Once conversion therapy is criminalised, the pulpit will be next

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The government clearly thinks banning 'gay conversion therapy' is a vote winner and at present they may be right.

Asked by a pollster in the street if they think 'conversion therapy' should be banned, most British people would agree because they would associate it with coercive abuse. The image of a 1950s gay man strapped to a chair and being given electric shocks by a man in a white coat would tend to spring to mind.

But public perceptions may change if opponents of the ban make a persuasive case that, in a democratic country, adult individuals who choose responsible professional counselling to help them reorient their unwanted same-sex attraction should be free to do so. 

In that case, the government may not find this the vote-winner they think it is. Besides, if raging inflation hits the UK in the economic fall-out from the lockdown, voters' minds will be a long way from the culture war.

This issue, however, is much more significant for British Christianity than for secular society. In British churches, the issue presents the clear dividing line between Christians who want to uphold the traditional, biblical ethic that the expression of sexual love should be confined to heterosexual marriage, and prominent church leaders who want to ditch it.

Baptist minister Rev Steve Chalke, a leading campaigner against the traditional Christian sexual ethic, wants the government to take a hard line in the proposed legislation.

In response to the government's announcement, he tweeted: "For the record, I'm a church leader. I believe in 'religious freedom'. It is a basic human right. But it does not include the right to attempt to suppress or change another person's sexuality or gender orientation. The govt's proposed #BanConversionTherapy must clarify that."

READ MORE: What drives people to reject their own gender?

Does this mean that Rev Chalke would therefore like to see a Christian parent criminalised for advising their son or daughter not to engage in pre-marital sex or for advising him or her not to go down the path of a sex change? 

Leading LGBT campaigner, Jayne Ozanne, a member of the Church of England's governing body, its General Synod, is on the same page as Rev Chalke.

Ms Ozanne, who resigned as a government LGBT adviser in March, tweeted on Tuesday after the ban was announced in the Queen's Speech to Parliament: "I am relieved to hear that measures will be brought forward to ban 'conversion therapy'.

"However, the government risks creating a loophole if it chooses to focus on purely 'coercive practices'.

"Most LGBT people in religious settings feel it is their duty to submit to those in authority & will therefore willingly follow their leaders' 'advice' even if it causes them great harm."

So, it would seem, she wants to criminalise a church minister who in pastoral counselling gently and lovingly communicates the biblical reasons for upholding the Christian sexual ethic and agrees to pray with a person that he or she would be given grace to walk in the Lord's commandments in the face of the temptation they are experiencing.

Ms Ozanne has described her own experience of conversion therapy in an interview on Tuesday with The Daily Mail.  'Scarred by the gay conversion zealots: Electrocuted, exorcised, and beaten. As a new law is unveiled to outlaw barbaric 'therapy' to make gay people straight, four victims bravely tell of their experiences,' the headline declared.

Assaulting people is already illegal in the UK. The prayer leader at the Christian conference in 2000 who told Ms Ozanne, then aged 32, to 'vomit the evil out of her' and provided a bucket for the purpose may not have been breaking the law as it stood then but he was grossly unfit to be giving pastoral advice.

Is it proportionate to criminalise incompetent pastoral advice given by one adult to another?

What about other sorts of counselling that can harm people, such as advising them to divorce their spouse or to have an abortion or to have a sex change? Criminalising that kind of counselling does not seem to be on the government's agenda. Why not? Because abortion, divorce, and 'gender transition' are protected practices according to politically correct doctrine.

If the LGBT lobby wins the battle to get conversion therapy criminalised, it is clear what their next target will be – public Christian preaching. Campaigners like Jayne Ozanne and Steve Chalke regard the public proclamation of the traditional sexual ethic as abusive to LGBT people. They would therefore be emboldened to campaign for such preaching to be banned if they win this battle.

So, British Christians seeking faithfully, lovingly and humbly to uphold the traditional Christian sexual ethic, both in public proclamation and in daily discipleship, would be wise to prepare for that next spiritual battle ahead.

Julian Mann is a former Church of England vicar, now an evangelical journalist based in Morecambe, Lancashire.