Some observations on the forthcoming Synod debate on Sexual Orientation Change Efforts (SOCE)

Reflections from Glynn Harrison and Andrew Goddard

1. We are grateful to our colleagues and friends Michael King and Robert Song for their observations on the effectiveness and potential harm of ‘conversion therapy’, or sexual orientation change methods (SOCE), in a document recently circulated to members of General Synod and published online. We have greatly benefited from our mutual discussions on these issues in the past and look forward to continuing our conversation in the future. We share their desire to see any potential for harm minimised and feel we should sketch out some of our points of agreement, but also disagreement, in the light of their brief paper.

2. We appreciate the acknowledgment of the significant limitation in what may be counted as ‘scientific evidence’ in these contentious and highly complex debates. We also welcome the statement that deciding whether a ban on SOCE is justified “requires the exercise of wider moral and prudential judgement, and is not strictly a matter of scientific evidence”.

3. We are particularly heartened by their recognition (as we have pointed out previously) that the evidence is limited by the total absence of randomised controlled trials (RCT’s) in this area. As our colleagues explain, the RCT is the ‘gold standard’ method for drawing conclusions about causation, whether we are considering benefits or harm. Even where RCT’s have been carried out there are further complex methodological considerations to bear in mind before making bold and sweeping assertions or moving to ban particular forms of intervention.

4. The fact of this complexity should perhaps cause Synod to reflect on whether as a body it is equipped to make broad declarations about the effectiveness, or potential for harm, of SOCE. This is particularly the case given the vast array of different counselling and pastoral approaches included under this general label.

5. Having acknowledged the lack of RCT’s, our colleagues cite other sources of evidence regarding both the effectiveness and the harms - two distinct but often conflated outcomes - associated with SOCE. These take the form of various surveys that have been carried out among people who report having been involved in some sort of SOCE. However, recent difficulties experienced by political opinion pollsters should alert us to the hazards of making bold generalisations on the basis of selected samples.

6. One study (Dehlin et al, 2014) is mentioned because of its larger sample size, but larger numbers do not necessarily eliminate certain forms of bias. Further, Dehlin et al. recognise the problems with trying to generalise from their convenience sample of people connected with the Mormon Church. The weaknesses which Michael King and Robert Song report as leading Spitzer to retract his paper on sexual orientation change – “biased recruitment of participants who could not be regarded as representative of people receiving such therapy”, “the validity of self-report”, “the lack of any control sample”, “the vagaries of memory” and “the tendency of people consciously or unconsciously to rewrite their past” – are also present in Dehlin et al’s study of harm. This raises the question of how we ensure methodological criticisms are applied fairly and consistently across studies.

7. However, despite these and other differences between us, including important differences regarding the roles of biological and social factors in the patterning of human sexual interests, we agree with our colleagues’ general conclusion

while the strongest form of scientific evidence about the effectiveness and/or harmfulness of conversion therapies is not available, there is still good reason to think that conversion therapies are often ineffective and have the potential to be harmful.

This statement is non-contentious and, indeed, applies to many other forms of counseling, forms of pastoral support, or more formally ‘therapeutic’ interventions, that have not been subject to the kind of outright proscriptions proposed in the motion before Synod.

8. Given this important agreement, a key question is “what constitutes a reasonable response in these circumstances?”. For those Christian believers who experience a sense of conflict between their sexual interests and their Christian identity, and who seek counseling or pastoral support, we believe that, in common with other counseling approaches, it is necessary to explain the lack of high quality evidence for the prospect of radical change (e.g. the absence of reliable RCT’s) and the potential for harm that could result, especially from unrealistic expectations and promises of benefit from any particular counseling support. Indeed, we note that influential support groups for Christians who experience same-sex attraction such as ‘Living Out’ and ‘True Freedom Trust’ focus on the need for acceptance and formation in Christian discipleship rather than offering bold claims of sudden shifts in the patterning of sexual interests and attraction.

9. However, we believe that in making further judgments about a reasonable response, two other factors need to be considered. First, we are disappointed at the minimization of the reality and extent of sexual fluidity. Although it is acknowledged that “sexual fluidity does occur” it is also asserted that “it is deeply misleading to state that…sexual desires can change”. Further, there is no comment at all about the issue of bisexuality – among adults who identify as LGB, bisexuals have been reported as comprising a majority among women and the proportion now appears to be rising markedly among younger people. Figures may vary, but we consider this to be a serious omission.

10. Bisexuality poses a major pastoral challenge to the Church at this point in the unfolding of the sexual revolution. For example, what are the implications of the motion before Synod for the pastoral and counseling support of a bisexual married person with children who wishes to hold to their marriage vows by ordering their sexual interests in line with their religious convictions and identity? There are many faithful Christians who wish to interpret and respond to their sexual interests in line with their identity in Christ, and the teaching of Scripture and the church, rather than re-define their identity on the basis of their sexual interests. The motion risks closing down conversation about the pastoral and counseling challenges of bisexuality at precisely the point in secular discourse when people are beginning to move beyond the old binary of ‘gay’ versus ‘straight’. Synod thereby risks buying into yesterday’s ‘science’.

11. Second, we recognize that Synod may be impressed by, and somewhat in awe of, the professional bodies that have signed up to statements such as that which it is being asked to endorse in the motion. We should bear in mind however that, notwithstanding their wellintentioned nature, these general declarations are not formulated within a Christian worldview of what it means to flourish as creatures made in the image of God, called into a self-sacrificial life of holiness within God’s work of redemption.

12. Within a purely secular framework people may be offered ‘gay affirmative’ counseling that seeks a full integration of same-sex, or bisexual, sexual interests into their sense of identity and affirms and supports them in their sexual relationships. Some Christians may also choose this course of action. Other Christians however will choose to embrace the biblical worldview as the integrative framework of their identity, and seek counseling or pastoral support that is correspondingly modeled on its teachings. They also have a right to do so, subject to the safeguards we have outlined above (paragraph 8).  This approach (recognized by the American Psychological Association in their Report of the Task Force on Appropriate Responses to Sexual Orientation (2009)), has been called the pursuit of ‘telic’ congruence. We believe this to be a more thoughtful and appropriate response to these complex questions and commend it to our friends and colleagues on General Synod.

Glynn Harrison, formerly Professor of Psychiatry, University of Bristol

Andrew Goddard, Senior Research Fellow, Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics.

3rd July 2017

PDF of text available here


3 thoughts on “Some observations on the forthcoming Synod debate on Sexual Orientation Change Efforts (SOCE)”

  1. I correctly ‘called’ the strategy by which the GS2070A motion would be carried. But let’s be clear about the scope of the 2015 Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on Conversion Therapy in the UK, which Synod has endorsed.

    The MoU describes conversion therapy as: ‘the umbrella term for a type of talking therapy or activity which attempts to change sexual orientation or reduce attraction to others of the same sex. It is also sometimes called ‘reparative’ or ‘gay cure’ therapy.

    In comparison, GS2070A broadens this scope to: ‘a wide array of approaches designed to change a person’s sexual behaviour or gender identity. These can include talking therapies, prayer, deliverance ministry, hypnosis, aversion therapy – such as electronic shock treatment. In some cultures in the UK many young LGBT adults are threatened with “corrective rape” therapy.

    The danger here is in 1) the conflation of orientation with one’s sense of identity and behaviour and 2) the conflation of spiritual ministry with psychotherapy.

    The Government’s response to calls for an outright ban on CT explains why the significance of this motion to the Church is only symbolic and not regulatory:

    ‘The Government have already said that there are no plans at this stage to introduce statutory regulation of psychotherapists. We do not believe that regulation would necessarily prevent this type of counselling in any case, as it would not depend on the type of therapy offered.’

    ‘The Professional Standards Authority oversees the work of the health care profession regulators, including the Health and Care Professions Council. Those powers facilitated the establishment of voluntary registers for unregulated health care professionals and health care workers in the UK, social care workers in England and certain students…

    ‘The accredited voluntary registration scheme to which I am referring is not a form of regulation, nor is the PSA a regulator. To be accredited, organisations must provide evidence to the PSA that they are well run and they require registrants to meet high standards of personal behaviour, technical competence and, where relevant, business practice, but the scheme does not endorse any particular therapy as effective and it makes it clear that accreditation does not imply that it has done so. However, organisations seeking to be accredited can set their own rules about what therapies their members can or cannot offer.’

    ‘As accredited voluntary registration appears to be gaining momentum and is proportionate to the risk, we believe that statutory regulation would not be appropriate and the costs to registrants or the taxpayer could not be justified. This is not to say that we are ruling out statutory regulation for this group for ever. We will continue to assess the need for it. I give an absolute assurance about that.’

    This is not to say that lesbians, gay men and bisexual people cannot seek counselling or therapy because they are distressed about a particular aspect of their sexuality—that is very important—or that a therapist should not try to help their patient with whatever is causing them distress, which may involve helping them to come to terms with their sexuality, family arguments over their sexuality, or hostility from other people. Supporting people through aspects of their lives that are difficult or challenging is a large part of what therapists do.

    For the Church, going beyond the Government’s reasoned rejection of statutory regulation introduces serious questions.

    For example, how exactly do you regulate spiritual ministry related to sexual behaviour? Do you make it an offence for clergy to pray with anyone for God’s grace to impart behavioural change related to sexual identity? Do you make a safeguarding issue out of any preaching, prayer or recitation related to scripture on sexually sinful behaviour, given that latently vulnerable LGBTI people might eventually consider that to be an assault on their sexual orientation or gender identity?

    So, for the Church, the entire consequent regulatory enterprise will be completely unworkable.

    Beyond this, GS2070A/B may appeal to secular reasoning (albeit selectively deploying the declarations of professional psychotherapy bodies), but it lacks any basis in a theologically reasoned statement, which coheres with scripture and tradition. Jayne Ozanne’s passing reference to Ps.139.14 was a paltry and unsuccessful attempt at this.

    Promoting the orientation=identity=behaviour paradigm as a ‘quasi-ethnicity’ works in the legislative arena, because it is part of the State’s remit to create such statutorily protected identities.

    The real challenge is for revisionists to further demonstrate (presumably in the Teaching Document) that the ‘orientation=identity=behaviour’ paradigm can also be theologically reasoned in a manner which is compatible with Christian scripture and tradition.

    So, it’s one thing to persuade Synod to endorse a ban on conversion therapy (in the sense defined by the MoU), but it’s quite another to persuade Synod to endorse as Christian teaching the notion that same-sex sexual acts should be affirmed as arising from an inalienable and immutable God-given sexual identity, especially when there’s theological tradition, and a scriptural basis for declaring the exact opposite.

    In fact, it will be very difficult (and revisionists know that dislocating theological contortions will be needed) for the sexual orientation=identity=behaviour paradigm to overturn the HoB teaching declaration that: ”Sexual intercourse, as an expression of faithful intimacy, properly belongs within marriage exclusively,’ (Marriage: a teaching document of the House of Bishops, 1999)

  2. I make no comment on SOCE.
    But on a related issue:
    If (as I believe – I know it is fiercely disputed) same-sex attraction is a sinful tendency and a result of the Fall, it may, like any other sinful tendency, like the tendency not to obey the command to be content with food and clothing (and give the money saved to those in need), remain in Christians until death and involve Christians in a lifelong battle to resist succumbing to whatever sinful tendency they have. Of course salvation is a process, punctuated by events and declarations (like regeneration and justification), to conform Christians to the image of Christ. That process and those events and declarations include a combination of God’s secret work in our souls and the use of appropriate means. Ultimately the timing of the completion of the process is in God’s hands.
    I point out yet again that a discussion of (and quite probably disagreement on) the Doctrine of Original Sin is a necessary prerequisite to the sexuality disagreement.
    Phil Almond

  3. Hi Glynn/Andrew,

    I think that, however well-intentioned, I have yet to see an evangelical response which matches the political thrust of GS2070A.

    For instance, unlike declarations from the medical profession, Jayne Ozanne’s definition of conversion therapy, includes prayer: ‘The term covers a wide array of approaches designed to change a person’s sexual behaviour or gender identity. These can include talking therapies, prayer, deliverance ministry, hypnosis, aversion therapy – such as electronic shock treatment.’

    What will be condemned by the motion are the aims of these approaches, including any prayer with ostensibly has similar intent. rather than prayer which makes similar claims.

    So, even without claims of clinical effectiveness, the ultimate result of the GS2070A motion will be ‘open season’ on organisations, like Core Issues Trust, and any clergy whose approach to same sex sexual behaviour is even remotely associated with them.

    The legal paper Expressive Ends: Understanding Conversion Therapy Bans (Marie-Amélie George) pretty much sums up the tried-and-tested purpose behind Ms. Ozanne’s method:

    ‘Since the religious dimension of conversion therapy is far removed from the medical practice that the laws address, why have LGBT rights groups made the bans such a central part of their legislative agenda and why have commentators ignored the religious aspect of conversion therapy? It is true that the laws are prospectively useful, in that they likely have some effect in curtailing the behavior of the remaining dissenters and also create a barrier to regression. However, this answer seems insufficient and unsatisfying, given the extent and expense of the campaign. The better explanation is the laws’ substantial expressive power, which serve two extremely valuable purposes for the LGBT movement.

    ‘First, the bans identify conversion therapy writ large as ineffective and potentially harmful, a characterization that LGBT rights groups hope will create a broad social norm against conversion therapy. This furthers their desire to eliminate all forms of conversion therapy, no matter the practitioner. The bans’ criticisms of conversion therapy apply to all practitioners, not just licensed mental health professionals, and thus help serve as an oblique assault on all forms of conversion therapy.’

    ‘Second, and as importantly, the bans undermine two interrelated arguments that religious conservatives have used to oppose gay rights claims. The laws help ratify the idea that sexual orientation is either a characteristic that no one should be forced to change, or is immutable and thus cannot be altered. LGBT rights groups have seized on the latter in their discussions of the laws, as pressing forward a claim about sexual orientation’s immutability has been central to both establishing gay rights and refuting opposition arguments.’

    ‘Additionally, the laws indicate that the state needs to take an active role in protecting LGBT youth, a radical reformulation of typical child protection arguments, which have focused on defending minors from the dangers of LGBT adults. The normative shifts that the laws introduce are extremely consequential for contemporary LGBT rights battles, with implications for debates over antidiscrimination laws, protections for sexual minority youth, and LGBT adoption and foster care rights.’

    Of course, Jayne Ozanne knows that General Synod will not exercise the depth of legislative scrutiny which caused Parliament to stop short of declaring an outright ban on conversion therapy. So, GS2070A/B constitute a stalking horse to ascertain Synod’s potential support for consequent, farther-reaching declarations that sexual orientation identity and gender identity are as immutable as, well, the ‘law of the Medes and the Persians’.

    ‘The law of the Medes and the Persians’…Strange how, without warning, a comparable biblical episode of enforced religious intolerance can pop into your head, eh? Perhaps, the prospect of CofE Con Evos being figuratively ‘thrown to the lions’ now really isn’t so far-fetched.

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