In 1954, the British government reluctantly set up the Departmental Committee on Homosexual Offences and Prostitution (better known as the Wolfenden Committee, after its chairman John Wolfenden) and charged it with the task of investigating the dramatic increase in male homosexual offences known to the police. Three years later, the Wolfenden Report controversially recommended that private homosexual acts between two consenting adults aged twenty-one and over should no longer constitute a criminal offence. The 1967 Sexual Offences Act finally brought these changes into law in England and Wales.
Perhaps most surprisingly, considering recent Anglican conflict over issues of homosexuality, the campaign for homosexual law reform was supported by influential sections of the Church of England throughout the 1950s and 1960s. The Church played a more important role in homosexual law reform than has been previously acknowledged by historians. Certain influential Anglicans encouraged the British government to overcome its initial reluctance to formally consider the existing law on homosexual offences and to include an equivalent examination of this more contentious issue alongside an investigation into the law on prostitution – a problem that government ministers already agreed required the urgent attention of an authoritative inquiry. Anglicans further influenced the shape of the Wolfenden Report’s findings. The submissions of the Church of England Moral Welfare Council (CEMWC) – a body created for the specific purpose of coordinating and extending the Church’s efforts in educational and social work relating to issues of sex, marriage, and the family – anticipated and encouraged the Wolfenden recommendations, arguing “it is not the function of the State and the law to constitute themselves the guardians of private morality… to deal with sin as such belongs to the province of the Church.”
This is clearly an important finding, but its implications need to be addressed carefully. To assume that the Church acted as an agent of permissiveness, or that it had more or less converted to a position of support for homosexual law reform by 1957, is to misinterpret the relationship between the CEMWC and the broader institution it was supposed to represent. The Council’s submissions to Wolfenden (which were drafted by a small number of representatives) did not reflect a consensus of opinion within the CEMWC, let alone the Church of England. The Wolfenden Committee was acutely aware that such views “may be far from representing the views of the churches as a whole… By no means all theologians (and still less laypeople) are so enlightened on these matters.”
The example of the Wolfenden Committee allows us to explore how historians might think about the role of religious authorities and institutions in the making of modern ideas about sexuality. Above all, it must be emphasised that there is no singular or unified Church policy or set of religious attitudes on sex to be unproblematically located by the historian. The historical record presents a cacophony of voices, a constant push and pull between different approaches, resulting in a series of unresolved debates full of tensions and ambiguities, and offering solutions deemed wholly satisfactory by very few. While this may come as no surprise to those working within (or on the history of) the Church of England, this issue continues to prove troublesome within the historical literature.
Religion undoubtedly occupies an awkward place in the history of sexuality. Previously, historians of modern Britain either tended to ignore religious discussions of sexual issues (usually in favour of examining secular influences such as the law, medicine, or science), or to accept uncritically the perspectives of an earlier generation of historians that Christian views are essentially anti-modern, backward-looking, and against all challenges and changes to traditional Christian morality. However, newer scholarship, including my work on Church of England attitudes towards issues of sexuality in the years between 1918 and 1980, contribute to this emerging historiographical debate. Recent work is beginning to reassess our accepted views, and to develop a more critical approach towards the historical relationship between British Christianity and the rise of new ideas about sexuality, suggesting that the religious and the secular were not two separate, antithetical modes of understanding – rather there were considerable slippages, overlaps and exchanges between these approaches towards issues of sex and morality throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
Much of this literature makes a vital contribution to the field. By focusing on instances of Christian sexual progressivism, it refutes suggestions that religion was (or is) essentially the “other” of modern ideas about sexuality. Nevertheless, it is important to reflect more fully on the complications of religious, and especially institutional, decision-making on controversial questions of sexual morality. Wherever possible, we must confront head-on the question of who or what was actually representing “Christian opinion” or “the churches,” otherwise we are in danger of exaggerating the extent of religious consensus within certain denominations and thereby suggesting a relatively smooth and untroubled process of reconciling Church teaching with new sexual discourse. Even a cursory assessment of recent religious controversy over sexual issues exposes this as a misrepresentation of the relationship between Christian institutions and issues of sexuality, whether in the past or the present.
Throughout the twentieth century, the Church of England’s approach towards institutional decision-making on questions of sexuality was to try to pull contradictory views – held both within and without the British churches – into some kind of consensus. The Church sought to contain conflicting sections of opinion, search for compromise and reconciliation, and act as a moral mediator. In this sense, disagreements over issues such as homosexual law reform were highly significant and had a very real impact on developing debates. Disputes and tensions were built in to the very nature of Anglican sexual politics and determined the limits and extent to which many were prepared to support changes in approaches towards issues of sexual morality. The result was a series of pragmatic and often ambiguous Church positions on sex questions that stored up further conflict and later problems for the Church, especially in the years after 1970.
Even after declaring its official and public support for the Wolfenden recommendations, the CEMWC adopted a cautious approach towards the question of homosexual law reform. In the years after 1957, Anglicans remained fiercely divided and this had a significant effect on policy-making within the CEMWC. The Council supported the Wolfenden Report in principle and considered law reform an inevitable and desirable future prospect, but it also wrote to the Home Secretary in February 1958 urging the government “to resist pressure put upon it to frame hasty legislation, the effect of which might be to drive the problem underground, ignoring social realities as well as principles which society may well be found determined to uphold.” Instead of pursuing a campaign for sexual change, the Church did not (and could not) convert to a “permissive” position during this period. Rather, the CEMWC viewed the role of the government and Christian organisations in terms of encouraging “the education of public opinion” and fostering “informed discussion” in order that the social and moral issues “may be clarified and responsibility be accepted more widely by society.”
In the context of wider public discussion on these issues, disagreements among Anglicans were not a marginal concern. The compromises, tensions, and contradictions of Anglican debate represented a wider sense of opposition and unease around issues of homosexuality. This helps us to understand more about the relationship between British religion and sexuality in this period. Despite common assumptions that the Established Church was losing, or had lost, its influence in questions of sexual morality by the mid-1960s, key figures and organisations in the campaign for homosexual law reform continued to regard the Church of England as a crucial authority. Religious support for (and anxiety about) the emerging moral consensus in favour of decriminalisation really mattered and made a difference to British policy-makers, professionals, and other “experts” on homosexuality.
Later episcopal support for the 1967 Sexual Offences Act continued this trend of caution, offering only the illusion of Anglican consensus. Although the bishops, led by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey, presented a picture of unanimity in the House of Lords, this concealed a considerable amount of disagreement. Some bishops who spoke in favour of the bill expressed private reluctance to do so; others refused outright to take part in the parliamentary debates. Lambeth Palace received so many hostile letters on account of the bishops’ stance, that it composed a standard letter of response. Consequently, episcopal support for homosexual law reform was full of contradictions and remained a fairly limited exercise in terms of radically changing Anglican attitudes towards homosexuality. The bishops’ case for reform may have used the rhetoric of freedom and choice for the individual within the context of personal moral responsibility, but it was also based on a fundamental belief that without criminal sanctions, the churches and other professional organisations (especially psychiatrists) would be in a better position to tighten up moral control and regulation. It was hoped in this way that homosexuality as a “problem” would eventually disappear. To this extent, the bishops’ position was more of an extension of Church leaders’ earlier attempts to find compromise and to search for a “moderate” and “responsible” solution to a difficult question of social and legal reform.
While it is important to recognise the contributions that religious individuals and organisations made towards shaping and popularising newer models of understanding sex and desire, conceptions of sexual morality, and ways of approaching “responsible” sexual citizenship in modern Britain, it is vital to locate this Christian sexual progressivism within its wider context – recognising the extent and nature of the conflict on controversial questions of sexual morality, both within and without British Christianity. The question of the part played by the Christian churches in broader social and cultural change has long fascinated historians. This is clearly an important issue that invites further comment and debate. While some suggest that the churches trailed society’s changing sexual norms, others argue that religious voices helped to lead and drive social and cultural change. But religious engagement with sexual matters in the twentieth century does not fit neatly or simply into this either-or dichotomy. Religious approaches, especially institutional ones, were considerably more complicated than that. Historians need to explore the contradictory pulls of Christian attitudes towards sexual issues, and to dissect their tensions and ambiguities. Not only will this illuminate the role of religion and Christian institutions in modern Britain, but it will help to bring out the complexities of our narratives on the making of modern sexuality – the continuities and discontinuities between older and newer ways of regulating and conceptualising sexuality, the uneven acceleration of shifts and changes, and the disputes, compromises, and calculations involved.
Laura Ramsay recently completed her PhD at the University of Nottingham. Her thesis explores Church of England attitudes towards issues of sexuality in the years between 1918 and 1980. This work addresses the difficulties and complications of institutional decision-making on controversial issues of sexual morality. While it identifies a long trend in Anglican thinking towards positive, constructive, and rationally-based statements about sex (which, it suggests, contributed towards a wider body of thought on issues that would later underpin “permissiveness” in the British context), it locates this Anglican thinking as part of a non-linear historical trajectory of Christian sexual progressivism. This work teases out the disagreements, ambiguities, and complexities of Anglican thought and examines the halting and uncertain advance of new Christian sex discourses among broader institutions like the Church of England. Laura tweets from @DrLauraRamsay.
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