by the Revd Canon Rosie Harper, Chaplain to the Bishop of Buckingham, Member of General Synod and Trustee of the Ozanne Foundation
Sometimes the synapses fire!
I could never quite understand why repeated apologies from the Archbishop and other senior church figures made me mad. I probably ought to have been thinking how gracious and humble they were trying to be. This is surely the beginning of healing. But no! When they stood in front of the TV cameras or at General Synod offering yet another sometimes tearful apology it left me pretty cross.
Then I saw this little phrase posted by the wonderful Maurice Tomlinson -a Human Rights lawyer and phenomenal LGBTI+ right warrior. It simply said: ‘Apology without change is manipulation.’ Zap went that little electrical impulse between two nerves. The synapse fired. That was it. I couldn’t get hold of the apology because I had heard it so often before and so little had changed. When I sat at General Synod listening to someone telling us they had no idea how deeply terrible things were and they were profoundly sorry – well I felt manipulated. Of course they knew! Survivors have been saying it for years. I’ve been saying it for years.
Repeatedly, anyone who challenges the disconnect between promise and delivery is told ‘that was then, this is now. Things have changed’ But the witness statements say otherwise.
Here on Via Media Jayne Ozanne has just run an extraordinary series of the personal testimonies of LGBTI Christians. The first person to describe their experience was Timothy and I have just gone back to read it again. The word ‘manipulation’ jumped off the page. The psychological abuse was made possible because of the spiritual abuse and Tim writes movingly about just how powerful, deep and life changing that was.
Of course, we are manipulated in most areas of life, but there does seem to be a religious variant which is particularly pernicious. Within a faith setting it is quite easy to do great harm under the guise of doing good. Apology is supposed to be a good thing, especially when accompanied by then accepting responsibility. Contrition is the beginning not the end of the matter. What Jayne Ozanne is discovering as she works with the government to draft a bill on the banning of conversion therapy, is that there is a powerful lobby that both apologises, although mostly in a very half-hearted way, and makes a special case to be allowed to continue their abuse.
How can this be? How can you recognise the harm and at the same time argue to perpetuate it? Because…. apology without change is manipulation. The apologies we have been hearing over the past few years do not move on to taking responsibility and of course never will because they dump all the responsibility on God. I find quoting scripture and ‘the will of God’ or even ‘the love of God’ as your reason for ongoing abusive behaviour grotesque. It was ever thus. Scripture has been used to legitimise other abuse. Capital punishment, beating children.
The extent and depth of damage done by conversion therapy stands alongside sexual abuse is now public and there is no choice but to apologise. Yet still nothing changes. I am still waiting to meet a survivor who hasn’t regretted their disclosure and the very same people who apologise are lobbying the Government to allow them to continue to ‘pray away the gay’ because it is part of their belief and as such should be protected.
It is therefore apparent that the reason there has been so little change is that so few hearts have changed. Could this be because over the centuries, little by little we have replaced the God that Jesus loved with a monster. A God who is more interested in controlling than loving and who holds onto power rather than giving it away. In other words, we have done to God what the Romans did to Jesus. His God was too challenging and so we redesigned him, and we have done it so effectively that some Christians honestly believe that they are doing God’s work when they shame and humiliate and terrorise people whose identity they will not accept.
I have recently retired and have been finding it rather difficult to go to church. I can shape a sort of faith, but at the moment even the sweetest and most open church still breathes trouble. The language of the hymns or songs, the architecture, the deference, the division between those who know about God and those who don’t. This is very sad. I know some wonderful people whose faith is strong and a has shaped in them a beautiful character. However, as I hear or read yet another survivor tell their story I am left with the feeling that at the heart of institutional religion there is a God shaped void, or worse than that a man shaped God.
Much of my energy and time over the past years has been spent trying to be part of the change, and I am 100% behind Jayne’s work. Conversion Therapy is an abuse which needs to be stopped. I am less certain that our institution has the capacity or the desire to be born again. There has been a gradual and powerful move towards theological certainty and uniformity and it is pretty much the sort of domination that John Smyth and his cronies were aiming for. In many ways it was the theology that enabled such terrible spiritual abuse.
Unless we learn from the past we will continue to be manipulated in to repeating it.