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Synod: C of E urges ban on anti-gay therapy

14 July 2017

Sam Atkins/PA

THE General Synod distanced itself from the use of conversion therapy and called on the Government to ban it.

Moving a private member’s motion on Saturday afternoon, Jayne Ozanne (Oxford) described this as “an important safeguarding debate”. She explained that conversion therapy (CT) was best defined as “the umbrella term for a type of talking therapy or activity which attempts to change sexual orientation or gender identity”. It was “unethical, harmful, and has no place in the modern world”, she said.

“It is discredited by the Government, the NHS, the Royal College of Psychiatrists, the College of General Practitioners, and many other senior healthcare bodies.” The main bodies had been brought together by the Department of Health in 2015 to draw up a Memorandum of Understanding condemning CT, she said.

“Alongside this unanimous professional condemnation, we must also listen to the experience of those who have undergone this therapy and testify to its harm.

SAM ATKINS“Important safeguarding debate”: the motion’s proposer, Jayne Ozanne

“If there is one thing we must learn as a Church from the horrors highlighted in the Gibb report, it is that we must take seriously the testimony of victims of abuse. We must also look to support them in its aftermath. To do otherwise, we’ve been warned, is to continue to add to their pain, and so cause even greater suffering.

“Victims of abuse must be heard. Their stories should never go unheeded or ignored. If we are humble enough to learn from our mistakes, we will create a safer world, where none go through the trauma that some of us have endured. Please let us be clear: conversion therapy is abuse from which vulnerable adults need protecting.”

She described the amendment proposed by the Revd Dr Sean Doherty as “well-meaning”, but said that “it stops us from giving a firm rebuttal of this abhorrent practice.”

While the Church had “yet to find a way forward in our theological divisions over sexuality”, she said, it was “beholden on us to ensure that we have an adequate safeguard in place to protect those who are at the heart of this debate”.

She spoke of her own experiences when she “willingly chose to undergo conversion therapy” and “received prayer for emotional healing, particularly of key relationships, as well as deliverance ministry and prayer to cut off generational spiritual influences.

“This was done by kind, but mostly professionally unqualified prayer-ministry individuals who, too, wanted to see me healed. The prayer would seemingly work for a few months or years, and then I would find myself struggling again — ashamed and guilty that it hadn’t worked.

“I became depressed, wondering why God was choosing not to heal me. And my desperation grew. I turned to look for reasons why healing didn’t come. Many sincere Christians, armed with the warped theology of conversion therapy, implied it must be my fault.

“It led to two breakdowns and two spells in hospital, with my body cracking under the strain. My story is, sadly, not unique.”

She described calls for more scientific evidence of the proof of harm as a “smokescreen”: “it is rare for randomised controlled trials to show evidence of harm, as it would take several years of careful monitoring. In addition, it is highly unlikely that any reputable ethics committee would ever give approval for a trial of a treatment they strongly suspect — due to the many testimonial reports — to be harmful.”

Ms Ozanne described the debate as being “actually quite simple: do we trust our medical health professionals and academic — including many sincere, godly Christians — to know what they are talking about? Should we listen to the voices of those we and others have unwittingly harmed? Should we learn from our mistakes and seek to protect future generations from the sort of damage that was done to me and so many others?”

Dr Simon Clift (Winchester) said that some examples of conversion therapy were “truly jaw-dropping and toe-curling”. Who wouldn’t want to support this motion? But, as Christian leaders elected to that Synod to discern God’s wisdom, “we are not simply called to fall in line with public opinion, or even a statement such as one before it from health professionals, without further reflection.”

He spoke of the work of Richard Niebuhr, who had talked about “Christ above culture”. He suggested that “with courage and wisdom we critique and challenge prevailing views for the sake of the gospel.”

All would recognise “the fundamental importance of faith and belief in shaping our attitudes in the realm of sexuality”, and how firmly held beliefs were “often painfully at odds with our desire”. Where conflict arose and led to “significant distress and dysphoria”, what should the response of the Church be? He gave the example of a married man struggling with unwanted desires or a young woman “deeply disturbed” by desires for both men and women.

“Surely one legitimate option would be for them to seek the input of appropriately trained therapists who can address these desires in order to diminish them?”

He urged the Synod to support such people by not supporting the motion as it stood.

Fenella Cannings-Jurd (Salisbury) referred to a 2016 YouGov poll that suggested that 38 per cent of 18-24-year-olds felt that churches were “not hospitable to gay people”. She was among this number. “We are inhospitable, because in 2017 we are seriously debating the relative pros and cons of condemning conversion therapy . . . that seeks to change people’s God-given identity.”

She asked: “How can we expect to convince young people within our Church of the powerfully loving, redemptive message of Christ if we cannot even bring ourselves to condemn therapies that undermine his love.” If that was the case, “what chance do we stand with millions of young people in this country who do not already believe, for whom acceptance of LGBTQI people is a given?”

The Revd Sally Gaze (Norwich) said that there was no sense in which she wished the Synod to say that “the abusive practices within conversion therapy as we usually have understood it are OK. They are obviously not OK, and I am sure all of us would wish to condemn them.”

She said that the note from the Secretary General had highlighted that conversion therapy was “something very, very broadly defined”, and could even include her being asked to pray with someone that their sexual desires might be changed, such as a married man. She had often prayed with people for “things that I don’t think are necessarily going to happen”, such as the raising of the dead. “It was an important part of that person’s journey, reconciling themselves to that death.”

So she was “reluctant to vote for something that does not give us the freedom to respond to people’s requests for prayer in that way”. She supported the amendment, because it showed respect for the views of professional bodies “without speaking as if we were one of them. They are speaking as people who offer professional therapy. We, as people of the C of E, are mainly amateurs. We love and come alongside people not mainly as professionals, but mainly as friends and as brothers and sisters in Christ. I don’t think we should be acting like professionals on something we don’t know so much about.”

She approved of the amendment because it talked theologically and referred to all sexualities’ being affected by the Fall, “and not one being superior to another”. The amendment was “more specific about what it is that we are seeking to avoid in our own pastoral practices and specific about what we want to do, rather than just a general condemnation”.

The Revd Dr Sean Doherty (London) thanked Ms Ozanne for accepting his good intentions in his amendment. He was against conversion therapy, but said that the world of science was still divided on the issue. Most of the people in the room were not qualified to understand the science. His amendment ruled out the hierarchical notion that it was better to be straight or gay.

The original motion did not go far enough, he suggested; so his amendment included bad pastoral practice. He shared Ms Ozanne’s concerns about safeguarding, but, if the Synod endorsed the statement, that would be the end of the matter; hence the amendment asking for further guidance. It noted the medical opinion, ruled out hierarchy, and sought further guidance, he concluded.

Dr Jamie Harrison (Durham) moved his less drastic amendment, asking for sensitivity. He said that there was a distinction between harm and potential harm. He worried about the competence and capability of the Archbishops’ Council to consider this matter with the appropriate expertise. None the less, he prayed that the work of the group would be helpful and not tardy.

The Revd Lisa Battye (Manchester) spoke as an “accepting Evangelical”, since she wanted to see the inclusion of gay people in the Church and was trained in counselling and psychoanalysis. She concluded that the January 2017 statement should be noted, and that the needs of others should be met without coercion, but that a critique should not be given of other professions in which Synod had no expertise. She approved the amendment.

Clearly there was uncertainty around the science, Canon Angus MacLeay (Rochester) said, but not scripture. Bad practice must be filtered out, he said, but his concern was the underlying assumptions. He quoted the Bible on sinners who would not inherit the Kingdom of God, but which said that the gospel had washed them clean. He spoke of radical Christian inclusion and radical Christian change, suggesting that “none are to stay as we are,” and could be changed, because the body was the “arena” of identity. This theology needed to be heard in these debates, he urged.

The Bishop of Liverpool, the Rt Revd Paul Bayes, said that the world was listening and needed to hear that being LGBT was not a crime, sin, or sickness. “We are called to help one another, but do not need to engage people in healing therapy when they are not sick,” he said. “If the Church suggests that it is a sickness, then all its statements of welcome and inclusion of the LGBT community are null and void.”

He was proud to be associated with Gay Pride in Liverpool, which, he said, was celebrated later than the national date, this weekend, out of respect for one gay man, Michael Causer, who had been killed in 2008 in an act of hatred. No one needed to be cured, he repeated, and urged the Archbishops’ Council to respond positively.

As much as Canon Kate Wharton (Liverpool) wished to stand against conversion therapy, she could not support the motion unamended, because of the “lack of clarity and nuance”. She did not deny that mistakes had been made and lessons learnt by the Church on this subject, but did not accept the description of Charismatic ministry, which was too open to misinterpretation and misunderstanding. As a New Wine leader, she feared that she would be accused of conversion therapy, where she was simply carrying out Charismatic ministry.

In an emotional speech, Ed Cox (Church of England Youth Council) declared an interest as a scientist, and as a same-sex-attracted person. “Do not cling to science when it suits, when you ignored it before,” he warned the Synod. “Age does not equal experience; experience equals experience.” He may not have 40 years of ministry or books behind him, but he could say that, while the Church wanted all people to be treasured, loved, and valued, this had not happened for the LGBT community.

He had put his sexual identity down to his relationship with his father, a lifestyle choice, a phase, and experimenting, and had been told that he was “made wrong” by God. He had been diagnosed with severe depression because of this, and begged the Synod to carry the motion as it stood, to prevent others’ going through the same ordeal.

Dr Doherty moved his amendment.

Ms Ozanne, resisting the amendment, said that it was completely different from her motion. She was most concerned that it only “noted” the joint statement by professional bodies that conversion therapy was harmful, “and therefore carried no sense of approval or endorsement to the statement”. Did the Synod really want to tell the world that it was happy to ignore the consensus of medical professionals?

The strength of the opposition to her motion show just how badly it was needed, she said. “This is the world I grew up in and know so well — and one I found so hard to come out into. Sadly, this is a very sincere, well-meant wrecking motion from those who still don’t seem to understand the deep trauma that conversion therapy actually causes.”

Canon Simon Butler (Southwark) said that members should resist Dr Doherty’s amendment. Although the Synod was not an expert on the relevant science, why could it not “exercise its ethical judgement” on this and follow the experts? Some people in the C of E did practise harmful conversion therapy — indeed, he feared sometimes for himself when he attended meetings of the Evangelical Group in the General Synod, he said.

“I don’t want there to be any comfort for the perpetrators of abuse over this matter, who think a few depressed or suicidal gays is a price worth paying for their own pastoral approach.”

Dr John Appleby (Newcastle) said that Ms Ozanne’s motion should be preferred to Dr Doherty’s amendment, as it was not opposed to prayer or counselling for Christians wrestling with issues of sexuality. Furthermore, requiring something to be universally harmful before it could be described as harmful was unrealistic, and not what society did when it came to smoking, for instance.

Dr Doherty’s amendment was lost in all three Houses: Bishops 10-26, with two recorded abstentions; Clergy 64-110, with two recorded abstentions; and Laity 88-97, with six recorded abstentions.

Dr Harrison moved his amendment.

Ms Ozanne said she would be happy to accept it if the Synod was so minded, provided it also endorsed Christina Baron’s amendment to Dr Harrison’s amendment, which would restore the clause requiring the Archbishops’ Council to sign a 2015 Memorandum of Understanding which condemned conversion therapy.

This was vital, as it would be a public declaration of the Church’s position, would allow the Church to lobby among other faith groups, and put them around the table for future discussion on the topic.

Christina Baron (Bath & Wells) moved her amendment (to the Harrison amendment). The Scottish Government and Relate had both signed the Memorandum, she said. The undertaking spoke to a shared commitment to protecting the public from the risks of conversion therapy. The C of E had “often been seen as unwelcoming” to lesbian and gay people. Passing the amendment would “go some way to correcting that impression, and the C of E would be taking the lead in good pastoral care for people whom we have often let down”.

In a vote by Houses, Ms Baron’s amendment was lost in the Bishops by 16 to 16 with five recorded abstentions. Clergy: 117-46 with 12 recorded abstentions; Laity 108-73 with 11 recorded abstentions.

Dr Harrison’s amendment was then carried in all three Houses: Bishops 35-1, with two recorded abstentions; Clergy 142-25, with seven recorded abstentions; and Laity 165-20, with five recorded abstentions.

Moving his amendment to call on the Government for a ban, the Revd Andrew Dotchin (St Edmundsbury & Ipswich) said that this would be welcomed by Parliament. There was “still much pressure” on MPs to enact such a ban. Passing the amendment would help the Government to go ahead and put in place a ban that would be welcomed by both sides of the House of Commons.

If Malta, Taiwan, and certain states in United States had banned it, so could the UK. He was concerned about the threat that the therapy posed to vulnerable young LGBTI people. On the verge of tears, he said that he still wept over the suicide of Lizzie Lowe, and would be “horrified if another rainbow chid took their life” because the Church had allowed “even the remotest chance” of their gaining access to this therapy. His amendment would send a “very clear and loud signal . . . that we find this practice abhorrent and we want it ended”.

It was welcomed by Jayne Ozanne.

The Archbishop of York, Dr Sentamu, said that “only the Holy Spirit converts,” and “the sooner the practice of this so-called therapy is banned, I can sleep at night; so let’s encourage the Government to do it.”

In a vote by Houses, Mr Dotchin’s amendment was carried: Bishops 28-2 with five recorded abstentions; Clergy 121-34 with 16 recorded abstentions; Laity 120-52 with 18 recorded abstentions.

Before the Synod voted on the amended motion, Ms Ozanne thanked the Synod for the tone of the debate, “which I think is a model for others”. She read aloud a passage from a 90-year-old homosexual celibate priest, who had read of her motion in the Church Times. He had been through “every form of therapy”, including electric-shock treatment and lithium.

He had written to her to say that he hoped with all his heart that her motion would be accepted, and prayed that God might support her in all her endeavours to “bring about an end to the Church’s homophobia in all its forms”, which had caused so much suffering.

The amended motion was carried in all three Houses: Bishops 36-1; Clergy 135-25, with 13 recorded abstentions; Laity 127-48 with 13 recorded abstentions. It read:

That this Synod:

(a) endorse the Memorandum of Understanding on Conversion Therapy in the UK of November 2015, signed by the Royal College of Psychiatrists and others, that the practice of gay conversion therapy has no place in the modern world, is unethical, potentially harmful and not supported by evidence;

(b) call upon the Church to be sensitive to, and to listen to, contemporary expressions of gender identity; and

(c) call on the government to ban the practice of Conversion Therapy.

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