My pilgrimage of repentance for homophobia

I’m Symon Hill. In the summer of 2011, I walked from Birmingham to London as a pilgrimage of repentance for my former homophobia. This website includes the blog I wrote on the way (please scroll down) as well as information about my motivations and the endrosements and support that I received. Since finishing my pilgrimage I continue to blog about related issues at my own website, http://www.symonhill.wordpress.com. You’re welcome to contact me at symonhill@gmail.com.

Talking about my walk of repentance

Since July, when I finished my pilgrimage of repentance for homophobia, I’ve been a bit taken aback by the number of requests I’ve received to give talks about it. I’m really chuffed that so many people are interested.

In the talks I’ve given so far, I’ve been both encouraged and challenged by the questions and conversation. I hope that the other people there have got as much out of the events as I have. Many thanks to the people who have organised the events I’ve spoken at so far – at Courage UK, the Greenbelt festival, the Student Christian Movement, Southampton University, St Mark’s Church, Sheffield and City United Reformed Church, Cardiff.

Please click here to see a new page giving details of that I’m giving as well as other events I’m involved in.  

Over the next few days, I’ll be discussing my walk on three occasions: 

Firstly, at 6.00pm on Wednesday (30 November) at Royal Holloway, University of London (just west of London). See http://www.su.rhul.ac.uk/news/article/6001/337/ or visit the Facebook event

Secondly, at 7.30pm on Thursday (1 December) at the Chaplaincy at Warwick University (in Coventry). See http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/sunion/christianfocus/termcard/?calendarItem=094d43923295cfef0132b0a321366148.

Thirdly, as part of my sermon at All Hallows Church, Leeds at 10.30am on Sunday (4 December). See http://www.allhallowsleeds.org.uk/.  

I’m very much looking forward to them all!

I’ve not posted much at this site, since finishing my walk, but am continuing to blog (including on issues of sexuality and religion) at my more general website – http://www.symonhill.wordpress.com. Any questions, please feel free to email me at symonhill@gmail.com

Lessons from my walk of repentance

This summer, I walked from Birmingham to London as a pilgrimage of repentance for my former homophobia. I wrote the following article for Reform magazine. It appeared in the September issue.

“Gay Christian embarks on homophobic ‘hurt’ journey” declared the BBC website on 16 June, as I set out from Birmingham on my pilgrimage of repentance for homophobia. I was both pleased and annoyed. On the one hand, my walk was drawing media attention to the issues involved. On the other, the coverage included a major inaccuracy.

My girlfriend was one of the first people to text me to tell me that the BBC thought I was gay. After some effort by a friend, the BBC changed the wording to “bisexual”.

The article appeared as I left Carr’s Lane Church, with 160 miles and just over two weeks to go before arriving in London and joining the Pride march. I had received a wonderful send-off the evening before, when Robin Fox, a Methodist minister, led an act of commissioning. Staff at the Student Christian Movement had clubbed together to buy me a waterproof jacket and a Muslim friend of mine suprised me by turning up with a large cake.

As I walked along the Warwickshire lanes on that first day, I was only partly aware that the media interest had taken off on a far larger scale than I expected. It triggered a flood of emails. They offered support, prayers, questions, suggestions, disagreement and occasionally outright abuse. Overwhelmingly, they were positive. I was deeply moved.

I feared the support and publicity might go to my head. At times, I became slightly freaked out by it – such as when someone asked to have her photo taken with me. But the nature of the walk guarded against egotism. It is difficult to feel big-headed while scrambling up a muddy bank with wet feet, or walking miles back in the direction I had come after going the wrong way.

Despite the media attention, I do not think I was doing something remarkable. Many Christians have changed their views on sexuality. After becoming Christian in my late teens, I accepted an anti-gay position, partly out of a desire to fit in at the church I had joined. That church was wonderful and helped bring me closer to Christ. But over time, I concluded that they were mistaken about sexuality. I could no longer reconcile opposition to loving same-sex relationships with a Messiah who fulfilled the law and who calls us to live by love – a message at once more demanding and more liberating than the legalism that Jesus challenged.

It was some time before I became aware of the level of hurt that my prejudices had caused, and even longer before I recognised the damage to my own integrity in denying my own sexuality. When the vision of a pilgrimage of repentance came to me, I knew it was not something I could choose not to do.

It was a chance to pray and reflect, engage in dialogue and draw attention to the issues involved. Although I set out each day with maps, plans and remote support, I had little idea what would happen before the day was out. Prayer, worship, events and chance meetings all affected me, to say nothing of aches, blisters, tiredness and growing awareness of my body.

I had some fascinating conversations, both after giving formal talks and more spontaneously. I met a gay minister who used to deny his orientation, a woman who had nervously decided to introduce her female partner to her church and a man whose pastor told him he would not be welcome at church again after he said he might be transgender.

My walk was made possible by practical help and emotional support from friends and strangers. My excellent “remote support team” divided up the days of my walk, taking it in turns to update the website, check I was OK and help out when I wasn’t. A few people joined me for short stretches. They included Chris Campbell, the first gay Christian I ever knew and now an elder at Maidenhead URC. Chris experienced my homophobia directly and walked with me for a day in solidarity.

In some ways, I am only just beginning to understand how my pilgrimage affected me. I learnt about prayer, pain, dialogue and dependence. Three lessons seem particularly relevant to Christian concerns over sexuality.

Firstly, I realised the value of informal dialogue. On one occasion, I stayed with a minister who did not agree with my position, but kindly offered to host me after my intended host fell ill. Over breakfast, we had a conversation that challenged us both. A few days later, I answered questions from a group drawn from five churches in Chesham. The discussion ranged between marriage, sin, Old Testament law and the nature of gender.

Secondly, I was struck by the fruitfulness of such conversations compared to the official deliberations of denominational institutions. I have no doubt that many denominational leaders (across the churches) are compassionate people genuinely seeking a way forward. But they are hampered by the desire to make balanced statements and maintain unity. I think it’s worth remembering that Jesus did not base his plans on religious leaders, but relied on those on the outside. Change in Christian attitudes comes from the bottom of the Church, not the top.

Thirdly, I am convinced that the need for love and dialogue means we should tackle controversial issues, not shy away from them. Jesus challenged his listeners with parables and actions that engaged them in difficult questions. We are not called to a superficial unity based on shutting up. This is not only an issue about sexuality – important though that is. It is about the nature of a Gospel that frees us from rules and invites us to live by God’s spirit. Love calls us both to engage in genuine dialogue and to stand up for justice.

My journey from homophobe to equality activist has made me aware of how easily I can be wrong. I am sure I am still mistaken about all sorts of things. Humility requires us to recognise that we don’t have all the answers.

It is a paradox of Christian calling that this humility encourages commitment rather than dissuading us from it. We are not certain, but we are called to follow Jesus and seek to live out his message of love and justice – personally, socially and politically. As someone with my appalling lack of navigational ability knows all to well, we walk by faith and not by sight.

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To read more of my writing, please visit http://www.symonhill.wordpress.com.

Speaking at Greenbelt

I’ll soon be off to Greenbelt, a Christian festival that I really love attending every year. Thousands of people gather at Cheltenham for music, performances, worship, talks, debates and much more. I love it.

That’s why I was particularly excited when Greenbelt endorsed my pilgrimage earlier this year. If you’re going to Greenbelt, you can find me speaking about my pilgrimage, and answering questions, at 9.30 on Monday (not a great slot for those who like to stay up late chatting at Greenbelt!). I’ll also be participating in the “OuterSpace” (LGBT-focused) worship at 11.00pm on Sunday night.

Also, I think my book, The No-Nonsense Guide to Religion, will be on sale in the Greenbelt bookshop.

I’m really delighted to have been asked to speak about my pilgrimage by a number of different groups. I’ll soon have given more talks since the walk than I gave on the walk. I’ve spoken to Courage (a gay and lesbian evangelical group) and at the Student Christian Movement Theology Summer School. I’ve now been invited to speak about the pilgrimage to student groups in Sheffield, Warwick and Southampton, and at churches in Cardiff and Leeds.

I hope these talks will help me and others discern where to go next in terms of the issues and possibilities that came up on my walk. Your thoughts and suggestions are welcome.

While I’m continuing to post on this site about issues and events related to my pilgrimage, I’m blogging more regularly about wider issues of religion, sexuality and society at http://www.symonhill.wordpress.com.

Greenbelt’s a great place to catch up with old friends and meet interesting new people. I look forward to seeing some of you there.

Post-pilgrimage thoughts

It’s just over two weeks since I finished my pilgrimage of repentance for homophobia. I walked over 160 miles from Birmingham to London, arriving in time to join the Pride march on 2 July.

I’m beginning to get my energy back, and three of my four blisters have left no trace. But the effects on my mind and spirit are still in their early stages. In many ways, I’m only just beginning to realise how the pilgrimage has affected me.

These include some personal concerns about everyday life, such as how I pray, how I ask for help or support from others, how I cope with unpredictability. Some of them are wider matters, such as the nature of hospitality, the reality of repentance, understandings of space and distance and the chances for fruitful conversation between people who disagree.

And some of them are deeply connected to issues of sexual ethics and Christian theology. While prayer, reflection and conversation helped to develop my understanding in these areas during my walk, they also threw up far more questions than they provided answers. That’s a good reason to remind myself that God calls us to think and explore truth, as Jesus did when he told parables. If he didn’t want people to think, he would simply have listed rules.

As I respond to the emails and other messages that I received during, before and after my walk, I’m conscious of the need to discern God’s call with regards to what happens now. For me personally, my activism and writing will of course continue, not least in areas of sexuality and religion. But my walk has affected my life, and I’m honoured and humbled by the people who tell me that I have inspired them.

In many ways, this seems odd. In some sense, I’ve only been for a walk. I do not think I have done anything particularly remarkable. The journey from homophobe to equality activist is a common one, even if most people don’t shout about it as much as I do. There are several organisations doing great work on these issues, such as the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement, Courage, Accepting Evangelicals, Changing Attitude, Inclusive Church, Quest and many others. I have no wish to replicate what they do, but rather to support them and work alongside them.

Some of those who contacted me after hearing about my pilgrimage were in the early stages of exploring these issues. Several seemed unaware that there are many, or any, Christians who welcome same-sex relationships. This is very sad. It is a reminder that the homophobes often speak loudest and that we must make a greater priority of media engagement if we are to ensure that the Gospel’s message of radical, challenging love is clearly heard.

But I am not saying that this is easy. Nor am I sure where things go from here. I feel that my walk has generated some energy, and I want that energy to continue. I won’t have the arrogance to suggest that this energy represents anything bigger than a small fraction of the energy that pro-equality Christians and their allies, and the organisations they work through, have generated after working against homophobia for far longer, and far harder, than I have.

My experience of the walk clarified and strengthened a conviction I have long held about the nature of change. Progressive change in society comes from the bottom up, not from the top down. I am now clearer than ever that the same is true in the Church. Christians at the grassroots were campaigning against slavery, poverty, sexism and sectarianism while church leaders were actively promoting them or sitting on the fence. The same is true of homophobia.

From a constructive conversation over corn flakes with a minister who disagreed with me, to an informal chat with members of a house church in someone’s living room, the experiences on my walk were a living reminder that both dialogue and change are most likely at the grassroots.

As I walked into London on 1 July, the Times phoned me to ask my views on the Church of England’s announcement that day of a new consultation process on homosexuality to be conducted by the House of Bishops. I’ve nothing against bishops and there’s nothing special about me. After my experiences, I knew that conversations over tea were more likely to be fruitful than any number of episcopal consultation exercises that appear designed to keep church leaders’ holding their precarious balance on the top of fences for as long as possible.

What comes next? I don’t know. My walk has not just involved me. It’s involved the churches who hosted me, the groups who backed me, the individuals who saw me in cafes or pubs and asked me what I was doing, the friends who helped me, the people who emailed me with their views, who sent me messages of support, asked me challenging questions or who prayed and talked about my walk without my ever knowing about it. And if you’ve got any views on what comes next, I’d be very pleased to hear them. You can comment below, or email me at symonhill@gmail.com.

Thank you!

I couldn’t have done it on my own. That’s one of my main thoughts a week after my arrival in London.

My pilgrimage of repentance for homophobia was possible because of all the people who helped, supported, encouraged and prayed for me. I thank God for those who gave lots of time to organising things from a distance, who helped me with navigation and planning, who publicised the walk and the associated events, who gave me emotional and spiritual support, who provided me with accommodation (sometimes at short notice) and who discussed the issues with me on the way.

People who sent me encouraging emails and other messages helped me more than most of them know. At times of difficulty they really sustained me, as I imagined everyone who supported the pilgrimage walking with me. Those who asked challenging questions helped me to develop my thoughts and to focus on particular issues as I sort God’s guidance. People who prayed for me and thought about me played a major role. It made a vast difference to know there were people doing so.

I’ve not yet written to everyone who helped, or replied to all the messages. I will do so over the coming days.

In many ways, I was not doing anything remarkable. The journey from homophobe to equality activist is a common one, particularly in Christian circles. The response to my walk showed how much support there is for the idea that Christians should repent of homophobia and take a radical stand for equality. I’ve mostly been resting (and sleeping lots) since finishing the pilgrimage, but I’m also thinking about how I can best continue to contribute to this aim. At this point, however, my priority is to say a collective “thank you”.

Day 17: Not ashamed

When pride is the opposite of humility, it is not something for which Christians are encouraged to strive. But when pride is the opposite of shame, it is something which Christians can welcome, for God’s salvation frees us from shame, sin and guilt.

This point was made to me last year by my friend Mark, when I said that I felt uncomfortable about the name given to Pride marches. The point hit home, and thoughts of pride and shame were in my mind as I completed my pilgrimage yesterday (Saturday 1 July). I walked from Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church – where I had arrived on Friday – to the assembly point for
Pride, where I joined with hundreds of thousands of others in marching to Trafalgar Square.

I have completed my pilgrimage of repentance for homophobia.

I was frankly exhausted by the time I arrived home, so I hope you’ll excuse me for leaving it until today to write my blog post. I got up early for three radio interviews, but I admit I went back to bed afterwards. My body clock is now rather messed up, and I am still very tired, but relaxed.

Over the coming days, weeks and years, I pray that the thought and ideas that have been going through my mind over the walk will become clearer and firmer. I hope to share and discuss these thoughts soon, as well as to decide what to do about this website, whether to keep it going or to move discussions elsewhere.

Your prayers, along with your comments on this site, by email, Twitter, Facebook, letter and in person, have been hugely helpful and appreciated. They have not only helped me to think and pray. They have at times helped to carry me through the pilgrimage. It is very difficult for me to exaggerate the difference that they have made. I am only sorry that I did not manage to reply to more of them personally, earlier on. I aim to reply to all of them personally soon.

Please keep commenting, questioning, suggesting and, of course, praying.

There are some aspects of the London Pride march that I am not too keen on. Parts of it are heavily commercialised, with exploitative corporations such as Tesco and American Airlines displaying banners about their support for Pride, which may have more to do with publicity and their support for profit. But while Pride is a celebration, it is first and foremost a demonstration, a protest in favour of equality and freedom – freedom from prejudice, discrimination, hatred and shame.

I am convinced that this is something Christians should be supporting. Shame in our bodies is portrayed in Genesis as the first consequence of sin. Genesis 2 describes how, when God had created the first humans, they were “naked and not ashamed”. What a wonderful statement! Church, media and society have all fostered shame in our bodies, but God’s desire is that we should be free from shame.

We can use our bodies and our sexuality in shameful ways, or ways that honour God, each other and ourselves. They are intended for the latter; bodies are not shameful in themselves.

I am ashamed of the homophobia which I promoted. I am ashamed of not being more ready to take a stand against the many injustices and sins of the world. But I have faith  that God’s love is stronger than all the world’s hate and God’s forgiveness more powerful than all the world’s sin.

As I finished my pilgrimage yesterday – Day 17, Saturday 2 July 2011 – I walked proudly with hundreds of Christians and thousands of others, marching against the sin of homophobia and celebrating the love and liberation revealed in Christ. I experienced  a good many emotions. I felt exhausted,  happy, supported, angry, forgiven, loved, loving and not ashamed.

Day 16: Arrival

I have walked from Birmingham to London.

I arrived in central London this afternoon (although as I’m writing this after midnight, it was technically yesterday afternoon – Friday 1 July). I felt excitement, relief and gratitude – and frankly felt very weird – as I reached Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church at around 3.00pm.

I was delighted with the warm response I received when speaking at the church this evening, and the great discussion that ensued. Many, many thanks to the people who came, to those who helped to organise the event, to those who would like to have come but couldn’t make it and to the people who sent supportive emails and tweets when they heard I’d arrived in central London. 

I will write more about the event after I complete the final part of my pilgrimage tomorrow: I will walk from Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church to the Pride march, where I will join the Christian group (who will assemble at the northern end of Portland Place around noon). The Pride march will be the final stage of my pilgrimage of repentance for homophobia.

As you’ll appreicate, I’m very tired now. There’ll be a lot more to read tomorrow, and over the following few days (when I’ll be able to write while feeling more awake!).

Day 15: Nearly there

I am in London! However, I’m not yet in central London. Tonight, I will sleep in Finchley Quaker Meeting House before walking the remaining seven miles to central London tomorrow (Friday). I plan to arrive at Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church in the early afternoon, where I will be met by a few friends and stay a while to pray. Then, my walking being largely over, I’ll get the train home to south-east London (being on a train will feel like a novel experience!), giving me chance to wash and change before travelling back to the church for the evening’s event.

The event, which involves a talk, questions, discussion, chance for informal conversation and tea and coffee, will begin at 7.00pm tomorrow (Friday) at Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church in Shaftesbury Avenue in central London. Directions can be found at http://www.bloomsbury.org.uk. You’re very welcome – whatever your views on sexuality or religion.

On Saturday morning, I will walk from the church to the Pride march, where I will join the Christian section. The Pride march will thus be the final leg of my pilgrimage.

I really don’t know what to expect tomorrow. I’ve got used to unpredictability and tomorrow’s event is no exception. My talk is basically written but not finalised. Today’s nationwide strikes, and the more general resistance to the government’s vicious cuts agenda, have made me reflect further on a theme that has been much on my mind – the relationship between sexuality and wider issues of politics and economics.

The fundamentalist campaigner Stephen Green, director of Christian Voice, urged his supporters to lobby the churches hosting me on the pilgrimage, asking them not to do so. None pulled out as a result. The minister at Bloomsbury responded to these emails by inviting their writers to come to the event and discuss the issues. I hope some of them are willing to do so. But I’m not ruling out the possibility of some of them registering their objection in less constructive ways.

Although the walk has been full of uplifting and encouraging moments, and some difficult, challenging and tiring ones, there have also been a few disappointments. One of the disappointments for me is that I have not had time to respond to all of the wonderfully supportive and encouraging messages I have received. This is particularly frustrating when people have made offers which I’m now too late to take up. But I am determined to reply to all these messages individually not too long after the pilgrimage has finished. My remote support team, and many other friends and supporters, have made my walk far more organised than it would otherwise have been, but it has still been a big struggle to keep on top of the organisational elements at the same time as walking. If you’ve waiting for a reply from me, thanks very much for your patience.

I hope you can make it to Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church at 7.00pm. See you there.

Day 14: No future without forgiveness

After several days involving wrong turnings and late arrivals, it was great to make it to central Watford by 6.30 this evening. I cannot take all the credit for this – or even most of it. I was joined for the day by my good friend Chris Campbell, who is a considerably better navigator than I am. Chris is now an elder at Maidenhead United Reformed Church. Fourteen years ago, he and I worked together at a residential Christian youth centre in Yardley Hastings in Northamptonshire. Chris was and is a gay Christian, and I can remember my prejudice and rudeness towards him because of his sexuality.

Tonight I am staying overnight in Watford with another former colleague, my friend Sally. She and I were on the staff of the Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) a few years ago. She and her partner are extremely hospitable, and Sally even remembered just how weak I like my tea.

Shortly before I walked to Sally’s flat, I sat with Chris in a pub in Watford recovering from today’s walk. Chris emphasised that he had forgiven me. But he was also keen to point out that forgiveness is not what was uppermost in his mind when he thought of my change of heart over sexuality. Rather, he feels that we had learnt about issues of faith and sexuality together through spiritual journeys that were often shared. Chris’ friendship has been a source of joy, strength and practical help to me for years and I thank God for him, as I thank God for the other friends with whom I have been blessed.

I was keen to involve Chris in my pilgrimage – and he was keen to be involved – partly because of the importance of seeking his forgiveness, but mainly because he has played a bigger role than anyone in my journey away from homophobia and towards repentance. It will be a privilege to be Chris’ best man when he marries his partner Carl in December.

Chris talks more of shared journeys than forgiveness. As a Christian, I believe that forgiveness is right even when it is unreciprocated. But it seems to me that mutual forgiveness and reconciliation often involve some sort of shared journey, with deepened understanding and respect. Forgiveness and reconciliation are urgently required in the many controversies affecting the Christian and LGBT communities in Britain, and much of the world, today.

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