by the Venerable Peter Leonard, Archdeacon of the Isle of Wight and Chair of OneBodyOneFaith
Have you noticed how often this warning appears on social media posts or blogs in recent years? A friendly statement that there may be material which can ignite a past issue or make an old wound start hurting again. I am relatively tough and generally don’t pay much attention to these, partly because I assumed I haven’t experienced some of the things which far too many of my LGBTQ+ siblings have.
I have been reading the Via Media posts on conversion therapy and have experienced the horror and revulsion that many of you will have at how the church has abused so many for so long. I shared one of these, ‘Peter’s Story’, on Facebook. Within a very short space of time, I received lots of comments from friends offering support and care because I had gone through such an awful experience. I realised with horror (and emotion that people were so caring) that people assumed the Peter referred to was me! I quickly responded that it wasn’t my story but, in the end, took the post down to stop any further confusion. It was then that a cold realisation crept over me, and I went back and re-read Peter’s story.
It was not my story, but it wasn’t that different to my story. I didn’t believe I had gone through any form of “conversion therapy”, even though I grew up and spent many years in churches where I regularly heard that being gay meant you would burn in hell, that you were dirty, evil and perverted and God hated you. I knew I was gay but couldn’t accept it so sought help and was offered prayer ministry in a couple of different settings. People commanded demons to leave me but of course nothing changed, except I developed a deep self-loathing of myself and who I was. A legacy of emotional and spiritual damage which into my fifties I am still working through. This prayer ministry was not a consistent experience of course, it was a few isolated incidents between the ages of about 15 and 27, but what was consistent throughout that time were the prayers I said, no pleaded, for myself on my own because I thought I had to. The prayer ministry I sought to do to myself to get rid of the homosexual thoughts and urges and make myself straight. The conversion therapy I sought to exercise on myself because I believed I had no other choice if I wanted to be accepted, loved and fulfil the calling to ordained ministry which I had.
The evil of conversion therapy comes in many different forms.
Prayer which is offered seeking to change someone’s sexuality is conversion therapy. It is damaging and it is abusive. The fact that I continued to try this prayer for myself because I believed I had to doesn’t make it less abusive or less damaging. It is a direct result of the teaching and the homophobia I experienced within the Church of England. I have always assumed I had not undergone conversion therapy – I was wrong – I have but it was dressed up as prayer and the abusive atmosphere I found myself in forced me to continue to hurt myself even when the perpetrators had ceased to actively hurt me themselves.
I am currently working with a counsellor and the legacy of shame and damage which this experience has left me with forms a significant part of that work. I hadn’t realised the extent to which it has impacted me because at the time I chose to do it. I wasn’t coerced into it other than the fact that I thought I had no choice if my family, my friends, my church and indeed God were going to accept me, if I wasn’t going to become an outcast. I, and many others in my position, were and are sadly still presented with a twisted version of the gospel. There are too many places where lives are still being damaged and where the name Jesus Christ is used as judgement, condemnation and for psychological harm instead of for love, acceptance, and freedom to be the people God created us to be. There are too many people who still need trigger warnings.
Jesus said the greatest commandment is to love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength, and to love your neighbour as you love yourself. We celebrate a God who exists in Trinity, and we are called to trinitarian relationships. Called to love God by being the people God created us to be, called to love others by offering them our authentic selves and called to love ourselves by accepting and nurturing who we are, including our sexuality. It is only then that we are living as Jesus commanded us to live.
Anything done to try and change someone’s sexuality, including prayer, is conversion therapy. It is abuse and needs to end now. It is without doubt another serious and significant safeguarding issue for the church and any and every time I discover it going on I will report it to the diocesan safeguarding team, and I would encourage anyone else to do the same. It has no place in the church and is contrary to the gospel of love we have in Jesus Christ.
Thank you to those of you who have shared your stories on here or in the press. Thank you to those of you who are campaigning hard to ensure that ALL forms of conversion therapy are banned. We know that all of this comes at a personal cost, and we are grateful.
If like me you are finding the conversation about conversion therapy, which includes abuse masquerading as “prayer ministry”, triggering let me share how I am coping:
- I’m talking about it – to God in prayer, to a counsellor and to trusted friends. OneBodyOneFaith of which I am Chair is currently working with the Ozanne Foundation to pull together a list of counsellors/therapists who can offer help and support to LGBT+ Christians. Look out for this resource or please be in touch if you can help.
- I’m campaigning and calling for this evil practice to be banned.
- I’m listening to myself and taking a break from it when I need to.
- I’m doing my best to love myself and in doing so to love God and love others.
The Psalmist says that we are “fearfully and wonderfully made” – we are also “queerfully and wonderfully made”. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise!