by one of the historian reviewers. The issue was the subject of this post, on Who is religious history for?