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Space to explore what God might really think of 'Conversion Therapy'

Updated: Sep 13, 2023

Does our reluctance to talk about God impact on our ability as a society to let those who hold deeply conservative opinions rooted in their faith to articulate, explore and be open to how they might change? ‘Oh, so you are one of them – you go out marching and all’ That’s a frequent reaction my friend gets when people down here in ‘the South’ hear that she is Protestant. Though she has lived here for 30 years, her accent still ‘gives her away' as a Northerner. Understandably she has learnt to evade answering the question of what side of 'the divide' she comes from because of the assumptions that can follow. All the more, so in recent weeks when DUP’s deeply conservative roots were exposed as a leadership crisis was triggered by Arlene Foster’s failure to vote with her party colleagues in resisting a ban on Gay Conversion therapy. My friend’s discomfort, unease and frustration struck a chord with me. As a Northern Catholic, my own experience ‘down here’ of needing to distance myself, was from the stereotype of rioters in nationalist areas: ‘Does you Ma send you out to spit and kick and throw stones at soldiers?' was one of the first questions I was asked when in Dublin with a friend at 15. That was over 30 years ago. Now, the identity I struggle to own is being a person of faith. Faith and God matter to me, a lot. It’s what I work at. And as a Catholic woman, it has been a long journey to find a viable and authentic way to do that. But as soon as I say that, I feel a need to distance myself from lots of the more visible faces of faith – the institutional Church, conservative think-tanks. It makes it hard to talk about faith and God in Ireland. As people have sought to distance themselves from the institution of the Catholic Church, as scandal has come after scandal, the language of God, faith, belief, has also been something people have sought to distance themselves from. Conversion Therapy – how a supporter became a critic… That chat with my friend, and what it brought up was still in my head when I came across a tweet with the LGBTQ image above from the account of Rachel Held Evans. Rachel, who died at 38 in 2019, was a Mum of 2 young kids, and a best-selling author of books about faith, doubt and life in the American Bible Belt. Some months after she had died, her husband, Daniel Jonce posted an article she had been working on in her final months. In it, Rachel speaks about how she had ‘moved from her conservative posture that deems variations in gender and sexuality as sinful aberrations against God’s will to a posture that embraces these variations as part of God’s creation and celebrates the healthy, loving and Christ-like relationships that emerge from them’. She outlines how witnessing the pain of those she knew who had been subjected to Conversion Therapy, she allowed herself to challenge the understanding she grew up with. Rachel’s post has stayed with me. The manner in which it was posted was deeply poignant: the act of bereaved husband to honour his wife, and to give voice to the beliefs to which she had come. But what also struck me was that as a person of faith, Rachel felt the freedom to articulate her journey of understanding in relation to LGBTQ as a journey of a changing understanding of God.

Space for same journey here? Would Rachel have had that same space to journey here? And what does it mean that she might well not? As we sit 100 years after Northern Ireland/ ‘the North’ came into being, the question of a United Ireland is being actively debated. For any process of uniting Ireland to ever truly work, we have to find ways to live peaceably with people who hold very different opinions, including those DUP supporters who believe in Conversion Therapy. I can own that as someone who opposes that view strongly, I would hope that some of those who support it might be prompted to journey as Rachel did, to a different understanding of LGBTQ people, rooted in a different understanding of God. Unlike in America, it feels like any public exploration here of a changing understanding of God, would be much less socially acceptable than it seems to have been for Rachel. Maybe that's my own perceptions, but it feels like identifying as a person of any faith here comes at significant risk. in certain settings. What would it take for us to offer that space to others? Indeed, can we offer to others what we have lost ourselves? Or perhaps never had? How can we talk about the faith/notions of God or sense of 'Something bigger' that we might be holding onto as the churches crumble? In finding ways to give ourselves this space, we may give permission for others to articulate and question their own beliefs and for some supporters of Conversion Therapy this just might - as it did for Rachel - (hopefully) mean a journey to an understanding of a God who creates, loves and celebrates all: orange, green and every colour of the rainbow.

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