WeeklyWorker

10.12.1998
Indecent behaviour - Tatchell and Benn

Church standards and gay rights

Communists are consistent and militant fighters for democracy. This is in marked contrast to the bourgeoisie. In order to serve their narrow class interests and hence preserve exploitative capitalist society, these supposed lovers of freedom like to ‘cherry pick’ when it comes to democratic rights. We oppose all abuses of democracy and fight to extend democracy to its utmost limit under existing social and political conditions. As a logical corollary, this means sweeping aside all anti-democratic laws.

Peter Tatchell, leading campaigner for the gay rights group Outrage, recently ran into one of these anti-democratic laws that clutter up the British statute books and keep armies of barristers and solicitors in well remunerated employment. On April 12 he climbed into Dr George Carey’s pulpit as the archbishop was about to deliver his Easter Sunday sermon in Canterbury Cathedral. Tatchell was protesting against Carey’s opposition to the equalisation of the age of consent for gays and straights - and also his absolute refusal to countenance gay fostering. Tatchell was “scratched and clawed” - to use his own words - from behind, as frantic church stewards dragged him away. One of the cathedral’s vergers, Mark Punton, actually hit Tatchell’s hand in a bid to prevent him from using the microphone. Sounds like a clear case of assault to me.

There endeth the story, you might think - with Mr Punton possibly being cautioned by the police for GBH. In any other public place, Tatchell could only have been charged with a public order offence, which nearly always amounts to a relatively small fine.

Much to Tatchell’s amazement however, he found himself being prosecuted under the obscure and rarely used Ecclesiastical Courts Jurisdiction Act of 1860 (Section II) - formerly part of the Brawling Act of 1551 - which states that “any person who shall be guilty of riotous, violent or indecent behaviour in any cathedral church ... shall be liable to penalty”. Under the 1860 act, whose sole purpose is to give special protection to the establishment church, Tatchell was liable to a two-month prison sentence and a hefty fine. The last time this act was used in such a manner was in 1967 when two anti-Vietnam war protesters, Nicolas Walter and Jim Radford, were jailed. They had shouted: “You hypocrites! How can you use the word of god to justify your policies?” as Harold Wilson read a lesson at a methodist service during the 1966 Labour conference.

Tatchell was spared a prison sentence. He was fined £18.60 (a sum carrying an ironic message, obviously) and ordered to pay costs of £320. At the trial the prosecuting counsel, Robert Montague, condemned Tatchell’s protest for being “inappropriate both as to time and place; it was unseemly; it was indecorous.” He solemnly added: “Mr Tatchell is not being prosecuted on account of any views that he may hold. It is with regard to the protection of the sanctity of the place and the time of the particular occasion.” In his summing up the Canterbury stipendary magistrate, Michael Kelly, could also not disguise his pro-establishment prejudices. He rounded on Tatchell’s “puerile conduct”, and praised the “robust institution” of the Church of England. Then again, perhaps Tatchell could always look on the bright side. Under the original 1551 act you had an ear cut off for a second offence; the other ear cut off for a third offence and, in the fourth instance, your face was branded.

Since the court decision last Tuesday, there has been a rumbling of discontent from reactionaries who claim Tatchell got off too lightly. Conservative MP Sir Patrick Cormack thundered: “It is a derisory fine, but his behaviour was thoroughly outrageous.” An editorial in The Independent echoed the sentiments of Kelly, declaring that Tatchell’s actions were “childish and counterproductive, fixing in the public mind an image of gay rights campaigners as irresponsible extremists” (December 1). Adding to the anti-Tatchell offensive, the reactionary wag Richard Ingrams attacked the “obnoxious and priggish” Tatchell. The headline to his article asked: “Why can’t we just stick him right back inside the closet?” (The Observer December 6).

Unlike the good and upright christians who run the Canterbury court and write leader columns for The Independent and Observer, communists do not think it is “indecent” or “puerile” to protest against the anti-human doctrines of the state-sponsored Church of England, which prattles on every Sunday about ‘christian love’ and the bliss of the next life, while denying the full equality of real sexual relations between members of the same sex here on earth. Or if the church does entertain the possibility - albeit with a slight shudder - it thinks that gays and lesbians should keep their relationships secret, as if it were something shameful.

There has been resistance to the anti-democratic nature of this legislation. The Secular Society, whose national secretary is now the aforementioned Nicolas Walter - one of the two 1966 anti-Vietnam war protesters - denounced the prosecution of Tatchell and has organised a petition calling for the repeal of the 1860 act. Signatories include such figures as Harold Pinter, Ludovic Kennedy, Alan Bennett, Vanessa Redgrave, Jonathan Miller and Richard Dawkins. Communists demand that all such laws - which exist to protect the Church of England - be abolished. Above all we demand the separation of church and state.

The Secular Society petition infuriated Richard Ingrams. He ridiculed the signatories, “who apparently think the law should be abolished leaving Mr Tatchell free to disrupt worship whenever the urge takes him”. He also detected a cunning atheistic plot to crush all the faithful: “What motivates these eminent people more than anything is a simple hatred of religion. It’s not that they don’t approve of freedom to worship; they hate the very idea of worship in the first place.”

Yet Tatchell was right to emphasise that he had not attacked the christian religion nor “disrupted the sacred part of the service”. We too respect the humanity contained in aspects of christianity and the humanity of many practising christians - lay and cleric - but not the pro-state, anti-sex hypocrisy, lies and cant promulgated by the established church. Frankly, that deserves our contempt. Not that we have any plan or desire to erect an Enver Hoxha-like atheocracy in Britain - far from it.

There must be freedom for atheistic education. But there must also be complete freedom for religious worship.

Eddie Ford