On the Way forward for Anglicanism – A response to the Archbishop of Canterbury’s vision for the Anglican Communion.

On 14 October the Archbishop of Canterbury posted an update of the plans for next year’s Lambeth Conference on the Conference website.

Part of this update includes a section entitled  ‘God’s Church for God’s World – Our life together as the Anglican Communion.’ [1] What the Archbishop writes in this section is extremely important because it sets out his vision for what he thinks the Anglican Communion is and should be, and what he thinks is currently endangering this vision.

In this article I shall offer a commentary on this section, explaining where I think what the Archbishop says is correct and where I think it is mistaken.

The Archbishop begins the section by writing:

The conference will also explore internal matters in the life of the Anglican Communion. We will seek to find a way forward on the issues that have divided us for so long over marriage, sexuality and relationships. It is unlikely that we will have a single common understanding. We are a global communion with more than 2000 languages and such deeply embedded and possibly different views of what is right and wrong, both culturally and in our understanding of the Bible. But this is what marks the Church out as different. We are called to find ways of continuing together, knowing that we belong to one another and obeying the commands of Jesus to love one another, and where we disagree, disagreeing well.

In this paragraph the Archbishop correctly notes that, as things presently stand, it is unlikely that those who attend the Lambeth Conference will have ‘a single common understanding’ on ‘marriage, sexuality and relationships’ and he also correctly notes that those who belong to the Anglican Communion speak more than 2000 languages and have ‘deeply embedded and possibly different views of what is right and wrong, both culturally and in our understanding of the Bible.’  However, the moral he draws from this is problematic.

The Archbishop says, as we have seen, that the members of the Anglican Communion, as members of the Christian Church, are called by God: ‘ to find ways of continuing together, knowing that we belong to one another and obeying the commands of Jesus to love one another, and where we disagree, disagreeing well.’ The problem is with the implicit connection that the Archbishop makes between loving one another, disagreeing well, and continuing together.

The Archbishop does not spell out what he means by ‘disagreeing well’ but in context it appears to mean continuing in fellowship with those with whom we disagree about what is right and what is wrong and how to interpret the Bible. The problem with this approach is set out in paragraph 89 of the 2004 Windsor Report. This paragraph makes the point that not all differences that exist within the Church can be bundled together as being ‘adiaphora’ – matters on which we can simply agree to disagree. It declares that it is not the case that:

‘…. either for Paul or in Anglican theology all things over which Christians in fact disagree are automatically to be placed into the category of ‘adiaphora’. It has never been enough to say that we must celebrate or at least respect ‘difference’ without further ado. Not all ‘differences’ can be tolerated. (We know this well enough in the cases of, say, racism or child abuse; we would not say “some of us are racists, some of us are not, so let’s celebrate our diversity”). This question is frequently begged in current discussions, as for instance when people suggest without further argument, in relation to a particular controversial issue, that it should not be allowed to impair the Church’s unity, in other words that the matter in question is not as serious as some suppose. In the letters already quoted, Paul is quite clear that there are several matters – obvious examples being incest (1 Corinthians 5) and lawsuits between Christians before non-Christian courts (1 Corinthians 6) – in which there is no question of saying “some Christians think this, other Christians think that, and you must learn to live with the difference”. On the contrary: Paul insists that some types of behaviour are incompatible with inheriting God’s coming kingdom, and must not therefore be tolerated within the Church. ‘[2]

When things that should not be tolerated are tolerated this is not love, but rather indifference resulting from a failure to love. This is because loving someone means seeking the best for them as someone whom God has created and redeemed. Allowing them to engage in behaviour which God has declared to be intolerable without any attempt to encourage them to change their ways, is not loving because it means leaving them at odds with God and potentially facing being cut off from him for all eternity.

The matters currently under dispute in the Anglican Communion are about matters that are intolerable.

The big dispute that is currently dividing the Anglican Communion, along with many other churches, concerns two issues. Is it right for someone to have a sexual relationship with someone of their own sex (and for this to be called marriage),  and is it right for someone who is are biologically male or female to identify as members of the opposite sex, or as having an alternative, non-binary, gender identity  such as agender, bi-gender, genderfluid, or polygender and for the Church to recognise these new identities?  To say ‘yes’ in answer to either or both of these questions is to tolerate that which is intolerable.

The reason why both same sex-sex relationships and gender transition are theologically intolerable is because they go against the basic truth that God has created all human beings in his image and likeness.

A central part of what it means to be created by God in his image and likeness is to be male or female. In the words of Genesis 1:27: ‘So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.’ This teaching is reiterated by Jesus in Matthew 19:4: ‘Have you not read that he who made them from the beginning made them male and female.’

There is a very small percentage of people, some 0.018% of live births (approximately 1:500), who are genuinely ‘intersex’ in the sense that they combine both male and female elements in their physiology. However, the existence of such people still points to the fundamentally dimorphic, male or female, nature of human sexuality. Where they are able to reproduce, and that is often not the case, they do so either as male or female. Their condition is a developmental disorder rather than the existence of a third type of human being and is the exception that proves the rule.

Because this is the case, except in these highly exceptional and biologically distinct cases, believing rightly in ‘God the Father who hath made me and all the world’ in the words of the Prayer Book Catechism, means accepting with gratitude that I am the particular male or female human being that God has created me to be and living accordingly.

As Oliver O’Donovan writes in his book Begotten or Made? :

 ‘When God made mankind male and female, to exist alongside each other and for each other, he gave a form that human sexuality should take and a good to which it should aspire. None of us can, or should, regard our difficulties with that form, or with achieving that good, as the norm of what our sexuality is to be. None of us should see our sexuality as mere self-expression, and forget that we can express ourselves sexually only because we participate in this generic form and aspire to this generic good. We do not have to make a sexual form, or posit a sexual good. We have to exist as well as we can within that sexual form, and in relation to that sexual good, which has been given to us because it has been given to humankind.’ [3]

This means that it is not legitimate either to deny the God-given form by rejecting the division of humanity into male and female, or to deny the particular version of that form that God has given to us by making us either male or female, something that is determined not by our feelings (as many today would claim), but by our biology. This is because the embodied nature of human beings means that we cannot separate ourselves from our bodies. ‘My body is me’ and this means that ‘my biology is me.’

However difficult the forms that God has given us may be for us to accept, to deny it would be sinful because it would involve refusing to say to God ‘thy will be done’ by refusing to love  the self who God has made us to be.

Refusing in this way to say to God ‘thy will be done,’ in either our thinking or our behaviour, is not something that can be regarded as adiaphora and therefore tolerated within the Church. This is because it brings with it the inescapable risk of eternal separation from God. As C S Lewis writes in his book The Great Divorce, there is an inescapable binary choice facing all human beings. ‘There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’’[4]

Lewis’ point is that God has given human beings freedom to shape their own destinies. We can choose to say to God ‘thy will be done’ and be happy with God for ever in the world to come, or we can choose to turn our back on God. If we do this God will respect our decision, but the inevitable consequence will be that in the world to come we will be cut off from God and all good for ever. The fundamental problem with both gender transition and same-sex relationships is that they do involve a rejection, in both theory and practice, of the sexual identity which we have been given by God and thus a failure to say to God ‘thy will be done.’

As Martin Luther explains in his Small Catechism of the answer to the question of what it means to confess ‘I believe in God, the Father almighty, Maker of heaven and earth’ is ‘I believe that God has created me and all that exists; that he has given me and still sustains my body and soul, all my limbs and senses, my reason and all the faculties of my mind’.[5] In other words, the Christian belief in God the creator is not just a vague deistic belief that God is the ultimate source of all that is, but also the very specific belief testified to in Psalm 139 that God made me as the particular combination of body and soul that I am. Both same-sex relationships and gender transition involve in different ways a rejection of this basic truth. They thus involve, ultimately, a failure to say to God ‘thy will be done’ and to glorify God in the body by living according to this truth, and this, as previously noted, carries the risk of eternal damnation. That is why Paul warns the Corinthians in 1 Corinthians 6:10 that those who persist in same-sex sexual activity ‘will not inherit the kingdom of God.’

Because this is the case, any church which supports same-sex relationships or gender transition is a church which is in serious error in its teaching and practice. It is giving support to forms of behaviour which involve serious moral error because they involve people departing from the way God created them to live.  To put it simply, it is a church which does not love people enough to seek to prevent them from living in ways that are contrary to way God made them to live.

Love does not mean simply affirming whatever choices people wish to make. It means seeking their ultimate good by helping them to understand what the right choices are and then choose them. A church which gives support to same-sex relationships or gender transition is failing to do this and its action is therefore intolerable.

All this being so, for the Anglican Communion to actually be a communion of churches which do truly love, and which treat disagreements in a godly manner, it cannot be a communion which allows churches which give support to such things to remain part of it. Just as individuals who are behaving in a seriously ungodly manner need to be excommunicated in order to make this point clear to them so that they have the opportunity to repent and be saved (1 Corinthians 5:1-5), so also there needs to be a break in communion with churches that behave in a seriously ungodly manner by tolerating the intolerable. This is what Paul’s command ‘not to associate with immoral men’ (1 Corinthians 5:9) means when translated into ecclesiological terms.

The Archbishop then goes on to say:

We also need to be clear about what it should mean to be part of the Anglican Communion as part of God’s Church. The Anglican Communion is an extraordinary, wonderful, and powerful collaboration of rich and poor, of powerful and weak. A genuine expression of the vision of the Church that we find in the New Testament.

Yet too often it has slipped into being a tool of power, the absolute opposite of discipleship in the service of Jesus Christ. Some groups are intent on changing the way in which the Anglican Communion works, so that those outside of a province may interfere with its actions and tell people what to do. There is a danger of becoming a communion that finds itself with a load of small groups that claim extraterritorial jurisdiction.

This goes against the understanding of the Church from the New Testament onwards, set out clearly in the great councils of the Church. It reverses the understanding of what it is to be Anglican which was established from the first Lambeth Conference. It tries to narrow us from being a global church with open doors and a welcoming heart of love for the needy to one that – rather than depending on Christ and the Holy Spirit to draw in those who are not yet members – sets its own tests based on its own way of doing things.’

Here again there is a measure of truth in what the Archbishop writes. When it is working properly the Anglican Communion is indeed ‘an extraordinary, wonderful, and powerful collaboration of rich and poor, of powerful and weak’ and, as such, ‘A genuine expression of the vision of the Church that we find in the New Testament.’

However, he departs from the truth when he describes recent events in the life of the Communion. For him the big problem is that groups within the communion (and it is clear that what he means is GAFCON) have illegitimately claimed ‘extraterritorial jurisdiction’ within other Anglican churches as a means of exerting power. This is a deeply misleading depiction of what has taken place.

What has taken place is that in places such as Canada, the United States, Brazil, and New Zealand the existing Anglican churches have come to tolerate the intolerable in the ways described above. When this has happened other Anglican churches and their bishops have warned that this is not a godly thing to do, and when this warning has been ignored, they have then offered fellowship and oversight to those in such churches who have remained orthodox in their belief and behaviour and who as a result have separated themselves from those churches.

This has not been about the exercise of power. It has been about love, love shown in warning people against pursuing an ungodly course of action, and love shown in seeking to give practical support to those who want to continue to live in a godly fashion.

Furthermore, this action has not been an attempt to unduly narrow down what it means to be Anglican or to reject dependence on ‘Christ and the Holy Spirit to draw in those who are not yet members.’  

Those whom the Archbishop is criticising have not departed from the breadth of traditional Anglicanism. On the contrary, they have remained steadfastly loyal to traditional Anglican teaching and practice and are committed to the Anglican Communion being a ‘global church’ (the G for ‘global’ in GAFCON is a big give away here).

In addition, there is no evidence at all that they have rejected the need to be dependent on Christ and the Holy Spirit to bring people to faith and it is wrong of the Archbishop to claim that this is the case.

There is no contradiction between taking a clear and strenuous view of the requirements of Christian discipleship and holding that Christian faith is the gift of God the Father bestowed by Christ through the Spirit. A reading of the Gospel of John and the Epistle to the Ephesians, for example shows that it is perfectly possible for both ideas to be held together.

The Archbishop finishes the section by writing:

Anglicanism is both Catholic and Reformed. Both our Catholicity and the traditions of the Reformation need renewing so that each person answers to God for their own decisions, and churches are autonomous but interdependent in love.

The problem with this paragraph is not that it claims that ‘Anglicanism is both Catholic and Reformed.’ This is true. What is problematic is the way that the Archbishop goes on to depict the renewal of Anglicanism in terms of individuals and churches being simply free to go their own way.

This has not been the accepted Anglican view of the matter. It is true that when the Anglican Communion came into being there was  a deliberate rejection of the sort of centralised command and control found in the Roman Catholic Church. However, this did not mean that Anglicans were seen as being completely free to do what they wanted.

Drawing on their reading of the  practice of the Early Church those who developed the Anglican Communion held that bishops and their churches should be independent of each other, but also held that their exercise of this independence should be constrained by two factors. First, adhesion to Apostolic truth as taught in Scripture and reflected in the writings of the Fathers and in the historic Anglican formularies. Secondly, loyalty to the fellowship of the Anglican Communion, manifested in adhesion to the decisions collectively arrived at by the Bishops of the Communion gathered together at the Lambeth Conference.

As the Encyclical Letter from the Bishops of the 1920 Lambeth Conference put it:

‘For half a century the Lambeth Conference has more and more served to focus the experience and counsels of our Communion.  But it does not claim to exercise any powers of control or command.  It stands for the far more spiritual and more Christian principle of loyalty to the fellowship.  The Churches represented in it are indeed independent, but independent with the Christian freedom which recognizes the restraints of truth and of love. They are not free to deny the truth.  They are not free to ignore the fellowship.  And the objects of our Conferences are to attain an ever deeper apprehension of the truth, and to guard the fellowship with ever increasing appreciation of its value’[6]

The resolutions of the Lambeth Conferences did not have legal authority, but they were seen as having binding moral authority because they were, in the words of  Owen Chadwick, resolutions ‘taken after due debate and after prayer by the ministers who represented the apostles to their churches.’[7]

This view of what membership of the Anglican Communion involved held sway until it was breached by the Canadian and American churches in the years after the 1998 Lambeth Conference. Resolution 1.10 of that Conference laid down quite clearly that same-sex relationships and the ordination of those in same-sex relationships were unacceptable and yet the Bishop of the Diocese of New Westminster in  Canada authorised the celebration of same-sex relationships and the Episcopal Church in the United States consecrated Gene Robinson, a man in same-sex relationship as Bishop of New Hampshire and they and other liberal churches have made similar decisions in the years that have followed. It is the liberal revisionists in the Anglican communion who discarded the principles of the Anglican Communion by rejecting the ‘restrains of truth and love.’  Orthodox Anglicans have simply responded to the pastoral emergencies that their actions have created.

If what the Archbishop writes about the way forward for the Anglican Communion is thus unsatisfactory, is there a better alternative?  The answer is ‘yes, there is a better way forward.’ This would have four elements.

  1. The Archbishop of Canterbury would exercise his authority as the convenor of the Lambeth Conference by not inviting to the 2022 Conference any bishop from a province of the Anglican Communion that has breached Resolution 1.10, but would invite the bishops from the new orthodox jurisdictions in their place.
  2. The Conference would pass a new resolution upholding the basic principles of Lambeth 1.10. but extending it to include opposition to gender transition. The American Nashville Statement of 2017 would serve as a good model. The Conference would also spend time considering how to provide appropriate pastoral care, consistent with Christian ethics, to LGBT+ people.
  3. Anglican churches would rescind ecumenical relationships with all non-Anglican churches whose theology and practice was incompatible this new resolution.
  4. Anglican churches would begin to work ecumenically with other churches to uphold traditional Christian theology and practice with regard human sexual identity and practice and to resist the efforts of revisionist bodies to change or undermine these or to make them illegal.

This is the way forward for a godly and truly loving Anglican Communion.


[1] The Archbishop of Canterbury, ‘God’s Church for God’s World – Our life together as the Anglican Communion’ at ‘https://www.lambethconfrence.org/the-lambeth-confrence-the-journey-is-under-way.

[2] The Lambeth Commission on Communion, The Windsor Report, 2004, para 88. p.39.

[3] Oliver O’Donovan, Begotten or Made? (Oxford: OUP, 1984), pp. 29-30.

[4] C S Lewis, The Great Divorce (Glasgow: Fontana, 1972), pp. 66-67.

[5] Martin Luther, Small Catechism, Section I , in Mark Knoll (ed), Confessions and Catechisms of the

   Reformation (Vancouver: Regent College Publishing, 2004), p. 68.

[6] The Six Lambeth Conferences 1867-1920 (London: SPCK 1920), pp.13-14.

[7] Owen Chadwick, in Roger Coleman (ed.), Resolutions of the Lambeth Conferences 1867-1988 (Toronto: Anglican Book Centre, 1992), p.xvii.

Why discrimination is not the way forward – A response to the Cooper report on ‘conversion practices.’

Why discrimination is not the right way forward – Reflections on the Cooper report on Conversion Therapy

Jayne Ozanne has long campaigned for a complete ban on ‘conversion therapy.’ She was, for example, the driving force behind the motion passed by the General Synod of the Church of England in 2017 which declared:

‘That this Synod: (a) endorse the Memorandum of Understanding on Conversion Therapy in the UK of November 2015, signed by The Royal College of Psychiatrists and others, that the practice of gay conversion therapy has no place in the modern world, is unethical, potentially harmful and not supported by evidence; and 3 (b) call upon the Church to be sensitive to, and to listen to, contemporary expressions of gender identity; (c) and call on the government to ban the practice of Conversion Therapy.[1]

The latest move in her campaign is a new report published by the foundation which she heads up, the Ozanne Foundation. This report was commissioned  by the Foundation from the ‘Ban Conversion Legal Forum,’ a ‘cross-party group of MPs, peers, academics, barristers, legal professionals, campaigners, survivors and service providers who support to victims of ‘conversion therapy’’ and who support ‘a legislative ban on so-called ‘conversion therapy.’’ [2] The report has the title ‘The Cooper Report’ as a tribute to the LGBT + campaigner Joseph Cooper who died this year. Its full title is ‘The Cooper Report: How to Legislate against Conversion Practices.

A. What does the report propose?

What the report proposes is that what it calls ‘conversion practices’ (the term it prefers to ‘conversion therapy’) should be made criminal offences and that there should also be ‘ancillary civil protection orders’ to protect the victims of such practices, ’given they cannot afford to wait for lengthy investigation and prosecution.’ [3]

It further proposes that any activity undertaken in connection with conversion practices that is already in itself illegal (such as rape, assault, or false imprisonment) should receive an increased sentence because it was undertaken in connection with conversion practice:

‘Where an existing criminal offence is also a conversion practice, its reprehensible nature is especially heightened and the harm to a victim’s physical and psychological health often aggravated. As such, where conversion practices take the form of activities that are already criminalised, the Forum recommends the introduction of increased sentences akin to the uplifts applied to sentences under s.66 of the ‘Sentencing Code’, as set out in the Sentencing Act 2020. This imposes a duty on criminal courts to treat any offence more seriously when it can be shown to be aggravated by hostility towards persons of a  particular sexual orientation or gender identity. Courts should therefore treat an offence more seriously if it  has been motivated by a desire to suppress, “cure” or change an individual’s sexuality or gender identity.’[4]

As part of the prevention of conversion practices, the report recommends that

‘…. intelligence gathering and tracking systems be developed to identify repeat offenders who continue to promote and undertake conversion practices in order to bring them to the attention of the relevant authorities.’[5]

The report also recommends that there should be a regulatory body that oversees the issue of conversion practices and that this body ‘must have a hotline for reporting suspected conversion practices.’[6]

How does the report define a conversion practice?

The report proposes that :

‘…. an act constitutes a conversion practice where it is directed against another person or specific group of persons, and attempts to suppress, ‘cure’ or change that person’s or those persons gender identity or sexual orientation.’[7]

The report thinks it is important that ‘suppress’ should be included in the definition because:

‘…. if suppression is not included, perpetrators will simply shift their focus from trying to change or ‘cure’ a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity to trying to suppress it. They would still rely on the same methods and continue with the same belief that anything other than a heteronormative and non-trans (sometimes referred to as cisgender) identity is wrong. Indeed, the primary aim of many conversion practices is already focused on trying to suppress a person’s sexuality or alter their behaviour or gender expression because their sexual orientation or gender identity is deemed to be unacceptable. Such attempts are both harmful and morally wrong.’[8]

The report goes on to insist, however, that:

‘Legislation must … distinguish between harmful conversion practices and other practices that help people come to a consensual, comfortable, and self-accepting place with their gender identity or sexual orientation.’[9]

This last point means that helping people to accept that they are transgender or helping them to come out as gay, lesbian, or bisexual, would be acceptable. However, helping people to reject a transgender identity or to refrain from same-sex sexual activity would be illegal.

What does the report believe is wrong with conversion practices?

According to the report the problem with conversion practices is that they violate people’s human rights as these are laid out in the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) to which the United Kingdom is a signatory.

First, the report says conversion practices involve degrading treatment:

‘Conversion practices amount at least to degrading treatment, and under certain circumstances may constitute inhuman treatment or even torture – all of which are absolutely prohibited by Article 3 ECHR. Conversion practices are at a minimum degrading as they combine direct discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation or gender identity with a real risk of grave physical or psychological harm for anyone subjected to them.’[10]

Secondly, conversion practices violate people’s right to respect for their private life:

‘Conversion practices also interfere with an individual’s right to respect for a private life under Article 8 as they violate their ability to live their life without arbitrary disruption or interference. States are again under a positive legal obligation under Article 8 ECHR to protect an individual’s right to a private life, and these obligations may involve the adoption of measures even in the sphere of relations between individuals.’[11]

Thirdly, conversion practices damage the LGBT + community as a whole:

‘Conversion practices not only harm the individual but negatively impact the LGBT+ community as a whole. The mere existence of conversion practices conveys the belief that LGBT+ identities can and ought to be suppressed. This sends a message which ‘reproduces, and promotes, the social images of LGBTIQ+ people as abnormal, disgusting etc which ground their pre-existing stigma’, thus contributing to and maintaining the continuum of violence and stigma that LGBT+ individuals continue to face.’[12]

Fourthly, conversion practices treat LGBT+ people as having less value than other human beings:

‘All conversion practices have in common that they treat LGBT+ people as being of less value,  manifesting contempt for LGBT+ identities and refusing to respect the equal value of the well-being of LGBT+ people. They are consequently an affront to the human dignity of LBGT+ persons because they fail to recognise that all persons are of equal moral value irrespective of their sexual orientation or gender identity.[13]

The Issue of consent

The report argues that it should not be possible for someone accused of engaging in conversion practices to defend their actions on the basis that the person who was the subject of those practices consented to them.

This is for three reasons.

First, as previously argued, conversion practices amount to ‘degrading treatment’ under Article 3 of the ECHR and consent is not a defence against this.

Secondly, in an any event, people cannot be said to give free and informed consent to such practices:

‘Individuals who seek out conversion practices in the hope of being “cured” are not made aware of the severe psychological harm to which they are exposed to, and so cannot give informed consent. The motives of individuals seeking out such practices lie in stigmatisation, social pressure and the historic oppression of LGBT+ identities. Given the noted deceptive and unscientific nature of conversion practices and the stigmatisation that leads individuals to these practices, it is impossible to speak of an ability to give free and informed consent in relation to conversion practices.’[14]

Thirdly, allowing exemptions on the grounds of consent would undermine the welfare of the LGBT+ community as whole:

‘It is not only the individual who would be harmed if exemptions were made. Allowing any LGBT+ person to undergo conversion practices would contribute to and promote the continued stigmatisation of LGBT+ persons in wider society and damage the LGBT+ community as it furthers the belief that LGBT+ people are undesirable, abnormal and need to be “cured”. As such, even where an individual states that they were not harmed by conversion practices or that they ‘consented’, public policy still requires a full ban in order to give a clear indication as to what is and is not acceptable for matters of public health and safety. This is akin to other public policy areas such as the requirement to wear a seatbelt, which is required whether or not a driver believes they are at risk. Irrespective of different levels of risk between the two settings, the reality that an exemption would create loopholes and confusion justifies an outright ban with no exceptions.’[15]

B. What does the report say a ban on conversion practices would mean for religious organisations?

The report explains that what it proposes:

‘… allows religious practices and expressions of views on sexual ethics and morals which may be opposed to LGBT+ identities but intervenes where acts that constitute conversion practices are directed at LGBT+ individuals.’[16]

This means, it says, that:

‘Contrary to the publicised fears of certain religious groups, the expression of religious views on sexuality and gender will remain unaffected and the ban should not constitute an inherent restriction on religious freedom.’[17]

What this would mean would be that churches, and other religious organisations, and individuals within them,  could still teach that engaging in same-sex sexual activity or adopting a transgender activity was contrary to the will of God but they could not urge any specific individual to act in accordance with this teaching.

On the topic of prayer, the report argues that forms of prayer that are directed at a particular individual for a ‘predetermined purpose’  should be banned. In its view

‘….exempting prayer that is directed at an individual with a predetermined purpose would lead to a significant loophole that would be open to abuse, especially as this exemption would also exclude exorcisms that are conducted as a form of conversion practice from a ban. This type of exemption would be misguided given that a great number of conversion practices are prayer-based and given that they are often conducted in a religious context and environment.’ [18]

What would continue to be allowed, however is:

‘… any prayer that seeks to help an individual come to a point of peace and acceptance about their sexual orientation or gender identity, that is which does not have a predetermined purpose.’[19]

  • What would the report’s proposals mean for Christian practice?

If the Cooper report’s proposals ever became law, then what very many Christians would regard as perfectly normal aspects of Christian pastoral ministry would become criminal offences. Three  examples illustrate this.

First a woman decides that she no longer wishes to be in a lesbian relationship, but who wishes to live as a celibate Christian instead. Offering pastoral support to help her do this would be illegal because it would involve the suppression of her previous lesbian sexual activity.

Secondly, someone who is biologically male, but who has transitioned to living as a female now wishes to de-transition and live as a male and seeks help from the Church to do this. Offering help to do this would be illegal because it would involve a change to someone’s gender identity.

Thirdly, a man in a heterosexual marriage has been having extra-marital sex with other men. He asks for prayer that God will help him to stop such behaviour and that he will henceforth remain faithful to his marriage vows. Any such prayer would be illegal because it would be prayer with the ‘predetermined purpose’ of suppressing homosexual activity in the life of a particular individual.

Overall, what the Cooper report’s proposals would mean would be that, while Christians would still be free to express traditional Christian teaching on sexual identity and sexual behaviour, they would be prohibited from taking any form of action, whether in terms of counselling, pastoral guidance and support, or even prayer, to help people struggling with same-sex attraction, or with issues of sexual identity, to live according to that teaching. 

C. What are we to make of the proposals in the Cooper Report?

The key thing that needs to be grasped about the Copper report is that what it proposes is discrimination against a particular group of people, namely those who want to live their lives in line with traditional Christian anthropology and Christian ethics by living in accordance with their biological sex and refraining from same-sex sexual activity.

As we have seen, one of the objections to conversion practices in the report is that involves ‘direct discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation or gender identity.’ This claim is mistaken because, at least in a Christian context, conversion practices are not based on treating different individuals differently.  Rather, they are based on regarding everyone as called by God to accept their biological sex and to restrict their sexual activity to heterosexual marriage, and acting towards everyone on the basis of that conviction.

What the Cooper report proposes, however, would involve discrimination. We can see this if we consider the three examples given in the previous section of this paper.

Under the proposals in the Cooper report:

  • It would be legal to help someone with same sex attraction to come out as a lesbian and to enter into a lesbian relationship. However, it would be illegal to help someone who wanted to cease to be in a lesbian relationship, but to be celibate instead;
  • It would be legal to help a biological male to transition to living as a trans woman. However, it would be illegal to help someone living as trans woman to detransition and resume life as a man;
  • It would be legal to help someone in a heterosexual marriage to break his marriage vows by entering into same-sex relationship. However, it would be illegal to help someone to be faithful to his marriage vows by ceasing to involved in a same-sex relationship.

These three examples are all examples of discrimination in that they declare that some people may receive help, but that other people may not. However much the second person in each example may need or want help, help must not be given to them or a criminal act will have been performed.

If what the Cooper report proposes is discrimination, the next question is whether the report offers any valid justification for such discrimination. The answer is no.

First, the report claims that no one can possibly offer free and informed consent to conversion practices. This would be news to the large number of people who would testify that they did give their free and informed consent. These people exist, their testimonies are easily accessible, and it is not legitimate for the Cooper report to simply write them out of the picture.

As recently as May this year Jayne Ozanne herself testified to the Women and Equalities Committee of the House of Commons concerning conversion practices: ‘the vast majority of people, like me, chose willingly to go through this … We did it because we truly believed it was the right thing to do.’ [20]  To be fair to Ozanne, she went on to say that for her it turned to be the wrong decision. Nevertheless, her testimony still stands. The ‘vast majority’ of people who have entered into conversion practices have done so ‘willingly’ because ‘they truly believed that it was the right thing to do.’

Secondly, the report claims that  conversion practices ‘fail to recognise that all persons are of equal moral value irrespective of their sexual orientation or gender identity.’  The report does not give any evidence to support this conclusion and it is not a conclusion that can be seen to be necessarily true.

It is perfectly possible, for instance, to hold that a desire to have sex with a member of one’s own sex, or a desire to live as a member of the opposite sex, are results of the Fall which conversion practices can help to address, without holding that people who have such desires have lesser moral value than other human beings. Thus, from an orthodox Christian perspective all human beings, whatever their desires, have an absolute and intrinsic moral value because they have been created by God in his image and likeness (Genesis 1:26-27). Far from denying this conviction, Christian conversion practices are based on it, since they are attempts to help people live rightly as those whom God has created.

It can be argued, however, that the Cooper report itself attributes lesser moral value to some people as opposed to others. This can be seen in two respects.

  • The discrimination proposed by the Cooper report is based on the belief that the wishes of those who want to be involved in conversion practices should be ignored. If other people, such as those in the LGBT+ community, want to receive help to live in the way they want to live, then their wishes should be respected, but the wishes of those who want to be involved in conversion practices simply don’t count as far as the Cooper report is concerned. What is this if not giving less moral value to a particular group of people?
  • The proposal in the Cooper report that crimes such as rape, assault. or false imprisonment. should receive a more severe penalty if undertaken in the context of conversion practices implies that the same crimes have less significance  when they are committee in other contexts. This means, for example, that the sufferings of a rape victim where rape was committed in the context of domestic abuse or the sufferings of someone assaulted on the way home from the cinema, are less important than suffering endured by someone involved in conversion practices. Again, what is this except giving less moral value to some people rather than others?

Thirdly, the report claims that conversion practices are ‘degrading’ because they involve discrimination against LGBT+ people plus a real danger of ‘grave physical or psychological harm.’ We have already seen that the charge of discrimination is unfounded, and the evidence for widespread harm also seems to be lacking.

The Cooper report declares That:

‘There is now a vast library of testimonies from members of faith communities who have denounced conversion practices following their participation in them.’[21]

However, the only evidence it gives to support this claim is a footnote referring to eleven testimonies from ‘LGBT+ individuals that underwent and advocated for conversion practices rejecting their previous statements and denouncing the practice.’ [22] Eleven testimonies hardly constitutes a ‘vast library.’  Furthermore, the report makes no reference to the large number of testimonies from people who have found conversion practices beneficial.

Two examples will serve as evidence of such testimonies.

The first comes from Rosaria Butterfield’s book The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert.  Butterfield was a prominent Lesbian activist, who was in a long-term lesbian relationship and taught Queer studies as a Professor at Syracuse University, but who gave all this up after her Christian conversion.

In her book Butterfield testifies that she felt ‘very comfortable, very at home in my body, in my lesbianism’,[23] but she also declares her gratitude for the way in which the ministry of her Pastor and others in her church subsequently enabled her to repent of, and move away from, her lesbianism (ministry which in terms of the Cooper report was a form of conversion practice). In her words:

‘God sent me to a Reformed and Presbyterian conservative church to repent, heal, learn, and thrive. The pastor there did not farm me out to a para-church ministry ‘specializing’ in ‘gay people.’ He and the session knew that the church is competent to counsel (to quote the title of one of Jay Adams’s useful books). I needed (and need) faithful shepherding, not the glitz and glamour that has captured the soul of modern evangelical culture. I had to lean and lean hard on a full weight of Scripture, on the fullness of the word of God, and I’m grateful that when I heard the Lords call on my life, and I wanted to hedge my bets, keep my girlfriend, and add a little God to my life, I had a pastor and friends in the Lord who asked nothing less of me than that I die to myself. Biblical orthodoxy can offer real compassion, because in our struggle against sin we cannot undermine God’s power to change lives.’ [24]

The second comes from Walt Heyer’s book A Transgender’s Faith. In this book he describes how he transitioned from a male to a female identity, underwent gender re-assignment surgery and lives for eight years as a woman called Laura. His transition did not being him the emotional peace and stability he was looking for, but eventually found these when he de-transitioned and resumed life as a man. At the end of the book he expresses gratitude to those who helped him on his journey of de-transition.

He writes:

‘While I had many counsellors throughout my long journey, two stood out. Dr. D, a psychologist, who from the time I first arrived at the Thompson house provided very strong, confronting counselling on the one hand and loving guidance and support with the other: a balance that worked. The second psychologist was Dr. Jonathan ‘Sunny ‘Arnold, a friend of Pastor Jeff Farrah, who helped specifically with my switching back and forth between Laura and Walt.

The families in the rural town of Murphys protected me, loved me, fed me and housed me during the difficult financial and emotional times. Their deep caring was consistent no matter how confused I was. They allowed me to see what normal was, they gave me a home away from home, a quiet place to rest. Together we still laugh and cry remembering the past. We marvel together what God has done to restore my life. Our heart bonds run deep….

I’m humbled by and grateful to, all the people who opened their hearts, gave of their time, and made many sacrifices on my behalf because they love the Lord and trust in His power to heal broken lives, even one so seemingly destroyed beyond repair as mine. I am grateful to those whom I loved and hurt badly that they found in their hearts to forgive, and allow me back in their lives.

My story testifies to the truth that we must never give up on people, no matter how many times they fail or how long recovery takes. We must never underestimate the healing power of prayer and love in the hands of the Lord. We must never give up hope.’[25]

The people referred to by Heyer were not all engaging in what the Cooper report calls conversion practices, but many of them, including the two psychologists he mentions, were doing so, and Heyer is clearly very grateful to them for what they did for him.

The testimonies of people like Butterfield and Heyer do not negate the fact that there are people who have undergone forms of conversion practice that they have found to be harmful. This fact needs to be acknowledged. However, what they do show is that the idea that conversion practices are necessarily harmful is clearly not true. Unless a huge number of people are lying, we have to acknowledge that many people who undergo conversion practices have found them beneficial.

The limited number of research studies on conversion practices point in the same direction.

At the time of the General Synod debate on conversion therapy in 2017, the Anglican writer Peter Ould  noted 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), what the Cooper report calls conversion practices.  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.’ [26]

In the four years since Ould’s article nothing seems to have changed. We simply cannot say that studies have shown that conversion practices in relation to sexual orientation are necessarily harmful. This has been claimed, but not demonstrated.

As Ould points out in another article, the one really rigorous study that has been undertaken to assess the impact of conversion practices in relation to sexual orientation, the 2011 study by Stanton Jones and Mark Yarhouse,[27] found that there was ‘no statistically significant evidence of harm, even in those for whom the therapy ‘failed’ or who dropped out.’ [28]

If we turn to the issue of conversion practices in relation to gender identity, we find that there is a debate about whether ‘conversion therapy’ is happening at all[29] 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[30] is harmful and has negative effects on public health’[31] 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.’[32]

A similar conclusion is reached by Andrew Blunt in his article ‘The impact of Gender Identity ‘Conversion Therapy’’ in which he outlines the ‘many significant weaknesses’ in the 2020 survey. [33]

Fourthly, the report claims that conversion practices violate people’s right to a private life since they ‘violate their ability to live their life without arbitrary disruption or interference.’  Providing people give their consent to conversion practices it is hard to see how this claim is justified.  It is hardly ‘arbitrary disruption or interference’ if someone asks for help to live their life in a particular way and then receives the help they have asked for. In fact, it would seem to be the case that it would be a ban on conversion practices that would violate people’s right to a private life because such a ban would involve interference in people’s ability to live their lives in the way they want to live them.

Fifthly, the report claims that conversion practices should be banned because they convey ‘the belief that LGBT+ identities can and ought to be suppressed’ and by so doing contribute to the ‘violence and stigma’ that LGBT+ individuals face. There are two problems with this argument.

The first is that no evidence is produced that people who commit violence against, or who stigmatise, LGBT + people do so because of the influence of conversion practices.

The second is that this argument suggests that those who want to receive help through conversion practices may not be allowed do so because preventing violence and stigma against LGTB + individuals needs to take a higher priority. As indicated before, this is discrimination against a particular group of people, and arguably also interference in their right to a private life, and as such unacceptable.

It cannot be acceptable to say that if LGBT +  individuals should be free to live their lives in the way they want but that this same right should not extend to those who want help to cease to be LGBT+. If the rights of all individuals are to be respected this has to include the rights of those who want to benefit from conversion practices. Pitting the welfare of one group in society against the welfare of another group is not the right way forward.

The correct way to tackle violence and stigma against LGBT + individuals is not to discriminate against those who want to be involved in conversion practices, but to encourage an ever greater public acceptance that violence is never acceptable against anyone, except when it is necessary in order to protect oneself or others and that all people deserve to be treated with dignity and respect regardless of their sexual preferences or gender identity.

D. Conclusion  

The only conclusion that we can draw from the review of the Cooper report in part C is that the report has not made out a convincing case for a blanket ban on conversion practices. Because this is so, legislating to introduce such a ban would be, as we have seen, an act of unwarranted discrimination against those who want to be involved in these practices because of their convictions about the way in which they want to live. Such discrimination should have no place in a free society.

A better way forward on the issue of conversion practices would be for the Government to work with the groups and individuals involved in conversion practices in order to develop protocols to ensure that those who enter into such practices do so willingly, and that steps are taken to root out practices that are illegal, or can otherwise be shown to cause harm. It  would also make sense to develop agreed standards of training, accreditation, conduct, and continuing professional development for those who are professionally involved in helping people who have same-sex attraction or issues of sexual identity and yet who do  not want to engage in same-sex activity or identify as transgender.

If we truly want reduce harm while allowing  people to receive the help they want in order to live in the way they want to live, then this is the way to go.


[1] ‘General Synod backs ban on conversion therapy’  at https://www.churchofengland.org/news-and-

   media/news-and-statements/general-synod-backs-ban-conversion-therapy.

[2] The Cooper Report, The Ozanne Foundation 2021, ‘The Ban Conversion Legal Forum’.  

[3] The Cooper Report, p.2.

[4] The Cooper Report, p. 4.

[5] The Cooper Report, p.11.

[6] The Cooper Report, p.11.

[7] The Cooper Report, p.2.

[8] The Cooper Report, p.3.

[9] The Cooper Report, p.4.

[10] The Cooper Report, p.5.

[11] The Cooper Report, p. 6.

[12] The Cooper Report, p.6.

[13] The Cooper Report, p.6.

[14] The Cooper Report p.9.

[15] The Cooper Report, p.9.

[16] The Cooper Report, p.7.

[17] The Cooper Report, p. A.2.

[18] The Cooper Report, p.8.

[19] The Cooper Report, p.8.

[20] Jayne Ozanne, response to  Q.35 from Bell Ribeiro Addy MP at

https://committees.parliament.uk/oralevidence/2217/html/.

[21] The Cooper report p.9.

[22] The Cooper Report, fn. 39.

[23] Rosaria Butterfield, The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert (Pittsburgh: Crown and Covenant

    Publications, 2014), Kindle edition, Loc. 518.

[24] Butterfield, Loc.542.

[25] Walt Heyer, A Transgender’s Faith (Walt Heyer, 2015), pp.139-141.

[26] Peter Ould, ‘Do sexual orientation change efforts cause harm? Possibly, but….’  at

   https://www.psephizo.com/sexuality – 2/do-sexual-orientation-change-efforts-cause-harm-possibly-but.

[27] 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. 

[28] Peter Ould, It’s easy to talk about banning gay conversion therapy. But how to do it – and where’s the

   evidence?’ Christian Today, 23 June, 2017.

[29] See Shelley Charlesworth ‘Is Gender identity conversion therapy taking place in the UK?’ at

   https;//www.transgendertrend.com/gender-identity-conversion-therapy-uk.

[30] Gender Identity Conversion Therapy.

[31] 2020 Conversion Therapy and Gender Identity Survey at https;// http://www.stonewall.org.uk/resources /2020 –

   conversion-therapy-and-gender-identity- survey.

[32] Michael Biggs, ‘Conversion Therapy’ & Gender Identity Survey: an analysis by Michael Biggs’ at

   https://trangendertrend.com/conversion -therapy-gender-identity-survey-analysis.

[33] Andrew Blunt, ‘‘The impact of Gender Identity ‘Conversion Therapy’,’  CMF Blogs, 5 April 2021 at

    Htttps://cmfblog.org.uk/2021/04/05/the-impact-of-gender-identity-conversion’therapy/.