Faith leaders should face prosecution if they fail to comply with the government’s promised ban on so-called gay conversion therapy, a senior bishop in the Church of England has said.
David Walker, the bishop of Manchester, told the Guardian: “Where activity has harmed someone, the person who has caused the harm should face prosecution.” That activity should include prayer aimed at changing someone’s sexual orientation, he added.
He said he was not referring to “gentle, non-coercive prayer, but where there is a level of power imbalance and a level of force”.
The government announced in the Queen’s speech last month that it would hold a consultation on conversion practices before bringing forward legislation on a ban. Campaigners have said the government’s stated intention to ensure that religious freedom and freedom of speech are upheld could lead to loopholes.
The Evangelical Alliance opposes a ban, saying it would put “ministers in jeopardy when they preach, and church members at risk when they pray for each other”.
Walker said: “If I was to stand up on a soapbox and start spewing out hate speech, the fact that I might begin by saying ‘dear God’ and end by saying ‘Amen’ wouldn’t protect me from the full force of the law.”
The bishop warned the government against dragging its feet over the ban, saying as long as the practice continued people, would be harmed. “The government has had plenty of time, and we don’t want this dragged out. As long as a ban is not in place, people are at risk,” he said.
The consultation is expected to begin in September, with legislation brought to parliament next year.
In an article published on Wednesday on the Anglican website ViaMedia.News, Walker says the government sent out “mixed messages” and consultation could be “used to excuse foot dragging … Sometimes we need to just get on with things.”
The bishop also says the term “conversion abuse” should be used instead of conversion therapy. He told the Guardian: “The word ‘therapy’ medicalises a process which uses no bone fide medical techniques.”
Walker said he “couldn’t lay my hand on my heart and guarantee that nothing inappropriate ever happens in the diocese of Manchester”, but he had made it clear to all clergy and lay leaders that exorcism and deliverance was not appropriate in relation to a person’s sexual orientation.
Charismatic evangelical churches in the C of E and other denominations have used exorcisms, “deliverance ministry” and other prayer sessions in attempts to change people’s sexuality or gender identity. Some LGBT+ people have been driven to self-harm and suicide or suffered years of psychological trauma as a result, say campaigners.
Justin Kennedy underwent deliverance, carried out by two members of a charismatic evangelical church over a six-year period. “It was torture. It completely screwed me up,” he wrote in a testimony published on ViaMedia.News. “Whether you call it ‘conversion therapy’, ‘deliverance ministry’, ‘pray the gay away’, or whatever else – it ripped the life out of me and left me as a dead man walking.”
Kennedy left the church but has since rediscovered his faith and is a minister in training at Heywood Baptist church.
Four years ago, the C of E’s governing body, the general synod, condemned conversion practices, sayingthey had “no place in the modern world”, and called on the government to ban them.
In 2018, then prime minister, Theresa May, promised to bring forward legislation for a ban. Boris Johnson has also personally backed a ban.
Jayne Ozanne, a prominent campaigner on LGBT+ rights and the editor of ViaMedia.News, said: “I’m very grateful to Bishop David for his clear support for a ban, although I would strongly refute that ‘gentle non-coercive prayer’ should be allowed. All prayer that seeks to change or suppress someone’s innate sexuality or gender identity is deeply damaging and causes immeasurable harm, as it comes from a place – no matter how well meaning – that says who you are is unacceptable and wrong.”
All conversion therapy was coercive, she added. “We know that this occurs in numerous C of E churches and many other faith settings – indeed there are evangelical organisations that openly advocate it. This must stop before more lives are ruined and sadly even lost.”