Peter Ould writes: The Oasis report, “In the Name of Love”, has received lots of attention since its release on Friday. The Oasis paper makes three claims, two of which are relatively uncontroversial. The first is that “LGB people are significantly more likely to experience mental health problems than heterosexuals“. Several papers are cited to support this contention and there is little academic dispute of this key point. Second, the paper states, “These problems with mental health are as a result of discrimination and a sense of societal inferiority”. Again, the link between what is known as “minority stress” and mental health is a well established observation and we find it in a number of other minorities (BAME etc).
In the LGB community there is a particular link between the level of non-affirmation of homosexuality and increased mental health issues, but the Oasis paper does not actually cite any quantitative research to support the direct link between between LGB minority stress and mental health outcomes when compared with other possible causes for depression etc. The paper also makes the claim that “There is a growing consensus that these vulnerabilities arise as a result of the treatment of LGB people in society” but again no direct quantitative research is presented to support this. Indeed, some of the more recent quantitative research in countries that have seen dramatic improvements in societal attitudes towards LGB people evidence very little change in mental health outcomes when compared to other surveys a decade or more ago (for example R Bränsträm et al 2015 when compared with earlier Swedish studies).
Of course, none of this means that we should neglect issues of LGB minority stress and mental health outcomes, but we should be cautious when ascribing particular blame for it to a specific cause. In this light of this, the third and key claim of the report that has been heavily publicised is the assertion that conservative teaching in churches specifically contributes to negative mental health outcomes in LGB people. The report claims (p14),
The research presented in this report has made stark observations about the role of UK churches in contributing to poor mental health in lesbian, gay and bisexual people. The consequences of this can lead to anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, self-harm and even suicide.
That is quite a bold claim to make because it has tremendous pastoral consequences, particularly for the Church of England which plays a unique role in the life of this country. It is of course right to highlight things that the church is doing if they are harmful and to encourage improvements. In the past two weeks we have heard a number of allegations about abuse conducted by those associated with the Church of England and also others within the Church who did not appear to act appropriately when they found out about it. We expect our leaders to take their strategic vision and culture setting role very seriously, and if the teaching of the Church is harming people we need to respond to that.
But the problem with the Oasis paper is that it provides not one shred of research evidence that demonstrates a link between conservative Christian teaching and mental health outcomes for LGB people. That’s curious, because the research is available, it is of a level that is statistically rigorous and it is easily accessible. Why is it that Oasis report doesn’t engage with it?
Barnes and Meyer (2013)
The answer may be in what the research shows. Take for example Barnes and Meyer (2013) on “Religious Affiliation, Internalized Homophobia, and Mental Health in Lesbians, Gay Men, and Bisexuals“. (‘Internalized homophobia’ is a technical used in research that refers to negative self-perceptions of gay and lesbian people in relation to their sexuality.) In this study the researchers interviewed almost 400 LGB men and women and explored whether their exposure to “non-affirming” religious settings (i.e. conservative churches) increased their depressive symptoms and decreased psychological well-being. This is exactly the claim being made in the Oasis paper so we should have expected them to review research like this that directly explores the claim they are making.
There are two key outcome observations from Barnes and Meyer (2013) and they are found in the tables below. Let me walk you through them. Table 3 is a series of mathematical models that looks at the correlations between the items on the left (Black, Latino and being affiliated to a “non-affirming” church) and four different other markers (one of which is repeated). Let me explain what each model shows us.
- The first model tells us that in this sample, if you are Black or Latino LGB, you have a higher likelihood of affiliating with a “non-affirming” church. This is an observation in line with other social research which tells us that the same correlation exists in the wider population, namely that those from ethnic minorities have higher church attendance and affiliation than white Caucasians.
- The second model tells us that if you are affiliated with a non-affirming church that this affiliation is a far higher predictor of you having “internalized homophobia” than racial identity. Indeed, once you include the affiliation with a non-affirming church your race doesn’t have a statistical impact on your internalized homophobia (evidenced by the p values of the B co-efficients being greater than 0.05). This means that the first hypothesis the researchers were testing, that Blacks and Latinos find their internalized homophobia increasing because of affiliation to a conservative church is not proven by the actual research data.
- The third model shows us that Black and Latino LGB people report much higher attendance at a conservative church than those who are white. Again, this is to be expected from the wider population.
- The fourth model, simply repeats the findings of the second model in a different way.
Remember, in all of the above the researchers are not demonstrating a cause and effect relationship, they are simply demonstrating mathematically where relationships do and don’t exist.
Now we move onto Table 4 and here the results are staggering. Let me explain the models.
- Model 1 looks at the relationship between being LGB and having depressive symptoms and affiliating with a conservative church. The results show that affiliating with a conservative church reduces depressive symptoms in someone who is GLB, but the result is not statistically significant.
- Model 2 adds in a measure of internalized homophobia in the individual alongside their affiliation to a conservative church. This time we see the clear relationship between internalized homophobia and depression, but now the effect of affiliating to a conservative church becomes much more powerful in ameliorating that depression. This effect is still statistically insignificant (p = 0.1) but it is more significant than before and is in the region of significance where we might want to explore it more. What this model means we can say, with confidence, is that “if affiliating with a conservative church has an effect on depressive symptoms for someone who is LGB, that effect is to reduce the depressive symptoms”.
- Model 3 now looks at generalised psychological wellbeing. Again, affiliating with a conservative church appears to improve psychological wellbeing amongst those who are LGB, but at a statistical level that is not very meaningful.
- Model 4 looks at measuring internalized homophobia as a factor in psychological wellbeing and then adding in affiliation with a conservative church. As you would expect there is a clear and obvious inverted link between internalized homophobia and psychological welfare, but once again being affiliated with a conservative church ameliorates that effect (in that those who are affiliated with a conservative church have better psychological well-being than those who don’t, including those who affiliate with a liberal church). The effect is still statistically insignificant (p=0.1) but again it is at a level that demands greater research.
What the authors have demonstrated here is that their research shows that, contrary to the claims that Oasis make with no evidence to support them, LGB people do not have worse mental health outcomes when in “non-affirming” church environments and indeed there is some evidence to suggest that attending a conservative church actually improves mental health for LGB people, even when they have significant internalized homophobia.
The paper does not look at whether attendance at a conservative church has a statistically significant improvement on LGB mental health (it only explores affiliation) and this would have been a welcome extra part. I will explore whether I can access the underlying data set and test this hypothesis.
Lease et al (2005)
There is one other paper that looks at this issue (Lease SH, Horne SG, Noffsinger-Frazier N. Affirming faith experiences and psychological health for Caucasian lesbian, gay, and bisexual individuals. Journal of Counseling Psychology. 2005;52:378–388). This paper uses a different mathematical approach (partially mediated model) but comes up with the following results:
The paths between Affirming Faith Experiences and Psychological Health and between Internalized Homonegativity and Spirituality were not significant, indicating that Affirming Faith Experiences did not have a direct effect on Psychological Health.
To be clear what Lease et al (2005) tells us – affirming (i.e. liberal churches) do not produce improvements in the mental health outcomes of those attending. The research did find (like Barnes and Meyer 2013) that internalised homophobia was a direct link to mental health outcomes, but this was not improved by attending a liberal church.
It is disappointing to find Oasis making such sweeping claims for the impact that conservative churches have on LGB people without actually engaging with the research that explicitly explores this issue. Neither of these two academic papers that have quantitative models assessing the claims are referred to or cited in “In the Name of Love” and instead they rely on generalised research on minority stress and then try to blame this on conservative churches. The research evidence suggests this is an incorrect association to make, and indeed conservative churches may actually help reduce depression and other mental health issues in those LGB members and affiliates. Other research indicates (for eg Kubicek et al 2009, Jones and Yarhouse, 2011) that it is not necessarily conservative or liberal theology per se that helps to mediate internalised homophobia and other LGB minority stress, but rather the very engagement in a religious community and establishing a coherent sexual/spiritual understanding of one’s self (whether liberal or conservative) that reduces mental health issues.
It is clear that LGB folk do, on average, suffer from minority stress (for eg internalized homophobia) like many other minorities do and we should take that very seriously in our pastoral response. Barnes and Meyer (2013) would seem to suggest that rather than being at blame for that minority stress, non-affirming churches may actually help to relieve it.
The Church of England has placed great emphasis on engaging with good scientific literature on issues around LGB pastoral concerns, as evidenced in both the Pilling and Shared Conversations processes. As Synod meets this week to discuss where we move forward on wider LGB issues, it’s important to be open and honest about the research in key areas.
Revd Peter Ould is a Church of England priest based in Canterbury and a writer and broadcaster on issues to do with the Church and sexuality. He has two decades of commercial and academic experience interpreting and communicating mathematical models within the banking, opinion polling and social sciences sectors.
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