“Safe and secure in the arms of the Lord?”

10 Downing Street – Permission details Image used under the OGL (Open Government License).

As I sat down to write this, I was uncertain where I ought to focus my thoughts.  Should be something to do with the ongoing terrible news of Russia invading Ukraine – no, by the time this gets published the world might look very different.  Besides, there are more than enough other folks writing much more insightful articles than I could on that issue.  However, my thoughts started to coalesce around considering a couple of other stories receiving various amounts of public attention in the last couple of weeks and not just in the Christian Media. 

**NOTE** This month I have decided to trial the use of Bitly to shorten some of the really long web addresses I frequently quote from, so please let me know if you have any problems.  One of the magazines I read uses a similar resource called snipca.com, which does the same thing very well.  Do you prefer me to use the full URL, or the shortened form?  Please let me know.

So, what stories caught my attention? One media story was that only a third of LGBTQ+ Christians felt safe to be “out” to everyone in their local church.  If you want to look at the details of this survey, published at the end of January, you can find a report by the Ozanne Foundation at: https://bit.ly/3BLtWaO.  In addition, note that you can also find links at the bottom of their article to the full research report, and the full set of survey findings along with the questionnaire they used.  I say this in case you are concerned about my picking a headline from a statistic and distorting it.  In the reporting of this story, it focussed on the reverse of that statistic saying that two-thirds of the respondents felt uncomfortable in church.  The exact statistics were that only 43.91% of respondents felt safe being “out” to some people in their church while only 36.86% felt safe being “out” to all people in the church.  Whichever way you cut it, the figures are very sad.   Christians outside the LGBTQ+ community normally wouldn’t think twice about whether they felt “safe” or not.  Church is the place we should all feel safe because we have all come to worship God.  As the writer of Proverbs commented in ch18 verse 10: “The name of the Lord is a strong tower; the righteous run into it and are safe.”  New Revised Standard Version, Anglicised. (And all that brought me to the line from a very old hymn, that I used as the title, but I can’t remember the full hymn!)

If, as an LGBTQ+ Christian, you come to church trying not to draw attention to yourself, slipping into the back row, finding a seat at the end of the row so you can get out quickly or easily, it’s hard to relax and involve yourself in what’s happening.  It’s difficult to lose yourself in worship, it’s difficult to listen to all the prayers and make them yours, by echoing the “Amen” at the end of them.  It’s difficult to hear the “still, small voice” when your faculties are on high alert.  How do you cope when you think someone has looked at you and whispered something to their partner?  It might be a genuinely appreciative comment along the lines of “I’ve just seen […].  Remind me afterwards to invite them round for a meal.”  It might also have been quite innocently, something, or someone, they spotted behind you, or just in front, but you are feeling anxious, uncertain whether they were talking about you and if so, what they were saying.  Throughout the service you worry in case you are made to feel shame or guilt for something you can’t do anything about.  Then there are the prayers.  Are the prayers going to attack the person I am: “Lord we pray against those who would take your Word and twist it to justify what they do.  Lord we pray against those who call themselves Christians and yet no longer believe your teachings.”  You know the sort of thing.  And if we get through all that unscathed, what will the preacher say?  “Will they accuse people like me of sin, or call us perverts or abominations, even though I could no more grow an extra arm, or change my ethnicity, than change who I am?  Are they going to say that God will only welcome people like me if I/we repent?”

Here’s a Tweet I saw from a couple of years ago sent by someone who claimed to be an Evangelical Christian, but whose behaviour was, instead, that of a Troll.  (I have changed the name of his target, who was a gay Christian I sometimes follow, so that it is less identifiable.)  He wrote: “I’ve been calling Viktor to repent for years because of the love I have for him and those who are in sin.  If I hated Viktor, I would stay silent while he persists in his sin and leads others away from Christ as well.”

It may be some of you have experienced this sort of thing or something like it – possibly worse.  How does the troll know the state of Viktor’s soul?  Read the story in Luke 18: 9-14.  Personally, so far, I haven’t had a bad experience like this, but when I set up this site, I didn’t know whether I would get trolled, and was very anxious about it.  Throughout, I have made it very clear that any offensive comments will be ignored, deleted, or passed to relevant authorities, but they will not get printed on the site, and I won’t waste any time replying to them, so there wasn’t any point writing them.

So, to come back to that survey, maybe I’m not surprised that so few feel safe in churches.  Why would my LGBTQ+ friends want to put themselves in a place where they could be judged or publicly trolled by people who claim their words show the love of Jesus?

However, to be positive if you are looking for an inclusive church, denominations like the URC, the Methodist church, Scottish Episcopal Church, Church of Scotland, and a few individual churches are inclusive.  If you want to find an inclusive church, have a look at the Inclusive Church website: https://bit.ly/34ZugXx.  It is far from a complete database, because I know two or three inclusive churches near me, that weren’t showing up on their map, but it’s a useful place to start if you have nothing else to go on.  Also, in addition to those bigger denominations, there is also the Metropolitan Community Church set up and run by LGBTQ+ Christians, with eight churches dotted across England and one in Scotland and many others throughout the world – https://bit.ly/34Z6yL1.  Looking worldwide it’s also probably worth looking at Gaychurch.org – https://bit.ly/3sbTlqN.

Turning to the second story: this occurred last week (February 16th) as I write this.  It was the story of how a group of evangelical Christian leaders handed in a document to Downing Street signed by 2,500 Christian leaders “calling on the Government not to outlaw ordinary Christian activity in its proposed ‘conversion therapy’ ban.” https://bit.ly/3HgEpvH   Pink News reported it this way: https://bit.ly/3BKiBry.  In my view this was purely a stunt for the cameras, because that report makes it clear the letter had already been sent to Liz Truss the Minister for Women and Equalities, last December.  So why did they need to make a big show of delivering it to Number 10? If you want to read their document in full, you can find it here, but you might find parts of the language they use hurtful and offensive, so brace yourself: https://bit.ly/35hW8G6.  The document is 65 pages long, but only 11 pages are given over to their statement – the rest is the list of all the signatories from the various churches opposing a ban, if that is of any interest to you.

Then a few days later a new open letter was sent in as a riposte, this time from a group of Christian organisations including OneBodyOneFaith, Dignity and Worth, The Ozanne Foundation, The Greenbelt Festival, and others.  The line this letter took was that “the groups believe the ban should be explicit in distinguishing “between genuine choice” and “that which is coerced by virtue or culture, the interpretation of religious teachings, and context”.  I’ll come back to what that means later.  For the story see: https://bit.ly/36rpXUZ.  It provides links to the open letter here: https://bit.ly/3BIrrpp and at the time I went through the link, 1800+ names were on the list, and growing.

The initial letter talked about “calling on the Government not to outlaw ordinary Christian activity…”  I feel this is a little disingenuous, because in real terms no ordinary Christian activity is under threat.  No church service will be any different, nor will a person’s private prayers, neither will be Bible Studies and committee meetings.  What may have to change is that if there is a healing meeting, and a person comes forward for prayer.  If they specifically say they are gay but want to be made straight, the church must be honest and say they can’t pray for that, because there is nothing to heal, and orientation, gender and sexuality doesn’t change. However, we can instead pray for God’s blessing, and pledge the church’s full support to the supplicant from this point on.  And the same applies in any private counselling sessions a minister, or church leader, might hold with a supplicant.

So, let’s peek through the curtains and try to make sense of some of the issues.  Why does much of the church in the UK feel so threatened by this proposed ban?  The Christian Institute describes the problem like this:

‘Conversion therapy’ is a wide umbrella term chosen by LGBT campaigners. It covers abusive practices by quack medical practitioners and charlatan preachers which are largely illegal already. But the campaigners want to go much further: they want to criminalise prayers that fail to endorse liberal theology.

The Government has said that it does not intend to outlaw ‘everyday religious practice’ but it still risks bringing in one of the most religiously repressive laws the country has ever seen.

Coercive and abusive behaviour should be caught by existing law. But it is wrong for biblically faithful preaching, prayer, pastoral care and parenting to be in the sights of lawmakers. https://bit.ly/3HbpaEx

I have a problem (well several, really) with that descriptor.  Firstly they say “Conversion therapy is a … term chosen by LGBT campaigners.” In fact it’s a term that has been in use since the 1970’s and it’s difficult to find the first usage of that term.

Then, the idea that they propound is that, the only prayers that will be legally acceptable in future, if the regulation is accepted, will be Liberal prayers.  This is deliberately misleading errant nonsense, and I suspect they know that.

They seem to regard those of us arguing in favour of a ban as being liberals – that is having a liberal theology – nothing to do with politics!  I spent my first 50 years in a Baptist church that was proud of it’s heritage as being a place where preaching was always of a high standard, going back to the days of Spurgeon.  Whenever the words “liberal theology” were used, unspokenly we understood we should dismiss, or treat with extreme caution, whatever was being advocated, because only those who had no real faith, would hold to a liberal theology.  Obviously, these people would deny the miracles of Jesus, they would believe in evolution, and they would doubt, pick holes, and question the words of the Bible.  They were people we shouldn’t have anything to do with because they weren’t proper Christians!  I would suspect that a lot of those opposing a ban, hold similar attitudes, to the Christian Institute, given the language commonly used, and I’m certain they don’t believe we are real Christians.

Nowadays, I guess, I will be regarded as a liberal, in spite of the fact that I still view my own theological outlook as largely evangelical in spirit.  However, I would probably technically fall under the “exvangelical” banner (See Wikipedia) even though my faith is probably stronger, in some ways, than it was in the past.  I have doubts and questions about certain issues in the Bible – true, but that has forced me to look more deeply into what is written.  To give an indication, I have made it a practice to read the Bible through once every year, since 2013.  (If you want to do the same you can read an average of 85 verses a day and you’ll finish the Bible in a year, but it’s much better to use a Bible reading plan – YouVersion is very good with loads of different plans.)  I have also read more theology books in the last 6 years than I did in my previous 55 (discounting the first 5 years when the pinnacle was reading “Janet and John”!  I’ve just had a huge laugh because I’ve found the “Janet and John” books are still available on eBay and Amazon!).  Getting back on track, all the time I was in a nice theologically sound church, I had only read the Bible through twice, and I’m quite sure that was twice more than most of the folks there.

I suspect that word “Liberal” in the Christian Institute paragraph is doing some heavy lifting.  I think the word is loaded to give them the opportunity to quickly and easily pigeon-hole and dismiss us, as failed Christians who don’t really believe what the Bible says, whilst they are the only ones who “remain true to the Word”.

There is no way I want to see anyone criminalised for prayer.  I want people to pray.  I want people to come before God and seek the face of God.  I want people to see God as Jesus modelled for us – someone who cares passionately for us, eagerly wanting us to enjoy being close to Him, wanting to do good things for us, and for us to bring others who are hurt into His Kingdom, by the power of his Holy Spirit.

However, all Christians need to recognise that praying for gender or orientation change simply doesn’t work.  If it worked, there should be hundred’s, nay, tens of thousands of people all testifying to the fact of being ‘healed’.  But there simply aren’t.  There are so few people claiming to have experienced real change, I would want to delve into the real story of each one who has, to understand what is going on.  The thing is, the people being put up as models of what God can do, have no verifiable background, and it’s difficult to know whether what they are saying is wholly honest, or that they are saying what they think they should say, because anything less would look like a personal lack of faith.  One question I would love to ask an ex-gay Christian is when you are being tempted sexually, what image do you have in your mind?  It’s unlikely I’ll ever get an honest answer, but on that hangs the truth of whether the person has truly changed, or just learned to suppress their orientation and behave as if straight.

As I have said previously, many organisations/churches have been praying for individuals to change their orientation/gender issues for the last fifty or sixty years.  One of these, Exodus International, an umbrella organization “connecting organizations that sought to “help people who wished to limit their homosexual desires” (https://bit.ly/33HoCbE) closed in 2012.  They said it did not work and was harmful. The following year, [Alan]Chambers closed the organization and apologized for the “pain and hurt” participants of their programs had experienced.  Several other prominent former members, including John Paulk, have made similar apologies.”  As an umbrella organisation, it is inconceivable that only Exodus International noticed this failure amongst their affiliated groups, and their continuance smacks of dishonesty.

Seeking to change people is not a recent phenomenon as the above shows, yet credulous, verifiable examples of gay or trans people becoming heterosexual cisgender, are so few and far between it is dishonest to claim that change through prayer in this area, works.  The generalised claims that anyone can change their sexual orientation, dishonours God, and the name of the church throughout the world.

As I wrote in my essay, if God could not accept somebody who was LGBTQ+ unless they changed to heterosexual cisgender, God has a duty to make it right.  God has a duty or obligation, because humanly this is not an issue of choice, but one of biology or neurology.  To illustrate this obligation, we believe that anyone who believes in Jesus is saved (John 3:16) and at that moment their Eternal destiny is changed.  God changes us spiritually when we acknowledge Jesus – whether that is an instant on a particular day or whether that is a gradual growth over a period of time.  In some mysterious fashion, God has given us the seal of the Holy Spirit to show we belong to God: “And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.” Ephesians 4: 30.  So where something God sees at vital and key from an Eternal perspective, God makes something specific happen.  So, if God is so offended by homosexuality, why doesn’t he change people’s orientation, as part of the conversion experience?  Why doesn’t God remove the innate feeling that some are in the wrong body?  I believe the only logical conclusion we can draw is that God is very happy with what he has made, so why would He want to change something regarded as “good or very good”? (Genesis 1)

I would further argue that if people aren’t changed (and cannot be guaranteed to be changed) to heterosexual cisgender by prayer, there is an obligation to re-examine the scriptural passages and ask whether we have understood them correctly.  The vice-lists of the New Testament (Romans 1: 29-32;1 Corinthians 6: 9-11 and 1 Timothy 1: 8-12) are predicated on the idea that people can choose a course between two (or more) behaviour types.  If choice, as in the case of homosexuality, is off the table, we must ask whether what we understand as homosexuality, is what Paul was describing.  Clearly, if he is addressing something like pederasty, then yes, choice is front and centre.

I mentioned the word “guarantee” just then quite deliberately.  If only 1% of people have their prayers answered by becoming heterosexual cisgender (anecdotally it seems much, much lower than that – but I’ve never seen anyone quote any statistics because I don’t believe they exist), what about the emotional, psychological and spiritual damage that is done to the other 99%.  They are told God won’t accept them, and then God won’t change them either.  Then Christians say you must force yourself to change.  Why?  Who for?  God sees inside each of us, so he isn’t fooled – he knows a gay person is still gay, and a trans person still trans.  Or is it simply to force our theology to look right.  I don’t think that would impress God, do you?

The second paragraph of the Christian Institute comment, where it talks about “one of the most religiously repressive laws” is just plain silly, but it is fruit of the poisoned tree.  The poisoned tree is that of believing people must be changed to heterosexual cisgender.  Their concern is that “the loving, careful, prayerful pastoral support of those in our church families, as well as those who are seeking Christ, has to be preserved, and we’re very concerned that the current legislation will forbid us from doing that.” (Same https://bit.ly/3HgEpvH link as earlier)  The problem here is that they are concerned about how they handle a young person who has come for advice because they have questions over their sexuality or gender and want to know what the Bible says. The problem results from the fact that many faith groups are wedded to the idea that there are only two possible genders with nothing else possible, and I won’t go through that here because I’ve dealt with that very thoroughly elsewhere.

Moving forward, the mood music coming out of various reports from the UK Government seems to indicate they may take a more nuanced line.  It isn’t clear that they are ready to go down the route of a comprehensive ban.  One of the sticking points is the issue of talking therapy, which I have seen referred to in a couple of articles, described as treatments that involve talking to a trained professional about your thoughts, feelings, and behaviour.  The inference is that these are non-threatening so should not be caught up in a ban.  However, from the side of the recipient it is just as harmful, and we have talked about this in previous blogs

However, for those living in Scotland it looks like the Government there is prepared to go down a stricter route.  The Ozanne Foundation seems to be largely happy with the direction of travel.  As the link isn’t very long, here is their posting: https://www.ozanne.foundation/2022/01/25/.  The link to download the full 45-page Scottish Government report is: https://bit.ly/3t4nis2.  I have read most of it and they give one or two paragraph summations of what each contributor offered as evidence in their meetings with the panel, under each section of the discussion.  In the document some sections are highlighted, and if you don’t want to read the whole thing, it’s probably worth just reading those particular sections.

Earlier on I said I would revisit and explain the quote made in response to the letter of the 2500 church leaders rejecting the idea of a ban.  The quote was: “the groups believe the ban should be explicit in distinguishing “between genuine choice” and “that which is coerced by virtue or culture, the interpretation of religious teachings, and context.”  The point being made was that as you get older, there comes a point in life where one is fully able to make a choice, being able to see the different angles and points of view, the pitfalls, strengths, and weaknesses of what you are being told.  You also become braver and more willing to oppose something you feel uneasy about.  That is what is being referred to as “genuine choice”. 

On the other hand, if you are young and have been brought up in the same faith group (a little like my earlier comment about the environment of instinctively dismissing Liberal theology), having one particular way of understanding the Bible (or Qur’an – if that is your background) you are not equipped to deal with the issue.  If you disagree with the minister or Iman, how can you argue your corner, especially if they are adamant that being LGBTQ+ is sinful?  Their seemingly greater knowledge and dominant personality will effectively coerce the person seeking advice, so it’s very easy for the leader to determine what happens next.

I have already alluded to it, but another related issue to this is, since no records are kept, to my knowledge, how can a Pastor, for example know what the success rate of their prayers is?  They won’t be doing a thorough background medical history check, and they may not be doing a detailed follow-up, unless the person is a regular part of the church.  So, if they don’t see that person again, what is deemed a success?  And what about the situation where a person is just agreeing because they want to get out of an uncomfortable situation – agree anything to get out of here?

If we turn our attention to a family, a parent/both parents may have been brought up with a particular worldview of gender and sexuality, and if the child/teenager has a different experience, how can their view receive adequate and compassionate respect?  We have all seen TV depictions where a gay teenager is thrown out of the family home because the father disowns them.  Looking at youth homelessness in Britain, 24% of them are LGBT (The Big Issue – https://bit.ly/3JFfGD8), which is wholly disproportionate, given that amongst the general population, roughly only 6% are LGBTQ+.

In conclusion, I believe the ban on conversion therapy should not be as fearful as the evangelical wing of the church is saying, and it must be a good thing if it protects the young and vulnerable person from those who would coerce, albeit in the main, without realising what they are doing.  And I truly think most religious leaders have no real idea about how their language and comments affect the person asking for help.  Most of them perhaps unwittingly seem to model themselves on Nehemiah, whose wholehearted passion for God made him uncaring, obsessive and act abominably.  His motto for life seemed to be that “the end justifies the means.” (Check out: Nehemiah 13: 25 then vv 14, 22b, 29, 31b.  You could also turn back to ch 5: 19.)  It is difficult to see Jesus acting in this way if faced with a similar situation.