Why we need to have sex on the brain – a response to Bishop Paul Bayes.

The keynote address given by the Bishop of Liverpool, Paul Bayes, at the conference of the new MoSAIC[1] network in the Church of England entitled ‘Sex on the brain’ [2] has attracted headlines because of his argument that the Church of England should adopt a ‘gender-neutral marriage canon’ that would allow the Church of England to fully endorse and celebrate same-sex marriages. As the headline to the Guardian report puts it. ‘Church of England should recognise same-sex weddings, says bishop.’ [3]

What is interesting about the Bishop’s address, however, is not only the conclusion that he reaches, but the argument that he employs in order to get there. In this response to his address I shall explore why the argument that he puts forward is unconvincing, and why, therefore, it does not provide grounds for the Church of England to amend its teaching on marriage in the way that he suggests.

Why inclusion is code.

The Bishop begins his address by declaring that MoSAIC is a ‘valuable and indeed necessary part of the Church’ [4] and that the reason this is the case is because ‘inclusion is a Gospel matter. Inclusion speaks of love, and inclusion is seamless.’[5]  The problem with this part of the Bishop’s argument is that he fails to explain what he means by the term ‘inclusion.’  As it stands the statement runs the risk of saying ‘we should be in favour of everything.’ If inclusion is ‘seamless’ this would seem to mean that the Church should provide a home for every kind of belief and practice, in which case the logical outcome of the Bishop’s argument would be the Church’s acceptance of Neo-Nazi ideology and the racist practices that flow from it.

Now, of course, the Bishop does not mean this. As his comments later on in his address make clear, inclusion is a code word which means being not only anti-racist and supportive towards people with disability, but also in favour of same-sex sexual relationships and gender transition.  The question becomes, therefore, why it is important to be inclusive in this specific sense.

What should set the Church’s agenda?

The answer that the Bishop gives to this question can be summarised in the words ‘because the world says so.’ He quotes with approval what he says was the understanding of mission developed by the Would Council of Churches in the 1960s,  ‘Let the world set the agenda,’[6] and goes on to argue that in our day this means accepting the forms of inclusion I have just described, and embracing same-sex sexual relationships in particular.

There are five major difficulties with his argument.

First, the Bishop misrepresents what the World Council of Churches said. If you take the time to look at the report of the 1968 Uppsala meeting of the WCC to which the Bishop is obliquely referring, you will discover that what the WCC actually said was not, as the Bishop suggests,  ‘Let the world set the agenda’ in the sense that the Church must follow the moral agenda set by the world. What it said was ‘The world sets the agenda’ in the sense that in its mission to the world the Church has to discern how to respond to what is happening in the world at any given moment of time. In other words, mission always has to be contextual. [7]  The Church’s God given mission and message remain constant down the ages (Matthew 28:19-20), but the form of its activity will necessarily vary in the light of the different situations it encounters in the course of its journey towards the city of God, as we see from the paradigmatic account of the history of the early Church in the Book of Acts.

Secondly, the claim that the Church should follow the moral agenda set by the world begs the question what we mean by the world’s moral agenda. If what we mean by this is that the Church should accept what people in the contemporary world believe to be right the obvious question is ‘which people’?  There are a very large number of people in the world, probably the majority of the world’s population, who do not agree with all or some of the inclusive agenda that the Bishop advocates. On closer inspection, it turns out that, like ‘inclusion,’ the ‘world’s moral agenda’ is a piece of code. What he really means is the approach to ethical issues that has become dominant in Western society from the latter part of the twentieth century onwards and which includes acceptance of same-sex sexual relationships.

Why the appeal to the arc of history does not work.

This brings one to the third difficulty with the Bishop’s argument, which is the issue of why the Church should accept this approach to ethical issues. The answer the Bishop appears to give is because ‘the arc of the moral universe keeps on bending towards justice.’[8] This phrase, which the Bishop takes from Martin Luther King, is rather opaque, but the argument that the Bishop seems to be putting forward is that history is on a trajectory towards justice, therefore our ideas of what constitutes justice are necessarily developing in the right direction, therefore more recent ideas of justice are better than older ones.

A little thought shows that this argument is extremely difficult to accept. This it because it would mean that every new idea of justice would automatically be right. In 1917 the Bolshevik idea that it was right to institute a dictatorship of the proletariat was new. Was it therefore correct?  In the 1930’s the Nazi idea that it was right that the Aryan race should rule over the Untermensch was new. Was it therefore correct? In our day the interpretation of Islamic justice put forward by Islamic state is new. Is it therefore correct?  One could expand such a list of examples almost indefinitely, but the point is clear. The rule  new = right does not allow for sufficient moral discrimination between different forms of belief and practice. The point is not that new ideas are never better than old ones. Sometimes they may be. The point is that we have to discern whether they are better or not.

The only way that we can engage in such discernment is if there is a transcendent and unchanging standard of justice standing outside the flux of history against which new ideas of justice can be measured, and as the Christian faith tells us, this standard is provided by the will of God. On the basis of God’s self-revelation through Scripture and the created order, we know that God is unchangeably perfect in goodness, love and wisdom, and because this is the case what he tells us about what it means to behave justly is the plumb line that establishes whether we are behaving justly or not.

In thinking about justice what we need to do is engage the brains that God has given us in order to understand what God has said about how we should behave, and therefore what justice requires, and behave accordingly.

Why we have to use our brains.

This brings us to the fourth difficulty with the Bishop’s argument which is that he advocates abandoning the use of the brain when engaging in sexual ethics. As the Bishop sees it, our bodies and our loves are ‘mysterious’ in the same way that God is mysterious[9] and this means that it is wrong to ‘have sex on the brain’  in the sense of seeking to determine rationally how people ought to behave.[10] According to the Bishop: ‘People grow up and fall in love and their mysterious bodies lead them to love as they love, and they will love whom they love, and no amount of harrumphing is going to change that.’ [11]

There are two problems with this argument.

First, although God is certainly mysterious in the sense that (in this life at least) we only have incomplete knowledge of what God is like, this does not means that what we do know about him does not provide us with a reliable guide as to how we should behave. Similarly, although we do not fully understand ourselves or our fellow human beings, this does not mean that we do not know enough to understand how we and others should behave.

The Bishop clearly does not in fact believe this, or else he would give up on all attempts to instruct people on how to behave, and hence would cease his advocacy of liberal religious and social causes. His advocacy of such causes only makes sense if he thinks that we can understand how people should behave and can cause people to change their behaviour accordingly.

Secondly, it is certainly true the people do not choose the sexual desires they have or the people they fall in love with. However, (a) this does not mean that people cannot choose how they behave and (b) it does not mean that people cannot be led to behave in ways that  go against their desires. If either were true we would simply have to give up on sexual ethics entirely. We would simply have to say that people will behave as they want to behave and there is nothing that we can or should do about it.

The question the Bishop’s argument begs is whether he really wants to adopt this position. Does he really want to say, for example, that casual sex, adultery, incest, polyamory, paedophila, and sexual violence are things we just have to accept and that we should stop ‘harrumphing’ about?  After all, in all these cases people can and do claim that their conduct was motivated by love.

I suspect that the Bishop would claim that these forms of behaviour are not truly loving and that for this reason people should not engage in them, but he would have to make a rational argument in order to make good this claim. The brain would have to make a come back and so his argument that we should not use the brain would be fatally undermined.

In reality, as I have said, sexual ethics is, or at least should be, a rational branch of human intellectual enquiry in which we employ the reason (the ‘brain’) that God has given us to determine how God wants us to behave in relation to a given situation. To give a basic example, I discover by rational enquiry that God forbids adultery (Exodus 20:14). I further discover that adultery means sex with someone who is not my spouse. I conclude as result that I should not have sex with a person who is not my spouse.

Why there is no good argument for changing the Church’s position on same-sex marriage.

This brings us to the fifth and final  difficulty with the Bishop’s argument which is that although he tells us he wants the Church of England to adopt a gender-neutral marriage canon and as an interim measure he wants ‘conscientious freedom for the Church’s ministers and local leaders to honour, recognise and, yes indeed, to bless same-sex unions whether civil partnerships or civil marriages,’[12] he fails to give any reason why the Church should do any such thing.

As we have seen, his appeals to seamless inclusion, to following the world’s moral agenda, and the need to give up the use of our brains simply do not work, and he offers nothing else.

Furthermore, the Bishop cannot in fact make a convincing Christian argument for either marrying people in same-sex relationships, or blessing such relationships, because no such argument exists.

The reason for this is very simple. As both nature and Scripture tell us, God has created human beings as male and female creatures designed to have sexual intercourse with members of the opposite sex and by this means to propagate the human species (Genesis 1:26-28). God has also established life-long marriage between one man and one woman as the context for sexual union between men and women and for the begetting and raising of children (Genesis 2:18-25, Matthew 19:3-6). In addition. God has instituted marriage between men and women as a living witness to the eternal relationship of loving communion that exists between God and his people and that will be fully enjoyed in the would to come (Ephesians 5:21-33, Revelation 19:7).  Because all this is the case, marriage cannot be between two people of same-sex and all sex outside marriage (including sex between two people of the same-sex) is contrary to God’s will and therefore sinful.

To put it in the form of a logical argument. God wills that sex should take place solely within marriage, marriage is between two people of the opposite sex, therefore people of the same sex cannot be married, therefore same-sex sex is sinful.

What follows from this is that the Church of England cannot institute a marriage canon saying that marriage can be between two people of the same-sex when this is simply not the case, and it cannot bless same-sex sexual relationships as though they were not contrary to God’s will.

None of this means that the Church should not welcome those who are same-sex attracted, give them appropriate forms of love and support, and gratefully receive the range of gifts which they have to offer.  The Church can and must do all these things, but in so doing it cannot compromise on the pattern for sexual relationships that God has laid down. This pattern is the agenda to which the Church must adhere as it engages with the challenges posed to it by the contemporary world using God’s good gift of rationality as it does so.

As Paul teaches us in Romans 12, if we submit to God and allow him to work in our lives he will renew our minds through the work of the Holy Spirit so that we are able to discern rightly his perfect will for our lives and how we are to serve him in the world in which he has placed and to which he calls us to bring the good news of Jesus Christ.

‘Do not be conformed to this worldbut be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect’. (Romans 12:2)

We need to have sex on the brain.

Note:  the anthropology of the Uppsala Report

In view of Bishop Paul’s appeal to the WCC’s 1968 Uppsala Report it is worth noting what that report had to say about what the Christian faith teaches about what it means to be human. 

In the section of the report on ‘Renewal in Mission’ we find the following words:

‘Men can know their true nature only if they see themselves as sons of God, answerable to their Father for one another and for the world. But because man refuses both the obedience and the responsibility of sonship his God-given dominion is turned into exploitation, and harmony into alienation in all his relationships. In this condition man, with all his amazing power, suffers an inescapable dread of his own helplessness and his deepest cry, albeit often unrecognized, is for the Triune God.

Jesus Christ, incarnate, crucified and risen, is the new man. In him was revealed the image of God as he glorified his Father in a perfect obedience. In his total availability for others, his absolute involvement and absolute freedom, his penetrating truth and his triumphant acceptance of suffering and death, we see what man is meant to be. Through that death on the Cross, man’s alienation is overcome by the forgiveness of God and the way is opened for the restoration of all men to their sonship. In the resurrection of Jesus a new creation was born, and the final goal of history was assured, when Christ as head of that new humanity will sum up all things.

But the new manhood is not only a goal. It is also a gift and like all God’s gifts it has to be appropriated by a response of faith. The Holy Spirit offers this gift to men in a variety of moments of decision. It is the Holy Spirit who takes the Word of God and makes it a living, converting word to men. Our part in evangelism might be described as bringing about the occasions for men’s response to Jesus Christ. Often the turning point does not appear as a religious choice at all. Yet it is a new birth. It sets a pattern of dying and rising which will continually be repeated. For we have to be torn out of the restricted and perverted life of ‘the old man’. We have to «put on the new man» and this change is always embodied in some actual change of attitude and relationship. For there is no turning to God which does not at the same time bring a man face to face with his fellow men in a new way. The new life frees men for community enabling them to break through racial, national, religious and other barriers that divide the unity of mankind.’ [13]

These paragraphs are an excellent summary of the teaching of the Bible about what it means to be human. To be human is to be disobedient to God’s call to sonship, to be restored to sonship through the saving work of Jesus Christ, and to converted and renewed through the work of the Holy Spirit and thus called into a life marked by a new pattern of relationship with other people.

If we go on to ask what the New Testament tells us about how human sexuality fits into this picture,  Paul tells us in no uncertain terms in 1 Corinthians 6:18-20:   

‘Shun immorality. Every other sin which a man commits is outside the body; but the immoral man sins against his own body. Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God? You are not your own;  you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.’

The word translated ‘immorality’ in the RSV is the Greek word porneian which is a catch all phrase referring to all types of sexual activity outside marriage (same-sex sexual relationships included). What Paul is saying is that as Christians we have been redeemed from sin and death by the work of Christ  (‘you were brought with a price’) and our bodies have become places where God dwells through his Spirit. We are to live accordingly and this means that all sex outside marriage is strictly off limits.

What Bishop Paul is hoping that the Church of England will do flies directly in the face of this teaching and for this reason it should not happen.

Martin Davie

[1] Movement of Supporting Anglicans for an Inclusive Church.

[2] Paul Bayes, Sex on the brain’  (MoSAIC keynote, June 2021) at


[3] ‘Church of England should recognise same-sex weddings, says bishop,’ The Guardian 26 June 2021.  

[4]  Bayes, p.1.

[5] Bayes, p.1.

[6] Bayes, p.1.

[7] The World Council of Churches, The Uppsala Report, 1968 (Geneva: World Council of Churches, 1968). 

[8] Bayes, p.1.

[9] Bayes, p.3.

[10] Bayes, p.3.

[11] Bayes, pp.3-4.

[12] Bayes, p.5.

[13] Uppsala Report, p. 28.

On leadership and building bridges – a response to David Runcorn.

Where David Runcorn and I disagree.

In his article ‘Living in Love and Faith ‘is building the bridge as we cross it’ published in the Church Times on 19 June 2021 David Runcorn declares that Living in Love and Faith (LLF) says to:

…. those in leadership — national, local, and all expressions between. Your task is not to take front stage, guarding received understandings, or ‘telling’ people what the truth is. It is to stand in the midst, to enable others to think, to be alongside them, to journey with and guide the discernment of the mind of God within that.[1]

I agree with David that this is what LLF says. Where I disagree with David is that, while he thinks this is a good thing, I do not. In the rest of this essay, I shall explain why.

The key issue is that David seems to be in favour of what I would describe as a ‘non-directive’ approach to Christian leadership, whereas I think the calling of Christian leaders is precisely to give direction.

The meaning of shema.

In his article David accepts the claim made by the late Lord Sacks that the Hebrew Bible has no word which means ‘obey.’ This idea is misleading. The reason that it is misleading is that the Hebrew verb shema, although it has the basic meaning ‘to hear,’ also has the wider meaning of ‘hear and obey.’

This point is helpfully made in Lois Tverberg’s article ‘Shema: to hear is to obey.’ In this article she writes as follows:

‘Biblical Hebrew includes only about 8,000 words, far fewer than the 100,000 or more we have in English. Because Hebrew has so few words, each is like an over-stuffed suitcase, bulging with extra meanings that it must carry in order for the language to fully describe reality. Unpacking each word is a delightful exercise in seeing how the ancient authors organized ideas, sometimes grouping concepts together in very different ways than we do. For example, the word shema (pronounced ‘shmah’) is often translated as ‘hear.’ But the word shema actually has a much wider, deeper meaning than ‘to perceive sound.’ It encompasses a whole spectrum of ideas that includes listening, taking heed, and responding with action to what one has heard.

I discovered the wideness of the word shema in my first Hebrew class. One classmate had a smattering of Hebrew knowledge gleaned from other places, and he let us all know it. He’d come late, leave early, and goof around during class. The teacher would pose a question to someone else, and he’d blurt out the answer before they could respond. Annoyed, one classmate pointedly inquired, ‘How do you tell someone to obey?’

‘Shema,’ responded my instructor.

Later that afternoon, curiosity prodded me to search for verses that contained ‘obey’ in my computer Bible program. In almost every case, the Hebrew behind ‘obey’ was shema!

For instance, in the English, we read Deuteronomy 11:13 as, ‘So if you faithfully obey the commands I am giving you today…’ Literally, though, this verse reads, ‘And it will be if hearing, you will hear…’

And after Moses recited the covenant to the people of Israel, they responded, ‘We will do everything the LORD has said; we will obey’ (Exodus 24:7, NIV). But the Hebrew here actually reads, ‘All that God had said we will do and we will hear.’ The two verbs here are really synonymous—to hear is to do, to be obedient.

This became even more clear one sticky summer evening when I was visiting an old college friend. As we chatted together in her front yard, we could hear squealing and laughter coming from behind her house. Her kids were drenching each other in a water fight, a duel between the garden hose and a big squirt gun.

As the sun sank below the horizon it was getting past their bedtimes, so we paused our conversation so that she could call them inside. ‘It’s getting late—time to go in,’ she announced. But the giggling and chasing didn’t even slow down. She repeated her command, louder and louder. No effect.

‘My kids seem to have a hearing problem, Lois,’ she sighed, wearily.

Since I knew that she had studied some Hebrew, I commented, ‘You know, actually, what I think your kids have is a shema-ing problem.’ Her words were vibrating their eardrums, but not actually moving their bodies toward the door to her house. She could have been talking in Klingon for all their response. She knew as well as I did that the natural outcome of listening should be response.

Grasping the wider meaning of shema yields insights to other biblical mysteries. In the psalms, David pleads, ‘Oh Lord, please hear my prayer.’ But he wasn’t accusing God of being deaf or disinterested. Rather, he was calling on God to take action, not just listen to his words. When the angel appeared to Zechariah to announce that his wife Elizabeth was pregnant with John, he declared that their prayer had been heard—that God was answering the barren couple’s prayerful longings to have a child. (Luke 1:13)

Understanding the word shema also helps us see why Jesus often concluded his teaching with the words ‘He who has ears to hear, let him hear!’ What he really meant was, ‘You have heard my teaching, now take it to heart and obey it!’ He wants us to be doers of his words, not hearers only (James 1:22).’ [2]

Obedience and the role of leaders in the New Testament.

This Jewish understanding of the need for hearing to result in obedience is also found in Matthew 28:19-20 and Romans 1:5, two key passages which summarise the missionary mandate given by Jesus to  his Church.

In Matthew 28:19-20 we read

‘Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.’

Here we see that making disciples involves teaching people to be obedient to what Jesus has commanded. Jesus is the new and better Moses who gives God’s commands to God’s new covenant people drawn from all nations, and the Church’s calling is to teach people to obey these commands.

In Romans 1:5 we read that Paul has received ‘grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations.’ In other words, the apostolic task given to Paul by the risen Christ is, as in Matthew 28, to establish obedience to God among people from all nations. This obedience consists first and foremost in obedient acceptance of the gospel message taught by Paul (‘faith’), but, as Paul’s letters make abundantly clear, it also involves living a new way of life in which this obedience of faith is manifested in daily life.

In neither of these passages is there any idea that the task given by Jesus to the apostles was to accompany people as they discerned for themselves what obedience meant. Just as Jesus taught the apostles what obedience meant so they were to teach others in their turn. Moreover, contrary to what David suggests in his Church Times article,  this did not involve simply telling stories, either the story of what God had done in Jesus Christ, or their own personal stories. What we see in the New Testament. as in the Old , is that teaching people to live obediently involves teaching people the overarching story, the ‘meta-narrative,’ of the mighty acts of God in creation and redemption, but not stopping at that point. People also need to be taught how to live rightly in the light of that story rather than being left to try to work this out for themselves.

Leadership in the Early Church and in the 1662 Ordinal.

In the earliest days of the Church such teaching was undertaken primarily by the apostles, but as time went on and they knew that death was coming they passed on this responsibility to a new generation of leaders as we see in Paul’s address to the Ephesian elders at Miletus (Acts 20:17-38), in 1 and 2 Timothy, James and 1 Peter, and in the testimony of writers from the Patristic period.

In this way the leadership of the Church by bishops and elders was established, with bishops in particular having responsibility for teaching their flocks the path of Christian obedience, a path which involved both right belief and right conduct. That is why the bishop had a cathedra, a teaching chair, with the cathedral being the place where the chair was situated. [3]

At the Reformation the Anglican Reformers sought to re-emphasize the teaching responsibility of both bishops and elders (‘priests’). That is why in the 1662 Ordinal both are asked whether they will ‘instruct the people committed to your charge’ on the basis of the teaching of Scripture, such instruction to include both belief and behaviour as we see, for example, in the Prayer Book catechism.

Because deacons are assistant leaders and therefore do not have people committed to their charge in the same way as bishops and priests the Ordinal does not ask deacons the same question. However, it does say that instruction is part of their role too since they are to ‘instruct the youth in the catechism’ and to preach if authorised by their bishop to do so.

The standard criticism of this view of the role of leaders is that it gives insufficient responsibility to the laity, but in fact they have very important responsibilities. They have the responsibility to listen with attention and understanding to what is taught to them, to take it to heart, to act upon it, and to pass it on to others.

The view of the role of leaders that I have sketched out remains the pattern to which the Church of England remains officially committed, the major change being that the responsibility for instruction is now given to authorised lay ministers as well as to bishops, priests and deacons.

The problem with LLF.

The reason why, unlike David, I have a great problem with LLF is that I think that it involves a failure by the bishops to fulfil their responsibility to give instruction to the people given to their charge.

There is now great confusion not only in society, but also in the Church, regarding sexual ethics. In this situation the responsibility of the bishops is to teach those in the Church of England, and anyone else who is willing to listen, that obedience to God means living as the men or women God created us to be (as determined by our biology) and refraining from all forms of sexual activity outside heterosexual marriage, same-sex marriage included. It is in this way, and only in this way, that people can fulfil the biblical injunction to ‘glorify God in you body’ (1 Corinthians 6:20).

Tragically the bishops have failed to fulfil this responsibility. Instead  In LLF they have essentially told the faithful to try to work out a pattern of sexual ethics for themselves on the basis of material that only adds further to the existing confusion because of the way it combines orthodox and unorthodox views of sexual ethics with no criteria for how to distinguish between them.

Contrary to what David thinks, the task of Church leaders, and bishops in particular, is precisely to tell people ‘what the truth is.’

One of the standard images used for a bishop in in the early Church is a physician of souls, the idea being that like a doctor they are responsible to helping people to live healthy lives, but in this case spiritually rather than physically (see for example Gregory the Great’s Pastoral Rule). Now, imagine someone saying that a doctor should not tell you the truth about your condition and what you need to do about it. You would think that they had entirely failed to understand what a doctor is for. Similarly,  anyone who thinks that a bishop should not tell people what the truth is and what they should do about it has entirely failed to understand what a bishop is for.

The calling of bishops is to tell people the truth about what obedience to God involves on the basis of the teaching given to us by God himself in Scripture. In the case of LLF the bishops of the Church of England have failed to live up to this calling.

Why do we need to build a bridge?

A final issue raised by David’s article has to do with the idea that LLF involves ‘building the bridge as we cross it.’  The image itself is confusing as it is not entirely clear how you can cross a bridge while you are still building it. However, the more fundamental question is why the bridge needs building in the first place.  

Imagine a group of travellers approaching a river. They see a bridge, but rather than going across it in order to continue their journey, they stop and build a bridge of their own. Assuming that they are not mad, or simply like building bridges, the reason for their action must be that they do not trust the existing bridge to get them safely across the river.

If we use this as an image for the current disagreements in society and in the Church about human sexuality we can say that there is already a bridge built by God himself, namely the teaching about sexual ethics given in Scripture and the orthodox Christian tradition drawing on Scripture. If people are now seeking to build a new bridge this must be because they think the existing bridge is inadequate. That is to say, it must mean that they think that the teaching that God has provided is inadequate as a guide for human sexual conduct.    

This means that they implicitly are denying the wisdom and goodness of God. They are saying that God cannot be trusted to teach us how to live our lives. And, of course, this is something which no one can ever rightly say. It is a repetition of the primordial sin recorded in Genesis 3 where Adam and Eve conclude that they can decide better than God whether they should eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

As Christians we do not need to build our own bridge. We need to thankfully use the bridge that God in his wisdom and goodness has already built for us.

[1] David Runcorn, ‘‘Living in Love and Faith ‘is building the bridge as we cross it,’ the Church Times, 19 June 2021 at  https://www.churchtimes.co.uk/articles/2021/25-june/comment/opinion/living-in-love-and-faith-is building-the-bridge-as-we-cross-it.

[2] Lois Tverberg, ‘‘Shema: to hear is to obey’ at https://ourrabbijesus.com/Shema-to-hear-is-to-obey.

[3] For a good overview of Church leadership in the Early Church see Christopher Beeley, Leading God’s People (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012).  

Thinking about harm

In his recent article on the issue of the proposed banning of conversion therapy published on the Via Media website, the Bishop of Manchester, David Walker, argues that in thinking about this issue we need to focus on the issue of harm. He calls for a ‘victim centred approach’ that focusses on ‘the severity and durability of the harm done, not whether that damage was done by prayer, hypnosis or psychological techniques.’ [1]

As I read it, his argument seems to be that there is ‘a massive pile of evidence’ that all forms of conversion therapy cause harm and that therefore we should simply get on and ban them.

I have two problems with this argument.

First, it is not clear that the massive pile of evidence to which he refers actually exists.

At the time of the General Synod debate on conversion therapy in 2017, Peter Ould pointed out that Synod members needed to be wary of the claims put forward in a paper from Jayne Ozanne about the harm done by Sexual Orientation Change Efforts (SOCE). Having surveyed the relevant evidence, his conclusion was that:

‘The overwhelming majority of ‘proof’ that is offered to support the idea that SOCE harm people is both anecdotal in nature and lacks any independent assessment of the alleged harm. Often, as in Shidlo and Shroder 2002, the raw data reveals more than the headlines and indicates complexity and nuance which needs to be taken into account. Finally, leading secular therapeutic organisations recognise that the level of research that is required to make a definitive declaration of the outcomes of SOCE has yet to be undertaken.’ [2]

In the four years since Ould’s article nothing seems to have changed. We simply cannot say that the evidence shows that conversion therapy in relation to sexual orientation is necessarily harmful. As Ould points out in another article, the one really rigorous study that has been undertaken to assess the impact of conversion therapy in relation to sexual orientation, the 2011 study by Stanton Jones and Mark Yarhouse,[3] found that there was ‘no statistically significant evidence of harm, even in those for whom the therapy ‘failed’ or who dropped out.’ [4]

If we turn to the issue of conversion therapy in relation to gender identity, we find that there is a debate about whether such conversion therapy is happening at all[5] and there does not seem to be any robust evidence that if it is happening it is causing harm. The ‘2020 Conversion Therapy and Gender Identity Survey’ claimed that there was evidence that ‘GICT is harmful and has negative effects on public health’[6] but as Michael Biggs notes in his review of the survey:

‘The research reported in the pamphlet has little, if any, scientific value. It reinforces the impression that the proposed legislation is motivated by the desire to further institutionalize gender ideology rather than the need to address a real social problem.’[7]

If legislation is to be introduced making something illegal, then there has to be robust evidence that the practice concerned does serious harm. Bishop David does not produce such evidence in his article, and it is not clear that anyone else has yet produced it either.

My second problem with Bishop David’s argument is that he fails to address the issue of harm from a proper Christian theological perspective.

From a Christian perspective what is harmful to human beings is anything that prevents them from living in the way that God created them to live. For example, it is harmful to deprive people of food, because God has created human beings as biological organisms who need food in order to live at all. For another example, it is harmful to deprive people of education, because this will prevent the full development of the intellectual capacities that God has given them.

If we extend this understanding of harm to the issues of sexual identity and behaviour, we find that the witness of both nature and Scripture (Genesis 1:26-28)  is that human beings have been created by God in two sexes, male and female, with the members of these two sexes being differentiated biologically by the fact that their bodies are ordered towards the performance of different roles in sexual reproduction and in the nurture of children once they have been born. Furthermore, Scripture teaches us that God has instituted marriage between a man and a woman as the context for sexual intercourse and for the begetting and raising of children (Genesis 2: 18-25).

If God has created human beings in this way, it follows that it is harmful for human beings to live in a way that contradicts this fact. It is harmful for a man to live as if he was a woman or vice versa, or for a man or woman to claim some form of alternative sexual identity. It is harmful for a man, or a woman, to have sex outside marriage, either with a member of the opposite sex, or with a member of the same sex.

As a result of the sinful disorder that in exist in all human beings as a result of the rebellion against God that took place at the start of human history and the idolatry that has been the fruit of this rebellion (Genesis 3:1-14, Romans 1:18-32) there are people who desire to live in these harmful ways. In this situation, Christian care for others requires that we seek to help those for whom this the case to control their desires in order that they may live in the way God created them to live. Such help will take the form of teaching, prayer, counseling and general pastoral support.

The danger with the proposal to ban conversion therapy is that it may result in such care for others being against the law.

For example, the campaign group Ban Conversion Therapy declare that:

‘Any form of counselling or persuading someone to change their sexual orientation or behaviour so as to conform with a heteronormative lifestyle or their gender identity should be illegal no matter the reason, religious or otherwise – whatever the person’s age.’ [8]

What this means is that they want it to be illegal for Christians to try to persuade people to refrain from same-sex sexual activity, or to live according to their sex, or support them in trying to do so. This could mean, for instance, that a member of the clergy could be breaking the law if they preach a sermon saying that sex should only take place within heterosexual marriage, or that a Christian youth worker could be breaking the law if they seek to help a young person struggling with whether to adopt a transgender identity.

The Church of England activist Jayne Ozanne even wants to go so far as to forbid prayer. In an article in The Guardian, Bishop David suggested that a ban on conversion therapy would still allow ‘gentle non-coercive prayer’ but Ozanne rejects this idea, stating that:

‘All prayer that seeks to change or suppress someone’s innate sexuality or gender identity is deeply damaging and causes immeasurable harm, as it comes from a place – no matter how well meaning – that says who you are is unacceptable and wrong.’ [9]

As the Evangelical Alliance explained in a letter to the Prime Minister on the issue, a ban on conversion therapy thus has the potential to:

‘….threaten everyday practises of churches church leaders and Christians across the UK. An expansive definition of conversion therapy, and a ban along such lines, would place church leaders at risk of prosecution when they preach on biblical texts relating to marriage and sexuality. It would place ministry leaders at risk of arrest for encouraging young people to maintain chastity until marriage. And it would criminalise a member of a church who prays with another member when they ask for prayer to resist temptation as they are attracted to someone of the same sex but do not wish to act on it.’[10]

In such a situation Christians would be faced with a choice of either ceasing to help others who are living in harmful ways, or who are tempted to do so, or breaking the law. In his Via Media article Bishop David is totally silent about this issue

In summary, Bishop David is calling for a ban on conversion therapy in order to prevent harm even though the evidence for the existence of such harm is unclear. In addition, he ignores the need for Christians to help others to avoid living in ways that are clearly harmful because they are contrary to the way God created his human creatures to live,  and he is silent about the danger that a ban on conversion therapy would make giving such help illegal.

[1] David Walker, ‘Banning Conversion Therapy Must “Focus on the Victim Not the Perpetrator”  Via Media.News 9 June 2021.

[2] Peter Ould, ‘Do sexual orientation change efforts cause harm? Possibly, but….’  athttps://www.psephizo.com/sexuality – 2/do-sexual-orientation-change-efforts-cause-harm-possibly-but.

[3] Stanton Jones and Mark Yarhouse, ‘A longitudinal study of attempted religiously mediated sexual orientation change,’ Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy, Vol.37. Issue 5, 2011. 

[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.

[5] See Shelley Charlesworth ‘Is Gender identity conversion therapy taking place in the UK?’ at https;//www.transgendertrend.com/gender-identity-conversion-therapy-uk.

[6] 2020 Conversion Therapy and Gender Identity Survey at https;// http://www.stonewall.org.uk/resources /2020 –  conversion-therapy-and-gender-identity- survey.

[7] Michael Biggs, ‘Conversion Therapy’ & Gender Identity Survey: an analysis by Michael Biggs’ athttps://trangendertrend.com/conversion -therapy-gender-identity-survey-analysis.

[8] Ban Conversion Therapy quoted by Danny Webster in ‘The challenges a around conversion therapy’ at https://www.eauk.org/news-and-views/the-challenges-around-conversion-therapy

[9] Harriet Sherwood, ‘’C of E bishops backs prosecution of those who defy ‘gay conversion’ ban,’ The Guardian,9 June 2021. 

[10] The Evangelical Alliance, letter to the Prime Minister, 15 March 2021 a https://www.eauk.org/assets/files/downloads/Evangelical-Alliance-letter-on-conversion-therapy-15-March 2021.pdf

A contribution to the work of the new Next Steps working group.

According to a Church of England press release giving details of the meeting of the House of Bishops on 17 and 18 May, the bishops ‘agreed in principle to the formation of a working group on gender identity and transition under the auspices of the LLF Next Steps Group.’ [1]

The purpose of this article is to offer a contribution to the thinking of this new group from a traditional Anglican perspective.

Why the traditional Christian view of sexual identity is being challenged.

Underlying the current debate in the Church and in wider society about gender identity and gender transition is a challenge to the traditional Christian view of human sexual identity.  

The traditional Christian view, which has also traditionally been accepted by Western society as a whole, is that human beings have been created by God as embodied creatures who are either male or female (Genesis 1:26-28, 5:1-2, Matthew 19:4) Today, however, this premise is being challenged on two grounds.

First, it is being challenged on the grounds that the evidence we have tells that the human race is not neatly divided into those who are male and those who are female. There are also, it is argued, intersex people who don’t fit into either of these two categories, and our thinking about what it means to be human has to be expanded to take this fact into account. Instead of thinking in terms of a ‘gender binary’ in which humanity is divided into males and females, we should accept that there are a whole spectrum of different form of human sexual identity, of which being male and female are only two.

Secondly, it is being challenged on the grounds that there are transgender people whose personal identity or ‘gender’ does not accord with the sex of their bodies. There are, it is claimed, people with male bodies whose true gender is female and vice versa and there are also people with male and female bodies whose gender is neither male nor female but comes under some other category such as intergender, gender fluid or pangender.


In relation to the first challenge, it is important for Christians to acknowledge that there are a very small number of people (some 0.018% of live births) who are genuinely ‘intersex’ in the sense that they combine both male and female elements in their physiology. For example, there are people with Complete Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome who are genetically male in that they have XY chromosomes, but who do not form male genitalia, but instead typically have a vaginal opening and clitoris indistinguishable from those present in females.

It is also important to note, however, that those people who are intersex do not constitute a third type of human being alongside those who are male and female. They are instead people in whom some form of developmental disorder has occurred which has prevented them from developing as male and female in the normal way intended by God for his human creatures. The reason for saying that a disorder has occurred is because the physical characteristics that make people intersex have no good purpose of their own and typically prevent the good ends that human sexual differentiation is meant to achieve, namely sexual intercourse and sexual reproduction.

However, even if there has been a disorder in their sexual development, people with intersex conditions are still human beings just like everyone else. The question this raises is how they should live before God in a way that bears witness to God’s creation of humanity as male and female.

Where someone is genetically male or female, but there is an abnormality in the way their body has developed, the most appropriate way forward would seem to be for them to live out their basic genetic male or female sexual identity as fully as possible with appropriate spiritual, psychological and medical support. In those extremely rare cases where people have a mixture of male and female elements in both their genetic and in their bodily characteristics, a possible way forward that would make theological sense would be for the people concerned to honour God’s creation of human beings as male or female by living as a man or a woman while acknowledging the presence of elements of the opposite sex in their bodily make up.

What does not make any theological sense is to say that the developmental disorder that the has occurred in the cases of people who are genuinely intersex calls into question the belief that the human race has been designed by God to be a dimorphic species consisting of male and females. Both Scripture and the study of human biology tells us that this is how God designed the human race to be and our theology has to follow the biblical and biological evidence in the matter.


In relation to transgender, it is important for Christians to recognise that gender dysphoria (a sense of distress caused by a mismatch between one’s psychological and emotional sense of identity and one’s biological sense) is a real and very distressing phenomenon. However, the idea that it is right for people to seek to relieve their distress by assuming an identity that is at variance with the sex of their body is deeply problematic for four reasons.

First, it goes against reason for someone to claim that they have an identity which differs from that of their body. The nature of human beings as unions of souls and bodies means that it always true that I am my body and my body is me. It follows that if my body is male or female then I am male or female. Furthermore, the Christian doctrine of the resurrection of body teaches us that this will be true not only in this world, but also in the world to come. We are eternally that particular sexed union of body and soul which God created us to be.  

Secondly, if someone assumes an identity which differs from who that of their body, they are refusing to accept the identity which has been given to them by God when he created them. By so doing they are committing the basic sin of refusing to say to God ‘thy will be done’ (Matthew 6:10). This may well not be what they think they are doing, and not what they are intending to do, but nevertheless it is what they are doing. Sin remains sin whether we consciously intend to commit it or not.

Thirdly, for someone to assume an identity different from that of their body goes against the teaching of the Bible in Deuteronomy 22:5 and 1 Corinthians 11:2–16 that people should not live in a way that goes against the sex they have been given by God. God calls us to bear witness to the goodness of his creative activity (Genesis 1:31) by living in a way that testifies to the sexual identity that he has given to us.

Fourthly, there is a growing body of evidence that calls into question the claim that embracing an alternate identity will necessarily bring the relief from om mental anguish that those suffering from gender dysphoria are seeking. The evidence we have,  highlighted by the growing number of testimonies from those who have gone through gender transition and then have de-transitioned, suggests that a large number of people who have adopted a new identity will continue to suffer from mental distress even to the point of committing suicide.

In the light of these four problems, the best way forward for people with gender dysphoria has to be for them to be able to reach a point where they can come to terms with the truth of their identity and are able to embrace it as a good gift from God.

Being people of truth and love

In the case of both intersex and transgender, the pastoral calling of Christians is to be people of truth and love. As people of truth, they are called to be those who help others to understand their true, God-given, identities. As people of love, they are called to walk with them on what can often be a long and painful journey to accepting and living out these true identities.

What this means, I suggest, is that the new Next Steps working party should make the following recommendations.

First, the House of Bishops needs to formally withdraw its 2003 memo that suggested that there were a range of views of transgender that could ‘properly be held’ by those in the Church of England.[2] For the reasons set out above, the only view that can ‘properly be held’ is the traditional Christian view that people’s God given sex is the sex of their body and the House of Bishops should unequivocally say so and take the necessary steps to make this the Church of England’s official position.

Secondly, the House of Bishops needs to withdraw its 2018 Pastoral Guidance commending the use of the Affirmation of Baptismal Faith as a way of marking liturgically an individual’s gender transition.[3] The Church of England’s liturgical practice needs to cohere with its theology, and both need to bear witness to the truth. Holding services which declare that someone has a different gender identity from their biological sex, and which celebrate this fact, goes against this principle and so should not be taking place.

Thirdly, the House of Bishops needs to re-consider its discipline with regard to ordination. The 2002 decision by the House of Bishops that there was no bar to transgender people being ordained was based on the fact that there was nothing in the Canons to prevent this. However, what needs to be taken into account is the principle that those who are ordained need to be willing to live according to the Church’s teaching. If the House of Bishops declare that this teaching should be that human beings are called to live according to their biological sex, then the ordination of transgender people would then contravene this principle.

Fourthly, the Church of England needs to produce resources explaining and defending the traditional Christian view for use in the parishes, in theological education institutions, in church schools and in the growing public debate about the matter.

Fifthly, the Church of England needs to draw on the advice of those with appropriate clinical and pastoral expertise to produce resources to help psychiatrists, counsellors, teachers, members of the clergy, and ordinary lay Christians to give support and guidance, in line with Christian truth, to those struggling with their sexual identities and to their families. People need to know how best to help those struggling in  this area, and the Church needs to give them the resources they need. To put in another way, they need advice about how to put love into practice and the Church of England needs to provide it for them.

[1] ‘House of Bishops Meeting 17th-18th May 2021 at https://www.churchofengland.org/media-and-news/news- releases/house-bishops-meeting-17th-18th-may-2021.

[2] House of Bishops Memo HB(03)M1 text at  http://changingattitude.org.uk/archives/8542.

[3] This can be found at https://www.churchofengland.org/sites/default/files/201812/Pastoral%20Guidance%5B3%5DAffirmation-Baptismal-Faith.pdf .