Tuesday, 10 April 2012

A True Heretic

The Guardian is shocked to discover that a member of the Crown Nominations Committee - the Magic Circle of Anglican insiders charged with selecting the next Archbishop of Canterbury - is a heretic.  Professor Glynn Harrison does not publicly doubt the divinity of Christ or the Resurrection.  It's worse than that: the emeritus professor of psychiatry at Bristol University is said hold the distinctly unorthodox view that homosexuality can be treated.  He has apparently written that "there is evidence that some people with unwanted same sex attractions can achieve significant change".

This is a minority view among psychiatrists, most of whom (and certainly the Royal College of Psychiatrists) uphold the modern consensus that sexual orientation is biological in nature, determined by genetic factors and perhaps embryological accident, and therefore nothing to do with one's environment or life history and certainly not something that can be changed.  More importantly, a view such as the one that Harrison is alleged to hold is very unpopular with the guardians of secular morality, who regard it as evidence of the most virulent and unredeemed homophobia, as it threatens to undermine the essentialism on which modern gay rights is founded.  Sexuality is not only not a choice, it can never be a choice.  Not for anyone.  Not even if you yourself want to change.  Don't even go there.

The Guardian reports that the Rev Colin Coward, director of Changing Attitude (which campaigns "for the full inclusion of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people in the Anglican communion") said that Harrison's position on the commission appeared "cranky in the extreme".

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.

The C of E released a statement (helpfully posted by Thinking Anglicans) denying that Harrison believes in "gay cure".   He merely "notes 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."  This is perhaps the most interesting (from my point of view) part of the statement:

In these publications, Professor Harrison challenges the simplistic binary model (‘either/or’; ‘gay’ v. ‘straight’) of human sexual orientation often assumed in popular discourse. He notes that the most reliable research evidence points to a spectrum of sexuality, with many individuals experiencing bisexual ‘orientation’ and varying degrees of fluid ‘orientation’ in their sexual interests. Thus, there is a range of ‘orientations’ and little reliable evidence to suggest that these are fixed and enduring in all people.

... In this context, there are issues of how to support people of faith who experience bisexual or same-sex attractions that conflict with their deeply-held religious convictions regarding sexual ethics. Professor Harrison recognises that some decide to revise their understanding of the ethical teaching of their faith to accommodate their experiences of sexual attraction, and choose a form of counselling support called ‘gay affirmative therapy’. He fully supports their right to do so. He notes that others want to manage and integrate their sexual interests within the framework of a religious identity grounded in the traditional teaching of their faith. Prof. Harrison supports the provision of sensitive and ethical counselling and pastoral support for such people too. He believes they should be free to receive this support without bullying or discrimination.

Now that might sound reasonable.  But it is in those weasel words that the heresy lurks.  The "simplistic binary model" which Harrison rejects forms the basis of much modern moral and legal thinking about sexuality.  Notice that he even puts the word "orientation" in scare-quotes.  This is dangerous stuff.  Once you start suggesting that sexuality might change, even for some people, even some of the time, you're on a slippery slope that ends with herding homosexuals into gas chambers.

What this story really shows, I think, is once again that the Archbishop of Canterbury should, like most leaders of most of the world's churches, be elected.  The Crown Nominations Committee, like most manifestations of the modern British establishment, mistakes openness for accountability.  Thus ever since Rowan Williams announced his departure it has encouraged scrutiny - for example, placing an advert in the Church Times offering suggestions for the "vacancy in the See of Canterbury".  On previous occasions very few people had a clue who the CNC were or what they did.  The name of the new Archbishop simply emerged one day, after the Prime Minister had made the final decision (something that is no longer supposed to happen) and the mysterious nature of the process added a touch of the numinous, as though the new Primate had been chosen by God.  But now the secret is out the members of the committee have to account for themselves; their records, all their previous utterances, are pored over as though they were candidates for the mayorality of London.  And in the fraught, ideologically riven world of Anglican politics there are bound to be got-up rows like this one.

There's a much better way: the General Synod should elect the new Archbishop of Canterbury in a special meeting, as other churches of the Anglican communion do, as many Orthodox and Protestant churches do.  Even the Pope is elected by the College of Cardinals.  Why can't the Church of England do the same?