CHRISTIANS have been marking the 50th anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality with services and statements, some of which have fuelled the ongoing battle over the Church’s teaching on sexuality.
Described as an “ecumenical service of lament and hope”, “Where Love and Sorrow Meet” was held at St Martin-in-the-Fields on Saturday to celebrate the landmark.
It featured the London Gay Men’s Chorus, prayers from leading gay activists, and testimonies about life before the Sexual Offences Act 1967, which, for the first time, made it legal for two men to have sex, provided it was in a private place and both were 21 or older.
The Chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral, Canon Mark Oakley, preached, telling the congregation that the Bible was “a record of people struggling, with mixed results, to believe that God loves people that I find it hard to”.
He hailed those who spoke out against laws that criminalised same-sex relationships, and praised their courage.
“We are here to say, literally, thank God that they made the first and important step in the right direction,” Canon Oakley said. “Others had to follow to ensure more changes came in the cause of justice and equality, not least for trans men and women. That work continues.”
He also urged Christians and people of faith to do the same today in the 70 countries around the world where same-sex relations are a punishable offence.
While the Anglican Primates and other Christian leaders had affirmed their opposition to criminal sanctions against gay people, the “Church needs to take responsibility to help change a state of affairs that it helped bring about”.
One of the founders of the Gay Christian Movement, the Revd Malcolm Johnson, spoke of his own experience before the law changed, in what was an “incredibly cruel time for homosexuals”.
“I was 20, and I was terrified of my homosexuality. My confessor told me to wash my hands when I had naughty thoughts; so I had the cleanest hands in Christendom. Like others, I thought that marriage would cure me. I was wrong.”
Two weeks ago, the Prime Minister suggested that the Church should consider permitting blessings of same-sex unions, during an interview to mark the 1967 anniversary (News, 21 July).
A joint statement by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, which was released to mark the anniversary, does not directly address the ongoing debate within the Church of England, instead noting how their forebears in the 1950s and ’60s strongly supported the abolition of laws that criminalised gay relationships.
The Church had too often been known for what it was against rather than what it was for, the statement said. Nevertheless, “many homosexual people follow Christ, drawn to him by his love and his outstretched arms welcoming all those who turn to him.”
All followers of Jesus needed to lay their burdens on him and acknowledge that they were sinners, the Archbishops wrote. “Sin is not a characteristic of a particular group of people. Sin is the same for all of us.
“This day of anniversary of the 1967 Act is one when the Church in this land should be conscious of the need to turn away from condemnation of people as its first response.”
Some campaigners, from both sides of the debate, have criticised the statement. The convener of the conservative website Anglican Mainstream, Canon Chris Sugden, said that it wrongly implied that the Church should not condemn gay people who do not abide by the Bible’s teaching on sexuality; while some pro-LGBT activists have accused the Archbishops of telling gay people that their orientation is a sinful burden to bear.
Another conservative Evangelical, the Vicar of St John’s, Newland, in Hull, the Revd Melvin Tinker, has attacked Hull Minster for hosting its own service last month commemorating the anniversary, and timed to coincide with the city’s Pride festival.
The Minster’s “service of welcome” for LGBT Christians included a sermon from the transgender priest the Revd Rachel Mann. Mr Tinker wrote: “The message which will invariably be communicated is that ‘God’ (as symbolised by the building, liturgy, clergy) approves of homosexual, lesbian, and trans relationships as much as heterosexual ones.”
A fellowship of gay Roman Catholic Christians which has been worshipping in Soho since the bombing of a gay-friendly pub in 1999, the LGBT Catholics Westminster Pastoral Council, has also marked the Sexual Offences Act anniversary with a statement that notes the RC Church’s opposition to criminal sanctions for private homosexual acts.
The RC Church’s teaching on sexuality is still developing, it concludes, and it calls on bishops, priests, and theologians to undertake a “listening process” to seek the “unity in diversity” spoken of by Pope Francis.
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