CPAS and the problem with opposing so-called 'conversion therapy'

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Following a large amount of criticism on social media for having declared its support for the Evangelical Alliance's ten affirmations on human sexuality, the trustees of the Church of England's Church Pastoral Aid Society (CPAS) issued a clarificatory statement on 11 January this year in which they declared, among other things, that 'CPAS is opposed to conversion therapy, and seeks to uphold the highest standards of safeguarding and pastoral best practice.'

This declaration by the CPAS trustees was an attempt to distance themselves from number eight of the Evangelical Alliance's affirmations which states:

"We welcome and support the work of those individuals and organisations who responsibly seek to help Christians who experience same-sex attraction as in conflict with their commitment to live in accordance with biblical teaching. This help will involve counsel and pastoral support to live a chaste life and, as part of this process, some may seek and experience changes in the strength or direction of their same-sex attractions."

The implication of the CPAS trustees distancing themselves from this affirmation would seem to be that they do not believe that it is ever right for individuals, or organisations such as the Core Issues Trust, or for that matter churches, to offer counselling or other forms of pastoral support to "help Christians who experience same-sex attraction as in conflict with their commitment to live in accordance with biblical teaching".

When one stops to think about it, this is a very odd position for the CPAS trustees to hold. They have made it clear that as an Evangelical organisation CPAS still adheres to the traditional Christian belief that same-sex sexual relationships are contrary to the will of God as revealed in Scripture. Nevertheless, they appear to be saying that it is wrong to try to help people who are being tempted to act against God's will in this regard.

Two examples illustrate the problems with this approach.

The first example is a married man who is tempted to cheat on his wife by engaging in an affair with another man.

The second example is a teenage girl who is being encouraged by friends at school to experiment with lesbian sexual activity.

When people come to their church leaders and say that they want help in remaining faithful to their marriage, or in knowing why and how they should reject the pressure from their friends at school, are church leaders really supposed to simply tell them that they are on their own because no help will be forthcoming? If the temptations in question concerned heterosexual sex, help would be offered with no questions asked. So why should it not be the same when the issue concerns homosexuality?

The first answer to this question is that the Church of England's General Synod passed a motion in 2017 rejecting conversion therapy. The motion in question runs as follows:

"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; and 3 (b) call upon the Church to be sensitive to, and to listen to, contemporary expressions of gender identity; (c) and call on the government to ban the practice of Conversion Therapy."

One can understand the CPAS trustees' reluctance to disregard a General Synod motion. However, that cannot be the end of the matter because that Church of England holds that church councils may err (Article XXI) and so the question that has to be asked is whether or not the General Synod erred when it passed the 2017 motion.

Those who hold that General Synod was right to pass this motion argue that conversion therapy should be banned because of the harm that it involves. This is the position put forward, for example, by the then Bishop of Manchester, David Walker in which he argues that there is 'a massive pile of evidence' that all forms of conversion therapy cause harm and that therefore the government should simply get on and ban the practice completely.

It follows, therefore, that the second answer to the question why church leaders should say 'no' to offering help to those struggling with same-sex sexual temptation is because the evidence shows that any attempt to provide such help would be harmful to the people concerned.

However, the evidence shows no such thing.

This is a point that is made clear, for example, by Rosaria Butterfield, the former lesbian academic whose conversion to Christianity is recorded in her book Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert. In an article published on her website last year Butterfield explains the reasons for retracting her previously stated opposition to conversion therapy as follows:

"I falsely believed that Reparative Therapy and Conversion Therapy were the same things and that they harmed people by making undeliverable promises and blaming parents for their children's problems. I falsely believed that the darkest days of mental health—think 'electroshock therapy'—fell under the umbrella term 'conversion therapy'.

"When I dismissed Reparative Therapy as harmful, I was running roughshod with overgeneralizations and failing to distinguish 'hurt' from 'harm.' The game-changer for me was reading the work of Dr. Andre Van Mol, a California family physician.

"His article in the Christian Medical and Dental Association online journal, 'Even Failed Therapy for Undesired Same-Sex Sexuality Results in No Harm,' eased my concerns. Highlighting data that SOCE (Sexual Orientation Change Efforts) incurs no harm even when the patient does not meet intended goals, this current study follows up on a 2021 study showing sexual orientation change efforts (SOCE) reduce suicidality. This article put my concerns to rest."

Furthermore, from a Christian perspective what is harmful to human beings is anything that prevents them from living in the way that God created them to live. For example, it is harmful to deprive people of food, because God has created human beings as biological organisms who need food in order to live at all. For another example, it is harmful to deprive people of education, because this will prevent the full development of the intellectual capacities that God has given them.

If we extend this understanding of harm to the issues of sexual identity and behaviour, we find that the witness of both nature and Scripture (Genesis 1:26-28) is that human beings have been created by God in two sexes, male and female, with the members of these two sexes being differentiated biologically by the fact that their bodies are ordered towards the performance of different roles in sexual reproduction and in the nurture of children once they have been born. Furthermore, Scripture teaches us that God has instituted marriage between a man and a woman as the context for sexual intercourse and for the begetting and raising of children (Genesis 2: 18-25).

If God has created human beings in this way, it follows that it is harmful for human beings to live in a way that contradicts this fact. It is harmful for a man to live as if he was a woman or vice versa, or for a man or woman to claim some form of alternative sexual identity. It is also harmful for a man, or a woman, to have sex outside marriage, either with a member of the opposite sex, or with a member of the same sex.

As a result of the sinful disorder that exists in all human beings as a consequence of the rebellion against God that took place at the start of human history and the idolatry that has been the fruit of this rebellion (Genesis 3:1-14, Romans 1:18-32), there are people who desire to live in these harmful ways. In this situation, Christian care for others requires that we seek to help those for whom this is the case, to control their desires in order that they may live in the way God created them to live.

Such help will take the form of teaching, prayer, counselling and general pastoral support, which is offered 'responsibly' in the sense of not subjecting them to any form of coercion, psychological manipulation, or physical violence, and also not offering any promise that God will immediately, totally, or permanently, deliver them from any kind of same-sex sexual desire, something that neither Scripture nor experience suggests will necessarily be the case.

Ironically, therefore, by distancing themselves from what is said in the Evangelical Alliance's eighth affirmation the CPAS trustees are actually increasing the possibility of harm by implicitly suggesting that Christian individuals and organizations should not offer people help to live in the way God created them to live.

A final difficulty with the CPAS statement is its timing. At the moment there are attempts being made both in Scotland and in the Westminster Parliament in London to make 'conversion therapy' a criminal offence. As the website 'Let us pray' explains, in the proposed legislation:

"Conversion therapy is a wide umbrella term chosen by LGBT campaigners. It covers grotesque illegal acts such as corrective rape an abusive quack medical practises like electric shock 'therapy.' But the campaigners want to go much further. They say: 'Any form of... persuading someone to change their sexual... behaviour... or gender identity should be illegal."

As they note, campaigners are calling for even basic Christian practices such as preaching, praying, or even talking with one's children, to come under the conversion therapy ban. For example, they quote the following statements from anti-conversion therapy campaigners:

  • Pete Byrne, "Some [politicians] say that churches offering pastoral care or sitting down and talking and preaching to people about their lifestyle doesn't constitute conversion therapy. But I'm sorry, it does."
  • Jayne Ozanne, "I would strongly refute that 'gentle non-coercive prayer' should be allowed. All prayer that seeks to change or suppress someone's innate sexuality or gender identity is deeply damaging and causes immeasurable harm."
  • Tiernan Martin, "A lot of [conversion therapy] is just talking to a religious leader, such as a priest or a pastor. It's people who come out to their parents who then tell them they need to seek spiritual guidance and support."

What we see in these quotations is a major attack on the freedom of Christians to practise their faith in spite of this freedom being guaranteed by Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights to which the United Kingdom is a signatory. Many Christians, understanding what is at stake, are campaigning hard against what is being proposed, but every time that a Christian body like CPAS rejects 'conversion therapy' their efforts are undermined. The CPAS trustees need to think again.

Martin Davie is a lay Anglican theologian and Associate Tutor in Doctrine at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford.