Conversion therapy, religious belief and the Church – Part 1

Faith_Sexuality_2018_Border-770x400The Ozanne Foundation (‘We Believe In Just Love For All!’) – an LGBT campaigning organization – has launched an online survey about ‘conversion therapy’ and religion/faith/belief.  This is attracting a significant amount of coverage in the media.  It’s also supported by a number of Church leaders. What can possibly go wrong?

On the Ozanne Foundation (OF) website, the Bishop of Liverpool, Paul Bayes, says:

“Conversion therapy has no place in the modern world, and has been roundly condemned by the Church of England among many others.  Sadly, we already know that all too often it has devastating long term consequences.  And we are concerned that it is still being practised by various religious groups. So we want to understand why this is and to look more closely at the effect it can have on an individual.”

Aside from the fact that there is no clarity here about the ‘religious groups’ that the bishop is referring to, neither is there a definition of ‘conversion therapy’.  Is he talking about church denominations? Or parts of church denominations?  Or house groups?  Or groups of Christian friends meeting over discussions?  Or people praying for each other? Or what?

What actually is ‘conversion therapy’?  And why should this be of interest to Christians?  The issue arises largely around the definition of conversion therapy.

By defining it as something like this:

Conversion therapy (or ‘cure’ therapy or reparative therapy) refers to any form of treatment or psychotherapy which aims to change a person’s sexual orientation or to suppress a person’s gender identity (from the Stonewall website)

…any bishops, activists or professional health practitioners leave the definition wide open to include activities that are not actually ‘therapy’.  This leaves voluntary, informed engagement with Christian prayer, ministry and pastoral support right in the crosshairs of those who wish to stop people accessing support based on Christian principles.  I’m not aware that prayer, ministry, pastoral care and support are forms of ‘conversion therapy’ but apparently some LGBT activists want them to be classed as such. And outlawed.

LGBT Christians (or indeed, non-Christian LGBT people) who might sincerely wish to hear about the Christian perspective on sexuality and to access spiritual help or guidance when questioning or worrying about their sexual orientation, are now to be faced with a proposed ban on accessing that help.  Apparently, the Christian activities of prayer, teaching, ministry and pastoral support are being reassessed as a ‘discredited therapy’. This conclusion is inescapable when reading the information provided with the OF survey.

The Ozanne Foundation (OF), named after its Director Jayne Ozanne, a prominent gay evangelical activist, is an organization that aims to “eliminate discrimination based on sexuality or gender in order to celebrate the equality and diversity of all’.  Interestingly, it does not define itself as a Christian organisation – it says that it works with ‘religious organisations around the world to eliminate discrimination based on sexuality or gender in order to celebrate the equality and diversity of all.’  That’s an interesting distinction and something to think about.

In my view, no Christian should treat anyone badly because they are different.  However, the UK has laws that enable religious organisations to have certain exemptions from, for example, aspects of employment law.  This allows churches to discriminate (i.e. ‘choose’) to only employ people in certain roles with particular characteristics. So let’s be clear – the Church is not illegally discriminating against people if it refuses to appoint openly gay bishops or vicars.  The OF survey is not looking at work conditions though, but at the feelings of LGBT people in relation to their experiences of church (or other religious place of worship).  That’s an interesting point in itself – when we look at the survey itself in my next post, it is clear this ‘research’ is primarily aimed at Christian practice – not that of Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs and others.  Why might that be?

Individuals can of course have a conscientious objection towards an ideology or a lifestyle, but this does not excuse bad behaviour towards people who practise that lifestyle.  What most of us will support, I believe, is the view that individual people should not be treated badly because of their orientation.  If you, as a practising Christian, think it is ok to do so, you are not showing love.  And not showing love is sin.  Sadly, some Christians don’t ‘get’ this.  Even though understanding something does not have to mean condoning it.  Heterosexual Christians can be friends, helpers and supporters of LGBT people without agreeing with their lifestyle.

But here’s what I suspect is the underlying aim of much LGBT activism (not, I suspect, supported by all LGBT people).  Many activists don’t just want understanding, they demand approval and agreement that their lifestyle is ‘right’.  They don’t want to simply eliminate what they consider to be anti-LGBT behaviour, they also wish to eliminate any conscientious objection to it.  They want to tell others what they should think.  In other contexts, this is known as brainwashing.  It’s how cults flourish. It’s how totalitarian states work.

Definitions of ‘conversion therapy’

Anyway – back to the OF survey and conversion therapy. How do they define it?  I’ve looked carefully at the OF website (https://ozanne.foundation/) but I can’t find a definition of conversion therapy that they claim as their own.  There are, however,  references to a definition by the UK Council of Psychotherapists (UKCP) in its ‘2017 Memorandum of Understanding on Conversion Therapy in the UK’ :

‘…. ’conversion therapy’ is an umbrella term for a therapeutic approach, or any model or individual viewpoint [bold added] that demonstrates an assumption that any sexual orientation or gender identity is inherently preferable to any other, and which attempts to bring about a change of sexual orientation or gender identity, or seeks to supress an individual’s expression of sexual orientation or gender identity on that basis.

 ‘These efforts are sometimes referred to by terms including, but not limited to, ‘reparative therapy’, ‘gay cure therapy’, or ‘sexual orientation and gender identity change efforts’, and sometimes may be covertly practised under the guise of mainstream practice without being named.’

In the absence of a definition by the OF, we must assume that they accept this one and are happy to promote it.  Here’s the thing, though.  What if an individual LGBT person wishes to question their lifestyle and access help from church or from religious friends to do so?  This definition of conversion therapy effectively prevents them from doing this.  Because it classes any ‘therapeutic approach’ and ‘any model or individual viewpoint’ as conversion therapy – which should be banned.

Does it? Yes!

‘Individual viewpoint’?  Doesn’t that cross into personal conversations and non-therapeutic contexts?  There’s a big difference between the therapeutic setting (in a clinic or similar, with a qualified practitioner and a client in a healthcare relationship) and the private domain.  Yes – this definition covers the private domain.  That ultimately includes what you say in your house to or about a LGBT person.  And guess what – with that word ‘model’ it also covers the Church domain.  Religious belief functions around a ‘model’.  For Christians the model is the Bible and two thousand years of church tradition, learning and teaching. That means that if certain sections of society are successful in their lobbying of the government, you may one day be told what you can and can’t say and do in your own church.   Starting to hear any alarm bells ringing?

Jayne Ozanne, Director of the OF, is apparently a survivor of gay conversion therapy.

“Like many, I voluntarily chose to put myself through various forms of deliverance ministry and emotional healing in order to try and rid myself of my unwanted sexual desires as I believed them to be sinful.  Sadly, this ended with me being hospitalised twice for severe abdominal pain caused by stress and two nervous breakdowns.  If I had understood the dangers I would never have put myself through such emotional and spiritual abuse.”

It’s extremely regrettable that Ms Ozanne has experienced something so upsetting.  Clearly nobody would wish harm on another person in this way.  But what exactly were the ‘various forms of deliverance ministry and emotional healing’ that Jayne Ozanne went through?  And since when has ministry been classed as a form of therapy?  The sad fact is that Ms Ozanne may have undergone some forms of ‘deliverance ministry’ that were not based on sound Christian practice.  But unless she is willing to describe what happened to her, we won’t know.  On the other hand, she may have simply received prayer and counselling.  Who knows?  Without further detail, it is unfair to write off all church-based ministry to LGBT people.

Any non-churchgoer reading recent reports about Christian (and other) religious ‘conversion’ ministry may be forgiven for imagining that it involves loud, violent, manic and judgmental ceremonies in which devils are cast out of the ‘victim’.  Any church, group or individual engaging in such behaviour is arguably abusing both the individual and the faith.  Such activities are wrong and cannot be condoned.

But this is very different from the quiet, supportive and caring pastoral guidance, prayer and counselling that may be offered in response to a free request from an individual who seeks it.  There is a huge amount of goodwill in churches towards LGBT people.  Lots of us know gay Christians or at least Christians who we think may be gay.  But we don’t reject them because of it.  It’s not difficult to see how challenging life may be for many in the LGBT community.

What we do object to is being told that we are bigots.  That the Bible needs to be completely reinterpreted or even have bits chopped out of it.  That no LGBT people feel welcome with us. And all the rest of it.

Voluntary, informed participation and consent

I should say again that any religious group or individual who imposes some sort of ‘conversion’ prayer or ministry on a person who does not wish to receive it, is wrong.

And anyone proposing sexual contact of any sort as part of such ‘ministry’ is a criminal and should be prosecuted.  You may be shocked, but there have been cases where this has happened and been condoned.  It is certainly not a Christian approach. We have laws against rape and assault. We should have mandatory reporting of such activities. Neither should ‘exorcisms’ or other forms of prayer and ministry such as laying on of hands be given to people who do not wish it.  This is wrong.  Sadly, there have been terrible practices in the past such as the Southern Baptists’ ‘gay conversion camps’ in the 1980s and so on (Google it – it’s not a Christian way of doing things).

But there is a big difference between engaging in such unacceptable activities and providing prayer, spiritual counselling and support when a person has willingly requested it from a pastor, vicar, or religious friend.  Informed consent on the part of the person requesting such support, which carries with it the implication that such consent may be withdrawn by he or she, is crucial.  This could involve explaining to the person requesting help that they may be prayed with, counselled and supported based on Biblical principles and these may not be what they are expecting. In this way, a person requesting help will have the chance to ‘opt out’ if they wish (and which they can do at any time in the future). Of course, many people – such as LGBT Christians – will already be aware of the traditional Biblical view of sexuality when they approach a church leader or other religious authority for help. Seeking to know more about the Biblical view may be what they want.

Ministry or therapy?

The word ‘therapy’ can refer to a multitude of things.  Psychotherapy consists of a wide field of activities between an individual and a counsellor or therapist.  Many LGBT websites make reference to the ‘assumption’ by religious people (and others) that being non-heterosexual is wrong and can be ‘cured’.  But nowhere do I find openness to the idea that a LGBT person may choose to question their orientation.  Change does not have mean ‘cure’.  I became single again when I divorced.  But I was not ‘cured’ of being married.

If we now have to consider prayer and Christian ministry as forms of therapy, then how long will it be before we have to align our church practices to some external form of approval?  Who is going to monitor, review, approve and authorize the practice of prayer and ministry?  Professional associations of psychologists and psychiatrists?  The government?  Campaigning groups?  Is there going to be an OFSTED equivalent checking up on churches and Christians to ensure they ‘toe the official line’? Whoever it is, you can rely on it not being Christians who want to follow the Bible and a traditional Christian approach to their faith.

And how long will it be before we have the UKCP (for example) or other professional healthcare associations condemning prayer for the healing of sickness as harmful?  Or condemning parts of the Bible as harmful and demanding that they be removed?  Or campaigning against singing praise and worship songs as harmful because they focus on God – for whom there is no ‘evidence base’?  Think I’m going over the top?  Ask me again in a few years.

Sleight of hand in language

Let’s have a look at the OF survey itself.  In the introduction to it on the website, it states:

An influential group of multifaith representatives is to examine the role religious belief has on people’s understanding and acceptance of their sexual orientation in the UK.  Working alongside Humanists UK their survey aims to unearth the types of practice that are still prevalent in the UK and the impact that this has on an individual’s mental health.

Did you note that word ‘unearth’?  The implication is that secret or hidden activities are going on in religious organisations, aimed against LGBT people.  Then the website goes on to associate clinical therapy with religious practices by citing the views of psychotherapists:

Martin Pollecoff, the Chair of the UK Council of Psychotherapists, has been instrumental in ensuring that the healthcare profession has been clear in its condemnation of the practice:

“In 2009, the UKCP added a clear ban on ‘Conversion Therapy’ to our code of conduct.  Since then we have worked alongside our colleagues in other Healthcare Professions to end these unethical practices resulting in the ‘2017 Memorandum of Understanding on Conversion Therapy in the UK’ being adopted by a partnership of 13 national healthcare organisations. Today, Conversion Therapy has gone underground – it takes place ‘in the dark’. This research will help us illuminate its prevalence and discover where it is still taking place.’

So here we see the origin of the ‘unearthing’ aspect of the survey.  While Mr Pollecoff of UKCP is talking about healthcare versions of conversion therapy, the OF appears to be suggesting that survey-participants and others should think that he was also talking abut religious practices of ‘conversion therapy’.  I may be wrong, of course.  Hands up if you think I am?

Freedom of choice

If a person can recognize and accept that he is gay even though he was brought up straight and thought he was straight, why can’t a person who has thought he was gay decide that he may actually be straight?

If people can choose to get help in deciding whether or not they are gay, why can’t a person get help to decide whether or not he is straight?

Are people with doubts or confusion about their sexuality only allowed to ‘go’ one way? Why?

If the LGBT community can demand acceptance of – and respect for – their differences of opinion, belief and identity from the ‘old fashioned’ elements of the heterosexual community, then why can’t the ‘old fashioned’ elements of the heterosexual community demand acceptance of and respect for their differences of opinion, belief and identity?  Is acceptance only to go one way as well?  Just a thought.

Questions and the debate itself

So while the question about so-called conversion therapy is an important one, it seems to me that there are some problems with the debate about it.  Firstly, we need to agree on what conversion therapy is and secondly, we need to consider an individual’s freedom to reassess his or her sexual identity.

My questions are these:

  1. What is conversion therapy? Does it cover praying with an LGBT person who completely voluntarily asks to be prayed for in the context of discussion or pastoral counselling?  Does it cover looking at the Bible and its statements on sexuality if requested by an individual?  Does it cover giving pastoral support to a person who is questioning their LGBT identity? Does it cover two people praying with each other?

 

  1. Why should a person not be allowed – and supported, counselled and given appropriate treatment if necessary – to question and consider his or her sexual identity? This is the very freedom that the LGBT community has been demanding for its members for decades.  Yet now they are demanding that their own members who wish to consider ‘going’ the other way should be denied the very freedom that the heterosexual members of society have to move towards a LGBT identity. Totalitarian state, anyone?

Where is the evidence that ministry in church or in spiritual settings is harmful?  Yes, Jayne Ozanne says that she was damaged by her experiences, but we don’t know what they were.  Others also claim they have been damaged by conversion therapy.  Again, we don’t know what most of these people actually experienced, or the context in which the experience occurred.  Either way, this is anecdotal evidence, not robust research.

Neither are we hearing from those who have had successful experiences of ministry from church leaders or friends.  Why are we only hearing the ‘bad’ side of the argument?  And why are activists not targeting the clinical psychologists, psychiatrists and psychotherapists who are apparently still engaging in conversion therapy? If they are, I’m not seeing it in the media.  All the efforts I have seen appear to be aimed at Christian churches.  Is anyone seriously challenging Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Sikh or other communities over their religious practices in this area?

A one-way street?

The drive to ban any activity that aims to change (or even consider changing) someone’s sexual orientation means that if you have once identified as LGBT, then you have to stay LGBT.  I’ve heard this referred to as the ‘must stay gay’ rule.  According to this ‘must stay gay’ (or other non-hetero identity) perspective on sexual identity, I – a middle-aged, divorced heterosexual woman – am free to access help and support in reconsidering my own orientation because I may be thinking that I could be gay.  But as soon as I agree that I am gay (or whatever), then there’s no going back.  Why is this?

Presumably it is because anyone trying to leave behind, or even reconsider, his or her LGBT identity has simply got to that point because he or she is being discriminated against, put under intolerable mental pressure by family and friends, is the subject of prejudicial behaviour by others and/or is under a daily assault of sexism, misogyny or misandry, intolerance and homophobia.

But what if this individual has simply made a considered, rational, informed decision over time that he is not satisfied with his decision to identify as a LGBT person?  There are many reasons that a person could come to this conclusion.  Not all are extrinsic – due to other people’s behaviour – some could be inherent to his own desires, wishes, aspirations and hopes for the future as well as his own right to change his mind.  He may just decide that he was wrong – he made a mistake.  But according to the very community he struggled to join openly, he can’t now leave.  ‘Conversion’ can only go one way.

Is this right? It is just?  Is it ethical?  Is it fair? What happened to ‘We Believe In Just Love For All!’?

Do LGBT individuals have no right of choice?  Are they incapable of deciding for themselves what is their own identity?  Why must an individual who has thought or believed him or herself to be LGBT not be allowed to ask for help in reconsidering their identity?

Could it possibly be because sections of the LGBT community are simply convinced that all of its problems and challenges are the result of discrimination, prejudice and non-acceptance from the rest of society?

 Mental health issues

This brings us to look at the mental health issues that seem to permeate the LGBT community.  There is substantial medical evidence that members of this community experience significantly higher rates of mental illness and suicide than the rest of society as a whole.  Why is this?

The accepted explanation is that this is all due to discrimination, homophobia and so on.  But is that true?  Until the 1970s, homosexuality was considered to be a medical condition – a disorder (I’m not saying that it is a disorder, just that this is how it used to be viewed).  Since then, it has been removed from the mental health diagnostic manuals as it is now considered a normal variant on the continuum of human sexuality.  The same reassessment has recently taken place around the nature of gender identity, which used to be called Gender Identity Disorder but is now referred to as Gender Dysphoria.  ‘Dysphoria’ means a state of unease or generalized dissatisfaction with life.

The US website for the Human Rights Campaign (https://www.hrc.org/resources/the-lies-and-dangers-of-reparative-therapy) says ‘due to continuing discrimination and societal bias against LGBTQ people, some practitioners continue to conduct conversion therapy. Minors are especially vulnerable, and conversion therapy can lead to depression, anxiety, drug use, homelessness, and suicide’.

This statement shows that a range of mental health issues are already associated with being LGBT.  The problem with this statement in terms of associating these harms with conversion therapy (whatever that is) is that the vast majority of LGBT people have not experienced conversion therapy – so the high rates of mental illness seen in the community cannot all be attributed to it.  LGBT people already have a higher propensity towards mental illness than the rest of society even if they have not been offered or had ‘conversion therapy’.

The Mental Health Foundation website (https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/statistics/mental-health-statistics-lgbt-people)  says:

Evidence suggests people identifying as LGBT are at higher risk of experiencing poor mental health.

‘Members of the LGBT community are more likely to experience a range of mental health problems such as depression, suicidal thoughts, self-harm and alcohol and substance misuse.

‘The higher prevalence of mental ill health among members of the LGBT community can be attributed to a range of factors such as discrimination, isolation and ‘homophobia.

This can lead to members of the LGBT community feeling dissatisfied with health services, with mental health services most often perceived to be discriminatory.

‘Ratings of ONS quality of life metrics in 2015 (on life satisfaction, happiness and perception that things they do are worthwhile) are lower for members of the LGB community than for heterosexual people’.

This would appear to support the view that mental health issues are inherent to being LGBT – certainly at a population level (meaning that not all LGBT people will have mental health problems).  It makes no mention of conversion therapy but does, of course, refer to the usual factors as being responsible – meaning, it’s everyone else’s fault. What we see here is that LGBT people are generally less happy (as a group) than heterosexual people. Obviously this is not a desirable situation.

The website of the American Psychiatric Association  (APA) (https://www.psychiatry.org/newsroom/news-releases/apa-reiterates-strong-opposition-to-conversion-therapy) says:

No credible evidence exists that any mental health intervention can reliably and safely change sexual orientation; nor, from a mental health perspective does sexual orientation need to be changed.”

That seems to be an astonishing statement when we look at the suicide attempt figures among the LGBT community. Note that word ‘credible’; I don’t know what research it is referring to, but there is clearly some research out there that does suggest the opposite of what the APA is saying.

According to a number of medical studies, the LGBT suicide attempt rate ranges between 32-50%. That means that between 32% and 50% of LGBT people attempt suicide.  For the general world population the actual suicide rate is around 0.16%.  While being an imperfect comparison (attempts versus successful attempts), this is a massive difference.

According to the Stonewall website, ‘Nearly half (48 per cent) of trans people under 26 said they had attempted suicide, and 30 per cent said they had done so in the past year, while 59 per cent said they had at least considered doing so.’ This is clearly a disaster for those involved.

But how do we know that all of these awful events are due to discrimination, homophobia and so on?  No doubt some are, sadly.  But how about considering that some of the mental illness (including depression) that is simply associated with being LGBT has a role in these rates?  And how come, out of all the possible reasons that could lead to suicide and mental health problems, the role of religious groups is being targeted so vociferously?

I’m not a psychiatrist or a psychologist.  But I would be interested to know why the decision was taken to declassify homosexuality as a mental disorder.  What – apart from activism and social attitude changes – was the clinical reasoning behind the decision? I’m not saying this decision was wrong, I’m just asking why it was made when clearly this group is at a higher risk of mental health issues than the general population.  Besides, have rates of mental health problems fallen amongst the LGBT community since homosexuality was no longer considered a disorder?  If not, why not?  Has anti-LGBT prejudice increased since homosexuality was no longer considered a disorder? Surely it has reduced as society accepts it more?

Given the relatively massive rates of mental illness in the LGBT community when compared to the general population, something is not right. Yet churches are being urged to stop helping their members or anyone else who comes to them for support when they are trying to make sense of their issues around being LGBT.

Why are we stopping people from accessing help if they want it? Most churches do not engage in dramatic exorcisms and frightening rituals such as those we see in films and on TV.  There is a lot of help that can be provided by churches in a calm, peaceful, loving and caring way that does not involve attacking or condemning someone.

Behaviour versus thoughts

The big problem here is this.  There is a world of difference between thought and behaviour.  LGBT activists and individuals are quite right to require good, just and decent behaviour towards them.  Who can disagree with that?  But many activists don’t want only to be treated well.  They want to tell other people what to think. They want to eliminate all conscientious opposition.

This is the same as ‘religious people’ wanting LGBT people to stop thinking that the LGBT lifestyle is right. So you can tell me what to think, but I can’t tell you what to think?  How does that work?

I suspect this does no favours to the majority of LGBT people who just want to get on and have a peaceful life, but who suffer a backlash because of the noise of LGBT activists.

So while we should welcome some research into the relationship (if any) between LGBT people’s stresses and the religious beliefs and experiences they have gone through in the past, we need to be careful that it is independent, scientifically rigorous research.  Sadly, my own professional experience tells me that when activists engage in research, their bias is plain to see and their findings are therefore undermined.  In my next post I will look at the Ozanne Foundation’s survey in some detail and talk about that. Let’s see what it looks like and if it’s any good as robust research.

Meanwhile I am off for a cup of tea.

2 thoughts on “Conversion therapy, religious belief and the Church – Part 1

  1. Pingback: Conversion therapy, religious belief and the Church – Part 3 – View From The Crow's Nest

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