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What is marriage?

By Matthew Grimley


As I write, a committee is meeting to decide which two names to submit to the British prime minister for the post of archbishop of Canterbury. Whoever gets the job, a major issue that he will have to deal with is that of gay marriage, which the British government has pledged to introduce, and which the Church of England, along with most other religious confessions in Britain, opposes. The current debate about gay marriage forces all religions, as well as the government and the general public, to re-examine both their views on homosexuality, and their definitions of exactly what marriage is.

This may be a good moment for a spot of historical perspective on how British Christians’ views on marriage and sexuality have changed over the past century. An update from the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography today focuses on the men and women who shaped the twentieth-century churches. Of the 60 featured biographies, five in particular help us chart these changes. These new biographies offer a useful corrective to two prevalent but false assumptions in the media. The first is that the position of the Christian churches on sexual ethics is automatically reactionary; the new Oxford DNB lives display a much more nuanced and conflicted picture than that. The second is that arguments between Christians about homosexuality are new. As one of the new biographies shows, modern debate in the Church of England about homosexuality can be dated back to 1952 — 60 years ago this year.

Arthur Herbert Gray

Two biographies by Alana Harris demonstrate the central role Christians played in re-conceiving marriage from the 1920s onwards. Arthur Herbert Gray (1868-1956) was a Presbyterian minister whose service as an army chaplain in the Great War led him to champion the need for sex education. In 1923 he wrote a best-seller entitled Men, Women and God: a Discussion of Sex Questions from the Christian Point of View, which called for “a fuller understanding of the problems of sex … for the enrichment of human life and the glory of God.” In 1938 Gray joined with a Methodist minister, David Mace (1907-1990), to form what became the Marriage Guidance Council (and is now Relate). As a minister in London’s Old Kent Road during the Depression, Mace had been struck that “nothing seemed to equal the power of a truly happy marriage to keep people going under great stress,” an insight that shaped his whole career. Appropriately, Mace did much of his work in partnership with his wife Vera Chapman (1902-2008) and, after emigrating to the USA, the couple became leading figures in the global marriage guidance movement.

While the marriage guidance movement took off after the Second World War, some Christians turned their attention to the issue of homosexuality. One such was Derrick Sherwin Bailey (1910-1984), an Anglican priest and friend of David Mace, who wrote an article for the journal Theology in 1952 calling for the decriminalization of homosexual acts between men. He received a huge postbag on this, and convened a panel of doctors, lawyers, and clergyman to produce a report called The Problem of Homosexuality (1954). Originally intended only for internal church circulation, the report received a much wider readership, even eliciting a fan-letter from the American sexologist Alfred Kinsey. It was a contributing factor to the government’s establishment of the Wolfenden Committee, and to John Wolfenden’s recommendations that homosexual acts between adult males be legalized. Sherwin Bailey was an unassuming railway enthusiast who had been largely forgotten by the time of his death, but by securing the support of senior Anglicans and other opinion-formers for homosexual law reform, he had played a key role in its eventual enactment in England and Wales in 1967.

The permissive reforms of the 1960s prompted two different sorts of grassroots backlash in the 1970s, both reflected in lives now published by the Oxford DNB. The first was the conservative moral backlash, represented by Raymond Johnston (1927-1985), director of the 1970s campaign group, the Nationwide Festival of Light. This organization, whose founders included Malcolm Muggeridge and Mary Whitehouse, campaigned against abortion, pornography, and public manifestations of homosexuality. As Andrew Atherstone’s biography of Johnston shows, the Festival of Light’s theology belonged to the conservative evangelical tradition, but its methods — lobbying MPs, using newspapers and TV, and borrowing the language and music of the 1970s pop festival movement — showed a very modern awareness of the mass media and imitated the counter-culture that it attacked.

The second 1970s backlash was a radical one that rejected the 1960s permissive consensus as too cautious, and instead asserted the rights of identity groups. This was seen in new activist movements like the Gay Liberation Front and the Women’s Liberation Movement, both of which picketed the Festival of Light’s first public meeting in September 1971. (Members of the Gay Liberation Front dressed as nuns gatecrashed the meeting, releasing white mice and stink-bombs in the auditorium.) This new radicalism confronted the Christian churches, too, with the foundation of the Gay Christian Movement in 1976. The first president of this movement, Peter Elers (1930-1986), vicar of Thaxted in Essex, is the subject of a new ODNB biography by Julian Litten. A married father of four, he caused controversy in 1976 by coming out as gay at a conference, and by allegedly blessing two lesbian partnerships in Thaxted Church. The following year he again declared his homosexuality on a BBC TV documentary. Thaxted was a parish celebrated for its radical Christian socialist tradition, but gay liberation was a cause too far for many parishioners, who campaigned to have Elers removed as their vicar. Peter Elers kept his job, but the episode led conservative evangelicals like Johnston to become increasingly insistent that the Anglican hierarchy distance itself from the demands of gay rights protesters. The battle between supporters and opponents of gay rights in the Church of England has been going on ever since.

Matthew Grimley is Fellow and Tutor in Modern History at Merton College, Oxford. He was associate editor of the Oxford DNB’s ‘20th Century Churches’ update, published on Thursday 27 September 2012. Highlights from the ODNB update are available, along with an introduction and a full list of the 124 new biographies now added to the dictionary.

The Oxford DNB online is freely available via public libraries across the UK. Libraries offer ‘remote access’ allowing members to log-on to the complete dictionary, for free, from home (or any other computer) twenty-four hours a day. In addition to 58,000 life stories, the ODNB offers a free, twice monthly biography podcast with over 130 life stories now available. You can also sign up for Life of the Day, a topical biography delivered to your inbox, or follow @ODNB on Twitter for people in the news.

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Image of Arthur Herbert Gray, by Elliott & Fry, whole-plate glass negative. © National Portrait Gallery, London. Used with permission.

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