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 email@example.com.