Last year, the Uniting Church adopted a statement, Our Vision for a Just Australia, which articulates in detail the values that we hold as people of faith, following the way of Jesus.
This statement includes an affirmation that “we live together in a society where all are equal and free to exercise our rights equally, regardless of faith, cultural background, race, ability, age, sexual orientation and gender identity”. The statement asserts that “we defend those rights for all.”
It also makes the key claim that “A person’s sexual orientation and gender identity does not impact on their ability to live, work and contribute to society.”
On that basis, the Uniting Church has been working consistently towards valuing, accepting, and affirming “rainbow people”—those who identify with one of the letters in the now-familiar shorthand way of referring to people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, queer, asexual, or identify their gender and/or sexuality in other ways.
In the recent pastoral response to the debate surrounding the proposed Religious Discrimination Bill earlier this year, President Sharon Hollis wrote, “We believe every person is entitled to dignity, compassion and respect, and that the community flourishes when all people are included and accorded the dignity and respect they deserve.” That fundamental commitment undergirds all that the Uniting Church seeks to do.
President Hollis continued, “I note with sadness not all LGBTIQA+ people feel fully welcome and safe across the Uniting Church. I encourage members of the Uniting Church and people of faith to offer prayer and support to those around them who are feeling particularly vulnerable because of the political and public debate taking place.”
It is, indeed, a sadness that we do not yet have consistent practices right across the church, in how we accord dignity and respect to LGBTIQA+ people. Within the Uniting Church we are continuing to learn how best to do this, and to avoid what causes distress and anguish to “rainbow people”. Many Congregations have become explicit about their acceptance and welcome of such people, even as some communities of faith double down and refuse to make this gracious openness a marker of their life.
In recent times, governments in Australia have given consideration to banning practices which seek to alter the sexual orientation and/or gender identity of the minority of people who fall into the category of LGBTIQA+. Popularly (but unhelpfully) known as “conversion therapy”, such practices have been conducted by people of faith, in the name of Christ—attempting by persuasion, by prayer, by coercion, even by physical intervention, to “change” the attraction that an individual feels towards people of the same gender. Such “conversion” is valued by these people as a clear marker of “repentance” and “commitment” to the faith that they hold.
It is widely recognised, however, that such practices are harmful; the use of coercion, emotional manipulation, medical intervention, even physical acts, cause damage that has ongoing affects for decades. Survivors of sexual orientation or gender identity change efforts (often referenced as SOGICE) attest to the many ways by which such practices have harmed them.
A 2018 study, entitled “Preventing Harm, Promoting Justice – Responding to LGBT conversion therapy in Australia”, drew on the lived experiences of “15 LGBT people with experiences of conversion therapy, documented through social research”. These participants had engaged with various conversion therapy practices between 1986 and 2016 “as part of their struggle to reconcile their sexuality or transgender identity with the beliefs and practices of their religious communities”.
This study found that “responding to conversion practices in Australia requires a multi-faceted strategy”, and proposed “a number of legislative and regulatory reforms, with a particular focus on young people given their vulnerability”. It is hoped, say the study’s authors, “that this research will raise awareness of the severity of the harms occasioned through conversion therapy, and support the development of more appropriate pastoral care for LGBT people of faith.”
A study published in 2021, by the Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society of LaTrobe University, concluded that “many people who experience attempts to change or suppress the LGBTQA+ elements of their selves are severely harmed by those attempts.”
The study, Healing Spiritual Harms: Supporting Recovery from LGBTQA+ Change and Suppression Practices, was a joint project involving the Brave Network, the Australian GLBTIQ Multicultural Council (AGMC), the Victorian Government and researchers at La Trobe University and Macquarie University. The project was funded by the Victorian Government and the Australian Research Council.
The study made some significant findings. First, it found that “at least one in ten LGBTQA+ Australians are vulnerable to religion-based pressures and attempts to change or suppress their sexuality”. Second, it noted that such practices “may involve formal conversion programs or ‘counselling’ practices, but more often involve less-formal processes including pastoral care, interactions with religious or community leaders, prayer groups and other spiritual or cultural practices initiated within particular communities.”
Sadly, a third key finding is that “core to both these formal and informal change and suppression practices is the message conveyed to LGBTQA+ people that they are ‘broken’, ‘unacceptable’ to God, and need spiritual or psychological healing.” That is certainly of great concern to people of faith, especially in the Uniting Church, given what our President has articulated regarding the “dignity, compassion and respect” to which every person is entitled.
The study further reports that “psychological research has demonstrated that LGBTQA+ change and suppression efforts do not reorient a person’s sexuality or gender identity and an increasing body of literature has documented the negative impacts that these pressures and attempts have on LGBTQA+ people’s lives.”
The imperative to act in relation to instances of SOGICE, as well as the importance of providing supportive pastoral care to survivors of SOGICE, cannot be underestimated.
In 2021, whilst advocating to the ACT Government to pass legislation that would outlaw such activities, a group of UCA ministers in the ACT wrote about the biblical understanding of human beings as created by God, infused with the spirit, and perfectly acceptable to God just as exactly as they are—whatever gender identity or sexual orientation each individual possesses.
We quoted from research undertaken by Elizabeth Raine, who has argued that “all creatures are ‘nephesh’, or sentient beings.
We have a soul, a state of being, a life that is fully formed and given by God. All human beings are created with the spirit of God within us (Gen 1:20, 21, 24, 30, 2:7; Job 12:7-10). There are no exceptions to this in biblical understanding. All human beings exist within this understanding. Our human identity is grounded in the creative work of God’s spirit. Who we are is how God has made us to be—each human being is made in God’s image (Gen 1:27; Sir 17:3).”
It’s my view that this fundamental biblical insight should guide our actions as the church today—accepting people for who they are, placing no value judgements on how they understand themselves or how they express themselves in loving, committed relationships. That is a key way by which we live out our faith in our lives and our relationships.
One organisation with the Uniting Church, Uniting Network, stated that “we call on all religious organisations in Australia to explicitly state their rejection of LGBT conversion therapy, and any statements along the lines that LGBTQ people are disordered, broken or otherwise not whole individuals”. See https://www.unitingnetworkaustralia.org/uniting-network-australia-calls-for-action-to-end-formal-and-informal-lgbt-conversion-therapy/
The 16th Assembly of the Uniting Church, meeting this coming weekend, has before it a proposal that is a direct response to this call, and sits firmly in line with the research findings from the studies noted above.
The Assembly is being asked to recognise “that sexual orientation and gender identity change efforts (SOGICE) are harmful to people’s mental health and wellbeing”, and to prepare resources which can inform congregations, agencies, and individuals so that they might “help prevent harm from SOGICE ideology and practice”. See https://uniting.church/wp-content/uploads/2022/04/40-Preventing-Harm-from-Sexual-Orientation-Gender-Identity-Change-Efforts-SOGICE.pdf
It’s an important proposal which merits careful and prayerful consideration. Its a direction that is well-supported, both by individual stories told by survivors of SOGICE, and by careful academic research in this area. It’s a proposal that should inform our pastoral care practices as well as our public advocacy and our local community engagement.
It’s a matter that people right across the Uniting Church (and beyond) would do well to consider—to ensure that we do not contribute to the (sadly) continuing harm being caused to our “rainbow” brothers and sisters.
On the various affirmations in the area of sexuality that the Assembly has made, see https://johntsquires.com/2018/10/20/seven-affirmations/
The studies cited above are accessible at:
Preventing Harm, Promoting Justice: Responding to LGBT Conversion Therapy in Australia at https://static1.squarespace.com/static/580025f66b8f5b2dabbe4291/t/5bd78764eef1a1ba57990efe/1540851637658/LGBT+conversion+therapy+in+Australia+v2.pdf
Healing Spiritual Harms: Supporting Recovery from LGBTQA+ Change and Suppression Practices at https://www.latrobe.edu.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0007/1201588/Healing-spiritual-harms-Supporting-recovery-from-LGBTQA-change-and-suppression-practices.pdf