Leaked Osborne Report on Homosexuality Stirs Up Memories

I was reminded this past week that I was the first member to demand an emergency debate of the Church of England’s General Synod.

After twenty-two years of its suppression, Church Times last week posted a copy of the Osborne Report on its web site (see story, download Osborne Report in PDF) commissioned by the bishops in 1986 on issues ‘connected with homosexuality’. The committee, chaired by June Osborne who is now Dean of Salisbury, submitted its findings in an one-hundred-and-forty-four page report in October 1988. By June 1989 a Foreward suitable for publication was attached to the Report. But it was decided that it should not be published.

The Osborne Report was a carefully worded pastoral exhortation to the church, and far more sympathetic to homosexuals than anything that had come before. It was leaked to a regional television programme Granada Up Front on 9 February 1990 but very few people saw the written report.

I submitted my demand for an emergency debate of General Synod to have the Report published. The Archbishops declined my request but Robert Runcie came up to me in the coffee break to say that even if World War Three had broken out, he doubted if it would have warranted an emergency debate. But a good try, Barnaby, well done!

The Osborne Report might have become a published policy document but for the intervening private member’s motion in General Synod in November 1987 - the Higton Debate. In the debate homosexuality was demoted from being a sin to falling short of the ideal - so long as homosexuals repented. It was a long and heated debate and particularly poignant for me because this is when I declared my own homosexuality to the world.

Some months later, despite coming out, I was charged by the Archbishop of Canterbury to prepare working papers for the once-every-ten-years Lambeth Conference of 1988. The Conference decided to call on all bishops of the Anglican Communion to undertake in the next decade ‘a deep and dispassionate study of the question of homosexuality’ in its Resolution 64.

Instead of taking on board the Osborne Report, the bishops commissioned another report. But when it was published in December 1991 it was entitled a Statement of the House of Bishops and was called Issues in Human Sexuality. In this, and for the first time by a significant denomination, some permission was given for lay people to have same-sex relations, although this was strictly forbidden for the clergy. Flawed thinking, some said, but it remains the rule.

Along has come civil partnerships. These are acceptable for the clergy - so long as there’s no sex. Nor can a civil partnership ceremony, whether for clergy or laity, take place in a church.

Now the Church of England has new committees, one looking at homosexuality broadly and the other on the civil partnerships issue. The Church of Scotland gave six-and-a half hours to a debate in General Assembly in May 2011 with a fairly liberal outcome - and now they have a committee spending two years looking further into the matter.

Here in Scotland there is thought of upgrading civil partnership to full scale marriage. A Scottish Government consultation period has closed. The might of the Roman Catholic Church, the Church of Scotland and indeed the hitherto liberal Scottish Episcopal Church oppose the proposal. And Westminster is following on with a consultation about to begin and the Archbishop of York firmly against.

The best thing I ever did was to be honest with myself and come out. Now I smugly watch the churches find one report after another, one debate after another, an excuse to come to terms with the inevitable.

I repeat what I said in the General Synod twenty five years ago: basing these matters on biblical standards alone needs a great deal of justification when we so readily reject biblical teaching in matters that no longer seem suitable, for instance, lending money with interest, treatment of slaves and so on.