You may have woken up to the news this morning that nearly 400 religious leaders from around the world have signed a declaration calling for a 'gay conversion therapy' ban.
Many people will be given the impression from the reporting that the most major leaders in the Church and from other religions are repenting of their views on sexuality and coming together to protect people from harm. But that's not what happened.
The declaration was launched today at an event sponsored by the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office that also marks the launch of the new Global Interfaith Commission on LGBT+ Lives – to be directed by Jayne Ozanne, director of the Ozanne Foundation.
The well-known pro-LGBT+ Church of England Bishop Paul Bayes is set to be co-chair of the new commission. Desmond Tutu is also cited as among the supporters of the initiative – again, well-known not just for his work on racial reconciliation but as a gay rights campaigner.
The full list of initial signatories contains few surprises. A handful of minor Church of England bishops, some senior Methodists and Baptists. In an attempt to make the initiative as multi-faith as possible, the declaration does appear to have stretched its definition of religious leaders a long way. Representing Roman Catholics is former president of Ireland Dr Mary McAleese and an Argentinian ambassador. No figures with any seniority in the church.It's a similar story with other faiths, so this list is manifestly not a who's who of the religious world. It is actually a list of LGBT+ campaigners who are religious and that's an important difference.
Slippery language and hateful motives
But what are these figures signing up to?
The declaration, available in nineteen languages, starts by affirming the dignity and value of all human life – which we can all agree with. It then states that we are all equal under God and should be equally treated in law.
But the next section is where the declaration truly reveals its hand:
"We recognize with sadness that certain religious teachings have often, throughout the ages, caused and continue to cause deep pain and offense to those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and intersex."
Which religious teachings are these? Presumably anything that could in 2020 be labelled as homophobic or transphobic – including the mainstream teaching of all Abrahamic religions, throughout history, on sexuality.
"We acknowledge, with profound regret, that some of our teachings have created, and continue to create, oppressive systems that fuel intolerance, perpetuate injustice and result in violence. This has led, and continues to lead, to the rejection and alienation of many by their families, their religious groups and cultural communities."
As we've already covered, the signatories to this declaration are, by and large, storied LGBT campaigners. This is not truly regret for their own teaching, but regret for a teaching that they are campaigning against. They are branding other people's beliefs as intolerant, unjust, going as far as to say they result in violence.
"We ask for forgiveness from those whose lives have been damaged and destroyed on the pretext of religious teaching."
Anything truly fitting this description has long been repented of within the Church. The word 'pretext' is particularly slippery here. On one hand, any faithful Christian could well agree with this – none of us want to use the Bible, or God, as an excuse for prejudice and hatred. But the implication, as we shall see, is that any orthodox, Christian teaching on sexuality and gender is a pretext for hatred; that the Christian Church is full of people who simply hate gay and transgender people and find excuses for that in the Bible.
That is simply not the case. It is the Bible itself, which Christians believe is God's breathed-out word, which teaches that sexual activity outside one-man, one-woman marriage is wrong – in fact, seriously wrong. The theological and exegetical case for this is extremely strong.
But more importantly, those who believe the Bible's teaching on this matter are motivated by love. They believe that all forbidden sexual activities – which also would include adultery, porn and premarital sex – are forbidden for a reason. These practices are forbidden because they fall short of God's design for our relationships, our marriages and our bodies – and when we depart from God's design we depart from his wisdom and create problems for ourselves.
Jayne Ozanne and the declaration's signatories obviously disagree. But the implicit accusation that all genuinely Biblical teaching on sexual relationships is a mere pretext for hatred is wildly off the mark.
The declaration goes on to call for love rather than hate – again wrongly implying that everyone who doesn't agree with them is driven by hate, and calls for decriminalisation of homosexuality and transgender identities around the world.
Calls to ban 'attempts to change'
The declaration then reaches its main point:
"We call for all attempts to change, suppress or erase a person's sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression – commonly known as 'conversion therapy' – to end, and for these harmful practices to be banned."
Here is the call for a 'conversion therapy' ban. The phrase, invented by LGBT activists, is deliberately hard to pin down, but it is worth noting how the declaration defines it.
First, note that gender expression is explicitly included. One would think that 'conversion therapy' on issues of gender would be to convert a man into a woman, or vice versa. But this means that it is targeting support for a person born as a man to live as a man, or born as a woman to live as a woman.
Such a ban would be impossible to word without some means to detect the true gender identity of a person. In its current postmodern definition, there simply is no way to do this. The only way to determine gender is if to say that gender and sex are interchangeable terms. 'Gender testing' in athletics means sex testing. And that would have the opposite effect to what Ozanne and company intend.
The second point to note is that it covers attempts to "change, suppress or erase" someone's sexual or gender identity. 'Change' is par for the course, but to 'suppress' – this surely refers to support for a celibate lifestyle. It would include banning Living Out, for example. It might even ban support for priests and members of religious communities who have vowed not to express their heterosexuality.
Finally note more slippery language. "Attempts to change" is phrased as if this is someone forcing another person to change themselves. In reality, no therapeutic help, counselling or even pastoral guidance on any of these issues is really practised in the UK except when the person themselves is seeking that kind of help.
Campaigners want to paint a picture that bigots are infesting the church ready to clobber, metaphorically or literally, anyone who has same-sex attraction or gender dysphoria. This is not remotely true.
What is 'conversion therapy' anyway?
By using such a broad definition, the group makes it clear that it wants the government to ban any religious leader seeking to honour the Bible's teaching through pastoral guidance.
The government has expressed an intention to ban 'conversion therapy', following its apparently ongoing investigation. When journalists report on the topic, they frequently quote figures calling 'the practice' abhorrent. 'The practice' is utterly misleading – it would be like lumping together radiotherapy with miracle cures found on Facebook as 'the practice' of cancer therapy.
Over the years, all kinds of treatments have been attempted to reduce feelings of same-sex attraction. Many of these have been ineffective and harmful. Some of these have also happened under compulsion. Nearly all of them were practised by medical professionals, not by religious leaders. But nothing that is practised in the UK today bears any resemblance to these historic 'treatments' that are widely cited. 'Corrective rape' is even cited as a practice needing to be banned – even though rape is obviously banned anyway and there are no known cases of it ever happening in the UK.
Ozanne and company may have overplayed their hand here. When the government could make it look like a conversion therapy ban was needed to stop abusive people forcing others to have electric shock therapy, it would win the support of just about everyone. But this declaration makes it abundantly clear that calls for 'conversion therapy' are a cover for banning any kind of support, including pastoral, for people who want to live in line with their faith. It also stigmatises anyone who is gender-critical or who seeks support for gender dysphoria that encourages them to live as their real sex rather than transitioning.
Support from government and LGBT parliamentary group
This whole declaration would be a nothing story were it not for the support of others. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office is hosting the (now virtual) launch, clearly lending its support.
Crispin Blunt MP, Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Global LGBT+ Rights – i.e. the LGBT+ lobby within Parliament - is quoted in news reports, suggesting the political group is also backing the event and Commission.
We can safely assume then, that the parliamentary push from Blunt and others is also to ban pastoral guidance for people willingly seeking help.
This is not a ban on 'conversion' therapy but on 'conversation' therapy – potentially even prayer. It is a totalitarian push to ban two people willingly engaging in a conversation. All who care about free speech and belief ought to vigorously oppose these attempts.
The Church of England is complicit
Three years ago, the Church of England's General Synod voted to back a ban on ill-defined 'conversion therapy'. Then Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu said: "The sooner the practice of so-called conversion therapy is banned, I can sleep at night."
The motion referred to the Memorandum of Understanding on Conversion Therapy which likewise targeted gender issues as well as sexual orientation. Nevertheless, there was scant resistance to the motion which has set the Church of England up for going along with a ban on 'conversion therapy' as its definition continues to expand to everything liberals don't like.
Mercifully, the most senior Church of England leaders have not signed the declaration, but the Guardian chose to illustrate its article with a photo of Sarah Mullally, the Bishop of London who is behind only the archbishops in seniority within the church. She is not a signatory but is reported to have sent a message of 'heartfelt encouragement' to the meeting. "When Christian teachings are distorted to incite violence, this is a dreadful abuse of the gospel message," she said.
Is she endorsing the whole declaration but keeping distance for political reasons? Or is she only (rightly) opposing just those who use the Bible as a 'pretext' for actual violence? Perhaps she will be pleased to clear this up in a public statement.
Coronavirus restrictions led to the launch being held online. But Westminster Abbey is still due to hold a celebration service following the launch – despite London now going into tier 3 restrictions. A famous landmark hosting such an event, even under heavy restrictions, is a coup for the organisers, lending further credibility to a declaration that amounts to a call to ban gospel ministers from doing their job.
The Church of England urgently needs to backtrack its apparent support for a ban on 'conversion therapy'. Synod was led astray by wily campaigners but, as things stands, is calling for its own destruction.
Wise as serpents, innocent as doves
For people like me, who hold to the Bible's teaching on sexuality and gender, is it often easy to misunderstand an issue like conversion therapy and calls to ban it. Much of what could be meant by this call is quite true and correct and could easily gain widespread support. But this is a tactic – appear to be promoting something everyone believes in and smuggle slippery language and controversial positions under the radar.
In an effort to appear moderate, winsome and nuanced, conservatives and undecided folk are easily led to support such ideas, believing that they are still standing for truth simply because they can put an orthodox spin on what is written.
This isn't enough. The ban proposed by Ozanne et al would be totalitarian and must be strongly opposed by Christians, gender critical feminists and anyone else who values the freedom to talk about one's problems and seek help from a friend.
Andrea Williams is CEO of Christian Concern and the Christian Legal Centre.