Setting Love in Order conference, January 16 2014

The ‘Setting Love in Order’ conference was organised by Core Issues Trust, Christian Concern and Christian Legal Centre. The subtitle was ‘Protecting the freedoms to believe, to exist and to change when homosexual feelings are unwanted. The conference took place in the context of the Counsellors and Psychotherapists (Regulation) Bill presented to Parliament by Geraint Davies, MP.

So, it was about psychotherapy and homosexuality. I’m gay, an Anglican priest and a trained psychotherapist, ending my practice when Changing Attitude required all my attention in the late 1990s. I believe the process of psychotherapy is a client-centred process and requires unconditional positive regard from the therapist for the client. My own therapy training was in a psychodynamic, body-centred school.

I do not believe the therapist should have an agenda for the client. I therefore have a problem with those who call themselves ‘Christian therapists’ and with the idea of ‘Reparative therapy’ and with many of the assumptions made yesterday. Christian therapy and Reparative therapy is not congruent with the discipline and ethos of psychotherapy. It is therapy of a different kind. There was therefore a lack of connection for me at the conference between Geraint Davies’ Bill, which is about psychotherapy, and the therapies being described by practitioners and speakers at the conference, which were not for me psychotherapeutic.

There is a fundamental difference of attitude here, between those who believe being gay is harmful, is not a real identity, is contrary to God’s will, requires treatment, and can be treated therapeutically and those who believe there is variety in human sexuality and gender in God’s creation. Those who believe being gay is not real and is deeply damaging to those who believe they are gay or engage in homosexual activity bring a huge, prior agenda to the debate and their attitude to therapy.

I will write in detail about the contents of the conference later, but first, some more general reflections. Yesterday’s event was all about the experience of people and of a world that looks weird to me. From my life experience as a gay man and a Christian, those who want to ‘set love in order’ in this way look like a special interest group with a Christian agenda in total opposition to those who believe being gay is simply a variant in creation. This set of people come across as somewhat obsessional – and I recognise that that they might think I am equalyl obsessional in my campaigning vigour. In my world from adolescence onwards, I have simply never encountered people with the dilemmas those in Core Issues Trust and Christian Concern deal with.

Theirs is a very different world, familiar to me now because I’ve encountered it over the last 15 years as a result of my work for Changing Attitude. It is a weird world, still disturbingly unfamiliar when encountered directly, with a madness that challenges my confidence in my own world view and sanity. Perhaps we do this to each other, we with opposing world views about homosexuality, disturbing the otherwise calm confidence of our identity and faith.

It was helpful to me to have been at the conference, to hear in entirety what was said and to meet in person who until yesterday were names onto whom I projected my prejudices. I appreciate the conversations I had with Andrew Symes and Mike Davidson in particular.

The conference was filmed by ITV Current Affairs and members of the press were welcomed. I was only aware of one reporter from a national newspaper being present. I was the only pro-gay person who identified as such and spoke at the conference.

There were various people present whose names will be familiar to many in Changing Attitude – Prudence Daley from Oxford Diocese, Paul Perkin, St Mark’s Battersea Rise, GAFCON and FOCA, Dr Peter May and Lisa Nolland.

Geraint Davies MP

Geraint Davies introduced his private members’ Counsellors and Psychotherapists (Regulation) Bill into the House of Commons in October 2013. It is barely a page long and seeks regulation of counsellors and psychotherapists by the Health Professionals Council. It requires registration, a code of ethics, acceptance of the code as a condition of registration – and a prohibition on gay to straight conversion therapy.

I support the introduction of registration and a code of ethics for psychotherapists. Under such a code,  gay to straight conversion therapy in which the psychotherapist brings this agenda to their engagement with the client would automatically be banned. Mr Davies seems to be on the warpath against gay to straight conversion therapy. Fair enough, but it allows those who gathered yesterday to portray themselves, or imagine themselves, as unfairly targeted and persecuted victims.

Geraint Davis identified the issues as ‘does homosexuality require treatment?’ He said gay conversion therapy doesn’t work but encourages discrimination, trauma and guilt, increases depression, suicidal thoughts and low self-esteem. Christian Gay Conversion therapy (do any other groups practice gay conversion therapy?) is based on false male-female stereotypes in religious communities with a presumption in favour of heterosexuality. An accredited course in conversion therapy doesn’t exist. Mike Davidson and Lesley Pilkington had both been struck off for practicing Conversion therapy. The presumption that “sexuality can be repaired and there is something wrong with homosexuality” is wrong.

He referred to Nelson Mandela – no-one is born hating another person because of skin colour or background. People can learn to hate – so they can also be taught to love.

Mike Davidson, Core Issues Trust

Mike said he agreed with regulation but rejected the idea of banning professional help for those with unwanted sexual attraction. Outcomes of such therapy will vary and therapy must be totally voluntary. He said married men with kids with unwanted same-sex attraction would be prevented from seeking therapy to deal with their attraction which would hold the family together.

Let me interject a comment. There is nothing in the Bill or in current psychotherapeutic practice that would prevent someone from seeking help to deal with that presenting problem. What is not acceptable is that a therapist advertises themselves as offering specifically to remove same sex attraction to hold a family together. The outcome of therapy for each client has always to be open-ended. A successful outcome for the client might be staying with the family, and it might be a decision to leave and seek a same-sex relationship. This outcome might be equally beneficial for the family, and I know many people for whom this is true.

Back to Mike – he was one of several speakers who talked about establishing a solid scientific basis for the treatment of homosexuality. He named Arnold Lazarus of Rutgers University who talks about dumbing down psychology on an unsuspecting public, Nicholas Cummings, Robert Perloff and Jack Wigan (I may have got the names wrong – they are not people I am familiar with).

There is no scientific proof that homosexuality is immutable. He doesn’t believe the proof exists. (Neither do I – and neither is there scientific proof that heterosexuality ‘exists’). Ideological, not scientific answers, are given, and he is concerned that the Bill is ideological. He called for peer reviewed studies that showed that change therapy has no effect, and evidence to show a causal link that change therapy causes harm. He described himself as part of a marginalised minority who have a right to help people achieve heterosexual function (I leave that remark of Mike’s for you to digest and react to).

In response to questions, Mike said that he is not a reparative therapist and does not practice conversion therapy on the model of Joseph Nicolosi and Elizabeth Moberley. He said outcomes will be different for different people. All outcomes are on the table – he would release (sic) people wanting to be gay. He worked with people wanting to release or eliminate feelings. Just because you are gay doesn’t mean you are gay. It is not innate, biological or unchangeable.

(HUGE, HUGE ALARM BELLS RANG FOR ME WHEN HE SAID THIS. Psychotherapy is not about eliminating feelings but the very reverse, and I don’t think Mike meant the same as I might mean therapeutically when he spoke of releasing feelings)

He pleaded for a more responsible approach to the debate, said he didn’t want to impose a religious world view, but that a doctrinal state view was being imposed on all. (I disagree with him – it isn’t the State imposing views but the State responding to changing views of the majority of people)

Prudence Daley was among those asking questions (and making statements). She said that Geraint objects to people holding the view that some hold that homosexual attraction is undesirable. Another questioner said that sexual orientation is so fluid that it can change spontaneously.

Geraint concluded by saying that research should be evidence based and evidence driven. There should be regulation to ensure that therapy which is harmful should not be allowed. Mike said he wanted Geraint to help them have a genuine debate around evidence and science so they can be fairly heard.

Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream

Andrew’s subtitle was “‘Straight’, ‘gay’, ‘bisexual’ – what about ‘ex-gay’ and ‘post-gay’?: The semantics of and possibilities for pastoral care” and he circulated a paper – Homosexual orientation and practice: What did Jesus say? His texts, all from Matthew, were 5.1-30, 7,1-5, 15.1-20 and 19.1-9.

Andrew began by asking whether a traditional, orthodox Christian understanding is promoting hatred. People like to drive a wedge between Jesus and the rest of the Bible. This is untenable from the clear evidence of Scripture and the Bible’s consistent standards of sexual morality (many would challenge this assertion). The Bible is obsessed (sic) with righteousness and holiness of character, which includes social justice and personal morality. What we do sexually is important.

Jesus’ priority is that we should see God. For Jesus the most important things were the ultimate things. God is our eternal destiny.

Jesus brings up sex straight away in the Sermon on the Mount – adultery in the heart. Jesus did not ignore homosexuality. Andrew referred to Leviticus and said Jesus would not have abolished the Levitical teaching but his standard would have been higher – don’t even think about it.

This is really controversial, he said. Understand why people who follow Jesus hold to these views (about homosexuality). Are they damaging to others? Thoughts of sex outside of heterosexual marriage are sinful according to Jesus. Jesus imposed very restricted boundaries of sexual conduct but not with the intent to be judgmental or phobic.

(I concluded at this point that I cannot be a Christian according to Andrew’s definition. I also concluded that conversion therapy is okay in the world I inhabited yesterday because it achieves success by suppressing peoples fantasies, feelings and desires)

Andrew referenced Gagnon, saying that we now have two anthropologies, the anthropology of Christians and an alternative creation myth and anthropology (held by people like me, presumably).

Jesus didn’t marry but he experienced deep intimacy. The Gospels show a man who was fulfilled in tasks and relationships. God is the answer to our yearning for intimacy. A relationship between Jesus and John would have been a scandal but non-sexual, non-intimate same-sex relationships can flourish. All Christians practice non-sexual relationships for all in the community (sic). The idea that your sexual thoughts reveal a sexual identity that can be enacted is opposite to the teachings of Jesus.

Andrew Comiskey, Desert Streams/Living Waters Ministry, USA

Andrew preached. He said he’s tired of being intimidated by other voices. He’s into releasing captives and setting people free. We are facing a crisis of identity in the 21st century and we need an empowered Gospel which opens the horizons of our lives and gives them meaning – male and female. He referred to Colossians 1.15-20.

“I was in the midst of the homosexual lifestyle when I came to Jesus. He has an idea of what he created me for.” Surrender was Andrew’s theme. Jesus, I really trust you – but no-one else, totally.

“An amazing therapist helped me open up at a profound level.” Surrendering to Jesus. Confidence in the power and energy of Jesus. “Homosexuality is hungering for my own gender. What is means to be a man. I am becoming who I am as I seek him. I am subject to a higher power out there and in here, in the belly.”

He was dismissive of what he described as Geraint Davies’ “swooning reference to Mandela”, “throwing Mandela’s name around”. The remarks that followed will be deeply offensive to my black gay friends. True ethnicity is not to be equated with sexual identity. It is an insult to those who have suffered ethnic discrimination.

(I talked to Andrew Symes about this later. Andrew thinks there is no comparison at all between the abuse and prejudice experienced by black people and that experienced by LGB&T people, partly because there far more black people and the abuse was carried on far longer and in a far more extreme way. No wonder GAFCON and FOCA support the oppression and criminalisation of gay people in Uganda, Nigeria and Jamaica)

The image of God has everything to do with gender and the reality of male and female (sic). That’s all we know – the disconnect between our own gender, shame disconnect, our psyche, bodies, is a symptom of a lack of integration. I am still looking for myself, he said. I am dealing with an extremely damaged relationship with my father and my own damaged masculinity. Homosexuality is dividing every traditional, protestant denomination in North America, split because of homosexuality and their sympathisers.

Being who you really are cannot be left to adulthood, it has to be taught at primary level, at 12 and 14. He said ex-gays don’t want to be known where they are as ex-gays, they are shy. (The implication was that there are many of them around, but negative social attitudes are responsible for their invisibility)

“Jesus, you are lovingly in control.” We are not to be intimidated by secularists – they protest too much.

We arrived at lunch. I was engaged in several conversations. I didn’t meet one person who wasn’t in agreement with the ethos of the day.

Andrew Comiskey continued after lunch.

He described two case studies from his work with Living Waters Ministry. Clients were referred to a Christian therapist. Therapy was very focused. Any good therapist will help the client in their aim to search for wholeness to specific areas on same sex attraction. It requires highly motivated clients who love Jesus and want to be truthful to him and released from same sex attraction. Often they have to be lustfully motivated (sic and sick) with a compulsive dimension to their same sex attraction.

Becky lost her mother fairly early, her father was unstable, went through a variety of mothers, there was lack of attachment to a feminine figure. She developed lesbian attachments but she was helped to worship this beautiful God and a slavish devotion to him helped her pull away from lesbianism.

Let me interject a reflection here. Comiskey talks about a small, non-typical group of people. They are nothing like the people in any part of my life, except that of Christian fundamentalism. Comisky has a view of the world and of what it means to be human, sexual, gendered, Christian, in faith, in therapy, to be changed, to grow, be healed, which is emotive and passionate and very convincing for those who share his world view. But it’s the world of Living Waters and other specialist ex-gay and reparative therapy organisations, not the wide, complex world we live in and not the wide, complex world of Christianity and faith communities.

I noted that he talked with his eyes closed for much of the time and that he frequently referred to and held his stomach. As I body psychotherapist, I saw a man who is not at home in or at ease with his body, which is quite contorted as he stands.

The friends I have and the people I meet through my work for Changing Attitude are not contorted or unduly conflicted but well-integrated, confident in their faith, sexuality and gender, at ease with themselves. There was a high level of anxiety, paranoia and defensiveness yesterday.

Andrea Minichiello Williams, Christian Concern and Christian Legal Centre

Andrea talked about the legal position to accessing therapy. She said that Geraint Davies’ words about the same sex marriage bill protecting personal freedom and the rights of the family alongside the needs of LGB&T people were double speak. Personal freedom can only go one way – to protection for a homosexual lifestyle which is coercive and deeply illiberal.

She talked about what she sees as the flaws in Geraint Davies’ Bill and referred to Magna Carta as not being about rights but the common good. The despot can take different forms and the Bill takes away the freedom of individuals and imposes an arbitrary and despotic system. The rights of those who want to reduce same sex attraction are not respected.

Mike Davidson wanted to save his life and his family from his same sex attraction and the bill takes this away – impairs the freedom of those who want to access the treatment; those here are the conference who experience SSA and hold to Jesus’ teaching. The law in this country has censored those who want to live out the biblical truth of marriage as man and woman (the law hasn’t, of course, but why would Andrea Minichiello Williams, a lawyer, be aware of this?).

She then referred to the various cases the Christian Legal Centre has been pursuing.: Lillian Ladele, Andrew McClintoch, Sheila Matthews, Eunice and Owen Johns, Lesley Pilkington, and Gary McFarlane, and talked about the way in which Christian Concern had been unfairly treated at conferences they had booked at Exeter and Trinity Colleges, Oxford and cancelled by the Law Society and refused by the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre.

She talked in detail about the case of Lesley Pilkington, who was present, who was, in her words, tricked by Patrick Strudwick in 2009 into accepting him as a client, who after two sessions published a damaging report about the experience which resulted in her being struck off. Andrea said Lesley had made it clear that she would do the counselling within a Christian counselling context including the Bible and prayer –  professionally, with kindness and compassion, said Andrea. But he tricked her and it wasn’t an honest, professional client relationship.

It wasn’t conversion therapy – conversion therapy is a term that is never used. Andrea also asked for professional accountability and scientific debate, publishing the science that proves the therapeutic evidence of those wanting to reduce SSA. The Royal College of Psychiatrists refused to enter into a discussion about sexuality. The rights of those who want to enter therapy to deal with SSA should be protected. If the rights are closed down, it is despotic and tyrannous. (Anyone with unwanted SSA is free to enter therapy – what is not appropriate is a pre-existing agenda about an appropriate outcome for the client from the therapist)

Andrea’s conclusion: the UK leads the way in willingly embracing censorship.

Breakout session: Dr Mike Davidson and Lesley Pilkington

“The Question of Harm: evidence, ethics and practice” was the title of this hour-long session. They spoke about such things as longitudinal versus ad hoc studies, randomised control trials, a new book by J E Phelan, the research of Spitzer, Shidlo and Schroeder, and Jones and Yarhouse, and concluded with a summary of best practice.

I warmed to Lesley Pilkington, who spoke with empathy and had an easy presence, until she concluded the session with prayer – and in that moment revealed why she might not be an appropriately neutral therapist. Mike said of her “Lesley’s goal is – if you come to me you will be changed.”

I contributed to this session, intervening and commenting, and Mike Davidson responded openly and positively. Not so the others in the session, who began to object to my comments, to which derisory laughter was added. At that moment, I felt I was being given pariah status.

Panel discussion

My notes of the panel discussion are sketchy. Chris Sugden said that ex-gay and post-gay people should be part of the facilitated conversation proposed by the Pilling Report, and I publicly agreed with him (We fear, with some reason, that those strongly pro-gay will not be included – there is an equal and opposite fear from those in Anglican Mainstream). Dr Peter May said more should be made of the medical statistics about the shocking levels of HIV/AIDS, drug abuse, etc. In the LGB&T community. Someone said that the Pilling Report says that Core Issues Trust is right and the Royal College of Psychiatrists is wrong about sexual orientation change efforts – which I don’t think is true. Lesley Pilkington spoke about the dangers of homosexual relationships and said there is a powerful gay agenda, and sin, and the dangers of men having sex with men – which convinced me that she should never be let near gay men as a therapist.

Andrew Comiskey

Andrew closed the conference with a 30 minute talk about Post ‘Exodus’, the Restored Hope Network, Desert Stream and Living Waters Network. The Exodus ministry dissolved, the largest coalition of Christian ministries to those hoping for change in their homosexual orientation. The new networks address the needs of men and women from same sex attracted backgrounds who take sin seriously that God’s grace might abound through us and from us. If broken people as, God, would you help us?, God shows up. Sin wakes us up. Why waste time making a case for sexual immorality. God said close the door on homosexual activity. God wanted my allegiance. Temptation is so crouchingly near for me.

He talked about his values and ministry being a victim of the hyper-grace movement in America, which has no moral compass on sin. But being married and having children prove that he’s on the right side. Though just in case we think he’s sorted, if we knew what thoughts he still has, we would run from this building. He is still ‘grovelling for God’. He referred to ‘the slanderous language over gay conversion’. We are in a dark night in the US and Europe, a bleak moral landscape.

I was losing my commitment to take detailed notes at this point. Comiskey is difficult to record because he speaks with huge energy and passion using language and images that paint a dramatically extreme picture. It’s emotional, old style emotional preaching, great to listen to and be swept along with if you’re in agreement and the preacher is authentic.

The conference confirmed what I wrote in a recent blog – We believe in different Gods. I believe in a God who is immersed in creation and history, whose love is unconditional and infinite. I pray within my experience of unconditional love, my whole being is enlivened and transformed by this real presence. I uphold the idea that psychotherapy helps people explore their inner and outer worlds and that the presenting issue is rarely what the therapeutic journey ends up exploring. This is equally true about my life of faith and prayer. But in both therapy and prayer, there is a core to be trusted, a healthy core to which, given the right circumstances and support, we will inevitably find our way. I believe God gazes at us with unconditional positive regard and love.

Those involved with yesterday’s conference proclaim their deep trust in God, but they have a deep distrust of human nature and a dualistic world view. They belive that gay as an identity doesn’t exist and that any sex outside marriage is sinful and dangerous.

And having attended yesterday’s conference and spent the morning writing this blog, I feel completely exhausted! Congratulations to those of you who have read to the end. I look forward to reading people’s reactions to my narrative.


  1. says

    Colin, thank you for a very detailed breakdown of the content of the conference and I thank God that you had the courage and strength to survive something which must have been emotionally and spiritually draining 🙁

    If I ever needed evidence that my liberal views as someone who is straight are justified, because I believe that being straight is how I was created and being straight isn’t how everyone is created. God’s creation includes every individual, male and female and he made us as we are, not as other people believe we should be.

    I can’t accept or understand the stance of all of the speakers at the conference because it doesn’t fit with my thoughts that the sheer diversity of God’s creation leaves room for every type of sexuality being equally valid and pure in God’s eyes, not just the traditional view that only straight people are normal.

    I’m sad that people cling onto their prejudices and seek security in clinging together in groups with like ideas. The danger in their vocal campaigning is now being felt in those places which have introduced extraordinarily prejudicial legislation, underwritten by fundamentalist Evangelicals in the United States. People are being damaged, injured, imprisoned, tortured and killed as a direct result of such prejudices.

    I hope that the bill goes through to ban the practice of any therapy which is designed or delivered to change someones sexuality – it’s unwelcome and unnecessary and unjustified.

  2. says

    I like this kind of report in which the subject-matter and the listener are in dialogue. Thank you Colin. I am a little reluctant to think that regulation is the answer. It can sometimes carry with it a lot of lip-service1 Peter Martin

  3. craig says

    First-rate reporting on and analysis of this event I was very curious about. I don’t want to put words in your mouth, but it seems you may think Andrew Comiskey came across as less than authentic. If so, this would make perfect sense, since he earns six figures annually from peddling exgay snake oil. But his scam is hard hit these days. Might this account for some of his agonized passion and writhing at the podium?

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