In the Wavertree district of Liverpool, England, Frontline Church has a ministry to gays and lesbians. It’s an ex-gay ministry, LIFE Liverpool, that they say helps people work through childhood pain to overcome their homosexuality.
It was founded in 2000 with the help of Joanne Highley, head of LIFE New York City, whose unusual teachings and practices include exorcizing demons out of bodily cavities such as the anus, the mouth and the uterus. She says that the homosexual orientation is itself sinful and can be overcome by a combination of counseling and prayer. Writing for The Guardian‘s Comment is free last week, I described LIFE Liverpool’s relationship to Highley:
I spoke to Frontline about the Life connection. They said they were “relationally connected” rather than “formally affiliated” to the New York ministry, which had no official authority over the Liverpool ministry. They have a “positive, ongoing friendship” with Highley’s organisation, and they adapt Life materials, combining them with their own resources, to reflect Frontline’s own beliefs.
Questioned about specific statements by Highley, Frontline said as they were not aware of everything Life publishes, they couldn’t say for sure they agreed with all the teaching. Demonic influence can play a part in homosexuality, but not always, and Frontline discourages members and leaders from identifying themselves as “gay”, preferring the descriptor “Christian who struggles with homosexual feelings”.
But let’s be clear that concern over the Life connection is not a simple matter of guilt by association. Joanne Highley, a woman who teaches that homosexual orientation is a sin that can be cured by a combination of psychological therapy and prayer, personally visited Frontline multiple times to help establish an ex-gay ministry based explicitly on her teachings and methods. The church runs that ministry to this day, although it says very little about it publicly.
An Ex-Gay Marriage Machine?
I first encountered LIFE Liverpool in 2006, when I was researching an article for Third Way magazine about ex-gay ministries in the UK. I’d heard about it from someone else involved in another type of ex-gay ministry in the area, who told me of its existence in a raised-eyebrow sort of way. So I phoned Frontline Centre myself to find out more. Pastor Dan was startling in his boldness.
“We don’t promote celibacy, because it doesn’t work,” he said, referring to ministries that emphasize living chastely with “same-sex attractions” rather than pursuing a change of orientation. He explained that it was “a case of like-for-like” — if you encourage celibacy, other gays follow suit, but if you encourage recovery from homosexual orientation and a move to heterosexual marriage, you create a climate where other ex-gays want marriage, too. “People come through the program, and within two to three years they’ve successfully changed and they’re getting married,” Dan said.
I couldn’t quite believe my ears. He made Frontline Church’s ex-gay ministry sound like a marriage machine. His tone was, frankly, one of boasting. He softened somewhat partway through the conversation when he finally asked me why I wanted to know. I told him I was writing about ex-gay ministries. We talked some more, and I set to writing.
The following day, I sent Pastor Dan an excerpt of what I’d written about our conversation. He was livid. “You make it sound like a marriage machine,” he protested. The irony was that I’d had the exact same thought the day before — even that same phrase, “marriage machine,” had come instantly to mind when he boasted of a two- to three-year average for complete healing from homosexuality and entry into straight marriage.
He also took issue with another sentence of his own. He’d told me over the phone, “We’ll tolerate gay people who want to attend church, but they won’t be allowed to take on leadership roles.” I asked him whether he meant only practicing gays, as this was an important clarification, and he said he was referring to celibate gays who were still homosexually oriented. So I reported this.
Dan was frustrated. He said I’d misreported his words, and he set about providing a much softer version of the LIFE ministry. He asked me to remove the word “tolerate,” since it suggested a begrudging acceptance. My impression was that he had run off at the mouth, eager to boast about his ministry’s success, and then regretted it when he was shown his own words.
Then there was a panicky attempt to pressure me into retracting the story. If Third Way published it, he said, Frontline Church would insist on magazine space for a full response.
I had not been a freelance writer for long, and I admit I felt intimidated. There was a marked difference between the bravado of Dan’s words when I first spoke to him and the subsequent backpedaling, and I thought that inconsistency was an important and revealing part of the story. But after the reaction, I settled on a final piece that was something softer than I felt was warranted.
Frontline Pastor Tells Only Half the Story
Following that episode, Frontline Church decided that it would no longer talk to journalists by phone about the LIFE ministry. Communications would be by email or in person. So I knew, when I began writing this latest article, that investigating it would be an uphill battle. But I felt compelled to return to the subject LIFE Liverpool, because Frontline Church had become the subject of an astonishingly positive article in The Guardian, which focused on the church’s social outreach programs.
In the accompanying video report, Pastor Nic Harding was asked about his church’s stance on homosexuality. His only response was that it was “on the margins of what we should be focusing on.” I knew this was only half the story, and so I began redressing the balance.
I exchanged a few emails with Frontline, via a PR and communications officer, as I researched the piece, but there’s been no response since it was published. The only public response I’ve seen from Frontline was Pastor Nic’s comment on the original article, in which he says he was “sad reading the original article and many of the responses that followed … because of the amount of hatred and intolerance towards Christians who hold a different point of view on human sexuality.”
He goes on to reframe my criticisms as an objection to “orthodox Christian beliefs that have underpinned stable societies for two thousand years.” I could, of course, provide many objections to the traditional beliefs he refers to, but in this context, the complaint is simply a red herring. While condemning homosexual practice may well be an unremarkable Christian teaching, the idea of a cure for homosexual orientation is anything but traditional, and attempts to support the possibility with scientific evidence have fallen flat.
And Pastor Nic Harding avoids the main question raised by my article: Why does Frontline choose to affiliate itself so closely with Joanne Highley and the New York LIFE ministry? I repeat:
[Concern] over the Life connection is not a simple matter of guilt by association. Joanne Highley, a woman who teaches that homosexual orientation is a sin that can be cured by a combination of psychological therapy and prayer, personally visited Frontline multiple times to help establish an ex-gay ministry based explicitly on her teachings and methods.
LIFE is extreme. LIFE Liverpool says it doesn’t go along with everything Highley says, but it has nevertheless fostered an ongoing association with LIFE NYC that is far from incidental. Liverpool Frontline Church owes it to homosexuals who come to it for help to explain clearly and publicly what they can expect:
The gays, lesbians and bisexuals who come to Frontline may be only a very small percentage. But it’s not unreasonable – in fact, it’s imperative – to ask serious questions, in a society increasingly tolerant and understanding of sexual diversity, about the church’s approach to treating homosexuality.