The Daily Telegraph carried an obituary last month of Ivor Stanbrook, one of the old-style Tory MPs who flaunted their bigotry in the House of Commons like a badge of honour. Such repulsive characters had their last hurrah during the Thatcher years, when it seemed that no prejudice was too foul to express from the Tory benches. Even his own colleagues called him Neanderthal.
Mr Stanbrook’s death seems somehow symbolic, for he passes into history just as the Tory Party tries to throw overboard everything that he stood for. Once more, the Tories are attempting to reposition themselves as the inclusive, friendly party that will no longer brook bigoted bombast from its MPs. After all, look what happened to Anne Winterton when she cracked her now infamous joke about the Chinese cockle-pickers.
At the same time, the Church of England seems to be trying to do a volte face over the issue of homosexuality.
As we reported last month, there were encouragingly friendly noises emanating from the General Synod, as the abusive anti-gay rhetoric of the past year was suddenly replaced by kindly understanding and a desire to be fair and – well, nice to gay Christians.
The Church of England was the Tory Party at prayer when the blue rinses and country squires ran the show. Taking tea with the vicar at that time meant you had to share your cucumber sandwiches with little old ladies who wanted hanging brought back for graffiti artists, imprisonment on Devil’s Island for shoplifting and saw no reason why the children of single mothers should not return up the chimney, as in the good old days.
It’s all changed now. As the old gels with the helmet-like hairstyles go the way of Ivor Stanbrook, and the country squires look to the BNP for succour, both the CofE and the Tories are trying to convince us that underneath it all, they really, really like us.
Homosexuality is the touchstone by which their progress is to be judged.
But can we trust them? Haven’t we been here before, with promises of a welcoming hand, swiftly followed by a stab in the back?
Mr Michael Howard – the recently installed leader of the Conservative Party – promises to be different from his predecessor, Ian Duncan Smith. He assures us that he has changed from his time as a reactionary bastard in the Thatcher Years. He makes friendly noises about being in favour of legalising gay partnerships and has given his imprimatur to a conference that will explore the effects of homophobia on young gay people. What a wonderful conversion – sing hallelujah and put the rainbow flags out.
But we can’t forget (and some of us can’t forgive) Mr Howard’s personal responsibility for the introduction of Section 28 when he was Home Secretary under Old Ma Thatcher. We can’t quite get out of our mind that he voted against s28’s abolition, and against the lowering of the age of consent. Mr Howard’s gay-friendliness is of very recent origin. And I’m not yet convinced he isn’t just a politician, like all the others, facing whichever way the wind blows.
However, on the plus side, Mr Howard – may we call you Michael? – did make clear that he supports the idea of partnership registration for gays, although he stopped short of endorsing gay marriage. “Civil partnership differs from marriage,” he told the Policy Exchange in a speech (as reported in The Guardian). “Marriage is a separate and special relationship which we should continue to celebrate and sustain. To recognise civil partnership is not, in any way, to denigrate or downgrade marriage.”
On the other hand, denying gay people full marriage, and offering as compensation a second-best alternative, denigrates and downgrades gay people, don’t you think, (can we call you) Mike?
And while the front end of the Tory Party is making reassuring noises, its arsehole end is just as smelly as it always was. In February the Tories decided to vote against a measure in the Housing Bill that would guarantee the right of tenure succession, so that same-sex partners could stay in tenanted accommodation after the death of a partner. It would particularly benefit gay and lesbian council tenants.
The Shadow Minister for Local Government, John Hayes, speaking for the Conservatives, said that he was calling for his fellow Tories to join him in voting against the measure. “Let me make it clear that I have not got a socially liberal bone in my body,” he bragged. Fortunately, his rallying cry was unsuccessful, and the measure was voted through with Labour support. But it does make you wonder how much of Mikey’s siren song is top-show.
The same applies to the Church of England, of course. We’ve already been bewildered by the contradictory remarks of the Archbishop of Canterbury, who blows hot and cold on gay rights. His pronouncements are so convoluted that it’s difficult to know what the hell he thinks about the issue most of the time.
For instance, at the first meeting of the Eames Commission (which has been set up to try and make progress on the war over gays in the Church), Dr Williams said (according to The Times): “You will need to be aware of the danger of those doctrines of the Church which, by isolating one element of the Bible’s teaching, produce distortions – a Church of the perfect or the perfectly unanimous on one side, a Church of general human inspiration or liberation on the other.”
What does this mean – if it means anything? Where does the Archbishop stand? Is he with us or against us?
The Church Times tried to make sense of it when commenting on Dr Williams’ first year in office. It recognised his desire to be “friendly” to both combatants in this war, but it also saw the danger of such an approach. Whenever he made friendly noises to either side, the other immediately jumped to the conclusion that he was against them. The paper warned that the Archbishop “might need to use a firmer hand” if he is to avoid a full scale meltdown.
But despite the apparent rapprochement towards gays from Church House in London, there is another side to the Anglican Communion that is far from friendly. The Daily Telegraph showed us it when it carried a report from Adrian Blomfield in Kenya. He wrote: “Parishioners here are deeply conservative. Most think that homosexuality is abhorrent. ‘The church is very much against a person who has openly declared that he is homosexual being ordained,’ said the Rev Habil Omungu. ‘Such a person would introduce unacceptable and unbiblical teachings’.” Mary McNaughton, who goes to Rev Omungu’s church, says that she considers homosexuality “absolutely horrific”. “It’s totally un-Christian,” she shudders. “I think if it were to happen here I would probably leave the church. I wouldn’t go to a church where a homosexual was preaching and God would not want a homosexual to come between me and Him.”
Then The Daily Telegraph reported that the Archbishop of Nigeria, Peter Akinola, had deliberately slighted Rowan Williams by “refusing to attend a meeting of Church leaders, hosted by Dr Williams.” Akinola has described the installation of a gay bishop in the USA as “a Satanic attack on the Church”. Then the Primate of Central Africa launched his own attack on the Americans, saying they had inflicted “a desperately grave wound to the Church” and warned that they would split from the Communion “for the spiritual safety of our people.”
In the face of such opposition, there seems no leeway for negotiation. Either the gay bishop goes or the Africans do. And the Asians. And large parts of the United States, too.
Rowan Williams cannot unite these people with the likes of the liberal Bishop of Oxford, or South Africa’s Desmond Tutu, who have spoken out strongly in favour of including gays in the Church. Not even if he had the wisdom of Solomon and a thousand years to play with can Rowan Williams keep his Church in one piece.
So, eventually the Archbishop of Cant will have to stop obfuscating and take a stand – just like Michael Howard has. Both of them risk alienating their traditional wings. Michael Howard has put his money on the table.
Now it’s Rowan Williams’ turn.
The stakes are rather different, though. Michael Howard’s traditional wing is dying off, but for Rowan Williams, it’s the only part of his constituency that is growing.