Signs of the Times - The Archbishop of Canterbury, the House of Lords and the Age of Consent
Jul 1998
Gay Rights: The Archbishop of Canterbury, the House of Lords and the Age of Consent
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 "On the 22nd of July 1998 when considering the Crime and Disorder Bill, the House of Lords disagreed with the Commons amendment which sought to reduce the age of consent for homosexuals from 18 to 16. The division was Contents 290 and Not-Contents 122" (The House of Lords Information Office, 1998).

"When the House of Lords took up debate on the age of homosexual consent, the English bishops "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.

The voting details were:

Against lowering the age - Donald Coggan (retired Abp of Canterbury) Stephen Sykes, Bish of Ely John Habgood (retired Abp of York) Keith Sutton, Bishop of Lichfield Christopher Mayfield, Bishop of Manchester David Young, Bishop of Ripon Patrick Harris, Bishop of Southwell Michael Scott-Joynt, Bishop of Winchester.

For lowering the age - James Thompson, Bishop of Bath and wells Robert Hardy, Bishop of Lincoln Richard Harries, Bishop of Oxford.

A particularly outspoken attack on the role played in this political episode by Archbishop Carey appeared in a column on the leader page of the Independent . I refer to this in order to illustrate to readers outside the UK the overall context in which religious news here, including the Lambeth Conference, is viewed by the general public. David Aaronovitch said in part:

...if either the Bill itself is delayed, or the clause is lost, then we have - above all - the Archbishop of Canterbury to thank for it. ...Dr Carey, I am not a Christian, but I too have strong moral principals. They include tolerance, respect for others, concern for the weak and a desire for the truth. I may be a flawed vehicle for such principles, but there they are. And they are very different from the principles of some of those whose support Dr Carey is so proud of. I know, because I too have received letters from them. Couched in tones of sorrow rather than anger, and argued with sophistry and disguised illogic, they still amount to the same illiberal proposition: homosexuality is aberrant, unhealthy and damaging, and should be discouraged by law. That's it. Carey's position, when cleared of all the pompous penumbra, concurs with this view. He thinks that equalisation of the age of consent will mean that boys of 16 and 17 will become prey to the wiles of older men and, as a consequence, will be seduced into a lifetime of gayness when - otherwise - they might have grown up to be decent, God-fearing heterosexuals.

'... Dr Carey has power. He is the top man in a big institution, and wields considerable influence. By virtue of its position as the established church, no fewer than 26 "Lords Spiritual" sit beside the Woolsack in the House of Lords. And we criticise the Irish for hanging on archaically to their history! There are no rabbis representing Judaism in the Lords, no Hindus, no Muslims, no Sikhs, no Catholics, no Methodists, no Zoroastrians, no Humanists, no Druids - just 26 representatives of one sect of one religion sitting among the peers, ...'

"'Archbishop Carey has allied himself with the forces of intolerance and reaction, and is using his power as a leader of the established church to assist an unelected group of backwoodspersons to frustrate the decisions of the elected chamber, and to keep sexual relationships for men between 16 and 18 criminalized.

But how can we now argue against the outng of senior members of the Church of England, on the basis that their sexuality is their own business? No, by God, let's have them outed. And then let's chuck them out. For we liberals now know the truth: the House of Lords must go in its present form as soon as possible, and the bishops of this one church, raised by tyrants to pontificate over us, must go too. We should thank the Archbishop for a last letting the scales drop from our eyes.

It  will be interesting to see what response if any Bill Beaver or Lesley Perry issues to this diatribe... " (Lambeth Perspective - Sexuality Rows, Simon Sarmiento, Canterbury, July 24, 1998).

The Archbishop of Canterbury was unable to be present for the vote because of his responsibilities as host to the Lambeth Conference. However, he was against lowering the age of consent and made these views known to The Times, where he said, in part:  

"'Whilst I understand the Government's wish to avoid an adverse finding by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, it is regrettable that we have been as a result confronted with a timetable which has produced so unabalanced a package. I should stress, 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 remained 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. Even though I cannot be present in the House of Lords, I know that a number of bishops intend to be present and vote. They will look for satisfactory indications from the Government that the concerns we have expressed are being addressed and they will then -- according to their individual consciences and acting on their own responsibility -- decide how to vote'" (We Must Protect Our Young People, Archbishop of Canterbury, July 22, 1998).

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