From the archive: Who will rid us of these turbulent priests?
In the autumn 1998 edition of the Gay and Lesbian Humanist, ANDY ARMITAGE argued that the disestablishment of the Church of England is just as necessary as the reform of the House of Lords
It should not have come as any surprise to us, of course. Even before our elected representatives in the House of Commons voted quite overwhelmingly for the equalisation of the age of consent for gay men, some of those unelected “representatives” in “another place” decided they were going to scupper it. And we now know that the noble Lords did their ignoble deed with relish. Good old British democracy!
While the government has promised reform of the Lords, starting with ridding it of hereditary peers, it has also said there are no plans to disestablish the church, leaving those 26 prattling prelates who make up the Lords Spiritual sitting in the upper chamber as of right. And it is clear that most of the opposition for the age-of-consent issue came from the churches – established and otherwise. (But for the Lambeth conference, no doubt there would have been a few more bishops adding their votes to those of the few who did make it to the chamber.)
During the Commons debate, a Labour MP, Stuart Bell, the Member for Middlesbrough, was among those speaking most viciously against a move towards equal rights – but he is the official spokesperson in the Commons for . . . yes, the church. He spoke of drawing “a line in the moral sand” and said that the view of the House of Bishops “is a reflection of a modern, confident church which is prepared now to state clearly where it stands on morality and to invite the state to join it in a partnership”.
The church is prepared to invite the state to join it in a partnership? That’s very big of it. This is a perfect illustration of the disregard for democracy such people have – and, what is more, they believe they have a right to exercise that disregard because they are the church. But put that point to them and they will say, as Bell did on a Radio 4 discussion in July, that to remove the church from the established order would be “essentially moving one of the great pillars of our state and would probably destabilise our society”. This is an assumption, no more. Say it often enough and the people believe it – especially if such sentiments are expressed in those great builders of public opinion, the tabloids. Yet major and necessary changes have been made to the British constitution – such as it is – through radical and bold ideas, as have notable changes in enfranchisement. Witness the right of women to vote. It’s a sobering thought that many women alive today will remember the time when they were not allowed to make their mark in the polling booths.
I chose the subject of the age-of-consent vote for this article not only because of my own experience of campaigning for the lesbian and gay cause, not only because it’s written for a gay publication, but also because it’s seen by many as a morality issue, and nothing gets the religionists twitching as much as the sex lives of those whom they so obviously wish to control. Sex lives that are an entirely private affair. Add the word “homosexual” and their twitching becomes a frenzied dance of indignation. Never mind that we are human beings harming no one. The gay age of consent, then, is perhaps the most striking example in recent times of the way in which the church is clinging to its hold on our private lives in whatever way it can. It is not enough for its adherents to express their opinions through their magazines and the acres of space and hours of airtime given to them in the media, but they seem to lurk in every nook and cranny of our existence, nibbling at our privacy, pointing fingers, seeking restrictions, ready to jump out from behind corners yelling foul every time we ask for equality.
It is amusing to study some of the arguments trotted out by the various religious factions concerning same-sex relations, but the most illogical is that sex should be confined to marriage. The House of Bishops issued a statement on the day of the Commons vote, declaring: “Our Christian faith teaches us that sex is a gift of God for the enriching of lives within the context of marriage.”
But there’s one very obvious flaw with this argument that so far no one seems to have touched upon. If something is a ticket-only affair, then only people with tickets can get in. If sex ought to be practised only between married people, then those who wish to practise it (the bishops seem to be saying) should buy a ticket and get married. Apart from the fact that most gay people do not wish to ape the heterosexual model of human relationships, there is the simple question of the illegality of marriage between same-sex couples, male or female. While some rather enlightened priests have performed ersatz “marriages” between same-sex couples in the form of blessings, the important bit that takes place in the vestry – the worldly matter of the paperwork – cannot be carried out, and the couple, who may have fulfilled all the high “standards” the churchmen prescribe (apart from being of opposite sexes, of course), have none of the rights in law that are enjoyed by heterosexual couples, especially those who have “done the decent thing” and become officially bonded, with or without the religious mumbo-jumbo.
Even those who like to think they’re supporting our rights to live the lifestyle that is ours will stop short of saying we should make a public display of our love. “What homosexuals do in bed is entirely their own affair,” you can hear them saying. “As long as they don’t shout about it, I’m happy that they should have equality.” They miss the very obvious point that no one has ever questioned their sexuality, and heterosexuality is around us, part of the normative, cultural paradigm that – well, that just is. No one questions the actions of the chap putting an arm around his female partner in the street, or that they might like to buy a house together, have partnership rights, share some of the perquisites that one of them gets in his or her job.
Then there is the bewildering notion that homosexual people somehow harm “the family”. No one seems to say – certainly not most of the press and the superstitionists who seem to want to dictate our morals – that homosexuals come from families, are often part of families and often create families. There are then those people – queer and straight – who simply prefer not to be part of a household, and would rather live alone.
Family break-ups mostly affect heterosexuals and when people talk of that curse to any young person’s upbringing – the “broken home” – they never point out that it is heterosexuals who break up said home, and not homosexuals. And we need no more than the recent scandalous example in the West Country to convince us of the huge amount of child abuse that is carried out within families, not by outside predators fancying a shag with a twelve-year-old. In the West Country case, eight people, spanning three generations of one family, were jailed for what Judge William Taylor described as “wickedness beyond belief”.
The reason our detractors get away with fabricating fallacies and falsehoods about homosexual people is that what they are telling us fits conveniently into what one might call the Great Unsaid: those notions, received wisdom, social paradigms – the Zeitgeist, if you like – that are rarely examined because no one deems it necessary to examine them.
Some things just are. They took shape before homosexuals were allowed to be (to some extent, at least) themselves. People tend not to ask questions because no one tells them there are questions to be asked. And it is for this reason that clergymen have been able to exercise such social control over the ages. Before Darwin, when creationism was for many the only explanation for the mysteries of our universe, this was easier for them. Now it is not so easy, because fewer and fewer people are falling for the counterfeit explanations of our existence.
Yet it is only by continually asking questions that change for the better is ever achieved. Unfortunately, so many religionists believe they have all the answers. And people who have all the answers cease asking questions, and we don’t move on.
It is clear to me and many other humanists that the continued established status of the church in what should be the secular governance of our country will continue to mean that for every step we take forward we will take a step or two back. Those against reform speak of the stabilising power the Lords has on the Commons’ decision making. Yet I see no reason why a reformed lower chamber should not become the only chamber, with all necessary safeguards and stabilising influences built into its machinations.
There are probably many elements of instability in the way our country is governed. I would argue that high on the list is the Church, with its continued interference in matters of state. These should be an entirely secular thing, and leaving the Church’s hold on power intact can only contribute to a placing of religion above human rights. Given disestablishment, a written constitution and a Bill of Rights, we’d be setting out on the path towards making us all equal and valued citizens.