It is good that the UK Government have finally started their consultation about banning conversion therapy. What is not good is their plan to allow a loophole. Not a small one either, a massive, great loophole which will in effect make the legislation pretty useless in tackling one of the most insidious and damaging of conversion practices – that offered in the name of religion.
I have written about my experience before but let me share again, in particular, the negative impact it had on me. As a teenager I was aware of the attraction I felt for other men but growing up in a conservative evangelical Anglican church in the home counties, with a particular obsession for ‘casting out demons’, I was taught to believe that homosexuality was wrong. I would regularly hear preached from the pulpit that gay men would burn in hell and so assumed that my feelings were either a phase I was going through which would pass, something I had to live with but resist, a test from God to see how good a disciple I was, or even a demon which needed to be cast out from me. Whichever it was, I was at best a failure and at worst evil. I did not go through electric shock therapy or even counselling, but I did ask for prayer ministry on two occasions. Let me be really clear – I asked for it. I wanted help. I wanted to be straight. I wanted to be ‘normal’. The prayer ministry, quite intense on one occasion, did not work. The actual effect was that the shame I already felt, the fear of my sexuality became known to others including friends and family and the fear of ending up in hell became steadily worse. I didn’t ask for prayer again – it hadn’t worked and was too risky anyway. Instead, I prayed myself. I prayed and I prayed and I wept and the shame and self-hate grew stronger and stronger until it became all consuming and at the age of 29, ordained and married with two children I contemplated taking my own life. I didn’t try but did have a breakdown and then went through a divorce and many years of counselling and severe mental health problems.
I am now 51 and am still having counselling to deal with the shame and self esteem issues that my early experience of church and prayer gave me. Let that sink in for a moment – from the age of about 16 until 51 I have been living with, dealing with, trying to cope with the damage done to me by that church – that is 36 years. It has negatively impacted me, my family, my friends and my work. Whilst I have made huge progress and achieved much despite the experience it remains a struggle and I still need support networks and coping mechanisms in place. There is much about church which can trigger poor mental health for me as well as much which offers hope and healing.
I asked for the prayer ministry but was it informed consent? No.
Would I have asked for it if I had known it wouldn’t work? No.
Would I have asked for it if I had known the negative impact upon my life? No.
Did I ask for it because I felt I had to in order to be a Christian or to be accepted by family or friends or not to end up in hell? Yes.
Did I feel I had no choice but to seek it? Yes.
If the suggested loophole is allowed, then what happened to me could legally happen to other people. Someone could go through the same process and it would be seen as informed consent and their life will be affected as mine has been. I have always said that I had never undergone conversion therapy but I did, it was just labelled as ‘prayer ministry’ and was profoundly damaging and deeply unchristian.
I am not seeking sympathy – I am in a good place now. I have a wonderful partner, a wonderful son and daughter and hugely supportive family, friends and colleagues. I am totally at peace with my sexuality, with being a gay man, indeed I am at the point now where if being gay was a choice I would choose it! However, I still have to work hard to manage the negative emotions which were instilled in me by that Anglican Church.
I believe that what happened to me there and what happened to many others is a safeguarding issue – vulnerable young people and adults are damaged by the actions of people offering prayer ministry to make people straight. Anything other than a ban on all forms of conversion therapy, including prayer to try and make someone straight, will allow this abuse to continue. Informed consent cannot be possible when you are full of fear and shame as I was.
An alternative approach is to provide safe spaces for people to discuss their sexuality, indeed any experience of self-identity and discovering who we are as the people God created us to be. To explore what it might mean for them and how they can find support and develop in appropriate and life affirming ways. In short to take a Christ like approach to one another. Who knew that might be the right way for the church to behave?
You can read more in the excellent Cooper Report commissioned by the Ozanne Foundation here.
Peter Leonard, Chair of Trustees, and Archdeacon of the Isle of Wight.