conversion therapy
Ethics & Morality

When does talking or praying about sexuality become conversion therapy?

As the Government’s consultation on their Conversion Therapy (Prohibition) Bill nears its end, there is a sense of confusion and exasperation, if not of fear and despair. Not among those who have experienced past abuse or dread a future torture of having their adolescent levels of oestrogen or testosterone subjected to mental, emotional and physical coercion, but among priests and pastors who wonder if they’ll ever again be able to counsel a teenage boy struggling with his sexuality, or pray with a girl who finds herself attracted to her best friend’s mother.

Those who seek to prohibit all forms of conversion therapy are urging the Government to outlaw non-physical conversion practices in religious settings, including prayer. Such things are coercive and abusive, they say, and may cause profound depression in the most vulnerable, if not drive them to suicide. So ‘conversion’ prayers along the lines of ‘Please Lord, please take this temptation away’ must be prohibited, and so must all pastoral counselling which does anything but affirm a person’s sexual orientation and essential desires for homosexual exploration. To encourage them to question or resist such urges will constitute a form of abuse. To allude to any sexual behaviour being unnatural will be an expression of hate. Even if the counselling is voluntary and consensual, the priest or pastor may not quote Scripture or refer to the Church’s moral teachings in this context, as this will be a form of manipulative coercion, or undue spiritual influence.

When does talking over a problem become therapy? When does effectual fervent prayer become therapeutic? At what point does an exploratory conversation about sexuality become conversion therapy?

If therapy is no longer confined to sitting in a psychotherapist’s chair or having weekly sessions with a behavioural psychologist, then any pastoral conversation becomes therapy: the ‘religious setting’ makes it so. And that setting is defined not by the sanctity of the space, but by the cast of persons involved and their spiritual relationship. A priest wouldn’t be able to circumvent the prohibition on prayer by meeting in a coffee shop or walking along a lakeside for a bit of casual discipling: the power imbalance determines and defines the coercion; the undue spiritual influence. All forms of inner transformation in the realm of teenage sexual identity will become illegal: to encourage the callow boy or girl to ‘take every thought captive’ (2Cor 10:5) or to remain celibate (1Cor 7) will constitute aversion therapy, and is likely to carry a custodial sentence.

Minister for Women and Equalities Liz Truss has committed to defending freedom of speech and religious liberty; that is, “the ability of adults to consent and the freedom to express the teachings”. The problem is that there are those for whom consensual prayer and orthodox teaching are coercive and abusive, simply because they can make a person feel ‘negative’ toward themselves. Whether that feeling is one of being possessed by demons and consumed by self-disgust, or simply that of having a sense of dirtiness in the light of the holiness of Christ, there is no apparent distinction to be made.

And then there is the Christian home life: will parents be able to raise their children in accordance with the values and morality of Scripture and Church teaching? Or could the police be called when a boy’s conversation with his father begins to feel like ‘therapy’ about sexual orientation or gender identity? The Conversion Therapy (Prohibition) Bill is unclear on this, so the Act of Parliament (should it become so) is likely to lead to dozens of false allegations against priests, pastors and parents simply for having a conversation about same-sex marriage or trans identity issues.

The Coalition for Marriage outlines some possible scenarios:

• Noah, aged 13, asks his dad what he thinks about same-sex marriage. His dad says he’s totally against it. Noah disagrees. He tells a youth worker about the argument, saying, “I might want to get married one day, and who knows whether it will be to a man or a woman?” The youth worker claims to the police that the father was trying to change Noah’s sexual orientation.

• Parents find out that their daughter Olivia, aged 14, has been visiting the website of Mermaids, a controversial trans group. Her parents block her access to the website. Olivia mentions it to her teacher in passing. The teacher reports it because he believes Olivia is actually a trans boy whom the parents are trying to change. Police interview the parents.

• Lucy, age 5, tells her parents she learned in RSE lessons that men can marry men and women can marry women. She’s glad, because she’ll be able to marry her best friend Rachel. Her parents tell Lucy that marriage is between a man and a woman. Lucy tells her teacher what her parents said. Social services and the police are informed about potential conversion therapy.

• A school is heavily promoting trans rights, using Stonewall and Mermaids materials. A teenage boy, Jack, tells his school teacher he thinks he’s a girl trapped in a boy’s body but doesn’t want his parents to know. The school treats him as a girl. When Jack’s parents find out, they withdraw him from the school. The parents are reported for conversion therapy.

• A mother learns that her 13-year-old daughter, Eve, wants to buy a chest-binder and take puberty blockers. Eve’s mum warns her about Keira Bell, who started down the same path and ended up having a double mastectomy, only to regret it later. Eve describes this conversation to her friend and it ends up being reported as conversion therapy.

And they make the important point that even if the parents are not convicted, the process of being reported to the police and investigated would be extremely damaging for these families. It isn’t only damaging for families, of course: the shame and intolerable pressures could be a cause of profound depression, if not drive a person to suicide.

What the debate around conversion therapy in religious settings seems to ignore is that for the Christian the whole of life is one of perpetual inner transformation; of constantly turning away from sin and sinful desires, and renewing the heart or turning the mind toward the light to discern a right spirit that better reflects the purity of Christ. Prayer is integral to this, and prayer which intervenes to bring healing and wholeness is intrinsically therapeutic, not least because that is the etymology of the term: therapeia (Gr): to heal; to minister to. In Christ we have a new identity; we are a new creation, and discovering it is a lifelong pursuit of continual conversion.

Christians differ on what may constitute ‘sin’ in the realm of sexuality, but the way forward is not for the state to impose a totalitarian legal structure to define what constitutes ungodly behaviour. If the traditional moral teaching on sexuality is to become ‘hate’ and a cause of ‘harm’, then many rabbis and imams will also find themselves being investigated for their teachings and prayers, for Judaism and Islam also have their foundational moral orthodoxies, as do many Sikhs and Hindus, though their scriptures are not books of law.

The whole of the Christian life is one of self-therapy, and of shared mutual therapy in communion with others. We are all called to be faithful, including in our sex lives, and one person’s voluntary abstinence is another’s coerced repression. If a priest or pastor is free to preach against men and women giving free reign to their passions and lusts, why may they not then counsel the same-sex attracted person against doing the same?

The Conversion Therapy (Prohibition) Bill does not simply concern itself with physical and emotional abuse in the realm of sexual identity, but with the definition of sin and the nature of temptation in the realm of spirituality. Religious exemptions and freedom protections may find their way into the Conversion Therapy (Prohibition) Act, but these will be ineffectual in the face of totalitarian demands for gender-identity ‘neutrality’ and compassionate counselling conformity. And we return to the fundamental question which nobody advancing this agenda seems to be willing (or able) to answer. Why should consensual spiritual counselling be banned when it concerns unwanted same-sex attraction in teenagers, while irreversible medical interventions with profound developmental consequences are encouraged in the context of gender transitioning in children?

If, as some believe, sex is not binary and one may freely seek therapy to change it; and if, as is manifest, sexuality exists on a spectrum and one may freely seek therapy to explore the fluidity toward same-sex attraction, why should therapy to sustain a hetero-normative inclination become a criminal offence? If someone is prayerfully exploring their gender identity with a Christian (or Jewish or Muslim) counsellor, why should it be prohibited by statute for the counsellor to question a person’s belief that they are trans?

Surely a Conservative government is not going to make windows in a priest’s soul and coerce them by law to affirm that a person is transgender? Surely a Conservative government is not going to screen the confessional to ensure that it propagates the state’s definition of sin?

Once again, it seems to be left to Christian Concern to fortify the argument with empirical evidence. Watch the short video of testimony, and ask what will become of these people and their desire to contend against their old lives? Where are they to seek prayerful support and Christian counsel as they seek to worship God in their new lives? Surely a Conservative government isn’t going to make it illegal for people to be ‘transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit‘?