Fifty years on – the new Co-ordinating Group meets for the first time

The first meeting of the Co-ordinating Group set up the Archbishops of Canterbury and York to produce a new Teaching Document on human sexuality meets today for the first time.

Fifty years ago, in September 1967, the Board of Social Responsibility of the Church of England set up a Working Party on Homosexuality “to review the situation of both male and female homosexuality” following the passage of the Sexual Offences Act 1967 which partially decriminalised homosexuality. This was the first time the Church of England had formally set up a group to address homosexuality.

Nearly fifty years later, following the February 2017 Synod Group of Sessions, the Archbishops of Canterbury and York issued a letter on 16th February outlining their proposals for continuing to address, as a church, questions concerning human sexuality. The Archbishops committed themselves and the House of Bishops to . . .  the development of a substantial Teaching Document on the subject.

The 1967 Working Party submitted its report to the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1970. The “report would only be published if the Archbishop so directed.” The Archbishop did not so direct, but thanks to the Church of England’s Record Office I recently obtained a copy of the unpublished report.

The first meeting of the Coordinating Group overseeing the production of the new Teaching Document meets for the first time today. Their goal is to finalise the document by early 2020, fifty years after the first Working Party submitted its report in 1970.

The differences in the composition of the 1967 Working Party and the 2017 Co-ordinating Group are instructive. The members of the 1967 Working Party were:

The Rt. Rev. Stretton Reeve, the Lord Bishop of Lichfield
Commander (Mrs) S.C. Becke, Chief Woman Officer, Metropolitan Police
The Rev. P.E. Coleman LL.B, Chaplain, Bristol University
Dr. J. Dominian, M.BB Chir., M.R.C.P., E.D.P.M., Consultant Psychiatrist, Central Middlesex Hospital
Dr. Erica Jones, M.R.C.S, L.RC.P., in General Practice
Mr. Arthur Townsend, C.B.E., B.E.M., Ret’d Commander, Metropolitan Police

Staff in attendance:
Mr. Edwin Barker, Board Secretary
Miss Pauline Glaisse, who acted as secretary and convenor of the working party

The 1967 group had six members. One was a bishop, one was ordained, the others, all lay, had legal and medical backgrounds.

The members of the 2017 Co-ordinating Group are:

Chair: The Bishop of Coventry, The Rt Revd Christopher Cocksworth

Episcopal Members:
The Bishop of Salisbury, The Rt Revd Nick Holtam
The Bishop of Dorking, The Rt Revd Dr Jo Bailey Wells
The Bishop of Hull, The Rt Revd Alison White
The Bishop of Fulham, The Rt Revd Jonathan Baker
The Bishop of Bradford, The Rt Revd Toby Howarth

Core Consultant Members:
The Revd Tina Beardsley
The Revd Giles Goddard
The Revd Andrew Goddard
The Revd Dr Jason Roach

The Rt Revd Bill Musk, former Bishop of North Africa in the Anglican Church of Jerusalem and the Middle East, nominated by The Most Revd Josiah Idowu-Fearon, to represent the Anglican Communion.

They also have staff in attendance.

The 2017 group has six episcopal members and four core consultant members plus Bishop Bill Musk. There are no lay members..

The 1970 Working Party Report

The Working Party was set up to consider “What help the church could give to diminish the ill and suffering associated with this phenomenon.” The group considered three possible ‘causes’: genetic make-up, developmental factors, and social environmental factors.

They looked at potential treatments – psychoanalysis and psychotherapy, aversion or deconditioning therapy (noting serious ethical considerations in connection with this treatment), hypnosis, drugs. They noted that: “the overwhelming majority of homosexuals will remain sexual deviants with all the consequences of such a state.” Yes – sexual deviants is a term used several times in the report.

They then looked at ways in which the church could help. They had a list of cases from a GP and case records from the Albany Trust. They considered the challenges facing homosexuals: that being homosexual presents a basic personal handicap, there is a lack of stability in family life, homosexual relationships are unstable, friendships transient, and behaviour promiscuous. These ‘challenges’ continue to be faced by LGBTI people in countries today where homosexuality is criminalised and prejudice is widespread.

The group agreed unanimously “. . . that it is right for the church to explore the means of helping the continuous personal growth of these men and women . . .  to help them to as full and happy a life as possible.” Homosexuals should be helped in steps towards the degree of wholeness of relationships of which they are capable.

The group made one significant proposal: “It is suggested that the problem can only be tackled as part of a much larger project, namely ‘A national institute which will be the Church’s visible contribution in an age of unprecedented change full of new possibilities by which men and women can be assisted to realise the fullness of their loving capacities as envisaged in the Gospels’.” This proposal was the subject of an appendix in the report. Because the Archbishop of Canterbury declined to publish the report, the proposed national institute never came into being. If it had, it might have helped the church welcome and value LGBTI people with much greater urgency. There was much wisdom in this brief report.

The report posited an unresolved question affecting the Church’s ability to help in this sphere: despite wanting to help homosexual people they had evidence that “the Church” is now generally thought to believe and act upon the assumption that homosexual behaviour is always sinful. “This is regarded as a bar to the Church helping effectively.” Fifty years later, public opinion still regards Church attitudes to LGBTI people as prejudiced and LGBTI people assume either that the church is homophobic or that it is open to equal marriage as the established church – right on the first count, wrong on the second.

The report noted that “no types of help can be offered with any hope of success if the homosexual needing help feels or even suspects that the person offering assistance or treatment is condemnatory or judgmental about homosexuality. The helper must completely accept the person as they are at that moment, without any preconceived ideas about the way in which that particular individual can be helped.” If this lesson had been marked, learnt and inwardly digested fifty years ago we wouldn’t have needed a debate at the recent July Synod to ban conversion therapy and conservatives might have been forced to overcome their prejudices.

There were differences of opinion in the group as to whether all homosexual behaviour was essentially sinful. They found it necessary to discuss at length the various shades of opinion centring around the concept of sin in connection with homosexual behaviour. Well, not much has changed there, sadly.

There was no clear area of agreement with regard to people living a settled life, including a homosexual relationship with a settled partner. Two views were presented:

View A

A homosexual relationship is always a wrong relationship and any individual having such a relationship is doing wrong. Persons of an exclusively homosexual disposition should be told by the Church that they should strive to do without any physical sexual relationships and to the extent that they fail to make this effort their conduct is sinful. (The sin is in failing to make the effort?!) The Church must not give the impression that it is acting in any spirit of condemnation.

View B

A homosexual relationship can never be as fully human – as satisfactory for a human being – as a heterosexual relationship, but it may be the best relationship that is possible for a person of an exclusive and fixed homosexual disposition. In such a case a homosexual relationship is not “sinful”. Those who hold this view hold that view A cannot be reconciled with modern psychiatric insights into human behaviour problems.

I wonder how many members of the new Co-ordinating Group genuinely believe that a lesbian or gay relationship can be as fully human and as satisfactory for a human being as a heterosexual relationship. If the Teaching Document can’t articulate a belief in the absolute equality of all permanent, faithful, stable, loving, marital relationships, then the Group will have wasted three more years and fifty years on from the non-publication of the first report, we will not have achieved the goal to which Changing Attitude campaigned for twenty-two years.