There is yet another open letter circulating for people to sign, this time asking Liz Truss, in her capacity as Minister for Women and Equalities to allow religious exemptions from the proposed government ban on conversion therapy. The open letter is available to read at:
There are some errors and confusion in the letter, so what follows is a breakdown of these matters.
The opening paragraph starts by declaring that the authors hold ‘orthodox, historic Christian teaching on sexual ethics.’ Many of the signatories are from free churches and, for them, their definition of orthodox will vary from one church to another. But for those who are Church of England / Anglican or Methodist the definition of orthodox would imply that they subscribe to the official positions of their respective denominations. In July 2017 the General Synod of the Church of England voted for a ban on conversion therapy. At the 2021 Methodist conference there was an over whelming vote tor a complete ban on conversion therapy. How can someone describe themselves as orthodox if they do not subscribe to the agreed position of their denominations?
The use of ‘historic’ rather than ‘traditional’ is interesting. Possibly it is a recognition that traditions develop and evolve? Subscribing to historic sexual ethics would surely mean believing that contraception was wrong in all circumstances (because the only reason for sexual activity was for procreation), that there was nothing wrong with marital rape (because it was just the husband ‘enjoying his conjugal rights’), that remarriage after divorce was wrong when there was a former spouse still living (because marriage is permanent and only ends in death) etc. Are those ideas really the sexual ethics for the 21st century?
Paragraph two contains various aspirational statements about ‘We always seek to act in love, with gentleness and respect…’, or ‘never with any form of coercion or control.’. Let’s hope that is true of every church whose ministers sign this letter.
In the third paragraph the authors see a possibility that the proposed legislation will impact on the ‘normal practice of religion.’ They give some examples of this and fear they might be criminalised. The normal practice of religion should not be abusive. Anything that harms others or drives them to suicide should not be a normal practice of religion in any church that calls itself Christian.
Then we get a very confusing paragraph which seems to conflate conversion therapy with someone converting to Christianity. I think any prosecutor and even the most inexperienced magistrate could tell the difference between someone coming to faith in Jesus for the first time and someone who is undergoing a form of ministry to change their sexual orientation or gender identity.
As the supporting material and the evidence submitted to the Equalities committee points out, ‘conversion therapy’ might not be the best term to use, but it is the term that is so widely used that it is recognisable and used for convenience.
Following this is a paragraph on marriage. This is completely irrelevant to conversion therapy. Why is it even included? My best guess is that it acts like a dog-whistle in signalling to people of a particular viewpoint that they need to sign this letter in order ‘to defend marriage’.
Paragraph six doesn’t really follow on from the paragraph about marriage. It starts with ‘To urge and assist people to live in this way, far from being harmful, is a kind and merciful act, and of benefit to all.’ I am not sure what the authors mean by ‘this way’. Are they still talking about marriage? The paragraph goes on the ascribe everything to people’s identity being in their ‘feelings’.
This sets up the false dichotomy, in the following paragraph, between an emotional state and ‘Christian conversion’. It seems to be all about someone living an unsuitable ‘lifestyle’. It would be helpful if the authors showed that they understood the difference between sexual orientation or gender identity and ‘lifestyle’.
The paragraph goes on to say that ‘It should not be a criminal offence for us to instruct our children that God made them male and female, in his image, and has reserved sex for the marriage of one man and one woman.’ Nobody is suggesting it should. Is this another dog whistle to call the ‘orthodox’ to sign? Imposing those views on others could be seen as coercion. Do they teach that ‘male and female’ should be interpreted broadly or do they teach it as a narrow binary? How is adultery relevant to a discussion of conversion therapy anyway?
Paragraph eight ends with ‘Yet we think it important you are aware that if it were to come about that the loving, compassionate exercise of orthodox Christian ministry, including the teaching of the Christian understanding of sex and marriage, is effectively made a criminal offence, we would with deep sadness continue to do our duty to God in this matter.’ I am not sure whether to be more concerned that this is put in the singular, as if there is one and only one Christian understanding of sex and marriage, or whether it is more problematic that the authors think conversion therapy is about sex and marriage, when it is about sexual orientation and gender identity.
Paragraph nine wants ‘the adoption of an entirely different approach’, but gives no clue as to what the authors think that different approach should look like.
The final paragraph is a mistake, in my opinion. It invokes the Queen, in her role as ‘defender of the faith’. In fact, the monarch holds two religious titles – ‘Defender of the Faith’ and ‘Supreme Governor of the Church of England’. The defender of the faith title was bestowed on Henry VIII by Pope Leo X in 1521. The faith being defended was Roman Catholicism. This would have implications for anyone ordained who signed this letter, it means understanding that only men can be ordained and those men must be single and celibate for life. I wonder how many of them are?
The other title of Supreme Governor of the Church of England would suggest that the monarch would be expected to uphold the official position of the Church on this matter. As mentioned earlier General Synod, the ruling body of the Church of England, voted on this in July 2017 and voted for a complete ban on conversion therapy.
Quite a confused letter, in my opinion.