by Gillian Cooke
from Signs of the Times No. 22 - Jul 2006

The April 2006 Signs of the Times reported the Archbishop of Canterbury's interview with The Guardian and was entitled 'Archbishop supports science'.

That is good to know, because the Church seems not to have noticed that science and medicine have all but vanished in the debates on sexuality. The highly respected Anglican moral theologian Gordon Dunstan (under whom I studied Christian Ethics) always stressed that it was not possible to have informed debates on issues which involved medical evidence unless one was prepared to first understand the science. Earlier reports and statements reflect this, but that is not the case recently.

The 1978 Lambeth Conference Resolution on Human Relationships and Sexuality recognised 'the need for deep and dispassionate study of the question of homosexuality, which would take seriously both the teaching of Scripture and the results of scientific and medical research'. This wording was repeated in the 1988 Resolution which recognised that the process needed to continue during the next decade. However, when we come to the 1998 Resolution there is no mention of scientific and medical research. Merely in the subsection report on Sexuality is there a mention of 'scientific questions'. It states that after prayer, study and discussion they were unable to agree on 'the scriptural, theological, historical and scientific questions'. Always assuming those taking part in the debate were competent to discuss the first three, are we to assume they were experts able to assess the current scientific research? This seems extremely doubtful.

The disappearance of science in the Church of England's reports is similarly noticeable. The 1979 Board of Social Responsibility report 'Homosexual Relationships: A Contribution to Discussion' clearly shows the intention of the Working Party that produced it to take seriously the results of scientific and medical research. The Preface by the Chairman, John Yates, then Bishop of Gloucester, states 'The Working Party attempted to discover and assess the medical evidence as objectively as it could and to set down what seemed to be the facts of the matter, whether the facts were to the liking of all its members or not.' The report outlined this material in 14 pages, a significant proportion of the whole report which comprises only 94 pages. All this material was drawn from major scientific books and journals, eg the British Medical Journal, the British Journal of Psychiatry, Proceedings of the US Academy of Science, and the American Journal of Medical Science, to mention but a few of the sources. The importance of scientific expertise was also demonstrated in the membership of the working party; it included a medical practitioner, a principal medical social worker and a lecturer in personal relationships, together with the usual clergy, a professor of moral and pastoral theology and a professor of law, and professors in theology. The overview of scientific knowledge is broad and more recent research has developed much of what is outlined and has confirmed ideas which were only speculative in 1979. (The earlier Church reports of 1954 and 1956 also had comparatively substantial scientific sections and reflected multidisciplinary working parties, even though their material is now clearly dated in content.)

With this excellent beginning in studying the scientific and medical research, one would have hoped that more recent reports would have reflected the continuing rapid developments in this field, but this has not happened - we can only speculate about the unpublished so called Osborne report, which seemed to frighten church leaders.

In December 1991 the House of Bishops produced a Statement 'Issues in Human Sexuality' which acknowledges the help given to the House of Bishops by these earlier reports, and confirms that the scientific material has changed only in detail. However, although those compiling the Statement (there is no indication who these people were) consulted ecumenical partners, other members of the House of Bishops and members of the gay and lesbian community, there is no mention of any scientific input. Should we expect this? One would have hoped so, given that the 1988 Lambeth Conference Subsection Report on Sexual Orientation states 'We believe that the Church should therefore give active encouragement to biological, genetic, and psychological research, and consider these scientific studies as they contribute to our understanding of the subject in the light of Scripture.' It also advocated further study 'of the socio-cultural factors which contribute to the differing attitudes toward homosexuality... in the various provinces of our Church.' The only references to scientific study in the 1991 Report comprise general comments in three brief paragraphs (total report 43 pages) and there is no indication as to their source. Shortly after the publication of this document, I attended a study day organised by senior clergy in my Diocese, the theme of which was sexuality. It swiftly became apparent that those senior clergy had scant knowledge of the theme. We were asked to discuss a 'case study' which ascribed the cause of homosexuality to sexual abuse during childhood. The 1979 Report had already reported that there was no evidence that childhood abuse was a cause.

With the publication of the latest report 'Some Issues in Human Sexuality', a document of some 358 pages, we might have expected there to be space for a serious presentation of the current scientific and medical knowledge. This is entirely lacking. No longer do we have a Working Party drawn from a wide selection of disciplines; we now have four bishops with a consultant, who is a theologian, and the report writer who is a theological consultant to the House of Bishops. There is no section which specifically deals with scientific and medical reseach. In fact this material is subsumed in the chapter Homosexuality and Biblical Teaching. Unlike the earlier reports of the 50s and 70s we have no original sources, but rather the 'authorities' to which we are referrred are conservative writers of books published in the USA. (Indeed one of the references is wrong.) Gone is the objectivity of the 1979 report which promised to attempt to consider the facts whether they were acceptable or not to members of the working party. It is hard to escape the conclusion that the more scientific and medical research supports the perceptions of gay people, the less acceptable it is to church leaders.

And so, where are we now in the consideration of homosexuality? As regards the Anglican Communion, those provinces which have taken most seriously the consideration of medical and scientific research are in danger of exclusion, while those which have failed to consider the evidence are clearly ensuring that the findings of science and medicine are also excluded. In the Church of England clericalism (indeed episcopacy) has taken over producing reports, so excluding experts in fields like science and medicine who have the expertise to assess research in these areas. It would seem that not only in the debate on creationism and evolution are attempts being made to push us back to prescientific views, but that this is also happening in the debate on homosexuality.

The contribution of the MCU begun over a century ago in relating science to religion is still needed today.


Gillian Cooke is an Anglican priest who has worked as a chaplain in higher education,  industry, prisons and Rampton Hospital.