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.