The 2018 National Faith & Sexuality Survey: Some Reflections
The survey was designed to examine ‘the role religious belief has on people’s understanding and acceptance of their sexual orientation in the UK’, as a follow-up to findings about conversion therapy highlighted in the UK government’s 2017 National LGBT Survey. Following the launch, the results made the national press in newspapers such as the Guardian and the Daily Mail, as well as featuring on Channel 4 News.
The executive report makes for sobering and sometimes heart-breaking reading. Around 4600 people completed the survey, with 52% defining themselves as LGBQ+ (which includes those who described themselves as same-sex attracted). Out of the entire collection of responses (the 4600), 10% had made attempts to change their sexual orientation, with around 60% believing these attempts have harmed their mental health. Those who had made such attempts identified a belief that their same-sex desires were sinful or feeling ashamed of their desires as some of the primary reasons for their actions. More than 50% identified the disapproval of their religious leader as a contributing factor. Perhaps most upsetting among the results is the fact that 22 people said they were forced to engage in sexual activity with someone of the opposite gender in an attempt to change their orientation.
The executive summary states that ‘the results provide strong evidence of the harm that attempts to change sexual orientation are reported to inflict’. While the report itself doesn’t directly call for an outright ban on conversion therapy in the UK, it is strongly suggesting that such should be the case. This suggestion is made explicit in a quote from Teddy Prout, a member of the survey’s Advisory Board and Director of Community Services at Humanists UK, in the official press release: ‘The Government urgently needs to act on its commitment to end the practice of conversion therapy once and for all’.
Overall, I am grateful for the survey and want to honour those who have analysed and published the results. Having worked through the executive report and press release alongside the full set of results I believe the findings have been faithfully represented and the survey does provide us with a snapshot of the experience of faith and sexuality for a group of people within the UK which had not previously been explored. For this we should be grateful.
I also have a few reflections upon the results to share. These should not be seen as criticism, but more one clarifying point and two suggestions for improvement or future research. The more important question, of course, is what we should do in light of the results. This is where I believe that some of the co-ordinators of the survey are making missteps, and so I will also share some reflections on where the church should go from here.
Some Thoughts on the Survey
One clarifying point which is worth knowing: It is very important to recognise that this survey is an open-access poll using random sampling. This means that the survey was completed by people who chose of their own initiative to do so. The group may, therefore, be very unrepresentative of the UK population as a whole and so, strictly speaking, it can tell us no more than what is true for the 4600 people who completed it. The results may reflect the UK more broadly, but this is impossible to say with any certainty. For a survey to give a fair representation of the UK population as a whole, those completing it would need to have been carefully selected to be a sample which reflects the diversity of the UK population and the results would then need to have been carefully weighted to give a fair estimate on the larger scale.1
The report does acknowledge this fact. It consistently talks of the number and percentage of respondents for each answer, rather than a percentage of the population, and does not claim to represent the UK as a whole. In addition, it notes that the age representation does not quite reflect the UK as a whole, that England is overrepresented and that ethnic minorities are underrepresented. However, it may have served the general reader better if the report had made it explicit that the survey is not necessarily representative of the UK as a whole. It could perhaps also have been helpful for the report to explain that the nature of an open-access poll means that people who have strong views on the subject are more likely to have responded. This is not to say that the results are of no use, but purely to say that they give us an insight into the lives of 4600 people, not necessarily the UK as a whole. Though it would inevitably be a rather more complicated study to administrate, it would be very useful to have a similar study with a carefully selected sample and weighted results to try and give an accurate estimate of the situation across the whole of the UK.
Now a couple of suggestions for improvement or future research. The definition of attempts to change sexual orientation used in the survey was very board. It included ‘a range of religious practises (eg. prayer, deliverance, emotional healing and fasting) through to counselling, aversion therapy and sexual activity.’ Respondents were at one point asked to specify the form of attempts they had made to change their orientation (Q28) and were later asked about the impact their attempts had made on their life (Q32), but unfortunately neither the survey questions nor the report offer a breakdown of the impact according to each form of attempt. This is a shame as it would be very useful to know whether different forms of attempt (e.g. personal prayer, professional psychotherapy, deliverance ministry etc.) had different types of impact (e.g. ‘I have suffered from mental health issues’, ‘I have found it hard to accept myself for who I am’ or ‘I have gone on to live a happy and fulfilled life’). One of the problems in the ongoing discussions about whether conversion therapy should be outlawed is a lack of definition as to what constitutes conversion therapy. An insight into the impact of various forms of therapy/attempt would allow more informed decisions to be made on this point.2
A second area for future research would be to explore when the attempts to change sexual orientation took place. My observation, from the contexts I have been involved in, is that things have changed a lot in the past 10 to 15 years. When I was first wrestling with my sexuality 12 or so years ago, the books I read and the teaching I heard often included stories of people who had experienced a change in their orientation, although I am not conscious of ever feeling any pressure to seek or expect my orientation to change. Now, over a decade later, in the same contexts I hear many more stories of LGBQ+ people seeking to faithfully follow Jesus, either in celibate singleness or a mixed orientation marriage, and rarely, if ever, hear stories of orientation change. I would be very interested to know if this shift is present more widely, in order to give us a more accurate picture of how things already have or have not changed.3
While I am genuinely grateful for this survey and the way that the results have been reported, I do feel that a more explicit acknowledgment of the limitations of the results would have been helpful and propose these two areas as questions which would still be worth exploring.
How Should We Respond?
This, of course, is the much more important question. Given the snapshot provided by these results, how should we respond?
Without question, the first response of every Christian must be sorrow and repentance. These results show that harm has been done and suffering has been brought upon LGBQ+ men and women by Christians. Regardless of whether the figures would be different if they were representative of the whole of the UK, the evidence of pain caused to those among the 458 respondents who have made attempts to change their sexual orientation should cause us to express deep sorrow at the part the Church has played in that and to repent of insensitive, uneducated and unloving responses to those who are LGBQ+. And I deliberately state that this must be the response of every Christian. Even those of us who have never been directly involved in encouraging people to change their sexual orientation, those of us who are too young to have been involved in its heyday, and those of us who are within the LGBQ+ group, must start with this response. We, as Christians, are all members of Christ’s body and all members of God’s family; these actions are part of our shared history, and therefore, it is right that we all respond in this way. It is not for any of us to arrogantly look back and claim we would never have been involved had we been there at the time. We cannot know that. Sorrow and repentance are the right responses for every Christian.
Then there are the deeply practical questions: if encouraging sexual orientation change is not the best way for the Church to respond to those who are LGBQ+, then how should we respond? It is here that I part ways from most of those who have co-ordinated the study and from the way that it is being used, and no doubt will be used.
The report itself, and the press release, are again admirable in the fact that they do not draw conclusions which are unsupported by the results. Both focus almost solely on conversion therapy, which is the focus of the survey. Although it should be noted that the issue of definition is here again present: the survey itself never actually uses the term ‘conversion therapy’, speaking only of ‘attempts to change sexual orientation’, which, as has been noted, is defined very broadly. It is therefore unhelpful to draw conclusions about conversion therapy, undefined, from the results. There should be more nuance in the conclusions being drawn.
However, it is where we go from here that most concerns me. In her interview with Channel 4, Jayne Ozanne, the director of the Ozanne Foundation, the group who co-ordinated the survey, stated, ‘Many of our churches are teaching young LGBT people that they have to be single for life, they have to be celibate, that they have to change and transform themselves’. She makes this statement with the clear implication that this is wrong.
It is fair to say that the survey does raise questions about the wisdom and morality of telling LGBQ+ people that ‘they have to change and transform’ their orientation. However, it has nothing to say about whether life-long singleness and celibacy are harmful and therefore wrong to encourage and teach as a Christian response to the experience of being LGBQ+. (In fact, 14% of those who had attempted to change their orientation said they have now ‘actively chosen to remain celibate’. No data is given to assess the personal well-being of these people.) The survey, while recognising the limits discussed above, has contributions to bring to the conversation about conversion therapy and broader attempts to change orientation, but beyond that it has little, if anything, to say about a right Christian response to those who are LGBQ+.
I wholly agree that it is imperative that the Church discuss and wrestle with how we best love and support those of us who fall within the LGBQ+ group and what it looks like for us to follow Jesus. Historically, the Church has done very badly on this topic, and this is a fact we should never overlook or deny. But slowly, I believe, this fact is being acknowledged, the important questions are being asked, and the even more important stories are being heard. But, as I have argued before, the best way for us to love and share the good news of Jesus with LGBQ+ people is not to discard the beautiful plan for human sexuality revealed to us in the Bible, but to take hold of and live out the fullness of the Bible’s teaching on love and family. If we do this, the fact that following Jesus – by denying ourselves, taking up our crosses and following him – will, for some of us, mean forgoing sexual and romantic relationships need not seem like the life sentence that some are claiming it is. Rather we will find that, just as Jesus promised, losing the life we might have expected and wanted to have out of love and obedience to him, will actually be the route to finding real life (Matthew 16:25).
- 1 For more on types of polls and their limitations, see ‘How not to report opinion polls: A guide from YouGov’s Anthony Wells’.
- 2 I contacted the Ozanne Foundation to ask whether it would be possible to get a breakdown of this information. They acknowledged that there is still ‘a wealth of research findings within the survey, particularly within the free responses to “other” which we will need to publish in the future’. They also stated that various breakdowns are being processed, but acknowledged that the software used for the survey will place some limitations on the breakdowns which can be produced. I wonder if a simple improvement to question 30 (‘Of the various forms that you tried, how helpful were they?’) could have been very beneficial here. The word ‘helpful’ is very ambiguous (does it mean ‘made a change to orientation’ or ‘was not harmful’ or something else?) and thus rather limits the usefulness of the responses. Perhaps further surveys will be able to explore this area in more detail.
- 3 I should note that the survey did ask those whose attempts had involved NHS medical staff to state how long ago it was that they were trying to change their orientation (Q29). However, only 10 people answered this question and so the results are not included in the report as the sample is not large enough to give worthwhile data. My thanks to the Ozanne Foundation for clarifying, via personal communication, the reason for the low number of responses to that question.