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.

On not properly resourcing General Synod

When I attended my first meeting of the General Synod in November 1999 I sat in on a debate about the translation of the Nicene Creed. At the centre of this debate was an involved discussion of the best way to translate the Greek word ek in relation to Jesus’ birth from the Virgin Mary. Should it be translated ‘of’ or ‘from’?

This might seem to be incredibly arcane debate, but those engaged in it rightly thought that it mattered. The reason that it mattered was that the translation question raised important issues about how we should understand and express the central claim of the Christian faith that God became Man for our salvation in the womb of the Virgin Mary.

These issues needed to be resolved because it was important that what the Church of England said in its liturgy bore the most truthful witness possible concerning this matter. Because liturgy is the Church’s public corporate declaration of what it believes it behoved the Church of England to take as much trouble as was necessary to get its liturgy right.

I was reminded of this early experience of General Synod when I looked at the two briefing papers, GS 2071A from the Revd Chris Newlands and GS2017B from the Secretary General William Nye, which  were published yesterday to resource the forthcoming Synod debate on a motion from the Diocese of Blackburn calling the House of Bishops to consider commending liturgies to mark gender transition.

What struck me was the contrast between the theological seriousness of the debate on the translation of the Nicene Creed back in 1999 and the almost complete lack of theological seriousness shown in these two new resource papers. Neither of these papers attempts to address the key issue at the heart of the debate about the Blackburn motion, which is whether it would be theologically correct for the Church of England to express in its liturgy the belief that someone who is biologically male can nonetheless be a woman and that someone who is biologically female can nonetheless be a man. If the Church of England develops liturgies to mark gender transition, as Newlands invites it to do, then this is what it will be saying.

Neither of the resource papers explore either the grounds on which some people believe this belief to be true or the very serious grounds on which others (like me) believe that it is completely false. [1]

The nearest we get to a theological discussion of the matter are the references to Genesis 1:27, Galatians 3:28 and Matthew 19:12 in paragraphs 6 and 7 of Nye’s paper, but Nye fails to explain the relevance of these verses to the key issue under debate.

Newlands emphasises the theological importance of liturgy but fails to note that liturgy needs to be truthful in what it affirms about God and humanity in order to be spiritually beneficial or to explain why he thinks a liturgy afforming gender transition would be truthful.

Both resource papers refer to the House of Bishops memo HB(03)M1 which declares that different views about the issue of what it calls ‘transsexualism’ exist and can properly be held within the Church of England and say that this is the Church of England’s position. It is important to note four things about this memo, however.

  • The memo was not the result of a process of discussion and debate across the Church of England. The truth is that it was a memo produced at speed at a meeting of the House to prevent divisions within the House of Bishops as the Church of England entered into legal negotiations with the Government in the run up to the Gender Recognition Act of 2004.
  • The memo does not give any justification for why both views can ‘properly’ be held within the Church of England. It simply asserts that they can be.
  • What the memo says has never been discussed by either the General Synod or by the Church of England as whole. In fact there has been no discussion or debate at all about the transgender issue by the Church of England nationally. This means we are starting the debate from scratch, which makes the failure to provide adequate documentation even more serious.
  • If the proposal to develop commended liturgies to mark gender transition goes ahead then this will be a move away from the position taken by the memo because it will mean that the affirmation of gender transition will have become the position taken by the Church of England (even if people are permitted to dissent from it). This is because as the Latin tag has it lex orandi, lex credendi – what the Church prays is what it believes.

It is also worth noting that neither resource paper makes any reference whatsoever to the way in which the claim that gender transition is the best way to help someone with gender dysphoria is called into question by the available evidence, which fails to demonstrate that transition has a long term success rate in resolving the mental and physical health issues experienced by transgender people. Scepticism about gender transition is now being expressed both by well qualified experts in the field of mental health and by a growing number of people who are explaining the reasons why, having gone through gender transition, they then decided to revert back to living in their birth sex

Because the resource papers thus fail to address the key theological issue under discussion, fail to acknowledge the problems relating to an appeal the Bishops memo and fail to refer to the debate about whether gender transition is a beneficial way of treating gender dysphoria they are utterly inadequate as resources for a responsible debate in General Synod.

This being the case, the only responsible way forward is either for Synod to decline to consider the Blackburn motion on the grounds of having received inadequate preparatory material, or for Synod to amend the motion to call for a proper, in depth, discussion of the transgender issue across the Church.

M B Davie 17.6.17

[1] I have discussed the arguments from both sides in depth in my book Transgender Liturgies, which can be ordered or downloaded from the Latimer Trust website at www.latimertrust.org.

We have been this way before, reflections on Jayne Ozanne’s Private Member’s Motion

 The motion from Jayne Ozanne.

The timetable for the July General Synod has now been published and it has been revealed that Synod will be debating a Private Member’s Motion on ‘Conversion therapy’ moved by Jayne Ozanne that runs as follows:

‘That this Synod:

(a) endorse the statement of 16 January 2017 signed by The UK Council for Psychotherapy, The Royal College of General Practitioners and others that the practice of conversion therapy has no place in the modern world, is unethical, harmful and not supported by evidence; and

(b) call upon the Archbishops’ Council to become a co-signatory to the statement on behalf of the Church of England.’

The debate about deliverance ministry in the 1970s.

In order to gain a proper perspective on this motion it is helpful to recall that the Church of England was faced with a decision over a similar issue back in the 1970s.

In his book I Believe in Satan’s Downfall Michael Green recalls:

‘…when, in the early 1970s, the Bishop of Exeter in England chaired a serious Report on Exorcism, and when public attention was caught by a disastrous death after failure to administer exorcism properly, a large number of theologians were invited to sign an open letter deploring the credulity of those who thought that demons still existed or were foolish enough to believe in a personal devil.’[1]

To unpack the story more fully, the presenting issue was concern about the dangers of inappropriate forms of what we would now call the ministry of deliverance.

This raised the issue of whether the Church of England should engage in this form of ministry at all and behind this issue were two further questions: (a) should the Church of England continue to believe in the existence of the Devil and the demonic? and (b) did the Christian faith need to be re-expressed to appeal to a culture that felt that belief in the supernatural was an outmoded world view incompatible with the discoveries of modern science?[2]

In the event the Church of England declined to engage in wholesale re-construction of its theology into a non-supernatural form, continued to affirm the existence of the Devil and the demonic on the basis of Scripture, tradition, reason and experience[3] and continued to authorise and engage in the ministry of deliverance. However, it also met the proper concerns about the inappropriate exercise of this ministry by developing a set of guidelines for good practice which were issued by Archbishop Donald Coggan in 1975 and which are still in place today.

These guidelines state:

‘1. It should be undertaken by experienced persons authorized by the Diocesan Bishop;

2. It should be done in the context of prayer and sacrament;

3. It should be done in collaboration with the resources of medicine;

4. It should be followed up by continuing pastoral care;

5. It should be done with the minimum of publicity.’ [4]

There are three lessons which we can learn from this story.

First, the Church of England should decline to jettison its traditional theology, either in whole or in part, in order to fit in with contemporary culture unless there are compelling arguments from Scripture, tradition, reason and experience that show this would be the right thing to do.

Secondly, the Church of England should continue to exercise forms of ministry that are warranted by its theology.

Thirdly, where there are concerns about the inappropriate exercise of particular forms of ministry these should be addressed by the issuing of guidelines for good practice.

Applying these lessons to the Ozanne motion.

If we turn from what happened in the 1970s to the current Ozanne motion what we find is that the issues underlying the motion are the same as those that underlay the suggestion that the Church of England should abandon the ministry of deliverance. There is a concern about bad practice, but underlying that presenting issue is the deeper one of whether the Church of England needs to change its teaching to fit in with contemporary culture.

In the statement to which the motion refers, the term ‘conversion therapy’ is used to describe ‘therapy that assumes certain sexual orientations or gender identities are inferior to others, and seeks to change or suppress them on that basis.’ As we have seen, the statement also declares that such therapy ‘has no place in the modern world, is unethical, harmful and not supported by evidence.’[5]

This being the case, the Church of England could only consistently go down the route suggested by the Ozanne motion and sign up to the statement if it moved from its current teaching to an acceptance that (a) sexual attraction between people of the same sex is just as in accordance with God’s will as sexual attraction between a man and a woman and (b) that the identity adopted as a result of gender transition is as true a reflection of who someone truly is as their biological sex.  Any other position would imply that the Church of England still believed that ‘certain sexual orientations or gender identities are inferior to others.’

Furthermore, in order to maintain its consistency the Church of England would also have to go on to prohibit any form of teaching or practice that was not in accordance with this new position.  If it did not, it would be permitting activity that it accepted was ‘unethical,’ ‘harmful’ and had ‘no place in the modern world.’

If the Church of England were to go down this route it would be in line with the prevailing view in our culture (particularly amongst younger people) that restricting sexual intercourse to heterosexual marriage and insisting that someone’s identity is that of their biological sex is outmoded and, is, indeed, positively immoral because it is both ‘homophobic’ and ‘transphobic.’

However, in order for the Church of England to go down this route it would have to ignore the teaching of Scripture, tradition, reason and experience which convergently tell us that:

  • God has created human beings as embodied creatures who are male or female depending on the sex of their body; [6]
  • God has ordained that sexual intercourse should take place between one man and one woman in marriage as a means by which they are united with each other in a loving and permanent ‘one flesh’ union, as the normal means for the procreation of children and as a sign of the eternal union between God and his people;[7]
  • When people live lives that reflect these two truths this leads to the flourishing of both individuals and society as a whole. [8]
  • Because Christ died and rose and has poured out the Spirit it is possible for people to live lives that reflect these truths even if they have same-sex attraction or gender dysphoria.[9]

For this reason it would not be a route that the Church of England could rightly go down, any more than it could have rightly adopted a non-supernatural form of theology, or denied the existence of the Devil or the demonic.

If people are to live according to the truths that have just been described, they may find it helpful to seek support through prayer and counselling as they seek to do so.

There is evidence that there are forms of prayer ministry and counselling that are inappropriate because they imply that those with same-sex attraction of gender dysphoria are less worthy as human beings, involve coercion or psychological manipulation, or make unjustified claims that unwanted feelings will disappear immediately, permanently and completely. However, as the Latin tag puts it, abusus non tollit usum, the abuse of something does not preclude its proper use. In the context we are considering this means that the fact that there are inappropriate forms of prayer ministry and counselling for those with same-sex attraction and gender dysphoria does not preclude the existence of those that are appropriate and beneficial, just as in the 1970s the Church of England rightly saw that the existence of inappropriate forms of deliverance ministry did not rule out the existence of legitimate ones.

What is required, as in the case of deliverance ministry, is guidelines for prayer ministry and counselling for those with same-sex attraction and gender dysphoria that will safeguard against abuse and outline good practice.

A better motion

 In the light of the above, rather than the current motion proposed by Jayne Ozanne a better motion would run along the following lines:

‘That this Synod:

a) Notes the statement of 16 January 2017 signed by The UK Council for Psychotherapy, The Royal College of General Practitioners and others concerning the practice of conversion therapy;

b) Affirms, nevertheless, that prayer ministry and counselling may be legitimate means of helping to support those with same-sex attraction or gender dysphoria who are seeking to live in accordance with the Bible and the historic teaching of the Christian Church;

c) Acknowledges that  prayer ministry and counselling can take place in ways that fail to respect the proper dignity of human beings, involve coercion and manipulation and make unwarranted promises about the removal of unwanted feelings;

d) Asks the House of Bishops to draw up guidelines for work in this area to prevent forms of prayer ministry and counselling that are inappropriate and to encourage good practice.

M B Davie 3.6.17

Addendum  24.6.17

Andrew Symes has proposed the following helpful expansion of my original amendment which runs as follows:

‘That this Synod:

a) Notes the statement of 16 January 2017 signed by The UK Council for Psychotherapy, The Royal College of General Practitioners and others concerning the practice of “conversion therapy”, but also notes the findings of the Pilling Report and others that the research and studies underpinning such statements are far from conclusive.

b) Affirms, nevertheless, that prayer ministry, and counselling and therapy may be legitimate means of helping to support those with same-sex attraction or gender dysphoria who are seeking to live in accordance with the Bible and the historic teaching of the Christian Church;

c) Acknowledges that prayer ministry and counselling all forms of therapy and pastoral care can take place in ways that fail to respect the proper dignity of human beings, involve coercion and manipulation and make unwarranted promises about the removal of unwanted feelings or other forms of physical and psychological transformation;

d) Asks the House of Bishops to draw up guidelines for work in this area to prevent forms of prayer ministry and counselling that are inappropriate and to encourage good practice and help ensure that Church-based pastoral ministry follows principles of being true to the teachings of Scripture and the freedom of choice of the individual.

[1] Michael Green, I Believe in Satan’s Downfall, London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1981.

[2] This last point was most famously expressed in John Robinson’s Honest to God (London: SCM 1963).

[3] See Michael Green’s book for an extended argument on these lines.

[4] For a more detailed version of these guidelines see The House of Bishops’ Guidelines for Good Practice in the

Deliverance Ministry 1975 (revised 2012) text at https://www.churchofengland.org/media/1734117/guidelines%20on%20deliverance%20ministry.pdf

[5] Royal College of General Practitioners, UK organisations unite against Conversion Therapy, text at  http://www.rcgp.org.uk/news/2017/january/uk-organisations-unite-against-conversion-therapy.aspx

[6] See Martin Davie, Transgender Liturgies, London: Latimer Trust, 2017.

[7] See Dennis P Hollinger, The Meaning of Sex, Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009.

[8] See Glynn Harrison, A Better Story, London: IVP, 2016.

[9] See Rosaria Butterfield, The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert, Pittsburgh: Crown and Covenant, 2ed,

2014, and Walt Heyer, A Transgender’s Faith, Walt Heyer, 2015.

On not being convinced – A review of the report from the Theological Forum of the Church of Scotland.

The questions raised by the report

The Theological Forum of the Church of Scotland exists to provide theological support for other Church of Scotland committees and for its General Assembly and to ‘produce reports of its own for matters which arise in the Church.’

Its latest report, entitled ‘An approach to the theology of same-sex marriage’ has been released this week.[1] It concludes that the Forum ‘does not believe there are sufficient theological grounds to deny nominated individual ministers and deacons the authority to preside at same-sex marriages.’(3 (c ) )[2]

In line with this conclusion the General Assembly is being asked to ‘Instruct the Legal Questions Committee to undertake a study of the matters which would require to be addressed in any new legislation permitting Ministers and Deacons to officiate at same-sex marriage ceremonies, with a view to presenting a Report to the 2018 General Assembly.’ (Proposed Deliverance 5)  In plain terms, what this means is the General Assembly asking for an immediate start to be made on the work needed to introduce same-sex marriages in the Church of Scotland.

The conclusion reached by the Theological Forum goes against the Church of Scotland’s traditional understanding of marriage as set out in Chapter XXIV of the Westminster Confession of 1646 which declares:

‘Marriage is between one man and one woman: neither is it lawful for any man to have more than one wife, nor for any woman to have more than one husband at the same time.

Marriage was ordained for the mutual help of husband and wife; for the increase of mankind with a legitimate issue, and of the Church with an holy seed; and for preventing of uncleanness.’

Clearly if marriage is between ‘one man and one woman’ then there can be no such thing as same-sex marriage.  It would be a contradiction in terms like a square triangle or a true falsehood. Only if this definition of marriage is broadened to include relationships between one and one man, or one woman and one woman, would it be possible to accept that there could be same-sex marriages and that it might be right to allow Church of Scotland ministers the authority to preside at them.

The questions that therefore arises are what arguments does the Theological Forum put forward for broadening the Church’s definition of marriage to include relationships between two people of the same sex and are these arguments convincing?[3]

Part 1 of the report

Part 1 of the Forum’s report looks at biblical interpretation under the heading ‘The Use of Scripture.’  This part sets out what it calls ‘more conservative’ and more inclusive’ approaches to the use of Scripture in the debate over same-sex marriage.

For example, in paragraphs 1.4-1.5 it argues that there are two key ‘more inclusive’ arguments:

‘The first is to say that Scriptural condemnations of same-sex sexual activity were framed in cultural contexts very different from our own and referred to individual acts rather than committed and faithful people willing to enshrine their relationships in vows before God. As committed and faithful partnerships between equal persons of the same sex were largely unknown in the ancient world, neither St. Paul nor any other biblical writer could have had such partnerships in mind when they condemned same-sex sexual activity.

Another more inclusive argument in favour of same sex relationships rests on a distinction between the written text of Scripture and the living Word of God, the latter being associated with Jesus Christ who speaks to us in our hearts and consciences. According to this argument, we owe our allegiance to Jesus Christ the Word made flesh rather than adherence to the literal words of Scripture, and, for that reason, if people believe that Jesus is now calling the Church to a new understanding of how faithfulness may be displayed in human relationships, this should be taken seriously as a contemporary form of obedience.’

It then goes on in paragraph 1.6 to argue that ‘more conservative arguments’:

‘…rest on a different set of interpretive rules. For them, once it is ascertained that the biblical writers intended to condemn same-sex acts, the only appropriate response for the Church to make is to declare such activity to be contrary to God’s intention for humanity, and thus prohibit same-sex marriage.’

As the report sees it, underlying these opposing arguments are two different approaches to the authority of Scripture.  It declares in paragraphs 1.8-1.9:

‘For those adopting a more conservative perspective, the authority of Scripture rests in obeying the words of its text. These words were given by God through the scribes and prophets and transmitted faithfully by Israel until they could be written down. We abide by the authority of Jesus Christ speaking in Scripture by correctly ascertaining what Scripture’s words meant in their original context, before conforming our doctrine and practice to them. It is not our duty to ascertain why God, speaking through the biblical writers, issued these commands, but only to ascertain the meaning of those commands and act upon them.

Those who adopt a more inclusive perspective also believe in the authority of Jesus Christ speaking in the Scriptures, and they also seek to understand the meaning of the words in their original context. What distinguishes them from more conservative readers, however, is their belief that Scripture’s meaning is somewhat wider than particular words themselves. In order to understand a biblical command, we must not only understand the meaning of the words in their original context, but also understand the many ways in which Scripture tells us a developing story in which believing Gentiles were also invited to join the People of God. In the present context, this means asking what Paul meant when he declared that in Christ we are neither Jew nor Greek, neither male nor female, neither slave nor free.’

The report suggests that it would be a mistake to try to settle the argument between these two approaches with ‘a ‘victory’ for one particular perspective.’ in its view ‘a wise and faithful reading of the Bible’ requires both approaches.  (1.11)

It also suggests that we need to remember that God can also speak to us outside Scripture and that in particular ‘there are times when God speaks to us through the cries of God’s people who long for inclusion and dignity.’ (1.12)

There are three problems with this part of the report as a theological basis for broadening the definition of marriage.

First, it misrepresents the difference between the conservative and inclusive approaches to Scripture. It is simply not the case that those on the conservative side of the debate about marriage and sexuality do not think it appropriate to explore the reasons for God’s commands or that they focus on individual texts at the expense of considering the overall biblical story.  See, for example, Stanley Grenz Welcoming but not affirming (Westminster John Knox, 1998), Christopher West Theology of the Body Explained (Veritas 2008) and Glynn Harrison A Better Story (IVP 2016) as three among numerous texts that give the lie to this idea.

Secondly, although, as we have seen, it argues that it would be a mistake to grant ‘victory’ to either a conservative or an inclusive approach, in reality a decision has to be made between them in terms of what to believe and how to act. If one side says marriage can only be between two people of the opposite sex and the other says it can also be between two people  of the same sex then a choice has to be made as to which is right and what the Church should therefore permit. ‘Victory’ has to be granted to one side or the other.

The problem is that Part 1 gives no guidance at all as to how to decide which side should be granted victory. It may be the case, as paragraph 1.13 claims, that those on both sides of the debate ‘all esteem the living voice of Jesus Christ speaking in the Scriptures’ and that the difference is about ‘how these Scriptures are to be heard today.’ What Part 1 does not tells us, however, is on what basis we should decide how the Scriptures should be heard today when people interpret them differently.

How do we decide between legitimate and illegitimate interpretations of Scripture? The report does not say and because it does not say it provides no basis for saying that the conclusion that the report itself reaches is the right one.

Thirdly, Part 1 does not tell us what it means in terms of the debate about marriage to affirm that ‘God speaks to us through the cries of God’s people who long for inclusion and dignity.’ What the report presumably means is that God is saying that we should give heed to the cries of these people that they should be granted inclusion and dignity.  However, it does not logically follow that in order to include people with same-sex attraction in the corporate life of the Church and wider society and to treat them with dignity we have to allow them to marry someone of their own sex.

In order to establish this point it would be necessary to show that same-sex marriage is an integral part of inclusion and dignity. The report nowhere attempts to show this and so its argument that God speaks through the cries of those longing for inclusion and dignity does not lead to the report’s conclusion that we should accept same-sex marriage.

Part 2 of the report

Part 2 of the report looks at three types of arguments for same-sex marriage. These are:

(A) Arguments based on understandings of human rights

(B) Analogical arguments which try to build outwards from traditional understandings of marriage

(C) Fully theological arguments for the admissibility of same-sex marriage. (2.1)

Human rights arguments

In section 2.2 the report briefly summarises the development of the tradition of human rights in the Western world from the time of Constantine onwards and the criticisms of human rights theory offered by the American moral theologian Stanley Hauerwas and the Roman Catholic legal scholar Helen Alvares.

At the end of the section the report then declares that:

‘This tradition provides one layer of an argument and from it we become more aware of discrimination and our failure to treat each other even-handedly. We recognise that as a Church we have often failed to recognise and protect the identity and Christian vocation of gay people and believe that the Church as a whole should acknowledge its faults.’ (2.2.7)

This declaration fails to support the conclusion reached by the report for two reasons.

First, the report fails to explain how the Western tradition of human rights which it has summarised leads to the recognition that the Church has ‘failed to recognise and protect the identity and Christian vocation of gay people.’  What is the evidence that supports this claim? The report does not say and therefore provides no basis for accepting that this claim is true.[4]

Secondly, even if one does accept that the claim is true and that the Church needs to acknowledge its past failures in its treatment of gay people it does not follow that the proper response to this is an acceptance of same-sex marriage. This only follows if it is in fact the case that being able to marry someone of the same sex is a necessary corollary of recognising and protecting the identity of gay people and enabling them to fulfil their Christian vocation. Once again the report does not explain why we should believe that this is the case.

Analogical arguments

In section 2.3 the report draws on the work of the American Roman Catholic Scholar Professor Jean Porter as set out in her paper ‘The Natural Law and Innovative Forms of Marriage: A Reconsideration.’ [5]

Drawing on Porter’s expertise on the work of St. Thomas Aquinas and medieval moral theology in general, the section surveys the historical development of Christian thinking about marriage and suggests that we may be able to see an analogy between the extension of marriage to those who are unable to have children and its extension to those of the same sex. It argues that marriage:

‘…is more than simply the sexual act and it becomes clearer that though marriage has a paradigmatic form, this need not necessarily prevent extending the term to a group of other unions which cannot fulfil the reproductive purpose but can embody other aims of the institution. ‘Marriage’ is already extended to heterosexual couples who know they cannot have children. We do this because we know that marriage is more than a framework for legitimate genital acts. It is also a framework for supporting the mutual and publicly declared love between two people. Just as it would be unjust to deny use of the term ‘marriage’ to people past childbearing, so it can seem unjust to deny the term ‘marriage’ to same-sex couples who intend to fulfil most of the range of ‘marriage’s’ purposes.’ (2.3.22-2.3.24)

The problem with this argument is that it fails to take into account the point made by Sherif Girgis, Robert George and Ryan Anderson in their 2011 paper ‘What Is Marriage?’ They point out that marriage as it has been traditionally understood in line with the teaching of Genesis 1 and 2 is a form of relationship that can encompass infertile couples, but cannot encompass couples of the same sex.

They begin their argument by noting that marriage is a uniquely comprehensive form of relationship:

‘Marriage is distinguished from every other form of friendship inasmuch as it is comprehensive. It involves a sharing of lives and resources, and a union of minds and wills—hence, among other things, the requirement of consent for forming a marriage. But on the conjugal view, it also includes organic bodily union. This is because the body is a real part of the person, not just his costume, vehicle, or property. Human beings are not properly understood as non-bodily persons—minds, ghosts, consciousnesses—that inhabit and use non personal bodies. After all, if someone ruins your car, he vandalizes your property, but if he amputates your leg, he injures you. Because the body is an inherent part of the human person, there is a difference in kind between vandalism and violation; between destruction of property and mutilation of bodies. Likewise, because our bodies are truly aspects of us as persons, any union of two people that did not involve organic bodily union would not be comprehensive—it would leave out an important part of each person’s being. Because persons are body‐mind composites, a bodily union extends the relationship of two friends along an entirely new dimension of their being as persons. If two people want to unite in the comprehensive way proper to marriage, they must (among other things) unite organically—that is, in the bodily dimension of their being.’[6]

They then go on to argue that organic union can only achieved if two bodies unite for a common biological purpose and the only candidate that fits the bill is coitus oriented to sexual reproduction:

‘…for two individuals to unite organically, and thus bodily, their bodies must be coordinated for some biological purpose of the whole. That sort of union is impossible in relation to functions such as digestion and circulation, for which the human individual is by nature sufficient. But individual adults are naturally incomplete with respect to one biological function: sexual reproduction. In coitus, but not in other forms of sexual contact, a man and a woman’s bodies coordinate by way of their sexual organs for the common biological purpose of reproduction. They perform the first step of the complex reproductive process. Thus, their bodies become, in a strong sense, one—they are biologically united, and do not merely rub together—in coitus (and only in coitus), similarly to the way in which one’s heart, lungs, and other organs form a unity: by co‐ordinating for the biological good of the whole. In this case, the whole is made up of the man and woman as a couple, and the biological good of that whole is their reproduction.’ [7]

This kind of organic union can be achieved, they note, in sexual acts between men and women that do not lead to conception. However, they cannot be achieved in sexual acts between two people of the same sex:

‘…this union occurs even when conception, the bodily good toward which sexual intercourse as a biological function is oriented, does not occur. In other words, organic bodily unity is achieved when a man and woman coordinate to perform an act of the kind that causes conception. This act is traditionally called the act of generation or the generative act; if (and only if) it is a free and loving expression of the spouses’ permanent and exclusive commitment, then it is also a marital act.

Because interpersonal unions are valuable in themselves, and not merely as means to other ends, a husband and wife’s loving bodily union in coitus and the special kind of relationship to which it is integral are valuable whether or not conception results and even when conception is not sought. But two men or two women cannot achieve organic bodily union since there is no bodily good or function toward which their bodies can coordinate, reproduction being the only candidate.[8] This is a clear sense in which their union cannot be marital, if marital means comprehensive and comprehensive means, among other things, bodily.’ [9]

They summarise their argument by providing a sporting analogy to illustrate the point they are making:

‘… people who can unite bodily can be spouses without children, just as people who can practice baseball can be team‐ mates without victories on the field. Although marriage is a social practice that has its basic structure by nature whereas baseball is wholly conventional, the analogy highlights a crucial point: Infertile couples and winless baseball teams both meet the basic requirements for participating in the practice (conjugal union; practicing and playing the game) and retain their basic orientation to the fulfillment of that practice (bearing and rearing children; winning games), even if that fulfillment is never reached. On the other hand, same‐sex partnerships, whatever their moral status, cannot be marriages because they lack any essential orientation to children: They cannot be sealed by the generative act.’ [10]

This argument by Girgis, George and Anderson shows why the argument put forward in the report that it is unjust to extend marriage to infertile couples but not to same-sex couples falls down.  Just as it is not unjust to say that people who are physically incapable of the physical activity involved cannot play baseball, so it is not unjust to say that same-sex couples cannot marry because same-sex couples are inherently incapable of the organic bodily union oriented towards procreation which is at the heart of marriage. In terms of the language used in the book of Genesis the two cannot become ‘one flesh’ (Genesis 2:24).

Theological Arguments

In the final section of part 2 the report turns to what it calls ‘the more thoroughgoing theological argument’ (2.4.2) presented by Professor Robert Song of the University of Durham in his 2014 book Covenant and Calling.[11]

The report notes that Song contends that the coming of Jesus ‘re-situates’ marriage:

‘Song argues that with Jesus, the entire notion of what it means to be human, to flourish, to live in relationship with God and our neighbours, is reoriented. ‘[F]ull humanity, full participation in the imaging of God, is possible without marriage, without procreation, indeed without being sexually active.’  He argues that though one might think that the new eschatological order in Jesus might erase the created order, this is not so. He thinks in terms of resituating, not erasure. But ‘marriage no longer carries the aura of inevitability.’

Jesus himself spoke about the need for new wine being placed in new wine bottles, and the impracticality of stitching new unshrunk cloth onto an old garment. These are images not of erasure but of resituating. Song writes, ‘The coming of Christ resituates marriage. Not only does it make it evident that marriage may not be grounded un-theologically outside an understanding of God’s covenant relationship with us, it also bursts the seams of marriage and points to a new eschatological order in which marrying and giving in marriage, and therefore procreation, are no longer part.’ (2.4.8-2.4.9)

The report then goes on to suggest that the notion of marriage being re-situated allows us to consider the possibility of non-procreative unions (such as marriages between two people of the same sex).

‘We have seen with Jean Porter that marriages may have meaning apart from procreation. Song’s notion of eschatological re-situating allows us to reconsider same sex unions in a more strictly theological way. In creation, the purpose of male and female was for procreation. So, within that mind-set, sexual differentiation was for procreation. But if procreation is not now essential for the growth of the Kingdom of God and has in a sense been eclipsed, it is possible to consider unions which are not procreative, but which still bear witness to God as they echo God’s faithfulness and therefore God’s holiness.’  (2.4.10)

The report acknowledges that it might be objected:

‘…that if the coming of Christ opened up a new appraisal for non-procreative unions and so for covenanted sexual unions between persons of the same sex, then Paul might have been expected to have understood this rather than affirming the Genesis understanding of gender and sexuality in his condemnation of same-sex acts in Romans 1.’ (2.4.14)

Its response to this objection is that:

‘…. God’s Word is found through as well as within Scripture, and Jesus himself promised that the Holy Spirit would lead the Church into further understanding (cf. John 16: 13). It is these new understandings that the General Assembly is attempting to discern in its consideration of the issue of same-sex marriages.’

There are three problems with this argument for same-sex marriages on the basis of Song’s idea of the re-situation of marriage.

Firstly, there is nothing in the gospels to suggest that the fact that marriage as we know it[12] will not exist in the world to come means that what we are taught in Genesis about the nature and purpose of marriage in this world no longer applies.

It is true that in all three Synoptic Gospels Jesus is recorded as saying that in God’s eternal kingdom ‘those accounted worthy to attain to that age and to the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage, for they cannot die anymore, because they are equal to angels and are sons of God, being sons of the resurrection’ (Luke 20:35-36//Matthew 22:30 and Mark 12:25). It is explicitly stated in these passages that there will be no marriage and from this fact, and from the statement that those who have attained the kingdom will be ‘like the angels’ as Matthew and Mark put it, it is inferred that there will also be no procreation.

However, it is important to note that none of the three Synoptic passages which record this teaching of Jesus contain any suggestion that the importance of marriage in this life should be regarded as less important because of what will be the case in the life of the world to come. These passages are concerned with defending belief in the resurrection against the claim of the Sadducees that the Mosaic law concerning Levirate marriage in Deuteronomy 25:5-10 showed that resurrection was an impossible concept because it would involve, among other things, a wife being married to seven men simultaneously. What they are not concerned with is the status of marriage in this life.

Jesus’ teaching about the nature and status of marriage in this life is found in his teaching about divorce in Matthew 19:3-12 and Mark 10:2-12. In these passages he teaches that marriage as ordained by God at creation, a permanent exclusive relationship between one man and one woman, remains unchanged. There is no suggestion that there is any change because of the coming of the kingdom.

Jesus also makes clear in Matthew 19 that the alternative to heterosexual marriage is sexual abstinence (‘being a eunuch’). There is no hint of any non-procreative same-sex alternative form of marriage.

Secondly, the notion that procreation is not necessary ‘for the growth of the kingdom of God’ is unconvincing.  It is true that the coming of God’s kingdom does not take place because people have children. This is an idea which no one has ever suggested. The coming of God’s kingdom takes place because Jesus becomes incarnate and dies and rises for the salvation of the world.

However, this does not mean that procreation lacks eschatological significance. The promise to Abraham that he will have innumerable descendants (Genesis 15:5) is fulfilled in two key ways. It is fulfilled through conversion when those who are adults decide to become members of God’s people and thus citizens of God’s kingdom. It is also fulfilled when Christian parents beget children who are brought up to know and love God and become citizens of God’s kingdom as a result.

The latter point is what is implied in the Westminster Confession when it talks about one of the purposes of marriage being to provide the Church ‘with an holy seed.’ This says that the point of Christians having children is to beget the next generation of the Church and thus further populate the kingdom. The same point is made more expansively in the homily ‘Of the State of Matrimony’ in the Church of England’s Second Book of Homilies. It declares that one of the purposes for which marriage is ordained is:

‘…that the Church of God and his kingdom, might by this kind of life, be conserved and enlarged, not only in that God giveth children, by his blessing, but also, in that they be brought up by their parents godly, in the knowledge of God’s word, that this knowledge of God, and true religion, might be delivered by succession, from one to another, that finally many might enjoy that everlasting immortality.’[13]

The argument that procreation within marriage is unimportant in relation to the growth of the kingdom of God is thus mistaken. Christian marriages are one of the main means by which the kingdom is populated.

The converse is also true. As Mary Eberstadt argues in her book How the West Really Lost God, a good case can be made out for saying that the decline of the Church in the West has been the result of the collapse of traditional family structures. As she puts it ‘family decline in turn helps to power religious decline.’[14]  What this means is that those who are really interested in the growth of the kingdom of God should be seeking to support and encourage the traditional family and in particular the importance of having children rather than downplaying their significance.

Thirdly, there is nothing objectionable in principle in the argument that the Holy Spirit guides the Church through the witness of Scripture to discern truths that are not contained in Scripture itself. Scripture does not address every specific issue and situation which the Church faces during the course of its history and so the Church requires guidance by the Spirit which goes beyond what Scripture explicitly says although in accordance with it. [15]

However, in any given case it needs to be shown that the Church is actually being guided to discern truth. This means a persuasive case needs to be made out as to why what we know on the basis of Scripture leads us to view a new issue or situation in one way rather than another. In relation to the issue of same-sex marriage a case would need to be made out as to why the witness of Scripture leads us to believe that the Church should celebrate same-sex marriages in those jurisdictions, such as Scotland, where they are legal. As we have seen, the report fails to make out such a case. The report fails to show that there is anything at all in Scripture that points us in this direction.

The report also fails to engage at all with the detailed biblical arguments against the acceptance of same-sex relationships contained in section 7 of the 2013 report of the Church of Scotland’s Theological Commission on Same-Sex Relationships and the Ministry.[16]

Conclusion

In this paper we have looked at the arguments put forward by the Church of Scotland’s Theological Forum for broadening the Church’s definition of marriage to include relationships between two people of the same sex.  What we have discovered is that none of them is convincing.

This means that the body of the report does not support its conclusion that the Church of Scotland should begin the process that will lead to the authorisation of same-sex marriages in the Church of Scotland.  The General Assembly should reject this report and the Deliverance based on it and should instead commission a new report with the mandate to engage seriously with the biblical evidence set out in section 7 of the 2013 report.

M B Davie 20.4.17

[1] It can be found on the Church of Scotland web site at: http://www.churchofscotland.org.uk/news_and_events/news/recent/Latest_report_from_Theological_Forum_published

[2] Figures in brackets refer to the paragraph numbers in the report.

[3] It has been suggested that what the report is arguing for is retaining the Church of Scotland’s current doctrine of marriage while still allowing ministers to officiate at the weddings of same-sex couples. This is not what the report argues. It proposes a change in the Church’s current understanding of marriage to one that would retain the idea of  ‘Consent within a covenanted relationship between two persons’  (3b), but would not hold that those two people have to be a man and a woman.

[4] This means that the report fails to provide any reason for the General Assembly to accept point 4 of the Proposed Deliverance which invites the Church ‘to take stock of its history of discrimination at different levels and in different ways against gay people and to apologise individually and corporately and seek to do better.’

[5] Jean Porter, ‘The Natural Law and Innovative Forms of Marriage: A Reconsideration.,’ Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics , 30, 2 (2010), pp. 79-9.7

[6] ‘S Girgis, R P George and R T Anderson,’ What is marriage?’ The Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy, Vol 34, No 1, Winter 2011, p.253.

[7] Ibid, p.254.

[8] Footnote 16 notes that pleasure cannot fit the bill: ‘Pleasure cannot play this role for several reasons. The good must be truly  common and for the couple as a whole, but pleasures (and, indeed, any psychological good) are private and benefit partners, if at all, only individually. The good must be bodily, but pleasures are aspects of experience. The good must be inherently valuable, but pleas-ures are not as such good in themselves—witness, for  example,  sadistic  pleasures.’

[9] Ibid, pp.254-255.

[10] Ibid, p. 257.

[11] Robert Song, Covenant and Calling: Towards a Theology of Same -Sex Relationships, London: SCM, 2014,

[12] As Glynn Harrison notes ‘The Bible does not teach that there will be no marriage in heaven. Rather it teaches that there will be one marriage in heaven- between Christ and his bride, the church. A Better Story, Kindle Edition, Loc.2086.

[13] Ian Robinson (ed), The Homilies, Bishopstone: Brynmill/Preservation Press, 2006, p.363.

[14] Mary Eberstadt, How the West Really Lost God, West Conshohocken: Templeton Press, 2013, Introduction.

[15] Richard Hooker’s The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity develops this point in detail.

[16] Theological Commission on Same-Sex Relationships and the Ministry, Edinburgh: APS Group, 2013, Section 7.