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Sunday, June 21, 1998 Published at 08:45 GMT 09:45 UK

UK Politics

Church opposes lowering age of consent

Carey: Backs his bishops

The Church of England is on collision course with the government after bishops condemned moves to lower the gay age of consent.

Rt Rev Michael Scott-Joint: "The priority must be marriage"
The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr George Cary, has backed a statement from Anglican bishops saying they oppose any change in the law which would reduce the age of consent for gay men to 16, the same as heterosexuals.

The protest from the bishops comes as MPs prepare for a free vote on Monday on the issue.

Gay rights campaigners believe they have the support of at least 430 MPs, a clear majority in favour of change.

The Prime Minister Tony Blair and Leader of the Opposition William Hague are expected to vote with the reform lobby.

But if the Church continues its opposition to the expected change, bishops could attempt to overturn the legislation it goes to the House of Lords.

'Wrong message'

[ image: Commons: Vote could be overturned by Lords]
Commons: Vote could be overturned by Lords
But a spokesman for Dr Carey said that he "stands with the majority" of the House of Bishops in opposing the change, agreeing with his colleagues that it would sent the "wrong message" to the young.

The House of Bishops statement calls on leaders of both Church and State to protect people from "harm and exploitation" and to offer them a "vision of what is good".

The bishops stress that sexual relationships legislation should "set an example of what is good and be rooted in sound moral values".

"Pressures are at work to legitimise any and every lifestyle irrespective of any difference of value and quality between them," said the statement.

"These pressures should be resisted."

Stonewall campaigner Roger Goode is confident about the vote
The Bishop of Winchester, the Right Reverend Michael Scott-Joint, said the clergy had to send a signal that heterosexual relations were "the priority".

He said: "That is not to do down the small number of people who are gay. But what is the norm and right in God's eyes is what we want to encourage people into as much as possible."

Clash with campaigners

[ image: Gay rights: Groups organising vigil]
Gay rights: Groups organising vigil
Dr Carey's public backing of the House of Bishops comes after gay rights campaigners Outrage! stormed his traditional Easter service at Canterbury alleging hypocrisy.

More than 100 gay rights groups are planning a vigil outside the House of Commons during the debate.

Active Christians in government, including the Home Secretary Jack Straw, are expected to back the legislation.

[ image: Tatchell:
Tatchell: "Church endorses discrimination"
Peter Tatchell, head of Outrage!, accused the Bishops of opposing human rights and endorsing discrimination.

"Their support for the criminalisation of 16 and 17-year-old men involved in consenting gay relationships is cruel, oppressive and heartless," said Mr Tatchell.

"We hope Christian MPs will ignore the bishops call. Even if bishops do not approve of homosexuality, they have no right in a democratic and secular society to insist that the legal system imposes their morality on gay teenagers."

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