A letter to the new UK Government

Several members of the Greater Love team have signed a letter to the new UK Prime Minister, Sir Keir Startmer.

The letter is not an initiative of the Greater Love Declaration, but we are here sharing the letter with you in full:

Dear Sir Keir Starmer,

Congratulations on becoming Prime Minister. Please be assured of our prayers for you and your Government.

We write as Christian ministers to express our concern at the lack of religious literacy in British public life and the unwarranted hostility this can breed towards those in Bible-believing churches like ours.

One of the major presenting issues is the way people talk about a legislative ban on so-called conversion therapy. Campaigners often imply that expressing mainstream, traditional Christian beliefs on sexuality or gender identity in pastoral conversations is, inherently, a form of ‘conversion therapy’.

Some even want a conversion therapy ban to cover gentle, non-coercive prayer. This raises the alarming prospect of police and prosecutors having to decide whether someone has prayed ‘the wrong kind of prayer’.

Conversations between parents and their children are also at risk from this broad definition of conversion therapy. This would affect gender-critical parents, not just those who are Christian.

We would be grateful for the opportunity to meet with you to discuss our concerns and to explore how we can help fill the religious literacy gap and help the Government better understand Christians and their beliefs.

Yours sincerely,

Revd Dr Thomas Brand, Ministry Director of the Evangelical Fellowship of Congregational Churches, Chairman of the Greater Love Declaration

Revd Graham Nicholls, Christ Church Haywards Heath, Director of Affinity Church Network

Revd Dr Ian Paul, St Nic’s Church Nottingham, Member of the Archbishops’ Council, Church of England

Revd Dr Matthew Roberts, Trinity Church York, Former Moderator of Synod, International Presbyterian Church

Rt Revd Andy Lines, Presiding Bishop of Anglican Network in Europe

Revd Dr Ian Hamilton, President of Westminster Seminary UK

Revd Bill James, Principal of London Seminary

Revd Dave Gobbett, Highfields Church Cardiff 

Revd Raymond Brown, East London Tabernacle Baptist Church

Revd David Pfeiffer, Whaddon Road Evangelical Presbyterian Church, Moderator of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church in England and Wales

Don’t criminalise Christians: Church leaders write to PM on Criminal Justice Bill amendment

Church leaders from across the denominations have written to Rishi Sunak MP, asking him to oppose attempts to introduce new laws on ‘conversion practices’.

Alongside Bishops, Moderators and others, several of the Greater Love co-authors signed the following letter:

Dear Prime Minister,

Proposed legislation on banning ‘Conversion Practices’

We, being ministers and pastoral workers in a wide variety of Christian denominations, and holding to the historic, orthodox Christian doctrine of marriage, are deeply concerned at the multiple attempts being made to introduce a new law on ‘conversion practices’. Far from targeting abusive practices – which are thankfully already illegal – many of those calling for a new law have expressed a desire to curtail the practice of normal Christians such as ourselves.

Christianity has always taught that God designed human beings male and female, and established marriage as the lifelong union of one man and one woman, within which children can be born and nurtured. Therefore it is our duty as Christian ministers to teach, urge and assist people to tell the truth about their birth sex, to be sexually abstinent outside of the marriage of one man and one woman, and to be faithful within it. 

And yet fulfilling this duty would be criminalised by a ban on ‘conversion practices’. Christian ministers like us, carrying out ordinary Christian ministry, teaching ordinary Christian virtues, would inevitably fall foul of a law against ‘changing’, ‘negating’ or ‘suppressing’ the identities of the ‘LGBTQ+’ movement. All supposed protections for religious belief which have been proposed will have no real value if legislation is formulated in this way. 

Indeed, the proposed legislation would have the effect of criminalising anyone – even a loving parent – who seeks to dissuade children from the harm of either inappropriate sexual experimentation or cross-gender hormones and surgery. The Cass Review has helpfully highlighted the lack of evidence for any benefit arising from such drastic interventions in the lives of children. All responsible adults should seek to protect children from ideologies which would promote such lifelong damage. This legislation would do the exact opposite, punishing those concerned for children and leaving them no defence against harmful ideologies.

Finally, we object strongly to the Christian concept of ‘conversion’ being appropriated in this manner. Conversion means turning from serving oneself to serving God. It could be said that as ministers of the Christian gospel our entire work consists of ‘conversion practices’. It seems unavoidable that legislating with this language will capture ordinary Christian ministry in its scope. Indeed, for some people at least, this appears to be the intended outcome.

If such legislation is enacted, it would create a conflict for orthodox Christian ministers in all denominations between submission to government and obedience to God. Christians are the most law-abiding of citizens. Nevertheless, our duty to God is higher still, and we will not cease to fulfil it even if threatened by the law. 

We therefore ask you to oppose both the amendments and private members’ bills being brought to Parliament and plans to legislate in the devolved administrations, and withdraw your government’s commitment to bring its own legislation on this matter. 

Yours sincerely,

Rev. Dr. Matthew PW Roberts

Former Moderator of Synod, International Presbyterian Church and Co-Author of the Greater Love Declaration

Rev. Prof. Robert J. Akroyd

Moderator of the Free Church of Scotland

Graham Nichols

Director of Affinity Church Network

Rev. James Buchanan

Moderator, UK Presbytery, International Presbyterian Church

Rt. Rev. Andy Lines

Presiding Bishop of Anglican Network in Europe

Rt. Rev. Lee McMunn

Assistant Bishop, Anglican Mission in England (AMiE)

Rev. Tapani Simojoki

Pastor, Our Saviour Lutheran Church, Evangelical Lutheran Church of England

Rev. Dr. Thomas Brand

Ministry Director of the Evangelical Fellowship of Congregational Churches and Co-Author of the Greater Love Declaration

Rev. Raymond Brown

Senior Minister, East London Tabernacle Baptist Church and Co-Author of the Greater Love Declaration

Changed from Glory into Glory

By Revd Dr David A. Hull

I have the great privilege of serving as a church pastor in Kingswood, on the outskirts of Bristol.  It is, in many ways, the birthplace of the eighteenth-century Evangelical Revival.  Former Prime Ministers, no less, have made remarkable claims about that revival.  Lloyd George said that his native Wales “owed more to the movement of which Wesley was … leader, than to any other movement in the whole of its history. It civilised the people … There was a complete revolution effected in the whole country.” Stanley Baldwin said that historians “now realise that they cannot explain nineteenth-century England until they can explain Wesley”. He added: “I believe it is equally true to say, that you cannot understand twentiethcentury America, unless you understand Wesley.”

They observed something that seems to be overlooked so easily.  We cannot understand our culture in the UK today, until we have grasped that much of what we value has its roots in the Evangelical Revival.  It was a moment of refocussing and reenergising.  The transformation of individual lives on a mass scale led to the transformation of society, including not only the abolition of the slave trade, but also reform in almost every aspect of society: education, healthcare, relief for the poor, the care of children, working conditions and workers’ rights, the penal system, and so on.

A twofold message

Today, the effects of the revival live on, not only in the legacy of that social reform, but also of course in the Church’s worship.  The final hymn of the late Queen’s funeral service was Charles Wesley’s, ‘Love divine, all loves excelling’. The final verse takes us to the heart of the Revival’s message.  It captures the vision – the great goal – for life, that was held out:

Finish then thy new creation,
pure and spotless let us be;
let us see thy great salvation,
perfectly restored in thee,
changed from glory into glory
till in heaven we take our place,
till we cast our crowns before thee,
lost in wonder, love, and praise!

Love divine, all loves excelling, Charles Wesley, 1707-1788

It is a vision of new creation, of being pure and spotless, of seeing great salvation perfectly restored, all taking place in human experience here and now.  This is not something only for the hereafter, for which we hope only when we die.  It is a vision of being changed – from glory into glory – here and now, continually, until ‘in heaven we take our place’.

The message at the heart of that great Revival which fundamentally reset the course of the nation, revolved therefore around two great convictions which flow from the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Firstly, conversion can be personally experienced in an unmistakeably life-changing way.  Secondly, conversion doesn’t only happen in a moment, but initial conversion sets the Christian on the path of a life-long process of conversion, as life is transformed into the likeness of Jesus Christ in every aspect.

Those two convictions were at the heart of the Revival because they are at the heart of authentic Christianity.  They continue to be at the heart of Christian faith and life and ministry to this day.  We are in the business of conversion, and it is our joy and delight. 

It is therefore extremely concerning that there is now talk of banning ‘conversion’. There has even been an official Government consultation.  It might be defined as conversion therapy, or conversion practices, but everything we are told the legislation would seek to ban is already illegal, and thus it is unnecessary.  Authentic Christian conversion has never been coercive or abusive, and it is right that coercion and abuse are illegal. Evangelical Christians were at the vanguard of legislating against such things in this country.

A twofold danger

A ban of conversion practices would therefore present a twofold danger to us who continue to present this twofold message.  Firstly, ill-defined legislation connected to conversion – as we’ve seen in other democratic countries – will pave the way for its use, or its deliberate misuse, to criminalise authentic Christian ministry which, at its heart, is – and can only ever be – about conversion.  Secondly, adopting our own anti-conversion legislation in this country, however it is phrased, will be taken by other regimes to legitimise anti-conversion legislation in their own countries, which is used to horrific effect, justifying extreme persecution.

It is worth being mindful that, within our culture today, we are witnessing a clash of worldviews.  There is nothing unusual about that. Such was the case in the days of the eighteenth-century Evangelical Revival, and it has certainly been the case at times since then.  Today, the age-old Judeo-Christian beliefs relating to marriage, intimate relationships, and human identity are being challenged – as they have often been.  We mustn’t ignore the fact that the lifelong, ongoing process of conversion at the heart of Christianity will lead us straight into that conflict: it reaches into every area of life, including marriage, intimate relationships and human identity – of course it does!

Within this age of turmoil, there are many who continue to hold to the Judeo-Christian worldview which has shaped our national life.  We must, it seems to me, stand together in doing everything we can to call upon our Government to keep our country open to the authentic Christian ministry of conversion to Christ that has made us who we are.

Revd Dr David A. Hull

Chair of Methodist Evangelicals Together and Lead Pastor of Freedom Church Bristol

Gulags, Government and Greater Love

by Revd Dr Thomas Brand

In 1945, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was sentenced to eight years in the Soviet Gulags because he had criticised Stalin and the government in private letters to a Ukrainian friend. This period of Russian history in which the appalling suffering of the gulags was commonplace, remains all but unknown in the West. Between the beginnings of the Soviet forced prison camps after the 1917 revolution and the death of Stalin in 1953 it is estimated that 18 million people passed through the gulags and 1.6 million died of exposure, starvation, brutality or execution.

Solzhenitsyn’s mighty work of literary investigation, The Gulag Archipelago is perhaps the most important indictment of a political regime ever to be written. Against the broad acceptance of Stalinism in Russia, two of Solzhenitsyn’s related conclusions are alarmingly relevant for us today. The first is the immense value of individual human freedom, and the second is the question of moral courage in the face of evil: when will we rise up and oppose this evil? How bad does it have to get before we stand up and object?

Much of the three-volume work details his own self-examination and the process of taking responsibility for his actions as a former Soviet captain who helped to buttress the unjust regime. It is also full of compassion for those absorbed by the system, often because of the simple need to survive and provide for family.

On 8th June 1978, 25 years after his release, but thirteen years before the fall of the Soviet Union, Solzhenitsyn gave the commencement address at Harvard University. He argued that ‘A decline in courage may be the most striking feature that an outside observer notices in the West today . . . Must one point out that from ancient times a decline in courage has been considered the first symptom of the end?’

Why am I writing about resistance to Soviet Russia? Because, although current trends in human sexuality and identity pose a very different kind of threat today, the LGBT ideology behind it is potentially just as dangerous. Like Soviet Communism, it ignores factual reality, devalues individual human life and opposes the natural family. In the face of this ideology we can so easily lose courage. 

In Soviet Russia the natural family was one of the chief threats to the government because it epitomises the authority structures that can resist burgeoning state power. Today, the life-giving beauty and strength of the natural family – one man married to one woman and their children – is the stronghold of resistance against the aim of the LGBT movement, with its radical individualism, to sweep away concrete biological reality and to enshrine in its place individualised subjective feelings and delusion.

This is the impulse at work in our schools, where children are routinely taught and sometimes pressured to believe that it is perfectly normal and good to have two mummies or two daddies, while being brought up by two married, natural parents can be made to look unfashionable and dull. We see a similar thing in the workplace, where many companies encourage staff to wear rainbow lanyards or to include their preferred pronouns in correspondence.

People who oppose this LGBT agenda by stating that marriage is between one man and one woman, and that sex is biological, are already being detained by the police in the UK. But if the proposed conversion therapy law currently being discussed by our government makes it onto the statute book, writing a private letter to a friend to dissuade him from leaving his wife and children in order to transition or enter a homosexual relationship (or take up any of the myriad ‘identities’ now held up as undisputable internal realities) could be a criminal offence. Solzhenitsyn’s world doesn’t seem so far off when friends or family members face jail for sharing their concerns.

It forces us to come face to face with Solzhenitsyn’s troubling question, ‘how bad does this have to get before we stand up against this evil?’ Do we wait until our lives are touched by it personally? Do we wait until, like Solzhenitsyn, we face imprisonment? Sadly, like much of the post-war Russian population, many of us just hope for the best, and do nothing. Why? Are we afraid of the personal cost and potential embarrassment? Do we value our convenience above our commitment to truth? Do we worry what people will think of us if we object to our children being taught that a boy can become a girl if that is how he feels?

One reason why we feel this fear, and we all do to some extent, is because of isolation. This would get much worse under a conversion therapy ban, particularly if lobby groups take advantage or reporting mechanisms are introduced. Just like in Stalin’s Russia, such legislation is designed to isolate and deter dissent.

This is one reason why the Greater Love Declaration was written. It is a summary of what the Bible teaches about marriage, sex and identity. It succinctly states what orthodox Christianity has always believed and taught, and it helps break the fetters of isolation and unite orthodox Christians together so that we can take courage again.

At the heart of the Declaration is the Bible truth that real love is not selfish, it is other-centred. It does not put me first, it puts other people first. To love someone, we must not pander to their misbeliefs, we must sacrificially love them by speaking the truth. Speaking affirming lies about someone’s self-identity cannot be loving. Psalm 97:10 encourages us greatly here: ‘O you who love the LORD, hate evil!’

We can stand together against this evil because we love God and most wonderfully because God first loved us! Take courage, we can stand up together and speak out!

Revd Dr Thomas Brand

Ministry Director, Evangelical Fellowship of Congregational Churches

A Roman Relegation of Repentance: Fiducia Supplicans and gay blessings

by Revd Dr Matthew Roberts

A week before Christmas 2023, social media and the press gave a rather stunning announcement: the Pope had given his approval to same-sex blessings. In a Doctrinal Declaration issued by the Vatican and signed off by Pope Francis, a major change had been signalled.

Except that almost immediately, various writers – both inside and outside the Roman Communion – started saying that it had not. All that the Vatican and Francis had done was restate the existing position that priests may pronounce informal blessings without enquiring into the moral state of those they are blessing, as they have done for centuries, even in the case of a fornicating boxer (as explained in this article). It’s actually a statement of refusal to change doctrine in the face of strongly revisionist challenges within the Roman magisterium. Others despaired of finding any theological or logical coherence in the statement at all, in one case likening it to a black hole that sucks in those who try to understand it.

I am no expert on the politics of the Vatican and will leave discussion of that to others. Nor, of course, am I (a Presbyterian minister) inclined to be either impressed by or swayed by much that emanates from the Pope. Nevertheless, given the significance of the topic and the times in which we live, I think there are some important things here for us to learn from.

So first, what about the claim that nothing has changed, and this is just a restatement of Vatican orthodoxy on sexual ethics? The first problem with that is that it is decidedly not how the Vatican itself has presented this. The Vatican News reported the publishing of Fiducia Supplicans by saying in multiple ways that this is a genuine change. It ‘opens possibility of blessing couples in irregular situations’; ‘with the Declaration… it will be possible…’; ‘there is now consideration of the possibility of welcoming even those who do not live according to the norms of Christian moral doctrine’ (italics mine); it is 23 years since they last published ‘a document of such doctrinal importance’; a pronouncement of 2021 is ‘now further developed and superceded’. The Declaration itself says that it offers a ‘specific and innovative contribution to the pastoral meaning of blessings, permitting a broadening and enrichment of the classical understanding of blessings’[1] (italics original). At a critical point in the argument, it declares that ‘Within the horizon outlined here appears the possibility of blessings for couples in irregular situations and for couples of the same sex’[2] (italics mine). In other words, the Declaration deliberately presents itself as introducing something new in the Church of Rome’s teaching. Now it is possible that this is duplicitous, seeking to present pure continuity as something that it is not; but that seems unlikely. Certainly the Vatican wishes people to believe that there is a genuine change of some sort here.

So what is that change? Fiducia Supplicans (FS) is adamant that the doctrine and practice of marriage is not changed. I’ll come back to why that is not really so in due course, but we’ll let it pass for now. What is clear is that the blessings which FS permits are only ‘spontaneous’ blessings in non-liturgical situations; they must not have a fixed liturgical form or be done in conjunction with a marriage liturgy or indeed a civil union; they must be ‘simple gestures’ and it’s important to be ‘careful that they should not become a liturgical or semi-liturgical act, similar to a sacrament’. What FS has in mind is situations ‘such as a visit to a shrine, a meeting with a priest, a prayer recited in a group, or during a pilgrimage’.

But again, this is not new. The Roman understanding of blessings – not one with which most Protestants have sympathy, of course – is such that priests can pronounce blessings in all sorts of situations, on both people and inanimate objects.[3]  The idea that two people could encounter a priest at a pilgrimage shrine and ask for, and receive, a blessing, is hardly new territory for Rome.

So what is new here then? I think it is this: the willingness to declare a blessing on people engaged in ongoing and open sin, known to the person offering the blessing, of which they have no intention of repenting.

The Declaration goes to considerable lengths and linguistic gymnastics to achieve this result. The basic argument is an appeal to God’s unconditional love. There is a ‘danger that a pastoral gesture that is so beloved and widespread will be subjected to too many moral prerequisites’; doing this ‘under the claim of control, could overshadow the unconditional power of God’s love’;[4] Francis is quoted as saying that we should avoid being ‘judges who only deny, reject, and exclude’[5].

Two paragraphs particularly make this point.

Pope Francis urges us to contemplate, with an attitude of faith and fatherly mercy, the fact that ‘when one asks for a blessing, one is expressing a petition for God’s assistance, a plea to live better, and confidence in a Father who can help us live better.’[12] This request should, in every way, be valued, accompanied, and received with gratitude. People who come spontaneously to ask for a blessing show by this request their sincere openness to transcendence, the confidence of their hearts that they do not trust in their own strength alone, their need for God, and their desire to break out of the narrow confines of this world, enclosed in its limitations. (para. 21)

The problem with this is that, in the specific case of a homosexual couple asking for a blessing, these statements are not true. In fact, given that they are deliberately and habitually engaging in sin, and asking to be blessed with no intention of repenting of that sin, there is here the very opposite of a ‘sincere openness to transcendence’ or ‘a petition for God’s assistance’ – at least if the Church is correct to have ‘always considered only those sexual relations that are lived out within marriage to be morally licit’.[6] FS here directs that a request for a blessing from the openly unrepentant be treated as if it emerged from a truly penitent heart.

Paragraph 25 drives this home with a crashing false dichotomy, quoting Francis himself:

The Church, moreover, must shy away from resting its pastoral praxis on the fixed nature of certain doctrinal or disciplinary schemes, especially when they lead to ‘a narcissistic and authoritarian elitism, whereby instead of evangelizing, one analyzes and classifies others, and instead of opening the door to grace, one exhausts his or her energies in inspecting and verifying.’ Thus, when people ask for a blessing, an exhaustive moral analysis should not be placed as a precondition for conferring it. For, those seeking a blessing should not be required to have prior moral perfection.

By setting up the only options as narcissistic elitism which does exhaustive moral analysis demanding moral perfection, or entirely abstaining from any moral inquiry or requirements at all, the possibility that the loving thing to do might be to gently warn that there can be no blessing for those who do not repent, but that the door of God’s grace is open for those willing to do so, is entirely omitted. And so of course the commended option is the one of blessing, even where the sin is public and flagrant, and there is no intention of repentance. ‘God never’, we are told, ‘turns away anyone who approaches him!’[7] He does, of course, as Nadab and Abihu, King Uzziah, Ananias and Sapphira, Simon Magus, and of course Judas, found out; for to approach God with an unrepentant heart is to invite his judgment upon us. But in the world of Fiducia Supplicans the possibility is not even considered.  

Thus it is here that the doctrinal innovation of FS is to be found. It was always the case that a priest could bless people without enquiring into every detail of their domestic situations. But that is quite different to encouraging blessing a group of self-professed mafia hitmen, or a swingers club, or the proprietors of a factory employing child labourers, when both the priest knows all about those sinful habits and that those living in them have no intention of turning away from them. It is this blessing-of-public-sin-without-repentance to which Fiducia Supplicans opens the possibility.

The fact that this is applied to the presenting issue of extra-marital sexual relations, and homosexual relations in particular, makes this particularly stark. If the sin of sexual immorality – homosexual relations included – can now be overlooked, and blessings given in the absence of repentance, it is to say the least questionable whether the doctrine of marriage (which after all finds its most common biblical expression in the stern prohibition of sexual immorality) really has emerged unscathed. Nevertheless, the Declaration has clearly been framed to achieve the former result while seeking to preserve doctrinal deniability on the latter.

Why this matters for orthodox Christians in other denominations

This matters for two reasons. First, because this shift in Vatican policy is unavoidably a move away from the straightforward naming of homosexual sex and relationships as sin and calling for those engaged in them to repent. And this will be taken – as it already has been, and (it is hard to avoid the conclusion) it was intended by the Vatican to be – as an admission that the church has been at least partly wrong in its firm stance on sexual ethics up to now. That, along with the capitulation of the Church of England, will mean that there is simply no longer any safety in numbers for Christians on this issue. Those who wish to remain faithful to the Christian understanding of marriage will find themselves under ever increasing pressure likewise to surrender from a world which will no longer think that we hold these things because we are Christians, but now simply because we are bigots.

But the more important reason is the second: it focuses the issue on the significance of repentance. It might seem implausible, but Fiducia Supplicans makes basically the same point which was made with immeasurably less art and guile by Jayne Ozanne in an article one week earlier: that repentance is not necessary for God to grant salvation. And that is where the battle for the true Christian faith is to be fought in our day.

For it is repentance which is the great offence. It is Christ’s call to repent of our sins which outrages the sinful human heart. It was so for the Pharisees, it was so for Herod, for Saul of Tarsus before his conversion, for the silversmiths in Ephesus, and it remains so today. This is because the call to repent confronts us with the fact that we are not what we are supposed to be, even in the nature we have inherited from our parents. It holds a mirror up to my pride and tells me that, far from the good person I thought I was, I have not only sinned but was conceived and born in sin; what I am by nature is not a recipient of God’s congratulations but an object of his wrath (Ephesians 2:3). The call to repent is a call to tear our hearts (Joel 2:13).

Yet this confronting me with my sin, calling me to mourn over it and turn away from it, far from being the opposite of his grace (as FS repeatedly implies) is precisely what his saving grace looks like. The first command of our Lord – ‘Repent’ – is immediately followed with the second, and inseparable from it: ‘and believe the good news’. Faithful are the wounds of a friend, says Solomon (Proverbs 27:6); and Christ’s wounding words of the need for repentance are the purest expression of his love. Only so can he wake us up from the destructive power of sin, and call us to leave it behind and come to him who alone can give us forgiveness and the transforming power of the Holy Spirit.

There is simply no way for the call to repent to be given without giving offence; and in the world in which we now live, that offence is once again growing to have serious social and legal force. It is the call to repent which those calling for ‘conversion therapy’ legislation seek to criminalise; it is the call to repent which is falsely believed to be profoundly psychologically damaging by those wedded to the doctrine of the inherent goodness of the human psyche. If we are to preach Christ’s gospel faithfully in our generation, it is here that the battle will be fought.

Yet we should not lose heart. Christ is Lord. His Church is still his beloved bride, and his gospel word is still going forward by the power of the Spirit. He is still rescuing and purifying his people from their sins. He still grants repentance and forgiveness from heaven to his chosen people (Acts 5:31). If Fiducia Supplicans means anything to us, let it be a warning to us never to forget that repentance is at the heart of the gospel of Christ.

Revd Dr Matthew Roberts

A co-author of the Greater Love Declaration, Matthew Roberts is Minister of Trinity Church York and former Moderator of the International Presbyterian Church.

[1] Fiducia Supplicans, Presentation

[2] Ibid, Para. 31

[3] Ibid., para. 8

[4] Ibid., para. 12

[5] Ibid, para. 13

[6] Ibid., para. 11

[7] Ibid., para. 33

Schools guidance on transgenderism – a significant step in the right direction

by Julie Maxwell

The belief that it is possible for someone with the body of a boy to be a girl, or vice versa, is not based on evidence but on feelings. It runs counter to our most basic biological knowledge. It wilfully sets aside obvious truths about the way God created us.

Yet this belief in gender identity has become widespread in some sections of our society, even while many people privately do not believe it they frequntly feel no choice but agree. In the process, vulnerable people, especially children, are trapped in a damaging way of thinking that considers feelings around gender to be more important than biology . In too many cases this leads to irreversible harm to their bodies and future relationships.

The concept of gender identity has made its way into popular culture, initially through social media platforms. It has particularly affected teenage girls who reinforced one another’s beliefs away from adult influence, sometimes actively discouraging each other from discussing their ‘trans identity’ with parents. From there, it has spread further, aided by well-funded activists working behind the scenes in government and the media.

Schools, which after all do teach Biology, should have been places where these beliefs could be calmly examined in the light of reason and evidence. Schools are used to making decisions that are in the child’s best interests, even when it’s not what the child wants. They have well-established safeguarding procedures that forbid teachers from promising confidentiality to a child,[1] require working in partnership with parents,[2] and being alert to risks of harm. That should have made them places safe from this ideology. Yet it seems education (together with the NHS) is a sector that has been captured more than most, and many schools have abandoned these important principles once a child declares they are transgender. In some cases, schools have become the very places where gender confusion is promoted the most and often supported by medical professionals

Back in 2017, work started on drafting guidance under the influence of actvist groups like Mermaids. It would have further established this damaging approach in more schools.[3] But at the time, opposition to trans ideology was already growing, and when a draft of the guidance was leaked online,[4] enough controversy was generated to stop it being published. Political changes brought a new approach. Feminists, parents’ groups and other campaigners, including Christians, pushed for guidance that would improve the situation in schools. After her election in 2019, Christian MP Miriam Cates spoke out boldly. Over time, other MPs have felt able to join their voices to hers. After much internal debate and many delays, a draft of new guidance was released for consultation on Tuesday.[5] It is a significant step in the right direction.

Though often referred to as ‘trans guidance’, it helpfully does not refer to ‘transgender children’: it is guidance for schools and colleges on how they should respond to requests from ‘gender questioning children’. It makes clear that there is no general legal duty for schools to support social transition. Instead, schools should carefully weigh requests from pupils who want to be treated as if they are of the opposite sex. It encourages schools to consider carefully each specific request for change in the way the school provides for them, rather than labelling the child as ‘transgender’ and jumping to affirming them.

It sets out a process for schools to follow in considering these requests. First of all, schools should pause to find out whether the request is sustained and properly thought through. They should make parents aware and give great weight to their views in deciding how to proceed. The guidance reminds schools that what is in the best interests of the child may not be the same as what they want. A school should consider what influences may have caused the child to make this request, as well as the long-term impact of its decision on the child. It should also take into account the impact of its action on other pupils, recognising they may hold protected religious or other beliefs that may conflict with the school’s decision, but are legitimate views that must be respected.

The guidance then sets out some things schools can and can’t agree to. The school must record the sex and legal name of the child. It should not agree to use different pronouns for primary-age pupils, and only on rare occasions for secondary-age pupils, having exhausted all other possibilities. Even then, schools should not compel people to use these pronouns and should ensure all relevant staff know the child’s actual sex. Schools must provide separate toilets for boys and girls from the age of 8 and must not allow boys to enter girls’ toilets or vice versa. They must not allow a child of 11 or over to change or wash in front of a child of the opposite sex, or subject a child to a member of the opposite sex changing or washing in front of them. In residential accommodation, no child should be allowed to share a room with a child of the opposite sex. Schools must ensure sport is fair and offers equal opportunities to boys and girls, which the guidance says is unlikely to be possible if separate sports for girls are not provided. Where the physical differences between the sexes threaten the safety of children in sport, there must be clear rules on sex segregation, with no exceptions.

This is draft guidance, subject to a public consultation (see bit.ly/GQConsult). It will be helpful for as many people as possible to respond: for each good aspect of the guidance, saying it must not be diluted, and where the wording is weaker, arguing it should be strengthened. Influential activist groups will be pushing in the opposite direction and their responses need to be countered.

While the guidance is not statutory, it has been written with extensive input from government lawyers to explain how schools can comply with the law. So while ignoring the guidance may not in itself be a breach of the law, if schools don’t follow it they are at greater risk of breaching the law. The guidance says the Department for Education expects schools to follow it. The BBC’s claim that it ‘is not compulsory’[6] is questionable. It is certainly a more reliable guide to what the law requires than many schools’ transgender policies. These have often been based on documents drawn up by activist groups, so it may be advisable for schools to follow this guidance now, even in its draft form.

While many schools will welcome the guidance, some were saying they would ignore it even before it was published.[7] A major challenge ahead, therefore, will be enforcing it. The main accountability mechanism for schools is through Ofsted inspections. In the past, Ofsted has helped promote transgender ideology, and it has not upheld laws on political impartiality (which apply to teaching on gender), the legal requirement to provide separate toilet facilities, or the teaching of RE and daily collective worship. Its excuse has been that it exists to evaluate the quality of education, not the compliance of schools with the law. However, it is clear this approach is not working. If Ofsted’s excuse is valid, then perhaps the remit of Ofsted needs changing. What has happened in our schools is a scandal and the government needs to ensure mechanisms are in place to reverse it and prevent it ever happening again.

Sadly, the reality may be that it will fall to individual parents, teachers and school governors to draw schools’ attention to the new guidance and ensure it is not ignored. This is something Christians can do, and can support one another in. It is also important to be mindful of those schools and individuals for whom following this guidance would involve significant changes and as a result could cause distress to already vulnerable children, it is important as Christians that we consider how best to support these children and their families.

Nevertheless, in the current situation, the draft guidance is a hugely encouraging read. We can pray that the Lord will use this guidance to protect children from harm and allow them to access the support and help that they need. We also pray that the government will take more action in the coming months to strengthen this guidance further and ensure schools follow it once it is finalised.

Dr Julie Maxwell

A co-author of the Greater Love Declaration, Julie Maxwell is a part-time Community Paediatrician and also works for Lovewise, a Christian charity that provides relationships and sex education from a Christian perspective.

[1] E.g. Keeping children safe in education 2023: Statutory guidance for schools and colleges, Department for Education, paragraph 472, see https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/media/64f0a68ea78c5f000dc6f3b2/Keeping_children_safe_in_education_2023.pdf

[2] E.g. Working Together to Safeguard Children December 2023: A guide to multi-agency working to help, protect and promote the welfare of children, Department for Education, paragraph 18, see https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/media/65803fe31c0c2a000d18cf40/Working_together_to_safeguard_children_2023_-_statutory_guidance.pdf

[3] https://www.vice.com/en/article/g5q8am/ehrc-trans-students-guidance-scrapped#:~:text=She%20told%20me%20her%20charity%20spent%20a%20lot%20of%20time%20working%20with%20the%20EHRC%20to%20ensure%20their%20guidance%20was%20published%2C%20but%20her%20team%20was%20%E2%80%9Cconstantly%20disappointed%20as%20deadlines%20drifted%20and%20dates%20for%20publication%20were%20not%20met.%E2%80%9D

[4] https://fairplayforwomen.com/draft_ehrc_schools/

[5] https://www.gov.uk/government/news/parent-first-approach-at-the-core-of-new-guidance-on-gender-questioning-children

[6] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/explainers-53154286#:~:text=which%20is%20not%20compulsory

[7] https://news.sky.com/story/liverpool-school-makes-up-own-positive-transgender-policy-ahead-of-government-guidance-13033487

C of E admits ministers could be wrongly accused of conversion therapy

Guest blog by The Christian Institute’s James Kennedy. James is part of the Let Us Pray campaign.

Last month, the Church of England’s House of Bishops commended, in principle, prayers of blessing for same-sex couples. The ‘Prayers of Love and Faith’ could be used from Sunday 17 December.

It is a retrograde step which ignores the Bible’s teaching, historic Christian doctrine, and the pastoral implications of disregarding God’s good design for mankind.  

It also opens the door for spurious accusations to be made against those who choose not to endorse the new liberal moves. It is likely that some LGBT activists will seek to humiliate and punish churches that refuse to use the new prayers.

There are some who claim that those who refuse to endorse LGBT ideology are, in fact, abusing gay people. Campaigners such as Jayne Ozanne say that those who seek to uphold traditional views of marriage are carrying out ‘conversion therapy’.

Conversion therapy in most people’s minds refers to horrendous practices carried out against gay people over half a century ago. It conjures up horror-film images of electroshock therapy. But activists inexplicably say that ordinary prayers and pastoral care are equivalent.

Intriguingly, the guidance released for the new prayers recognises this risk. In a Q&A section it discusses the appropriate response to an accusation of “conversion therapy”.

In a rare moment of insight, the guidance states plainly that: “The decision of a church or minister to adopt the [prayers] or not … does not reflect positively or negatively on its safeguarding practices”.

This is useful insofar as it goes. It makes clear that when congregations in the Church of England choose to uphold orthodox biblical teaching, their theological position is not abusive, coercive or harmful.

The inclusion of the question is, however, a worrying reminder that activists are regularly attacking ordinary churches merely for upholding what the Church has always taught. This is perhaps nowhere more apparent than in the Church of England.

Jayne Ozanne, who leads the Ban Conversion Therapy campaign, was a member of the Church of England’s General Synod until she resigned last month. She pursued changes to the denomination’s beliefs on marriage and sexuality. Despite the votes on ‘Prayers of Love and Faith’, Ozanne said the bishops were unwilling to go far enough.

In her resignation letter she described the denomination as “an institution which continues to condone the abuse of LGBT+ people”. She claimed the teaching of “conservative” churches is causing “untold harm” and is an “urgent safeguarding problem”. She appears to want orthodox believers forced out of the Church of England when she talks about the Bishops having an “erroneous ‘unity at all costs’ strategy”. “We cannot be unified” she concludes.

Many of those who disagree with the new prayers will agree with Ozanne that promoting superficial unity is misguided. But her letter reveals what sits behind the push for a new ‘conversion therapy’ law. Within the Church, it is a battle between two theological outlooks.

Church leaders have written to the Government with their concerns about a new law. Co-author of the Greater Love Declaration (and Let Us Pray official supporter) Revd Dr Matthew Roberts explained:

“We have every sympathy for those who have suffered genuine abuse. Christians firmly reject any attempt to coerce or abuse, as it defies Christian teaching at the most basic level. We are grateful that this is already illegal.

“Instead, many of those demanding this legislation are pushing a narrative that traditional orthodox Christian beliefs are harmful. They have made clear they are unwilling to accept a new law which does not criminalise ordinary believers and Christian leaders.”

Somehow, despite promoting the controversial new prayers, the official stance of the Church of England is that its historic doctrine remains unchanged. The Bishops and General Synod have been clear on that. That means the denomination remains committed to the belief that marriage is only between one man and one woman, for life. It means that the Church maintains the stance that the only right place for sexual behaviour is within marriage.

Any new law against ‘conversion therapy’ could very well capture even this official stance of the Church of England. Is the Government willing to do that? Would it make criminals of all those in the established church who uphold its teaching?

James Kennedy

Public Affairs Officer at The Christian Institute

James is part of Let Us Pray, the campaign against an overly broad ‘conversion therapy’ ban.

Greater Love Comment on the Church of England General Synod vote of 15th November 2023

Last month the General Synod of the Church of England voted (narrowly) for a motion which was in favour of commending ‘blessings’ of couples in same-sex relationships. The motion itself, having been subject to various amendments, was not clear, and its effect is not clear either, though many have interpreted it as giving a green light to such ‘blessings’. That certainly was the intention of the Bishops who promoted it and, presumably, of those who voted for it.

It was rightly said by many in the debate, and by others commenting since, that this vote signals a rejection of the authority of Scripture by the Church of England. Given the absolute clarity of Scripture regarding the sinfulness of all sexual activity outside marriage, which means the lifelong oath-bound union of one man and one woman, this is plainly true. But even this does not capture the seriousness of what the Church of England, led by her bishops, has done.

In seeking to invoke God’s blessing on sexual immorality, it has replaced the pursuit of holiness in the fear of God with the pursuit of bodily pleasure in defiance of God. By implying that Christ’s own teaching on marriage may be ignored, it has replaced the worship of him as the incarnate Son of God and full revelation of God to mankind with a belief that we are wiser than him, and can invoke his name to bless whatever vices we wish to indulge. It has replaced the Gospel as salvation from sin with another ‘gospel’ of blessing of sin. It has replaced the central Christian duty of self-sacrificial love for the sake of others with the pursuit of self-gratification at the expense of others. It has replaced the worship of the one true God with the worship and service of self and its desires.

In doing all this, the Church of England has done immeasurable harm to countless people in Christ’s Church and outside it. For as the Greater Love Declaration says, God instituted marriage because “Great blessings flow to all people when marriage is widely honoured”; when it is not, great harm is done instead. If the Church of England does indeed declare God’s blessings on the violation of marriage, it will not only lead many further into sin and away from Christ. It will also, by leading many more to believe that marriage is unnecessary and chastity need not be pursued, increase the damage that is caused across society by sexual sin, for which women and children suffer especially. Despite being presented as an act of compassion, in reality it is an act of cruelty to this and to future generations.

We call upon the Church of England to repent. And we further call upon all of Christ’s true Church wherever her members are found – who acknowledge and fear the one true and holy God – to continue to preach that Christ alone is Lord, that he laid down his life to save us from sin, and that all his people should, like him, lay down their lives for others.

Our letter to the Prime Minister over ‘conversion therapy’ plans

The authors of the Greater Love Declaration have written the following open letter to the Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, urging him to “make a clear and final decision to drop the misguided proposal for a new law against ‘conversion therapy'”:

Dear Prime Minister,

We are Christian ministers and pastors, and authors of the Greater Love Declaration, a statement of orthodox Christian teaching on marriage, sex and identity. The Declaration has been signed by over 1500 church ministers and pastoral workers from all major denominations.

We are writing to ask that you make a clear and final decision to drop the misguided proposal for a new law against ‘conversion therapy’, which is both unnecessary and fraught with dangers of unintended consequences.

Horrific examples quoted by campaigners are, thankfully, long illegal. They would never be approved of in the churches we represent. It appears that any new legislation, unless it merely duplicates what already exists, will criminalise opinion which disagrees with LGBTQ+ ideology. It would therefore put normal Christian ministers, teachers and loving parents at grave risk of falling foul of the law.

Christianity has always taught that God made us male and female, with the intention of sexual faithfulness in the marriage of one man and one woman, and sexual abstinence otherwise. This is how Christians are called to live. It holds, with the strongest of reasons, that this is what is best for every man, woman and child, for families, and for society as a whole. It is our God-given duty to teach and pastor people in the light of this; a duty which we will under no circumstances cease to carry out.

At a time of much confusion amongst young people about matters of sex and gender, children desperately need to hear voices calling them both to sexual restraint and to value and protect their bodies, rather than submit to treatments with drastic lifelong harms. The proposed legislation would undoubtedly stifle such viewpoints, even if coming from children’s own parents. Loving fathers and mothers could face horrifying accusations, merely for seeking to protect their own children and dissuade them from decisions which would have irreversible consequences they cannot possibly understand.

Therefore we ask that you act swiftly to bring speculation about this legislation to an end by confirming that no further moves towards publishing a draft bill will be made.

Yours sincerely,

Signed, the authors of the Greater Love Declaration

Could the Prime Minister be found guilty of ‘Conversion Therapy’?

by Revd Dr Thomas Brand

At the Conservative Party Conference, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said: ‘‘We shouldn’t get bullied into believing that people can be any sex they want to be, they can’t. A man is a man, and a woman is a woman; that’s just common sense.’

If you’ve seen the video clips, Mr Sunak receives hearty applause twice in thirty-two seconds, and after that last sentence it came close to a standing ovation.

Imagine with me for a moment, that the ‘Conversion Practices’ ban had not been mired down by disagreements, unintended consequences and party disagreements, but that it has gone through pre-legislative scrutiny and become law.

And imagine further that, rather than making his common-sense comments in public, he had shared them with a family member who was struggling with their gender. In that instance, saying ‘people can’t be any sex they want to be’ could have found the PM facing criminal investigation.

Alarmingly, this imagined future is not from Orwell’s 1984 or Huxley’s Brave New World. It is a likely real-life outcome of a proposed law which, as things stand today, could still be coming down the tracks.

Read more on this in my article for the Critic.

Revd Dr Thomas Brand

Ministry Director, Evangelical Fellowship of Congregational Churches