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Saturday, December 5, 1998 Published at 02:56 GMT


Church struggles to understand gays

Dr Carey: No dialogue yet with the gay community

By BBC News Online's Alex Kirby:

The Church of England is learning more about lesbians and gay men, both within its own ranks and in the wider world.

And the conviction of homosexual rights campaigner Peter Tatchell, on a charge of "indecent behaviour in a church", may, in a roundabout way, have done something to advance that learning process.

Mr Tatchell has now been convicted and fined £18.60, for breaking a law passed in 1860. He also has to pay costs of £320.

[ image: Dr Carey's Easter sermon interrupted by protests]
Dr Carey's Easter sermon interrupted by protests
He was lucky, as he could have gone to prison for two months. But the magistrate said his conduct did not merit imprisonment.

The Church of England has for years been trying to come to terms with homosexuality.

Its official teaching amounts to saying that ordinary, lay members of the church can have faithful same-sex relationships, but that the clergy do not enjoy such latitude.

They must either marry someone of the opposite sex, or remain celibate.

The bishops say the church is continuing to study the subject and has not yet made up its mind in any definitive way. They face a ticklish dilemma.

If they do not denounce homosexual lifestyles as less than perfect, they could lose substantial numbers of worshippers, people who take a conservative view on social matters and regard homosexuals with the deepest suspicion.

But if the bishops do condemn homosexuality, they will alienate significant numbers of their own best workers, among them the gay and lesbian priests who are loved in their own parishes and who keep the Anglican show on the road in many parts of the country.

A robust institution

In July this year the city of Canterbury was host to the Lambeth Conference, the once-every-ten-years gathering of all the Anglican bishops from around the world (the church of England is known as "the mother church" of Anglicanism).

About 800 bishops, and their spouses, gathered in the city for a three-week bout of praying, studying and working together.

[ image: Peter Tatchell's protest targeted against the archbishop]
Peter Tatchell's protest targeted against the archbishop
The session which attracted more attention than any other was the debate on homosexuality, which ended by reasserting the traditional Anglican repudiation of it, to the deep disappointment of more liberal church members.

So the church is still trying to find its way towards an understanding of the subject which reconciles tradition with today, and Biblical insights with compassion.

Peter Tatchell's protest against the archbishop was precisely targeted. It criticised Dr Carey's opposition to the lowering of the age of consent for gay men, and to the idea that homosexual couples could be suitable foster parents.

The protest he led was not concerned specifically with the problems of lesbian and gay Anglicans, or Christians of any description.

The group that concentrates on trying to make space for homosexual Christians is the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement (LGCM), which does not share OutRage!'s commitment to direct action.


During his trial, Peter Tatchell said that Dr Carey had refused for years to meet lesbian and gay groups for formal talks.

But in a scarcely-noticed footnote to the Lambeth Conference, the archbishop did make time to attend an LGCM reception.

A few months later he held a formal meeting with its leaders, a move they described as very positive.

Those two meetings took place months after Peter Tatchell's takeover of the archbishop's pulpit.

Whether they would have happened at all without OutRage!'s highly-publicised intervention is anyone's guess.

But it is certain that the Anglican leaders are at the very least anxious to be seen to be talking - and listening - to their homosexual members.

The dialogue between Dr Carey and Peter Tatchell shows no sign yet of having begun. But the almost laughably light sentence imposed by the court makes a dialogue at least possible.

It says, first, that the law as it stands does forbid interruptions during church services.

More importantly, though, it says that both the law and the church are changing.

The law does not now require offenders to be sent to prison, as it did 30 years ago. If it has changed that far, it could change still further - and perhaps it could be repealed altogether.

And the court has said, in effect, that the church - "a robust institution", as the magistrate called it - no longer needs the special protection it enjoyed under the 1860 law which Peter Tatchell broke.

If the law and the church can change, then it cannot be impossible that the campaigner and the archbishop will sit down together.

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