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Law, Morality and Secularisation: The Church of England and the Wolfenden Report, 1954–1967


The role of the Church of England in the permissive reforms of the 1960s has been neglected. This article examines the Church's part in the campaign for the legalisation of homosexuality in the 1950s and 1960s. It shows that the Church of England Moral Welfare Council played a key role in setting up the Wolfenden Committee in 1954, and in later campaigns culminating in the 1967 Sexual Offences Act. In advocating the separation of crime and sin, senior Anglicans were promoting the secularisation of the criminal law, but many church members opposed this reorientation of Church and State. The importance of the Church of England in homosexual law reform suggests that existing narratives of secularisation and the permissive society need to be revised.

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1 Jeffrey Weeks, Sex, politics and society: the regulation of sexuality since 1800, 2nd edn, London 1989, 242; Stephen Jeffrey-Poulter, Peers, queers and commons: the struggle for gay law reform from 1950 to the present, London 1991, 18–19; Christie Davies, The strange death of moral Britain, New Brunswick, NJ 2004, 145–52; Andrew Holden, Makers and manners: politics and morality in post-war Britain, London 2004, 65.

2 This is a point made by Richard Davenport-Hines, ‘The throne trembles’, Times Literary Supplement, 5 Jan. 2007, 11.

3 Wills, Abigail, ‘Delinquency, masculinity and citizenship in England, 1950–1970’, Past & Present (May 2005), 159–85; Mark Jarvis, Conservative governments, morality and social change in affluent Britain, 1957–1964, Manchester 2005.

4 Ian Machin, ‘British Churches and moral change in the 1960s’, in W. M. Jacob and Nigel Yates (eds), Crown and mitre: religion and society in northern Europe since the Reformation, Woodbridge 1993, 223–41, and Churches and social issues in twentieth-century Britain, Oxford 1998, chs v–vi; E. R. Norman, Church and society in England, 1770–1970: a historical study, Oxford 1976, chs ix–x. See also Hugh McLeod, The religious crisis of the 1960s, Oxford 2007.

5 McGregor, O. R., ‘Equality, sexual values and permissive legislation: the experience’, Journal of Social Policy i (1972), 56.

6 Stuart Hall, ‘Reformism and the legislation of consent’, in National Deviancy Conference, Permissiveness and control: the fate of the sixties legislation, London 1980, 5.

7 Callum Brown, The death of Christian Britain, London 2001, ch. viii.

8 H. L. A. Hart, Law, liberty and morality, London 1963, preface.

9 The fullest account of the debates within the Wolfenden Committee is in Patrick Higgins, Heterosexual dictatorship: male homosexuality in postwar Britain, London 1996. A less tendentious account is offered by Mort, Frank, ‘Mapping sexual London: the Wolfenden Committee on Sexual Offences’, New Formations xxxvii (Spring 1999), 92113.

10 Report of the Committee on Homosexual Offences and Prostitution, Cmnd. 247 (1957), 24.

11 Weeks, Sex, politics and society, 239.

12 Bailey, Derrick Sherwin, ‘The problem of sexual inversion’, Theology lv (Feb. 1952), 4752.

13 The problem of homosexuality: an interim report by a group of Anglican clergy and doctors, Church Information Board, London 1954.

14 Alfred Kinsey to Canon Hugh Warner, 3 Aug. 1954, Church of England Record Centre, Southwark, MWC/HOM/3.

15 Peter Wildeblood, Against the law (1955), London 1999, 65.

16 The problem of homosexuality, 7.

17 Sherwin Bailey (ed.), Sexual offenders and social punishment: being the evidence submitted on behalf of the Church of England Moral Welfare Council to the Departmental Committee on Homosexual Offences and Prostitution, with other material relating thereto, London 1956, 75.

18 Chris Waters, ‘Disorders of the mind, disorders of the body: Peter Wildeblood and the making of the modern homosexual’, in Becky Conekin, Frank Mort and Chris Waters (eds), Moments of modernity: reconstructing Britain, 1945–1964, London 1998, 134–51.

19 Bailey, Sexual offenders and social punishment, 34.

20 Ibid. 83.

21 Ibid. 36.

22 Zweiniger-Bargielowska, Ina, ‘Austerity and the Conservative party recovery after 1945’, HJ xxxvii (1994), 173–97, and Austerity in Britain: rationing, control and consumption, 1939–1955, Oxford 2000, ch. v.

23 Tony Crosland, The future of Socialism, London 1956, 524.

24 J. G. Lockhart, Cosmo Gordon Lang, London 1949, 235.

25 Michael Ramsey, Canterbury pilgrim, London 1974, 176.

26 See, for example, ‘What's wrong with the Churches, Prism, special issue (Apr. 1958), and ‘Disestablishment and unity,’ Prism, special issue (Jan. 1959).

27 For Jarrett-Kerr's involvement in the Lady Chatterley case see Roodhouse, Mark, ‘Lady Chatterley and the monk: Anglican radicals and the Lady Chatterley trial of 1960’, this Journal lix (2008), 475500.

28 Norman, Church and society in England, 426.

29 Report of the Committee on Homosexual Offences and Prostitution, 16.

30 Ibid. 9.

31 Higgins, Heterosexual dictatorship, 35.

32 Another committee member, V. A. Demant, was a canon of Christ Church and probably the most distinguished living Anglican political theorist.

33 Wolfenden's philosophical training in 1920s and 1930s Oxford had been a typically Idealist one, including a degree of metaphysical speculation. ‘We really did bother our heads about God, freedom and immortality, about what constitutes a good man or a right act, about the nature of a universal, and about the content of a moral obligation’, he remembered. ‘Perhaps we were the last dying embers of that tradition’: Turning points: the memoirs of Lord Wolfenden, London 1976, 39.

34 Peter G. Richards, Parliament and conscience, London 1970, 68.

35 For the Church of Scotland's reaction to Wolfenden see Davidson, Roger and Davis, Gayle, ‘“A field for private members”: the Wolfenden Committee and Scottish homosexual law reform, 1950–67’, Twentieth-Century British History xv (2004), 191–5.

36 Sherwin Bailey dealt with biblicist objections to homosexuality in his Homosexuality and the western Christian tradition, London 1955, which he submitted to the Wolfenden Committee in a private capacity.

37 HL Debs, 5th ser. ccvi, 4 Dec. 1957, col. 817.

38 Christopher Chavasse, bishop of Rochester to John Wolfenden, 1 Aug. 1956, TNA, HO 345/4.

39 Wolfenden, committee memorandum, n.d., HO 345/10, CHP/Misc/2.

40 Sherwin Bailey, oral evidence to Wolfenden Committee, 30 Mar. 1955, HO 345/13, CHP/TRANS/19.

41 For grassroots Anglican and Catholic reactions to liturgical reforms see Alana Harris, ‘“The prayer in the syntax?” The Roman missal, the Book of Common Prayer and changes in liturgical languages, 1945–80’, in Jane Garnett, Matthew Grimley, Alana Harris, William Whyte and Sarah Williams (eds), Redefining Christian Britain: post-1945 perspectives, London 2007, 36–49.

42 Shils, Edward and Young, Michael, ‘The meaning of the coronation’, Sociological Review n.s. i (1953), 64–5, 69, 77.

43 HL Debs, 5th ser. clxxxiv, 4 Nov. 1953, col. 56.

44 Ibid. ccvi, 4 Dec. 1957, col. 318.

45 Ibid. lcxxv, 29 June 1960, 1496–7.

46 Patrick Devlin, The enforcement of morals, London 1965, p. v.

47 Ibid. 10, 4, 23.

48 Hart, Law, liberty and morality. For the Hart–Devlin dispute see Nicola Lacey, A life of H.L.A. Hart: the nightmare and the noble dream, Oxford 2004, ch. x, and Basil Mitchell, Law, morality and religion in a secular society, London 1967.

49 Hart, Law, liberty and morality, 50.

50 Ibid. 62–3.

51 Ibid. 65–6.

52 H. L. A. Hart to Wolfenden, 12 July 1963, and reply, 17 July 1963, John Wolfenden papers, University of Reading Special Collections, box 5.

53 Wolfenden to Patrick Devlin, 3 July 1963, ibid.

54 Ramsey later prevailed upon Devlin to serve on the Church of England committee on divorce law reform which produced the 1966 report, Putting asunder.

55 David Nicholls, review of The enforcement of morals, Prism (Mar. 1960), 8–14.

56 Devlin, The enforcement of morals, 9. For twentieth-century Anglican theories of community see Matthew Grimley, Citizenship, community, and the Church of England: Liberal Anglican theories of the state between the wars, Oxford 2004.

57 G. R. Dunstan to J. N. F. Newall, 21 Nov. 1960, Church of England Records Centre, BSR/MWC/HOM/1.

58 See Quentin Edwards, ‘What is unlawful? Does innocence begin where crime ends? Afterthoughts on the Wolfenden Report’, Church Information Office, London 1959.

59 Dunstan to Lord Denning, 7 Oct. 1960, BSR/MWC/HOM/1.

60 Transcript of evidence given by Sherwin Bailey and two other witnesses, 30 Mar. 1955, HO 345/13, CHP/TRANS/19.

61 Ought suicide to be a crime?, Church Information Office, London 1959, 23.

62 Robert Mortimer, ‘Parliament and morals’, Moral Welfare (July 1960), 73.

63 Geoffrey Fisher to Dr R. D. Reid, 3 Nov. 1953, Geoffrey Fisher papers, Lambeth Palace Library, vol. 126, fo. 298.

64 Fisher to Sir Ian Jacob, 13 Feb. 1954, ibid. vol. 142, fo. 350.

65 Fisher to Wolfenden, 14 Sept. 1959, ibid. vol. 193, fo. 14.

66 Fisher, ‘The Wolfenden Report’, Canterbury Diocesan Notes (Oct. 1957), repr. in Geoffrey Fisher, The archbishop speaks: addresses and speeches, London 1958, 127.

67 Fisher to the editor of The Times, n.d. 1958, Fisher papers vol. 211, fos 54–5.

68 Fisher to Lord Scarborough, 5 Nov. 1958, ibid. vol. 201, fos 2–3.

69 Antony Grey, ‘Homosexual law reform’, in Brian Frost (ed.), The tactics of pressure, London 1975, 38–56.

70 Lewis, Jane and Wallis, Patrick, ‘Fault, breakdown, and the Church of England's involvement in the 1969 divorce reform’, Twentieth-Century British History xi (2000), 308–32.

71 See, for example, Michael Ramsey papers, Lambeth Palace Library, vol. 78, passim.

72 Michael Ramsey to Lord Arran, 21 July 1967, ibid. vol. 115, fo. 253.

73 Norman, Church and society in England, passim.

74 Mark Chapman, ‘Theology in the public arena: the case of South Bank religion’, in Garnett, Grimley, Harris, Whyte and Williams, Redefining Christian Britain, 92–105; Douglas Rhymes, No new morality: Christian personal values and sexual morality, London 1964.

75 See, for example, H. A. Williams, ‘Theology and self awareness’, in A. R. Vidler (ed.), Soundings: essays concerning Christian understanding, Cambridge 1962, 82.

76 HL Debs, 5th ser. cclxvi, 12 May 1965, 80–1.

77 Brown, The death of Christian Britain, 170–5. For a more sceptical account of the 1950s revival see Green, S. J. D., ‘Was there an English religious revival in the 1950s?’, Journal of the United Reformed Church History Society vii (Nov. 2006), 517–38.

78 Noel Annan, Our age: the generation that made post-war Britain, London 1991.

79 As Christie Davies has pointed out, rights were also conspicuously absent from parliamentary debates about moral questions in the 1960s: Permissive Britain: social change in the 1960s and 1970s, London 1975.

80 Wills, ‘Delinquency, masculinity and citizenship’, 176.

81 Wolfenden to Fisher, 24 Sept. 1957, Fisher papers, vol. 194, fo. 181.

The author would like to thank Dr Mark Roodhouse, Dr Ben Jackson, Dr Catherine Holmes, the Editors of this Journal and an unnamed referee for their invaluable advice on this article, as well as participants in seminars in Birmingham, London, Oxford and Egham.

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