The news that Lillian Ladele, a Christian registrar who refused to register civil partnerships as a matter of religious conscience, has lost her appeal against dismissal suggests to me that the Ugandans, who are currently considering draconian (see here) legislation regarding homosexuality, might actually have a point.
The outcome of this case, as it stands, means that traditionalist Christians could soon be excluded from all public office and employment. All that is needed is for applicants for any post to be asked their views on homosexuality —whether or not they accept it on an equal footing with heterosexuality. If the answer is ‘No’ (as it must be for the traditionalist Christian), then that may be deemed sufficient grounds for them to be unsuitable for such employment or to hold such an office.
Alarmist? Let us consider a little bit of history.
In 1967, the Sexual Offences Act partially decriminalized homosexual acts in England and Wales by allowing such acts between ‘consenting adults (defined as those over 21) in private’. In our present context, it is important to be aware both of the motivation and the scope of this act. The motivation was compassion and consideration for those who were subject to legal sanction and social opprobrium for what was seen as a ‘victimless’ action.
The scope of the act was simply to take a specific area of human sexual behaviour out of the realm of criminal law. Thus, the Wikipedia site [mis]quotes a passage from the Wolfenden Report of 1957, whose conclusions provided much of the framework for subsequent debate and legislation:
... unless a deliberate attempt be made by society through the agency of the law to equate the sphere of crime with that of sin, there must remain a realm of private [morality and immorality which is, in brief and crude terms], not the law’s business ... (Wolfenden Report, 1957)
Significantly, however, the Wolfenden Report went on,
To say this is not to condone or encourage private immorality ...
In other words, the Wolfenden Report was produced, and the subsequent debate was conducted, on the assumption that there was such a thing as private immorality, into which category homosexual acts might well fall. Nevertheless, given the social acceptance of other private acts of immorality (which in those days would, for most people, have included sex before marriage or adultery within it) it was appropriate to rule that this ought no longer, in certain circumstances, to be ‘the law’s business’.
This itself was to recognize a long-standing trend to distinguish, in a society which generally regarded itself as ‘Christian’, between the ‘unlawful’ and the ‘sinful’, and was arguably itself an outcome of a Christian doctrine of sin. (Notably, a number of Christian theologians contributed to the Wolfenden Report and —something which would be unimaginable today —the Committee included the Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology at the University of Oxford and the Minister of St Columba’s Church, London.)
The Christian doctrine of sin sets a standard which no law could possibly address. When Jesus said that anyone who looks lustfully at a woman has committed adultery in his heart, he made it thereby impossible for the law to regulate any and every sin. Though English law had, in some ways, reflected an ‘Old Testament’ background (for example in defining the ‘prohibited degrees’ of marriage), it had never seriously tried to use the Sermon on the Mount as a model for what should be ruled illegal. Indeed, a major point of that Sermon is that this could never be done.
At the same time, however, there were clearly other pressures at work, challenging traditional, ‘Christian’, morality. The austere fifties gave way to the ‘swinging’ sixties, and quite rightly there was talk of a ‘sexual revolution’, helped on its way by the advent of the contraceptive pill.
Even so, there was clearly no outwardly declared intention in the passing of the Sexual Offences Act to effect a radical transformation of society, such that what was formerly regarded by most as ‘sinful’ would become to be regarded as one amongst many and various ‘norms’.
More than that, had anyone sought to argue, in the debate surrounding the Act, that less than half a century later it would possible for a Christian registrar to be sacked for refusing to ‘marry’ homosexuals, the person making such an allegation would surely have been dismissed as not merely alarmist but as slightly insane.
Yet here we are, experiencing yet another instance of the principle of ‘unintended consequences’, for the legalisation of homosexual acts has been followed by the normalization of homosexuality, which has now been followed by the criminalization of opposition to homosexuality. (Interestingly, the legalization of contraception was itself another example. In debates at the Lambeth Conference over a number of decades, bishops warned that the widespread availability of contraception would lead to a breakdown in social morality. Eventually, however, the ‘compassionate’ argument for ‘family planning’ won the day —and the doubters were also proved right.)
The question which must now be asked, frankly, is whether social normalization of homosexuality can co-exist with Christian morality. Currently, the answer would appear to be that it cannot, for despite all the talk of religious ‘rights’, it is quite clear that they are trumped (in Spades) by the acceptance of society’s sexual norms. At very least, this suggests that the Ugandans might look to our experience before making any decisions regarding their own situation, for the exercise of godly compassion in our case has clearly not resulted in a more godly society.
Revd John P RichardsonAnonymous users wishing to paste in the comments box need first to select 'preview', then close the preview box. When posting your comments please give a full name and location. Comments without this information may be deleted.
15 December 2009
15 December 2009