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  • The Stained Glass Closet: Celibacy and Homosexuality in the Church of England to 1955

On 27 May 1938 a Dr. R. D. Reid wrote to the archbishop of Canterbury, Cosmo Gordon Lang, requesting clear guidance on the issue of homosexuality. Reid was a former school headmaster who had lost his position in a homosexual scandal the previous year. Following his prosecution and conviction, he “received letters of sympathy from inverts all over the country” and through these contacts found his way into what he called the “homosexual underworld.”1 He told Lang that it was there, “in an atmosphere of bitter hostility to authority, both religious and civil, these unfortunate people obtain the understanding of fellowship which is otherwise denied them.” Reid considered himself a loyal member of the Church of England but found the church’s complete silence on homosexuality deplorable. He pleaded with Lang to end the church’s “policy of almost criminal silence.”2

Lang replied to Reid on 9 June. He wrote: “I am indeed only too painfully familiar with the problem with which you are concerned as I have constantly to deal with clergy, some of them otherwise of high character, who have given way to the instincts about which you write.”3 Despite his sympathy with and knowledge of the problem, Lang concluded that he was not prepared to change the church’s “policy of concealment.”4 Nonetheless, Reid continued to campaign for church reform over the next twenty years. In 1953 he wrote to the new archbishop of Canterbury, Geoffrey Fisher. Fisher replied in almost the same words as Lang: “This is hardly the moment at which to put in a plea for a better law or for public sympathy.”5 As Fisher [End Page 132] was writing those words, however, the Church of England Moral Welfare Council was starting to formulate a new church policy on homosexuality. In 1954 it published The Problem of Homosexuality: An Interim Report, which recommended the decriminalization of homosexuality. This report formed the basis of the church’s submission to the British government’s Departmental Committee on Homosexual Offences and Prostitution, known as the Wolfenden Committee, which met between 1954 and 1957. Significantly, it prefigured all of the committee’s recommendations, including the decriminalization of homosexual acts between consenting adults. Almost overnight, the Church of England seems to have ended its policy of silence and come out in support of homosexual law reform.

Christianity has an awkward place in the history of sexuality. Christian institutions have variously been charged with repressing, policing, and regulating understandings of sexuality.6 Jeffrey Weeks suggests that while Christianity doubtless provided the moral language with which sexuality was discussed, early sexologists overemphasized the role of Christian tradition in sexual culture.7 Other historians have suggested that Christian institutions, especially in the forms provided by the Roman Catholic Church and the revival of Catholic culture and practices within the Church of England by the Oxford and subsequent Anglo-Catholic movements of the nineteenth century, provided a safe, even queer space for those who were not heterosexually inclined; the cultural dissonance of Catholicism in a Protestant country resonated with the sexual dissonance of same-sex desire in Victorian society.8 Indeed, as we shall see, Catholic culture contained sublimated forms for the legitimate expression of same-sex desire that provided an exemption from the demands of nineteenth-century patriarchal heteronormativity.

The ability of some homosexuals at the end of the Victorian era to express and celebrate their sexuality through Christian discourse is remarkable but cannot be said to represent an institutional acceptance of homosexuality: [End Page 133] the reprieve was only temporary. Paradoxically, this period, the “historical moment of the first appearance of the homosexual as a ‘species’ rather than a ‘temporary aberration’ also marks the moment of the homosexual’s disappearance— into the closet.”9 Frederick Roden charts this process among a series of religious individuals in the late Victorian era. As they became able to name their desire, whether “homosexual,” “perverted,” or “inverted,” so they felt the need to police and discipline their desires. The innocence of earlier homoaffective and homoerotic Catholic culture was lost.10

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