by the Revd Canon Timothy Goode, Rector of St Margaret’s, Lee, Disability Adviser to the Diocese of Southwark, Member of Archbishop’s Council and Co-Chair of MOSAIC
Yet you have made them a little lower than God and crowned them with glory and honour.’ (Psalm 8 verse 5)
My relationship with the Church of England has always been a complex one, built as much on a vision of what the Church of England could aspire to be, as much as to what the Church of England presently is, or was in the past.
As someone who passionately wishes for the full participation of the LGBTI+ community within the church, as I do for all who are marginalised by the church, I was deeply moved by the recent testimonies on Via Media, from those who have been on the receiving end of conversion therapy and who so generously shared their appalling experiences at the hands of a church that purports to articulate the immeasurable love of God for them.
However, I was caught utterly on the back foot, when I found, whilst reading the testimonies, that my acknowledged feelings of solidarity and empathy swung uncontrollably into what felt like deeply unchartered territory, as I found myself sobbing; not tears that well up when one hears of injustice or when one feels righteous anger, but sobs of unprocessed pain and suffering.
It felt like a scab was being brutally torn off revealing a deep wound underneath, which was crying out to be acknowledged and engaged with. I initially felt shame and deep guilt that these testimonies had unearthed such suppressed feelings of confusion, embarrassment, diminishment and hurt.
But reflecting on my response now, I feel immense gratitude to those who shared their shocking testimonies of conversion therapy, as they also unearthed the as yet unprocessed suffering that I had experienced when on the receiving end of abusive unconsented forms of ‘healing’. These had taken many forms and contexts, but all had involved the use of physical restraint and a need for my collusion. My unwillingness to play ball had on each occasion been met with projected responses of anger and rejection; so that my inability to walk unaided became my fault, put down to my lack of engagement and my lack of faith.
I thought I had worked through these abusive experiences so that they no longer had a hold on me. Reading these testimonies revealed that, despite the support that I have received, these experiences still have the power to resurface and catch me unawares.
I don’t want to equate my own experience of abusive ‘healing’ ministry as a disabled person with the harrowing conversion therapy experienced by the LGBTI+ community. However, each experience matters, and each experience matters before God.
Both practices invite us to explore how it is that we as Christians can still equate a loving compassionate God with the shocking outcomes of these practices; how the reasons and means of conversion therapy can ever justify ‘the fruits’ of our actions. For it is the very fruits of these actions – the diminishing, the suffering, the pain, the anger, the rejection – that have led me to conclude that the theology that underpins it is deeply flawed and profoundly unhealthy.
St Matthew states that ‘a good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit.’ (Matthew 7.18) If conversion therapy and abusive ‘healing’ causes such bad fruit, as we read in these shocking testimonies, then St Matthew’s metaphor should cause us to question both the action and the theology that underpins and motivates such an action.
Maybe the time is right to join with what feminist theologians have been doing for decades, and critically explore and re-evaluate the biblical writers’ assumptions and unconscious biases. For example, when we read the bible through the perceptive and lived experience of disability, we may notice the biblical writers use of impairments as metaphors for sin, doubt, and unbelief, which in turn point to an understanding of perfection that is rooted more in Plato and Aristotle than the Body of Christ.
This does not sit comfortably with the risen body of Jesus Christ, a physical body that is healed but not cured, whose open wounds are a visceral and vital part of the resurrected body, drawing us into Christ’s fullest humanity. Maybe through the risen body we are being encouraged to acknowledge, own, and ultimately love and celebrate our God given diversity.
Candida Moss, the Edward Cadbury Professor of Theology at the University of Birmingham, writes that disabled people are often used by the Gospel writers to beef up Jesus’ credentials, showcasing his divine powers.
“When Jesus meets people with disabilities, he fixes them and that’s a sign that he is powerful,” she says. “That relegates people with disabilities to just being there to show the power of God. They’re not really real characters or real people who have feelings and needs and personalities. That pushes them to the margins of the story.”
All groups, whether it be LGBTI+, race, disability, gender, neurodiversity, to name but five, who continue to be viewed and treated as ‘less than’ by sections of the church, find that they are being consistently pushed to the margins of the story; and yet it is in the very margins of the story that Jesus so often to be is found.
We therefore should not be surprised that the graceful embrace of the sacrificial ministry of all who have shared their experiences of conversion therapy have reached far beyond the LGBTI+ community. Their brave and harrowing testimonies have opened the door for other marginalised groups to share their stories of abuse and diminishment, offering the possibility of true healing and hope to so many, including myself, who have suffered abusive ‘healing’ ministries within the church; drawing us all towards the ultimate truth, that we are each loved, that we are each unique and precious in God’s sight, that we are each fearfully and wonderfully made.
As the psalmist sings:
‘…what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? Yet you have made them a little lower than God and crowned them with glory and honour.’ (Psalm 8. Verses, 4-5)