A leading member of the Church of England who believes some gay people can be counselled to suppress or possibly change their sexual orientation is helping to select the next Archbishop of Canterbury.
Glynn Harrison, emeritus professor of psychiatry at Bristol University, is on the powerful Crown Nominations Commission (CNC), which will chose a successor to Rowan Williams to be approved by the prime minister and the Queen.
Harrison’s role on the 16-strong panel has triggered alarm among liberal Anglicans who fear it could deepen existing divisions over homosexuality in a church already riven by the issues of holding gay civil ceremonies in churches and the ordination of gay bishops.
Reverend Colin Coward, director of Changing Attitude, the campaign for the full inclusion of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people in the Anglican communion, said Harrison’s position on the CNC appeared “cranky in the extreme”.
Harrison’s supporters insist his views reflect a substantial section of Anglican opinion about homosexuality and it would be impossible to elect a new leader of an estimated 50-million church-goers worldwide without such views being represented.
Harrison has written recent articles that reveal he believes that gay relationships “fall short of God’s purpose in creation”. He supports therapy programmes and pastoral ministry, saying “there is evidence that some people with unwanted same sex attractions can achieve significant change”.
Harrison is one of three lay members of the panel charged with nominating a successor to Rowan Williams and was voted into his position by the Church of England’s General Synod in 2007. The commission’s first meeting is expected to take place in May.
In 2011 Harrison co-authored an article entitled Unwanted same-sex attraction: Issues of pastoral and counselling support, published by the Christian Medical Fellowship. It asserts: “People with unwanted SSA [same sex attraction] who seek to live in conformity with their beliefs should be free to receive appropriate and responsible practical care and counsel.
“Most may choose counselling and pastoral support to maintain, within a Christian ethical framework, the disciplines of chastity. Others may wish to explore the possibility of achieving some degree of change in the strength or direction of unwanted sexual interests.”
“It seems the Church is trying to give equal weight to those against homosexuality as those who are for it,” said Coward. “In 21st century British society this is insane. I think the next Archbishop of Canterbury needs to be chosen by somebody who is fully confident with lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in the church because the church stance on this has to change radically. The presence of somebody like Glynn Harrison on the CNC really is unacceptable.”
Canon Giles Goddard, chairperson of the Inclusive Church movement, said any suggestion that gay people may be able to alter their sexuality through courses or therapy was “dangerous”.
“These views have caused damage in the past for people who have got caught up in re-orientation programmes,” he said. “I am sure Glynn will make sure the best person is appointed to the job regardless of his personal views.”
He pointed out that there were also more liberal Anglicans on the panel, including Mary Johnston, a campaigner for women bishops.
Reverend Peter Ould, a supporter of Harrison’s work and a writer on Christianity and sexual identity, said Harrison’s position was not as radical as that of some evangelicals and Catholics whose views need to be represented in the selection of the next Anglican leader.
Changing sexual preferences through therapy
“Most evangelicals and traditional Catholics would say homosexual practice is wrong,” said Ould, who is married and said he “left homosexuality behind” after regarding himself as gay for many years. “The issue is what to do with those people … Some would say you can support them to change their sexual preferences through therapy. A conservative perspective on matters of human sexuality needs to be represented on the CNC.”
Harrison is also a member of the council of reference of the True Freedom Trust, a charity that runs courses to help Christians “who struggle with same-sex attractions”. The Trust has a policy of refusing to talk to secular media organisations, however its website states that its mission is to help Christians honour the Old Testament vision of sexual relationships that “a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh”.
It states that same sex attraction causes “personal suffering” and “pain” for some Christians. It describes changing sexual orientation as not turning from homosexuality to heterosexuality, but as “turning towards God”, the implication being that chastity may be the best outcome for gay Christians.
Harrison declined to comment directly on his views, but approved a statement issued on his behalf by the Church of England, which stated he “does not believe in the concept of ‘gay cure’ or ‘gay conversion’ and has never been involved in offering any formal counselling or ‘therapy’ in this area himself”.
He said he supports counselling and pastoral support for people who want to “manage and integrate their sexual desires with a religious identity grounded in the traditional teaching of their faith”.
The statement continued: “Professor Harrison also notes however that there are anecdotes in the research literature, and in popular media, about individuals who have experienced some degree of change in either the strength or direction of their sexual attractions.”
He recommends “considerable caution” for people exploring such therapy because of the little evidence available about whether such techniques work or not. —