Prudence Dailey’s Commentary
‘Conversion Therapy’: Does Anyone Really Know What Banning it Would Entail?
Hitherto, I have avoided addressing directly the current debates about what are described as ‘LGBT issues’: they are toxic and divisive, have dominated Church politics for too long, and (as I have written before) have distorted or even displaced a proper consideration of Christian sexual ethics more generally. Unfortunately, though, a recent official statement by the Bishop of Dorchester—one of the Area Bishops in my own Diocese, the Diocese of Oxford—has made it difficult to remain silent.
As readers will be aware, the Government recently undertook a public consultation on proposals for ‘a legislative ban on the practice of so-called conversion therapy’, which seeks to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity. This followed a 2017 vote by the General Synod of the Church of England—following a highly emotive and ill-prepared debate on an amendment from the floor—calling on the government to impose such a ban.
The government is right to refer to ‘so called’ conversion therapy, since no one actually claims to be engaging in such therapy: it is only the advocates of a ban who use this terminology. Furthermore, there is no agreement as to what constitutes ‘conversion therapy’: pretty much everyone concurs that coercive and abusive practices should be illegal (and, indeed, they already are—but if it is thought that a specific legal ban might strengthen protection, then so be it). Depending on how it is defined, however, ‘conversion therapy’ might potentially also cover everything from psychological counselling, willingly entered into, with the aim of shifting a person’s sexual orientation or perceived ‘gender identity’; to offering prayer and pastoral support to those wishing to live in accordance with the teaching of the Church.
Vocal LGBT campaigners within the Church, such as Jayne Ozanne, are unequivocal that a ban should indeed encompass private prayer and pastoral conversations—as is already the case in the Australian State of Victoria, for example—and that ‘suppression’ of sexual orientation should also be within its scope.
It was against this background that 2546 Christian ministers and pastoral workers—including many from the Church of England—signed the ‘Ministers’ Consultation Response’ sent to the Secretary of State in December last year. Their letter distanced its signatories from ‘evil and disreputable past practices which are already illegal and which Christians are the first to condemn’, making it clear that their concern was not about the banning of coercive practices. Rather, they expressed their fear that simply promulgating traditional Christian teaching about sexuality and marriage might unwittingly be criminalised. (The full text of the Ministers’ Consultation Response can be found online at ministersconsultationresponse.com ).
Following media coverage of the this letter, the Bishop of Dorchester, the Rt Revd Gavin Collins, issued an official statement on behalf of the Diocese:
The letter has undoubtedly upset a lot of people. It puts out a message that people aren’t safe or welcome in our churches, and it cuts across the settled view of the Church of England that coercive conversion therapy is unacceptable and should be banned.
“I am disappointed that the authors have used an open letter to diminish people who are in faithful same sex relationships and those who are transgender. Thankfully, the views expressed in the letter are not representative of the Church of England today. I am clear that we are all made in God’s image, that all are welcome in His church and that everyone has a place at the table.”
It seems difficult to escape the inference that this response distorts and misrepresents the authors’ intent—and, indeed, many have reached that conclusion. I do not know Bishop Collins personally, but those who do speak highly of his pastoral gifts: it seems highly likely that his motivation was only to be seen to offer support to the ‘LGBT community’, and that the undermining of those holding the orthodox position was collateral damage rather than deliberate intent.
In the context of the controversy aroused by the Bishop’s statement, I asked the Bishop of Oxford, the Rt Revd Steven Crofts, a question at a recent meeting of the Diocesan Synod: ‘Can the Bishop give an assurance that the Diocese does not support the criminalisation of those offering pastoral support to live in accordance with the teaching of the Church of England who actively seek such support?’ Happily, the Bishop did indeed give that assurance—and, as he was doing so, I saw Jayne Ozanne shaking her head.
Clearly, the Diocese is attempting to be all things to all men. It is seeking to align itself with the most far-reaching demands by the LGBT campaigners for ‘conversion therapy’ ban, while at the same time reassuring those who hold the traditional view that it also supports them—without, apparently, having noticed that these positions are logically incompatible. It is devoutly to be hoped that the Government (which has previously acknowledged the need to preserve freedom of religion) fully comprehends this tension before it attempts to legislate, otherwise goodness knows what kind of a mess we shall find ourselves in.
Miss Dailey has served as a member of General Synod for over twenty years.