by the Revd Canon Dr Phil Groves, former Director of the Anglican Communion Office (2006 – 2016) and Associate Rector Wychert Vale Benefice
In the public debate over ‘conversion therapy’ the leaders of evangelical powerhouses such as the Evangelical Alliance and the Church of England’s Evangelical Council have sought to maintain space for people to receive ‘non-coercive’ counselling and prayer for those seeking to live in accordance with their beliefs. They cite freedom of religion and spread stories about people being denied the right to pray the Lord’s Prayer. Religious freedom is said to be at stake.
What I don’t see is any engagement with the damage to evangelical theology done by advocating such change orientated therapies.
‘The Bible is clear’ has become a mantra of institutional evangelicalism as exemplified by the response to the Evangelical Alliance to proposals to ban conversion therapy:
‘The teaching of the Bible is clear that sexual activity is restricted to monogamous marriage between one man and one woman. For Christians who hold to this biblical teaching, it is essential that those who experience same sex attraction are free to pursue and receive support to help them live in accordance with their beliefs.’
If ‘the Bible is clear’ defines reality then it must follow that ‘same sex attracted people’ can find fulfilment in singleness or in heterosexual marriage.
Plenty of Biblical scholars have questioned whether ‘the Bible is clear’, but they have been unconvincing to those who represent evangelicalism. However, in rejecting such claims evangelicalism needs to face up to just what it is endorsing.
No one claims the Bible has anything to say on the kind of ‘support’ that might be needed by people who are convinced by the clarity of the Evangelical Alliance’s message and who know themselves not to conform. So what kind of therapies are they keen to support?
The Evangelical Alliance is clear that they oppose the use of electric shock treatment and rape as methodologies, and this is important because while they are clearly criminal here, the rape of lesbians in particular is common in Africa and our African Anglican allies need all the support they can get to have the laws that enable horrific abuse to be removed.
However, they continue to support non-coercive therapies, without specifying just what they are.
The most common ‘therapy’ that has been adopted by Christian groups is so called ‘reparative therapy’. Reparative therapy was developed by Freudian analysts and was based on assumptions that sexual drive is learnt in childhood and adolescence through desire for the more distant parent. Gay men (and Reparative Therapy focused almost exclusively on gay men) were understood to be closely attached to their mothers and have distant or absent father figures for whom they developed sexual desire. The remedy was to develop an extremely close male to male bond between male analyst and client. These relationships broke all the norms of distance and clients were rewarded for good behaviour, such as sexual fantasies and sexual encounters with women, and reprimanded for bad behaviour as the therapist became the father figure.
The British Psychoanalytic Council only finally repudiated such analysis in 2012.
The academic literature that informed that decision explored the abuse often inflicted by therapists on clients and the damage done to clients. ‘Talking therapies’ were understood to be harmful to clients and society as a whole. Clear policies of discrimination barring LGBT people from training as analysts was eventually put in the past.
Of course, the people who came for psychoanalysis did so of their own free will – they were not forced into it. Except they were. They were persuaded of their own deviancy by a culture that portrayed heterosexuality as pure. They were easy to persuade that their failure of attachment to their father was real and at the heart of the problem. They were open to forming a bond with an analyst who often thrived on the power.
During the 1990s Christian organisations promoting change orientated therapies latched on to these Freudian solutions especially with the formation of National Association for Research & Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH), founded by Charles Socarides, a leading Freudian analyst, and Catholic therapist Joseph Nicolosi.
Their views were promoted by Anglican Mainstream and the Latimer Trust in a book published in 2007 entitled God, Gays and the Church. The book also promoted other ways of avoiding ‘same-sex attraction’ such as praying to the saints and most specifically the use of John Henry Newman as a ‘spirit guide’. Yes, the Latimer Press published a book promoting the use of prayers to the saints. However, it was the discredited Freudianism of Socarides and Nicolosi that dominated the text.
Evangelical Christianity became the standard bearer for Freudian assumptions about sexual attraction, while often labelling progressives as Freudians (oh, the irony).
Have things changed?
Well, a key player in the campaigns to stop the banning of change therapy is The Core Issues Trust and it continues to reference reparative therapy as a key component of what they call Change Orientated Therapies. They don’t make people aware that it is outdated Freudianism, but the Director of CIT, Mike Davidson, is shown proudly standing by Joseph Nicolosi who was absolutely clear about the therapy he was promoting.
Institutional Evangelicalism has become the last bastion of support for the 20th Century Freudian understanding of what it understood as deviant sexuality. ‘The Bible is clear’ is the mantra, what actually is being endorsed is an outdated Freudianism.
It cannot be healthy for evangelical theology.