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