Downfall of the Bigots; Their Attitude towards Gays Typifies Both the Tories and the Church

Article excerpt

Byline: BRIAN SEWELL

IT was not Jeremy Bentham who said "The Church of England is the Conservative Party at prayer", but a forgotten suffragette, Agnes Maude Royden, a Germaine Greer of her day, author of the equally forgotten Woman and the Sovereign State, The Church and Woman and, broadening her scope, Modern Sex Ideals.

Bentham, however, could well have said it, for it was true in the 18th century, true in 1917 when Royden did say it, and true more than ever now, when the parallels between these two social organisations are startlingly clear.

The Church of England now has no belief that can be described as doctrine and the Tories have no ideology, only the 25 policies pulled like rabbits from their present conjurer's hat. Both are damagingly divided into irreconcilable factions; the C of E has a new Archbishop of Canterbury whom its evangelists regard with unremitting enmity and the Tories have a leader widely regarded as a hapless nincompoop.

The C of E has inflicted a mortal blow upon itself with the appointment of women priests and, perhaps soon, women bishops too; and the Tories are about to fix the system to favour women candidates for Parliament.

The C of E, once the Church of Empire even more than England, is now neither, but has surrendered the first and is wearily losing its grip on the second; the Tories, once fervently the party of Empire (who now remembers Empire Day, instituted a century ago last May?), now have only Gibraltar with which to taunt a Labour Government, and in Britain are all but irrelevant as Her Majesty's Opposition.

BOTH the Church and the party are faced with the rapid decline of Christian culture over the past half-century and the even faster decline of the lowercase conservatism that made the nation, across all classes, loyal to Queen, country and the casual customs of the Christian faith; and, as congregations decline, so do the memberships of Conservative associations.

As we now enjoy a society that is both post-Christian and post-Conservative, the remnants of the Tories and the C of E cast about for rallying cries and windmills against which to tilt, and both, in recent weeks, have, in bigotry and prejudice, hit upon the bogey of homosexuality with which to unify in old and stale intolerance.

Enter Jeremy Bentham, 1748-1832, founder of University College, London, jurist, social reformer, moralist and libertarian, believer in equality of opportunity rather than possessions, a man now largely forgotten, but whose influence for the better on English jurisprudence was profound.

As every law, said Bentham, is an evil because it is an infraction of liberty, the legislator must be certain that the evil he prevents by legislating is greater than the evil of the law itself. Among other offences, Bentham had homosexuality in mind, for the later 18th century was a period when men were hanged for sodomy and pilloried for groping boys.

Distaste and emotional prejudice, he argued, are not enough to justify such punishments.

Shrewdly, he observed that Christ was entirely silent on the matter of sodomy, indeed on the whole field of man's sexual irregularity, though compassionate to the adulteress; Moses, however, and St Paul were not, both legislating against it with the vehement asperity of tribal phobia.

Around 1814, Bentham thought to write a book called Not Paul but Jesus, decrying Paul's connection with Christ as tenuous and equivocal; the alleged menaces of sodomy to the status of women and the effectiveness of the army and navy he dismissed as nonsense and wholeheartedly embraced the Malthusian argument that sodomy was useful in restricting the increases in population that must bring overcrowding and starvation in their train. …