Church sexuality report from 1970 increases pressure for change

By Savi Hensman
August 12, 2017

Amidst wide media coverage of the fiftieth anniversary of the Sexual Offences Act 1967, a Church of England report on sexuality from that era has come to light. This will intensify pressure to improve the church’s treatment of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people.

The church should offer non-judgmental support to lesbians and gays, a working party agreed, though members differed on whether same-sex partnerships were always wrong. This may seem unremarkable now.

But in 1970, when open prejudice was rife, it was so controversial that the document was never published. It did however begin a formal debate which continues today. Similar processes have taken place in other churches

A recent request by Colin Coward, a long-time activist, to the Church of England Record Centre has unearthed this document. In some ways reflects the limitations of that time, drawing on now-discredited theories about homosexuality arising from family dysfunction and almost invariably resulting in unstable relationships.

A vast amount of research on sexuality and gender identity has since taken place in the sciences and humanities. It has also become far easier to meet happy, settled couples accepted by, and caring for, their families and communities.

In addition many biblical scholars and other theologians have undertaken work on the theology of sexuality and gender. There is greater awareness of a range of perspectives and how diversity might contribute to human flourishing.

Yet the working party, set up by the Board for Social Responsibility almost as soon as the Act was passed, sought to make good use of what was then known or thought to be true. It also reflected a strong wish to reduce the suffering of those attracted wholly or largely to others of the same sex in an often unwelcoming world. Church leaders had helped to get the Act passed, partly decriminalising sex between men.

The chair was the Bishop of Lichfield, Stretton Reeve. The other members were Commander Shirley Becke of the Metropolitan Police; Peter Coleman, a university chaplain (later bishop) trained as a barrister; Dr Jack Dominian, a psychiatrist who would become an influential Roman Catholic theologian, bringing psychological insights to bear on ethical issues; Dr Erica Jones, a general practitioner; and Arthur Townsend, a retired police commander, also from the Met.

The report (like most others by church bodies on LGBT issues in the twentieth century) focused on sexual orientation rather than gender identity. It took heterosexuality as the norm but emphasised that those of a “homosexual disposition” were capable of the highest physical, intellectual and spiritual attainments.

They urged that bisexuals enter heterosexual marriages, which were seen as generally happier and more stable as well as in keeping with society’s and the church’s ideals. They also took the view that gay clergy should be strongly discouraged from acting on their sexuality (it is remarkable that attitudes have changed so much that laypeople are more likely to be scandalised these days by priests being punished for entering committed same-sex partnerships).

However, opinion was divided on whether same-sex relationships were always sinful for lay Christians for whom heterosexuality was not a realistic goal. Some members of the working party believed that these needed the friendship and reassurance of fellow-humans and “the opportunity to assuage feelings of guilt and self-rejection.

“Personal growth, which will shift the person from transient, ineffectual relationships to the formation of more stable and permanent friendships, will be a real step towards maturity and wholeness.” This perspective echoed the approach of the German theologian Helmut Thielicke in the early 1960s.

The report made the point that “The community has an obligation to meet the needs of homosexual men and women in that they are brothers and sisters in Christ.” This included a proposal for an ecumenical “Institute for the Family”.

This would provide counselling, social work and other kinds of support to families in trouble and those struggling with sexual and relationship problems, drawing on discoveries in the fields of psychology, sociology and biology.

It would also contain a research team, including sociologists, psychologists, lawyers and theologians. “The aim will be a continuous exchange between the findings of the social sciences, revelation and tradition.”

Though the report was not released, another working party report was published in 1979 which went further. This examined Scripture and science and argued that committed same-sex relationships were not sinful. However the Board for Social Responsibility made it clear that it did not endorse the findings.

The next working party report, in 1989, was again suppressed, not appearing until the Church Times brought out an electronic version in 2012. Repeatedly bishops who privately believed in greater acceptance, with a few exceptions, shied away from saying this in public. Yet opinion in the pews, and wider society, was shifting.

Today only 16 per cent of British Anglicans think that same-sex sexual relationships are always wrong (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/24117). This view is even less common in wider society and many condemn the church as homophobic. Against this background, a 'teaching document' is due to appear in 2020.

Sometimes church leaders have said that it is too early to reach any conclusion on this issue. Yet half a century after the Lichfield working party began work on the first report, and a century or so since modern theologians began debating same-sex love, this excuse is wearing thin. It is time to address, more than superficially, the serious theological issues raised, and insights gained, over the years.

The 1970 vision of a church at the cutting edge of pastoral theology, its research and reflection informed by practical love and support for human flourishing, is bold. It poses a challenge to the Church of England, and other Christians, today.


© Savitri Hensman is an Ekklesia associate and respected commentator on welfare and other issues. She is author of the book Sexuality, struggle and saintliness: same-sex love and the church (Ekklesia, 2016): http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/22613 and has been involved in seeking greater inclusion.

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.