Unusually today, I was up in time to listen to some pre-7 a.m. radio, so I heard the very rushed interview the Today programme was running on conversion therapy. Anyone who still doesn’t know what this ‘therapy’ entails can read the stories told by those featured in the current harrowing series being featured on Jayne Ozanne’s Via Media blog, for example this one.
The context for today’s brief interview is the considerable unease about the 11 May statement issued by Bishop Sarah Mullally in her role as chair of the LLF Next Steps Group. In this she stated that
The General Synod has voted overwhelmingly to reject coercive Conversion Therapies so we welcome the Government’s commitment to explore these matters further with a view to enshrining that position in law.
We recognise the difficulties in defining Conversion Therapies and look forward to working closely with the Government to develop a viable definition and subsequent legislation.
We want to prevent abuses of power, and ensure that issues of consent are made absolutely central to any future legislation.
There are many problems with this statement. First, the General Synod motion to which it refers, passed back in 2017 (!), never mentioned the word ‘coercive’. It wasn’t distinguishing between different forms of conversion therapy. You can read the motion as passed here. Second, there are already viable definitions. Third, consent is not as simple as the statement seems to suggest, and it’s on that point which I would like to focus briefly.
In the Today interview, Peter Lynas of the Evangelical Alliance seemed to be confusing celibacy – in the Christian tradition, a specific vocation – with abstinence – not having sex. He emphasised that people asking for prayer to end their ‘same-sex attraction’ (the preferred terminology of those who don’t think there is such a thing as ‘being gay’) do so “with their own free choice”. He said “they’re an adult, they’ve made their own choices”.
I think the safeguarding scandals usefully help us to think about this. “They’re an adult”: but are they what safeguarding would call a ‘vulnerable’ adult? Who is a vulnerable adult? The definition has expanded considerably in recent years, and when I took the safeguarding training it was emphasised that any adult can be vulnerable at some point in their life. In 2015 Stephen Parsons discussed this and pointed out that ‘vulnerable’ is less about the “individual personality, but more the particular setting that he or she finds themselves in”. Stephen discussed poverty, illiteracy and the time between childhood and adulthood as just three of the “‘vulnerabilities’ that impact on the way that a individual is rendered more susceptible to the blandishments of religious teachers”. Another setting, I think, is being a gay person – particularly a young gay person – within a congregation which believes homosexuality is a sin.
In the Today interview, as well as using the words ‘choice’ and ‘choose’, Lynas expressed his worry that, if prayer is included as a form of conversion therapy, then people who are ‘same-sex attracted’ “won’t be able to get prayer”. Leaving aside what to me is a very consumer-focused view of prayer as a commodity which you ‘get’ from someone else, it’s not a ‘free choice’ asking for prayer if your whole world is a church which tells you that you can stop being gay if you pray hard enough or if the right people, or enough people, pray for you to be straight. In the world of ‘getting’ prayer, this means telling people who think homosexuality is a sin that you think you are gay, and it means the church leaders – the gatekeepers, those with the power to evict you – are likely to be the ones praying with you. Does that sound like a wise move? Isn’t the unequal power dynamic obvious?
I’m reading Brian McLaren’s Faith After Doubt (2021) at the moment. He discusses how the gatekeepers “articulate the box of norms that members must follow, then police conformity, and then impose punishments or dispense rewards accordingly”. His theme is the expression of doubt but his points also apply to conversion therapy. McLaren writes, “Many of us are drawn to faith communities because they are places of warmth, safety and belonging. But sometimes, they are among the most dangerous zones we enter.” People who have been through conversion therapy talk about how they wanted to belong, to stay in the church which to them was their whole life, the place where their friends and family were; how they wanted it to ‘work’ and how they had to pretend that it had done so, because if it hadn’t then the authority of those from whom they had ‘got prayer’ would be challenged.
But a safe community of faith is one where we can express our doubts, and our sexuality, without fear.