A statement from the House of Bishops released today, on the eve of the House of Commons debate on lowering the age of consent for homosexual relationships from 18 to 16, expresses vehement opposition to any change in the law. But it also makes clear the bishops' belief that "there is a widespread desire that a broader agenda of moral vision should provide the context both for this debate and indeed for the consideration of others social issues".
The Bishop of Winchester, the Rt Rev Michael Scott-Joynt, speaking last week, said that for the "vast majority" of bishops, this amendment was the tip of the iceberg. "Part of the responsibility of the Church is to stand back from the daily grind and think: 'What's happening to society?' There's a danger of drift, of people in 20 years time saying: 'This is the way the world is going'," he said.
"There are particular pressure groups and a cultural position - easily detectable on any television or in any newspaper and in much social debate - which is saying we can each do as we please, that one style of relationship is as good as another, that there's something old-fashioned about fidelity in marriage and abstinence outside it and, quite simply, you have to go with your feelings."
Such pressures, the bishops feel, should be resisted and it is the responsibility of leaders of Church and State, to "support young people in personal development, to protect them from harm and exploitation and to offer a vision of what is good".
The statement rejects the notion that youngsters have decided on their sexuality by the age of 16. "The position of the vast majority of the House of Bishops is to be unconvinced that everybody's sexual orientation is fixed so early. For young people to get into a whole scene of gay relations is to be entering into something of a sub-culture and something from which it will be hard to emerge into heterosexual relations, which we consider the norm," explained Bishop Scott-Joynt.
Although the bishops have not made a formal representation to Government, today's statement is their most forthright intervention since Labour came to power a year ago. However a spokeswoman for the Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, said that, if the amendment goes through the Commons, he may make a statement when it comes to the Lords.
Although the Bishop of Winchester insisted that the statement reflects the feelings of the "vast majority" of the 44 diocesan bishops in the Church of England, a considerable number are believed to agree privately with the Bishop of Oxford, the Rt Rev Richard Harries, who last year spoke out in favour of reducing the age of consent for homosexual relationships to 16. The Bishop of Worcester, the Rt Rev Peter Selby, is known to support the amendment, believing that "having a different age encourages other forms of discrimination against gay people". The Rev Richard Kirker, general secretary of the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement, said: "It's the last trumpet call from a sad band of best-forgotten paternalists who have displayed an extraordinary lack of realism, understanding about human nature, and a vacuous vision."
Peter Tatchell of gay rights group Outrage said: "Nowhere in the bible does it say that Christians should discriminate against homosexuals. Monday's vote is about ending criminalisation and establishing equality before the law."
n Cabinet opposition to a lowering of the age of consent has crumbled as one of its main opponents, David Blunkett, Secretary of State for Education and Employment, made it clear that he will not vote against it tomorrow. Ann Taylor, Leader of the House, who voted with Mr Blunkett last time, may also abstain.