20 years ago: Gay rights activists disrupt Archbishop of Canterbury’s Easter sermon

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It has been 20 years since a famous protest that saw gay activists disrupt an Easter sermon by then-Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Carey.

Protesters from OutRage! targeted the Archbishop in 1998 over the Church’s strong continuing opposition to LGBT rights reforms that had been put on the table under New Labour.

The Archbishop opposed the equalisation of the age of consent, opposed lifting the ban on gay parenting, and opposed any form of union for same-sex couples.

While delivering his 1998 Easter sermon in Canterbury Cathedral, the Archbishop was surrounded in his pulpit by LGBT+ rights protesters who had been sitting in the church.

The seven members of the LGBT direct action group OutRage!, who had been seated in the congregation, walked the stairs into the pulpit, and displayed placards condemning Lord Carey’s support for anti-gay legal discrimination.

The protesters were wrestled from the pulpit by police before activist Peter Tatchell could deliver a planned ‘alternative’ sermon.

Mr Tatchell was arrested and charged with behaviour was “indecent” in a church. While the maximum sentence was a £5,000 fine and six months in prison, Mr Tatchell eventually ordered to pay just £18.60.

Human rights activist Peter Tatchell (centre) at a vigil organized by the direct action gay rights campaigning group OutRage! in Old Compton Street, Soho, London, 7th May 1999. The gathering follows the bombing of the Admiral Duncan, a gay pub on the street, by Neo-Nazi David Copeland on April 30th. (Photo by Steve Eason/Getty Images)

The activist says it is his only standing conviction across more than 50 years of campaigning for equality.

Of the protest, he added: “It caused a sensation and prompted Dr Carey to finally meet with the Lesbian & Gay Christian Movement, which he had previously refused to do. It also resulted in some bishops speaking out in support of LGBT legal equality.”

Speaking at the time, Mr Tatchell had said: “The Archbishop backs a discriminatory age of consent of 18 for sex between men, effectively supporting the criminalisation of 16 and 17-year-old gay and bisexual partners. He opposes the right of same-sex couples to foster and adopt children and endorses the ban on lesbian and gay foster parents by the Church of England Children’s Society.

“He is against legislation to guarantee equal treatment and non-discrimination for LGBT people in the workplace and he opposes the legal recognition of same-sex partnerships, including civil partnerships and gay marriage.

“The Archbishop preaches the denial of lesbian and gay human rights. His opposition to gay civil rights is a perversion of Christ’s gospel of love and compassion.

Peter Tatchell (Photo by Oli Scarff/Getty Images)

“There is nothing in the teachings of Jesus that condones anti-gay discrimination. By opposing LGBT equality, Dr. Carey is proclaiming himself a greater moral authority than Jesus Christ.

“Ironically, the Anglican Church has launched a ‘Millennium Challenge’ in a bid to make itself relevant to the lives of ordinary people in modern society. This clearly does not include LGBT people.

“Dr. Carey preached love and mutual understanding when he resumed his sermon but not for LGBT people. When will he accept the ‘OutRage! Challenge’ and include LGBT people in his message of love and understanding?”

The Church of England continues to be deeply divided on LGBT issues to this day, though it has moved on from the stances of Lord Carey.

The Church has been stalling for several years ahead of a review of its stance towards LGBT people, recently vowing to go back to the drawing board to broker a compromise that will offend neither liberals nor evangelicals.

The global Anglican Communion is also deeply divided on LGBT issues.

The current Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby recently dolled out ‘punishments’ to the US and Scottish Episcopal churches for accepting same-sex weddings, in a bid to appease hardline African churches who preach the total rejection of homosexuality.