The General Synod Briefing Papers on Conversion Therapy

The second batch of papers for the July meeting of General Synod has now been published and within it are two briefing papers for the debate on ‘conversion therapy.’ These are the papers from Jayne Ozanne, GS 2070 A, and from the Church of England’s General Secretary, William Nye, GS2070 B.

Both papers are seriously problematic for a number of reasons.

First, there is a lack of proper theological reflection. William Nye’s paper has no theology in it at all and Jayne Ozanne’s paper has one paragraph dealing with theology.

This paragraph declares:

‘The Bible teaches us that we are each fearfully and wonderfully made (Ps.139.14), and that we should praise God’s gift of our creation. Thus, our diversity as human beings is a reflection of God’s creativity and something to celebrate. The biblical concern is not with what we are but how we choose to live our lives, meaning that differing sexual orientations and gender identities are not inherently sinful, nor mental health disorders to be ‘cured.’ [1]

The first two sentences of this paragraph are fine as far as they go, but the last sentence makes the paragraph misleading. It is not the case that because the Bible holds that we are created by God and that there is a diversity between human beings which should celebrated that this means that the Bible is unconcerned with what we are or that what we are is unconnected with how we should live our lives,

The creation account in Genesis 1 and 2 sets the framework for the rest of what the Bible has to say. It is the basis for everything that comes after. This account tells that human beings are created by God as his image bearers (Genesis 1:26), that they are created as male and female (Genesis 1:27) and that they are created by God to relate sexually to the other sex within marriage (Genesis 2:24) and by so doing to fulfil the mandate to ‘be fruitful and multiply’ (Genesis 1:28).

This account tells us what we are as human beings and as such points us to how we should behave. It is because humans are created by God as embodied male and female beings who are called to relate sexually to the other sex within marriage that the Bible and the subsequent Christian tradition (including the Anglican tradition) has said that all sex outside marriage and all forms of same-sex sexual activity are inherently sinful and that the desire to engage in these forms of sexual activity is a result of the disorder caused by the Fall rather than a result of God’s good act of creation. Furthermore, because humans are created by God as embodied male and female beings, forms of gender identity that involve a rejection of this embodiment (as when a biological male claims to be female and vice versa) have also to be seen to be a result of the Fall rather than a consequence of creation and therefore as sinful.

Secondly, both papers note the claim that ‘conversion therapy’ should be banned because it does harm and is ineffective. What they inexcusably fail to point out is that the evidence for this oft repeated claim is missing. In an open letter to Jayne Ozanne, Dermot O’ Callaghan has publicly offered to pay £100 to charity if Ozanne can point to a scientific study that provides such evidence.[2] Thus far she has not taken him up on his offer which is unsurprising since no such study exists.

As Peter Ould has pointed out, the only rigorous scientific study of the issue in recent years is the 2011 study by Stanton L Jones and Mark Yarhouse entitled ‘A Longitudinal Study of Attempted Religiously Mediated Sexual Orientation Change.’[3] To quote Ould, this study followed ‘a number of individuals over a few years through a variety of religious orientated therapeutic approaches’ and ‘there was no statistically significant evidence of harm, even in those for whom the therapy ‘failed’ or who dropped out.’ [4]

Ould further notes that the study ‘was clear that there was no statistically significant change at the group level in their self-reported sexual orientation. Particular individuals reported change and others reported no change, and this fits anecdotal evidence elsewhere.’ However, he asks:

‘…. should a low success rate be a reason to ban a therapeutic group? Peer review studies indicate that the success rate for Alcoholics Anonymous (another spiritual based group therapy) is around five per cent to ten per cent (lower than the anecdotal success rates for forms of ex-gay therapy) and there is plenty of evidence of those who believe they have been harmed by the experience. Given the lower success rates and same reports of harm than conservative support groups for those who are not happy with their sexual orientation, should such alcoholics support therapies also be banned? If not, why not?’[5]

Thirdly, neither paper asks the question as to why the consensus of current medical opinion no longer regards sexual attraction to someone of the same-sex as a form of mental illness and therefore no longer sees it as something which for which therapy should be offered.

It is true that since 1973 national and international bodies have removed homosexuality from the list of mental health disorders and that this has resulted in the current consensus which the papers reflect. However, the evidence indicates that this change was not due to the discovery of new evidence, but rather to political activity by members of the gay rights movement.

For example, in his book Homosexuality and American Psychiatry Professor Ronald Bayer, a psychiatrist sympathetic to the gay cause, notes that the landmark decision by the American Psychiatric Association in 1973, which led to the changes that have subsequently taken place in other such organisations worldwide and that a reflected in the Synod briefing papers was a political rather than a scientific one:

‘The entire process, from the first confrontation organized by gay demonstrators at psychiatric conventions to the referendum demanded by orthodox psychiatrists, seemed to violate the most basic expectations about how questions of science should be resolved. Instead of being engaged in a sober consideration of data, psychiatrists were swept up in a political controversy….The result was not a conclusion based on an approximation of the scientific truth as dictated by reason, but was instead an action demanded by the ideological temper of the times.’ [6]

Similar evidence is provided by the lesbian writers Kay Lahusen and Barbara Gittings in their book Making History: The struggle for Gay and Lesbian Equal Rights: 1945-1990: An Oral History:

‘Lahusen: This was always more of a political decision than a medical decision.

Gittings : It never was a medical decision – and that’s why I think the action came so fast. After all, it was only three years from the time that feminists and gays firsts zapped the APA at a behaviour therapy session to the time that the Board of Trustees voted in 1973 to approve removing homosexuality from the list of mental disorders. It was a political move.’ [7]

The essentially political basis of the 1973 APA decision and others that have followed from it means that the current medical consensus should not be used as an argument for saying that same-sex attraction should not be viewed as a mental health issue. If you want to make this claim then you have to give some independent grounds for it based on a clear understanding of what a psychologically healthy way of life involves from a Christian perspective and neither of the General Synod papers does this.

Furthermore, there are a number of mental conditions, such as, for instance, addiction to alcohol or tobacco, that are not regarded as forms of mental illness, but which are regarded as undesirable and on that basis support is offered to people to manage or overcome them. Even if same-sex attraction should not be classified as a form of mental illness it could be, and has been, argued that it is an undesirable condition and that therefore it would likewise be right to offer people support to manage or overcome it.[8] This is not an argument which is considered by either paper.

Fourthly, neither paper looks at the implications of seeking to ban all forms of conversion therapy. At the moment the teaching of the Church of England remains that same-sex sexual activity is contrary to God’s will for his human creatures and consequently that Christians should not engage in such activity. What neither paper addresses is the question of how people should be helped to live according to such teaching when they  are sexually attracted to people of their own sex. If any attempt to use any form of therapy to help them control or change their desires or behaviour is off limits does not this in the end simply mean abandoning them?

Jayne Ozanne would probably say that they should be encouraged to embrace their sexual attraction and reject the teaching, but the Church of England could not in good conscience advocate this approach unless it came to believe theologically that its current teaching was wrong and as we have seen neither paper offers a convincing theological argument for making this move.

Rather than simply imposing a wholesale ban for which there appears to be no supporting evidence would it not be more responsible to for the Church of England to institute a rigorous study of different types of therapy to determine how best to help people who are struggling with unwanted same-sex attraction or gender dysphoria?

[1] GS 2070 A Paragraph 1.

[2] Dermot O’Callaghan, ‘An Open Letter to Jayne Ozanne’ text at http://www.core-issues.org/leading-stories-and-research/an-open-letter-to-jayne-ozanne-from-a-cit-director-dermot-o-callaghan

[3] Stanton L Jones and Mark Yarhouse, ‘A Longitudinal Study of Attempted Religiously Mediated Sexual Orientation Change.’ Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, 37, 2011. pp. 404–427,

[4] Peter Ould, ‘It’s easy to talk about banning gay conversion therapy. But how to do it – and where’s theevidence?, Christian Today, 23 June, 2017, text at: https://www.christiantoday.com/article/its.easy.to.talk.about.banning.gay.conversion.therapy.but.how.to.do.it.and.wheres.the.evidence/110164.htm

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ronald Bayer, Homosexuality and American Psychiatry, Princeton: Princeton UP, 1987, pp.3-4. For more details see Robert R Reilly, Making Gay Okay, San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2014, Ch.7.

[7] Cited in Robert Reilly, Making Gay OK,Kindle Edition Loc, 2253. For further details about the APA decision see Reilly, op.cit, Ch.7 and Jeffrey Satinover, Homosexuality and the Politics of Truth, Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996, Ch.1.

[8] For this argument see Satinover, op.cit. Ch. 3.

M B Davie 26.6.17

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Jayne Ozanne on ‘spiritual abuse’

As well as seeking to persuade the Church of England to ban conversion therapy for those with same-sex attraction or gender dysphoria Jayne Ozanne is now highlighting the issue of spiritual abuse as the next big issue which she thinks the Church will need to tackle.

Her paper on this issue, entitled ‘Spiritual abuse – the next great scandal for the Church,’[1] which was written for the Royal College of Psychiatrists, starts with a general definition of spiritual abuse, then narrows down to focus on abuse by charismatic groups and then narrows down still further to consider the spiritual abuse of LGBTI Christians.

No one with a proper belief in the way in which sin continues to indwell believers (see Articles IX and XV), or any experience of the life of the Church, will need any convincing about the possibility of those in the Church, including church leaders, misusing their position in the Church in a way that results in harm to others.

There cannot therefore be any objection in principle to the concept of ‘spiritual abuse.’ However, the first difficulty with Ozanne’s paper comes when she attempts to define precisely what is meant by ‘spiritual abuse.’

Ozanne adopts the definition of spiritual abuse offered by Dr. Liza Oakely in her book Breaking the silence on spiritual abuse.’ This defines the term as follows:

‘Spiritual abuse is coercion and control of one individual by another in a spiritual context. The target experiences spiritual abuse as a deeply emotional personal attack. This abuse may include: manipulation and exploitation, enforced accountability, censorship of decision making, requirements for secrecy and silence, pressure to conform, misuse of scripture or the pulpit to control behaviour, requirement of obedience to the abuser, the suggestion that the abuser has a ‘divine’ position, isolation from others, especially those external to the abusive context.’[2]

The problem with this definition is that it requires an awful lot of unpacking if it is going to be useful in practice. For example, what exactly is meant by coercion and control? What degree of influence by one person over another qualifies? What is meant by ‘pressure to conform’ and how does this differ from the normal expectation that someone will follow the beliefs and practices of the church to which they have chosen to belong? What is meant by ‘misuse of the scripture or the pulpit to control behaviour’ and how does this differ from any other exposition of the Bible’s teaching about Christian behaviour?

These questions may seem like nit picking, but if spiritual abuse is to become an accepted category in the life of the Church with disciplinary implications similar to those in force for other forms of abuse then the definition of abuse needs to be as tight as possible and what it means needs to be very clearly explained. Dr Oakely may offer such explanation in her book. Unfortunately it is absent from Ozanne’s paper.

Ozanne goes on to link abuse, and particularly what she calls ‘group abuse’ (when it is the whole community rather than a particular individual that inflicts the abuse), to charismatic Evangelical churches and networks.

What she does not do is justify singling out these churches and networks as more likely to abuse people than churches in other traditions. She offers no evidence that this is the case or indeed that abuse is taking place in the churches and networks she describes (some of which she names).

She also offers no explanation of the practices of these churches and networks she cites as forms of abuse nor any evidence that people are being harmed by them.

For example, she contends that their ‘unquestioned teaching on the Holy Spirit’ [3] is linked to abuse, but she does not explain what this teaching is, how she thinks it is linked to abuse, or what the evidence to support this claim is.

For another example, she lists as an abusive practice ‘Misusing ‘words of knowledge’ and/or ‘prophecy’ to control and subjugate people.’[4] What she doesn’t say is what is involved in misusing ‘words of knowledge’ or ‘prophecy’ in this way or what the evidence is that people are being harmed by this practice in the churches and networks which she names.

Without such explanation or evidence her argument necessarily fails to carry conviction. Anyone can allege that abuse is taking place. That is easy. The difficult part is substantiating that allegation and that Ozanne fails to do.

The problem of lack of evidence continues when she goes on to consider what she calls ‘The Spiritual abuse of LGBTI Christians.’ In this part of her paper Ozanne looks at the teaching given about homosexuality in an unspecified number of the churches and networks she has named, the forms of ministry given in these bodies to those with same-sex attraction and the sort of church discipline advocated by the Evangelical Alliance for those who persistently and unrepentantly engage in same-sex sexual activity.

Ozanne’s allegation is that these practices cause ‘significant long term harm’ to LGBTI Christians up to and including suicide.[5] This is an extremely serious allegation, but if we ask what evidence she gives to substantiate it the only thing we find is a reference to a 2017 paper from the Oasis Foundation[6] which links mental health issues among LGB people to discrimination against them by the churches and the way the churches contribute ‘negative views to debates about same-sex relationships in society and the media.’

However, as Peter Ould points out in a response to the Oasis paper ‘…. the problem with the Oasis paper is that it provides not one shred of research evidence that demonstrates a link between conservative Christian teaching and mental health outcomes for LGB people.’ [7]

Ould goes on to point out that the Oasis paper relied on ‘generalised research on minority stress and then tried to blame this on conservative churches’ and that it failed to engage with the 2012 research paper by Barnes and Meyer which showed that:

… contrary to the claims that Oasis make with no evidence to support them, LGB people do not have worse mental health outcomes when in ‘non-affirming’ church environments and indeed there is some evidence to suggest that attending a conservative church actually improves mental health for LGB people, even when they have significant internalized homophobia.[8]

To put it into plainer English, the research evidence does not show that LGB people suffer from worse mental health issues because they attend conservative churches and indeed may have improved mental health because they do so.

What all this means is that Ozanne gives us only one source to substantiate her allegation and this one source turns out itself to provide no evidence to back up its claims, claims which are contradicted by a substantial academically rigorous research study on the issue.

In response to this criticism, supporters of Ozanne’s position might well say that there is a large amount of anecdotal evidence from those who have suffered mental distress because of their involvement with churches that take a conservative stance on same-sex attraction and same-sex relationships. However, if they make this move they would have to address the fact that there is equally a growing body of anecdotal evidence from people who are same-sex attracted, but feel that they have benefited from the ministry of churches that take a conservative stance on these matters.[9]

The existence of such people and the testimonies they offer (both of which are completely ignored by Ozanne’s paper) means that the issue that needs to be explored is not simply why some people report being harmed by churches that take a conservative stance, but why is it that some people report being harmed whereas others report being helped. If the Church is going to address seriously the question of how to minister in a helpful way to people with same-sex attraction this is the issue that needs to be researched.

Conclusion

The point of Ozanne’s paper is to urge bodies external to the Church, such as the Royal College of Psychiatrists, to call for action to be taken against spiritual abuse:

‘It is imperative that professional organisations external to the religious institutions call for better safeguarding measures against spiritual abuse. Indeed, they should look to recognise it as a key form of abuse at a national level so as to ensure that some of the most vulnerable in our society are afforded the same protection as those facing other forms of abuse.’[10]

If put into practice what this would mean is that pressure would be put on churches to ban practices considered spiritual abuse in the same way that churches now take action to safeguard against abuse of children and adults when they are vulnerable. If Ozanne’s paper were to be followed, this would include a ban on teaching that the Bible opposes same-sex sexual activity and a ban on any form of church discipline for those engaging in such activity.

The problem with Ozanne’s paper, however, is that it frequently fails to describe the abuse it alleges sufficiently precisely to make it clear what she is talking about and it consistently fails to provide evidence that the practices she refers to actually cause harm. It also ignores the testimonies of those with same-sex attraction who report having been helped by the ministry of conservative churches.

It therefore fails to provide a clear or persuasive basis for either bodies such as the Royal College of Psychiatrists, or the churches, to move in the direction she advocates. If safeguarding measures are to be put in place then we need to know precisely what is being safeguarded against and why. Ozanne’s paper fails to provide clarity on either point.

M B Davie 26.6.17

 

[1] Jayne Ozanne, Spiritual abuse – the next great scandal for the Church, Royal College of Psychiatrists, 2017.

Text at: http://www.rcpsych.ac.uk/pdf/jayneozannespiritualabusethenextgreatscandalforthechurch.pdf

[2] Ibid, p.4.

[3] Ibid, p.6.

[4] Ibid, p.6.

[5] Ibid, p.8.

[6] The Oasis Foundation, In the Name of Love – the Church, Exclusion and LGB Mental Health Issues, London:

Oasis Foundation, 2017.

[7] Peter Ould, Church Teaching and LGB mental health,’ Psephizo, 13 February 2017, at https://www.psephizo.com/sexuality-2/church-teaching-and-lgb-mental-health/

[8] Ibid referring to David M Barnes and Illan H Meyer, ‘Religious Affiliation, Internalized Homophobia, and

Mental Health in Lesbians, Gay Men, and Bisexuals,’ American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, Vol 82(4), Oct

2012, pp. 505-515.

[9] For statements of this position see the testimonies on the Living out website at http://www.livingout.org/

[10] Ozanne, op.cit. p.9.