"We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice,
we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself." Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison (1943-1945)

Conversion therapy: Dr Peter May helps us to understand the main debate at the recent General Synod of the Church of England

17 August 2017

Published by Evangelicals Now

Did anyone understand it?

The General Synod debate on so-called ‘conversion therapy’ for homosexuals in a Private Member’s Motion brought by ‘inclusive evangelical’ Jayne Ozanne, was destined to be problematic.

Thirty years ago, General Synod passed The Higton Motion on homosexuality, which has determined CofE policy ever since. With enormous complexity, Tony Higton’s Motion was amended and amended. In fact only the first two words of the Motion carrying his name, survived: ‘This Synod…’ The substance of the amended amendment, which has stood the test of time, came from the Bishop of Chester, Michael Baughen.

The recent Synod debate had all of the complexities of the 1987 debate, but none of the Episcopal leadership. The motion itself was obscure from the outset. What sort of therapies were to be ‘banned’, and where does ‘conversion’ come into this? Synod members then had to cope quickly with the nuances of numerous amendments, before suddenly casting their votes.

Central issue

This isn’t the place to analyse the tortuous progress of the debate1 but only to highlight the central issues. Conversion therapy comes with a long and difficult history.

In the 1940s, psychiatrists offered ‘curative’ aversion therapies for homosexuality, which tragically included castrations, lobotomies and electrical treatments. These were superseded in the 1950s by drug and hormone treatments as well as psychotherapies and hypnosis. Before 1967 homosexual acts were illegal, but by 1973 homosexuality had been removed from the American diagnostic Manual of Mental Disorders – though only after a close vote and bitter disagreement among psychiatrists. A whole generation of psychiatrists has now passed through, without them having had any formal responsibility or experience in ‘treating’ homosexuality.

Muddy waters

Jayne Ozanne could have talked about change therapy, but chose instead this historic, stigmatising label which she defined as an umbrella term for all types of therapy, which attempt to change sexual orientation or gender identity. From then on, she lumped them all together as a single entity, which she said ‘has no place in the modern world, is unethical, harmful and not supported by evidence’.

She asked Synod to endorse a 2017 statement signed by the UK Council for Psychotherapy, the Royal College of GPs and other bodies, seeking to ban ‘conversion therapy’, which she said, was ‘an abhorrent practice’. She then muddied the water further by including prayer, exorcisms and charismatic healing under the same umbrella.

She cited her own online survey of LGB people, which showed that 40% had willingly undergone conversion therapy, half of whom were under the age of 17, inadvertently drawing attention to the sexual ambiguities commonly experienced during adolescence. The therapies which these people claimed were ‘most helpful’ were in fact talking therapies – ‘talking to psychotherapists, family and friends’. What matters, she asserted, is ‘how we choose to live our lives’, and yet she wanted to ban the choice of allowing people therapeutic help to move away from unwanted homosexual feelings and behaviour.

She conceded that orientation fluidity does exist – but ‘cannot be manipulated’. She made no mention of bisexuality, which is more common than homosexuality. She personally had sought prayer and ‘deliverance ministry’. She even admitted that these things worked for her temporarily ‘for a few months, even years’.

All the difference in the world

Her motion was significantly amended by Dr Jamie Harrison, who moved successfully that the statement Synod should be asked to consider was not the 2017 statement but an earlier 2015 Memorandum. The later statement, signed by the Royal College of GPs, was rejected by the Royal College of Psychiatrists. This stated emphatically that ‘gender identities are not mental health disorders’, but many psychiatrists think that they are. So do many GPs, if they were asked!

A more subtle difference was that the 2015 Memorandum claimed conversion therapy was ‘potentially harmful’, instead of ‘harmful’. There is all the difference in the world between these two! All effective therapy is potentially harmful. Paracetamol, for instance, is generally safe if used intermittently in correct doses, but can be lethal in overdosage. Harrison also separated out gender identity for separate consideration, thereby steering Synod from even deeper trouble.

Did they understand?

Now whether Synod members, including Ms Ozanne, understood these points is another matter. Did they spot the knock-on implications of his amendment? Ozanne’s three reasons for banning conversion therapy were that it is ‘unethical, harmful and not supported by evidence’.

On what grounds might conversion therapy now be considered unethical if it wasn’t shown to be harmful’? It would, of course, be unethical if people were forced into therapy they did not want by manipulative therapists making unwarranted promises. But every professional therapist knows that clients only benefit from psychotherapy if it is their free choice and they are motivated to work at it, while no-one can predict the outcome.

With two of her three reasons seriously undermined, her case now rested on science being able to show that therapy does not work. But as we have seen, conversion therapy is not a discrete entity, but an umbrella term that covers a multitude of quite different approaches. Do any of them work?

The gold standard test to see if a particular therapy works is the Randomised Controlled Trial (RCT). These are difficult to set up, expensive to perform and require ethical approval. In the current climate, where LGB people are loudly insisting they cannot change, do not want to change or that such therapies are harmful, it is very difficult to imagine that ethical approval would ever be given.

No evidence either way

Professor Michael King, lead spokesman for the Royal College of Psychiatrists small Special Interest Group on these matters, and Professor Robert Song, an ethicist and theologian, had issued a joint briefing paper to Synod. In it they wrote: ‘No Randomised Controlled Trials have been conducted in relation to the effectiveness or harmfulness of conversion therapies and in this sense it is certainly the case that there is no scientific evidence that change therapies are damaging. However, it should be observed that it is rare for RCTs in general to show evidence of harm… it may take years of careful monitoring of the treatment in practice to identify harm.’

They were surprisingly dismissive about ‘sexual fluidity’, saying ‘it is deeply misleading to state that… sexual desires can change.’ Really? Is it not everyone’s experience that their sexual desires can be both controlled and, in time, altered? In conclusion, they wrote: ‘Whether this amounts to justification for a ban requires the exercise of wider moral and prudent judgment, and is not strictly a matter of scientific evidence.’

In other words, Professor King – at last – admits publicly that there is no good scientific evidence to show whether change therapy is either effective or harmful. Furthermore, such evidence is unlikely to be forthcoming in the future. The decision then to ban ‘change therapy’ and allow only ‘gay-affirmative therapy’ cannot be decided by science but is a matter for ‘wider moral and prudent judgment’.

Confused of York

Did the Synod rise to this challenge? Did the bishops in their responsibility for teaching and leadership remind Synod of the apostolic injunction that Christians in a permissive age should ‘flee from sexual immorality’, that our bodies belong to God and that repentance must accompany faith? No, they didn’t. The Bishop of Liverpool said that therapy is inappropriate as homosexuality is not a sickness. That is a sham argument. Many distressed psychological states respond well to psychotherapy without being illnesses – bereavement, for example. The Archbishop of York in closing the debate seemed quite confused. He said, ‘Only the Holy Spirit converts… technique is unsound, so ban it so I can sleep at night.’

With all three of Ozanne’s arguments – that change therapy is unethical, harmful and not supported by evidence – now refuted, Synod nonetheless endorsed the 2015 Memorandum that ‘the practice of gay conversion therapy has no place in the modern world, is unethical, potentially harmful and is not supported by evidence.’ An additional amendment then called on the government to ban the practice of conversion therapy. The Motion was overwhelmingly carried. The real shock for worldwide Anglicanism was that all the bishops, bar one, voted for it.

Dr Peter May is a retired GP and was a member of the General Synod from 1985 - 2010.

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