The Church of England was a champion of the decriminalisation of
male homosexuality in the UK in the past. Church committees and the
Archbishops of Canterbury spoke in favour of the repeal of laws
governing buggery and gross indecency.
But now the Church as a body is silent about decriminalisation,
even in those countries of the Commonwealth which still criminalise
same-sex sexual conduct, and in which the Anglican Communion has a
In 1954, the C of E's Moral Welfare Council published The
Problem of Homosexuality: An interim report, unexpectedly
calling for the repeal of laws that criminalised gay men, and
thereby ending more than 400 years of the Church's falling in line
with the persecution of consensual same-sex sexual relations
This document, which fed into the Wolfenden report of 1957,
recognised the place of the state in regulating society, but it
also acknowledged that the rights of homosexual men were being
violated - today, we would call it persecution - and in the name of
justice and humanity, the Church called for a change in the
More than 80 jurisdictions around the world still criminalise
same-sex sexual relations between consenting adults, and this leads
to serious and systemic violations of human rights: they destroy
lives, and cultivate impunity. Forty-two of these jurisdictions are
members of the Commonwealth, where anti-gay laws are a sad residue
of a distinctively British colonial past.
It is not hard to find the source of common law jurisdictions'
anti-gay legislation: in 1533, Henry VIII introduced what has
become known as the Buggery Act, which was to replace canon-law
sanctions, and to shift the jurisdiction of such offences from
ecclesiastical courts to civil ones. Through Parliament, the Crown
placed the regulation of private conduct under the supreme power of
the state rather than under the Church, which had until then been a
(somewhat liberal) guardian of public morals.
The Buggery Act, give or take a few amendments, remained on the
statute books until the passing of the Sexual Offences Act in 1967;
this partially removed criminal sanctions for same-sex sexual
relations between two consenting adults in private. The then
Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Michael Ramsey, actively supported the
Bill on its passage through Parliament, incurring the disdain of
its vociferous opponents in the House of Lords.
Since those days, the Church of England has been disturbingly
quiet on the subject. It has consistently fallen short of an
outright condemnation of criminalisation in the Commonwealth, and
the consequential persecution that flows from this.
Recently, some individuals have been unequivocal in condemning
the criminalisation of LGBT people: in a House of Lords debate, the
Bishop of Leicester, the Rt Revd Timothy Stevens, called on all
countries to end criminalisation. He was supported by the Bishop of
Newcastle, the Rt Revd Martin Wharton.
Yet the official C of E position appears obscure. This cannot be
attributed simply to the structure of the Anglican Communion.
Statements from Lambeth Palace and Church House, Westminster, tend
to conflate all things relating to sexuality. The Church's position
on gay marriage, gay clergy, and gay bishops should have no bearing
on the serious and systemic human-rights violation that is the
criminalisation of gay sexual identity.
To give him his due, when he was Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord
Williams spoke of how criminalisation creates an unlevel playing
field; he condemned harsh criminal sanctions, although he does not
seem to have denounced criminalisation per se.
The present Archbishop of Canterbury, in his address to the
General Synod in July, attacked homophobic bullying in schools, and
pointed with horror to the executions of gay men in countries such
as Iran. He admitted that ordinary people in Britain were
increasingly intolerant of homophobic behaviour: they "look at us
[i.e. the Church of England], and see what they do not like".
He mentioned the need to demonstrate "the lavish love of God to
all of us". But it is still not sufficient for the Church to oppose
the death penalty for consensual homosexual offences, which in
itself could imply that criminalisation could be acceptable.
To compare same-sex marriage to the Holocaust, as Lord Carey, a
previous Archbishop of Canterbury, has done, is certainly of no
help to persecuted LGBT people across the Commonwealth.
In a recent challenge to homophobic laws in Belize, for example,
the Anglican bishop there joined other Churches to intervene
against attempts to decriminalise.
Despite the C of E's record of support for decriminalisation in
England, it is now silent about other jurisdictions. What is it
about the quality of a gay man in England that makes him more
worthy of the Church's benediction than a gay Ugandan or
THE criminal law has no business regulating private sexual conduct
between adults. Sixty years ago, the Church of England recognised
this when it called for decriminalisation in the UK. What the main
institutions of the Anglican Communion say, or fail to say,
matters, because across the world millions listen.
The consequences of criminalisation can never be underestimated.
It causes misery to all of those affected, cloaking people's
identity in illegality, and reducing it to sexual acts. Families
are shattered. Murder, violence, and discrimination are
The effect of criminalisation is to put people who have sex with
people of the same gender beyond the protection of the law,
affecting the entire community. Impunity flourishes.
Criminalisation is also costly for the states that maintain it. It
has a significant impact on public health, preventing states'
creating effective health-education programmes and delivering
health care to those who need it.
Yet the Church remains silent. It must show leadership, and make
an unequivocal and universal statement calling for worldwide
Jonathan Cooper is a human-rights lawyer and the chief
executive of the Human Dignity Trust.