Marking the fiftieth anniversary of the decriminalization of homosexuality, the BBC’s Against the Law told the story of Peter Wildeblood falling in love with Edward McNally in 1952. The dramatisation was interspersed with the stories of men in the present day looking back on their experiences of falling in love when homosexuality was still a crime.
Peter and Edward’s love affair was set against a backdrop of fear. Every meeting was a risk, to be seen in public was dangerous and their love letters were potential hostages to fortune. Always over their love hung the shadow of imprisonment, of being named and shamed in the press and, surely worst of all, the vile and inhuman so-called “aversion therapies”.
Fear makes people vulnerable to betrayal. Edward is arrested and promised he will avoid prison if he betrays Peter and others that they know. He succumbs to this pressure and as a result Peter is arrested. He in turn is offered the same deal if he will betray others but he remains strong and refuses. Prison and all that comes with that follows. When finally he is released Peter refuses to be silent and becomes the only openly homosexual man to give evidence to the Wolfenden Inquiry that would finally lead to the decriminalization of homosexuality.
Thankfully the Church of England’s General Synod has finally condemned all “cure” therapies, yet watching Against the Law was a reminder of how fear still stalks the Church.
Clergy in same-sex relationships have to keep their relationships quiet and if known, proclaim their celibacy. Although allowed in law they know that marriage cannot be for them and applying for any new position is its own minefield. They know eyes are upon them and there are some just waiting to bring their relationship into the limelight.
In turn Bishop’s can find themselves upholding a public line which in their hearts is not what they would wish. They know that anything they say or do may be picked up by others and used to berate them, pass judgement on their episcopacy with certain parishes championing to declare UDI and overseas provinces speaking of the apostasy of the Church of England.
Fear means clergy cannot live and minister as they would and should and Bishop’s cannot be the true pastors they long to be. Fear still wins the day.
St John tells us perfect love casts out fear, yet for too many love still brings fear and, as St John also reminds us, the presence of fear means we have not reached perfection in love. The continuing presence of fear in our debates about gender and sexuality reveals only the Church’s poverty of love. That by the way we are with one another we allow fear still to stalk the Church is itself our own condemnation. When a Church brings fear to love, it is wounded indeed.
Peter Wildeblood, despite all that was done to him, refused to be silent. He would not let fear win and so played his part in ending the fear under which so many gay men had been living. Peter’s example reaches out over the decades to challenge the Church today to let love be celebrated and relationships affirmed.