Yesterday the Government unveiled its 75-point plan to tackle LGBT inequality. Among its commitments is a desire to ban ‘controversial conversion therapy’ – practices designed to change someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity.
Although there is much to be welcomed in this plan, it is in danger of missing the heart of the issue. The reality is, most churches do not run courses, programmes or structured education sessions that can be easily identified as ‘conversion therapy’ (although this does still happen, usually at great psychological cost to the participants).
Instead, many churches typically engage in 5 practices which individually and collectively undermine the mental wellbeing of LGBT people in churches.
1. Informal prayer
Most people who share their sexuality with a church leader do not find themselves inducted into formal therapy sessions. Instead, they are most likely to be offered the chance to be prayed for, with the goal of releasing them from same-sex attraction.
This practice undermines an individual’s identity, and often causes deep psychological distress. This can be especially true for young people. More than this, while some church leaders with traditional biblical views do recognise the pastoral dangers of this course of action, they have little awareness as to whether this might be happening at small group level or more informally. It is also deeply damaging when people who have refused prayer are told that they will still be prayed for privately.
2. Treating same sex attraction as an illness or affliction
Many churches refuse to acknowledge that people can be homosexual or bisexual and instead refer to them as straight people that suffer from same-sex attraction. This creates a sense that homosexuality is an illness or affliction to be suffered or cured and so denies the reality of it being an integral part of some people’s humanity.
To be told – as LGBT people often are – “you struggle with same-sex attraction in the same way that other people struggle with lying, drinking, lust or gambling” sends a message that generates an unquantifiable amount of psychological damage.
3. Barriers to participation
It is common for evangelical churches to refuse leadership positions to LGBT people or to remove them from leadership if they come out or especially if they confess to a relationship. Other churches will ban people from any upfront role such as singing or playing in the band, leading or taking part in children’s or youth work or even taking communion. Each of these acts of exclusion undermines confidence and wellbeing and can cause psychological distress and harm. Such levels of proactive discrimination should be banished to the history books.
4. Negative teaching
Many local church leaders do not know how many members of their congregation are LGBT or have family, friends or colleagues that are. As a result they teach extremely negative messages in sermons, Sunday schools and youth groups which create a sense that LGBT people are evil, disgusting or even demonic.
5. Enforcing silence
When many LGBT people confess their sexuality or true gender identity to church leaders the first thing they are often asked to do is to keep their revelation a secret. Church leaders no doubt have a variety of reasons to do this – including perhaps a degree of pastoral concern – but in reality it sends the message to the person concerned that their identity is a dirty secret and that who they are is fundamentally sinful, unacceptable and unlovable.
The Government’s 75 point plan is a step in the right direction. But previous research by Oasis has established that churches and Christians are now the single biggest barrier to LGBT acceptance and equality in society.
This week, I will contact other inclusive Christian organisations, churches and agencies. It is my hope that we can work collectively to compile a detailed plan of what needs to be done to tackle these five areas of psychological damage within churches. It is my further hope that Government partner with us to help make this plan a reality.
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