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.

Intersex

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.

Transgender

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 .