The real problems with ‘Valuing all God’s children.’

Why the headlines got it wrong.

A week ago today the Church of England published an updated version of its guidance on tackling bullying in church schools, Valuing All God’s Children. This report generated a media firestorm, which concentrated on the issue of what little boys should be allowed to wear in school. Thus the headline in the Daily Telegraph said ‘Let boys wear Tutus and high heels if they want to, Church of England says’ the Mail online went with ‘Let little boys wear tiaras’ and the Metro’s headline was ‘Boys should be able to wear tutus, tiaras and heels if they want, says Church of England.’

These headlines, and others like them, all distort one very small part of what the report has to say. What the report actually says in one paragraph on page 20 is the following:

‘In the early years context and throughout primary school, play should be a hallmark of creative exploration. Pupils need to be able to play with the many cloaks of identity (sometimes quite literally with the dressing up box). Children should be at liberty to explore the possibilities of who they might be without judgement or derision. For example, a child may choose the tutu, princess’s tiara and heels and/or the firefighter’s helmet, tool belt and superhero cloak without expectation or comment. Childhood has a sacred space for creative self-imagining.’

Contrary to the impression given by the headlines this paragraph does not say anything at all about what boys in particular should wear and it says nothing at all about what any child should be allowed to normally wear to school. All it says is that children should be allow to choose what they like from the dressing up box.

Presumably the headlines were motivated by the fact that no one would be interested in a story headed ‘Children should have free choice from the dressing up box’ but what they succeeded in doing was missing the point of the report as whole, which can be more accurately summed up as ‘Church of England gives guidance to schools on combatting ‘homophobic, biphobic and transphobic bullying.’

By focusing on their own fantasy version of the report rather than what the report actually said, what the press coverage failed to spot was that there are three big problems with the report.

Problem 1: A limited focus.

The first problem lies with the fact that the report singles out three particular forms of bullying for exclusive attention.

In his Foreword to the report the Archbishop of Canterbury correctly notes that ‘All bullying, including homophobic, biphobic and transphobic bullying causes profound damage, leading to higher levels of mental health disorders, self-harm, depression and suicide.’ If all bullying has this effect (and no one in their right mind will deny that it does) then it is not clear why the report concentrates particularly on three particular kinds of bullying.

Such concentration could be justified if (a) these kinds of bullying need highlighting because no one has been addressing them before (b) these are the most prevalent kinds of bullying in church schools or (c) these kinds of bullying are more damaging to those involved than other kinds of bullying. However, the report does not provide any evidence to support any of these three points and in fact no such evidence seems to exist.

The truth is that Church of England schools (like all other state schools) have (rightly) been tackling bullying aimed at those who are known to be (or who are perceived as) lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender for a number of years, that this kind of bullying is not the most widespread form of bullying that takes place (numerically, the bullying of straight teenage girls on the basis of their looks, or the bullying of those with learning difficulties, is far more common and, as the report itself says, the incidences of bullying of gay, lesbian and bisexual pupils are actually declining), and that there is no research that shows that this kind of bullying is qualitatively more damaging than other forms of bullying when it does occur.

If anyone really wants to know about the reality of bullying they need to look not at this report but at the Annual Bullying Survey  – 2017 Bullying Statistics in the UK available at https://www.dichthelabel.org/research-papers/the-annual-bullying-survey- 2017. This tells us that the top reason people say they are  bullied  is attitudes to my appearance (50%) followed by attitudes to my interests or hobbies (40%). Attitudes to my sexuality and my gender identity or expression come bottom of the list at 4% and 3% respectively.

Furthermore, by concentrating on these statistically rare forms of bullying, the Church of England is sending out a message which says that, whatever the title of the report may declare, in reality it values some of God’s children more than others. We show what we value by what we focus on and the Church of England has decided to focus on the needs of some children and not others. That is not to say that these children do not matter, but they don’t matter more than those whose unhappiness is not mentioned.

In addition those who work in schools have only a limited amount of time and energy available to them and this means that if they are instructed to focus on these three forms of bullying then other forms of bullying will get overlooked, in the same way that a police focus on ‘hate crime’ will lead to other offences (such as, for example, home burglaries) being given less or no attention.

What the Church of England should have done is either issued a comprehensive anti-bullying strategy, of which action against homophobic, biphobic and transphobic bullying would have been a part, or issued a range of reports detailing the action to be taken to combat the whole range of different forms of bullying that children now face both at school and online. They could even have asked the bullying survey for help.

Problem 2: Some views are more equal than others.

The second problem is that integral to the action that the report calls for to tackle homophobic, biphobic and transphobic bullying is ‘speaking clearly about LGBT equality.’ (p.18). What this will mean in practice is church schools promoting acceptance of same-sex sexual relationships, same-sex marriages, families with two parents of the same sex, and people changing their gender identity from male to female, or female to male, or from male or female to some other ‘non gender-binary’ identity. By extension it will also mean teaching pupils who have been brought up to think differently that they, their families, and their place of worship, are wrong and need to change their position.

On page 11 of the report we are told that:

‘Professor Trevor Cooling’s metaphor of a Bedouin ‘tent of meeting’ may be a helpful model for Church schools. This strategy asks teachers or facilitators to host a space where different views can be aired and honoured: ‘a place of hospitality, welcome and respectful engagement, sacred and mutual, but not neutral to its own Christian values, whilst being genuinely open to the free expression of engagement’.

However, this idea of a church school as a neutral place of meeting between those with different views about sexuality can be ‘aired and honoured’ will be undermined if the school’s policy is to promote the view that same-sex relationships and families and gender transition should be accepted by everyone and anyone who thinks otherwise is wrong. If it is to be truly neutral a school surely has to say ‘some think this, and others think that, but as an institution we have no view of the matter.’ A school promoting LGBT equality cannot say that

The idea of a church school as place where a range of views about sexuality can be ‘aired and honoured’ is further undermined when Section 6 of the template for a school’s anti- bullying template talks about ‘prejudiced based incidents’ as follows:

‘A prejudice based incident is a one-off incident of unkind or hurtful behaviour that is motivated by a prejudice or negative attitudes, beliefs or views towards a protected characteristic or minority group. It can be targeted towards an individual or group of people and have a significant impact on those targeted. All prejudice based incidents are taken seriously and recorded and monitored in school, with the head teacher regularly reporting incidents to the governing body. This not only ensures that all incidents are dealt with accordingly, but also helps to prevent bullying as it enables targeted anti-bullying interventions.’ (p.33)

The difficulty with this paragraph lies in in its definition of ‘prejudice’ as ‘negative attitudes, beliefs or views towards a protected characteristic or minority group.’ What this will mean in practice is that any expression of moral disapproval of same-sex relationships (including same-sex marriage) or of gender transition that is regarded as ‘unkind’ or ‘hurtful’ by someone who identifies as homosexual, bisexual or transgender will have to be logged as a ‘prejudice based incident’ and will render the culprit (whether pupil or teacher) liable to disciplinary action (‘targeted anti-bullying interventions’). The result of such an approach will not be difficult to foresee. Staff and pupils alike will very soon learn that any such expression of disapproval will not be ‘honoured’ but will land them in serious trouble and so a regime of self- censorship will prevail.

Rather than teaching people to deal with differences of view in an open and respectful way, what pupils will be taught is not to express opinions that are disapproved by the dominant social group. They will learn, to misquote George Orwell, that all views may be equal ‘but some are more equal than others.’ Is this really what church schools should be teaching their children?

Problem 3: A thin theology.

The third problem with the report is that its theological basis is thin in the extreme. What the report tells us is that the theological basis for its recommendations is the belief that

‘… all children are loved by God, are individually unique and that the school has a mission to help each pupil to fulfil their potential in all aspects of their personhood: physically, academically, socially, morally and spiritually. Our aim is that all may flourish and have an abundant life. Schools have a duty to try to remove any factor that might represent a hindrance to a child’s fulfilment’ (p.5)

The problem is that the report does not explain how we know that helping a child find fulfilment in line with the fact that they are loved by God means telling him or her that it is OK for them to enter into same-sex relationships, or declare that they are a member of the opposite sex, or that they are gender neutral. Throughout the entire history of the Christian Church until the last few decades of the twentieth century, this view of human fulfilment would have been regarded as completely morally perverse in the same way that we would think it morally perverse to tell someone that it is OK to engage in sexual violence, or sex with children or vulnerable adults.

The implicit assumption underlying the report is that we can disregard what the Church has traditionally thought because we have now progressed morally and know better than our ancestors, However, the only way we could know this is if we had a vantage point outside the historical process that enabled us to see the goal to which humanity is meant to be heading and thereby allowed us to say that we have got closer to that goal than previous generations. As C S Lewis taught us, you can only talk about progress if you know where you are going. Otherwise what you think is progression may actually be walking round in a circle or even going backwards,

Simply saying that all children are loved by God and need to be helped to find their fulfilment does not give us the vantage point we need. It simply begs the question about how the God who loves us wants us to behave and how we can find our fulfilment by living in accordance with his will. This is a question the report not only fails to answer, but fails even to ask.

M B Davie 20.11.17

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Christians united, an analysis and response.

 

Introduction

​The Nashville Statement of August 29 2017[1] reaffirming traditional Christian teaching about human identity and sexual ethics has been met with a number of responses. Among these has been the declaration Christians United in Support of LGBT+ Inclusion in the Church which was issued on 30 August.[2]

This declaration has attracted signatories on both sides of the Atlantic, including the Revd Steve Chalke and Jayne Ozanne, and it represents a significant reaffirmation of the liberal Christian position. The purpose of this paper is to analyse the theological claims made in the declaration and to respond to them.

Preamble

The claim made in the Preamble is that the Church is currently undergoing a period of reformation in which Christians are being led by the Spirit to affirm the LGBT+ community and its relationships. What should we make of this claim?

It is true, as the Preamble says, that ‘like each generation before us, are called to reflect, repent, and reform our teachings and practices to be ever more closely aligned with the heart and will of God revealed to us in Jesus Christ.’ If we believe as Christians that God has made himself known to us in Jesus Christ (John 1:18) it necessarily follows that we constantly need to ensure that our teachings and practices are in accordance with this revelation, reforming them where necessary.

It is also true that it is the work of the Holy Spirit bearing witness to Christ (John 15:26) that shows us where such reformation is required.

What is questionable is the assertion in the Preamble that it is the guidance of the Holy Spirit that has led a growing number of Christians in recent years:

‘…to a renewed understanding of Christian teaching on sexuality and gender identity that includes, affirms, and embraces the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and non-binary, queer community as created and fully blessed by God and welcomed in to the life of the Church and society just as they are, without a need to conform to the heteronormative, patriarchal, binary sexuality and gender paradigm that Christianity has come to promote and embrace.’

The question raised by this quotation is how one can assess whether what is claimed to be the guidance of the Holy Spirit genuinely is the guidance of the Holy Spirit. The answer to this question is that because the Holy Spirit together with the Father and the Son is the God who had created the world (Genesis 1:2) and because the Holy Spirit inspired the biblical writing (2 Timothy 3:16) it follows that any claim to guidance by the Spirit that contradicts the witness of the created order and teaching of Scripture must be wrong.

In addition, if we believe that the Holy Spirit has been guiding the Church throughout its history we need to take seriously the witness of the Christian Church down the ages and be cautious about any claim to the Spirit’s guidance that contradicts this witness. It might be that every generation before our own has been misguided, but we would need very strong evidence to convince us that this has been the case.

What this means is that we need to look critically at the claim made in Christians United that some Christians have been guided to a fresh understanding by the Spirit and assess this claim against the witness of creation, Scripture and the witness of the Church down the ages. In order to do this we shall look in turn at the affirmations and denials contained in the ten articles of the document.

Article 1

Article 1 is correct to affirm that ‘every human being is created in the image and likeness of God.’ This is the clear teaching of Genesis 1:26 and 27 and has been universally affirmed by the Church.

Problems arise when the article declares that:

‘… the great diversity expressed in humanity through our wide spectrum of unique sexualities and gender identities is a perfect reflection of the magnitude of God’s creative work;’

and that we should reject any suggestion that:

‘God’s creative intent is limited to a gender binary or that God’s desire for human romantic relationships is only to be expressed in heterosexual relationships between one man and one woman.’

These declarations are problematic for two reasons.

First, both declarations contradict the witness of both nature and Scripture (Genesis 1 and 2, Matthew 19:4), and the universal tradition of the Church based on this witness, that God has created humanity as a binary species consisting of men and women who are distinguished from each other by their physical embodiment and who are created to procreate by means of male-female intercourse. There is no such thing as a created diversity of human beings which can be reflected in a variety of sexualities and gender identities. Human beings are created by God to be male and female and to exist sexually only on this basis.

It is now frequently suggested that the existence of a variety of intersex conditions tells against the idea of a binary division of humanity into men and women, but in fact, as Oliver O’Donovan observes, what we are actually dealing with in the case of such conditions is ‘an ambiguity which has arisen by a malfunction in a dimorphic human sexual pattern.’[3] Just as congenital blindness is a malfunction that prevents people from seeing, so also intersex conditions are malfunctions that means that people have an ambiguity in their physical sex. In neither case however, are we dealing with a separate class of human beings whose existence shows that it is not God’s intention that people should see, or be physically distinct as male and female and live accordingly.

Secondly, the second half of the second declaration contradicts the teaching of Scripture, and the Christian tradition building on Scripture, that romantic relationships should only take place between one man and one woman. The teaching of Genesis 2, on which the teaching of the rest of Scripture and the subsequent Christian tradition builds, is that the God given romantic companion for a man is a woman and vice versa and that the God given context for sexual intercourse as an expression of romantic love is marriage between one man and one woman (Genesis 2:24).

Article 2

The affirmation in article 2 that ‘God designed marriage to be a covenantal bond between human beings who have committed to love, serve, and live a life faithfully committed to one another over the course of a lifetime’ is true as far as it goes. However, it contradicts Scripture and the Christian tradition based on Scripture by failing to add that God designed marriage to a covenant bond between one man and one woman (Genesis 2:24, Matthew 19:4-5).

The contradiction then continues when the article denies that ‘God intended human romantic relationships to be limited to one man and one woman’ and declares that ‘that any attempts to limit the sacred or civil rights of humans to covenant and commit to love and serve one another is an affront to God’s created design’ both these statements go against the clear teaching of Scripture and the Christian tradition that marriage is designed by God to be limited to one man and one woman.

Article 3

Article 3 is in line with Scripture and the Christian tradition when it affirms that ‘relationships between fallen humans have suffered great distortions resulting in various forms of infidelity and unhealthy behaviors that contribute to the suffering of humanity.’ From Genesis 3 onwards the Bible describes and critiques these kind of distortions and the Christian ethical tradition has continued to catalogue and critique them as forms of sin. The article is also in line with Scripture and the Christian tradition when it affirms that God desires ‘all humans to enter into loving, sacrificial relationships with one another.’ Both Scripture and the Christian tradition following it teach that we are called to love our neighbours as ourselves (Leviticus 19:18, Matthew 19:19) and that this will inevitably involve some form of self-sacrifice. However, the article’s further suggestion that is right for people to enter into ‘romantic’ relationships ‘regardless of gender or sexual identity’ contradicts the teaching of Scripture and the Christian tradition noted above that God’s intention is for romantic relationships to take place between men and women.

There are further problems with what Article 3 denies. It denies that ‘the multiplicity of sexual orientations and gender identities’ is a result of the Fall and argues instead that ‘fallenness manifests in the human capacity to function out of hedonistic self-interest instead of the self-giving love in whose image we are created.’

The difficulty with what is said here is that it ignores St Paul’s specific teaching that same-sex attraction and same-sex relationships are a result of the fallenness of the human race (Romans 1:26-27) and the fact that if, as Scripture and the Christian tradition teaches, God created human beings to be male or female according to their physical sex any claim to gender identity that denies or obscures this truth must likewise be seen as an outworking of the Fall.

It is true that fallenness manifests itself in living a life of hedonistic self-interest rather than self-giving love (see for example Amos 2:6-8, Luke 16:19-31). However, it also needs to be noted that if we truly love someone else then we shall want the best for them. This will then mean that we want them to live according to God’s intention for their lives and that therefore we will not want them enter into any form of sexual relationship outside heterosexual marriage either with us or with anyone else. As a consequence, acting in love will necessarily involve saying ‘no’ to all such relationships.

Article 4

Article 4 is in line with Scripture and the Christian tradition when it affirms thatthose who are born as intersex are full and equal bearers of the image and likeness of God and are worthy of full dignity and respect.’ Since they are human beings they too have been created by God in his image and likeness and as such are indeed worthy of full dignity and respect.

However, the article becomes problematic when it links the claim that Christians must ‘affirm and support intersex individuals in their journey of self-realization and embracing their unique, God-created sexual orientation and gender identity, whatever it may be’ with a denial that ‘intersex individuals are required to conform to a gender binary or a heteronormative sexual paradigm.’

The suggestion here seems to be that an intersex person’s journey of self-realization could legitimately lead them to embrace an identity that was neither male nor female or to enter into a same-sex sexual relationship. The problem with this suggestion is that, as we have seen, an intersex person is not a special sub-species of humanity who form an exception to God’s creation of human beings as men and women. They are human beings whose physical sex is ambiguous as a result of a developmental malfunction and whose true identity as either men or women is for that reason more difficult to determine than is normally the case.

Faithfulness to the convergent witness of creation, Scripture and the Christian tradition, means affirming that as human beings intersex people are still either male or female. This in turn means that as far as is possible given the available evidence their calling is to discern and live out their male or female identity and (like all other human beings) to only engage in sexual activity with a member of the opposite sex.

Article 5

Article 5 begins by following the same problematic path as the previous article. It contradicts the witness of creation, Scripture and the Christian tradition by affirming ‘that while the male and female gender identity reflects a majority of the human family, God has created individuals whose gender identity does not fall on such a binary spectrum.’ The only plausible basis for such an affirmation would be if those who are intersex form a genuine exception to God’s creation of the human race as a sexually dimorphic species and as we have seen this does not seem to be the case.

The article then deviates further from the witness of creation, Scripture and tradition.by affirming that:

‘…there are many transgender individuals who are born with a physical body that is incongruent with their true gender identity, and these individuals should be supported and trusted in regards to their own self-knowledge of who they are and how God has created them’

The difficulty with this affirmation is that it is based on a denial of the truth taught to us both by biology and by the creation accounts in Genesis that human beings (unlike angels) have been created by God as physically embodied beings whose identity as male or female is determined by the particular nature of their embodiment. Human beings are creatures designed for sexual reproduction and they are male or female depending on how their bodies are configured to take part in the reproductive process.

It follows that to say someone’s true ‘gender identity’ (i.e. whether they are male or female) is incongruent with their physical body is a contradiction in terms like saying that a three sided geometrical shape is not really a triangle. A three sided geometrical shape is a triangle and a person with a particular form of human body is either male or female. Furthermore, according to the witness of Scripture and Christian tradition the resurrection of the body that will take place at the end of time (Daniel 12:2, 1 Corinthians 15:35-58) means that we shall be male or female in this way for all eternity. Jesus didn’t cease to be a male human being as a result of his resurrection and likewise we too shall retain our sexual identity in the world to come.

It also follows that it is misleading to suggest that we should accept someone’s alleged ‘self-knowledge’ of who they are when this contradicts their physical embodiment. Such ‘knowledge’ is at variance with reality and thus is not actually knowledge at all. However significant it may appear to be for the individual concerned such alleged knowledge is in fact an illusion since it contradicts the available evidence. Although the consequences are more significant, in principle someone claiming that they have a sex that is at variance with the sex of their body is like someone with red hair claiming that God has made them blonde.

Contrary to the denial in the second half of the article, saying someone with a male body is male is thus not a ‘cultural assumption’ that we are ‘forcing’ them to accept. It is saying who God has made them to be.

The article closes by further contradicting creation, Scripture and the Christian tradition by denying that ‘the heterosexual, male/female binary is the only consistent reflection of God’s holy purposes in Creation.’ What this denial is suggesting is that that if people have sexual relationships with people their own sex or reject the idea that they have been created as male or female then these are reflections of God’s holy purposes in creation. What creation, Scripture and tradition tells us by contrast is that these are examples of those disordered forms of behaviour and thought resulting from the Fall to which St. Paul refers in Romans 1:18-32.

Article 6

The opening affirmation in article 6 is something that Scripture and the Christian tradition completely support. They tells us that as human beings ‘LBGBT+ Christians’ are indeed:

‘…called to live holy and fulfilling lives that are pleasing to God through living in congruence with God’s creative intent for them, and, like all Christians, are called to walk in a rhythm of life that reflects the example of Jesus Christ our Lord.’

However, the article then contradicts the witness of creation, Scripture and tradition when it denies that ‘heterosexuality or binary gender identities are the only legitimate sexuality and gender identities that reflect the natural goodness of God’s creation.’ As we have seen, the witness of creation, Scripture, and tradition is that God has made the world in such a way that people can only truly reflect the goodness of God’s creation when they live as men and women and have sexual relation in marriage with a person of the opposite sex. Living in any other way on the basis of some alleged alternative identity contradicts how God created human beings to be.

Article 7

Article 7 makes two affirmations.

The first affirmation is that:

‘…one may live proudly and openly as an LGBT+ individual and as a faithful follower of Jesus Christ and that LGBT+ individuals must be fully embraced and included in every level of Christian leadership, life, and ministry without exception in order for the Church to fully embrace its call to be the body of Christ.’

From the perspective of Scripture and the Christian tradition if ‘living proudly and openly as an LBGT + individual’ means rejecting one’s creation as a man or a woman or being in a same-sex sexual relationship’ then this is not compatible with being ‘a faithful follower of Jesus Christ.’ This is because to be faithful means to seek to live in accordance with God’s will, as when Abraham was prepared to sacrifice Isaac at God’s command (Genesis 22), or when Jesus acted as a ‘faithful high priest’ by sacrificing himself in obedience to God’s will ‘to make expiation for the sins of the people’ (Hebrews 2:17).As explained above, those who reject their creation as a man or woman or who enter into a same-sex relationship are not living in accordance with the will of God and therefore cannot be said to be faithful.

Scripture and the Christian tradition also affirm that the leaders of the Church in particular must be people who live in accordance with God’s will (Acts 6:3, 1 Timothy 3) and therefore it would be wrong to appoint leaders who do not do so as this affirmation asks for. The Church does not require leaders living in a way that is contrary to God’s will in order to be the body of Christ.

The second affirmation is ‘We also affirm Christ’s call for the Church to be one, united in the midst of our diversity of sexual orientations, gender identities, relationships, and beliefs about the same.’ Scripture and the Christian tradition agree that Jesus prayed for the Church to be one (John 17:20-21), but they would say that this one Church is called to be a body in which God’s truth is taught and lived out (see for example Ephesians 4:1-5:20) and that therefore it would not be right for it to accept and endorse claims about sexual identity or forms of sexual behaviour that are contrary to this, which is what this article appears to be asking for.

The article goes on to deny that ‘teachings on the Biblical interpretation of sexuality and gender identity constitute a matter of orthodoxy and should be a cause for division among Christians.’ What this means is that people should be able to interpret the Bible in whatever way they like without being subject to correction or Church discipline and without the Church dividing. This goes against Scripture and the Christian tradition which warn against false teaching and calls Christians to disassociate themselves from it (Ephesians 5:6-8, 2 Peter 2, Jude, Revelation 2:19-23).

Article 8

Article 8 also contains two affirmations. It affirms, firstly, that ‘non-inclusive teaching causes significant psychological and spiritual harm to LGBT+ individuals in Christian churches around the world’ and it then affirms secondly that:

‘…the Church of Jesus Christ is guilty of preaching a harmful message that has caused hundreds of thousands of individuals to face bullying, abuse, and exclusion from their families and communities, and must publicly repent and seek reconciliation with the LGBT+ community for the harm that has been done to them in the name of Christ.’

What the first affirmation is saying is that the Church’s traditional teaching that people are either men or women depending on their embodiment and that sex should be confined to marriage between a man and a woman causes significant psychological and spiritual harm.

In relation to psychological harm there is lots of evidence that people have experienced severe and lasting mental distress because of the discrepancy between the Church’s traditional teaching and their sense of their own identity and their sexual desires. However the issue that has to be addressed is how this discrepancy should solved.

One way of solving it would be for the Church to abandon its traditional teaching and the other would be for the people concerned to change their understanding of their identity and be willing to say no to the fulfilment of their sexual desires. From the standpoint of Scripture and the Christian tradition the first solution would mean the Church ceasing to teach the truth about God’s will for his human creation, which is something that the Church cannot do. This means that the proper way forward is instead for the Church to do better at helping people to accept how God made them and how he wants them to live.

In relation to spiritual harm there is once again evidence that people have felt cut off from God because of their inability to accept the Church’s traditional teaching. Once again the issue is what needs to change. From the perspective of Scripture and the Christian tradition what needs to change is people’s inability to accept the Church’s teaching. This is because the reason people feel cut off from God is what is traditionally known as ‘conviction,’ a sense that that they are in the wrong before God, and the only proper way to deal with conviction is repentance. Like the prodigal son in Jesus’ parable, people need to abandon their life in the far country and return to the Father who longs to welcome them home (Luke 15:11-32). Telling people that they should learn to be happy living in the far country will not do them any good at all.

The point that needs to be made in relation to the second affirmation is that where people have been bullied, abused and wrongly excluded, and where the Church has encouraged this either openly or inadvertently, then this has been and is wrong and the Church does indeed need to repent. However, this does not mean that the Church should cease to preach its traditional message. From the perspective of Scripture and the Christian tradition this would simply cause further harm by preventing people from having opportunity to hear the truth about who they are and how God wants hem to live. The proper answer to bullying, abuse and exclusion is not ceasing to proclaim the truth.

Article 8 also denies ‘that any Christian who perpetuates harmful teachings and refuses to openly dialogue with LGBT+ people is living a life modeled after the faithful example of Jesus.’ From the standpoint of Scripture and the Christian tradition there are two points that need to be made in response to this. The first is that traditional Christian teaching about human identity and sexual behaviour is not harmful, but is instead beneficial in that declares that truth about how God has made human beings and how he wants them to live in response. The second is that while it is right for Christians to engage in dialogue with LBGT+ people, such dialogue needs to include Christians explaining clearly what creation, Scripture and the Christian tradition have to say about the matters under discussion. According to the Gospels Jesus declared the truth that he had been sent to proclaim and Christians need to do the same today.

It also needs to be noted that the truths that Christians have been given to proclaim are not subject to negotiation. Christians cannot adjust these truths to make their dialogue partners happier. They can explain them, but they do not have the authority to change them.

Article 9

Article 9 affirms that:

‘….sexuality and gender identity may be expressed in a variety of different ways, including celibacy’ and that ‘commitment, consent, respect, and self-sacrificial love must be the center of any life or relationship that is to be deemed holy and upright for a Christian.’

From the perspective of Scripture and the Christian tradition both these affirmation are correct. However, they would want to say that gender identity means being male or female in line with one’s embodiment and that any ‘holy and upright’ life and relationship must conform to the rule of sexual faithfulness within marriage between one man and one woman and sexual abstinence outside it.

The article also denies that: ‘… any individual, especially minors, should be forced to seek any form of treatment or therapy that promises to change their sexual orientation or gender identity in order to conform to a patriarchal, heteronormative model of relationship.’

While forcing people into treatment or therapy against their will is ethically problematic and unlikely to be effective, from the standpoint of Scripture and the Christian tradition it would seem to be legitimate in principle to offer people help to accept their God given male or female sexual identity and reduce or control unwanted same-sex desire if that is what they want. Why would one not want to try to help people to live in accordance with God’s will?

Article 10

Article 10 consists of an affirmation and two denials.

What it affirms is that: ‘Jesus Christ has come into the world to bring salvation to all people and through his life, teachings, death, and resurrection, all are invited into redemption through Christ.’

What it denies is that ‘Christ rejects anyone from his loving embrace because of their sexuality or gender identity’ and that ‘homosexuality, bisexuality, queer sexuality, trans* identity, asexuality, or any other queer identity is sinful, distorted, or outside of God’s created intent.’

What is affirmed in this article is entirely in line with the teaching of Scripture and the Christian tradition. The heart of the Christian message has always been that all people need salvation and that salvation is available to all through faith in Jesus Christ (John 3:16, Romans 3:23-25). In line with the first denial in the article Scripture and the Christian tradition also teach that no one is excluded from the possibility of salvation because of how they live their life. Providing they repent and put their faith in Christ they can be saved.

However, it does not follow from this that it is right to say that no way of life is contrary to God’s will. There are ways of living that are contrary to God’s ‘created intent’ for his human creatures and entering into the salvation that God offers us through Jesus Christ means being willing to turn from them (Romans 6:1-23, Colossians 3:1-10). The question is whether the various forms of queer identity listed in the second denial in this article constitutes forms of life that people need to turn from in this way. As we have seen, Scripture and the Christian tradition would say that they are in as much as they involve a rejection of God’s call to his human creatures to live as men and women in accordance with their embodiment and to follow a path of sexual discipline involving sexual abstinence outside marriage and complete sexual fidelity within it.

Conclusion

What we have seen in this paper is that the joint witness of creation, Scripture and the universal tradition of the Christian Church is that God has created human beings as embodied creatures who are men and women depending of their embodiment and has ordained marriage between a man and a woman as the proper context for sexual intercourse and the procreation of children.

What we have also seen is that the affirmations and declarations in Christians United constitute a rejection of this witness in favour of the acceptance of variety of other forms of sexual identity and behaviour.

It follows that the claim made in Christians United that the ideas it contains are a result of the work of the Holy Spirit bringing about a further reformation in the life of the Church needs to be rejected. Either the Spirit has not previously spoken through creation, Scripture and the Christian tradition, or the Spirit has for some reason decided to say something today that is contrary to what he has said before, or those whose ideas are reflected in Christians United are mistaken in their belief that they have been guided by the Spirit. Of these three options the last one is the one we should accept.

M B Davie 12.9.17

[1] The Nashville Statement, text at https://cbmw.org/nashville-statement.

[2] Christians United in Support of LGBT+ Inclusion in the Church, text at http://www.christiansunitedstatement.org/.

[3] Oliver O’Donovan, Transsexualism: Issues and Argument, Cambridge: Grove Books, 2007, p.8.

A review of material from Southwark Cathedral to mark Civil Partnerships

Following the recent announcement on social media that two members of the clergy in the Diocese of Southwark celebrated entering into a Civil Partnership with ‘Eucharist, dinner and dancing’ at Southwark Cathedral the question was raised as to what rules the diocese had for the marking of Civil Partnerships in its churches.

Further enquiry revealed that there is a sheet which the Dean of Southwark Cathedral sends out to those enquiring about the possibility of marking their Civil Partnership in the Cathedral. This leaflet gives the following outline for the marking of a Civil Partnership in the context of a celebration of the Eucharist (the bold type and the italics are in the original text).

Readings

One partner is invited to read.

At the Intercessions

One partner is invited to lead these

Communion

The couple receive communion together before the rest of the congregation

After Communion

Following the prayer after communion the couple kneel at the altar rail and say together

Heavenly Father,

we offer you our souls and bodies,

our thoughts and words and deeds,

our love for one another.

Unite our wills in your will,

that we may grow together

in love and peace

all the days of our life;

through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Amen.

The Priest then says

Almighty God give you grace to persevere,

that he may complete in you

the work he has already begun,

through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Amen.

Then follows the seasonal blessing of the whole congregation for which the couple remain kneeling at the altar rail. They then get up and go back to their seats and the Dismissal follows.

The issue that has subsequently been raised is whether this material is compatible with the guidelines contained in the House of Bishops’ ‘Pastoral Statement’ on Civil Partnerships published on 25 July 2005.[1]

Paragraph 27 summarises the approach taken in the Pastoral Statement as a whole. It declares:

‘…the Church’s reaching on sexual ethics remains unchanged. For Christians, marriage – that is the lifelong union between a man and a woman – remains the proper context for sexual activity. In its approach to civil partnerships the Church will continue to uphold this standard, to affirm the value of committed sexually abstinent friendships between people of the same sex and to minister sensitively and pastorally to those Christians who conscientiously decide to order their lives differently.’

On the basis of this overall approach paragraphs 16-18 give a set of guidelines relating to ‘The blessing of civil partnerships.’ These guidelines state:

‘16. It is likely that some who register civil partnerships will seek some recognition of their new situation and pastoral support by asking members of the clergy to provide a blessing for them in the context of an act of worship. The House believes that the practice of the Church of England needs to reflect the pastoral letter from the Primates of the Anglican Communion in Pentecost 2003 which said:

‘The question of public rites for the blessing of same sex unions is still a cause of potentially divisive controversy. The Archbishop of Canterbury spoke for us all when he said that it is through liturgy that we express what we believe, and that there is no theological consensus about same-sex unions. Therefore, we as a body cannot support the authorisation of such rites.’

17. One consequence of the ambiguity contained within the new legislation is that people in a variety of relationships will be eligible to register a civil partners, some living consistently with the teaching of the Church, others not. In these circumstances it would not be right to produce an authorised public liturgy in connection with the registering of civil partnerships. In addition, the House of Bishops affirms that clergy of the Church of England should not provide services of blessing for those who register a civil partnership.

18. It will be important, however, to bear in mind that registered partnerships do allow for a range of different situations – including those where the relationships is simply one of friendship. Hence, clergy need to have regard to the teaching of the church on sexual morality, celibacy, and the positive value of committed friendships within the Christian tradition. Where clergy are approached by people asking for prayer in relation to entering into a civil partnership they should respond pastorally and sensitively in the light of the circumstances of each case.’

What these paragraphs tell us is:

  • It would not be right to produce an authorised public liturgy in relation to the registration of a Civil Partnership;
  • Clergy should not provide services of blessing for those who register a Civil Partnership;
  • Clergy need to bear in mind the teaching of the Church on sexual morality, celibacy and the value of committed friendships;
  • Requests for prayer should be responded to pastorally and sensitively in the light of the circumstances of each case.

The last point clearly needs to be understood in the light of what precedes it. Requests for prayer should not be met by the use of an authorised public liturgy (since such a liturgy should not exist). They should not be met by the provision of a service of blessing (since such services are not allowed). Finally, any form of prayer needs to be in line with the Church’s teaching (hence it cannot suggest either explicitly or implicitly that the Church approves of any form of sexual relationship outside of heterosexual marriage).

In the light of all this, how should we view the material that is being sent out by Southwark Cathedral?

First, while it is not a form of public liturgy that has been authorised by the Church of England it obviously is a form of public liturgy that has been authorised by the relevant authorities at Southwark Cathedral. As such it violates the House of Bishops guidelines.

Secondly, while the material does not contain the actual word ‘blessing,’ to bless someone means to ask in prayer that someone will experience the favour of God in a particular way and that is what is asked for in the prayers after communion which it contains. Furthermore, although the material does not constitute a separate ‘service of blessing’ it is an adaption of the normal Eucharistic liturgy for the specific purpose of blessing a Civil Partnership. The material therefore violates the spirit if not the letter of the House of Bishops guidelines.

Thirdly, were the material to be used in the case of a couple who were known to be in a gay or lesbian relationship it would suggest that the Church approves of same-sex sexual relationships, since the Church does not bless forms of relationship which it does not approve of as being in accordance with God’s will (which is why, for instance, it would not bless a polygamous relationship). It would therefore violate the requirement that forms of prayer should be in line with the Church’s teaching.

For these three reasons this material currently being used by Southwark Cathedral contravenes the 2005 House of Bishops guidelines and should be withdrawn.

If the response were to be made that such a withdrawal would violate the call by the Archbishops for a new spirit of ‘radical new Christian inclusion’ in the Church of England [2] the answer would be that the Archbishops’ statement does not amount to the wholesale cancellation of the existing teaching and practice of the Church of England. The 2005 Pastoral Statement remains in force and what it says should be observed unless and until it is withdrawn, amended or superseded.

M B Davie 24.7.17

[1] Civil Partnerships – A pastoral statement from the House of Bishops of the Church of England. Text at: https://www.churchofengland.org/media-centre/news/2005/07/pr5605.aspx.

[2] Letter from the Archbishops of Canterbury and York following General Synod, 16 February 2017.

Text at: https://www.churchofengland.org/media-centre/news/2017/02/letter-from-the-archbishops-  of-canterbury-and-york-following-general-synod.aspx

A response to: ‘Conversion Therapy – A briefing note on the science by Professor Michael King (UCL) and Professor Robert Song (Durham)’

This briefing note , which has been sent round by Jayne Ozanne in support of her General Synod motion on Conversion Therapy, is designed to give scientific information in support of the proposition that members of the Church of England should reject all forms of conversion therapy for those with same-sex attraction as unethical because they cannot be shown to be effective and instead do harm.

The paper makes three basic points:

  • There are no randomised controlled trials that provide clear proof whether conversion therapies are effective or harmful (paragraphs 1-5).
  • Nevertheless the 2015 study undertaken by John Dehlin and others provides evidence that the rate of harm far outweighs the rate of benefit (paragraphs 6-11).
  • It is ‘deeply misleading’ to suggest that people are not ‘born gay’ and that ‘their sexual desires can change’ (paragraphs 12-13).

We shall look at each of these three points in turn.

Randomised Controlled Trials

The paper is correct to say that no randomised controlled trials on conversion therapies have been conducted and that it is unlikely that they will be. However, it should be noted that the reason that they are unlikely to be conducted is not simply because of fears that patients will be harmed, but because of an ideological objection within the medical establishment to the very idea of therapeutic work to change or control people’s same-sex sexual attraction. This is because the existence of such therapy would imply that such a change would be something beneficial and this in turn would imply that same sex sexual attraction is something problematic, something that the medical establishment has increasingly denied ever since the landmark APA decision in 1973 to de-list homosexuality as a mental health condition.

This ideological background to the discussion about conversion therapy is clearly revealed in the memorandum of January this year from the Royal College of General Practitioners and others that Jayne Ozanne wants the Church of England to sign up to. This states:

‘Conversion Therapy is the term for therapy that assumes certain sexual orientations or gender identities are inferior to others, and seeks to change or suppress them on that basis. Sexual orientations and gender identities are not mental health disorders, although exclusion, stigma and prejudice may precipitate mental health issues for any person subjected to these abuses. Anyone accessing therapeutic help should be able to do so without fear of judgement or the threat of being pressured to change a fundamental aspect of who they are.’ [1]

What all this means is that the claim in paragraph 4 of the paper that the reason that no randomised trials would be allowed would be because of evidence of harm is misleading because it is only partially true. There might be concern about harm, but the really big reason why such trials would not be permitted would be because of the ideological objection to the very idea of conversion therapy just noted

Evidence of harm

In the absence of any evidence of harm from randomised controlled trials the paper turns for evidence of harm to the 2015 study from John Dehlin and others entitled ‘Sexual Orientation Change Efforts Among Current or Former LDS Church Members.’

What the paper does in paragraphs 6-11 is to point out the problems with the earlier studies by Robert Spitzer and by Stanton Jones and Mark Yarhouse that claimed change with regard to people’s sexual orientation was possible and to suggest that we should accept instead the evidence of the Dehlin study of attempts at conversion therapy among the Latter Day Saints (LDS) which reported 0% elimination of same-sex attraction, 3% change in such attraction and a 40% report of harm. This evidence, the paper suggests, provides ‘good prima facie reasons for thinking there is significant potential for harm from conversion therapies’ (paragraph 11).

The problem with this argument is that the paper is misleading in its account of all three papers to which it refers.

If we turn first of all to what the paper says about the Spitzer study of 2003, we find that this is described as ‘the most notable study’ (paragraph 6). No justification is given for this claim (arguably the Jones and Yarhouse paper is actually more notable for the reasons which will be outlined below), but it is rhetorically powerful because it is linked to what is said in the rest of paragraph 6 about Spitzer’s retraction of his paper because of its methodological flaws. What is being implicitly suggested is that if the most notable paper on the subject has been retracted by its author then the case for conversion therapy must be very weak.

What the paper does not say is that Spitzer’s retraction of his paper is itself controversial. As Stanton Jones comments, there are two problems with this retraction.

‘It is important to note, first, that Spitzer has apologized for the study but his data remain. There is an enormous difference between changing one’s interpretation of scientific data, even through apology or recantation, and removing the data from the scientific canon by a retraction.

The editor of the Archives of Sexual Behavior, Kenneth Zucker, rightly noted this distinction in an interview with Psychology Today and published Spitzer’s letter under the title ‘Spitzer Reassesses His 2003 Study’ rather than retracting the study. He also made clear that Spitzer’s article underwent multiple rounds of careful, professional peer review, contrary to reports in the New York Times.

Second, the core of Spitzer’s change of heart: his loss of confidence that ‘the participants’ reports of change were credible and not self-deception or outright lying.’ Embellishing Spitzer’s words, the Times reporter Benedict Carey explains that ‘simply asking people whether they have changed is no evidence at all of real change. People lie, to themselves and others. They continually change their stories, to suit their needs and moods.’

Is self-report trustworthy? Much of psychology and medicine is premised on the validity of self-report. We depend on people to tell the truth about their depression, their headaches, their delusions, their nausea. Even some sophisticated brain-imaging studies depend on the validity of people’s self-report about what they are thinking as their brains are being imaged. It would be the foolish physician who forbade patients to speak and only looked for ‘verifiable measures.’

The critics themselves assume that self-reporting can be trusted. They accept without independent verification the self-reports of those who say they did not change their sexual orientation and those who claim they were harmed by the attempt.’[2]

It is also worth noting that several of the participants in Spitzer’s study subsequently affirmed their change of sexual orientation and vehemently protested against Spitzer’s repudiation of his own 2003 results.[3

Turning to what the paper says about the 2011 study by Jones and Yarhouse in paragraph 7, what we find is that the shortcomings of this study are emphasised. The paragraph says that it was ‘still based on self-report’ and that:

‘….once again the method of recruitment was flawed in that no participant was recruited before the therapy began and there was no control group who did not receive the therapy. Not only did the study fall far short of the standard of a randomised clinical trial but also the authors themselves say their method ‘fails to meet a number of ideal standards for longitudinal, prospective studies’ (page 408). ‘

These comments are misleading because, as we shall see, the study was not solely based on self- report and because they fail to explain why it is that, in spite of these shortcomings, the Jones and Yarhouse study may nevertheless be considered the most significant study of conversion therapy yet undertaken.

What this study did, and what no other study has done, was to undertake a ‘longitudinal study’ of people undergoing conversion therapy. That is to say, it tracked a group of ninety eight people for an extended period of time (six or even years) to see what changes, if any, occurred to them as a result of undergoing conversion therapy. Furthermore, it took great efforts not just to rely on people’s own reports but also to use proper objective psychological measures of mental health and harm at all points through their work to evaluate people’s progress through the course of therapy.

To quote Jones:

‘Most notably, instead of gathering recollections about change many years after the fact, a method regarded as vulnerable to self-deception and bias, we gathered data on individuals annually as they went through the process of attempting to change. In addition to administering the type of structured interview used by Spitzer, we repeatedly administered standardized psychological inventories and measures widely regarded as valid over the six- to seven-year period of the study, urging participants to tell the truth about their experience.’[4]

Paragraph 7 is also misleading about the findings of the study. It says the study found ‘small numbers of people who had experienced change in their sexual orientation, though the change was incremental rather than dramatic.’ This account differs markedly from Jones’ own account of the findings of the study. Jones reports:

‘About one third of the final participants abandoned their attempt to change, with many embracing a homosexual identity. About one third embraced sexual abstinence rather than a homosexual identity. About one fourth had moved away from a predominantly homosexual orientation and reported having satisfactory heterosexual relationships. One participant claimed at first to be a ‘success’ story but later repudiated his report and embraced a homosexual identity, while another had given up on change but later claimed to have successfully changed his orientation to heterosexuality.

In light of the common claim that attempts to change sexual orientation are often profoundly harmful, we administered at every assessment a standardized measure of psychological distress. Distress did not increase with continuing commitment to the process, and few subjects reported extreme levels of distress, suggesting that distress and harm are not inherent in the attempt to change sexual orientation. To be sure, harm may indeed occur when incompetent or inhumane methods are utilized, or when vulnerable minors are treated unprofessionally. On the whole, however, our evidence suggests that some people experience meaningful shifts in sexual orientation and that the attempt to change is not intrinsically or necessarily harmful.’[5]

Paragraph 7 is thus not a valid summary of the results of the Jones  and Yarhouse study and in particular it is silent about their conclusion that ‘distress and harm are not inherent in the attempt to change sexual orientation.’ The paper could have challenged the findings of the study if it wanted to, or pointed to others who had done so. What is not legitimate is its misreporting of the study’s findings. Given the emphasis in the paper on the evidence for conversion therapy doing harm its failure to report evidence to the contrary from the Jones and Yarhouse study is inexcusable.

Moving on to the Dehlin study[6] the paper acknowledges that it had some weaknesses, but argues that because of the large size of the sample (1612 participants) and the serious harm that was reported its reports of harm should be taken seriously.

What the paper does not acknowledge however, was that the large scale of the sample was achieved through the use of a one off web-based survey which relied entirely on what the participants said about their own past experiences and had none of the careful, objective, extended, real time evaluation of the participants’ condition found in the Stanton and Yarhouse study

In addition, as Peter Ould notes, this study suffers from the same problems of failure to assess evidence that were much criticised in an earlier study by Shidlo and Shroder:

‘… this study, though with a much larger sample, suffers from the same basic issue as Shidlo and Shroder in that the harm was never clinically assessed, was not compared to mental health states before therapy, attempts no quantitative analysis to detect a causal chain for ‘harm’ and also does not attempt to identify any other external mental health influencers (there is some evidence to show that the LDS population as a whole has higher mental issues such as depression than the overall population, chiefly because of the nature of LDS Church demands on people’s public and private lives – Jensen et al (1993), Idler et al (1998), Exline et al (2000) etc).’ [7]

Furthermore, as Ould also points out, the Dehlin study was based on what is known as ‘convenience sampling.’ That is to say, it basically invited anyone who wanted to report about their experiences to do so. This made for bias in the sample and, to quote Ould:

‘the authors identify this as the key limitation of their work on page 10, and indeed go as far as to say: ‘Our reliance on convenience sampling limits our ability to generalize our findings to the entire population of same-sex attracted current and former LDS church members.’’[8]

In other words, the authors of the report themselves acknowledge its inherent limitations, but this fact is totally ignored in the paper for Synod.

All these problems means that the Dehlin et al study is a much weaker study than the one by Jones and Yarhouse and yet this is the one on which the paper relies for its evidence of harm. The fundamental problem is that having a big study does not mean that the results tell you anything helpful if the methodology employed in that study is not robust.

What is more, you cannot simply say, as the paper does, that we have to take the reports of harm in the study seriously because of their ‘scale and nature’ if, as in this case, the nature of the study precluded the sort of detailed, objective, assessment of harm that the methodology employed by Jones and Yarhouse permitted.

It is true, as the paper says, that we should not dismiss the reports of harm ‘out of hand,’ but the paper should have acknowledged that it would be a mistake to give these reports the same weight as the findings of the Jones and Yarhouse study. If the result of that study is going to be challenged then much more robust evidence than that provided in the Dehlin study is required. [9]

Are people born gay and can their sexual desires change?

In paragraph 12 the paper makes five points about whether people are ‘born gay’ and whether their sexual desires can change.

Points i and ii argue that there is a strong case for some kind of biological causation for same-sex attraction and weak evidence ‘for all the main social cause theories.’ If what is being argued is that same-sex attraction is wholly biologically determined and therefore immutable, then this is an argument that is very widely rejected even by those who are supportive of same-sex relationships.

For example, the gay rights activist Peter Tatchell wrote back in 2008:

‘….an influence is not the same as a cause. Genes and hormones may predispose a person to one sexuality rather than another. But that’s all. Predisposition and determination are two different things. There is a major problem with gay gene theory, and withy all theories that posit the biological programming of sexual orientation. If heterosexuality and homosexuality, are, indeed, genetically predetermined (and therefore mutually exclusive and unchangeable), how do we explain bisexuality or people who suddenly in mid-life, switch from heterosexuality to homosexuality (or vice versa)? We can’t. The reality is that queer and straight desires are far more ambiguous, blurred and overlapping than any theory of genetic causality can allow.’ [10]

As Tatchell goes on to note, there is also the point that same-sex attraction is not uniform across cultures. In his words ‘both the incidence and expression of same-sex desire vary vastly between different societies’ whereas if such desire was biologically determined one would expect it to ‘appear in the same proportions, and in similar forms, in all cultures and epochs.’ [11]

Even if we cannot be precisely sure how biological predisposition and contingent social causation relate to each other, it seems likely that both are present in the formation of human sexual desires just as they are in all other areas of life. This means that saying someone is ‘born gay’ is misleading in the same way as it would be misleading to say that someone was ‘born alcoholic’, ‘born violent’ or ‘born altruistic.’

Points iii-v go on to argue that if it could be shown that sexual attraction was socially determined this would not mean that it is mutable, that the existence of sexual fluidity does not mean that sexual desire ‘can be manipulated by talking therapies’ and that our understandings of ‘the neural plasticity’ of sexual orientation are still in their infancy.

All these points are true, but all they mean is that you cannot determine a priori whether forms of conversion therapy are effective. They do not mean that it would necessarily be misleading to say that sexual desires can change. All they mean is that the relevant evidence would have to be produced to show that they can and that forms of conversion therapy can help in the process.

The paper of course, thinks that such evidence cannot be produced, but that is because it relies on the relatively poor quality study by Dehlin rather than the much better quality research by Jones and Yarhouse.

Summary

The paper claims that there is now ‘considerable evidence that conversion therapies are harmful.’ However, all the proof it offers for this claim is a single study the methodology of which makes the value of its findings doubtful. Meanwhile it conveniently buries the contrary evidence from another much more high quality study.

M B Davie 3.7.17

[1] Text of memorandum cited in GS 2070 A, General Synod, Private Member’s Motion, Conversion Therapy.

[2] Stanton L Jones, ‘Honest Sex Science,’ First Things, October 2012. Text at https://www.firstthings.com/article/2012/10/honest-sex-science

[3] Armelli JA, Moose EL, Paulk A, Phelan JE. A response to Spitzer’s (2012) reassessment of his 2003 study of reparative therapy of homosexuality. Archives of Sexual Behavior 2013;41:1335-1336. doi: 10.1007/s10508-012-0032-6.

[4] Jones, art.cit.

[5] Jones, art.cit.

[6] The paper notes that this paper was peer reviewed, but not that the same was also true of the Spitzer and

Jones and Yarhouse studies. Once again the paper withholds pertinent information.

[7] Peter Ould, ‘Do Sexual Orientation Change Efforts cause harm? Possibly, but….’ Psephizo, 1 July 2017, text at https://www.psephizo.com/sexuality-2/do-sexual-orientation-change-efforts-cause-harm-possibly-but/

[8] Ibid.

[9] For detailed criticisms of the Dehlin study and the way it has been used see ‘Psychotherapy for Unwanted Homosexual Attraction Among Youth,’ American College of Pediatricians, January 2016, text at https://www.acpeds.org/the-college-speaks/position-statements/sexuality-issues/psychotherapy-for-unwanted-homosexual-attraction-among-youth and Jacob Z Hezz , ‘How scientific research can becomeweaponized, ‘ at http://www.flirtingwithcuriosity.org/?p=1734

[10] Peter Tatchell, ‘Homosexuality: It isn’t natural,’ Spiked Online, 24 June 2008, text at http://www.spiked-online.com/newsite/article/5375#.WVpZ4tFK3IU

[11] Ibid.

 

The General Synod Briefing Papers on Conversion Therapy

The second batch of papers for the July meeting of General Synod has now been published and within it are two briefing papers for the debate on ‘conversion therapy.’ These are the papers from Jayne Ozanne, GS 2070 A, and from the Church of England’s General Secretary, William Nye, GS2070 B.

Both papers are seriously problematic for a number of reasons.

First, there is a lack of proper theological reflection. William Nye’s paper has no theology in it at all and Jayne Ozanne’s paper has one paragraph dealing with theology.

This paragraph declares:

‘The Bible teaches us that we are each fearfully and wonderfully made (Ps.139.14), and that we should praise God’s gift of our creation. Thus, our diversity as human beings is a reflection of God’s creativity and something to celebrate. The biblical concern is not with what we are but how we choose to live our lives, meaning that differing sexual orientations and gender identities are not inherently sinful, nor mental health disorders to be ‘cured.’ [1]

The first two sentences of this paragraph are fine as far as they go, but the last sentence makes the paragraph misleading. It is not the case that because the Bible holds that we are created by God and that there is a diversity between human beings which should celebrated that this means that the Bible is unconcerned with what we are or that what we are is unconnected with how we should live our lives,

The creation account in Genesis 1 and 2 sets the framework for the rest of what the Bible has to say. It is the basis for everything that comes after. This account tells that human beings are created by God as his image bearers (Genesis 1:26), that they are created as male and female (Genesis 1:27) and that they are created by God to relate sexually to the other sex within marriage (Genesis 2:24) and by so doing to fulfil the mandate to ‘be fruitful and multiply’ (Genesis 1:28).

This account tells us what we are as human beings and as such points us to how we should behave. It is because humans are created by God as embodied male and female beings who are called to relate sexually to the other sex within marriage that the Bible and the subsequent Christian tradition (including the Anglican tradition) has said that all sex outside marriage and all forms of same-sex sexual activity are inherently sinful and that the desire to engage in these forms of sexual activity is a result of the disorder caused by the Fall rather than a result of God’s good act of creation. Furthermore, because humans are created by God as embodied male and female beings, forms of gender identity that involve a rejection of this embodiment (as when a biological male claims to be female and vice versa) have also to be seen to be a result of the Fall rather than a consequence of creation and therefore as sinful.

Secondly, both papers note the claim that ‘conversion therapy’ should be banned because it does harm and is ineffective. What they inexcusably fail to point out is that the evidence for this oft repeated claim is missing. In an open letter to Jayne Ozanne, Dermot O’ Callaghan has publicly offered to pay £100 to charity if Ozanne can point to a scientific study that provides such evidence.[2] Thus far she has not taken him up on his offer which is unsurprising since no such study exists.

As Peter Ould has pointed out, the only rigorous scientific study of the issue in recent years is the 2011 study by Stanton L Jones and Mark Yarhouse entitled ‘A Longitudinal Study of Attempted Religiously Mediated Sexual Orientation Change.’[3] To quote Ould, this study followed ‘a number of individuals over a few years through a variety of religious orientated therapeutic approaches’ and ‘there was no statistically significant evidence of harm, even in those for whom the therapy ‘failed’ or who dropped out.’ [4]

Ould further notes that the study ‘was clear that there was no statistically significant change at the group level in their self-reported sexual orientation. Particular individuals reported change and others reported no change, and this fits anecdotal evidence elsewhere.’ However, he asks:

‘…. should a low success rate be a reason to ban a therapeutic group? Peer review studies indicate that the success rate for Alcoholics Anonymous (another spiritual based group therapy) is around five per cent to ten per cent (lower than the anecdotal success rates for forms of ex-gay therapy) and there is plenty of evidence of those who believe they have been harmed by the experience. Given the lower success rates and same reports of harm than conservative support groups for those who are not happy with their sexual orientation, should such alcoholics support therapies also be banned? If not, why not?’[5]

Thirdly, neither paper asks the question as to why the consensus of current medical opinion no longer regards sexual attraction to someone of the same-sex as a form of mental illness and therefore no longer sees it as something which for which therapy should be offered.

It is true that since 1973 national and international bodies have removed homosexuality from the list of mental health disorders and that this has resulted in the current consensus which the papers reflect. However, the evidence indicates that this change was not due to the discovery of new evidence, but rather to political activity by members of the gay rights movement.

For example, in his book Homosexuality and American Psychiatry Professor Ronald Bayer, a psychiatrist sympathetic to the gay cause, notes that the landmark decision by the American Psychiatric Association in 1973, which led to the changes that have subsequently taken place in other such organisations worldwide and that a reflected in the Synod briefing papers was a political rather than a scientific one:

‘The entire process, from the first confrontation organized by gay demonstrators at psychiatric conventions to the referendum demanded by orthodox psychiatrists, seemed to violate the most basic expectations about how questions of science should be resolved. Instead of being engaged in a sober consideration of data, psychiatrists were swept up in a political controversy….The result was not a conclusion based on an approximation of the scientific truth as dictated by reason, but was instead an action demanded by the ideological temper of the times.’ [6]

Similar evidence is provided by the lesbian writers Kay Lahusen and Barbara Gittings in their book Making History: The struggle for Gay and Lesbian Equal Rights: 1945-1990: An Oral History:

‘Lahusen: This was always more of a political decision than a medical decision.

Gittings : It never was a medical decision – and that’s why I think the action came so fast. After all, it was only three years from the time that feminists and gays firsts zapped the APA at a behaviour therapy session to the time that the Board of Trustees voted in 1973 to approve removing homosexuality from the list of mental disorders. It was a political move.’ [7]

The essentially political basis of the 1973 APA decision and others that have followed from it means that the current medical consensus should not be used as an argument for saying that same-sex attraction should not be viewed as a mental health issue. If you want to make this claim then you have to give some independent grounds for it based on a clear understanding of what a psychologically healthy way of life involves from a Christian perspective and neither of the General Synod papers does this.

Furthermore, there are a number of mental conditions, such as, for instance, addiction to alcohol or tobacco, that are not regarded as forms of mental illness, but which are regarded as undesirable and on that basis support is offered to people to manage or overcome them. Even if same-sex attraction should not be classified as a form of mental illness it could be, and has been, argued that it is an undesirable condition and that therefore it would likewise be right to offer people support to manage or overcome it.[8] This is not an argument which is considered by either paper.

Fourthly, neither paper looks at the implications of seeking to ban all forms of conversion therapy. At the moment the teaching of the Church of England remains that same-sex sexual activity is contrary to God’s will for his human creatures and consequently that Christians should not engage in such activity. What neither paper addresses is the question of how people should be helped to live according to such teaching when they  are sexually attracted to people of their own sex. If any attempt to use any form of therapy to help them control or change their desires or behaviour is off limits does not this in the end simply mean abandoning them?

Jayne Ozanne would probably say that they should be encouraged to embrace their sexual attraction and reject the teaching, but the Church of England could not in good conscience advocate this approach unless it came to believe theologically that its current teaching was wrong and as we have seen neither paper offers a convincing theological argument for making this move.

Rather than simply imposing a wholesale ban for which there appears to be no supporting evidence would it not be more responsible to for the Church of England to institute a rigorous study of different types of therapy to determine how best to help people who are struggling with unwanted same-sex attraction or gender dysphoria?

[1] GS 2070 A Paragraph 1.

[2] Dermot O’Callaghan, ‘An Open Letter to Jayne Ozanne’ text at http://www.core-issues.org/leading-stories-and-research/an-open-letter-to-jayne-ozanne-from-a-cit-director-dermot-o-callaghan

[3] Stanton L Jones and Mark Yarhouse, ‘A Longitudinal Study of Attempted Religiously Mediated Sexual Orientation Change.’ Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, 37, 2011. pp. 404–427,

[4] Peter Ould, ‘It’s easy to talk about banning gay conversion therapy. But how to do it – and where’s theevidence?, Christian Today, 23 June, 2017, text at: https://www.christiantoday.com/article/its.easy.to.talk.about.banning.gay.conversion.therapy.but.how.to.do.it.and.wheres.the.evidence/110164.htm

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ronald Bayer, Homosexuality and American Psychiatry, Princeton: Princeton UP, 1987, pp.3-4. For more details see Robert R Reilly, Making Gay Okay, San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2014, Ch.7.

[7] Cited in Robert Reilly, Making Gay OK,Kindle Edition Loc, 2253. For further details about the APA decision see Reilly, op.cit, Ch.7 and Jeffrey Satinover, Homosexuality and the Politics of Truth, Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996, Ch.1.

[8] For this argument see Satinover, op.cit. Ch. 3.

M B Davie 26.6.17

Jayne Ozanne on ‘spiritual abuse’

As well as seeking to persuade the Church of England to ban conversion therapy for those with same-sex attraction or gender dysphoria Jayne Ozanne is now highlighting the issue of spiritual abuse as the next big issue which she thinks the Church will need to tackle.

Her paper on this issue, entitled ‘Spiritual abuse – the next great scandal for the Church,’[1] which was written for the Royal College of Psychiatrists, starts with a general definition of spiritual abuse, then narrows down to focus on abuse by charismatic groups and then narrows down still further to consider the spiritual abuse of LGBTI Christians.

No one with a proper belief in the way in which sin continues to indwell believers (see Articles IX and XV), or any experience of the life of the Church, will need any convincing about the possibility of those in the Church, including church leaders, misusing their position in the Church in a way that results in harm to others.

There cannot therefore be any objection in principle to the concept of ‘spiritual abuse.’ However, the first difficulty with Ozanne’s paper comes when she attempts to define precisely what is meant by ‘spiritual abuse.’

Ozanne adopts the definition of spiritual abuse offered by Dr. Liza Oakely in her book Breaking the silence on spiritual abuse.’ This defines the term as follows:

‘Spiritual abuse is coercion and control of one individual by another in a spiritual context. The target experiences spiritual abuse as a deeply emotional personal attack. This abuse may include: manipulation and exploitation, enforced accountability, censorship of decision making, requirements for secrecy and silence, pressure to conform, misuse of scripture or the pulpit to control behaviour, requirement of obedience to the abuser, the suggestion that the abuser has a ‘divine’ position, isolation from others, especially those external to the abusive context.’[2]

The problem with this definition is that it requires an awful lot of unpacking if it is going to be useful in practice. For example, what exactly is meant by coercion and control? What degree of influence by one person over another qualifies? What is meant by ‘pressure to conform’ and how does this differ from the normal expectation that someone will follow the beliefs and practices of the church to which they have chosen to belong? What is meant by ‘misuse of the scripture or the pulpit to control behaviour’ and how does this differ from any other exposition of the Bible’s teaching about Christian behaviour?

These questions may seem like nit picking, but if spiritual abuse is to become an accepted category in the life of the Church with disciplinary implications similar to those in force for other forms of abuse then the definition of abuse needs to be as tight as possible and what it means needs to be very clearly explained. Dr Oakely may offer such explanation in her book. Unfortunately it is absent from Ozanne’s paper.

Ozanne goes on to link abuse, and particularly what she calls ‘group abuse’ (when it is the whole community rather than a particular individual that inflicts the abuse), to charismatic Evangelical churches and networks.

What she does not do is justify singling out these churches and networks as more likely to abuse people than churches in other traditions. She offers no evidence that this is the case or indeed that abuse is taking place in the churches and networks she describes (some of which she names).

She also offers no explanation of the practices of these churches and networks she cites as forms of abuse nor any evidence that people are being harmed by them.

For example, she contends that their ‘unquestioned teaching on the Holy Spirit’ [3] is linked to abuse, but she does not explain what this teaching is, how she thinks it is linked to abuse, or what the evidence to support this claim is.

For another example, she lists as an abusive practice ‘Misusing ‘words of knowledge’ and/or ‘prophecy’ to control and subjugate people.’[4] What she doesn’t say is what is involved in misusing ‘words of knowledge’ or ‘prophecy’ in this way or what the evidence is that people are being harmed by this practice in the churches and networks which she names.

Without such explanation or evidence her argument necessarily fails to carry conviction. Anyone can allege that abuse is taking place. That is easy. The difficult part is substantiating that allegation and that Ozanne fails to do.

The problem of lack of evidence continues when she goes on to consider what she calls ‘The Spiritual abuse of LGBTI Christians.’ In this part of her paper Ozanne looks at the teaching given about homosexuality in an unspecified number of the churches and networks she has named, the forms of ministry given in these bodies to those with same-sex attraction and the sort of church discipline advocated by the Evangelical Alliance for those who persistently and unrepentantly engage in same-sex sexual activity.

Ozanne’s allegation is that these practices cause ‘significant long term harm’ to LGBTI Christians up to and including suicide.[5] This is an extremely serious allegation, but if we ask what evidence she gives to substantiate it the only thing we find is a reference to a 2017 paper from the Oasis Foundation[6] which links mental health issues among LGB people to discrimination against them by the churches and the way the churches contribute ‘negative views to debates about same-sex relationships in society and the media.’

However, as Peter Ould points out in a response to the Oasis paper ‘…. the problem with the Oasis paper is that it provides not one shred of research evidence that demonstrates a link between conservative Christian teaching and mental health outcomes for LGB people.’ [7]

Ould goes on to point out that the Oasis paper relied on ‘generalised research on minority stress and then tried to blame this on conservative churches’ and that it failed to engage with the 2012 research paper by Barnes and Meyer which showed that:

… contrary to the claims that Oasis make with no evidence to support them, LGB people do not have worse mental health outcomes when in ‘non-affirming’ church environments and indeed there is some evidence to suggest that attending a conservative church actually improves mental health for LGB people, even when they have significant internalized homophobia.[8]

To put it into plainer English, the research evidence does not show that LGB people suffer from worse mental health issues because they attend conservative churches and indeed may have improved mental health because they do so.

What all this means is that Ozanne gives us only one source to substantiate her allegation and this one source turns out itself to provide no evidence to back up its claims, claims which are contradicted by a substantial academically rigorous research study on the issue.

In response to this criticism, supporters of Ozanne’s position might well say that there is a large amount of anecdotal evidence from those who have suffered mental distress because of their involvement with churches that take a conservative stance on same-sex attraction and same-sex relationships. However, if they make this move they would have to address the fact that there is equally a growing body of anecdotal evidence from people who are same-sex attracted, but feel that they have benefited from the ministry of churches that take a conservative stance on these matters.[9]

The existence of such people and the testimonies they offer (both of which are completely ignored by Ozanne’s paper) means that the issue that needs to be explored is not simply why some people report being harmed by churches that take a conservative stance, but why is it that some people report being harmed whereas others report being helped. If the Church is going to address seriously the question of how to minister in a helpful way to people with same-sex attraction this is the issue that needs to be researched.

Conclusion

The point of Ozanne’s paper is to urge bodies external to the Church, such as the Royal College of Psychiatrists, to call for action to be taken against spiritual abuse:

‘It is imperative that professional organisations external to the religious institutions call for better safeguarding measures against spiritual abuse. Indeed, they should look to recognise it as a key form of abuse at a national level so as to ensure that some of the most vulnerable in our society are afforded the same protection as those facing other forms of abuse.’[10]

If put into practice what this would mean is that pressure would be put on churches to ban practices considered spiritual abuse in the same way that churches now take action to safeguard against abuse of children and adults when they are vulnerable. If Ozanne’s paper were to be followed, this would include a ban on teaching that the Bible opposes same-sex sexual activity and a ban on any form of church discipline for those engaging in such activity.

The problem with Ozanne’s paper, however, is that it frequently fails to describe the abuse it alleges sufficiently precisely to make it clear what she is talking about and it consistently fails to provide evidence that the practices she refers to actually cause harm. It also ignores the testimonies of those with same-sex attraction who report having been helped by the ministry of conservative churches.

It therefore fails to provide a clear or persuasive basis for either bodies such as the Royal College of Psychiatrists, or the churches, to move in the direction she advocates. If safeguarding measures are to be put in place then we need to know precisely what is being safeguarded against and why. Ozanne’s paper fails to provide clarity on either point.

M B Davie 26.6.17

 

[1] Jayne Ozanne, Spiritual abuse – the next great scandal for the Church, Royal College of Psychiatrists, 2017.

Text at: http://www.rcpsych.ac.uk/pdf/jayneozannespiritualabusethenextgreatscandalforthechurch.pdf

[2] Ibid, p.4.

[3] Ibid, p.6.

[4] Ibid, p.6.

[5] Ibid, p.8.

[6] The Oasis Foundation, In the Name of Love – the Church, Exclusion and LGB Mental Health Issues, London:

Oasis Foundation, 2017.

[7] Peter Ould, Church Teaching and LGB mental health,’ Psephizo, 13 February 2017, at https://www.psephizo.com/sexuality-2/church-teaching-and-lgb-mental-health/

[8] Ibid referring to David M Barnes and Illan H Meyer, ‘Religious Affiliation, Internalized Homophobia, and

Mental Health in Lesbians, Gay Men, and Bisexuals,’ American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, Vol 82(4), Oct

2012, pp. 505-515.

[9] For statements of this position see the testimonies on the Living out website at http://www.livingout.org/

[10] Ozanne, op.cit. p.9.