Dr Glynn Harrison’s views on homosexuality and his membership of the Crown Nominations Commission

Professor Glynn Harrison

Last week a Guardian reporter phoned me to consult me about Dr Glynn Harrison’s membership of the Crown Nominations Commission (CNC), the body that will select the next Archbishop of Canterbury (and appoints other diocesan bishops). The Guardian was concerned about Glynn Harrison’s CNC place because of his beliefs about gay people. An article in yesterday’s Guardian said he believes some gay people can be counselled to suppress or possibly change their sexual orientation.

Glynn Harrison is emeritus professor of psychiatry at Bristol University. I met him for the first time at the General Synod meeting in London in February. We had a 30 minute conversation about Christian attitudes towards LGB&T people. I was clear about my own views and experience. Dr Harrison revealed very little about his own views and I felt he was being somewhat elusive.

Dr Harrison’s name had already been mentioned to me in relation to his membership of the CNC. Colin Slee wrote his memorandum following the leak of names from the Southwark CNC process to defend himself from accusations that he was the source of the leak. Colin suspected that the Archbishop of Canterbury himself was the unwitting source of the leak. This seems unlikely. The names of other members of the CNC have been suggested to me, as people who might have an interest in preventing the appointment of candidates known to be gay or gay affirming, in relation to Southwark and other, more recent appointments.

The Guardian quotes me as saying Harrison’s position on the commission appeared “cranky in the extreme”. I’m not sure I said exactly that, but I certainly did say that Harrison’s seat on the commission was unacceptable to me. Quote:

“It seems the church is trying to give equal weight to those against homosexuality as those who are for it. In 21st-century British society this is insane. I think the next archbishop 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 commission really is unacceptable.”

That’s the bottom line for Changing Attitude – the church stance towards LGB&T people has to change radically. As our submission to the House of Bishops Review Group will say, the current policy outlined in Lambeth 1.10 and Issues in Human Sexuality has to be dramatically rewritten, especially the former. Church of England policy has to be unequivocally gay-affirming.

Back to Glynn Harrison. In a lengthy statement issued by the press office at Church House, Dr Harrison states that he did not believe in concepts of “gay cure” or “gay conversion”. He says such descriptions, because they depend on inappropriate notions of ‘sickness’, convey simplistic and stigmatising views. In addition, all bullying and prejudice toward people, whatever their sexual interests and attractions, is a violation of the inclusive call of the Christian Gospel and the way of Jesus Christ. This is made clear, says the statement, by the report produced for the Christian Medical Fellowship, co-authored by Andrew Goddard and Glynn Harrison, “Unwanted Same-Sex Attraction: Issues of pastoral and counselling support”.

It sounds as if Dr Harrison and Dr Goddard hold views which are reasonable from an LGB&T perspective. They are not. Their views are part of the Church of England framework which maintains a very unhealthy, dishonest and dysfunctional attitude towards LGB&T people. By upholding the Church’s teaching they contribute to the culture of guilt and sinfulness in which many LGB&T people grow up and which encourages some to deny their sexuality and seek so-called ‘healing’ or ‘reparative therapy’.

The problems with Dr Harrison

Dr Harrison supports the current teaching of the Church of England in Issues in Human Sexuality. This is assumed to be an acceptable norm. All bishops, after all, support the current teaching of the Church in Issues, don’t they? No, they don’t – about half the bishops actively dissent from the teaching and practices commended by Issues. They do so because it advocates (or tolerates) one policy for lay people and a different policy for priests and bishops. The policy is not adhered to because it is discriminatory and is against the health and well-being of LGB&T priests and lay ministers. Anyone who supports the current teaching of the Church supports a position which encourages dishonesty and abusive practices towards LGB&T people in the Church of England.

The blurb for the report Unwanted Same-Sex Attraction – Issues of pastoral and counselling support, co-authored by the Reverend Dr Andrew Goddard and Professor Glynn Harrison, available on the Christian Medical Fellowship web site, says “that churches must re-evaluate their understanding of sexuality, and reject the prejudices of the past by recognising that the picture is more complicated than a simple choice of ‘gay’ or ‘straight’ as this ignores bisexuals or people who define their sexuality as ‘post label’, or ‘liquid’.”

The report says that it is written in a Christian context, but the churches’ old binary concept of sexuality is outdated and should be reviewed. It calls on the churches to welcome people into Christian discipleship whatever their sexual interests, or background and engage pastorally with the needs of many people with Same Sex Attraction who choose to follow traditional biblical teaching.

The report argues that churches and society need to pay attention to those who choose to integrate their sexual desires with their faith identity and not only those who adapt their faith identity to pursue their sexual attractions and interests. And given the lack of knowledge in this area, more research and theological reflection is needed on how the resources and insights of psychology and counselling may be ethically integrated with pastoral skills to support Christians choosing to live faithfully within traditional Christian boundaries for sexual behaviours and relationships.

Traditional biblical teaching is what allows conservatives to promote ideas about same-sex attraction and relationships which are hostile to our well being and the integration of our faith and sexuality. Andrew Goddard and Glynn Harrison belive LGB&T people should suppress our God-given sexuality in order to conform to their understanding of faith identity. Changing Attitude rejects their understanding of faith identity. They want ‘ethically integrated’ insights from psychology and counselling to be used to support Christians who choose to live faithfully within traditional Christian boundaries for sexual behaviours and relationships. What they mean is, we want LGB&T people suppress their sexual and emotional selves, to deny themselves loving and intimate relationships, to accept the superiority and priority given to heterosexual relationships and accept that the Church is right to impose guilt and prejudice on LGB&T people.

Glynn Harrison has written recent articles saying that gay relationships “fall short of God’s purpose in creation”. He argues that therapy and pastoral ministry may be remedies for those clergy drawn to a gay relationship but who feel it is unchristian, saying “there is evidence that some people with unwanted same sex attractions can achieve significant change”. Changing Attitude interprets ‘unwanted same sex attraction’ as referring to those lesbian and gay people who have been persuaded that they are guilty and sinful for being attracted to someone of the same gender.

Professor Harrison’s supporters insist his views reflect a substantial section of Anglican opinion about homosexuality and it would be impossible to elect a leader of an estimated 50 million churchgoers worldwide without such views being represented.

Rev Peter Ould, who is now married and says he “left homosexuality behind” after regarding himself as gay for many years, is a supporter of Harrison’s work. He 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. “Most evangelicals and traditional Catholics would say homosexual practice is wrong,” he said. “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.”

Peter is wrong. There are many gay Catholics, tragically often living unhealthy and dishonest lives in the closet. There are many gay evangelicals, also living in the closet, some still infected with guilt, others privately rejecting the teaching which Glynn and Peter uphold. Sexual preferences cannot be changed though therapy. Manipulative therapists attempt to convince clients to deny or suppress their desires. Clients struggle, and usually continue to act on their same-sex attraction, hiding the truth from their therapist.

If further proof were needed that Glynn Harrison, Peter Ould and others are dramatically wrong in thinking their beliefs don’t have a negative effect on Christian attitudes towards LGB&T people, a story which has just broken in the Guardian surely proves the point.

The full length advert, which was to have appeared on five different London bus routes in the capital advert, has been banned by Boris Johnson. The adverts said: “Not gay! Post-gay, ex-gay and proud. Get over it!”. The were backed by the Core Issues Trust whose leader, Mike Davies, believes “homoerotic behaviour is sinful”. The charity funds “reparative therapy” for gay Christians who believe that they have homosexual feelings but want to become straight. The campaign is also backed by Anglican Mainstream, the so-called ‘orthodox’ Anglican group whose supporters have equated homosexuality with alcoholism.

Post-gay and ex-gay are terms used by Christians and some psychotherapists and psychiatrists to refer to homosexual people who have undergone spiritual or pastoral therapy and, according to an Anglican Mainstream definition, have “now left a homosexual lifestyle [and experienced] an increased emotional and sexual attraction to the opposite biological gender and possibly a reduction in or loss of same-sex attraction.”

Core Issues Trust accused Stonewall of promoting the “false idea that there is indisputable scientific evidence that people are born gay”.


  1. Erika Baker says

    Colin, to your knowledge, has anybody ever asked these psychiatrist and experts what they make of bisexuality and whether they believe that gay people who have successfully become straight aren’t, in actual fact, bisexuals who are indeed capable of loving people from both sexes?

    It is such an obvious conclusion that I am really finding it hard to believe it has never become part of the mainstream debate.

  2. Olivia Jones says

    Erika, I think that part of the issue is that ‘ex-gay’ groups have got savvier about the message they promote. Back in the 80s and 90s they used to claim that homosexuality was a mental illness caused by bad parenting, and that it could be ‘cured’ by therapy. This was in line with mainstream psychiatric thinking up to about the 1960s or 70s or so, and could probably still find a minority of mental health professionals who supported it from about the 70s to 90s.

    Now, however, that theory has been comprehensively rejected by mainstream psychiatry and psychology, so they needed to find another explanation. In doing so, they have (bizarrely to my mind) reached for the conclusions of 90s-00s queer theory. The first people to call themselves ‘post-gay’, after all, were ‘queers’ in the 90s, who held that they did not want any label, or to be fitted into any box. They also came up with the now generally-accepted theory that human sexuality is complex, shifting, and that the binary of gay-straight (or even the spectrum gay-bisexual-straight) is insufficient to describe most people’s experience. Queer theorists who assert the ‘liquidity’ and multiplicity of human sexuality, however, do so for liberationist reasons; they want to remove the tyranny of labels full-stop. The ‘ex-gay’ movement who have appropriated their terminology of ‘post-gay’ and ‘liquidity’, however, do so for very different reasons – they want to argue that if sexuality is fluid, and if people can choose to define themselves however they want to, then it follows that people who call themselves ‘gay’ must be able to bend to their authoritarian theology and change identification.

    I think that this sort of justifies one of the arguments that older gay activists tended to have with the ‘queer’ movement: by claiming that being gay is not a natural given but a social construct, some gay activists have argued that the queers were kicking away the main support for the argument that gay people should have the same rights as straight people (the gay rights movement won so much largely by using the same arguments that had been so successful for the civil rights movement in the States – that people were born black or gay and that it was therefore unfair to discriminate against them for something they couldn’t help or change).

    However, I also think that the queer movement is right in that the way we choose to label our internal drives and pleasures is socially constructed. But while we can label ourselves however we like, I don’t believe that we can change our fundamental drives, even if they can surprise us by changing, at times, despite us. And it certainly doesn’t mean that we should attempt to pressurize others into changing either their label (quite easy but potentially harmful) or their internal drives (impossible and harmful). And we shouldn’t use a theology of liberation (queerness) in order to support a theology of oppression (heteronormativity).

    • Erika Baker says

      I’m not terribly interested in the politics of it all – who lables what why for which reasons – that’s always subjective and cultural.
      What we’re really discussing, though, is the actual experience of people and that some have tried to change and found they couldn’t, while others have been able to.
      Only… being able to change means that these people are somewhere on the bisexual spectrum – that’s the definition of the word!

      The political is important, of course. But it can obscure the reality, which from a biological point of view is quite prosaic.

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