Anglicanism and Homosexuality in the 1970s
The relationship between the Anglican church and the society within which it exists has always been a problematic one. The competing claims of doctrine, tradition and relevance have created tensions at many times and on many issues. In the 1970s, these conflicts operated at very high levels of intensity and on issues hitherto imagined to have been beyond serious dispute. Nowhere, perhaps, was this more the case than in relation to homosexuality an issue that arose seemingly out of the blue, and on which new and unexpected views were being put forward. How the church in Australia responded to this challenge, and how to explain the variety of these responses, is the subject of this paper.
It has been a view widely held that the Christian churches have been among the most ancient, implacable and effective enemies of homosexuality a view held by both supporters and critics of this enmity. In fact, there is reason to doubt that this is true, and certainly in the years after the Second World War, it is clear that, far from actively opposing homosexuality, the churches here showed very little interest. This point has been made by the historian David Hilliard, who has observed that 'before the 1960s the subject of homosexuality was rarely mentioned, let alone discussed, in the Anglican church press'. This is confirmed, for example, by the fact that when the Anglican Archbishop of Brisbane spoke at length to his synod on the 'new morality' in 1964, he noted 'the falling away of Christian standards of morality and sexual relationships; ... the prevalence of fornication and pre-marital intercourse; ... the increase of indecent and pornographic literature' but made no mention of homosexuality at all. In fact, until the late 1960s, homosexuality was simply not an question with which the churches were forced to grapple publicly, and in this they were simply reflecting a broader indifference to the question shared by most of the opinion-making elite within Australian society. In private, it is true, homosexuality was recognised as an problem for church authorities when scandal threatened; and for clergy it could be an issue of pastoral concern, especially in those churches where homosexuals often congregated Christ Church St Laurence and St James' in Sydney, St Mary Magdalene's in Adelaide and St Peter's Eastern Hill in Melbourne. But there is nothing like the sort of 'fire and brimstone' hostility that many have assumed to be the natural response of the church to this issue.
In any case, even if the churches had been concerned with, or hostile to, homosexuality, it is not clear that during the post-war period, this concern would have carried much weight in society. The findings of the federal government's 1977 Royal Commission on Human Relationships are relevant here. In a questionnaire distributed to participants in Sydney as part of the Commission's research into public attitudes towards sexuality, only 1 per cent of those polled identified the church as having influenced their attitudes towards sex, whereas 12 per cent declared the law to have been important, and 16 per cent emphasised the role of their parents. While such self-assessment is not definitive as a means of assessing the impact of the church on attitudes, Wilson and Chappell's 1967 survey of attitudes offers some confirmation. This survey found that, while those who rarely or never attended church were more inclined to support decriminalisation of homosexual acts, even strong and moderate church-goers were supportive of law reform at about the same orders of magnitude as the sample as a whole.
Finally, whatever the history of the major Christian denominations and the history of their responses to this issue has been treated in detail by Peter Coleman they were, in Australia, among the earliest institutions to address themselves to the new liberal attitude towards homosexuality. The interventions of the British churches into the debate on the Wolfenden report on homosexual law reform the Church of England's two statements, as well as those issued by the Methodists' Department of Church Citizenship and the Roman Catholics seem to have gone entirely unnoticed the church press in Australia. It is difficult, however, to imagine that religious leaders, at least, were unaware of developments, especially as there was a growing number of theological works questioning the received wisdom. H. Kimball Jones' Towards a Christian Understanding of the Homosexual (1967) and Norman Pittenger's Time for Consent (1967; revised 1970) were clear signs of change and were frequently noted. But there were other works, too. In discussing the theological view of homosexuality at the Adelaide diocese's seminar on homosexuality in March 1973, the Revd W. R. Bennetts, rector of St John's Coromandel Valley, was able to report the existence of a large number of recent works, including, in addition to Kimball Jones and Pittenger, D. Sherwin Bailey's Sexual Offenders and Social Punishment, Helmut Thielicke's The Ethics of Sex, Towards A Quaker View of Sex, edited by Alastair Heron, and John A. T. Robinson's Christian Freedom in a Permissive Society. All of these adopted, in varying degrees, liberal positions and, in seeking a work which reaffirmed the church's traditional condemnation of homosexuality, Bennetts found only one authority, a work by Karl Barth for which he did not give a title. Bennetts concluded that:
We now find that the Church is seeking to re-examine its teaching in the light of new information. In particular it has come to be recognised that a distinction must be drawn between the condition of homosexuality and homosexual behaviour. We are coming to recognise that the homosexual is a person who is sexually handicapped. He is the way he is, not by choice, but because of circumstances largely beyond his control.
The clearest evidence that this new thinking was having an impact in Australia came at a seminar organised by the Presbyterian Church of New South Wales in 1967 at which four speakers addressed the question of homosexuality. Arthur North, convener of the Church and Nation Committee, identified a need to go beyond the text of the Old and New Testaments and to seek the spirit of the law. North located this spirit in John Stuart Mill's views on liberty, which he summarised as follows: 'it is not the function of law to intervene in the private morality of citizens. Nor is it the duty of the Church to try to impose Christian standards . . . upon people by means of the law'. Another paper presented by the Revd W. G. Coughlan, an Anglican priest with progressive views, went so far as to say that that 'we are coming to see that all sexual need, attitude and expression is inseparable from the total personality, and reflects that personality with remarkable faithfulness'.
North and Coughlan certainly held liberal views (although even North, when directly questioned at a later date, had to admit that homosexual acts were sinful), but it would be wrong to attribute the ideas expressed by North and Coughlan to their churches as a whole. After all, while the New South Wales Assembly of the Presbyterian church which followed this seminar voted to publish and circulate the seminar's papers, and endorsed the call for homosexual law reform, it carefully prefaced its vote by declaring that it believed homosexuality to be 'contrary to man's ethical development [and] productive of personal moral disintegration'.
This reference to the deleterious moral effects of homosexuality was not contained in the original motion presented to the Church and Nation Committee, but was moved during the debate and accepted by a majority of those present. So while it is clear that the new liberal ideas were making themselves heard within the churches in relation to homosexuality, they were by no means hegemonic. The extent to which some liberals wanted to accept homosexuality as a valid expression of human nature was simply too far ahead of where most people were especially, perhaps, too far ahead of where most church people were. What existed instead was a somewhat lower level of consensus in which
support for law reform was seen by the Church as a matter of social justice for gay men. It had no real difficulty with homosexuality in this context. It had carefully and clearly separated orientation from behaviour and believed that, although it disapproved of the behaviour, the enforcement of unjust laws upon the private behaviour of individuals was not the appropriate way to deal with such behaviours.
It was a consensus shared by a significant group of the laity also, if the correspondence in the Sydney Morning Herald is any indication. In July 1967, the British Parliament finally acted on the Wolfenden recommendations concerning homosexuality, decriminalising homosexual acts in private for men aged 21 or over. An editorial in the Sydney Morning Herald noted this, referring to the Presbyterians' vote and came close itself to endorsing the idea of law reform. In response, the Revd H. A. Brown of Cootamundra wrote in to protest the 'moral landslide' towards win that had caught up 'Church leaders, parliamentarians, newspaper editors, etc'. On 8 August six letters in reply were published all positioned themselves within the terms of the religious debate and all but one disagreed with Brown, expressly drawing a distinction between sin and crime.
It was a distinction that was to be adopted, with notable exceptions, by most of the religious organisations in Australia over the following years. Indeed, it seems likely that it was this distinction that underpinned the remarks in support of decriminalisation made by the Anglican Archbishop of Melbourne, Sir Frank Woods, in 1964 remarks which were confined entirely to the question of the law. But it was not until the 1970s, that other churches were prepared to venture onto the path blazed by Woods in 1964 and the Presbyterians in 1967. While homosexuality had moved onto the agenda, then, and liberal values were finding a voice within the churches, and while the policy implications of these values were being tentatively explored, there was no simple transition to a reformist position. Nor was there ever to be. Nowhere is this clearer than with the outcomes of the debate in the Anglican church, a debate which produced both positive outcomes for homosexuals and their supporters (at synods in Melbourne, Canberra and Goulburn, and Brisbane) and remarkable setbacks and victimisations (most notably in Sydney). It is precisely this diversity of outcomes which makes the Anglican experience so interesting, and so useful for exploring the relationship between the churches, their values and the society of which they were a part.
In October 1971, the Melbourne Anglican synod called for the decriminalisation of 'homosexual acts performed in private between consenting adults of the age of eighteen years or over'. Although the vote was hotly debated, there was, in the end, overwhelming support from the 750 members of the assembly. This vote was no sudden thing. Rather it was the result of a twelve month discussion within the church, and was to launch clergy and laity into further debate.
The issue first arose at the October 1970 synod which had received from the Revd Don Shepherd of St Andrew's, Clifton Hill a motion calling for a review of state laws on homosexuality, with a view to 'bringing the laws intended for the protection of minors and others into line with informed opinion' and to 'removing the penalties for homosexual acts in private between consenting males of eighteen years and over'. The motion itself was somewhat confusing the reference to the protection of minors, while presumably relating to the homosexual-as-child-molester stereotype, seemed to have no obvious connection to the motion as a whole and no clear action attached to it and Shepherd spoke badly, quoting slabs of the law and rambling around his topic, according to David Conolly, then vicar of East Thornbury. The immediate outcome was a debate which observers described as 'probably the angriest' seen that year and 'thoroughly unpleasant'. One clergyman relied upon the example of Sodom and Gomorrah, and the dire consequences which had afflicted Britain since decriminalisation there, to oppose the motion. Sir Reginald Sholl, former Australian consul-general to New York, former judge and prominent Anglican layman, spoke at length, drawing upon his forty years' experience on the bench to oppose the motion, and arguing comparisons between homosexuals and the 'procurers of small boys'. Cries of 'shame' greeted this speech, a remarkable event at the normally polite halls of the synod. David Conolly rose in response: 'a young fellow, slowly-spoken and clear. Queer, we wondered? His thoughts were so charitable after all the self-conscious brimfire. No, he wasn't . . .' He began with a reference to Pharisees (an archetype of hypocrisy in the Christian tradition), and then 'spoke of Christ's love and he expressed the thought that the assembly should concern itself . . . with the fact that there was injustice in the laws appertaining to homosexuality'. Despite his intervention, the motion did not pass. But it was referred to the Social Questions Committee for 'thorough investigation and subsequent report back to the next Session' of synod in 1971.
The interest in homosexuality on the part of synod comes as no surprise, nor does the generally liberal tone of that interest. There were a number of connected developments at work here. As we have seen, there was a growing attention to the liberal agenda in the different denominations over the course of the 1960s and the Anglicans were by no means exempted from this. In 1967, the Melbourne synod had passed motions on a range of social questions including cigarettes, the death penalty, the Vietnam War and Aborigines. By 1968 abortion had been added to the agenda. Senior Anglicans recognised that these issues arose from the political climate of the time. Archbishop Woods expressed the view that:
the "ferment in the Church" . . . is caused by the clamant need to make the unchanging Christian Gospel intelligible to men and women who no longer think in Christian categories, and to make the Church a better vehicle for the furtherance of the gospel than it is at present.
Some, indeed, went so far as to embrace the new mood. Looking at the 'world of uncertainties, changes, conflicts', the Director of the Council for Christian Education in Schools saw this as a very positive development, a sign that the education system and society were producing people 'who ask critical questions and will not be put off by authority-laden answers' people who were applying the 'tools of free criticism' to science, philosophy, art and education as well as to religion and morals.
In addition to these considerations, the liberal notion that the church had no special right to impose its view on those outside its membership was gaining ground in church circles. But this shift was not necessarily a purely philosophical development: not, that is, a simple reflection of the advance within the church of the liberal opinion. Just as important, perhaps, was a loss of morale associated with the fact that church membership was dropping and dropping far more dramatically among Anglicans, where a 'devastating fall away' was identified, than among other major denominations. In response, a quest for relevance was driving sections of the church towards an engagement with the issues of the world a quest which took place primarily upon liberal terrain. This is reflected in the Melbourne Anglican synod's Social Questions Committee's work on homosexuality which took place during 1970 and 1971. The function of this body, first created through the impetus of socially conscious Anglicans in the first decade of this century, had been defined as 'to emphasise the Church's teaching on the duty of the Christian towards his neighbour and to enquire into social questions'. Its membership, comprising clergy and laity, was elected annually at synod. Faced with the 1970 synod vote, the Committee set up a steering committee to formulate a research plan. It proposed, and the full committee agreed, that each of its members should take responsibility for an area of study and research, which would be co-ordinated by the steering committee. Working committees were assigned to examine biblical theology, moral theology, historical, legal, psychological/psychiatric, humanist and military service aspects of the problem. Two eminently liberal works, Towards a Quaker View of Sex and D. J. West's Homosexuality were recommended as preliminary reading. The committee members engaged in 'extensive reading, participation in seminars and consultation with psychiatrists, lawyers, theologians, sociologists and others'. They even sent delegates to the Humanist Society's public meeting on law reform, held in March 1971.
The mass of material resulting from these activities was presented in a summarised form in the final report. Most of the report was concerned with the legal aspects of homosexuality a discussion of the law in Australia and overseas and of the arguments for and against the use of the law to impose morality upon society. There were brief attachments addressing theological considerations and sociological and psychological research, though the purpose of these was explicitly stated as being 'to demonstrate the diversity of possible views'. In the end, although Committee members found much on which they disagreed, they were unanimous in recommending that laws 'which render criminal those homosexual acts committed in private between consenting males of 18 years or over, should be repealed'. A number of other recommendations to do with sexual assault, sexual acts by people under the age of sixteen and between the ages of sixteen and eighteen, gross indecency and offensive behaviour in public, homosexual acts between servicemen and so on were also spelled out. There were also brief remarks upon the question of pastoral counselling by clergy.
The report was published early, in order to give members time to read and consider it. As part of its organising, the Committee arranged a one day seminar for synod members to discuss the issues raised by both the report and the previous year's debate. Although the turnout of forty to fifty was somewhat disappointing perhaps reflecting, said one report hopefully, the fact that synod members had done their homework and no longer felt the need for more information the seminar was of some use. David Conolly spoke on Christian attitudes to homosexuality, arguing that homosexuals were 'first and foremost people ... children of God ... entitled to Christian love and understanding, not condemnation and judgement'. Richard Ball, Chief Clinical Officer of the Mental Health Authority addressed the scientific aspects of the issue, arguing that social ostracism was the biggest problem faced by the homosexual and that this was something that the church could help with, by assisting homosexuals to adjust to this hostility. A member of Society Five, the local branch of CAMP and Melbourne's first gay rights organisation, founded as recently as 1970, also spoke.
In October 1971 the synod met and approved, by an overwhelming majority, a motion which received the report, accepted its recommendations and called for the dissemination of the report and wide discussion of the issues arising from it. Approval was not unanimous. Sir Reginald Sholl, who had opposed the 1970 motion, spoke again, suggesting that it was wrong for the church to 'advocate the abolition of criminal sanctions against conduct which the church itself condemned'. An attempt to delete the acceptance of the recommendation to decriminalise (leaving the motion as urging only dissemination and further study) was defeated, as was the argument to reject the motion entirely.
Opposition to the motion did not cease with its adoption by synod. In fact, it provoked what was almost certainly the first anti-homosexual demonstration in Australian history when, two days after the vote, thirty 'devout young Christians' from La Trobe University's Christian Union (about half of them Anglicans) gathered outside the synod with leaflets calling for a return to 'Bible-based' Christianity. They then occupied the public gallery displaying banners. Although they did not expect to influence the synod itself, which had made its decision and was in its final day, their spokesperson expressed the hope that 'perhaps we can persuade other Christian churches not to follow this line'. Bishop Reed of Adelaide told the Advertiser that he was opposed to the decision. The vestry of St Matthew's, East Geelong, a strongly evangelical congregation, wrote to the Age and the Geelong Advertiser unanimously dissociating itself from the decision. When the Archdeacon of Bendigo wrote an article for See, although he remained uncommitted on the question of criminalisation, he strongly restated the view that homosexuality was a sin and that those who practised it ought to be denied Communion. He suggested, however, that the Bendigo synod would probably not even consider the question, arguing that the 'Church is getting itself in knots about serious morality questions, particularly one as serious as homosexuality can be, and since it is not an issue of immediate concern in Bendigo it seems likely Bendigo will steer its synod business elsewhere'. Four members of his diocese wrote letters expressing much more explicit hostility to the Melbourne decision.
Given all this, although the supporters of law reform had won the battle, they did not seem inclined to rest on their laurels. In response to the criticism, the chairman of the Social Questions Committee wrote a long letter to See, explaining what the report really said, emphasising in particular the report's silence on matters of faith and morals. The synod had voted for 'the general publication and dissemination of the report' and for 'the earnest and continuing study of the social, moral and theological problems related to human sexuality in all its manifestations'. In 1972 the Committee was able to report that it had 'devoted considerable time to distributing the Report and explaining its contents to parishes throughout the Diocese'. It had sent a summary of the report to all clergy in charge of parishes and secretaries of rural deaneries and had written up the report for the church press. The response, the Committee noted, was 'widespread discussion on the plight of homosexuals'.
Melbourne's overall decision to support the principle of homosexual law reform, to be implemented by the government, was not isolated. In the diocese of Canberra and Goulburn, only a few months before the Melbourne debate, its Public Questions Committee placed upon the synod agenda a motion which called for decriminalisation. While the church could not condone homosexuality, the motion said, 'Christian faith as now understood makes no claim on the civil power' to treat homosexuals acts between consenting adults as criminal. Furthermore, drawing upon its pastoral experience, the church expressed the view that 'an understanding society is more likely to help homosexuals than one which rejects, isolates, and punishes them' and that by consulting with the church and other experts, it was convinced that ways could be found to protect young people, to confine and treat harmful and aggressive homosexuals and for therapy to be made available to others. In South Australia, the Anglican diocese had produced a report on homosexuality for Archbishop Reed in August 1973. Described by David Hilliard as 'a modest four-page typed document' and 'mildly conservative', it was non-committal on law reform and held to the view that sex should take place within marriage and that homosexuals, consequently, should stay celibate. As recently as 1971, Reed had publicly opposed homosexual law reform, but at the seminar on homosexuality organised in 1973 for Anglican clergy in South Australia, almost all those present supported changes to the law and it was perhaps a refection of this feeling that the new Archbishop, Keith Rayner, who succeeded Reed in 1975, took the opportunity presented that same year by the second law reform debate in South Australia to support decriminalisation.
In Brisbane, the Diocesan Board of Social Responsibility was requested by synod in 1970 to 'examine the Queensland law in relation to homosexuality in the light of the Wolfenden Report'. The Report, recommending decriminalisation, was considered and approved the following year. In North Queensland, the Social Questions Committee included a discussion of homosexuality in its 1971 survey of moral questions and, while acknowledging uncertainty on a number of issues, its members were agreed that jailing homosexuals was 'unacceptable' and that 'there were sound reasons for supporting reform of the relevant legislation'. The synod, however, was less sure: the publication of the report was stalled, and as a result, discussion in synod was not brought to its logical conclusion.
It is important to note that the discussion here is couched entirely in terms of the legal status of homosexuality. It is only very rarely that the question of changing the church's own attitudes and practices towards homosexuality surfaces. And when it did, it was usually hurriedly dismissed. As the Rt Revd K. J. Clements, then bishop of Canberra and Goulburn said, after the decriminalisation motion had passed at his 1971 Synod, 'We are not talking about whether we approve or disapprove of homosexuals, but about how we are going to treat them. They are a fact of life'. One of the few cases where the question of church attitudes did arise in a decision-making forum came in April 1970 when Professor R. G. Tanner of Newcastle and the Revd A. W. Prescott of Avalon raised the idea of homosexual marriage at the New South Wales Anglican provincial synod. The context was a motion from them which called for a study of church attitudes towards marriage and sexuality. Issues identified for attention included pre-marital sexual relations, the remarriage of the divorced, whether wives ought to take their husband's surname, trial marriages and 'Church blessing for unions between pairs of male or female homosexuals'. The motion was hotly debated, with the Bishop of Wollongong declaring that it was 'unthinkable' for the church to bless such unions and successfully moving the deletion of all specific items from the inquiry's terms of reference. The result was a motion which called in only the most general terms for an investigation.
Against this generally liberal and liberalising trend, the stance adopted by the Sydney diocese stands out remarkably. Not only did Sydney fail to move towards any toleration of homosexuality as a lifestyle, it did not, during this period or subsequently, even accept the notion of decriminalisation. In fact, it actively rejected all such calls. The sheer contrast with the broad success of more liberal views during this period elsewhere invites careful examination of the failure of such views to make any headway in Sydney.
Sydney's stand on this issue is due not just to the predominance of an evangelical stream in the Anglicanism of Sydney, but the existence of an evangelical stream with certain marked characteristics that gave it a distinctive flavour by comparison with evangelical Anglicanism in many other parts of the country. An evangelical stream has always been a significant component in the diocese of Melbourne, drawing its historical lineage from the founding bishop, Charles Perry. But while it has experienced resurgences that have sometimes been aggressive and combative in tone, recent historians consider its models to be quite different from those of its Sydney counterpart. Its strength in Sydney was due not simply to the strength of evangelical Anglicanism in Britain at the time of colonisation. In Sydney, strong and deliberate party organisation dated back to the last quarter of the nineteenth century, when evangelicals created effective pressure groups in the face of the increasing growth of other streams of Anglicanism pressure groups that have continued to the present day. The placement of conservative evangelical theologians on the staff of Moore College helped to ensure a concern for doctrinal correctness, while the creation of strongly organised pressure groups and the use of voting tickets in synod expressed and fostered an overtly combative style. The voice of militant Sydney evangelicalism was not so much the diocesan paper, the Southern Cross, but the Australian Church Record, an independent church paper which declared itself 'openly and proudly evangelical', and which proclaimed 'unashamedly we promote the evangelical cause in the Church'.
Conservative evangelical piety stresses the importance of personal conversion and holiness; the final authority in matters of doctrine is the Biblical text; humanity is envisaged as radically alienated by sin from the state in which it was created by God ('total depravity'), the only remedy being individual repentance and faith in Christ's death as an atoning act. Of these elements basic to the tradition, those which had the greatest effect on attitudes to homosexuals and the gay movement were unquestionably the emphasis on the Bible as the source of all belief and, less obviously perhaps, belief in the doctrine of total human depravity. These were, in fact, closely connected in the minds of evangelicals. As one noted: 'In abandoning the total depravity of man, the New Morality has also abandoned the appeal of the Gospel'. But they had their impact in slightly different ways. The belief that the 'revelation of God to man in the Scriptures is of a holy, sovereign Creator who has fixed, unalterable standards of living', coupled with a belief in the 'permanent and absolute validity of moral law', was strongly and frequently restated in the evangelical press from at least the mid-1960s. Sex was not in itself sinful, to be sure, but it was to be exercised strictly within the laws laid down by God. Homosexuality was, for these evangelicals, firmly outside such law. 'Let there be no mistake about homosexuality being a sin which the Bible expressly condemns', thundered the editor of the Australian Church Record, though precisely because there was considerable doubt expressed about this, the Biblical position was repeatedly spelled out, most notably in a 1972 reply to Bailey's 1955 liberal work, Homosexuality and the Western Christian Tradition.
But we have seen that in Melbourne and other dioceses, the question of homosexuality had been reframed into liberal terms. Should the state enforce morality? Did society benefit or suffer from the criminalisation of homosexuality? What about the injustice meted out to homosexuals themselves? In raising these issues, liberal Christians could sidestep the theology; no position need be taken on the sinfulness or otherwise of homosexuality if the role of the state was at the centre of the debate. For evangelicals, however, these were the wrong questions. Here the notion of the 'depravity of man' comes into play, dictating the tasks of the church and its attitude towards social reform. In an editorial in 1969, the Australian Church Record proclaimed a conservative evangelical anthropology. It denied any suggestion of natural goodness in humanity, and that consequently, 'if you change man's environment for the better, you change man for the better'. Instead, 'the Bible assumes the opposite and declares that man will always be poor, hungry, unenlightened and without Christ'. It continued:
If we go along with the notion that all that is needed to remedy most of our ills is a massive assault on the existing social, political and economic order, then we will believe that the churches should be involved. But the Bible says that man can have everything on earth, but without Christ, he will wake up in hell.
It followed, then, that the church's primary task was to preach the Gospel: 'Denominations should keep out of activities for which they have no clear mandate. They are involved in dubious activities now because they have lost sight of their primary task'.
Nor was it simply a question of the church being diverted from it main tasks by the attempts at social reform. In the absence of any biblical basis for such activism, Christians would be drawn into relying upon other ideas with which to justify their work. Secular notions of psycho-physical healing (chiefly psychology and psychiatry) and socio-political liberation (liberal and radical reform) were crowding out the Christian notion of individual salvation by faith. The 'new scientific insights', the 'modern methods of approach to present problems of conduct' (the writer encloses these terms in ironic and distancing quotation marks) espoused by the New Theologians and the New Moralists had proved of no use at all, it was argued: 'We must see what God's Word says about both the disease [the 'moral sickness of humanity'] and its treatment. All other authorities are patent frauds'. Christian belief alone was sufficient to analyse and solve society's problems and nothing could be more alien to the evangelical mindset than the argument put forward by one churchman in 1966 that 'strong objections to pornography can be sustained on psychological grounds alone without benefit of supporting opposition from moral, ethical, aesthetic and Christian considerations'.
If homosexuality was unequivocally condemned by the Bible and social reform was a dangerous and tragic diversion from the tasks of the church, it was hardly surprising that the evangelicals found little joy in the activities of those synods which were calling for homosexual law reform. While Church Scene and See seemed happy to publish a range of views on the Melbourne synod decision in 1971, the Australian Church Record was consistently critical. Even its news report of the vote which accused the synod in its headline of stirring up a hornet's nest devoted two-thirds of its space to reporting criticism of the decision. Lance Shilton, who as we shall see, was a leader of the evangelicals' campaign against homosexuality, criticised the Melbourne Social Questions Committee for releasing its report to the press and for sparking a public debate before it had been 'thoroughly discussed in a responsible way', arguing that 'the subtle difference between legalising what is wrong and not punishing what is wrong' was lost.
But the Sydney Anglicans were not content merely to criticise their colleagues. They undertook their own research into homosexuality, published a report and had it endorsed by Sydney's synod in October 1973. The Report makes for an interesting contrast with that produced in Melbourne two years earlier, though the origins of the two documents is quite similar. In 1970, as we have seen, Melbourne synod declined to support the Revd Don Shepherd's law reform motion and referred the issue off to the Social Questions Committee. In October 1971 (just as Melbourne was endorsing its report), the Sydney Synod received a motion that 'homosexual behaviour between consenting adults in private should no longer be a criminal offence'. As it happened, the mover of the motion, the Revd Geoffrey Feltham of Epping, was absent through illness at the time the motion came up for discussion and another member of synod argued against debating the issue because a committee was already looking into the question. This latter point was almost true: if work had not yet actually commenced, it had at least been commissioned. The 1969 synod had decided, 'in view of the current ferment in social morals and the need of Christian churches to clarify and state their attitude to a number of current moral questions' to refer to the Ethics and Social Questions Committee a number of issues, including family planning, abortion, homosexuality, and divorce. The report on abortion was produced first, for the 1970 synod, and in 1972 it was noted that the committee was still 'nearing completion' of its work on homosexuality, marriage and family planning. The report on homosexuality was finally presented to the 1973 synod.
Unlike the Melbourne report, Sydney devoted considerable attention to the theological problems presented by homosexuality. Three appendices, ten pages of the report, were concerned with the Biblical material the law of Moses, Sodom and Gomorrah and St Paul and all reinterpretation of this material, such as had been in circulation since at least Bailey's 1955 Homosexuality and the Western Christian Tradition, was refuted systematically and in detail. The report also rested heavily upon scientific arguments about the causes of homosexuality, with a twelve page appendix outlining historical and current research findings. In the body of the report, John Court a prominent evangelical and psychologist, lecturer at the Flinders University and a founder of the Festival of Light in South Australia was relied upon for an argument that homosexuals' capacity to change their sexual orientation was related to their desire to do so. The Committee concluded that both God and science agreed that homosexuals were called upon to abstain from sexual relations, and to adjust their lives ('their job, their circle of friends, reading habits, or places where they frequent') to reinforce this decision; to seek the assistance of qualified counsellors, but also to explore the option of sexual reorientation.
As it happened, the Report was adopted by synod the day before the federal parliament passed a motion calling for homosexual law reform in federal territories. This could hardly have pleased church leaders, for not only had their report unequivocally affirmed the sinfulness of homosexual acts, it had expressly opposed the idea of decriminalisation. Retaining the laws against homosexual acts was, it was suggested, an important part of helping homosexuals to see the need to adjust their behaviour, 'to take their place within the framework of accepted social relationships'. But the argument against decriminalisation went further than this. Homosexuality itself, and any tolerance of it, represented a threat to society. The demands of the homosexual movement, it was noted, were for the abolition of the distinction between hetero- and homosexual activity, for nothing less than 'a radically new society'. As part of a broader mood of social unrest and working with other movements, the 'homosexual revolt' was 'attacking society at the fundamental level of its own social definitions and self-understanding'. The monogamous, heterosexual marriage union a reflection of the mind of God and a necessary social unit was a fragile institution, requiring support from legislation and social conditioning and threatened by any toleration of any behaviour, such as homosexuality, that might distract from it. 'Homosexual behaviour, male and female, is an activity which affects the public good and, therefore, must never be given the status of an accepted form of sexual activity by society'. Although the committee's recommendations called for the handling of such cases in private hearings before tribunals, and urged that prison to be avoided if at all possible, the criminal nature of homosexual acts was to be maintained.
The report was the subject of some debate at synod. While Peter Bonsall-Boone, a prominent gay activist and a member of synod, was one of the few to argue against the report as a whole, there seems to have been some concern about the hardline opposition to decriminalisation. But in the end, the report was strongly approved. As in Melbourne, the Sydney synod called for the report to be published 'in sufficient quantity for distribution to influential members of the community and for sale to the general public'. Clearly the Report was to be no simple clarification of a position for the church's leadership and activists, but was, rather, a public document to be used widely. The report is best understood, I want to suggest, not as an interesting moment in the history of Anglican thought, but as part of a mobilisation against the gay movement, and against the broader movement for social change of which it was a part, by powerful, still-influential but increasingly anxious Anglicans.
This notion of a counter-mobilisation by conservative evangelicals in response to the liberalisation and radicalism of the 1970s allows us to explain the surprising fact that B.L. Smith, chief author of the Sydney Synod Report and one of the conservatives' most prominent leaders, had, as recently as 1969, accepted the need for homosexual law reform. In a paper published in a Christian journal he had argued that homosexuality was a sin, that homosexuals were called upon to abstain, and that secular societies ought to adopt biblical morality. But his tone was rather more compassionate that it was to be in 1971 ('the individual homosexual would appear to be more sinned against than sinning') and he suggested that, short of introducing the death penalty for homosexual acts (as the Old Testament required), 'a strong case can be made out for a revision [of the law] along the lines of the Wolfenden'. His position as put forward in the Report on Homosexuality in 1973 was, as we have seen, very different. Clearly he had changed his mind in the intervening four years and in this he was not alone.
Among conservative evangelicals there was considerable concern as early as the mid-1960s about the New Morality and about the advance of liberal relativist frames of thought. The steady advance of such notions elicited considerable anxiety. In 1971, John Court noted that:
A mere ten years ago few would have doubted that homosexuality comes under the strongest Biblical condemnation and should properly be the object of legal sanctions for the protection of society. A succession of reports, secular and spiritual, has changed these assumptions for many.
The Whitlam Labor government elected in 1972 exacerbated the fears as it began to discuss, and even to implement, reforms which, to the minds of evangelicals, struck at the heart of society. The increased availability of civil marriage through the licensing of civil celebrants was interpreted as part of 'attempts to undermine the Christian concept of marriage'. Divorce law reform and the proposed Bill of Rights were sources of concern. Sex education proposals in NSW and Victoria were criticised for offering 'an aggressive, direct attack on accepted standards of sexuality and human behaviour'. For some, the mere fact that prostitutes, homosexuals and drug addicts were permitted to plead their case on television was a threat. Behind these changes, conservatives perceived the hand of a coordinated group determined to overthrow traditional Christian beliefs and values, whom it described as humanists, and in October 1974, Australian Church Record devoted several pages to the threat of advancing humanism.
With the enemy and its tactics so clear, the response was equally obvious: Christians had to become politically active, to enter into all the institutions of society to combat the threat. This was not a position as inconsistent with the rejection of church involvement in social reform as might appear. Even in its 1969 editorial 'The Church and Society', which argued that the churches had no legitimate role in social reform movements, the Australian Church Record had recognised that 'individual Christians, as God leads them, will bear witness in every area of human activity', and that they had a perfect right to be involved in political and social action. By the late 1960s, faced with the rising threat to Christian values, more and more voices were being raised, urging Christians to a new activism. One commentator noted that, although Christians were a minority in Australia, 'minorities have always achieved great things if they have been active and determined'; the impact of humanists, secularists, anti-conscriptionists, state-aid enthusiasts and advocates of Sunday trading, Sunday liquor, Sunday sport minorities all was proof of that. Noting the noisy minorities that were pressing these reforms, the writer urged that
Christians need to join in the outcry, but against the weak-kneed attitudes of Governments which are being cowed into ignoring their own laws, devised for society's protection ... Let us demand just as strongly that our society be preserved from gutter literature, nude drama, permissive attitudes to drugs, the alcohol flood, the secularisation of the Lord's Day ... As a Christian minority, we must not undervalue our own strength and the power of Christian protest. God has given us tremendous resources.
The calls gained in strength with the passing of time. In 1972, the Sydney diocese's Public Relations Department issued a leaflet which urged Christian writers to infiltrate newspapers, television and radio in order to ensure that Christian views were getting a hearing. A year later, Mrs Frieda Brown, 'a concerned parent' (and also, though she did not mention this, a founding member of the Right to Life), urged ministers to take advantage of the New South Wales government's sex education proposals, 'to enter the schools and teach the Biblical truths about abortion, homosexuality, lesbians, promiscuity, pornography and other issues'.
These calls did not go unheeded. Beginning in the late 1960s, and especially in the early 1970s, conservative evangelicals became increasingly politically active. Prominent among these were a number of church leaders whose activism blurred the line considerably between the individual Christian and the church as an institution. Among the key activists were Lance Shilton, B.L. (Bruce) Smith and John Court. Shilton began his activism as Rector of Holy Trinity Church in Adelaide, 'a thriving Evangelical congregation' (of which John Court was a member), campaigning in 1971 against the play Oh! Calcutta! and going on to form the Moral Action Committee which, in turn, was a forerunner of the Festival of Light of which he became South Australian vice-president. He was appointed Dean of Sydney in 1973. Court we have met already a lecturer in psychology in at Flinders University, active in opposition to homosexual law reform since the late 1960s and later a national vice-president of the Festival of Light. Smith was senior lecturer at Moore Theological College in Sydney, chairman of the diocesan Ethics and Social Questions Committee and principal author of the Report on Homosexuality.
It is difficult to escape the conclusion that this conservative-evangelical push was, in fact, a social and political movement like any other existing in Australia at the time. The Festival of Light established local branches which recruited and mobilised members. Evangelicals within the Anglican church were equally active, especially around the National Evangelical Anglican Conference, held in Melbourne in August 1971. The Australian Church Record enthusiastically promoted this event and the results would seem to have fulfilled its hopes. Some 550 people attended and, whatever debates took place there, the keynote speakers and the Congress Statement were thoroughly conservative in their views. The final statement was prepared by a group of people 'asked' (though it is not clear by whom) 'to present the work of the Congress' by drawing upon 'the papers read, the questions on those papers, and the general conclusion of the study groups'. Those who played leading roles might well have been regarded by the most conservative evangelicals as progressive in their broad desire to involve them with issues in society: Bruce Smith and John Court addressed the session on New Applications of Morality, and in drafting the final statement, Lance Shilton summarised the papers and edited the official report. But the final conclusion was nevertheless conservative: 'the promotion of homosexuality as a life-style undermine[s] human dignity and maturity'.
But the struggle against the liberal-humanist tide was waged, too, outside the church. Central to this was the Festival of Light (FOL), an organisation committed to the defence of Christian moral standards, formally founded in 1973 but having somewhat older roots. Campaign groups to oppose liberalised censorship practices had been established in Melbourne and Adelaide in 1971 and had united to form the Community Standards Organisation in 1972. This in turn assisted in the formation of the FOL. Church figures were prominent in these organisations. Though they lent their names without offering further active involvement, the Roman Catholic and Anglican prelates were patrons, and Lance Shilton and John Court, prominent conservative evangelicals, played important and active roles in the South Australian organisations. It was Shilton who invited Mary Whitehouse, the most prominent leader of the British FOL, to tour Australia in 1973. Frieda Brown, who described herself as a concerned parent, and the wife of an Anglican clergyman, was in fact a prominent conservative-evangelical, and joint organising secretary of the anti-abortion Right to Life. She was keen to draw links between her organisation, which fought one of the threats to society, with those such as the FOL, which fought others. The Australian Church Record was a vigorous supporter of the FOL and of the broader evangelical mobilisation, running front page articles previewing (and thus advertising in advance) and reporting on the movement's events, reporting speeches and papers by conservative leaders, reviewing their books, and allowing very lengthy responses to any criticisms raised against them. It is difficult, for example, to see its two page interview with a Swiss theologian on the subject of homosexuality in July 1973 as anything other than preparing the ground for the Report on Homosexuality, the theology and politics of which the interviewee very closely foreshadowed. As a paper, the Australian Church Record had rather more in common with the papers produced by the far left than with the mainstream reporting press of the commercial sector. Like the far left press, it was an agitator, organiser, urger of action, rather than a passive reporter of news. But evangelical support for the FOL and its aims was not confined to the leadership layer of the Church. In 1973 a majority of the Sydney Synod voted to 'commend to the attention of church people the programme and future activities of the Australian Festival of Light'. The Sydney Town Express, which described itself as a Christian magazine for youth, and which was an enthusiastic supporter of Fred Nile, a prominent leader of the FOL, argued that 'gay people are sad people' and denounced Gay Pride Week as 'an advertising campaign, a promotional activity' for 'a symptom of the disease of rebellion and sin'. As late as 1975, during the Australian Union of Students' debate on homosexuality, at which pro-homosexual motions were put to each campus that was affiliated to the union, the Monash Evangelical Union presented a lengthy statement arguing that homosexuality was 'an abnormal, deviant expression of sexuality'.
The resources available to the conservative evangelical movement were enormous. Its own paper the Australian Church Record the Sydney diocesan leadership (down to and including a majority of synod members), a number of formal organisation such as CSO and FOL, and a steady access to Christian radio stations, an activist cadre in student and youth groups and supporters in parliaments all of these gave this movement an enormous influence in Sydney Anglican circles.
This movement did not go unopposed. The gay movement was a consistent opponent of the church's shift, both from within and without. On the day the Report on Homosexuality was to be debated by the synod, the oldest gay rights group in NSW, the Campaign Against Moral Persecution (CAMP), organised a vigil at the doors of St Andrew's Cathedral, arguing that 'We must not let the diocese of Sydney assume, from our silence, that a report of such a restrictive nature has support from the Anglicans of Sydney', and calling for letters of protest to Archbishop Loane. Immediately after the report was adopted, Cross+Section, CAMP's church group, started to circulate a petition, describing the Report's attitude to homosexuals as 'unenlightened and annihilating', its exegesis as 'selective and antiquated', its sociology as out of date and its recommendations as 'oppressive and unjust'. Then, early in 1974, members of Cross+Section decided that a reply to the Synod's Report on Homosexuality needed to be issued. By April 1974 it was ready. Entitled Homosexuals Report Back, the twenty-nine page report addressed legal and social aspects, religious issues, psychology and psychiatry and included a personal response by a gay Anglican. In the press release marking its publication, the authors emphasised their report's opposition to the church's call for state action:
In expecting the government to act in the light of (the Anglican) report the Synod refuses to acknowledge not only the right of non-Christians to embrace their own particular ideology, but also any other form of Christian ethics save its Sydney version of Anglicanism.
But Cross+Section had great difficulty making its voice heard within the church. If Clair Isbister's call for an end to the reporting of the views of prostitutes, homosexuals and drug addicts in the media was not taken up by the mainstream, the church media seem to have been more susceptible. A letter to Peter Bonsall-Boone from radio-station 2CH, a station owned by the New South Wales Council of Churches, a largely evangelical body, refused a suggested debate on homosexuality. Ostensibly this was because there had been a program on this topic the previous year. It difficult to believe, however, that the writer's hostility to homosexuality (s/he refers to the Biblical rejection of homosexuality and other religious objections) did not play a part in the decision: 'I can see no advantage in debate. I can see the need for compassion'. When Cross+Section wrote to the bishop of Armidale to protest the platform given to John Court (who delivered a paper at the time usually allocated to the bishop's address), the bishop, in a very terse reply, refused even to provide a copy of Court's speech, though it had been published in the local newsletter, Synodsman. Nor is it surprising that a review in Australian Church Record was entirely dismissive, since it was written by B. L. Smith (the principal author, as we have seen of the original Report) and an attempt to publish a letter in this journal was rejected. The editor wrote to Cross+Section suggesting instead a longer piece, of about 2,000 words, proving, from the Bible, that a Christian could be a practising homosexual. The piece never appeared and it is unlikely that it was ever written. It is unlikely, perhaps, that it would have been published if it had been written.
One of the more interesting attempts to force a debate came in June 1974 when Peter de Waal and Mike Clohesy, on behalf of CAMP, wrote to the Standing Committee of the diocesan synod (a body composed of the six bishops and 'the four heavies', including Shilton and Smith) suggesting that, in view of the 'preposterous' contradiction between synod's decision and synod member Peter Bonsall-Boone's acknowledged homosexuality, the forthcoming synod ought either to remove Bonsall-Boone from his position or to revoke the motion accepting the report. A copy of this letter was widely circulated. Seven of those to whom it was written failed to reply; the others offered a variety of reasons as to why this would not happen.
Hanging over the work of Cross+Section was an acute awareness that the diocese's opposition to homosexuality was not simply ideological. Leading figures were prepared to take extreme measures against known homosexuals in their ranks. In June 1973, Jeremy Fisher was confronted by the Revd Dr Alan Cole, Master of Robert Menzies College, an Anglican residential college at Macquarie University where he lived. Cole had found gay liberation materials in Fisher's room. Cole demanded that Fisher live a celibate life and seek treatment as a condition for continued residence. When Fisher, who was an active member and treasurer of the university's Gay Liberation group refused, he was expelled. Fisher was supported by the student union, the Builders Labourers' Federation (which placed work bans on a number of university building projects) and gay activists. But while the university council upheld his right of residence, Fisher did not renew his membership. While the action on Cole's part was probably not premeditated, as late as September 1973, Australian Church Record was defending his actions, pointing to a recent opinion poll which found that only 29 per cent of people thought homosexuality was 'right' as evidence of 'how widespread the support for Dr Alan Cole is on his stand at Robert Menzies College' ( a remarkable non sequitur) and of how little impact the 'noisy avant garde groups who placard the streets and often the media with their opinions' were having.
A slightly earlier incident, the victimisation of Peter Bonsall-Boone was, if anything, even more serious. It seems, unlike the Fisher case, to have been carried out deliberately and with some thought. Bonsall-Boone had been church secretary of St Clement's parish in Mosman since the late 1960s, and an active member of CAMP since 1970. In mid-1972, ABC television asked him and his lover Peter de Waal to appear on the Chequerboard current affairs program. With Sue Wills and Gaby Antolovitch, they agreed and the pre-recorded program went to air on 31 October 1972. Although homosexuality was still a rather controversial matter at the time, the program presented the two couples as remarkably ordinary people. Bonsall-Boone mentioned in passing that he was the secretary of a parish (though without specifying his parish, or even his denomination), and this was all the hierarchy needed. A week later he was told by the church warden to take a week's leave and then to resign his position. On 8 November CAMP issued a statement regarding the church's action and Bonsall-Boone recorded an interview for ABC radio. On warning the rector of his church about this before it was aired, Bonsall-Boone was immediately dismissed. The press and television took up the issue, interviewing Bonsall-Boone and other gay movement leaders, and Bruce Smith, who carried the issue for the church. In the course of one interview, Smith acknowledged that he had known of Bonsall-Boone's sexuality (Bonsall-Boone and de Waal had addressed the Ethics and Social Questions Committee as members of CAMP in June 1972 during its deliberations on homosexuality) and admitted that it was 'a little curious that it had to wait until the thing became public'. With this admission, the gay movement was in a strong position to argue not just that homosexuals were oppressed and discriminated against by the church, but that the church was entirely hypocritical in its practice, content to have homosexuals in its midst as long as they remained silent as to their sexuality.
The Sydney demonstration outside St Clement's, Mosman during the morning service on 12 November, 1972, protesting against the victimisation, was very successful in its numbers, bringing in some 200 members of CAMP, Gay Liberation, the Humanist Society and ABC staff members to a 'large, noisy but orderly' demonstration. And yet, the church stood firm and Bonsall-Boone was never reinstated. So, while the movement could draw heart from its capacity to mobilise numbers for a protest, it was shocked that it had so little impact: that 'no amount of righteous indignation, demonstrating, chanting and media coverage could get Bonsall-Boone reinstated'. For members of Cross+Section, the effect was perhaps more destructive. Certainly, Bonsall-Boone was detecting 'great spiritual difficulty' as a result, with many of the group fearing similar treatment at the hands of their churches were they to declare their homosexuality as a fact of life rather than a grievous sin.
In the 1970s, Australian society was undergoing dramatic changes, not least in its attitudes towards homosexuals; changes to which the Anglican church needed to respond. How to respond was the question. Some sections of the church set aside the more controversial questions regarding God's attitude to homosexuals and focussed instead on the role of the state and its laws in relation to morality. Some sections could not bring themselves to recognise any such a separation. Some seemed content to go with the tide towards the liberal, tolerant society which was emerging; others struggled desperately to hold the line, even to reverse the trend. In deciding their views, synods and congregations and individuals, both lay and clerical, drew upon very different analyses of what was happening and upon very traditions of how the church and society should interact. In Sydney the threat of secular humanism loomed large; in Melbourne, relevance in an evolving world seemed the key problem. In Sydney, the state was called upon to enforce morality; in Melbourne such a demand seemed unreasonable. One church, perhaps. But two distinct traditions, and two roads to follow.