Gays win key battles

... but they still can't go to war
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The Independent Online
The advancement of gay rights went two important stages forward yesterday when the Government paved the way for the age of consent to fall to 16, in line with most other European countries, and the Church of England moved towards a more relaxed attitude to gay clergy.

But the more liberal intentions did not extend to the armed forces. Senior ministers said the Ministry of Defence will fight challenges in the European courts of justice and human rights over allowing homosexuals into the armed forces.

In the most significant of yesterday's moves, the Government confirmed it would not defend test cases soon to be heard by the European Commission on Human Rights which were seeking to make the age of consent for gay sex the same as for heterosexuals - currently 16.

This paves the way towards a free Commons vote, possibly this autumn, on lowering the age of consent, a move almost certain to result in a change in the law.

In highly-charged scenes in York, members of the General Synod holding the first debate on the issue for ten years voted for further discussion on the question of homosexuality among Church of England clergy.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr George Carey, poured cold water on gay Christians' hopes for a more liberal approach, saying he did not "share the assumption that it is only a matter of time before the Church will change its mind".

The decision means that an issue which some hardliners have warned could lead to schism in the Church will not, as some senior Anglicans had hoped, quietly fade away.

All three Houses of the Synod - the bishops, laity and clergy - approved a motion by the Ven David Gerrard, Archdeacon of York, calling on delegates to state that a 1991 report by bishops was "not the last word on the subject". That document said that practising homosexuals could be lay members of the Church, but not priests.

The result was warmly welcomed by Richard Kirker, secretary of the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement. "It represents a step forward for gay Christians seeking official acceptance at all levels of the Church," he said.

The Bishop of Oxford, the Right Rev Richard Harries, who chairs a bishops' committee looking into the issue, said he was pleased that it would now be discussed at local level. "this is a crucial moral issue," he said.

The Bishop of Guildford, the Right Rev John Gladwin, who preached at the thanksgiving service for gay and lesbian Christians in Southwark Cathedral last November, said: "The debate can now go on in a more relaxed atmosphere."

The new approach on the age of consent, which was greeted with dismay and vitriol by some Tory MPs and family campaigners, came after the Government said it would not be contesting a case brought by Euan Sutherland, challenging as discriminatory the legal age of consent for gays at 18, when the case comes before the European Court of Human Rights.

The Home Secretary, Jack Straw, is also ready to fulfill a Labour manifesto commitment to allow a free vote on reducing the age of consent for homosexuals to 16, the same age as for heterosexuals, which could change the law next year.

Downing Street said the decision not to contest the case and settle out of court was taken last week following "very strong advice ... that we were going to lose this court case".

In the circumstances it seemed reasonable that the consequent amendment to the law should be "legitimised" by means of a free vote. Three years ago MPs voted in favour of lowering the age of consent for gays from 21 to 18, but against reducing it to 16.

Mothers and Sons; Synod's fresh look, page 3

Government will not contest age of consent case in Europe

Church edges toward more relaxed attitude on gay clergy

Ages of consent

Country Male/Fem F/F M/M Equal

since

Belgium 16 16 16 1985

Finland 16 18 18 N/A

France 15 15 15 1982

Greece 15 15 15 1987

Italy 16 16 16 1889

Malta 12 12 12 1973

San Marino 14 14 14 1865

Slovenia 14 14 14 1977

Spain 12 12 12 1822

UK 16 16 18 N/A

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