Can we trust Boris on ‘conversion therapy’?

15 April 2021

Andrea Williams comments on a recent letter from Prime Minister Boris Johnson to the Evangelical Alliance, in response to concerns around banning so-called ‘conversion therapy’.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has written to the Evangelical Alliance, attempting to assure church leaders that people with unwanted same sex attraction will still be able to “receive appropriate pastoral support (including prayer)” from churches if measures to ban ‘conversion therapy’ are introduced.

Churches warn against criminalising everyday church activities

Earlier in March 2021, the Evangelical Alliance (EA) wrote to the Prime Minister, warning him that if that government went ahead with plans to ban so-called ‘conversion therapy’, it could also risk criminalising everyday church activities such as prayer and pastoral support, particularly for those struggling with unwanted sexual attractions or gender dysphoria.

The initial letter, signed by Peter Lynas, UK director of EA, states:

“Proposals to end conversion therapy not only put at risk the individual freedom of people who are attracted to those of the same sex, but they also place religious freedom in jeopardy. This is not a concern restricted to specific practices, organisations or ministries that provide services to people experiencing same sex attraction – although it will affect them. This will threaten the everyday practices of churches, church leaders, and Christians across the UK. An expansive definition of conversion therapy, and a ban along such lines, would place church leaders at risk of prosecution when they preach on biblical texts relating to marriage and sexuality. It would place ministry leaders at risk of arrest for encouraging young people to maintain chastity until marriage. And it would criminalise a member of a church who prays with another member when they ask for prayer to resist temptation as they are attracted to someone of the same sex but do not wish to act on it.”

Mr Lynas also called for more clarification of the definition of ‘conversion therapy’, which is still yet to be properly defined by the government.

The letter from EA is one of several recent letters addressed to the government from church organisations, including Affinity, which warn of the dangers regarding a ban to so-called ‘conversion therapy’.

‘I do not want to see clergy or church members criminalised’

In his reply to EA, Prime Minister Boris Johnson claims to “take freedom of speech and freedom of religion very seriously.” He continues:

“… we will continue to allow adults to receive appropriate pastoral support (including prayer), in churches and other religious settings, in the exploration of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Like you, I do not want to see clergy and church members criminalised for normal non-coercive activity.”

Government still wants to ban ‘conversion therapy’

However, the letter still promises a ‘conversion therapy’ ban. The Prime Minister writes,

“I understand the points you make and, like you, I absolutely want to end the scourge of gay conversion therapy which has no place in our society. The Government is firmly committed to this and will shortly bring forward proposals detailing exactly how we will do this.”

However, the letter fails to define exactly what is meant by the term ‘conversion therapy’, other than to say that prayer and pastoral efforts from churches will be protected.

LGBT activists still want to ban prayer

Leading campaigners for a ‘conversion therapy’ ban have been clear that they want to outlaw church practices such as prayer and pastoral support.

In response to the Prime Minister’s letter, Labour MP Angela Eagle posted on Twitter:

“This proposed ‘loophole’ is so large, there would effectively be no ban on conversion therapy.”

LGBT campaign group Stonewall, which has long campaigned for a ban to what it calls ‘conversion therapy’ added:

“Conversion therapies are a form of abuse that lead to long-term physical and/or mental harm for victims.

“We know that half of the conversion therapy practices that take place in the UK are faith-based. So any ban that has loopholes for any type of practice – including religious practices – will leave vulnerable LGBTQIA+ people at risk of further harm.

“It’s vital the UK government puts forward a full legal ban that protects LGBTQIA+ people from all forms of conversion therapy in every setting.”

Church of England Synod member Jayne Ozanne, who has also campaigned for a ban on so-called ‘conversion therapy’ also responded to the letter: “As a Christian, I take the freedom of religion very seriously – up until the point that it causes harm.”

An attack on orthodox Christians

In a sense, these activists are right. The more extreme practices normally brought to mind by the phrase ‘conversion therapy’ have been illegal and not practised in the UK for many years. Nearly everything remaining in the UK that could conceivably be labelled as ‘conversion therapy’ is the ordinary discipleship and prayer support offered by churches and parachurch groups.

This exposes the sad reality that calls for a ‘conversion therapy’ ban are really an effort to undermine faithful Christians who hold to the traditional, Biblical understanding of sexuality: that sex is only to be expressed within a one man, one woman marriage. Pastoral efforts to help people with same-sex desires (or gender confusion) to not act out on them are called conversion therapy and treated as equivalent to electroshock therapy or ‘corrective rape’.

Evidence of change

But it’s not only churches and explicitly Christian teaching that could be targeted through a ban.

As the EA letter says, a ban would risk the individual freedoms of anyone who is attracted to people of the same sex. They would not be free to talk to a therapist with the goal of reducing their same-sex attraction or behaviour – only to affirm it.

In a livestream from earlier this month, Mike Davidson, director of Core Issues Trust, explained why banning so-called ‘conversion therapy’ is so dangerous not only for religious freedom but also freedom of speech and expression. He said that a ban would likely criminalise any talking therapy aimed at helping people with unwanted sexual attractions, including counselling. These talking therapies don’t operate with the promise to ‘change somebody’s sexuality’, rather they seek to counsel people with whatever issues they bring and offer support.

Previously, those who have sought support for unwanted same-sex attractions, such as Sam Salter and James Parker, have explained how this counselling has helped them over the years, and how a ban could have ruined their lives. You can see more stories of change on the X-Out-Loud website.

Do we really believe the Prime Minister?

Christian Concern and the Christian Legal Centre have supported people who work in this area for as long as we’ve been around. We were there with Lesley Pilkington, a therapist who was maliciously targeted by a journalist who agreed to Christian counselling sessions. And we’ve supported Core Issues Trust through the years, as they faced cancellations, harassment and even bank account closures.

Many years ago, they arranged a bus advert in response to Stonewall’s “Some people are gay, get over it” advert campaign. Their response, which said “Not Gay! Ex-Gay, Post-Gay and Proud. Get over it!” was at the last minute blocked from being shown on London buses with the explanation that Boris Johnson – then Mayor of London – had issued the decree.

This was rowed back, unconvincingly, in the subsequent legal challenge, but history raises the question of how trustworthy the Prime Minister is on this topic in particular. In his response to EA, the Prime Minister said that the government had said in 2018 that a ban would not include appropriate pastoral support in churches. This is true, but he leaves out the detail that many subsequent government statements omitted this promise.

In a recent Westminster Hall debate, the Minister for Equalities, Kemi Badenoch MP made some of the government’s plans clearer, including saying:

“I want to make it absolutely clear that we do not want to prevent LGBT people from seeking support on their own terms. People will always have the right to seek support from anyone and have conversations to rationalise and understand their own identity.”

This, and the rest of her speech was an encouraging sign that the government was recognising the importance of people being able to seek help. But when LGBT activists complained at the direction the government was taking, the Prime Minister showed little understanding of these details and little commitment to religious freedom.

Christians ought not to be naïve

This latest round of engagement from the EA and the Prime Minister is a promising step, but Christians ought not to be naïve and think that everything’s fine now. First, we need to recognise that the pressure from LGBT campaigners is back on, following his statement. Whatever the government proposes, there will be constant pressure to ban all support in religious/church settings.

Furthermore, look at the details of what the Prime Minister wrote:

“we will continue to allow adults…”

Is his promise restricted to adults? Will the ban be on under-18s receiving any help in this area? No one wants to see children or teenagers forced into any kind of support or ‘treatment’, but what about parents, pastors or youth leaders giving careful responsible pastoral help?

“… to receive appropriate pastoral support…”

Who gets to decide what is appropriate?

“…in the exploration of their sexual orientation.”

What counts as exploration?

It sounds like the Prime Minister believes in a fixed orientation that can never change, only be reconciled with. This flies in the face of experience, but is also less than clear about what would be allowed.

It is not the time for Christians to sit back and breathe a sigh of thankful relief that everything is done and dusted. It is time to explain to our MPs that a ‘conversion therapy’ ban wouldn’t stop any harmful practices and would likely, in one way or another, target faithful, responsible Christians.


Photo by UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor
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