THE General Synod has called on the Government to ban conversion therapy. The move was backed by the Archbishop of York, Dr Sentamu, who said that a ban on the “theologically unsound” practice would enable him to sleep at night.
Members had initially been asked to endorse a statement signed by professional bodies condemning such therapy as “unethical and harmful and not supported by evidence”, but, after passionate speeches by bishops and several emotional personal testimonies, proved willing to go further.
The private member’s motion was introduced on Saturday by Jayne Ozanne, a lay representative from Oxford diocese who has described how undergoing such therapy resulted in her having two breakdowns (News, 30 June). It asked the Synod to endorse a statement issued this year by professional bodies, including the Royal College of GPs and UK Council for Psychotherapy, which states that conversion therapy “has no place in the modern world. It is unethical and harmful and not supported by evidence.”
Conversion therapy was “a form of abuse”, she said, “from which vulnerable adults need protecting”.
The therapy she had undergone 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 proof of harm as a “smokescreen”. She argued: “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.”
The debate was “actually quite simple: Do we trust our medical health professionals and academics – including many sincere, godly Christians – to know what they are talking about?”
Among those who offered her support was the Bishop of Liverpool, the Rt Revd Paul Bayes.
“The world needs to hear us say that LGBTI-plus orientation and identity is not a crime,” he said, with quiet fervour. “We are called to help one another to conform their lives to Jesus Christ and to live lives of holiness, but we do not need to engage people in healing therapy if they are not sick. 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, to be held later in the year out of respect for Michael Causer, a gay man who was killed in 2008 in an act of hatred.
In an emotional speech, Ed Cox (Church of England Youth Council) declared an interest as a scientist, and a “queer” person. 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 pass the motion as it stood, to prevent others’ going through the same ordeal.
Ms Ozanne’s proposals caused concern among some members.
Dr Simon Clift, a consultant in occupational health, argued that, when distress arose as a result of a conflict between beliefs and desires, “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?”
An amendment was moved by the Revd Dr Sean Doherty, a tutor at St Mellitus theological college, and a trustee of Living Out, which seeks “to help Christian brothers and sisters who experience same-sex attraction stay faithful to biblical teaching on sexual ethics and flourish at the same time”. It affirmed that pastoral care, prayer ministry, and professional counselling were “legitimate means of supporting individuals who choose them freely, provided that they respect the property dignity of human beings, and do not involve coercion or manipulation or make unwarranted promises about the removal of unwanted feelings”. It asked the House of Bishops to draw up guidelines “to discourage inappropriate pastoral practices, and to encourage good ones”.
During the debate, the Bishop of Carlisle, the Rt Revd James Newcome, issued a statement: “We are all agreed that coercive or manipulative forms of therapy are unacceptable. We all want to avoid harm or even the potential for harm. But at the same time people seeking pastoral help and proper accountable counselling should be able to find it. That’s a very different thing from professional psychiatric practice.”
The Vicar of St George’s, Everton, Canon Kate Wharton wished to stand against conversion therapy, but said that she could not support the motion unamended because of the “lack of clarity and nuance” it contained. She was concerned by a paper on spiritual abuse, delivered by Ms Ozanne at meeting of the Royal College of Psychiatrists spirituality and psychiatry group in April. In the paper, Ms Ozanne had referred to prayer ministry in Charismatic churches, with particular reference to Alpha, the Evangelical Alliance, Spring Harvest, and New Wine.
Ms Ozanne said that the strength of the opposition to her motion showed just how badly it was needed.
The Prolocutor of the Lower House of the Convocation of Canterbury, Canon Simon Butler, said that 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 on the General Synod. “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.”
The amendment was rejected in all three Houses, but another, by Dr Jamie Harrison, a GP and Chair of the House of Laity, was accepted. It amended the motion to endorse the Memorandum of Understanding on Conversion Therapy in the UK of 2015, which was signed by the Royal College of Psychiatrists, a body absent from the 2017 statement. It also says “that the practice of gay conversion therapy has no place in the modern world, is unethical, potentially harmful, and not supported by the evidence”, but, unlike the 2017 statement, does not refer to gender identities as well as sexual orientations. Dr Harrison’s amendment called upon the Church “to be sensitive to, and to listen to, contemporary expressions of gender identity”.
The Priest-in-Charge of St John the Baptist and St Edmund, Felixstowe, the Revd Andrew Dotchin, fought tears as he introduced the final amendment, which called for a ban on conversion therapy. He still wept over the suicide of Lizzie Lowe, a teenager from Manchester who took her own life (News, 9 January; Faith 25 November), he said, and would be “horrified if another rainbow child took their life” because the Church had allowed “even the remotest chance” for them to gain access to this therapy. Passing this amendment would send a “very clear and loud signal . . . that we find this practice abhorrent and we want it ended”.
“Only the Holy Spirit converts,” Dr Sentamu said before the vote. “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.”
The Synod voted overwhelmingly in favour of the amended motion, in all three Houses.
It will now fall to the Church of England’s Public Affairs team to implement the motion. Both Labour and Conservative MPs have tabled debates on conversion therapy in recent years and in May the Prime Minister, Theresa May, told Pink News that banning “gay cure therapy” was “something we need to keep under close review”.
“Being gay or trans is not an illness, and shouldn’t be treated as such – young people should be protected from attempts to change who they are. We’re looking carefully at the extent of the problem, and the experience of other countries that have introduced bans, to ensure we get the approach to this right.”
Before the final vote, Ms Ozanne read aloud a letter sent to her by the Revd Stanley Underhill, a 90-year-old retired priest in London, who had read of her motion in the Church Times.
He described “a lifetime of reactive depression resulting from my inability to accept my sexual orientation” and a series of interventions including an exorcism, electric-current treatment, testosterone injections, lithium, and “no end of personal counselling, therapy and prayer, all of which totally failed to make not one jot of difference to my sexual inclinations”. He had contemplated suicide on two occasions.
He prayed that God would support Ms Ozanne in her endeavours to “bring about an end once and for all to the Churches’ homophobia in all its forms which have throughout the ages caused so much misery and suffering to countless thousands of people who were made in the image of God”.
In intercessions ending the day’s work, Dr Doherty prayed for those who had received “abusive or shaming treatment”, for those in countries where homosexual actions were subject to criminal sanctions, and for all those taking part in Pride, “that they would each know that they are made in your image, precious and loved by you.”