On December 5th, 2005 the proposal to legalise marriage for same-sex couples in the form of the Civil Partnership Bill became law in the United Kingdom. This occurred 48 years after the publication of The Wolfenden Report, a 1957 British government study officially entitled the Report of the Committee on Homosexual Offences and Prostitution.
This report was significant in GBLT history, for it recommended that homosexual behaviour between consenting adults in private no longer be criminalized in England. This recommendation was the most far-reaching proposal of a committee charged in 1954 with investigating British laws on homosexuality and prostitution. It received its name from its chair, Sir John Wolfenden, the then vice-chancellor of the University of Reading. The committee condemned homosexuality as immoral and destructive to individuals, but concluded that outlawing homosexuality impinged on civil liberties and that private morality or immorality should not be “the law’s business.” Without condoning homosexual acts, the committee found that, when committed in private among consenting adults, they did not fall within the law’s purview. The function of the law, the committee wrote, “is to preserve public order and decency, to protect the citizen from what is offensive or injurious, and to provide sufficient safeguards against exploitation and corruption of others, particularly those who are especially vulnerable. . . . It is not, in our view, the function of the law to intervene in the private life of citizens, or to seek to enforce any particular pattern of behaviour, further than is necessary to carry out the purposes we have outlined.” Whilst we have undoubtedly made big strides in implementing the report’s recommendations there is one area where it would seem that we are still dragging our feet, and that is in the religious field. Compare the then, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Fisher’s eloquent plea on behalf of the recommendations, declaring that “There is a sacred realm of privacy . . . into which the law, generally speaking, must not intrude. This is a principle of the utmost importance for the preservation of human freedom, self-respect, and responsibility” with today’s church leaders’ pronouncements on today’s law which seeks to preserve a fundamental human freedom, namely, the right to marry the person we love notwithstanding that person’s or our creed, colour, nationality, economic standing and finally sexual orientation. The last great prejudice of the Christian Church is about to fall and all that it seems to be able to do is to protest.
Is it not a fact that in denying the right of same sex couples to marry on moral grounds we are intruding into precisely that sacred realm of privacy Archbishop Fisher referred to? That is the privacy of how we love and express our feelings for each other. What the Civil Partnership Law is doing is to enfranchise a group of people who, for many years have been humiliated, whose rights have been ignored, whose dignity has been offended, their identity denied and their civil liberties suppressed. Fundamentally, what this law does is to enable two people of the same sex to make a lifetime commitment to each on a par with that made between opposite sex couples. The main objection to extending these writes to same sex couples has always been the reproductive one. But this should never have become relevant. Whilst the Church has always recognised that a marriage should be consummated it has never accepted that an infertile relationship can be dissolved. The responsibility of the couple for each other has always been the paramount consideration, and whilst some Churches have gradually come to accept adultery as grounds for the dissolution of a marriage it should be pointed out that even Jesus did not accept this. What we have done this past December, to quote the Spanish Prime Minister, is to grant this minority “the respect they deserve [and to] recognise their rights, restore their dignity, affirm their identity and restore their liberties.”
Let us, today, celebrate a newly won freedom for a small minority of our fellow human beings and a victory over intolerance for the rest of us.