by the Right Reverend Dr David Walker, Bishop of Manchester
The General Synod debate on Conversion Therapy was easily one of the hardest it fell to me to chair. We were allowed something like 75 minutes in which to deal with the substantive motion, several amendments and even one amendment to an amendment. So many members wanted to speak that it was vital not to lose sight of the thrust of the motion amid the practical issues of moving of amendments, motions for closure, and voting. When I came to leave the chamber, I could hardly move for members wanting to thank me for having managed the debate with pace, clarity and good humour. Not everyone was happy; there are always some who think a balanced debate is one where half of the speakers are advocating their particular view, and the other half cover all remaining possible views. But, outshadowing the process, was the outcome. Synod called for a ban on Conversion Therapy by massive majorities in all three Houses.
It has taken a while for the proposal to go further, but in the recent Queen’s Speech, opening the new session of Parliament, the UK government has given a clear commitment to progressing matters. When the debate on the Speech took place in the House of Lords, I took the opportunity to remind Parliament of the Synod vote and was delighted when the government minister responding to the debate, Baroness Susan Williams, endorsed my comments.
Progress, but not as yet victory. The government have continued to send out mixed messages, saying there will need to be consultation before legislative proposals are formed. Consultation, of course, but that has all too often been a phrase used to excuse foot-dragging. We are never going to achieve legislation that everyone agrees is perfect, especially when balancing potentially conflicting human rights. Sometimes we need to just get on with things, and make any necessary changes later, in the light of experience.
So, if there’s going to be consultation, let’s make it as short and snappy as we can. In which spirit, let me offer a couple of starter points, to see if we can get the conversation going. I’ve shown my theological working, but you do not need to agree with all my beliefs in order to engage with the rest of the argument.
First, let’s focus on the victim not the perpetrator.
As Mary’s wonderful song, the Magnificat, illustrates, our God does not side with the powerful but with the weak and outcast. He is the God who seeks remedy for the oppressed not protection for the strong.
In the nineteenth century, when Parliament raised the Age of Consent to 16, it did so in the teeth of considerable opposition from members who were worried that their attraction to young girls would land them in trouble, for failing to distinguish a 14 year old from a child of 16. If the children featured in their conversation at all, it was as temptresses, looking to lure unwary older men into criminality. It never occurred to them that the onus to ensure their proposed partner was of age fell on them, and if in doubt, to refrain.
If the consultation on Conversion Therapies (and I confess I’d rather call it Conversion Abuse, rather than dignify it with medical terminology) spends too much time and effort on trying to define exactly how far a perpetrator can go, or what procedures they can use, before breaking the law, then we will have lost that vital victim centrality. We need to focus on the wounding not the weapon. What matters in a victim centred approach to law is the severity and durability of the harm done, not whether that damage was done by prayer, hypnosis or psychological techniques.
There is now a massive pile of evidence to support how damaging these abuses are in general. When it comes to the particularities of an individual trial and conviction, the discretion of judges to sentence at an appropriate level provides ample scope to distinguish between levels of severity of abuse. Let it remain the responsibility of those who wish to carry out “therapies” to ensure their actions will never cause harm.
Secondly, consent is only consent if informed and freely given.
At the heart of the Gospel lies the love of God, shown fully in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This love, freely given, invites every person to respond equally freely. Love forced or coerced is not love at all.
The harrowing stories of those damaged by attempts to change their sexuality usually begin in the victims’ early or mid teens. Pressure from parents, or from church leaders, has all too often played a major part in them feeling they have to change. The procedures to which they are exposed are then often led by those same individuals who have applied the pressure. There is a deep irony in the fact that the voices who argue most stridently that a teenager cannot give consent to life changing gender therapies, in the highly controlled and monitored environment of the NHS, are often the very voices who believe that same teenager can give free and informed consent to Conversion Therapy, in the far less transparent and accountable environment of a prayer meeting or attempted exorcism.
Putting it bluntly, I struggle to see how any child judged not old enough to make an informed and free enough judgment to place a cross on a ballot paper can be considered capable of giving informed consent to attempts to change their sexual feelings, outside of a setting at least as managed and monitored as that provided by public health services.
Finally, we don’t have to get everything right in a piece of legislation prior to publishing a Bill. Parliamentary process allows many opportunities to reflect and consider, and for those interested to lobby for amendment to this or that clause. Even when a Bill becomes an Act, it doesn’t have to be the last ever word on a subject. If a law is not working well enough, it can readily be amended or repealed. Meanwhile, whilst we fail to press on with draft legislation, young people are continuing to suffer abuse disguised as therapy. Their harm is real and immediate. For their sakes we need to make this consultation both short and to the point.