Spiritual and emotional abuse of LGBT people is a “ticking timebomb” for churches in the UK and could lead to legal action and demands for redress, campaigners have said.
“Churches urgently need to wake up to spiritual, emotional and psychological abuse. If they don’t protect young people, the consequences will be massive. This is coming, and it will be a disaster,” said Steve Chalke, a Baptist minister and founder of the Oasis charity.
About 400 church leaders from different denominations are expected to take part in an online conference on Saturday to discuss how churches can be made safe for LGBT people.
The practices of many churches “amount to serious and sustained abuse”, said Chalke, who has organised the Creating Sanctuary conference. “Without action, the coming years are likely to see a crop of high-profile prosecutions that, following the current scandals about child sexual abuse, will further damage the reputation of the whole church.”
In a message of support to the conference, Elton John said: “The failure of many churches to welcome, accept and include LGBTQ+ people creates stigma, loneliness, fear and denial, causing lasting damage to their wellbeing and mental health.” Churches must be safe and affirming, he said.
Jayne Ozanne, a prominent figure in the Church of England and a speaker at the conference, said spiritual abuse of LGBT people was “the next big scandal” for the church following decades of disgrace over child sexual abuse.
“It’s a ticking timebomb. When I first spoke out, I felt I was the only voice. Now I’m one of thousands, and people are feeling more and more emboldened to tell their stories,” she said.
Campaigners say charismatic and evangelical churches that tell LGBT people they are an abomination or possessed by demonic forces are driving some towards self-harm and suicide.
Some churches practise “deliverance ministry”, which can include physical violence. Ozanne was hit with a Bible during “healing therapy” to “cure” her homosexuality, which led to a breakdown.
“If you are told that your desires are sinful, you desperately want it to work and your prayers to be answered. You submit yourself, thinking you’re doing the right thing. When it doesn’t work, when you still have those desires, the result is terrible anguish,” she said. “People think this is only happening in developing countries, but actually it’s happening here in the UK in white, middle-class churches too.”
Churches also cause damage by excluding LGBT people. Simon Butler, the vicar of St Mary’s, Battersea, and a member of the Archbishops’ Council, the C of E’s executive body, wrote last week: “For as long as I can remember, I have had to listen to simply dreadful stories emerging from certain evangelical and charismatic churches … [LGBT people] find themselves silenced, removed from every ministry and leadership role and generally treated like pariahs.”
He said a “culture of fear” existed in such churches, alongside “the subtle and overt withholding of love or placing conditions on it, and silencing of dissent. It is, by any stretch of the imagination, a form of abuse.”
Following the publication this month of a damning report on the C of E by the independent inquiry into child sexual abuse (IICSA), the church needs to “get to grips” with other forms of abuse like spiritual abuse, Butler told the Guardian. “There is a culture in some places that must be challenged.”
Last week the bishop of London, Sarah Mullally, was accused of “virtue-signalling vacuousness” after she responded to the IICSA report by tweeting that the church needed to act and change.
Robert Thompson, the vicar of St Mary’s and St James’ in Kilburn, said he had reported to the diocese three concerns “around the spiritual and emotional abuse and safeguarding” of LGBT people in the past two years. “Due diligence and process has not been followed in any of them,” he said.
Six years ago a Manchester teenager, Lizzie Lowe, took her own life after telling friends she feared her church would not accept her if she came out as a lesbian. The church has since adopted a policy of inclusion.
In another diocese, in the south of England, a mother has formally complained to church safeguarding officials after her child, who was struggling with their sexuality, was given books by their church saying LGBT people needed to be cured. “I felt my child was unsafe and I was being silenced,” she told the Guardian.
In 2017, the C of E’s ruling body, the General Synod, condemned so-called conversion therapy as unethical and potentially harmful and called on the government to ban it. In July this year Boris Johnson said the government would take action against the “abhorrent” practice once it had completed a study.
Chalke said the aim of Saturday’s conference was to advise churches that they had a legal duty to keep children and vulnerable adults safe from abuse. “People are more willing to say publicly that they have been abused, and they will take it to court if necessary,” he said. “Whether churches are driven to take action because they genuinely want to care for people, or whether this is just about self-preservation, it’s wake-up time.”