Forty years ago, The UK Parliament agreed to decriminalise sex in private between men over 21 in England and Wales. This was due in part to the efforts of the Archbishop of Canterbury at the time, Michael Ramsey. He was in some ways an unlikely champion of law reform. The previous archbishop had reportedly advised against his appointment, thinking him too unworldly: “Dr Ramsey is a theologian, a scholar and a man of prayer. Therefore, he is entirely unsuitable as Archbishop of Canterbury”.
But those very qualities led Archbishop Ramsey to work for the welfare and rights of immigrants from the Commonwealth and, perhaps even more controversially, for gays facing harsh discrimination.
Contemplation, care and righting wrongs
To Ramsey, who was theologically far from radical, the incarnation and cross were of great importance. “To Jesus God is everywhere at work,” he said in a lecture in 1963. “Nature is the perpetual scene of the providential actions of His intimate fatherly care, and the disciples are bidden to have their eyes open to God’s graciousness and God’s demands thereby conveyed. No less vividly is God at work in history, especially in the history and the scriptures of the chosen people.” To him, Christ’s glory was not cut off from the world of human suffering but “bound up with the divine love and leading on to the Cross”.
Later, in The Christian Priest Today, he emphasised the importance of worship and prayer – “In contemplation you will reach into the peace and stillness of God’s eternity, in intercession you will reach into the rough and tumble of the world of time and change” – and of caring: “nothing that is human and nothing that is created lies outside the compassion of God”.
Christian concern was “with a divine order embracing heaven and earth, and with its reflection in every part of human affairs”, though it was important to keep a sense of perspective about particular causes. Clergy should study and learn in partnership with laypeople, who would sometimes “have knowledge which you have not”, and not downplay the personal: “the very few, the one man, the one woman, the one child are of infinite worth to God”.
At that time, most Christians disapproved of gay and lesbian sex in any circumstances, and Ramsey was no exception. While a huge amount of research and debate on sexuality took place in later decades, far less had been published in the fields of the natural and social sciences and history than is currently available, and few theologians (Derrick Sherwin Bailey was one notable exception) were giving systematic attention to the issues involved. Stark prejudice and ignorance were extremely common.
But even by the mid-1950s, there was growing recognition that there was a significant minority of people attracted mainly to members of the same sex who could face considerable hostility and, in the case of men, imprisonment if they acted on their feelings. They could not freely talk with doctors and other professionals. Many lived in fear, easy prey to extortionists.
One account which helped to raise awareness of the human cost of the law as it then stood was an account by one of its victims who was a journalist, Peter Wildeblood, Against the Law. He described his gradual discovery of his sexuality – “I suppose I must always have known that I was different from other children, but it took me years to find out in what way I differed”, his realisation that “I could not prevent myself from being attracted towards other men, however hard I might try not to be”, and the diversity among gays, who included men in faithful and loving relationships despite the risks that this involved.
Shortly after he was arrested, he was surprised and impressed to read a “broad-minded” and “clear-headed” Church of England Moral Welfare Council report calling for decriminalisation, especially since he “had always thought of the Church as the last bastion of prejudice and had never found an occasion for praising it for its courage in controversial matters”. Adultery was after all not a crime, despite its human cost, let alone fornication: there were certain matters in which it was widely recognised that the criminal law should not interfere.
In 1957, a government-appointed Wolfenden Committee recommended that the law be changed. Ramsey carefully considered the evidence, and was persuaded. But there were long delays in legislating on this potentially vote-losing issue, and the passage of the Sexual Offences Bill through Parliament was stormy.
Michael Ramsey was by no means the only prominent Christian to argue for the Bill during parliamentary debates. Indeed leading Methodist Donald Soper was bolder: unlike many others in the House of Lords, “I should myself not feel nearly so much ease and confidence in pronouncing whether certain homosexual practices are necessarily sinful.” But Ramsey’s leadership of an established Church with a huge membership gave extra weight to his support – and made him a target for those inside and outside Parliament who felt angry or hurt at what they saw as an abandonment of the Church’s duty.
The emotions aroused by the issue, whether conscious or unacknowledged, made disagreement all the more intense. “I want to make it quite clear that I am wholly against the Bill,” the Earl of Dudley declared. “I cannot stand homosexuals. They are the most disgusting people in the world, and they are, unfortunately, on the increase. I loathe them. Prison is much too good a place for them.”
But there were others, less ferociously hostile, who were concerned that what had seemed fixed moral standards might be called into question by changing the law. “I find a great many Church people who are rather surprised at the attitude of the leaders of the Church of England, who appear to be in favour of this relaxation” of the law, said Lord Brocket.
“Some 60 or 70 years ago I was instructed, by men who were an ornament to that Church, to which I belonged, in their doctrine, in their service book, in their ritual and in their moral code,” Lord Saltoun told the House of Lords. Gradually these had been abandoned, and “I am sorry to say that the moral code set by the Church now is one that I have ceased altogether to agree with. I feel like a shipwrecked mariner who has taken refuge on an iceberg which has carried him to calmer and warmer waters and then melted and left him foundering in the waves.”
Ramsey did not relish the controversy, but to him the matter had to be addressed if justice was to be done and unnecessary harm prevented, even if some of the disapproval and dislike commonly experienced by an unpopular minority ended up being directed at him.
Lord Arran, a sponsor of the Bill, mentioned anonymous letters, “full of the most fearful condemnation”, often quoting Deuteronomy and Leviticus, and sometimes obscene, and observed that, “No doubt others of your Lordships have had similar communications. These we can laugh off but others, more serious, are also more wounding and make one wonder sometimes whether one is doing the right thing.” But “just as one is thinking of chucking it, one gets another of those ghastly letters from some man who is being blackmailed, or who is facing criminal prosecution, or from parents who are terrified on behalf of their homosexual son”, and in the face of such suffering “one has to go on”.
Ramsey too persisted, and eloquently argued the case for reform. In the House of Lords in October 1965, he criticised “what I can only call a really lopsided presentation of morality” which “takes the line that sexual sins are apparently the worst of all sins, and that homosexual sins are invariably the worst sort of sins among sexual sins.” But in the teaching of Christ, those “sins which defile a man” were “acts of fornication, theft, murder, adultery, ruthless greed, malice, fraud, envy, slander, arrogance”. While some were sexual, others were not, and “among the sexual sins there is not apparently an isolation of homosexuality as being more cardinally sinful than are the others. I believe that it is a presentation of morality, balanced, Christian and rational, that can win the respect and the allegiance of the younger generation, hard task though it is.”
Through the persistence of Ramsey and Arran in the Lords, Leo Abse in the Commons and others within and outside Parliament, the Sexual Offences Act was passed in 1967. While decriminalisation was not complete, and social attitudes were still often hostile, it was a major achievement.
Spirituality in a turbulent world
At a Jubilee Group conference in 1977, Michael Ramsey warned against too easy an identification of any social programme with the Kingdom of God, given “the corruption of humanity, and the human ability to corrupt good things”, as well as “the relativity of the human grasp of God’s purpose in different historical situations” and uncertainty about the extent to which it could be realised on earth. Yet it was an important concept; and “we may speak of the divine sovereignty in terms of the reflection of some of God’s own attributes in human life: God’s compassion perfectly imitated by human creatures in their dealings with one another, and God’s justice reproduced in human creatures in imitation of the justice of God.”
Spirituality and social engagement are sometimes seen as disconnected. Worse still, leaders of faith communities sometimes give way to the temptation to use their position and talents to offer easy answers to complex questions, shying away from deep study and any questioning of their own preconceptions, or bolster their own power by exploiting people’s prejudices and fears. But for Michael Ramsey, humble openness to God, attentiveness to the reality of people’s lives, compassion in the face of suffering and boldness in seeking justice were closely intertwined.
Savitri Hensman was born in Sri Lanka. She works in the voluntary sector in equalities and community care, and is a respected writer on Christianity and social justice. She is an Ekklesia associate.