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Public submissions have recently been sought for the Conversion Practices Prohibition Legislation Bill.
The Bill aims to protect against "conversion practices" intended to change or suppress someone’s sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression.
Reactions to the Bill from churches and other faith communities vary.
Most people are in agreement that coercive, abusive, or involuntary practices should be banned. Few people wilfully want to cause harm to others.
The contentious ground lies with practices that are deemed to be non-coercive and voluntary: for example, a pastor offering advice to a person seeking help for unwanted sexual desires. There is a fear that, if the proposed Bill passes, well-meaning pastors or parishioners could be punished, even imprisoned, for offering non-coercive pastoral support or prayer to someone genuinely seeking help.
In the name of freedom of religious expression, some churches and other faith communities are vocally defending their right to give advice, support, and prayer on any matter, provided it is respectful and non-coercive.
This recourse to a "freedom of religious expression" argument seems to assume that if pastoral counselling is respectful and non-coercive then it is not harmful.
However, there is ample evidence to suggest that "conversion practices" (whether in a formal counselling setting or in more informal gatherings) are not only ineffective but often cause deep and lasting harm.
The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists, the Aotearoa New Zealand Association of Social Workers, other professional bodies, as well as churches such as the Salvation Army in New Zealand have all strongly opposed "conversion practices" on this basis.
I can attest to the harmfulness anecdotally through my work as a chaplain at the University of Otago. In my short time in the role, I have come across numerous LGBTQIA+ people, who have been deeply scarred by their experiences of being "counselled" and "cared for" in churches and other faith-based communities. They describe their experience in terms of suffering spiritual abuse. Their stories are heart-wrenching, and the wounds are often still raw, even years after the abusive experience.
Many of these negative experiences did not occur in formal counselling sessions. The psychological and spiritual harm typically took place over a period of time through everyday interactions with friends, family, pastors, and parishioners, who defended theological positions that not only normalised gender binaries and heterosexuality but also portrayed them as the way God intends things to be.
A number of these LGBTQIA+ people that I talked to were committed Christians (some still are), who actively belonged to a church community. They may have even genuinely and voluntarily sought advice, support or prayer to change or suppress their sexual orientation or gender dysphoria, often at a formative and vulnerable stage in their lives. The advice they received may have been noncoercive and respectful. And yet it was deeply harmful.
When growing evidence suggests that certain practices and the beliefs that underpin them are harmful, those practices and beliefs need to be critically and robustly re-evaluated.
Critical reflection does not mean the abandonment of one’s religion or the suspension of faith. We see that in the life of Jesus who, though a Jew, vocally challenged certain religious practices and beliefs widely held by the Jewish authorities of his day.
We also see such critical reflection in the Apostle Paul, who used the Tanakh (the Jewish scriptures) in innovative and novel ways as he responded to challenging situations in the early church. Sometimes he defended the Tanakh.
At other times he showed remarkable flexibility as he sought to make space for non-Jews within the quickly growing church.
The touchstone, for Paul, was not the scriptures themselves; it was the risen Christ in whom the love of God had been revealed and to whom the scriptures bear witness.
Paul did not use scripture as a blunt tool. He engaged with it dialogically, listening for the prompting of the living God, who in Christ was establishing a radical, new community in which "there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus".
At times Paul himself struggled to grasp the magnitude of that vision, a vision which called him, and still calls the church today, to no longer use binary categories to define our humanity.
Such categories only serve to entrench harmful "us versus them" attitudes that perpetuate bigotry and discrimination.
A decision for the prohibition of "conversion practices" is a stand for a more inclusive and welcoming society that reflects that radical vision of Paul two thousand years ago.
- The Rev Dr Jordan Redding is a Presbyterian minister who serves as a chaplain at the University of Otago and as associate minister at Knox Church Dunedin. The views expressed in this piece are his own and do not necessarily represent the views of other chaplains at the university.