Dr Mike Davidson, director of Core Issues Trust, comments on how Christian pastors and counsellors are at risk of being barred from offering legitimate help, guidance and counselling for unwanted sexual attractions.
I find the story of how Jesus touched the leper (Mark 1:4-45) inspiring. It appears to be the only example in Mark’s gospel of when Jesus heals out of pity. By touching the leper, Jesus signalled to all around him that the leper was no longer ‘unclean’ as tradition held. This counter-cultural act is instructive. It speaks to the church about those considered ‘unclean’ and how we should respond to those rejected and shamed in our world. It links further to another of Jesus’ statements in Mark: “Nothing outside a person can defile them by going into them. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that defiles them.” (Mark 7:15)
So when, in 2012, Core Issues Trust held a conference inviting local churches to consider ‘The Lepers Among Us’, we were referring to the mission that those experiencing undesired same-sex attractions and gender confusion represents. But of course, this was all the ammunition our detractors needed to accuse us of calling LGBT folks ‘lepers’ and to accuse us of saying that those with same-sex or gender issues are diseased. Our focus was on dispelling church culture at the time, that conveyed to the world that Christians were unwilling to welcome those who struggled with sexual sin. Our critics taught us a lesson that day…
Barred from my studies
It was this that I explained on ‘Sunday Sequence’ and the podcasts are there for all to hear.  Following this first interview, I was again invited back to ‘Sunday Sequence’, this time to be faced with a range of critics, including the Head of the United Kingdom Council of Psychotherapists (UKCP), who, at the time, was Dr Andrew Samuels.
At the time, I was in my third year of study with the British Psychodrama Association, which was supervised by the UKCP.
At the end of the programme, I received an email to say that I was under investigation and that my training status was temporarily suspended. My status was permanently revoked not long after and following a tribunal and appeal, I was denied the opportunity to complete my studies.
Papers indicate that the grounds of this action were my beliefs: “should you consistently cease to promulgate your current opinions and be clearly able to demonstrate that you would only undertake and advocate work that falls within and complies with the UKCP/BPA Codes of Ethics and Practice and all associated Guidelines”. In short I could only promote the beliefs of the UKCP and BPA around this issue of homosexuality – that it is innate and immutable, and that interventions are always harmful.
This all happened before the Memorandum of Understanding on Conversion Therapy, which enshrined this position in the UK and has subsequently tied down practitioners belonging to any of the 20 professional body signatory groups.
Core Issues Trust criticised
The beliefs we held at Core Issues Trust were increasingly coming under scrutiny with another set of beliefs as articulated by the Conversion Therapy Consensus Statement (2014). Listing their beliefs, the UKCP in the Consensus Statement says:
“There is no good evidence this (therapy for unwanted SSA) works and we believe it has the potential to cause harm…”
“We believe it would be irresponsible and potentially damaging for a therapist to offer to try and change sexual orientation [and] … We believe that offering to change a person’s sexual orientation … would be likely to reinforce the notion that these feelings are wrong or abnormal.”
What became clear was that the disagreement between ourselves and those who oppose us, relates to a set of beliefs that each group holds that are incompatible with each other. One would think that the matter is easily resolved by appealing to the science. Doing so however, is fraught with difficulty. Before I explain why, however, I’d like to offer a reason for why such an appeal is naive and a simplistic hope.
Knowing your research from your statements
It’s essential that we distinguish between empirical peer-reviewed research and the statements made by executive leaders of professional mental health bodies, or those who lead special interest groups within such organisations. In other words, these statements don’t necessarily follow from the best available research. They are simply the statements of executives who promote a specific ideological position, which may or may not be consistent with the best science and scholarship. This is why ideological diversity is important in any debate or any scientific inquiry.
Different ideological viewpoints can act as checks and balances to any dominant ideology. Scientific method can be an important arbiter where there is disagreement. Without such ideological diversity, ‘groupthink’ leads to monocultures of political orthodoxy that cannot be challenged.
I submit that this is where we are in the UK on the issues relating to sexuality. It’s not difficult to see that when governments follow this approach, sexuality becomes politicised – just as the world has seen race and religion politicised for different reasons and in different parts of the world. Viewpoint discrimination is dangerous because where it exists, the notion of critique begins to wane. We end up with institutions that mark their own homework, and are policeman, judge, jury and executioner.
We’ve seen this play out with the recent call for consultation on conversion therapy. As government minister Mike Freer has stated over and over, “it’s not about if, it’s about how.” So the consultation document has been framed in such a way that contributors start from the assumption that banning ‘conversion therapy’ is a universally accepted starting point. After all, who could object to banning harmful practices? Especially if ‘conversion therapy’ is torture.
Yet all of these assumptions can be challenged. When the science is checked and data sets revisited, sometimes opposite conclusions have to be made. This is demonstrated, for example, when Sullins (2021) challenged the research of Blosnich et al (2021). Sullins found that the study failed to consider the pre-existing levels of suicidality in the clients seeking change through therapeutic interventions. Blosnich appeared to have misrepresented the study by failing to note this and blamed the therapy for something that already existed in those coming forward for help.
The UK government’s 2017 National Survey, which assessed the extent and impact of ‘conversion therapy’, did something similar by only allowing people identifying as LGBT to contribute – thereby disallowing those who are formerly LGBT identified. Anyone who had benefited from therapy at the time was disqualified from contributing and therefore discounted. This is wholesale marginalisation and deeply flawed at best.
Similar points can be made about the rest of the research used by campaigners and the government to drive through a ‘conversion therapy’ ban. The conclusions remain the same not because the evidence continues to support them, but because they are based on ideological viewpoints.
‘Access denied’ for dissenting views
The problem with all of this is that unless a person is willing to hold to an orthodoxy that is imposed around issues relating to sexuality, or lie or conceal views, there is a high chance that they will be denied access to training. Worse still, those seeking professional psychotherapy and counselling will most likely be served by individuals who will only affirm homosexual experiences and encourage those with transgender issues to deny the reality of their own biological sex.
But what of the most marginalised group of all – those with mixed attractions, the largest of the non-heterosexual groups, who might well at some point in their lives, seek to maintain the heterosexual side of their desires over the homosexual ones and ask for help from therapists to achieve this?
The fact is that the Memorandum of Understanding on Conversion Therapy has acted as a de facto ban on therapy since its first iteration in 2015. The censures provided by the document, for those practising what is referred to as ‘conversion therapy’, have meant that exploratory work has been hampered and only gay-affirming approaches (or those that deny that change-allowing therapies work) are adopted. This is clear from several accounts of those coming in the direction of Core Issues Trust. It also likely explains why, after a decade of this oppressive culture, many troubled in these areas do not seek professional counsellors or medics since they are aware that holding a different viewpoint is not possible.
All of this explains why many of us in Europe have come to the conclusion that it is pointless to explain any further or to try to persuade anyone associated with the mental health bodies under the MoU. We will not be heard. For that reason we are increasingly networking internationally and seeking to develop the International Federation for Therapeutic and Counselling Choice (IFTCC) as an alternative professional body to represent the scholarship and praxis of those wishing to operate within ethical frameworks and guidance to create a professional and accountable environment to developing our work. We do this because we think therapy bans are, consciously or unconsciously, really an attempt to end Judeo-Christian inputs to the field and to impose a secular humanist approach to counselling and therapy.
The IFTCC is not a religious body but does enshrine the Judeo-Christian viewpoint with respect to our understanding of anthropology – especially in relation to human sexuality, the body and marriage.
We are concerned that pastoral counselling is under threat and seek to create an environment that will provide supervision, collegiality and the possibility of inquiry into this complex area. Pastoral and secular counselling need to be held together and not pitted against each other. Sometimes pastors find that mental health issues are best followed up by health professionals because the presenting issue is beyond their expertise. If this is true for depression or addiction, why would it be any different for sexual feelings or gender confusion?
Christians have the opportunity to speak with pastors and counsellors within the church, but those with no-faith or other faiths often do not have the same. The IFTCC seeks to help both groups develop approaches and frameworks that are respectful of world view and develop communities that care for counsellors and those they support.
The Memorandum of Understanding on Conversion Therapy in the UK remains a bulwark that has dictated the terms of how to think and act when supporting those troubled by their sexuality. It fundamentally opposes Christian ethics around sexuality and intimidates practitioners who fear loss of standing if they are accused of ‘conversion therapy’. We are working to provide alternative structures that challenge the dominance of the MOU philosophy and will continue to serve those who seek help to live lives that bring them joy rather than suffering.
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