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Government must legislate to protect children against porn, Synod resolves

12 July 2022

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THE Government must legislate to compel age verification on pornography websites to protect children, the General Synod has urged.

In a debate on Monday night, prompted by a Guildford diocesan synod motion (News, 24 June), member after member rose to denounce pornography as degrading, exploitative, lascivious, and harmful.

Sam Atkins/Church TimesThe Revd Jo Winn-Smith (Guildford)

When the motion was put to the vote, it passed overwhelmingly, with just two votes against and three abstentions.

Despite action being promised by David Cameron almost a decade ago, the Government has not yet brought in any regulation forcing porn providers to stop children accessing their services online (News, 10 May).

The Revd Jo Winn-Smith (Guildford), introducing the motion, told the Synod that they should send a strong message to Westminster to keep up the pressure to bring in the long-promised reforms via the Online Safety Bill (News, 27 May).

She described age verification as a “no-brainer”, akin to film certification, and said that the Church must prioritise the protection of children over any concerns around civil liberties and intrusion.

Almost all of those who spoke in the debate condemned the now ubiquitous online porn as hugely damaging for young people, especially girls.

Julie Maxwell (Winchester), a paediatrician, said that she had taught sex and relationships classes for children for years, and had seen how attitudes had changed thanks to over-exposure to degrading porn. Teenage girls now believed it was unavoidable that their boyfriends would consume such videos.

The Bishop of Guildford, the Rt Revd Andrew Watson, also strongly backed the motion, saying that it was statistically likely that a significant number of people in the chamber were caught up in the degrading cycle of shame brought by porn addiction. He and other bishops pledged to use their roles in the House of Lords to press for faster legislative action on the issue.

Some of the younger members of the Synod spoke of their own experiences of pornography when they were teenagers, while Fr Stephen Maxfield (Ecumenical representatives) said that, in 30 years of hearing confessions, porn had become one of the most common issues raised.

“This is a disaster, not just for children,” he said. “The men were filled with shame and self-disgust, the women are ashamed that they have been so unsuccessful as a lover. This is a terrible thing, a catastrophe for all of us. Do everything you can to fight this devil in our midst.”

There were a handful of more hesitant voices, who cautioned against rushing into naïve technological solutions to the porn crisis.

Rebecca Chapman (Southwark) agreed that online porn was harmful but questioned the benefit of legislative solutions. The Online Safety Bill would not work, she warned, because the UK did not have a “firewall down the English channel” and it was not possible for websites hosted internationally to be compelled to carry out age verification. Age verification was a “legislative fig leaf” which would lull parents into a false sense of security, she said. Instead, the Church should focus on education and cultural change.

The Revd Fiona Jack (London) raised similar concerns, noting that there was no failsafe way of verifying age online, and that some of the means proposed were highly intrusive and caused more problems than they solved.

But the mood of the Synod was clear, and when the motion was put to the vote it passed overwhelmingly, with 263 in favour, two against, with three abstentions.

After the result was announced, most of the Synod, standing or seated, prayed and reflected in silence for several minutes before moving on to next business.

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