The Church of England, Homosexual Law Reform, and the Shaping of the Permissive Society, 1957–1979

Authors: Ramsay, L.

Journal: Journal of British Studies (University of Chicago Press)

Volume: 57

Issue: 1

Pages: 108-137

Publisher: University of Chicago Press

ISSN: 0021-9371

DOI: 10.1017/jbr.2017.180


This article re-examines existing narratives of British permissiveness and secularization through a discussion of the Church of England's role in shaping the 1967 Sexual Offences Act and ongoing debates on homosexuality in the 1970s. It suggests—contrary to existing narratives of religious decline and marginalization—that the views of church commentators, and the opinions of the Established Church more generally, remained of real cultural and political influence in the years leading up to the 1967 Act. Religious authorities were thus more responsible for the moral landscape of the permissive society than historians previously assumed. Nevertheless, British permissiveness was full of contradictions, not only in terms of the unexpected ways in which reform was shaped and brought about, but in terms of the constraints of the new moral settlement which decriminalized homosexual behavior within modest boundaries. Such contradictions were not confined to the opinions of religious commentators—they were the genuine essence of the position on which the moral consensus in favor of homosexual law reform was based. Through a consideration of the final collapse of this moral consensus in the years after 1970, this article reassesses questions of the nature and timing of British secularization. It considers how the Church of England, although anticipating and shaping earlier developments in approaches toward sexual morality, unintentionally left itself out in the cold in the years after 1970, as progressive opinion began to move away from the consensus on which the 1967 Act had been based.

Source: Manual