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