Magna Carta: "Gay Rights"

The Revd Margaret Legg

Clause 39, reproduced at the beginning of the Service Sheet, establishes the principles of the rule law and of equality before the law. Most recently it inspired the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948, which states that people around the world should be protected by fundamental human rights, regardless of their citizenship, race, gender or beliefs. The paradox is that the ‘law of the land’ has systematically criminalised gay communities over the centuries. And Stephen Langton, Archbishop of Canterbury, who was instrumental in the framing and sealing of MC by King John, represented a church which arguably was responsible for this approach.

From being completely legal in the classical world of ancient Greece and Rome, attitudes to homosexual behaviour changed when the Roman Empire fell under Christian rule and the organised church began to pass judgement. In 390 the Emperor Valentinian decreed burning at the stake as a fit punishment for homosexuals — in memory of the purifying flames which devoured the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. "Sodomites" were regarded as a threat to unstable medieval societies. Henry VIII’s Buggery Act of 1533 outlawing and making punishable by death same sex sexual activity was not changed until 1861, with the removal of the death penalty (Section 61 Offences against the Person Act). 1865 the Labouchere Amendment extended that law to include any kind of sexual activity between males – but not females.  Lesbians were never acknowledged or targeted by legislation, not because – as popular legend has it – Queen Victoria refused to believe that women ‘did such things’ but because in reality they were not mentioned in the law.

So society’s fear of gay communities, the suffering in those communities,  some of the guilt and shame that linger in some gay communities even today can all be traced back to the church’s stance in the early days of Christianity.

Roman Catholic teaching from the outset has been that homosexuality is an intrinsically disordered inclination and that no homosexual acts are ever justified. Shades of this teaching are seen in the punishment meted out to Alan Turing, awarded the OBE for cracking the Enigma cipher used by Germany in WW2 while at Bletchley Park and inventor of the digital computer. When he was brought to trial for homosexual activity under section 11 of the Criminal Law and amendment Act of 1885, he avoided prison by accepting, for a year, injections of oestrogen – female hormones. In effect chemical castration. He was also excluded from GCHQ, the successor to Bletchley Park, as homosexuals were ineligible for security clearance. Pope Francis re-affirmed this stance in 2013. Over the centuries the church exacted specific and harsh penance from offenders and penance is a remarkably effective way of internalizing the stigma. To be forced to repent daily is the beginning of self-oppression. The Free church has a poor track record too, as our next reading reveals.

The C of E is still muddled: gay people, including those in same sex civil partnerships, are allowed to become clerics but expected to remain celibate. The blessings of same sex unions and marriages are not allowed; a new initiative – shared conversations – is currently taking place to help discern the way forward. Gay Christians live in a society that more and more accepts their sexuality but objects to their faith.

This is not how it is meant to be. The church, as we sang in our opening hymn, is that new creation in Christ of which Paul writes in Galatians, where there is neither Greek nor Jew, slave nor free, male nor female. We are all one in Christ, who died to give us all life, life in all its fullness. The personification of Church as female and God as male is a purely human construction, to help us envisage these concepts. In reality both are gender free. So in the Old Testament God says he is called Yahweh, meaning: I am!

With all this, it is little wonder that gay communities in the UK and throughout the world still can feel vulnerable, threatened and isolated. Oscar Wilde emerged from his imprisonment a free but broken man. He produced only 2 letters and nothing more of any literary significance before his death 2 years after his release. As we heard, the Ballad highlights the hypocrisy of a prison system which, in Wilde’s experience, destroyed the souls and bodies of those it would ostensibly reform. In the same way society, through its laws and prejudices and narrow mindedness, has and is trying to destroy/annihilate the souls and bodies of gay communities throughout the world.

One problem is that society does not always keep pace with changes in the law. A friend this week described how abuse was shouted at his partner and himself when they walked through Pimlico just a few years ago – ‘faggots; you should be ashamed of yourselves’; within families there can be shame and humiliation in having a child who is gay. The same friend was banned from entering the family home for those reasons. It was 3 years before his mother persuaded his father to allow him in and then not with his partner.

Later in, during our ‘Pause for self-reflection’, we will have space to delve into our own feelings and to uncover our attitudes on gay rights. The law has changed beyond recognition over the last 60 years spurred on by the Stonewall riots of 1969, which triggered the gay liberation movement in the USA. The UK was hot on its heels and the first official UK Gay Pride Rally was held in London on July 1st, 1972. From legalising same sex activity in 1967 in England and Wales, equalising the age of consent (2001, 2009 N Ireland) and the right to change legal gender 2005, through to legalising same sex marriage in the UK except for Northern Ireland last year LGBT citizens now have most of the same legal rights as non-LGBT citizens and the UK provides one of the highest degrees of liberty in the world for its LGBT communities.

But is that something to be proud of? After all, what are we being compared to? In Uganda, Nigeria and Qatar for instance, homosexuality is criminalised, while in the UK itself there is still much to be done. The Democratic Union Party in Northern Ireland is proposing to add a clause to the Equality Laws which states that businesses could refuse service where someone feels they are required to ‘endorse a same sex relationship in violation of his/her faith identity.’ In other words it would be legal to deny gays service in hotels restaurants and many other businesses, just because of who they love! Aderonke Apata, the Lesbian who came to the UK as an asylum seeker in 2004, is currently appealing against the Government’s decision for the 3rd time not to grant her asylum in Britain, most recently on the grounds (among others) that she cannot be a lesbian asshe has children from a previous heterosexual relationship.  Homophonic bullying at school has caused huge damage. Stonewall shows it has dropped significantly over the last 5 years, thanks to proper education and a whole school commitment.

We are, at least, on the right track. Alan Turing was granted a posthumouspardon by the Queen in 2013 and there is now a campaign underway to pardon all 49,000 or so who were convicted under the same law. Stonewall has cited MI5 as one of the country’s top 10 most gay friendly employers. In Jan a lesbian MI5 officer said she was delighted by the way in which she and her gay colleagues had been welcomed into the service which currently employs more than 70 gay men and women.

But Rights bring Responsibilities; Sexual freedom comes with the responsibility that all sexual activity should be consensual. Within popular gay culture, as in any truly open relationship, each should consider the wellbeing of their partner and take care not to hurt them by extra-marital sex. One person’s right is in conflict with another person’s right. In recent years, the British Supreme Court has had to adjudicate precisely on a clash where a practising Christian couple refused to allow a gay couple to stay in their bed and breakfast accommodation. Both parties claimed that their human rights were threatened. Of course, the vast majority of religious observance does not impinge upon anyone else’s rights, but this example illustrates how liberties themselves can be in conflict with each other. Once again faith is a stumbling block.

But remember, life is holy, all life, for we are all made in the image of God. We all struggle to become the people God created us to be. But in Christ we are all free, all of equal value and all loved.