A NEW survey designed to examine the role religious belief has on people’s understanding and acceptance of their sexual orientation has found that religious leaders have forced people who identify as LGBTQ to change their sexuality.
The independent survey by the Ozanne Foundation, which was overseen by an Influential Advisory Board including the Bishop of Manchester, attracted 4,613 eligible responses.
The survey was taken from a wide pool with over 20 per cent defining themselves as non-religious (1,014), just over 35 per cent as Christian Anglican (1,608), and among other backgrounds, a further 24 per cent identifying as Christian Other (1,099).
Of those who said they were advised to consider attempting to change their sexual orientation, 676 people (of 1,852 respondents) said that it was primarily a religious leader or friend who attempted to do it.
Of those who said they were forced to change their sexual orientation, 147 respondents (of 1,564) said it was primarily because of a religious leader or friend.
The report also found that there appeared to be a move away from more “traditional” and “conservative” Christian churches towards more “liberal” and that a large number of respondents had changed their religious affiliation since childhood, with the greatest change being away from “Catholic” and “Other Christian” groups to that of “Anglican” and “Humanist” churches over time.
The Rev Derek Witchell commented: “In my experience, and those with whom I have contact, when a church makes it clear it’s going to discriminate against someone because of their sexuality to the extent that they feel they must find a new church, they do this very cautiously.”
Mr Witchell, who is a priest with a gay son, launched Joel Ministries (jeolministries.org.uk) to help evangelical parents of LGBT children.
“Many of the C of E’s churches are in villages and small towns. These churches gather folks from all denominations and none and so there is a sort of tacit agreement not to be too dogmatic about dogma!
“There is also a strong grassroots reaction against any big discussion of these matters. They don’t want to think about a persons sexuality. It’s not their business. They are just people. All the families I have had direct contact with have all been in village churches where issues of children being gay or transitioning or whatever are not really an issue.”
He said that he preaches inclusion ‘whenever the opportunity via the scriptures arises’. “I’ve only been asked not to in one church. This was a larger church (with a congregation of over 100 on a Sunday) where the threat by a few of leaving if the vicar affirmed by views (only expressed in an aside) would result in them and their money finding a new home.
“And that touches on a couple of significant drivers in some churches – vicars wanting to be loved by the strong members of the congregation and the power of money.”
Of the report findings, more than half of those who had attempted to change their sexual orientation reported mental health issues and less than a third said that they “had gone on to lead a happy and fulfilled life”.
Nearly a half stated they had “found it hard to accept myself for who I am” and “that they had had to leave or change their faith group”.
Meanwhile, 22 people said they had undergone “forced sexual activity with someone of the opposite gender” in order to attempt to change.
The survey found that those who had actual experience of attempting to change their sexual orientation were significantly more likely to have come from childhood homes with a Christian faith than those from a nonreligious background.
They were also more likely to come from childhood homes that had either a conservative evangelical (60 out of 192 people), charismatic evangelical (43 out of 142 people) or Pentecostal (11 out of 32 people) background.
“In my opinion one can’t argue a denomination into a change of theological approach. It has to be a creeping grassroots acceptance that gradually rises into the clergy and senior church people over time as more and more people with the new approach come into church leadership,” Mr Witchell, who is active in the New Wine network, said.
“I feel the approach of those trying to change things has been wrong. We should be trying to stop defining people by their sexuality.
“We should stop arguing about whether or not marriage is just between a man and a woman, as if sexuality was a black or white thing rather than a rainbow spectrum, and embrace the underlying principle of partnership for life being God’s design for the safe expression of our sexuality.”
He pointed out that the whole debate also raises ‘the significant issue of how we read scripture’.
“Do we just write a new rule book or do we take as a starting point Jesus’ command to love God and love neighbour (and not judge) and interpret all scripture through those ‘spectacles’?
“And then there is the issue of sin – again, a set of rules? Or, as I read it all, more a case of idolatry, who comes first, me or God.”
The survey found that nearly two-thirds of those who had experience of attempting to change their sexual orientation explained they had done so
“because they believed their desires to be sinful” and over a half said it was “because my religious leader disapproved”.
Nearly three-quarters stated that “it did not work and they do not believe it works for others”. The survey also found that the person most likely sought for advice by respondents with actual experience of attempting to change their sexual orientation was a religious leader (46.9 per cent), while nearly one in five (19.6 per cent) approached a “faith healer or specialised religious ministry” for advice.
“People of faith want who they are affirmed by God’s representatives. They want to be reassured God loves them still so they turn to his representatives. When those representatives tell them their sexuality, how they feel they have been created, is wrong, ungodly, is it any wonder they question and reject faith,” Mr Witchell said.
“The most constructive thing the Archbishops or the LLF steering group could say is that God loves his creation to bits, that our sexuality is irrelevant, that they are sorry they’ve got it wrong and from now on ‘love God and love neighbour’ will be again the first and second commandments of the Church.”