And That Is What Some Of You Were … except in Melbourne

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Melbourne diocese’s upcoming synod has a motion seeking to ban all reparative therapy for people experiencing same-sex attraction; the so-called “gay conversion therapy”. Here’s the full text of the motion:

21 Conversion Therapy

That Synod

a)  acknowledges that all people are made in the image of God, regardless of sexuality or gender identity

b)  endorses the position of the Australian Psychological Society that “strongly opposes any approach to psychological practice or research that treats lesbians, gay men, and bisexual people as disordered, and any approach that attempts to change an individual’s sexual orientation”

c)  calls upon Church members to be sensitive to, and to listen to, diverse expressions of sexuality and gender identity, and never to recommend “Gay Conversion Therapy” to anyone; and

d)  calls on the government to ban the practice of “Gay Conversion Therapy”.

Moved: Archdeacon Craig D’Alton; Seconded: Archdeacon Bill Beagley

Murray Campbell has an excellent recent article on a similar subject, addressing a recent call by the Victorian government to ban any “conversion therapy”. He notes that while there are some practices which are clearly unacceptable, the government’s agenda (which is mirrored by this motion) is clearly to attack any suggestion that sexuality can change and that such a change is a good thing.

The term “Gay Conversion Therapy” itself is unhelpfully ambiguous. What is meant by the term? It could cover anything from the most bizarre aversion therapies (including inducing electric shocks to genitals) through to a simply Bible study covering a text such as 1Cor. 6.

1Cor. 6:9 Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men 10 nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. 11 And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.

The motion presented by D’Alton (who is also proposing the motion at synod to introduce blessings for same-sex relationships) remains entirely unclear and therefore unhelpful on the terminology.

It’s not only the term “Gay Conversion Therapy” itself that is ambiguous. The opening clause of the motion is also deliberately so. Synod could no doubt affirm with great conviction that

all people are made in the image of God, regardless of sexuality or gender identity

But what is intended by such a statement? If it’s to make the point that everyone should be treated with care and dignity, irrespective of how they identify themselves, then that’s certainly true. But we’ve been around the traps enough to know that more is being imported into this statement; it’s implication is that sexuality and gender identity are entirely neutral things whereas orthodox Christian thinking has long held otherwise. Some sexual attractions are disordered and the fact that they are goes to the heart of the issue being debated.

Next we note that the position of the Australian Psychological Society which D’Alton relies upon is not supported by any conclusive research. It’s a political statement, not a scientific one, despite the claim that it is “evidence-based”. Readers will note that the statement itself [pdf] presents little evidence in support. They do cite a 2002 study (the only citation in the statement) by Shidlo which reports the following:

What motivates individuals to pursue conversion therapy and ex-gay groups? How do they perceive its harmfulness and helpfulness? In this study, 202 consumers of sexual orientation conversion interventions were interviewed to answer these questions. The results indicated that a majority failed to change sexual orientation, and many reported that they associated harm with conversion interventions. A minority reported feeling helped, although not necessarily with their original goal of changing sexual orientation.

Note carefully what is and isn’t claimed here. Most did not change orientation, some did. Some reported harm, some didn’t. The point is that it’s not conclusive. For those who had negative experiences there are also those who’s reflection was positive. Some changed, more didn’t. But then such therapies never claim a 100% success rate. The reality is that the rates are comparable with comparable groups such as a 12 step program. Most importantly, it should be noted that Shidlo recruited participants in their research by specifically asking for people who had experienced harm. They themselves noted that “the findings of this study can not be generalized [sic.] beyond their specific sample of consumers”. Despite that the Australian Psychological Society have generalised well beyond the sample. They’ve relied solely upon one piece of research that the researchers themselves say can’t be relied upon this way.

The statement thus fails to engage with the fact that other studies have demonstrated various degrees of positive outcome for therapy. In 2003 Spitzer showed that orientation change may be possible with therapy:

The majority of participants gave reports of change from a predominantly or exclusively homosexual orientation before therapy to a predominantly or exclusively heterosexual orientation in the past year. Reports of complete change were uncommon. Female participants reported significantly more change than did male participants. Either some gay men and lesbians, following reparative therapy, actually change their predominantly homosexual orientation to a predominantly heterosexual orientation or some gay men and women construct elaborate self-deceptive narratives (or even lie) in which they claim to have changed their sexual orientation, or both. For many reasons, it is concluded that the participants’ self-reports were, by-and-large, credible and that few elaborated self-deceptive narratives or lied. Thus, there is evidence that change in sexual orientation following some form of reparative therapy does occur in some gay men and lesbians.

Of course, Spitzer’s sample was self-selected and so doesn’t claim to be representative of all participants in such therapies. It suffers from the same critique as Shidlo, in having sought out those who wanted to report success in a change of orientation. But it clearly demonstrates that change is possible. Nevertheless, if you want to reject Spitzer, then you have to reject Shidlo (and vice versa). Where does that leave us?

A more comprehensive longitudinal study was carried out by Jones and Yarhouse which reported in 2011 that

The authors conducted a quasi-experimental longitudinal study spanning 6-7 years examining attempted religiously mediated sexual orientation change from homosexual orientation to heterosexual orientation. An initial sample was formed of 72 men and 26 women who were involved in a variety of Christian ministries, with measures of sexual attraction, infatuation and fantasy, and composite measures of sexual orientation and psychological distress, administered longitudinally. Evidence from the study suggested that change of homosexual orientation appears possible for some and that psychological distress did not increase on average as a result of the involvement in the change process. The authors explore methodological limitations circumscribing generalizability of the findings and alternative explanations of the findings, such as sexual identity change or adjustment.

Note that psychological distress was something measured in the study and that the finding was it “did not increase on average as a result of the involvement in the change process“.

Jones and Yarhouse remains the most comprehensive study performed in this area. However it doesn’t have much competition. The reality is that there is relatively little research done in this field, and certainly not enough to support such sweeping claims and positions as that being proposed here. It’s now unarguable that sexuality can change (video well worth the 45 min.) and that people can experience such change without increases in distress.

The church, from it’s very first days till now, has had those who have experienced alteration in their sexual desire, practice and orientation. Some find that they no longer had the preferences that they once had. Others have learned (despite what the culture around us insists) that there’s more to life than sex and that their primary identity is in Christ, even if they still retain disordered desires. We’ve come a long way since insistence upon “pray away the gay”.

The motion before Melbourne’s synod seeks to deny all of this. It flies in the face of the limited body of research in the field, and more importantly stands in defiance to the testimony of the early Christians as reported in Scripture.

“That is what some of you were”. Not if D’Alton has his way.

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  1. Chris Russell

    Note that “what some of you were… ” in 1 Cor. 6 is, for instance: “men who have sex with men”. This is noteworthy, because what is relevant biblically is that the doctrine of creation asserts not that all people are created in the image of God “regardless of sexuality or gender identity”.

    God created male and female – end of story. What exists in the real world is not “sexual orientation” i.e. a politicised reification of behaviour. Men who have sex with men are nothing special, except that Christ died for them, as He did for all sinners.
    Notwithstanding, thank you, David, for your pertinent, critical observations.

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