Presbyterian Moderator: We oppose coercive bids to alter sexuality but conversion therapy is a wide term and we fear a sweeping ban

Today, our MLAs will debate a motion on ‘Conversion Therapy’.

Tuesday, 20th April 2021, 7:13 am
Updated Tuesday, 20th April 2021, 7:21 am
Is a youth leader, or a minister, to be prevented in law from praying with a young person who is confused about their sexuality? Can they have a loving, empathetic and compassionate pastoral conversation about these questions?

The Stormont motion calls on the Minister for Communities to bring forward legislation to ban it ‘in all its forms’

Conversion therapy is an unhelpful term which is defined differently by different people.

Attempts to end same sex attraction by using drug treatments to limit and/or reverse sexual desire, or ‘aversion therapies’ such as electric shock treatment, (all of which have been sanctioned in state-run institutions in decades past), are utterly and entirely wrong.

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Rt Rev Dr David Bruce is Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland

The churches have also in their own way, got things wrong.

The damage done is sadly self-evident, and this includes inappropriate church-based approaches such as so-called ‘deliverance ministry’, in the belief that same-sex attraction is a direct result of demon possession, and can be ‘cast out’ by prayer.

So let me be clear. Any coercive interventions to bring about changes in a person’s sexual orientation are simply and unequivocally wrong, and highly unlikely to have any beneficial effect.

There is a growing body of evidence to suggest that these practices hinder the positive journey of a person towards self-understanding.

The Presbyterian Church in Ireland opposes such approaches, and does not sanction them should they ever be suggested. But I must ask in reference to today’s debate, what does the motion’s catch-all phrase, ‘in all its forms’ mean?

Here is a fictionalised example, but one some of my colleagues in ministry will recognise. ‘Paul’, as a 16-year-old lad had a secret he couldn’t share. He was gay, and was sure that his feelings weren’t going to change.

As a keen Christian he was conflicted. “Who should I talk to? If I go to my minister, or my youth leader, will they understand? Will they insist on telling my parents? Will they try to talk me out of it? Wouldn’t it be easier if I just quietly disappear, tell no-one, and leave church?”

Paul’s story illustrates why there is both good and bad in the current proposals ‘to ban conversion therapy in all its forms’.

The ‘good’ is the outlawing of clearly abusive practices, a number of which I have mentioned. But there is a ‘bad’ to these proposals, which may well be an unintended consequence of seeking the ‘good’.

Is a youth leader, or a minister, to be prevented in law from having a loving, empathetic and compassionate pastoral conversation with a young person of faith about these questions?

Can they pray together about these matters?

We pray about the most personal aspects of our lives, from relationships to career choices.

Why then should ministers and leaders be prevented from praying with members of our own churches who seek it, simply because their request to talk involves their sexuality?

Why should it be considered wrong for a minister to talk freely with anyone about living the Christian life?

Surely those who framed today’s assembly motion, did not mean to criminalise people’s beliefs and their free choices in accordance with their religious convictions?

In any forthcoming legislation regarding ‘Conversion Therapy’, Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights needs to be carefully considered, as it provides for freedom of thought, conscience and the practice and observance of religion.

Legislation to outlaw coercive abuses, or ‘therapies’ which are evidently damaging to people is needed, and we support this.

Legislation which prevents a minister or other leader fulfilling their pastoral duties responsibly and well, ought to be rejected.

Both protection and clarity are needed.

Rt Rev Dr David Bruce is Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland

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