Sexual Offences (Amendment) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:20 pm on 11th April 2000.

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Photo of The Bishop of Gloucester The Bishop of Gloucester Bishop 4:20 pm, 11th April 2000

My Lords, I believe that my comments gave that impression. I supported the noble Baroness in saying that further safeguards would be required if the Bill were to be pushed through.

As I said, I think that we in this House would agree that all who have leadership responsibility have a particular duty to support young people in their personal development, to protect them from harm and exploitation and to offer them a vision of what is good. The problem for me, and, I guess, for most of us, is how best we do this, and whether this Bill helps us or hinders us as regards our responsibilities to the young. It is absolutely clear both from our debate so far today and from previous debates that within society and within the Church there are different opinions which are held strongly and passionately and with sincere conviction. Had the entire Bench of Bishops been able to attend today, there is little doubt that we too would express different opinions, as we did on a former occasion. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, has already alluded to this in his opening speech. I therefore speak in a personal capacity and not on behalf of the whole Bench.

However, this division of opinion is hardly surprising. It surely does not reflect any deep division among the Bishops on a basic principle. Some years ago the House of Bishops, through its statement, Issues in Human Sexuality, made it clear that the teaching of the Church, which is, of course, based on the teaching of Jesus in the Gospels, is that the norm for all human sexual relationships is that they should take place within the context of a life-long marriage between one man and one woman. That is a moral principle which we strongly underlined in September last year in a teaching document which we issued to all our clergy and parishes which is entitled quite simply, Marriage.

Bearing in mind that, sadly, some marriages break down and end in divorce, and that such people often wish to marry again and have the ceremony in their parish church, we have also recently issued another document, Remarriage after Divorce, which has been sent to all parishes for detailed discussion and comment. The discussion will continue throughout the year before the House of Bishops and then General Synod look at this crucial matter once again. We hope that this long and democratic process will enable our parish clergy to have clear and consistent guidelines which continue to stress the supreme importance of marriage, but also make possible through repentance, forgiveness and understanding, a second marriage in church under carefully defined circumstances.

I believe that Bills such as this one can so easily distract us from emphasising as strongly as we possibly can the venerable institution of marriage. I believe that that institution continues to be vitally important to many people in society today, in spite of the considerable pressures, conscious and unconscious, which act against commitment, stability and perseverance. I believe that marriage is a major building block in our contemporary society and contributes strongly and obviously to that aspiration of the House of Bishops that all who have leadership responsibility in our society, both in Church and state, have a particular duty to offer young people a vision of what is good and to support them in their personal development.

I am a happily married man with four married children and 10 grandchildren. I count myself as blessed in enjoying a strong and stable family life. Therefore noble Lords would expect me to say what I am saying, not only as a bishop but as a very married bishop. I could undoubtedly be accused of bias and even prejudice on this matter. But to stand firm--as I do--on the vital importance of marriage does not imply homophobia; nor does it imply in any way the exclusion of those whose lifestyle does not conform to these moral principles.

There are surely moral principles and pastoral compassion. Moral principles are usually clear, particular, simple and normally easy to understand. Pastoral compassion is offered to all and is indiscriminate--in its scope it is entirely without judgment and discrimination. As my right reverend brother the former Bishop of Norwich said in a previous debate in this House, there can so easily be a muddle when the two become confused or opposed to each other; for example, when those who hold strong moral principles are accused of lacking compassion, or when compassion for everyone is elevated to the highest moral principle that there can possibly be. On these Benches, as on all other Benches, we share moral principles and deep pastoral compassion. But those principles and that compassion can lead us to different conclusions about what is expedient or timely in our shared duty and concern for the young.

In the Bill before us and in our debates, there are powerful arguments for equality and against discrimination. Of course, all human beings are equal--that is absolutely basic. In the words that I would use, we are all made in the image of God; deeply loved by Him and called by Him to take a proper part in His eternal purposes by living a fully human life in society to the very best of the abilities which God has graciously given us.

But surely this equality does not imply that everything that human beings do with or to each other is equally desirable or valuable. Like many other noble Lords, I have received many letters on this matter from concerned people, from all over my diocese and beyond. I share with them the conviction that some forms of sexual fulfilment are intrinsically better and more in accord with God's will than others--not only better, but it seems that they are also safer. If I and others hold that view, it would seem to us entirely proper that our law should continue to allow certain sexual behaviour only to those of whatever age it deems mature and responsible. That, to me, argues strongly against lowering the age of consent.

Our society today is dominated by sex in all its forms, too often presented as simply an appetite like any other which must be satisfied whatever the cost. I believe that all of us have to share some responsibility for that. We are all--old as well as young--damaged and hurt by that remorseless sexualising of life today. It is a culture which is particularly difficult for our young people--and perhaps especially hard for the young who are struggling to discover their own sexuality among so many pressures and siren voices.

I cannot believe that every kind of sexual activity is as good and as beneficial as any other just so long as you may want it and so long as you can persuade yourself that it harms no one else. Despite many who attempt to persuade me to agree with them, I continue to judge that we shall do much more harm to young people, and to many older people, of whatever orientation, by going along with our modern culture in this regard. By appearing to legitimise it at an earlier age, we are giving unhelpful and muddled signals to many people who look to us to enunciate clear moral principles.