As a gay Christian, I’m worried about the calls to ban ‘gay conversion therapy’. Of course, it’s right that gay people are protected and some of the practices referred to as conversion therapy are deeply wrong. But there’s a danger that badly-drafted legislation could make life impossible for those working in churches when gay people come to us for help.
I’ve worked on the staff of Anglican churches for twenty years. Over that time the people I have served have asked to talk and pray with me about their families, workplaces, dreams, failures, marriages, singleness, finances, addictions, sexualities, gender – and more. I have heard it all, but have welcomed each unique human being, and the chance to try and help them as best I can.
But there is a group I may soon have to discourage from asking for my advice or prayers: any same-sex attracted Christians (gay, bi-sexual or just uncertain) who have ambivalent feelings towards their sexuality. There are many of us: people like me who continue to believe traditional Christian teaching that sex is for the marriage of a man and woman but who find ourselves sexually attracted to our own sex. We may soon find our pastors’ doors closed against us.
This is not due to homophobia in the church, rather it could soon be the harmful result of forthcoming legislative efforts to outlaw ‘conversion therapy’. Popular definitions of this have increasingly broadened out from obviously cruel and coercive attempts to unsuccessfully change someone’s sexuality, to now potentially including any ‘religious teaching and discussion’. This would almost certainly include classic Christian sexual ethics, preventing anyone like me from getting the help we feel we need to live in the light of deeply held religious beliefs.
A situation could soon arise in which a request for advice or prayer will be freely granted by pastors to anyone but such same-sex attracted Christians. Or pastors like me might find ourselves in a place in which the only advice we are legally allowed to give is to encourage such people to reject traditional Christian teaching. This will put many church leaders in the unenviable position of dreading the day when a church member opens up about their same-sex attractions. It would represent a profound erosion of the human rights of Christians like me to enjoy our basic freedoms of thought, conscience and religion.
Our experiences of sexuality can be an incredibly confusing and painful part of human life for a whole host of different reasons. Central to my living healthily and happily with my same-sex attractions have been conversations and prayers with Christian pastors and friends. None have ever sought to coerce me into behaving in a certain way – or change my sexuality. Indeed the only contexts in which I have felt unwelcome pressure to change my beliefs and behaviour have been from gay Christians who have rejected orthodox church teaching – and the wider culture that thinks I am crazy to embrace it. They are, ironically, the ones that are seeking to convert me – and others in my position.
‘The love that dares not speak its name’ used to be a man’s love for another man. It could soon be my love for the traditional Christian sexual ethic: for all the good I see it do myself – and others. This would not be a step forward into a more tolerant society but a step back into one in which we wrongly discriminate against another minority: same-sex attracted Christians like me.
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Ed Shaw is the pastor of Emmanuel City Centre in Bristol and director of www.livingout.org