The Ministers’ Consultation: a response to the Response
Dr Jon Morgan is an Associate Research Fellow and a member of the Centre for Biblical Studies at the University of Exeter, and a Visiting Research Fellow at the University of Chester. Among other roles, he has been Lecturer in Hebrew Bible at the University of Exeter, Lecturer in Biblical Interpretation at the University of Chester, and Coordinator of the Centre for Theology, Imagination, and Culture at Sarum College. He has been involved for many years in the initial and ongoing education of lay and ordained ministers in the Church of England.
Following its publication, the Ministers’ Consultation Response (MCR)—a document expressing opposition to Government plans for a ban on conversion therapy authored and distributed by a group of evangelical ministers—has attracted a significant amount of opposition. The most pressing need was for an alternative contribution to be drafted, circulated, and widely signed. However, with that achieved thanks to the efforts of OneBodyOneFaith, the Student Christian Movement, and their partners, important work remains to be done reflecting on the document and identifying its implications.
I’ve written an article which attempts to analyze the document in detail and offer some reflection on why I think it is such a revealing and troubling piece of work, but also one that has the potential to do significant damage to the cause of those who composed and signed it. I’m grateful to OneBodyOneFaith for offering to host that piece (the article can be found here), and for inviting me to introduce it here.
First, I’m not pitching the article as “I’ve read and thought about this so you don’t have to”. I generally recommend that people avoid that approach, but in this instance especially so as the MCR almost cries out to be dismissed without engagement. That said, I also absolutely recognize that there a lot of people who are just too bruised and beat down to once more in good faith take a highlighter to something that denies their full humanity. As is perpetually true in struggles for justice, those who can must take up the work from those who just cannot right now.
And the work is worth it. Although a lot of the MCR’s content is hard to stomach, I think those who long for a Church less marked by homophobia, transphobia, and abusive patterns of ministry can take heart from both the strange and flawed legal and political argument it offers and the extent to which it reveals its highly problematic theological hand.
The MCR constitutes several things—a longwinded legal threat, a rallying cry, a theological justification of coercion—but I argue that in essence it has two basic aspects. First, a more specific claim about what and whom the proposed ban would criminalize, and thereafter a more general discussion about why legislation of this sort is problematic for Christians.
The letter wraps its concerns in a headline-friendly but flimsy claim about ‘conversion therapy’ as a label. The authors claim that conversion therapy’s being outlawed would have a negative impact on the public perception of religious conversion. More than anything, this appears to be the preacher’s nod to the choir, inviting the adding of this particular campaign to a bigger slate of concerns about persecution and potential restrictions on evangelism.
However, this is not just a dog whistle; it also rebadges something that is very inconvenient for the authors. The truth is that there is an overlap in the public consciousness between criticism of conversion therapy and criticism of the Church. But that overlap isn’t because of some implausible confusion of two meanings of the word ‘conversion’; it comes from the testimony of the very many LGBT people who have been subjected to harm in Christian contexts. This is a fact that the authors of the MCR go to quite astonishing lengths to deny, claiming that the abuses the ban seeks to prohibit belong only in the past. On the contrary, they argue, not only are Christians not at all responsible for what problems exist, they will become the real victims of the situation if the law passes as proposed.
In a recent, insightful blog post, Mike Higton, the University of Durham’s Professor of Theology and Ministry, has teased out some of the implications of this astonishing denial of reality and its contribution to the deeply strange vision of ministry that emerges from the MCR. Setting itself against a neutral background devoid of current harm, the MCR seems strongly to imply that faithful leaders need not see prayerful reflection or growth in wisdom and discernment as important when ministering to LGBT people, as both the governing principles and their practical implications are all crystal clear. It is a vision, as Higton notes, that relies on conceptions of love, compassion, and service that sit very awkwardly with the Christian tradition, to say the least.
The key claim made in the MCR is that Christians are necessarily obliged to affirm a very narrow understanding of anthropology and sexual ethics. The authors argue that God’s work in creation reveals that humans are by design only and always either male or female and that marriage between a man and woman is the only permissible context for sex. The logic that propels the legal implications of this claim is that the authors’ definition of Christian ministry does not represent just one perspective, or even a common perspective, but is the only Christian perspective possible. Of course, this is simply untrue.
It seems this approach is being used to press upon the Government that because Christian ministers must, by the definition of their faith, act in the ways the MCR describes, the proposed law would constitute of a form of religious persecution. It is a reminder to legislators of existing obligations regarding freedom of religion and a warning that it might not play well among the Government’s core support base if it came to be seen to be persecuting Christians, a point underscored by a direct threat of civil disobedience. I have little faith in the Government, but one hope is that their familiarity with being flexible with truth will make it unlikely they will fall for this tactic. If only we saw more headline-grabbing zeal for coordinated Christian resistance to the violence the state perpetuates against vulnerable minorities and less high-profile opposition to one of its few attempts to minimize such violence.
At some point, the MCR transitions from arguing that the proposed ban would make non-coercive, non-abusive Christian ministry illegal, to arguing something much more disturbing. The authors seem to switch attention to the idea that because of the absolute imperatives of Christian ministry (as they define them) it is to be expected that some of what ministers do might look harmful from the perspective of a secular state that does not share or correctly understand Christian principles. However, these practices are not actually harmful because they are intended as obedient service to God, and ultimately it is God who decides what is harmful and what is helpful. Because of sin, people’s perceptions of their own lives and experience cannot be trusted. However, by contrast, faithful ministers know the mind and will of God, and conforming to God’s will, by whatever means, can never harm anyone.
In this way, while the letter begins with the authors distancing themselves from “any form of coercion and control” (lines 8–9), I argue in the article that what the MCR actually presents is a thoroughgoing theology of coercion. And the legal implications of this theological framing are equally disturbing. The more it goes on, the less the MCR reads like a reminder about existing religious freedoms and the more it sounds like an appeal to the kind of understanding of law that pertains in theocratic states. For me, the question “and why exactly would the UK Government think of these claims as binding?” haunts the entire document, but applies especially acutely to the later sections.
Richard Nixon’s political legacy was arguably most determined by his infamous claim, made to David Frost during his iconic 1977 interviews, that “when the president does it, that means it’s not illegal”. Some of what is presented in the MCR smacks of the baptizing of a similar concept. There is no acknowledgement of the need for checks and balances to minimize abuses, intentional or inadvertent, of the power ministers wield, just an unshakable conviction that God knows what’s best and therefore so do God’s faithful ministers, regardless of how others might perceive things.
Though there have been some positive indications, it remains unclear what impact the MCR or the counter response will have on Government thinking. But, aside from that, there are a host of significant issues raised by the MCR which demand close scrutiny from Church leaders, theologians, activists, and all Christians in the UK engaged critically with their faith. Just one such avenue, requiring urgent attention, is the issue of what the MCR implies about its authors’ and signatories’ ability to fulfil their existing commitments to safeguard children and vulnerable adults in their churches.
As was the case with Nixon’s self defence, the ironic elephant in the room is a biggie. In attempting to deflect greater scrutiny, the response actually strongly invites it. Ultimately, attempting to convince the Government that they should not extend legislation to overlap your work while at the same time arguing why you must, by necessity, do certain things that both the proposed legislative framework and the opinion of wider society are likely to consider abusive, seems not just extremely problematic but also significantly self-defeating.
Jon Morgan’s full article ’The Ministers’ Consultation: a response to the Response’ can be viewed/downloaded here.